“I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “You are factually inaccurate:” Four tips for when people say they’re going to sue you for something you wrote

I spent part of Wednesday afternoon on a conference call with students from Oshkosh North and the attorney for Hans Nelson, the school’s former vice principal. The story the North Star wrote about Nelson and his unceremonious transition from high school VP to a special-needs educator elsewhere in the district was at the crux of the whole censorship debacle last month.

In one of the articles on the Oshkosh North situation, Nelson’s lawyer, Charles Hertel, stated that the article was inaccurate and intimated a lawsuit might be forthcoming:

On Friday, Charles Hertel, a partner with the Dempsey Law Firm in Oshkosh, provided a statement to the Journal Sentinel on Nelson’s behalf. He called the article “factually false and defamatory.” He said Nelson is considering legal action against Doemel and possibly others.

“What he is doing is not privileged,” Hertel said.

The students, still pursuing a story to try to find out what happened to Nelson, were told via emailed letter that Hertel would speak for Nelson and that a call should be arranged. One of the students asked me to join, so I sat quietly for most of the call until at least the second time Hertel stated with certainty that the story was somehow false or inaccurate.

I asked Hertel to outline the factual inaccuracies, so the students could either correct the record or investigate this more clearly.

Hertel first stated that Nelson hadn’t been terminated. I asked the students if the story stated that. They said no. He then said Nelson hadn’t resigned. We quibbled over language a bit, noting that if he doesn’t have his previous position and he now has a different one, how could that be characterized as not resigning something?

After one more question, in which an inaccuracy did not emerge, Hertel noted he didn’t have the article right in front of him. He also said he didn’t think the students had a source (which, again, would not be an issue of factual inaccuracy). At that point, I suggested we move on.

This isn’t the first conversation I’ve had like this in my career as a reporter, editor and adviser, in which there seems to be a basic misunderstanding between the concepts of “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “What you are saying is factually inaccurate and libelous.” Since I spent much of my pro life on the crime beat, I had a number of people who were arrested or family members of the accused calling me to threaten lawsuits.

I vividly remember once having said the sentence, “Ma’am, it’s not our fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.” This did not placate the woman, who continued to scream that our publication of the incident made her son (an adult) look bad. (I would argue it was the shooting he engaged in at the drive thru that made him look bad, but I figured she didn’t want to hear that.)

I took a call from a bounty hunter in Missouri, who was outraged that we wrote about his arrest. Police told us that he had spotted a person who was wanted for some outstanding traffic tickets, so the bounty hunter engaged in a high-speed chase that eventually flipped the suspect’s truck onto its roof. The truck came to rest on some active railroad tracks. If memory serves, the bond amount was no more than a couple hundred bucks. He, of course, threatened to sue us. It’s been about 20 years and I’ve yet to be served.

One guy who ran for the school board argued that we had factually misrepresented numerous things, including his military records. I remember being in a conference room with this guy, our head editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The guy had this giant binder of information that he said clearly outlined everything that was wrong. When the editor asked to see it, the man declined and said we’d see it in court and he didn’t want to talk to us (that despite the fact he was the one who requested the meeting). Again, I’m still waiting on that one to make the court dockets.

If you’re worried when someone says “I’m going to sue you,” you are completely normal. Legal stuff can get freakish and panic is easy when the word “lawyer” is bandied about. That said, here are four tips from the book that might help you when you are dealing with this:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: a threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources.
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to him or her as needed.

 

 

The New York Times 144-word correction on a prominent politician’s obituary and what you can learn from the situation

When Indiana’s legendary Richard Lugar died last week, the New York Times managed to crank out this 48-word monstrosity of a lead:

Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.

And yet, that paled in comparison to the 144-word mea culpa the paper had to write once the folks there realized they massively botched the piece:

LugarFail

I imagined this to be the conversation at the New York Times last week around the obituary desk:

Obit Writer 1: Man, we’ll never screw up another obituary any worse than we did when John McCain died…

Obit Writer 2: Hold my beer.

If you look at the mistakes in there, you can see that a lot of this came down to fact checking. People can argue about nuance, such as if someone “resigned” or merely “left a job,” but the date something happened is one of those things we can all figure out if we try really, really hard.

With that in mind, let’s look back at a few of the points we made when the times ran its mega-fail obit of John McCain and see how they still apply here:

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: This one still works wonders here, especially up at the top of this thing. The date he entered the service, his rank and the date of his marriage are all fact-based items that could easily have been checked against a dozen sources or digital documents. As noted in the McCain piece, when a person takes on a particularly important level of distinction in the world, newspapers like the NYT will usually start an obituary file for that person, so this thing has been on hand for a while.

That said, who knows who actually wrote that first draft of it or to when it was last reviewed? You shouldn’t grab something out of an old file and figure, “Well someone wrote it so it must be right” any more than you would grab an unmarked pill bottle out of a stranger’s medicine cabinet and figure, “Well, I’m sure a couple of these will probably help my headache.” As much as we venerate the “golden era” of the press, which consisted of a lot of typewriters clicking, lead-type machines and the concept of smoking indoors, those folks were people, just like us. They could have screwed up, just as easily as we can.

How you state something matters: When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles. The second one is wrong because the Green Bay Packers won 13 NFL titles (most of them in the pre-Super Bowl era), so even thought Steelers have more Super Bowls, the Packers have more titles.

The line in the obituary for Lugar that got some criticism falls along these lines. Lugar pushing for something didn’t mean it encountered heavy resistance. That’s probably at least part of the problem associated with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program correction, although I’m not entirely sure how they missed by more than a decade.

Beware of “-est” statements: The obit’s correction didn’t have any of these errors, which was the case with McCain’s, but that might have just been a fortunate bounce, given the use of “-est” statements:

His greatest legacy, though, remains his work toward reducing the threat of nuclear arms.

Security was upgraded at nuclear weapons sites, at a time when the greatest fear was that a terror group would take advantage of the chaos in Russia or in one of the former Soviet states and buy or steal a weapon.

Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.

In these statements, the writer’s good luck had him attempting to quantify things that could not be accurately quantified, such as a “greatest” fear” or “greatest source.” People can quibble with those. In the case of the McCain obit, calling the fire on the Forrestal the “deadliest” incident could be measured (and proven wrong, as it was).

As a word of warning, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

UNC-Charlotte shooting presses students at the Niner Times back to work

As we’ve noted here before, journalists are never really off the clock, given that news can happen at any point in time and it needs to be covered. Students at the Niner Times experienced this first hand when a gunman opened fire on their campus during the last week of school:

THREE HOURS BEFORE A SHOOTING WAS FIRST REPORTED on University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s campus, Alexandria Sands tweeted that she was “officially a retired college newspaper editor. Thank you for letting me tell your stories, #UNCC.” At around 5:42 p.m., as she was sitting in the last class of her college career, she saw a message in a group chat for the Niner Times’ college newspaper staff. “There’s a shooter on campus in Kennedy,” it read.

Two people died and four others were injured, including Niner Times sports writer Drew Pescaro. The Niner Times stated that Pescaro had surgery for his injuries and was recovering at an area hospital.

Police arrested former UNCC student Trystan Andrew Terrell, who has been charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder. Police are still investigating the situation and are releasing additional information as it becomes available.

In the mean time, the Forty Niner staff continues to release information on its website, and via social media.

The Junk Drawer: Welcome to the land of Sex Tourneys and Trained Whales

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so let’s enjoy a few of the more awkward moments sent in by the hivemind and other friends out there:

I’M GOING TO AUBURN!

AuburnSEX

Either they meant the SEC (Southeastern Conference) Tournament, or they’re going to start a hell of a recruiting war with Alabama. I’m pretty sure the University of Southern California Trojans and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks plan to take part in next year’s tournament.

IN OTHER ODD FETISH NEWS…

DeadPorn

Either this is a horribly misplaced modifier or this husband is a porn channel vigilante. “One man stands for the murder of porn channels… Joe Don Baker stars in, ‘The Porninator.'”

Speaking of modifier problems…

 

ARE WE JUST NOT DOING PHRASING ANYMORE?

A friend passed this along from a grading session:

Filledtocapacity

To be fair, I’m sure I’ve done some of my best work while filled to capacity… Another friend followed up with this gem:

My favorite example to illustrate the point is “Ugly or not, the team will take the victory.”

Speaking of ugly…

YOU MIGHT WANT TO FIRE YOUR MARKETING DEPARTMENT:

I get that people want some sort of cute, kitschy vibe for their group, but this is what can happen when you don’t really think this through:

Succs

(A special note of thanks to the person who used the very last erg of her battery to send this to me. I don’t think my phone is capable of getting that low without giving me a “Really? You don’t know what a charger looks like?” look.)

Speaking of things in “Ouchtown”…

I DO NOT THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

A friend ran across this in a court story:

“His arrangement will be Tuesday in circuit court.”

It will likely include several roses, some peonies and 8-to-10 for breaking and entering…

Speaking criminal intent…

WHY IS THE TRUTH ALWAYS STRANGER THAN FICTION?

Whale

Question: How do Russians train whales to harass specific ships? The bigger question: How do you become an “expert” in whales that have been trained by Russians to harass ships?

Until next time,

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

Privacy, Free Expression and Instagram: UW-Oshkosh deals with another “hate speech” moment

There are many times I am wistful that I do not advise the student paper at UW-Oshkosh anymore, but Friday definitely was not one of them.

OSHKOSH – University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh leaders say they’re investigating viral social media posts that show photos of racist and homophobic messages and hateful symbols they believe involve students.

The images, which appear to show messages posted in off-campus student housing, prompted calls for expulsions and drew the attention of state lawmakers.

A social media post of three photographs, taken at a party the previous night, attempted to “out” the party hosts (UWO students) for racist and homophobic elements that were on display at their home:

Racism

(Editor’s note: Both students were named, but I blocked them here. That’s not because I believe in hiding racism, but rather because I couldn’t independently verify that these guys lived there etc. More on this later.)

Very few things will lead to the chancellor of a major university cancelling everything he or she is doing that day to call an impromptu open forum to deal with something. Even fewer of those things are positive events. An infinitesimal number of those things will pack a giant ballroom with students on a Friday afternoon like this one did:

Matesic

Then again, this wasn’t the first of these social media posts to paint the university’s citizenry in an awful light. During the student government elections in March, a student posted on social media his support for a particular slate of candidates, noting “UWO Vote for these guys today unless you want a lesbian or a hmong to win.”

The editor of the student paper told me his social media had been blowing up all night over this incident. He said he’d been getting DMs and more asking if the Advance-Titan was going to cover this and what it was going to say. Before he reached out to me, I had been emailing with Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle who formerly served as the executive director of the Student Press Law Center and now runs the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, on this topic.

My questions to Frank were for the blog, both in terms of lessons to learn and how to keep my own keester out of the fryer while writing about this issue. I gladly shared the answers with the editor as well, because this kind of situation deals with all sorts of legal and ethical issues. Here are a couple things I pondered and things Frank told me, written in a loosely structured format, that might help some of you in the future:

Clearly the speech here (a laundry list of racist and homophobic ideals as well as a giant Swastika painting) is not something the university supports or enjoys having associated with the institution. That said, I knew that there were issues involved here about this being a public institution, this happening off campus and so forth. Essentially I asked Frank, are these students and their speech still protected?

“There’s an especially aggressive strain of First Amendment case law, which I think is completely incorrect, that says if you’re enrolled in a pre-professional program, you have near-nonexistent First Amendment rights and your university can punish you if your speech falls short of the standards of what would be acceptable workplace behavior in the profession…

“The better-reasoned view is that students have at least as much First Amendment protection online as they do in the hallways, so that means at a bare minimum they have the Tinker v. Des Moines level of protection — if not more, since the Supreme Court has never limited college students to the Tinker standard.

“I think it would be quite hard for a college to show that just saying ‘I hate [fill in the blank minority]’ is an act disruptive of the campus, absent a threat to actually act on the animus. Once speech becomes threatening, yes, it loses its First Amendment protection and can be punished, but if someone does no more than express racial or religious hatred, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, particularly not off-campus on personal time.”

I knew other colleges and institutions have dealt with this before. We’ve detailed a number of these things on the blog, including Harley Barber’s infamous rant on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One incident that made major national news was at the University of Oklahoma, where a video surfaced of  SAE fraternity members singing a racist chant. The chapter was banned from campus and at least two students were expelled, although one of their attorneys said the student withdrew prior to being expelled. Again, neither of these incidents, or the one at UWO was good, but do universities have the power to expel students based on off-campus things like this? Frank’s take:

“I think the reality today is that most colleges do in fact either impose disciplinary sanctions or strongly encourage the students to ‘voluntarily’ withdraw and start over somewhere else. Colleges know that these cases are quite hard for student speakers to win, and if you’re really caught saying something so boneheaded that you’d be humiliated to continue living with it every day for the next 24 months, you’re not going to sue over it. You’re probably going to slink away in humiliation, close your social media accounts, and hope nobody at your new college Googles you.

“You can look at what David Boren did to the fraternity pledge who sang the racist song on a video that went viral. That speech was almost certainly not within the school’s authority to punish constitutionally — it was incredibly offensive, but not threatening, and there’s no “offensiveness” exception to the First Amendment — but Boren calculated that the price of not doing anything would be worse for him than the minimal risk of a First Amendment lawsuit. And he was right, nobody sued and his expulsion held up.”

Aside from the issues of free speech, I was curious about the issue of someone entering a house, taking a couple pictures and then putting people on blast via social media with those images.

We’ve discussed invasion of privacy topics both here and in both books, but those are usually clear-cut examples: If the chancellor at your university is running down Main Street like Will Ferrell in “Old School,” you have every right to take pictures of the chancellor and publish them. If you climb up the drainpipe of my house and lean inside to take pictures of my kid while she’s sleeping, you’re in deep trouble.

This situation felt a little murkier, so I asked Frank about issues pertaining to privacy and open displays of stuff within an off-campus home like this:

“Everything depends on the factual details. First, was this a gathering with a large number of people, some of whom were not intimately close friends-and-family? If it’s a roomful of 50 people and half of them barely know each other, it’s quite hard to argue that something you willingly displayed in front of dozens of strangers is ‘private.’

“Second, was the act of taking the photograph open or concealed? If I see you snapping the photo openly and conspicuously and I stand by and do nothing — and if other people are doing the same — then I can’t very well complain that you took the photos against my wishes.

“But let’s assume those things aren’t true. Let’s assume it’s 10 people who all know each other very well and the photo is snapped surreptitiously. In that event, then yes, I think there’s an invasion-of-privacy claim. When you’re inside of a private home, you have an expectation of privacy, and that’s even true to some degree if you’re a house guest rather than the owner.”

As a journalism nerd, the question that most rattled around in my head (and that of the editor, I’m sure) were about what should people publish in regard to this story. Some media outlets blurred out the faces of the people in the photos. Others blurred out one or more words on the white board. Still others didn’t run the images, but rather summarized the content.

In some cases, those were issues of taste, while in others those were issues of risk. Naming the guys runs a huge risk for a number of reasons, including that you need to make sure of your source. For example, when I posted about the Oshkosh North situation, I pretty much laid out the whole story that Brock Doemel wrote and did so with almost no fear. The reason was, I spoke with Brock, I trusted Brock as a source of that information and I knew that the blow back about his story had nothing to do with factual accuracy.

In this case, however, I’m getting a third-hand (at least) photo of an Instagram post compiled by someone I do not know. The risks are much higher. In addition, I don’t know if maybe these guys have a third roommate who put the stuff up there and they have nothing to do with it. (One of the students called out in the post initially posted on Twitter that he had nothing to do with this. He has since deleted his account.) I also couldn’t prove these photos were taken at this house and that these guys live there and more. In other words, a lot more unknown elements made naming these guys a lot riskier, so I was more cautious.

What to publish and what not to publish in terms of the images and the post gave me pause. I also was sure there were other things I wasn’t thinking about as potential landmines, so I asked Frank to give me a map to the landmine field here:

“I think it’s powerful in a situation like this to show the audience: ‘Here’s exactly what this looked like to the people attending this gathering in the apartment. They were big, clear, legible words in a visible place that couldn’t help but be noticed.’ The picture helps you get that across.

“Where I would be really careful is in over-characterizing or over-describing beyond what you can say for sure based on firsthand observation. For instance, maybe the photo shows Jane Jones standing and smiling as she looks at the words. I wouldn’t say ‘Jane Jones stood by without doing anything,’ because for all you know, Jane immediately ran up and erased the words. This is the issue we saw with adding interpretation to the video of the Kentucky high-school Trump fans who got into a confrontation outside the Lincoln Memorial. Is the smiling student expressing his smug superiority over the Native America protester, or is he trying to remain stoical in the face of insults shouted at him? If you don’t know, don’t speculate and don’t guess.

“I don’t think it’s a bad editorial call not to use the photos, if there is concern over people who were innocent bystanders being targeted for blame. That’s not impossible. Maybe Joe walked in for 30 seconds to pick up his roommate, and in those 30 seconds his picture got snapped, but he didn’t have any involvement in the writings and he barely stopped to look at them. Again, it comes down to what you know, ideally from people who were in the room at the time, and not what you infer.”

 

Write all you want, but then edit the hell out of it.

 

During a writing lab session, a student asked me how it is I could come up with tight and clear sentences off the cuff. The truth, I told him, wasn’t so much in the writing, but in the editing. I was essentially doing in my head what he was doing on the computer, which took me a lot of practice. Even more, I told him, when I do write sentences on the computer, I mostly spend time just dumping the stuff out of my head and then going back to shape and polish them. In short, I explained, write all you want, but then go back and edit the hell out of it.

Here are a couple examples of what I mean:

Here is a 46/47 word lead on an ongoing investigation about a UW chancellor and her husband’s behavior:

WHITEWATER – An independent investigation commissioned by the University of Wisconsin System into how administrators responded to sexual harassment allegations against Pete Hill, husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper, found “Hill’s behavior was a blind spot for the Chancellor,” according to documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.

Start by picking this apart. What’s the first thing we learn? That there was an independent investigation commissioned by the UW system. Is that the most important thing you want to tell people?

What’s the last thing you learn? The newspaper got some documents. Is that important enough for the lead?

Let’s focus on what matters most:

  • husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper
  • accused of sexual harassment
  • reports calls accusations credible
  • report finds she didn’t know about it
  • report finds she didn’t ask him about it
  • Kopper didn’t retaliate, but people still felt awkward

 

Pick through those elements and you have a much stronger lead:

Former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper likely didn’t know about her husband’s sexually harassing behavior on campus, but she didn’t proactively respond to the allegations once they arose, an independent investigation found.

It’s 31 words and gets you closer. Then, if you want to talk about how you got the records, the formal title of the investigative group and the “blind spot” quote (which gets mentioned twice in three paragraphs), you can do that later.

Just so you don’t think I’m picking on the pros, here’s a nice, tight lead that similarly works off of a major report from that same publication:

MADISON – Wisconsin has seen a steep decline in net migration of families with children and this could be problematic for efforts to replace the state’s aging workforce, according to a new report.

Again, it tells me what happened and why I care right up front, pushing the name of the official report and committee and all that stuff way down below.

Check out this body-copy sentence from a story about a contract between a state entity and a private corporation:

Evers and Foxconn officials are in talks to rewrite a contract that lays out what size investments Foxconn must make in Wisconsin in order to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies — a deal that currently requires Foxconn to hit targets in job creation before any state tax credits can be paid.

An edit to this can make a 48-word sentence a little clearer and cleaner:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. Under the current deal, Foxconn must hit job-creation targets before receiving state tax credits.

Two sentences, 32 words and much clearer. If you want one sentence, try this:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies in an attempt to reshape the job-creation targets Foxconn must reach before receiving state tax credits.

It’s still beefy at 34 words, but it is tighter and clearer.

These would get better with more editing, but the point is that instead of trying to be perfect on the first pass, get the stuff out of your head and onto the screen. Once you have something there, you can work with it. Until then, you just have a blank screen with a blinking cursor that is mocking you.

 

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.”

Throwback Thursday: The Four-Word Interview

(With the weather continually failing to cooperate with my desire to pull the Mustang out of storage, I decided to pine for “Betsy” openly with a throwback post to 2017. It’s a good reminder that the point of interviewing is to gain information that is important, to not overthink your interviews and that some day soon, summer is coming. — VFF)

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(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.

No comment or late comment: How long should you wait for people to speak up on their own behalf?

Student media adviser and blogging guru Kenna Griffin sent this out on Twitter today and it got me thinking about our rights and responsibilities regarding fairness to sources:

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Her blog post, which you can read in its entirety here, touches on a lot of good issues in regard to fairness, transparency, accuracy and the importance of the story. She also makes some good points about how things have changed in the digital age versus the newspaper’s “hard” deadline.

I often found that the hard deadline was a double-edged sword: I got more time to wait for someone to call me back because I didn’t have to send the story to press until 1 a.m.. That said, it also meant that if I caught a late-breaking story and only had until 1 a.m. to get it out the door, some people weren’t going to be around for comment, thus leaving me with a weaker piece.

Digital deadlines mean you can send stuff to your readers whenever you want, which is great when you have content worth sending. However, I know from personal experience, that when I’m waiting for a quote from someone and I have the ability to just hit “publish” and move on, I get really twitchy. Patience is a virtue, but not one with which I have been endowed…

Griffin lists some key thoughts about the best practices for deciding when to wait and when to pull the trigger. Here are a couple others that I’d add, especially for those of you working in a digital field:

  • Will waiting longer likely lead to a comment? In some cases, you have worked with a source and that source is usually pretty good about getting back to you, so the wait makes sense. In other cases, you are more likely to find a unicorn playing bass in a punk band than you are to get a quote back from a source from which you requested an interview. If you think time is likely to lead to success, hold on to the piece. If not, publish it as soon as it’s as good as it’s going to get.
  • Is this a case of “ostrich syndrome” on the part of the source? The legend involving ostriches is that when they become afraid, they stick their head in the sand, thus not seeing the danger, but clearly being no safer than they were before they did it. It’s not true, but it does provide us with a good jumping off point for how sources can be delusional regarding their interactions with reporters.
    A number of times, a source has tried to dodge a reporter’s call with the idea that if they can avoid saying anything about the topic, the reporter won’t be able to run the story. In those cases, I tended to tell people to run the story anyway, with an explanation that we tried to give this person a chance to say something. Just like any other form of bad behavior, you shouldn’t reward sources who try to kill stories by dodging you.
  • How permanent is your choice? This is a tough issue that tends to lend itself more toward student media outlets. When a publication comes out once per week, an unanswered claim or a one-sided story can become codified in the minds of readers before another source gets a chance to say something. Even more, if it the last paper of semester or school year, that decision not to hold a story for a comment can seem almost vindictive. However, if you run your media on a digital platform and you can update at a moment’s notice, the choice seems a lot less painful. When it came to the Oshkosh North Star situation, I felt pretty solid about publishing whatever it was I had in hand, even if I was still hoping for another quote or comment. I knew that if something popped up, I could tweak what I had. If I worked at a newspaper and it was going out this week only, on actual paper and I would never get another chance at it, I’d probably feel a lot more anxious about my choice to publish.

 

One last thing about the “no comment” issue: People who tell you “no comment” and then continue to talk are, in fact, commenting, so feel free to use whatever they tell you. It’s not your fault they can’t shut up. When people don’t comment, we used to joke about how to translate the way in which the “no comment” was listed in the story:

  • “Smith declined to comment:”  This essentially means you got a hold of the person, the person was decent to you and told you something along the lines of, “Look, I really can’t say anything or my boss/my manager/my spouse will kill me.” You feel bad for the source and you kind of understand.
  • “Smith refused to comment:” You reached the person who told you “Go (INSERT ACTION THAT DEFIES PHYSICS HERE) yourself and the horse you rode in on!” The person might also have been running down a flight of stairs, screaming “FAKE NEWS!” at you.
  • “Repeated attempts to reach Smith on his mobile phone, home phone, congressional email account, two fundraising dinners and his house in Yonkers were unsuccessful.” That weasel is dodging us…
  • “Smith’s whereabouts are unknown at this time and the Journal was unable to find him.” This guy might be dead.

Four things other high school administrators should learn from the Oshkosh North Star situation

I’ll be the first to admit, I was stunned at the way in which the Oshkosh Area School District decided to end the crisis involving the school’s publication, the North Star. If you missed the previous posts you can find them here and here and here.

The short version is that the district issued a two-page press release on Monday, saying it will no longer pursue any action in regard to the Hans Nelson story. It also stated the district has put the publication back into the hands of the students and the adviser and it will work to put in place a policy that codifies this for the future.

I have never seen a district turn that fast or that hard in that direction on an issue like this. And as my mother always told me, “If you’re going to criticize, you have to be willing to praise.” I emailed the district folks and thanked them for their work on this and I offered to help with the new policy in any way I can. The district made the smart play here and the folks there deserve the credit for that.

Other districts could learn a few things from how this all came to pass, so feel free to give this a read and consider using it if your administration decides to take a shot across the bow at your student media:

 

CENSORING THE STUDENT MEDIA IN THIS ERA IS POINTLESS

Administrators at Oshkosh North weren’t the first people to try this kind of information repression, nor will they be the last. However, I think it’s important for any administration to fully understand the point of censorship and why it has absolutely no chance of succeeding.

The idea behind censorship, in its purest form, is to eliminate the ability of people in an audience to get information on a given topic. If you have the ability to completely black out coverage of a topic, you will succeed in suppressing that information from reaching the readers and thus keep secret whatever it is you want to hide. This is why censoring a student newspaper in the digital era makes about as much sense as trying to catch water in a pasta strainer.

In this case, the district managed to pull the article off the website and stop people from seeing this information there. What happened next? WBAY, FOX11, at least two other journalists and one blog hack showed up at a public listening session where Brock Doemel outlined, on the record, every aspect of what was in his article. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the USA Today-Wisconsin network did a deep dive into this as well, only further focusing attention on this situation.

In addition, students have been sharing information via social media ever since this guy disappeared, other media outlets have offered to publicize the story and now everyone with internet access now knows what happened. The district’s press release seemed to indicate they realized this had gotten way more attention than if they had left the story alone.

Simply put, censoring the student media to keep this issue quiet works about as well as trying to extinguish your campfire with a bucket of gasoline. It. Doesn’t. Work.

EVEN IF YOU WIN, YOU LOSE

I was having a hard time making this clear to the attorney for the district when we spoke last week, so maybe I’ll do better here. I kept trying to explain that using the Hazelwood decision like a cudgel, treating student press rights as “less than” and coming down like a ton of bricks on students and media advisers doesn’t work.

Legally speaking, administrators usually have the Hazelwood precedent on their side, but a) it’s not the silver bullet people think it is and b) it was meant as a shield, not a sword at the time it was decided. Go back and read the decision. It’s terrible, but the core rationale behind this isn’t “Give administrators the right to censor at will just for funzies.”

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say censoring administrators run into a judge who has a strict interpretation of Hazelwood, hates student press and will side with an administrator, regardless of the situation, they will STILL lose. For starters, the administrators haven’t prevented the information they wanted to silence to remain private. Even worse, they have to go to court and beat up on one of their own students as a part of the process.  The court of law may side with them but the court of public opinion will never forgive them.

As one alumnus of Oshkosh North pointed out to me, the media coverage of this issue wasn’t even about the bathrooms or the Hans Nelson at this point. It was about how the administration tried to kneecap one of its own students and one of its own institutions. The whole narrative changed and they realized they were on the wrong side of it. That’s why the decisions they made were the smart move. Other schools can learn something from them on this one, for sure.

 

THIS DRAWS MORE ATTENTION, THE KIND YOU DON’T LIKE

I got to sit through the core of the school board meeting last week, as the open forum session where I could speak came at the middle of the event. In doing so, I learned a ton of great things that the schools in the district are doing. The robotics team won state and is now headed to nationals. The students are putting on an incredible play that I want to see now. The student newspaper at the other high school in the district won a ton of awards at the state media competition. In all, there were at least a dozen really cool accomplishments highlighted that the district has every right to shout from the rooftops.

And yet the one thing everyone was talking about the next day in regard to this district was the administrative overreach of a principal and the suppression of free press in Oshkosh. That’s what people found the next day when they Googled “Oshkosh North” and looked under news. It was what showed up on the nightly news and in multiple newspapers. It’s also got people on social media tweeting at them, sending emails and letters.

The district essentially came to the conclusion outlined in Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging. They backed off of Doemel and adviser Jason Cummings, went back to the spirit of the law for the North Star and they agreed to move forward to change the policy for good. Once they get this nailed down through the board, I’m hoping they make the announcement to show they completed this whole process so everyone can feel good as they move on.

That will get you the kind of attention that befits a quality educational institution.

 

THE MORE YOU TOUCH IT, THE RISKIER IT IS FOR YOU

Opening up the door to allow students to do whatever they want under the guidance of an honest-to-goodness journalistic adviser can scare the hell out of administrators.

In some cases, it’s because the admin folks are control freaks who enjoy dominion over all they survey, like an Alexander the Great with a master key. In other cases, it’s because they have been told a squillion times about the liability that that comes when a kid does a dumb thing. In other cases, it’s because nobody likes hearing bad things about a place they care about, especially if they are responsible for the upkeep of that place’s image.

I’m sure I’m missing a few other reasons, but the point is, this idea of giving a group of kids free reign over a publication with the school’s blessing can seem terrifying.

So why not slam the lid on this thing, eliminate the risk and take control over the whole thing? Because that puts you at even greater risk than you are if you opened up the whole thing and let kids do whatever they want.

The minute you touch the student media, you put yourself in the unenviable position of being responsible for it. That means the one day you blow off reading an article and some kid libels a janitor, that’s on you and the district. The attorney for the Oshkosh district told me after the listening session that the district is “where the deep pockets are in the case of a lawsuit.” Right. Which is why you don’t want your pockets associated with those people who might go digging.

Court rulings, even those after Hazelwood, have found that the best case a district can make against being successfully sued for the content of a student media outlet is to leave the content decisions in the hands of the students.

In other words, you break it, you bought it.

Which actually reinforces an even larger point when it comes to the students’ behavior. If you provide them with the ability to control the dice and yet the responsibility for dealing with the blow back from anything they publish, you train them to treat that responsibility seriously.

If you tell them that you’re going to be backstopping everything they want to run, you will have one of two unpleasant scenarios:

  1. They will be less diligent when it comes to accuracy, ethics and other similar things, thus leading to riskier journalism due to their lack of care.
  2. They’ll spend half of their time trying to sneak something past you because it’s fun to mess with authority, thus forcing you to spend most of your day on Urban Dictionary trying to find out if ‘mercan is a patriotic typo or something that should result in a phone call to the author’s parents.