Helpful tips for student media outlets that want to cover the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade situation

A draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked late Monday night on the Politico website. The 98-page document, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would reverse the nearly 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutionally protected right to abortions in the United States, if it remains unchanged when the court formally renders its opinion.

I have a hard time imagining that many student media outlets wouldn’t have a vested interest in covering this situation as it unfolds. With that in mind, this post does not aim to direct the opinion of those students, nor to take a stand on the issue itself. The point of this post is to provide student journalists with some help in navigating some truly risky waters when choosing what, when and how to present information to their readers on this topic.

First, let’s start off with a few key things you need to be aware of before you even start thinking about publishing something here:

  1. You will not change most readers’ minds about anything on this topic. Most of what people think and believe about this issue will have been codified in their minds, hearts and souls long before you showed up. A good friend, who was perhaps prescient, posted this explanation from The Oatmeal of why it’s hard to change minds or get people to listen on certain issues the other day and it bears a look. Trying to move the needle on this issue among readers is going to be as successful as bailing out a sinking boat with a pasta strainer.
  2. There aren’t two sides to this. There are many facets. Certain topics tend to bring out the extremes when it comes to public opinion. Yes, there are probably people out there who believe that life begins when a man unhooks a woman’s bra. Conversely, there are probably people out there who believe there should be free abortion punch cards available at Starbucks. Those people do not represent the majority of people who have an interest in this issue. If you want to dig into this issue, you need to look beyond the loudest voices screaming threadbare talking points. It’ll take work.
  3. This is not law yet. This is a leaked first draft of a document that the public wasn’t supposed to see, at least not based on tradition and protocol. The information, including how many justices voted to make this a majority opinion, who they are, how tied to this they are, how much they support the language and more, is not codified through official channels or publicly declared by the court itself. A lot can happen in multiple aspects of this case, including what the final opinion looks like, if Congress will make moves to solidify abortion rights and other things nobody has thought about yet. When covering this issue, it’s crucial to keep that in mind when making declarative statements, asking questions of sources and writing content (particularly headlines where space limits can lead to fact errors).
  4. You are running out of semester. TV shows can be great when they use the “cliffhanger” approach at the end of a season. News doesn’t benefit from that kind of situation, so be aware of how much time you have left to cover this topic, how many issues you have yet to publish and how those things should factor into your approach here. A half-baked “get-er-done” story that runs in your last issue can likely lead to more harm than good when you lack the ability to correct any errors, follow up on any developments or otherwise continue telling the story. You might have one shot at this, so make sure it does what it needs to do.

With those things in mind, here are some tips and hints on how to approach this topic:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: If it sounds like I harp on this every time I write something, it’s only because that’s exactly what I’m doing. This isn’t the time or the issue where you should assume everyone is “exactly like me” or guess about how much of your readership feels a certain way about the topic. Even within the newsroom itself, people probably hold differing views on if this is the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen in this country. It’s also likely that many of those views will come as a surprise to folks once they are vocalized.

One key thing to do is to really assess who reads your paper and what matters most to them. In a case like this, it’s a little too late to do a readers survey, but you can look for some breadcrumbs that might be out there for the finding. Some private, religious schools might clearly lean more pro-life, but look around for pockets of dissent. Some liberal, public schools might lean more pro-choice, but look around for pockets of dissent.

Look for groups on campus that have voiced their opinions on topics before and see how large, engaged, involved and representative they are of the larger whole. Look for previous coverage in your publication of this issue to see who is out there and what they had to say. Talk to people in the newsroom and the classroom about this with the idea of finding out not just what they think, but also what their roommates, friends, teammates and peers think.

Get a handle on what kind of room you will be playing to when you publish your work.

RESEARCH LIKE HELL: You are looking at the possible reversal of a court decision that likely is older than some of your professors. In the nearly five decades since the court handed down its ruling in this case, a lot of stuff has happened. Your going to want to be the smartest person in the room on this topic before you start interviewing people and writing stories.

Learn as much as you can about the original case, the ruling and what changed because of it. Look at the other challenges to it over the years, including the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, to see what has transpired over the past 50 years or so. Look into the history of abortions within the United States to figure out what happened during times when the procedure was legal and illegal. You’ll likely need to spend some serious time digging into this, but the last thing you want to do interview someone without having a full view of the facts. This is one topic in which the stakes are too high to risk getting snowed by a source with a bias.

Here are some tips and hints for potential stories:

LOCAL IMPACT: The court ruling, if it becomes final in its current form, would essentially kick the decision of whether abortions should be legal back to the states. States have had widely varying laws regarding this procedure, as you can see from the series of maps from the Washington Post. Figuring out what will happen to your readers will matter a great deal in how you approach this topic. Some states have laws that go into effect the minute the Court reverses Roe. Others have laws that remain on the books from decades ago that simply stop getting overridden by the Feds. Others are looking for laws that will remove or improve access to abortions once all of this gets sorted out.

Everyone else will be talking at the federal/macro level on this. You should explain it at the local/micro level. This could entail everything from what your student health center is allowed to provide to if any private businesses in the area provide this service and will no longer be allowed to do so.

Your job is not to tell people the sky is falling or the world is finally going to be right. Your job is to factually outline what it is that has happened, will happen and could happen if this draft becomes final.

UNPACKING “UNPRECEDENTED” AGAIN: If COVID taught me anything, it was to hate the word “unprecedented.” However, this situation has rolled out more cases in which that word will likely apply. Start looking at them:

  • Talk to local legal scholars about the leak. Folks are initially saying this “has never happened in modern history.” That’s a dodge within a couch of an argument, given “modern history” could be anywhere from post-Civil War era to since last Tuesday. Find out from people who study this stuff how rare this actually is, what the value/problem with such a leak can be and the likely impact the leak will have on the final draft.
  • Talk to local experts in history and law regarding an overturn of this nature. How often does the court fail to apply precedent in a situation like this? What issues have seen this kind of shift before? What results usually occur in a situation when the Court zigs like this, both in terms of the decision at hand as well as other cases that could follow?
  • Talk to local political experts to see what kinds of steps the executive and/or legislative branches might take in response to this judicial decision. There is already a rumbling about getting rid of the filibuster and trying to crank through something in the House and Senate that would counterbalance the court decision. Pro-choice advocates have noted President Joe Biden’s relative silence on the issue, as well as his history voting on the topic. Will he look to define his presidency with a move on this topic? I don’t know, but I’d surely ask someone smarter than me about it.

HISTORY TRIP: Generations of people have existed in a world in which this topic was hotly debated, but also clearly codified into law. Generations of people also lived through a time before Roe v. Wade, so it would be valuable to find out what things were like back then.

Most of what I have heard falls into oft-repeated phrases like “back-alley procedures,” “under-cover-of-night travel,” “unscrupulous and dangerous” and more. What that actually means in terms of true history is beyond me in many cases, so finding people who can better provide context, truth and history will be helpful. (The 19th did a piece on this topic not too long ago that followed women’s memories through their experiences in the pre-Roe era, if you are interested.) Professors at your school who study history, women’s studies and other scholastic areas that traverse this topic could be helpful, as could sources who were involved in either side of the struggle back then.

It would also be interesting to look at both current and historical data regarding the number of overall procedures that occurred in your coverage area, if that is available. The thing most people forget in talking about overturning Roe v. Wade is that it won’t eliminate abortions. It will just make them illegal and harder to come by. The numbers might tell a story both “back when” and “right now.”

PERSONAL STORIES: This is one of those that really has a strong risk/reward element to it. It is highly probable that you have students at your school who, in some way, connect strongly to this topic. How they connect, what they are willing to share and to what degree the reporter can work with these sources will determine the overall value of something like this. If you are unsure as to how to proceed with this, I strongly recommend you talk to your adviser, smart professors who have experience in the field and other journalism folk who can help guide you.

FINAL NOTE: The one last important thing to keep in mind on something like this is that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. You might do an inordinate amount of work, only to find a weak or wobbly story that might not do the job you had hoped it would. There is no rule in journalism that dictates you publish it and take your chances. In many cases, caution is the better part of valor. This is probably one of those cases if you feel the story isn’t where it needs to be.

That said, don’t let fear of public reaction dissuade you from running a quality story. This is one of those topics where you will inevitably upset someone, so disabuse yourself of the notion that a well-reported, well-researched, factually based story will garner universal applause. If it’s good, run it.

In God We Trust. Everybody Else Gets Recorded

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has found himself playing a lot of defense this week, as recordings of his calls in and around Jan. 6 hit the media. The recordings appear to directly contradict McCarthy’s frequent statements that he did not and would not tell President Trump to resign in the wake of the Capitol Riots:

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) – Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, came under fire from some of his fellow party members, after an audio recording showed him saying that then-President Donald Trump should resign over the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

The comments, which McCarthy had denied hours before the recording emerged, could undermine his widely known ambition to become House speaker next year if Republicans take control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, as expected.

We could spend an entire post with clips of politicians of every stripe saying they never said something, followed by audio or video evidence that shows they said that EXACT THING. It’s why this joke rings so true:

Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

Instead, let’s talk about the importance of recording everything you can shake a stick at when you interview sources. Here are a few things to keep in mind while doing that:

Rules for recordings

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that federal law allows you to record calls and other similar communication with just one party to the call knowing that the recording is happening.  In addition, 38 states have adopted similar “one-party consent” rules, which allows you to record someone without their consent. The other 12 states require that all parties involved in a phone call or other similar discussion consent to the recording. In almost no circumstance can you record a call to which you are not a party, a concept often referred to as wiretapping.

You can find a full listing of the states and their laws on recording on here on the committee’s website.

What you “can” do doesn’t include what you “should” do, in that trust and credibility play a pretty big role in what we do. Thus, ethically, it’s better to just ask people right up front if you can record the call or record them in person when you’re conducting the interview in most cases. If you’re trying to catch someone in a lie, that might not work, but if you’re interviewing the Queen of Corn Elise Jones about her exciting duties that go with the title, I doubt you’ll need to be surreptitious.

Also, for all the grumping journalism traditionalists do over email interviews (and I include myself among the grumps), the use of email does provide you with a written transcript of what the person said, so it’s a lot harder for them to cry foul when the stuff hits the fan over their comments.

What if a source says no?

One of the risks of behaving ethically is that someone might tell you not to record the interview. In that case, you have a few options.

Explain why you want to record them (to provide the most complete record, to back up your notes in case you misunderstand something, to allow you to be more conversational because you aren’t burying your head in your notes), in hopes that this will soften their stance.

If that doesn’t work, make the case that this is good for both of you because it protects both of you from having mistakes get into the public sphere. It’s also good to have that record for future examination, in case something needs to be looked back upon.

If none of that works, you’re kind of stuck between doing the interview without the recorder or not doing the interview. It’s a choice, but be ready to make that choice either way.

How best to record

Before you do any recording, you should have tested out your recorder in a few different environments. See what kind of range you get, the overall sound quality the device provides and if anything you would normally encounter in an interview would limit the device’s effectiveness. (If the source is playing with a pencil on the desk where your recorder sits, will you hear nothing but a series of TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP sounds?)

People can get jittery when they’re being recorded. Interviews themselves can freak people out, so the idea that every word they say is being preserved for all time can make things a little more anxiety-provoking. (A broadcast student of mine referred to interviews that go to hell because of a recorder fear as the source having “red light syndrome.”)

That little red light on a recorder can be a powerful tool, so it’s best to keep it away from them. If you have a recorder that can pick up sound from a bit of a distance, you can keep the recorder in your hand and flip over a piece of your reporter’s notebook to cover the thing. Eventually the source will forget it’s there and relax, I would hope.

If that won’t work, I try to at least obscure the red light or place it in an unobtrusive space. The goal is for it to blend into the background. If your recorder is so weak that you almost have to lodge the thing into the source’s nasal cavity to get a decent recording, buy something better.

 

Best Practices for Recording

It makes a lot of sense to purchase a separate recording device if you have the ability and funds to do so. Depending on if you need broadcast quality audio or just something you can hear and understand, costs can range between $20 or so to upwards of a couple hundred.

It is possible to use your phone to record in a pinch, but a lot can go wrong, including an app that only records a few minutes because it’s a “free” edition (and they never told you that) or an app that gets knocked off any time you get a text or alert. Also, battery issues are pretty prominent when it comes to most of my students’ phones, as they’re usually on their hands and knees in the classroom before class, searching for a power outlet.

For recording phone conversations, that mini-recorder plus your phone on speaker works well for low-grade audio. If you have a landline, which most of you probably don’t unless you work in an office that has these dinosaurs, you can get a phone coupler for a couple bucks online that allows you to jack your recorder right into the phone itself. (In days before this technology, reporters would drill holes in their phones and wire in recording devices. It looked cool, but the tech was risky.)

In any case, here are some basic tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure your recorder is functional and ready for recording. Do a test recording, check the batteries, bring extra batteries and generally make sure this thing will do the job.
  2. Test the recorder in the environment you’ll be recording, when possible. If you have some annoying background noise, see if you can move the interview elsewhere or tell your roommate to turn down the Cardi B. for 20 minutes.
  3. Start the recorder before the interview and ask the person if they would allow you to interview. This seems counterintuitive, but the goal is to capture the person’s answer on the recording. If they say yes, the thing is already going and they didn’t see you turn it on or place it somewhere so they aren’t freaking out as much. Plus you have the confirmation on “tape.” (or whatever term we’re using for digital stick recorders)
  4. If the source says no and won’t change their mind, pick up the device and shut it off in front of them to clearly show you’re abiding by their wishes. It’ll help with trust and credibility. Then, be prepared for hand cramps.
  5. Keep the recorder going all the way until you are out of the presence of the interview subject. Even after you agree you’re “done,” things can come up or other questions can happen. You want those recorded.
  6. Immediately check your recorder after  you are outside of the interview to make sure it worked. If it didn’t, you can pour some additional work into fleshing out your notes while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you figure out what went wrong and now the recorder works, you might be able to run back in for a quick follow up question or two before the source is involved in something else.

Hope this helps. Any other suggestions or thoughts on this are always appreciated.

Vince

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

Action Snark: The $43 billion cost of a “platform for free speech around the globe”

Billionaire Elon Musk will spend $43 billion to acquire Twitter, the first step in taking the company private, according to multiple media reports released Monday morning.

What this means is in the eye of the beholder.

Business Today’s take, in part:

Musk wants to maintain this “free speech” status for Twitter so that he can, for all practical purposes, continue s%$t posting on the platform without consequences. If he owns the platform, he also does not need to listen to governments’ grievances. For example, what would Musk do if the Indian government demanded (again) that certain tweets be deleted and accounts blocked?

The New Yorker looked at this in a similar way, but with more of an “old boys’ club” vibe:

His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

The once-and-future-king question for Donald Trump’s return to Twitter was the focal point of this Bloomberg look:

Musk has said he prefers to stay out of politics, but there are good reasons to suspect a Musk-owned Twitter would reactivate President Trump’s account. Beyond saying at TED that he wants to be “very cautious with permanent bans,” Musk applauded the former president two years ago when Trump supported Tesla’s plans to reopen a California car factory during the Covid-19 lockdown. And in a few recent tweets, Musk appears to embrace the right-wing, Fox News-bingeing perspective on various cultural flashpoints. (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” Musk tweeted last week.)

Time magazine might be rethinking the 2021 Person of the Year award they tossed at the tech billionaire, if this is their take on the problems with this supposed “free speech” move:

But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.

What is lost in all of this, at least for the moment, is the full understanding of what free speech is, how it works and why our traditional checks against some of the worst abuses will be lost in this move.

First, and we’ve only said this 10,242 times on this site, free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want, however you want and without consequence. From at least the U.S. perspective, it’s the ability to express yourself without fear of government interference. Private definitions of “free speech” vary widely based on who is making the definition and how speech is policed, censored or punished. I’m sure if you asked a citizen living under a dictatorial regime right now about free speech, that person would say, “Oh we totally have free speech here. We just have to watch what we say about XYZ.” Thus, the problem with this blanket term.

Second, people feeling like they’re given unfettered speech freedom are unlikely to think before they use it. This reminds me of the documentary I saw on the old “Action Park,” where the owners basically built a bunch of insanely dangerous rides and activities and told people, “You’re in control. Go for it.”

Thus, all sorts of things that Twitter’s guardrails used to prevent will now be unleashed in the name of free speech, leading to a ridiculous number of harmful things that none of us can stop, but most of us can foresee. When someone disagrees with someone else about anything from the political prowess of Joe Biden to the length of the foul lines at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, we’re going to see the rage machine start to redline the engine. Suddenly, we’re all wondering how six people got stabbed to death in real life because nobody wanted to say, “Look, it was 315 down the line and stop calling that guy a lib-tard.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have Musk in a position where his wealth overrides the free-speech system as it was intended to operate. In most cases, free speech carries with it responsibilities and consequences: We need to act responsibly in what we say about people, for fear of suffering legal consequences.

Thus, if some kid writes on Twitter that I’m taking money for grades, and this really gains traction and I get in trouble, I can sue that kid. If I prove the kid was negligent in his speech (or in some cases he knowingly lied), I can recoup financial losses and a court can assign punitive financial penalties to that kid. In short, free speech, when done poorly, can cost you.

Now, look at Musk. First, he’s probably got a function argument that he’s protected under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which tends to hold platforms blameless for user content.

Second, let’s say he screws that up and encourages bad action on the platform, what’s the penalty? If you sue him, he’s got enough money to legally bury in motions and documents you before you get anywhere near a courtroom.

If you manage to survive all that and win, a ridiculously high bar to clear, then what? He buries you in appeals until you go broke. IF you manage to get through all of that and still win an financial award from him, it’s not really a consequence for him.

This guy has what people who report on rich folks call “F— You Money.” It’s the level of wealth that essentially allows you to tell everyone around you “F— you” and not care. He literally had enough money to send himself to space because Earth is so last century… You think he’s going to worry what you’ll do to him if Twitter lead to the end of modern civilization? Gimme a break.

It’ll be interesting to see what all this leads to, much in the same way it’s interesting when you find that you left a Tupperware container full of noodle salad in your backpack in the back of your closet since freshman year. God alone knows what we’re dealing with, but it’s probably not something we’re all going to be thrilled with.

 

The one who shall not be named: An effort to keep the focus off mass shooters in media coverage and three reasons why it might not matter

An interesting article published this week in The Fourth Estate looks at the issue of how law enforcement and media have sought to keep mass shooters’ names out of the public eye:

Supporters of not naming perpetrators make the case that the less written, spoken or known about the perpetrators, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous from such horrific acts. Whether this trend of reducing the naming of mass shooters helps reduce mass shootings or perhaps makes them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Lax gun laws in the U.S. and the lack of mental health services are two of the most discussed reasons. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet clear how much notoriety is a factor for potential shooters. But we do know that the news media is heeding the call to limit naming perpetrators in mass shootings.

Thomas J. Hrach,  an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis explained this as part of a larger review of his research into the naming of shooters in these cases. While his research has several caveats, he does point out that the media’s naming people who have committed these acts has decreased significantly over the years.

Organizations like “Don’t Name Them” and “No Notoriety” have long pushed for media outlets to limit the name usage associated with mass killers. These and other groups have stated that the naming of these shooters leads to copycat crimes, increased intentions to act among potential shooters and the diminished attention that should be paid to victims.

Research has indicated a “contagion effect” can occur in incidents like these, although Hrach’s study noted that naming the shooter or the volume of coverage has yet to be directly linked to increased incidents. In other words, we don’t entirely know what drives people to do this, but we at least examining to what degree media coverage impacts these situations.

In working through my mass-shooting series a few years back, I’d read a lot of various opinions on these issues and found no real consensus on how best to cover something like this. I also came up with three confounding variables that might make all of this “to name or not to name” discussion moot:

TRENDS OF MASS SHOOTINGS: Trying to come up with a standard for what counts as a “mass shooting” or a “shooting spree” or a “mass killer” makes data almost useless in some cases. That said, whenever an organization applies some base-level look at shooting deaths that occur in bunches to a series of incidents, one thing is clear: we’ve trended up over the past 40-some years.

Mother Jones did one that lists the mass shootings from 1982 to present and we can see that we are getting more mass shootings in the more recent end of the spectrum than we have in the beginning end of the spectrum. What is strange is the degree to which each case gained notoriety, leaving open the possibility of media coverage being a contributing factor.

For example, the Columbine shooting is often part of the larger discussion because it involved two high school students killing their classmates. However, the Mother Jones database lists a similar high school shooting in Springfield, Oregon less than a year earlier. The Sandy Hook shooter’s name and face are burned into the fabric of society while the two shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas lack that level of fame.

For me, the strange thing is that the increase of shootings has almost made it impossible for me to remember names and incidents, an admission of which I am quite ashamed. I do remember certain names because they involved incidents that hit so close to home: The Sikh temple in my home state, the Virginia Tech situation, the Northern Illinois situation and the Columbine shooting, in part due to a friend’s connection to the area. The others have become nameless.

If Hrach’s research is on the right track, this might be because the media isn’t beating us over the heads with the names as much anymore. Or, it just might be that it’s harder to keep track of every one of these incidents, as they’ve become disturbingly more common than they used to be.

NOT EVERY MEDIA OUTLET PLAYS BY THE SAME RULES: The famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about Babe Ruth bears repeating here. On a train to an away game, a group of reporters is playing cards when a naked Babe Ruth comes running through the train car being chased by a semi-nude woman with a knife. The senior scribe pauses before saying, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we didn’t just see what we saw.” The story went unreported in the papers and didn’t emerge until years later.

The point is that we don’t have such a limited set of “gates” on information anymore that are ruled by a few gatekeepers. Pretty much any ham-head with a phone and social media account can publish anything at any point. Sure, it’s great if the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN enter into that “gentlemen’s agreement” not to name a shooter, or to limit the identification of that person to X number of times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

Websites, online broadcasters and social media operations can decide to run or not run whatever they want, with many not having the same level of journalistic training and education as some of the more traditional or established outlets. In many cases, fringe outlets delight in publishing things that these storied legacy media don’t or wouldn’t put out there. And, really, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

PEOPLE ARE NOSY: Humans have an innate curiosity about things that happen around them. When given limited information on a topic, there is a high probability that people will go nose around to find out what they’re missing.

It can be on simple things like when someone says, “I need to tell you three things…” and then only talks about two of them. In my own mind, I’m usually ignoring whatever the heck the second thing is if the conversation about it gets too long because I’m thinking, “OK, what’s the third thing?” It drives me bonkers when a sports announcer says something like, “Jose Ramirez has just become the fourth player in Cleveland history to (DO SOMETHING),” and the announcer doesn’t tell me who were the other three.

It’s also why game shows like “Let’s Make a Deal” were so successful: People were torn between what they knew they had in their hand and whatever mystery was behind Door Number Two.

When it comes to terrible situations like mass shootings, those curiosities emerge as well. I was watching a documentary about a 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre, an event I’d never heard of before. Throughout the documentary, the participants never named the shooter. About half way through, the documentarian noted that he refused to name this person because he wanted to focus on the victims. As much as every element of this film was spellbinding, once it was over, I found myself Googling this event to find out who this guy was and what his problem was.

Withholding information can lead to more interest in a situation than simply laying out everything for the audience. It’s why we preach transparency in public relations as, to quote Ivy Lee, it’s better to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

I’m sure there’s a balance between pounding the audience over the head with the names of these people and making sure not to tempt the curious. I’m also sure I don’t know where that is, so it might be a while before we figure it out.

 

5 reasons a pivot to an Axios writing model might not help improve the readership experience of your student newspaper

(When in doubt, pivot…)

A journalism colleague I hold in high esteem mentioned his frustration with how traditional news formats just weren’t doing the job for his readership:

How I got here.
  • For years, I’ve shown students lots of ways to make articles more snackable, scannable, graphically appealing, etc.
  • I think I’ve failed because it was too much to expect they’d look at every story, evaluate multiple ways of packaging it and decide what to do. It’s soooo easy to just “write it.
And it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
  • When I look at how people read our email newsletters and print newspapers, it’s clear they are not interested in reading ANY paragraphs stacked into a column.

His solution to the problem is to promote the “Axios Approach” to content for his students at his publication.

The Axios method of content dissemination takes several key things into account. At the core is the “smart brevity” dictum we’ve discussed here before. Beyond that, the company uses bullet-pointed articles and news letters to hit on the key “What?” “So What?” and “Now What?” elements of material before moving on to the next story. Deeper digs are available for bigger stories.

Here’s a clipped example from a Mike Allen newsletter:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an Axios NewsShapers interview with Jonathan Swan today that he has “an obligation” to support former President Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2024.

  • Asked where he draws his moral red lines, McConnell said, “I’m very comfortable with my moral red line.” (Watch a 3-minute clip.)

Why it matters: This was the first time McConnell was pressed on the contradiction between his Senate floor comments in February 2021 saying Trump was “morally responsible” for Jan. 6 — followed two weeks later by saying he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he were the party’s 2024 nominee.

Not everyone is keen on this or the long-form approach Axios takes, but it can’t hurt to try something to break through the doldrums of blathering text that people are already ignoring. Or as my grandfather used to say, “If it’s already broken, try fixing it. You can’t really break it worse.”

That said, here are five quick reasons why this approach isn’t a Golden Ticket for improved journalism:

WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: Every time a media organization loses reader eyeballs, the answer always seems to be to “pivot” to a new way of putting out the content. This was particularly true of the journalistic shifts of the 1980s, when the “Wall Street Journal” format became popular in writing long-form stories, the 1990s with the “alternative-storytelling-graphics” approach, the 2010s “pivot to video” moves and the 2020s “shift to social” maneuver.

In each case, it met with a minimal amount of success across the board, as some places got some value out of it while others continued to fail.

This leads us to point two…

AXIOS ISN’T REALLY DIFFERENT. IT’S JUST GOOD: What Axios is doing isn’t any different from what good journalists have done for generations:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care as a reader.

The format emphasizes these two elements in a more-direct fashion than other publications, but if you read any decent news lead, you’ll find those things:

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, 133-115, on Sunday, securing the No. 8 spot for the play-in tournament in the NBA playoffs.

Despite continuing sanctions, Russia’s oil profits continue to stabilize the country’s economy, making a quick end to its war with Ukraine highly unlikely, experts say.

A bald eagle captured in Bay View died of avian flu this weekend, with veterinary experts saying this is likely the first of many such deaths among birds this year.

What distinguishes these leads and the Axios model from the content we grouse about is the failure to hit the target quickly and efficiently. The writers at Axios know what matters to the readers and they quickly draw a big circle around it before moving on.

In short, it’s as much about value as it is about format, if not more. I can take a terrible story one of my students wrote about a meeting and put it in the Axios format:

The Oshkosh Student Association held a meeting  Monday, where they talked about several topics.

      • Can students opt-in for online learning next term? Co-adviser Jean Kwaterski said it’s under discussion.
      • When will election results be available? Kwaterski said students have “until Friday at noon to turn in any violations” of voting protocol before votes will be certified
      • Will mask mandates be lifted? Co-adviser Missy Burgess said we don’t know.

Key Quote: “We will look at the data and make sure that it is good. Another reason is that faculty needs time to prepare for no masks.” -Burgess

Why it matters: OSA is the student government of UW-Oshkosh, which means it represents the students. Student representation is important on any campus.

Next moves: OSA will meet again May 3.

(This is the guts of the story. It only took 21 paragraphs for me to find out that apparently the mask mandate was actually being lifted on a specific date, barring an outbreak.)

The point is, if you can’t write a decent lead that tells me the answer to those original two questions along with some focus on the FOCII elements, you can’t make the news work in Axios format.

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY 101: The reason Axios is successful with its content and with its format is because it knows its audience. As mentioned before, Axios co-founder Jim Vande Hei is a political junkie with a ton of key sources and readers inside the beltway. When he came to UWO to speak as an alumnus, he outlined a lot of the things Axios tries to do, the most important of which is knowing the audience and catering to its needs.

The people reading this stuff already like the content because it’s micro-targeted and niche-specific. If people like the topic and are targeted clearly, they’ll read anything decent. Generalized and generic content doesn’t do the work.

Student media outlets have some of those opportunities (specific demographic range, certain campus interests etc.) but they often fail to reach the readers because they don’t learn enough about the readers to make that work for them.

Every year, I ask my students to define the campus at UWO for me. They always define it in one of two ways:

  1. The most generic way possible (“We’re college students of a regular college age and we are going to school to get a degree…”)
  2. The most self-centered way possible (“Everyone here is JUST LIKE ME!”)

Neither of these things are true, so I force them to find out stuff that nobody else would likely know about UWO’s student body. This is how they started to figure out we had a really strong gymnastics program, more parking than other UW campuses, the tightest geographic density of any Wisconsin campus, a strong ROTC and veterans’ program, a series of majors unavailable elsewhere in the UW system and more.

Every campus has a unique feature that draws in readers. That’s why one campus will run it’s “Party Animal” edition to great fanfare every year while another school has a “Bridal Guide” for its graduating seniors. The key to getting readers is figuring out that niche interest and catering to it.

THE LAW OF THE INSTRUMENT IS A BIGGER PROBLEM: This “law” is often attributed to Abraham Maslow and is best captured in the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As my colleague mentioned initially, his students tend to look at a situation, an incident or a project for some new or innovative ways to tell the story before eventually saying, “Screw it. Let’s just write it.”

There is nothing wrong with “just writing” anything, so long as writing it is the best solution to the problem. Unfortunately, even when that’s not the case, a lot of writers just go back to their favorite tool and use it to the best of their ability.

This isn’t a text-only problem. I remember co-teaching a “converged” class with a veteran broadcaster who thought every story could be told on TV. When I mentioned stories like budget analyses or data-driven pieces, he told me how he’d take video of someone tossing a budget on a table or use close-up shots on fingers turning pages. He was right that the story COULD be told via video, but it wasn’t the BEST way to tell that story.

We had a similar situation at Mizzou, when we hired a graphics expert and suddenly every story needed a box, a chart or some other visual cue. In one case, we wrote a story about an upcoming snowstorm and the graphics guy immediately chimed in with, “You need a box of safe driving tips with that!” My response: “Is this going to be anything more than what 75 other Missourian stories and common sense have told you about not driving like an asshole?” He got offended. The box ran. It was literally what I thought it would be.

The point is,  you can tell stories in alternative formats, but we often gravitate to the tool most familiar to us. We also tend to become enamored with a particular tool if it’s a shiny new toy that we want to take with us on every adventure.

The Axios format might be a great tool for telling certain, specific stories, but not others. I have seen students build amazing graphics that tell stories better than text. I’ve seen video do a job that audio could never do. I’ve also seen the exact opposite of all of these things.

In short, the key in getting the stories told better is to put more tools in the students’ tool boxes and then teaching them how and when to use each one to its optimum level.

YOU CAN’T PIVOT OUT OF CRAPPY CONTENT: The reason most of these things fail is because of the “garbage in, garbage out” truism that journalists don’t want to confront. If you aren’t covering things that matter to people, you can’t improve readership through repackaging those things in a new format.

While I was speaking to a college newsroom, a student asked me if I had any tips on how to make their meeting coverage better. When I asked what kinds of things were happening at those meetings that made them valuable, I got dead silence.

It seems that they covered the meetings because they always covered the meetings, regardless of what was going on at those meetings. My first bit of advice was to stop covering meetings unless they could determine that something important to the readers would be happening at them.

In other words, they could do their meeting coverage in Axios format, audio, video or virtual reality, but it wasn’t going to make people engage with the content.

When all is said and done, I hope the Axios approach does make a difference for the people deciding to make that move. My sense of the matter is, if the underlying stuff is good, the model will move the needle more than a bit. If not, it’ll be one more pivot that won’t get the job done.

Another lesson in how the First Amendment does and doesn’t work: The story of Oberlin College and a bakery accused of racism

(or a few other things, as Oberlin College discovered…)

As we have noted here numerous times, the First Amendment provides U.S. citizens with the right to free speech, not consequence-free speech. A recent appeals court decision in Ohio made that clear when it upheld a multi-million-dollar verdict against Oberlin College:

A private college in northern Ohio has lost its appeal after a lengthy court battle with the owners of a local bakery who accused the administration of perpetuating false allegations of racism against their business.

Now the college could be on the hook for $31 million.

A three-judge panel in Ohio’s 9th District Court of Appeals rejected Oberlin College’s arguments in a 50-page opinion published on Thursday, March 31. In doing so, the appeals court upheld a lower court decision that awarded Gibson’s Bakery $25 million in damages and $6 million in legal fees, the Associated Press reported.

This decision dates back to a 2016 incident in which a bakery employee accused three Black students from Oberlin of attempting to shoplift and use a fake ID. The students later pleaded guilty to various charges related to the incident, but before that, members of the college community protested what they felt to be racist and unfair treatment of the students.

During the protest, the school’s dean of students handed out a flyer that stated, in part: “This is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” In addition, the student government at Oberlin passed a resolution stating:

A Black student was chased and assaulted at Gibson’s after being accused of stealing. Several other students, attempting to prevent the assaulted student from receiving further injury, were arrested and held by the Oberlin Police Department. In the midst of all this, Gibson’s employees were never detained and were given preferential treatment by police officers.
Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike.

Oberlin argued that the protest and statements made at it were part of a free-speech exercise and thus protected by the First Amendment. The courts ruled that the students could protest all they wanted, but that’s not the point of the suit. This is where it might be helpful to break down what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do:

It does:

  • Prevent government interference that limits speech. In other words, had the protest been shut down by the cops or the city council, or prohibited from occurring in the first place, the First Amendment rights of the students would have been violated.
  • Allow people to express opinions without fear of governmental retaliation. Simply put, if I want to tell people I dislike the president, or that the food at a restaurant doesn’t thrill me, I have that right.

It does NOT:

  • Protect all forms of speech, including false, defamatory content. The courts have to decide, as they did in this case, to what degree something is stated as a fact or an opinion. “This weather sucks,” is a statement opinion. “The weather forecaster on Channel 3 is a pedophile,” is meant as a statement of fact, and carries with it potentially defamatory content, if untrue.
  • Protect people from consequences from their free-speech activities. If you engage in free speech, you can say whatever you want, but you are held to account for that speech. This is where defamation suits come into play. It’s also why I’m a raving psychotic about fact-checking and attributions in stories.

Oberlin argued the protest, flyer and resolution were opinions, thus protected by the First Amendment. What the court in this case found was that the flyer and the student government resolution were presented in a way that a reasonable person could construe them as being factual. That includes the allegations that an employee assaulted a kid, that the situation was racially motivated and that the bakery had a history of racial profiling/racism. If the school wants to win the case, it has to demonstrate fact-based proof that this stuff has happened.

Although the court didn’t cite the Ollman Test in this case, it still serves as a benchmark for how to determine if something is fact or opinion. Two of the four standards are pretty important here:

Can the statement be proven true or false?

In order for a libel suit to be successful, the plaintiff must demonstrate the material in question is false. If the material is pure opinion, it cannot be proven true or false and thus cannot be libelous. In this case, claims of assault, racism and a history of racial profiling all could be proven or disproved at some level. Oberlin didn’t make any real effort to try to make the case the content was true, the courts found.

What is the common meaning of the words?

Assault, racism and racial profiling all have definitions that could be determined and applied. We do have degrees of assault, but what do people think of when they hear someone was “assaulted?” Probably physical violence that leaves injuries. What about “racism?” That is clearly more wide-ranging and based on a variety of factors, but in holding to the “reasonable person” standard, the court has to make a call. Is failing to say “hello” to an unknown person of another race a reasonable standard? Probably not. Is burning a cross at the home of a person of color going to fit the bill? Heck yeah and then some. Thus, somewhere in the middle of that range is where reasonability is going to come to play and that’s where the court gets to say if the accusations fit the meaning.

In short, the school put itself in jeopardy by failing to fact-check a situation and not considering the ramifications of failing to do so.  The school says it might appeal, but I’d probably put my money on this case being upheld.

That’s just my opinion, based on the facts.

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

I’ve noticed a lot of weak lead-in copy lately among my students, as they seem to think the paraphrase is there to tell me that they’re going to tell me something in the next paragraph. I hit up a former broadcaster for a broadcast perspective, and she had also noticed a lot of “so and so had this to say” as lead-ins to soundbites.

Today’s throwback tries to push back against that terrible approach to copy with some suggestions for media writers across the board.

 

Writing 101: Don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me something. Just say it.

 

Zoe got pretty excited this weekend because her “favorite TV show” (whatever it is this particular week) was coming out with a second season. The first season, as shows like this one are wont to do, ended with a cliffhanger. The main character overheard her aunt and the school’s vice principal talking about the girl’s dead mother. She then walked out and said to the VP, “How did you know my mother?”

Cut to black, thanks for watching, see you next season (maybe).

This kind of teaser approach can work well in ongoing serial dramas, but it’s a lousy technique for media writing. Your readers want to know what’s going on right away and they don’t want to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” to find key information. Additionally, this approach is a waste of time and space for busy journalists who want to get their job done and move on to the next important story.

We have talked about burying the lead before, so that’s not something worth rehashing. Instead, let’s look at the body of stories for print and broadcast and see how this problem can manifest itself and what we can do to fix it.

PRINT:

In most print stories, we like to operate in paraphrase-quote structure, with the paraphrase introducing the quote and the quote delivering on the promises established in the paraphrase. In the book, we refer to this as the “diamond ring” approach, with the paraphrase serving as the setting and the quote serving as the jewel.

The problem is when your setting doesn’t do its job and instead just tells your readers that you’re going to tell them something:

Mayor Bill Jackson talked about his thoughts on giving firefighters a raise.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The paraphrase talks about the content that is upcoming, but all it really does is tell me that you’re going to tell me something. When you run into a jam like this, you have several options:

Cut the first line of the quote and retool it to make it part of the paraphrase.

Mayor Bill Jackson said although he supports firefighters and their needs, no one in the city is getting a raise this year.

“I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites,” he said.

Find additional valuable information to include in the paraphrase that can still allow the quote to stand on its own.

Mayor Bill Jackson said he has supported raises for firefighters in the past three budgets but he can’t do it this year because the budget won’t allow it.

“Nobody else in this city is getting a raise this year,” he said. “I know firefighters are incredible men and women, but with a budget this tight, it’s not fair to play favorites.”

The main goal is to tell your readers something of value in each and every sentence you provide. If you just tell them that you’re going to tell them something, you’re not doing that.

BROADCAST:

In television and web-based video packages, reporters have to find ways to introduce their soundbites, the broadcast equivalent of quotes, in a way that adds value to the story. These introductory statements are known as lead-ins.

One of more common failings of new broadcasters is to just tell people the soundbite is coming. Here’s some examples from the media-writing book:

Horrible lead-in: In responding to the budget crisis, University System President Nate Craft had this to say:

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Bad lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says a 20 percent loss in revenue would force campuses to cut faculty and staff positions.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

Better lead-in: University System President Nate Craft says the budget cuts the governor proposed would substantially weaken all of the campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

In each case you see improvement, although even these lead-in sentences would be a bit long for broadcast. If you feel they are overly long. You can always cut them in half:

Nate Craft is the university system president. He says the budget cuts would weaken campuses across the state.

“The loss of more than 20 percent of our revenue over the next biennium is more than our campuses can withstand without cutting faculty and staff positions.”

 

MISSING: Verbs and articles. If found, please return to area journalists…

At just the right time in the semester, a classic plea for improved writing showed up in one of my feeds. Journalism and educational expert Deborah Potter does a great job of explaining what is happening to broadcast copy and why we desperately need verbs in it.

Anyone watching television news these days could be forgiven for thinking they’ve accidentally tuned into a strange new game show called “Hide the Verb.” No matter how hard you try, it seems, you just can’t find one.

Remember verbs? They’re the action words that come between subjects and objects, telling what happened and when. Try locating one in this NBC Nightly News script: “Less resilient, local business. Dwight’s concession stand, in the family three generations. Sales this summer off 75 percent.” Not a verb in sight.

What is going on in TV newsrooms? It seems unlikely we’re victims of some vast anti-verb conspiracy that has recruited news writers from coast to coast. Instead, this new news-speak could actually be the result of a misguided attempt to improve broadcast writing by making it more active and immediate. The goal is laudable. The results are laughable.

It’s a great read that points to a real problem we’re seeing in writing. I’ve noticed a similar problem with my text-based students and their aversion to including articles in their sentences. To wit:

“Sturgeon man was injured during a fire at his home Friday.”

“Mayor says the bill will not be approved, despite city council’s efforts.”

I tended to blame a lot of this on texting, given that as more and more of my students spent more and more of their lives typing with their thumbs, I saw this sudden drop off of “A” and “The” and “An” in the sentences they wrote. However, in reading through Potter’s piece, it might just be more “headline-ese” creeping into common writing in an attempt to make things feel snappier.

In any case, I reached out to the educational hivemind I trust for a reality check on this to see if I was the only person noticing this. Clearly, I was not:

You are not alone. The dropping of articles is one of the banes of my existence. I consistently have to get after students in all of my classes, including the copy editing classes, where they ought to know better. I would add the 280-character limit of tweets as a culprit as well as texting.

Yes!! I am seeing it and correct it daily.
yup, I call it “Tweet Speak.”
Omg, I thought it was only me. I’ve come to the conclusion it is because they only read headlines, not leads. When did they stop teaching articles (a/an/the) are necessary to make a complete sentence?
Same here! I had a student tell me recently that proper grammar was a thing of the past, that the younger generation just doesn’t care about rules of writing.

Back when Twitter moved from 140 characters to 280, I argued against it, using my “Fat Pants Theory” of writing. After that ran, I heard back from folks who said, “Look, this will improve writing because we won’t have to shorten sentences or write in headline-speak to get the point across. Well, clearly that’s not the case here, as we find that no matter how much space Twitter gives some folks, they’re going to cut the corners on things that make content readable.

So here are a few hints and tips for ways to reach your students (and I mean the kind of reach that doesn’t involve an Oscar slap) as you explain why complete sentences matter:

AUDIENCE-CENTRICITY IS YOUR GOAL: That last comment in that hivemind list made my brain twitch for a couple reasons, not the least of which is this: You’re not writing for yourself.  You’re writing for your audience, many of whom might not be old enough to remember writing in cursive on coal slates, but are at least old enough to still operate in complete sentences. Those people will be expecting you to write in a functional fashion so that you can communicate to them effectively.

Also, grammar is not a fad. You can’t BS your way out of bad writing with comments like, “Ugh… Commas are so 1993….” When you make the decision that you’re going to change the rules of language because you don’t think they matter, what you’re saying is that you know better than everyone else out there and they should come around to your way of thinking. Not exactly audience-centric.

LET’S SAY IT ALOUD: One of the tricks I’ve used to get students to break the “verb-noun” habit they developed at some point in attribution writing is to have them say verb-noun sentences aloud. So, I’ll ask them, “What did you do today?” They answer with basic statements about eating breakfast, going for a run, coming to class and so forth. Then I say those things out loud to them in verb-noun format and have them repeat them:

  • Ate I my breakfast.
  • Six miles ran I.
  • Came to class I did.

Then we do the, “Does that sound like anything you would say? If not, stop doing ‘said Smith.’ If it is, you now must dress like Yoda for class, as you pretty much sound just like him…”

Have the students read these sentences aloud without the articles or verbs in them and see how they sound. When they start sound like “caveman speak,” to quote one of the other hivemind folks, they’ll start to realize how dumb this sounds. Like most things having to do with grammar, I could spend six hours explaining it in some long, complex way and they won’t get it. If I just have the students read something aloud, when their tongue feels like its falling down a flight of stairs, they realize there’s a problem.

KNOW THE RULES BEFORE YOU BREAK THEM: Some of the best writers I have ever read break a ton of grammar and style rules. The reason that they are great is that they know EXACTLY when to break EXACTLY which rule for EXACTLY what purpose. They know the rules like the back of their hand and thus can adhere to them effortlessly, until there’s a reason to zig when the rules zag.

Ignorance of a rule is not an excuse to break it, or at least that’s what the cop that pulled my wife over told us… In any case, knowing the rules is all about understanding why we do what we do and what it does for us as writers. You earn that right, as we’ve explained here before, by being awesome at the basics to the point where you know how and when to excuse yourself from their confines.

I have told my students not only what rules I expect them to follow rigorously, but also WHY those rules matter. I also explain that once they are no longer on “Filak Island,” they can do whatever the hell they want. Until then, the rules apply. In short, show me you know how to amaze me with the rules and then we’ll talk. Otherwise, knock it off.

DEMONSTRATE DISTINCTIONS: As noted earlier, the “WHY” aspect of teaching is usually the one that sticks the best. Telling students, “It’s a rule, so follow it,” has the same feel as when their parents answer a question with, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!”

So, look at a couple examples where distinctions matter like this:

Sheriff’s deputy resigned amid allegations of extortion.

So we’re missing the article on this one. Why does it matter? Well if it’s “A” sheriff’s deputy, this might be a bad situation, but it wouldn’t necessarily undermine the department’s ability to function. If it’s “THE” sheriff’s deputy, you have cut the county’s law enforcement in half. Also, if you had half of the department extorting people, this could be terrifying for everyone in the county, as they had almost nowhere to turn for help.

For a verb example, let’s borrow a fragment from Potter’s piece:

Sales this summer off 75 percent.

Think about how a verb can change the context of this:

Sales this summer “ARE” off 75 percent or Sales this summer “WERE” off 75 percent. In the first version, there’s hope that sales could rebound, while the second example says we’re done and we have no hope.

  • “Sales this summer REMAIN off 75 percent.” (Things were bad and continue to be so.)
  • “Sales this summer FELL off by 75 percent.” (Things suddenly took a turn for the worse.)
  • “Sales this summer EXPECTED TO FALL off by 75 percent. (Prediction for bad stuff.)

And on and on we can go. The point is, our job is to inform people to the best of our ability. Skipping words to sound cooler (or younger, apparently) might seem like a good idea, but if it costs us the ability to connect with the readers, we’ve failed.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: “Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.” A few thoughts on how to deal with corrections.

I had to give one of my best reporting students a failing grade on her midterm, and it killed me to do it.

It was a phenomenal job of reporting and writing, as she conquered “The Midterm from Hell” better than anyone has in a long time. She could have survived a few minor mistakes I found, but then she had a fact error, a misspelled proper noun. That did enough damage to sink her.

I went to talk to her about it and she had no complaints. “That’s on me,” she said. “I just copied and pasted the quote from the email and never thought to look up how to spell the names.”

“Next time, I’ll know better.”

I have to admit, that was a more enlightened view of things than I would have taken at age 19, but it is what I’ve been trying to teach students for the past several decades: The grades don’t matter, but what you learn based on what leads to those grades does.

In honor of that, here’s a throwback Thursday post on learning to forget the mistake but to remember the lesson you learned from it.

“Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.” A few thoughts on how to deal with corrections.

Of all the things you will write over the course of your career, nothing feels worse than writing a correction. Essentially, corrections tell the world, “Hey, remember that thing I told you yesterday that I was so proud I managed to find out and share with everyone? Yeah, I screwed up…” Corrections run the gamut from the amusing ones, like this correction on a drag queen’s presence at an event as well as her act:

PeachesChrist

…to the geeky ones like this look at a quote from “The Simpsons:”

Simpsons

…to the downright embarrassing:

Hooker
(It might just be what the kids are calling it these days… “Hey, you gonna go home or should we um… y’know… fail to stop at a railroad crossing…”)

Perhaps there is nothing worse than having to correct a correction, which happened at one of the papers where I worked. We misspelled the name of the Carrerra soccer club, first by using only one “R” in one of the double-R pairings and then we screwed up the correction by using only one “R” in the other one. When we asked the managing editor if we should run another correction, he told us, “No, you’ve done quite enough damage already.”

Corrections can be painful but they’re worth doing. My worst one involved a guy we thought was dead but turned out not to be, even though he was still teetering on death’s door. The question became: “OK, so we said this guy died yesterday, but he didn’t. What happens if he dies now? How do we write that correction?” Eeesh. The guy lived past press time, so we were at least saved the pain of trying to work through that one, but it still stung.

One of my other problems with corrections (and I’ve been told I’m not alone on this), is the issue of “correction contagion” in my work. I had a handful of corrections at each stop I made as a journalist, but they tended to “bunch up” on me. Thus, after I made my first error and fixed it, I’d be so myopic about not making THAT mistake again, I would make four other stupid mistakes. Fortunately, I had great editors who saved me most of the time, but when they couldn’t hold back my wave of stupidity properly, I ended up with another correction or two in short order.

So, how do you deal with the corrections as a writer? To figure out how to write a solid correction, give the book a read. As for how to mentally deal with this blow to your ego and skill set, that’s a bit tougher.

I found a good piece of advice on one of those chatty billboards outside of an area business or church or something as I was driving around recently:

“Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.”

In other words, don’t obsess about the stupid thing you did, but rather how you came to make that stupid mistake in the first place. Was it a case of thinking you knew something so you failed to check on it? Was it something where you forgot to check back on an evolving situation? Was it time where you didn’t have a lot of time to recheck a fact? Was it that you didn’t stop and think before completing your work? Whatever the underlying factors were for that error, consider those to be the lessons to take with you so you can avoid making that mistake again.

Then, let the mistake go or just let it serve as a reminder of the lesson.

A modest proposal for fixing the UW-Oshkosh’s policy regarding source restriction when it comes to student media outlets

If you have been following the story of UW-Oshkosh and how its University Marketing and Communications department has forced student journalists to route all interview requests through its staff, the story continues later today. Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, Editor-In-Chief Cory Sparks, UW-Oshkosh’s head of marketing and communications Peggy Breister and several other interested parties are meeting this morning to discuss this situation and try to figure out how best to move forward. If hear how that meeting turns out, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

If you haven’t been following this saga over the past couple days, you’ll want to start here, with the post in which  Breister, outlines how her department deals with student media. Breister was responding to a report from FIRE that said UMC was forcing students to go through her office for ALL interview requests to UWO personnel.

Breister denied that the school had a policy like that or that she ever vetted any questions from the student newspaper, The Advance-Titan, before they were given to potential sources.

The next post, linked here, shows that Breister lied about both of those things and that former staffers were willing to go on the record to detail how stringently Breister and her department tried to control information at UWO.

If you have the inclination, you can help with this situation by reaching out to the following people:

This is Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. He’s the head of UWO and a really all-around decent guy.

He prizes student press freedom and he was exceptionally helpful to me when I was advising the paper. I also know that he’s listening to people, as several folks have emailed him already and told me he was nice enough to respond to them.

His email is: leavitt@uwosh.edu

Please feel free to email him and explain to him why the approach UMC is taking here is problematic to you. Also, feel free to explain what you think the “best practices” should be for the relationship between UMC and student and/or all media.

 

This is Peggy Breister. She is the head of UMC at UWO and the person who wrote the emails I screen-shotted above.

Her email is: breistep@uwosh.edu

Please feel free to email her your thoughts about her approach to UMC, student media and other similar topics. Also, if you are displeased by her actions regarding the Advance-Titan, please feel free to respectfully explain how you think things should be handled in the future.

 

 

This is Cory Sparks. He is the current editor of the Advance-Titan and, in the interest of full disclosure, one of my students.

I’ve done my best to keep him out of the danger zone on any stupid thing I write on the blog and not ask him to comment on any of this, lest there be questions about entangling alliances.

That said, he and the A-T crew have been dealing with a lot of garbage these days because of this situation, so please feel free to email the kids at: atitan@uwosh.edu

Please let them know you’re supportive of their rights and that you are behind them.

In the mean time, I’m going to offer an unsolicited proposal for how best to make the UMC/A-T situation work so that both sides can get some work done and peacefully coexist.

Let’s start on the UMC side:

OPEN THE GATE, STOP THE GATEKEEPING: The first crucial thing to do is to unbottleneck the portal of information on the campus by eliminating UMC as a “must-stop shop” for all sources. Journalists, as noted in the earlier posts and basically every introductory reporting text ever written, work hard to build trust with sources and to create relationships with them. This whole approach of gatekeeping that provides only the sources UMC wants with ONLY the questions they vet in ONLY the timeline they see fit doesn’t jibe with the free and unfettered press elements of our Constitutional rights.

UMC can start by basically saying to the A-T, and any other journalist who wants to hear it, “You do you. If you want to go find sources on your own, contact people via whatever methods work for you both and work the field like the professionals you are, that’s cool by us. Go get ’em.” That’ll be a good first step to establishing trust and transparency.

 

OFFER SERVICES ON BOTH ENDS: The true goal of public relations practitioners is to facilitate relationships. That’s where the UMC should both start and stop, if the folks there want to be really successful. This means that the UMC folks should be there when a journalist needs an expert in the stock market or the situation in Ukraine or the history of UWO. When a journalist needs help, UMC has the ability to be an excellent matchmaker.

The same is true when sources want their stories told. Pitching stories to outside media outlets or developing content for publication on the university’s website can draw a lot of good attention for the students, faculty, staff and other folk at the university. That’s a great use of time, energy and skills to make UWO shine. Just knowing what some of my intro reporting kids are finding on the campus has given me some great insights as to some really cool things happening here that I’m sure folks would like to report in their media outlets.

 

PROVIDE TRAINING FOR POTENTIAL SOURCES: Here are two things I’ve heard from some weak UMC folks over the years as rationale behind their desire to control information or limit sources:

  1. “If we let journalists wander around on campus, they might report on things that make the university look bad.”
  2. “If we let anyone talk to journalists, who knows what those people will say?”

OK, well, for the first one, if you don’t want people to report things that make the university look bad, maybe fix the stuff that’s out there you fear people finding out about. This approach is akin to me locking the basement door because I’m afraid we’ll discover mold down there. The mold is either there or not, but it sure as hell isn’t going away just because we don’t see it.

Second, if you are really worried that people will have awkward conversations with journalists, try to help them feel more comfortable about talking to journalists. Again, avoiding something doesn’t tend to make things better.

Have a program with some professional folks (read: like our PR faculty) and give the UWO community the opportunity to get used to talking to other people about what’s going on. It’s not about keeping a lid on anything but about making it so these people are not putting everyone into a jam if they talk about stuff they don’t know about, get worried about saying the wrong thing (which usually leads to saying the wrong thing) or getting fired for talking to the press. The goal here is education so the right people can talk to reporters and deliver the most accurate message possible for the audience of the media outlets.

 

TAKE THE STAFF OFF THE LEASH: A couple things that bothered me in the emails I posted yesterday and in the conversations I had with former staffers was the idea that only a few people were strategically allowed to talk to the A-T on any given story. The folks who work, serve and learn here should all have the right to speak as they see fit. Of course, if they’re told “Don’t talk to the media,” they’re going to fear what could happen to them, even without an explicit penalty or threat.

(When my father or mother said, “Do something-or-other OR ELSE!” I was at least smart enough to know I didn’t want to know what the “or else” was. I have a feeling that’s where a lot of folks find themselves on this campus when told not to talk to the student journalists.)

Make a blanket statement to the campus community that they are free to talk to whomever they want without a papal blessing from UMC. If they choose to do so, there will be no harm and no foul that will befall them.  If they feel uncomfortable about doing so, they can either get some advice from UMC, training through that future training program proposed above or beg off without concern. It’s their choice.

If the chancellor, the provost, the police chief or other “top dog” folk who are constantly running from pillar to post need UMC to help play matchmaker, that’s something that could be easily established and would make sense if need be. However, eliminate the blanket policy of nobody gets to talk to anybody without UMC’s say-so.

 

LEARN WHAT HILLS YOU ACTUALLY ARE WILLING TO DIE ON: The emails and the stories tell me that UMC personnel had no compunction about complaining vociferously about stories, headlines and other such things. Anyone has the right to complain about anything, really, as that’s also part of the free expression approach we are pushing on this blog.

That said, learn to let a few things go. Good grief, this is worse than when my mother-in-law was arguing with me over the importance of salted butter.

If there are true fact errors (The paper spells the chancellor’s name wrong, a professor is said to be “murdered” instead of “honored,” etc.), absolutely feel free to reach out with a “Hey, I just saw this and you might want to fix it.” Explain that you have no say over content whatsoever (because the law dictates that you have no say over content whatsoever) but that you wanted to let people know what’s up.

If it’s more nuanced, debatable, limited in scope or otherwise not that damned important, it’s worth understanding that every hill isn’t worth dying on. The more you complain about every little thing, the less likely people are to listen to you at all.

 

Let’s look at the A-T side:

ACCEPT THE RESPONSIBILITY: Perhaps one of the best experiences I ever had was when we took a group of student journalists to the Minnesota Twins game as part of a media convention. They were given a daily press pass and told by the PR staff there: “Batting practice starts at 4. You’re just like every other journalist here. Act accordingly.”

In a few cases, the students screwed up here and there with protocol and such, but for the most part, they made a reasonably good accounting of themselves. That’s what happens when you get responsibility and take it seriously, something I know the A-T staff (and every other student-media staff I’ve hung around with) understands.

Still, few things were more upsetting to my editors and fellow advisers over the years than when a staffer tripped over their own ego and fell on their ass, embarrassing the rest of us along with them. Editors realized that the more freedom they had to go get stuff, the more they had to be careful in training and reporter selection. Not every Johnny or Janie Freshman with an attitude and two clips from the Beaver County High School Tidbit could be sent to interview the chancellor or cover a shooting.

Knowing what I know about the A-T folks I’ve met, they know this and are more than capable of establishing this as a credo in the newsroom.

 

WORK WITH UMC: Working “with” someone means that there is shared understanding of goals, roles and equality. It’s two professionals, making a go of a relationship. This is what PR is all about and it’s what we teach here in the department.

When I worked cops and courts, I often met with a public information officer. We’d chat about things he thought were interesting and I’d ask questions about stories I had upcoming. If I needed something, I knew I could trust that person because we had a relationship that didn’t so much mirror the one in “Mommie Dearest.” I also worked with PIOs at the sheriff’s office, fire department and more in this same way.

The relationship between the paper and the PIOs wasn’t adversarial. It wasn’t a case of “us versus them.” It was the idea that, for the most part, we pretty much could agree that we wanted accurate information getting to the public in a way that was relevant, useful and interesting. Sure, we occasionally disagreed on how that was all supposed to work, but that’s what often happens in a relationship, so we worked it out.

 

ESTABLISH GROUND RULES: The key to working with UMC comes down understanding what the ground rules each side expects the other to play by. That’s a conversation the paper needs to start so there is no confusion about how this relationship is going to function.

One PR person at another university told me she would always answer my questions accurately and honestly. Then, she flat-out lied to me and when I caught her lying to me, her response was, “Well, in that situation, I decided it wasn’t something you should know.” That has the same internal logic as Amy telling me she’s never going to cheat on me and when I catch her in the act, she tells me, “Well, we’ve never had a pool boy before…”

Another person told me, “I’ll never lie to you, but I’m not going to tell you everything, either. That said, if you ask the right questions, I’ll always answer them honestly.” In other words, he wasn’t going to come out and tell me, “Hey, did you know the provost is running an ultimate bum-shock fight club in the basement of Academic Hall with homeless guys each weekend?” That said, if I knew enough of what was going on to ask him about that situation, he was going to tell me that it was happening. I got used to that.

The point is, you need to know how honest someone is going to be with you, and if what I’ve seen over the past couple days is an indication of where we stand, there’s going to need to be some serious bridge building on the UMC side of things. At this point, if Breister walked in to my office drenched to the bone and told me it was raining outside, I’d probably call at least six people and take a walk outdoors myself before believing it.


I have no idea if any of this helps, but I can’t imagine implementing any of it would make things any worse at this point.

In any case, we’re all pulling for you folks to get this thing done well. Have a great meeting.