Of Mushrooms and Mistaken Identity: 3 key takeaways from two really awkward corrections

We have talked about errors and corrections at length on the blog, but two of them this week really had me stop and think about where we are as a society and a discipline.

The first correction appears benign at first, as all it does is clarify the anatomy of a fictional character in Nintendo’s “Mario” universe:

ToadCorrex

This correction, however, reveals a much darker story, much like when the co-ed in the horror film notices that the lights in the house won’t work and the floor is suddenly wet. (Yes, the killer cut the power and you’re standing in a pool of Troy’s blood, Buffy. Run, dammit!)

In this case, it was an excerpt from Stormy Daniels’ new book, in which she described her sexual encounter with President Donald Trump:

“I lay there,” she wrote, “annoyed that I was getting (EXPLETIVE DELETED) by a guy with Yeti pubes and a dick like the mushroom character in Mario Kart.”

Daniels was likely referring to Toad, the mushroom-headed character from Nintendo’s Mario series.

As the headline of the original article suggests, you may want to wash your eyes out with bleach. You also might have a difficult time ever playing “Mario Kart” again.

The second correction was as horrific as the first, but for a completely different reason. Christine Ford came forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers. Ford first provided her story anonymously, but more recently made her name public in regard to this situation.

The question of “Who is Christine Ford?” became fodder for many news outlets and websites, each of which attempted to gain an edge in giving readers something out of the ordinary about her. The website Grabien, which touts itself as providing “powerful tools for the next era of news” dug deep into Ford’s teaching background to reveal that students apparently really hated Ford:

Brett Kavanaugh’s formerly anonymous accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has come forward. She’s a professor in the Social Work Department at California State University-Fullerton. Many interested in learning more about who Ford is have come across her students’ reviews on RateMyProfessor.com.

They’re… not good.

Something else isn’t good here, namely the research the reporter on this story conducted. For starters, Ford is professionally known as Christine Blasey, not Christine Ford, as was the name listed on the RMP board associated with this story. Second, she doesn’t teach at Cal State Fullerton, but rather she holds an appointment at Palo Alto University while also serving as a member of a consortium at Stanford. Third, she’s a professor and researcher in the field of clinical psychology, not social work. Fourth, the correction that the publication ran pretty much makes all of this look a lot worse than the previous three points:

Editor’s Note: We apologize for the error, but we’ve since learned there are two Christine Fords working in clinical psychology in California and we wrote this report about the wrong Christine Ford. We regret not going to greater lengths to ensure this was indeed the same Christine Ford. Please do not share this article with anyone (and if you have, delete it/withdraw it); we are only leaving the page up so you can see this important update.

In other words, we just ended up accusing the woman who plans to testify against a potential Supreme Court justice of being incompetent, unusually cruel to students and mentally unstable based on a set of anonymous student accusations against the WRONG PERSON. Um… Whooops?

Here are a few takeaways from these corrections, in no particular order:

Not every source is equally valid: We used to post signs around the newsroom that “Wiki-ANYTHING is not a source.” The rationale at the time (and probably still now) was that if anyone can provide content without being forced to demonstrate expertise or adhere to a certain level of professionalism, how could we rely on the material as being factual? Case in point, here is a screen shot of information about Cape Town’s highest point, according to Wikipedia a few years back:

CapeTownVagina

In the case of Grabien, it pitches itself as being at the forefront of the new era of news, but if you look into its “About Us” page, it is basically a loosely controlled flea market for news:

Grabien content is generated from a decentralized network of contributors. To ensure the highest editorial standards are met, Grabien staffers only permit content that comports to the site’s rules and style guide.

Whenever clips are purchased, the uploader receives a commission, up to 50 percent of that sale. Users receive 500 free coins upon creating an account to get accustomed to the site; these “promo” coins do not credit the uploaders’ accounts.

Much like other sites that run a cash-for-clicks approach, the more sensational the story, the more clicks you get. Also, it’s unclear what the overall vetting process is for the people submitting content or the stories themselves. I would ask the writer of this story what he or she went through in terms of an edit, but the piece contains no byline that I can find.

Also, this concept applies to the RateMyProfessors.com site, in that there is no actual vetting of what students have to say. Professors can file a protest if they feel a student is out of control or has actually engaged in libel (e.g. “Prof. Filak stabbed a student to death in front of my J-101 class just to watch him die.”), but for the most part these things go unchallenged. Here’s one of mine:

RMF

I have no idea what the heck this person was talking about regarding papers due the “VERY NEXT DAY,” although the use of all caps there makes it clear he or she is serious. I do agree that I’m not cool. The rest? Meh… I’m also not sure about what makes for a positive review, in that people for a while were getting great reviews for having no homework or letting students go early. Also, how much faith do you want to place in an academic website rating system that included the chili-pepper emoji to rate the “hotness” of your professor? Of all the things I never got in life, I was never more grateful to be without a pepper. Just… eeeew…

 

People actively involved in a topic take it seriously: In the first edition of the media writing book, I interviewed Meghan Plummer, who worked at the Experimental Aircraft Association as a publications editor. She told me that being careful with facts and details was of the utmost importance in her area because so many of her readers were passionate airplane enthusiasts for whom details mattered. Thus, if you had the wrong top speed of a plane or the horsepower of an engine, people were upset. Even when people agree on things like what sailplanes and gliders are, there’s still argumentation over distinction.

The Toad situation initially had me pondering if people were arguing over the concept of a tree while ignoring the fact they were in a forest (a giant, flaming horrifying forest, at that). However, for the fans of Nintendo who were inadvertently dragged into this horrible description, the argumentation of “hat vs. head” went deep into the night as they cited sources and debated the true “canon” of Toad. It might seem stupid and beside the point to you, but it matters to your readers, which means it REALLY should matter to you.

Every person has a distinction that matters to him or her. You might find it acceptable to refer to military personnel as “soldiers,” but you would have some serious arguments from people in the Marines, Air Force and Navy. You might think it’s fine to say someone lives in “Chicago,” but my wife is going to debate the hell out of that if the person lives in a suburb like Wilmette. I will debate for hours with anyone the idea that “Rio Bravo” is a Western, in that it’s a Howard Hawkes film that has additional elements that surpass the simple “Western” genre.

Long story short, pay attention to the details because your readers will.

 

Fact-check the heck out of everything, especially stories that have real risks: As amped up as people got about the “hat vs. head” argument in the Trump story, nothing bad really happened to Toad as a result of this. He’s not losing money because he’s now shunned from the “Mario Kart” franchise or devastated by the news that “it’s not a hat!”

Ford, on the other hand, has some serious ground for declaring defamation and demonstrating negative consequences. (I’m not getting into the “would she win?” argument here because a) I’m not a lawyer, b) there’s that whole “public/private actual malice/negligence” issue and c) that’s not the point I’m making here.) Someone with the same name got some really lousy reviews and had her mental state questioned. Suddenly, that’s a knock on Ford as she goes into the crucible of public dissection of her life because a reporter did a “RateMyProfessors.com” search and figured, “What are the odds that two people with the same name would ever teach in this tiny hamlet known as California? Let’s run this sucker!”

The information available about both of these women made it almost painfully clear that they weren’t the same person: wrong field, wrong college, wrong professional name… And yet, this story still found its way into the public.

A good rule of thumb is if your story runs the risk of defaming someone, put a little more fact checking effort than the average blowhard spinning tales at the bar after his fifth brandy old fashioned.

 

 

 

GAME TIME! See how well you know your First Amendment rights on this Constitution Day.

Today is Constitution Day, which commemorates the day in 1787 that the Founding Fathers last met to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on the Constitution. The holiday itself evolved into its current status after several iterations, such as “I am an American Day” and “Citizenship Day.”

In 2004, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia urged his colleagues to support the inclusion of an amendment to an omnibus spending bill that would change the name of the day to the Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. The amendment required that the head of every federal agency provide employees with educational material pertaining to the Constitution on that day. It also stated that each educational institution that gets federal funding should provide programming regarding the Constitution on the holiday.

Given the importance of the First Amendment to the Constitution to media folks, it’s worth asking: How well do you know what freedoms and protections the First Amendment provides? The Student Press Law Center gives you a way to find out with this handy 10-minute quiz. The 30 questions here cover a wide array of topics and scenarios.

Sure, it would be great to get all of them right, but that’s not the only thing that matters here. The better you understand your rights and WHY they are protected, the more easily you can stand up for yourself as a media practitioner and a citizen.

Click here to give the quiz a try.

Sick toddlers and drunk college students unite! (Why Pedialyte’s marketing shift worked and what you can learn from the company’s approach.)

The first time I heard the word “Pedialyte,” my wife was yelling it at me.

Our daughter was less than a year old and had consumed some formula that wasn’t agreeing with her. She had started vomiting, even though she didn’t have the vomit reflex yet. Her whole head would turn red and then she’d expel some of the semi-digested crud and look up at us like, “What did you do to me?”

Amy was worried Zoe would get dehydrated and thus fall into some series of other horrifying illnesses. (We were first-time parents, so everything freaked us out. Our friends with seven kids were like, “Let her barf a bit. She’ll learn…”) Thus, I was dispatched to the closest store to get Pedialyte.

“What is this stuff?” I asked, as I struggled to understand her over the screaming child rolling about on her blanket.

“PEDIALYTE! For GOD’S SAKE. It’s (expletive) PEDIALYTE!” she screamed over the noise machine that was our child.

At first, I couldn’t find it, as I wandered around like the clueless dad I was. Still, I wasn’t leaving without “(expletive) Pedialyte,” lest I end up buried in a shallow grave in my backyard that night.

Fear of death and vomit are inspirational.

I eventually found the stuff and got home and the kid started to normalize. As she got older, Pedialyte became less important to us around the house. I would only see it in parenting magazine ads or during daytime TV shows, hawked as essentially kiddie Gatorade. The marketers had a great niche product that sold a simple idea to a key demographic: Parents who were freaked out about their vomit-plagued kids becoming brain-dead raisins.

That’s why I was amazed when I saw this article on how Pedialyte has shifted market focus to draw in a whole new generation of users: Vomit-plagued older kids, who would likely drink toxic waste if you told them it would cure a hangover.

The article notes that about three years ago, Pedialyte began targeting the “hangover market,” pitching itself as a cure for dehydration that could provide relief for those who over-imbibe. In the years before that, the “Pedialyte cure” had been passed along by word of mouth in colleges and universities across the country, so the company decided to embrace it with marketing. The company’s Twitter feed and other social media outlets focus on this premise, with images of college-aged people guzzling the beverage and tweets that respond to people asking for hangover help. It incorporated the hashtag of #notjustforbabies to brand itself as being useful for these situations.

I asked my 8 a.m. class, which usually looks like extras on “The Walking Dead,” if they ever heard of Pedialyte and at least four people woke up long enough to tell me, “Oh, yeah! That’s the hangover cure stuff!”

And it works on vomiting infants, too!

Consider the following points to help you understand why this worked for Pedialyte, when so many other shifts like this fail:

The market expansion didn’t cost the company its initial market. On far too many occasions, a company will go after a different demographic or take a different approach to grab new users in a way that undermines or degrades it original audience. When a company decides to market to a younger audience to tap the youth market, it can lose older audience members, who feel left out or abandoned.

In this case, the Pedialyte people managed to tap another demographic (hungover college-aged students/drinkers of alcoholic beverages who need hangover relief) without losing the people who initially used the product (parents of dehydrating infants and toddlers). The markets are not mutually exclusive, nor would marketing to one group make the other group uneasy. It’s not like a baby-formula manufacturer marketing its product as “the best formula for helping drug lords cut their cocaine!

 

The new pitch doesn’t force an identity change. Pedialyte still does what it says it does: It rehydrates people. It’s not trying to market itself now in an off-label way, like telling people they can use it to scrub rust off a car muffler or something. The identity remains the same and thus all of the characteristics and benefits of the product still apply in the marketing material. If you boil down the pitch for Pedialyte, you can simply say, “Drink this stuff because it stops you from feeling yucky when you’re dehydrated.” That’s true for infants who contracted a “tummy bug” and college students who “swear tequila never messes me up like this.”

 

The tone/feel for each marketing approach matches the vibe of the audience. Here is an advertisement that Pedialyte runs to target parents:

PedialyteKids

See what you have here in terms of tone and feel: Caring parent, cute kid, doctor’s recommendation, easy to use and fun flavors. It also reflects a softness with the colors, the background, the imagery and more.

Now look at the one for adults:

PedialyteHangover

A half-naked college-age guy who just woke up, clearly in pain and blinded by the light of his refrigerator. The fridge is a mess of random stuff with the only color coming from the Pedialyte bottle. The images are starker, the color scheme is darker and the fonts are more utilitarian. Even though the characteristics of the product are the same (rehydration), the benefits described are different than those outlined in those in the parenting ad (kids= easy to use, less sugar, fixes the kids after they get diarrhea; adults= stop the head pounding, fix the dry mouth, defeat the hangover).

Each piece works because it acknowledges its audience, targets the people in it and then makes a reader-appropriate pitch. The parents feel safer that they aren’t giving their kids something sugary or with too much extra non-essential stuff in it. They feel comforted that it’s the number one pediatrician-approved drink. It provides reassurances for them that they are doing a good, safe, effective thing for their children. For the hangover crowd, it’s not about doctor approval or the active ingredients that make parents feel secure in their choices. The ad essentially says, “Well, you got really messed up last night. Here’s something that will stop you from feeling like you were run over by a bus.”

 

 

 

Can you spot the deceptive post? The NYT gives you a pop quiz on Facebook fakers.

Spotting fake stories, parody Twitter accounts and other similar landmines out there can be tough. In previous posts, we gave you a look at a fake news quiz and some examples of Twitter trolls that led to some awkward media moments. To help you with deceptive social media posts, consider this great interactive graphic from the New York Times that will help you test your BS detector.

The Times developed this piece that both gives you the posts to examine and then explains why you were right or wrong. In addition, the authors outline the history of the people behind the posts and what has happened to them.

Click here and give it a try.

5 simple things Bob Woodward does in his interviewing that you can do, too

Few hard and fast rules exist in journalism, but one I would bet the house on is this: If Bob Woodward says something works, it probably does.

Woodward first came to national prominence in 1972 when he and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein dug deep into the Watergate scandal. Historians and journalists largely attribute much of President Richard Nixon’s downfall to the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.

(Here’s a neat fact: Woodward only had about two years of professional journalism experience when he caught this story of a lifetime, working first at the Montgomery Sentinel before getting a job at the Post in 1971.)

In 40-plus years that followed, Woodward became the consummate political reporter, digging into daily work and writing books that profiled presidents. He was the standard for all other reporters, even as his name became less of a cultural touchstone for younger generations.

Woodward is back in the news these days for his book, “Fear,” which looks at the presidency of Donald Trump. As Post releases excerpts of it, Woodward is making the talk-show rounds to talk about his book and his experiences writing it. Last night, he sat down with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” to talk about what he found and how he found it.

 

Normally, these interviews between authors and talk-show hosts center on humorous anecdotes, some vapid chatter and a hard plug for the book. Woodward, however, gave all of us a beautiful look at how he goes about his job, especially when it comes to conducting interviews. Within his conversation with Colbert, Woodward provided beginning journalists with at least five solid interviewing tips that anyone can use:

Conduct deep research on your interviewee: One of the tenets outlined in both textbooks is to research your subject before you interview him or her. The idea of entering an interview without a full grasp of who the person is and what that person might have to say should scare the heck out of you as an interviewer. Woodward explains that he researches his subjects so well that he can even surprise them with information he found:

“Let’s say your an assistant secretary of defense and I come to interview you… and I say, ‘Oh, you wrote this article in 1986,’ and you’re going to think, ‘Oh, only my mother read that article!’ … You don’t just Google them.”

His point was that the more you know, the more you feel like you are ready to do the job and the more your source will respect you. If you walk in looking like a kid who lost his mom at Walmart, you’re not going to get very far.

 

Enter the lion’s den: One of the biggest mistakes young journalists make in conducting interviews is to avoid contact with the sources. Text interviews, email interviews and phone interviews have replaced the face-to-face encounter. Woodward talked about how he would go to his sources’ homes and knock on their door, even when he felt uneasy about the potential outcome:

“I remember going to one general’s house, and he opened the door. We didn’t have an appointment. I was afraid I might get shot and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you still doing this (expletive)?’

Woodward hits on three key things there:

  1. He went to conduct a face-to-face interview. Eventually the general let Woodward in and they talked, but if he had called or emailed the general, he could have much more easily ignored Woodward. If you are present, it’s hard to ignore you.
  2. He went into the lion’s den. Many beginning journalists will attempt to meet a source at a neutral location, such as a coffee shop or a restaurant. Even worse, the writer might ask the source to come to the newsroom. If you are willing to go where the source is, you show strength and conviction. You also put the source in a familiar environment where he or she will feel more comfortable and thus will be more likely to be open to speaking.
  3. He was afraid. Bob Woodward is 75 years old, has written 19 books, covered every president from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, was instrumental in bringing down Nixon’s White House, contributed to two Pulitzer-winning journalistic efforts and won nearly every conceivable journalism award available. Still, he was afraid when he went knocked on the general’s door. He didn’t hide it or bluster past it in the Colbert interview. He was honest. Fear (the emotion, not the book) happens, and if it can happen to a journalist like this, it’s perfectly acceptable that it would happen to a college-age, cub reporter. You need to do what he did: Accept the fear and push past it to get the story you want.

 

Silence is golden: I always tell students that silence is a vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum. When both the interviewer and the subject are silent, it gets awkward and there exists a desperate need to break that silence. You need to use silence to your advantage in an interview by staying quiet once a source completes an answer or offers only a little information at first.

The longer the quiet lingers, the more likely your source is going to want to jump in and add something. I never knew what Woodward explained was the source of this “silence as a tool” approach to interviewing:

“In the CIA they teach people let the silence suck out the truth, so just be quiet and people want to talk.”

If you can feel confident enough to let the silence do the heavy lifting for you, the source will usually come around a bit and give you a little more than you got at first.

 

Explain why the source matters: Woodward explains his ability to get people to talk comes from his ability to help them understand why they matter to him. In many cases, sources will view themselves as inconsequential or having “nothing really to say.” Thus, they turn down interviews, seeing no benefit in putting themselves in a position where they can see nothing good coming from talking to the journalist. Woodward noted that he never tells people that he’s going to write the story anyway, so they might as well talk. Instead, he tries to show how he’s taking them seriously and how they matter to his work.

As a writer, you will run into sources who feel like they are way too important to waste time talking to you. On the other hand, you will run into people who think they have nothing to contribute. Neither extreme is true, so a big part of trying to get sources to talk to you is to have them see why you chose them for an interview and what it is you think they can contribute to the bigger picture.

 

Get documents and support: The sheer volume of people who have lied to Bob Woodward throughout his career must be large enough to populate the state of New Jersey at this point. In addition, I’m guessing more than a few people remembered things inaccurately or got confused while sharing information with him. To that extent, the ability to find documents and notes matters a great deal to him and it should matter to you as a writer:

“What you want to do is say do you have any documents or notes… and they say no, no and about the third visit, they say, ‘Oh yeah maybe I have something upstairs,’ and then they come down with three boxes of documents. And documents and notes make it authentic.”

People have an uncanny ability to shift reality while documents codify what really happened. If you can get notes people took at the time or documents that support their memories, you can write a much better piece. In addition, you can use that data to question other sources later from a much stronger position.

Woodward also noted that he often has to go back multiple times to get the goods from people who might have been initially reticent to share things. Although he said daily reporters often can’t do the “ninth interview” with a source, nothing says that reporters can’t go back at least one more time. A “no” now might become a “sure, why not?” later.

Guest Blogging: Knowing your audience matters in each area of media, and it will matter a great deal

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Kelli Bloomquist, an adjunct instructor at Drake University and Iowa State University. She is a 22-year journalist and freelance digital media specialist. She also owns the Dayton Review newspaper which has served the rural farming community of Dayton, Iowa for nearly 140 years. Her post today looks at how failure to know about your audience can have some painful consequences for everyone involved. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

As journalism professors, we harp in almost every unit of every single class about knowing your audience and how to target the people in it. It’s of the utmost importance, despite some of the glazed over looks that I’ve seen recently during 8 a.m. classes when I’ve been lecturing on the subject.

The fact of the matter is simple, if you don’t know the intricacies of your audience, you know nothing about your product or the job expected of you. Audience analytics are simple to find thanks to digital media outlets who have provided access to this information in various shapes and forms. Organizations and employees that don’t take advantage of this information are doing a disservice not just to themselves, but to their professional targets and goals too.

While I do harp on the subject, I have few personal examples that are so gregarious that they’re shocking in tone and act. That is, until this past week.

My family and I live on the farm that my husband’s great-grandfather built when he emigrated from Sweden more than 100 years ago. It’s a farm that has seen the rise of farming and sadly shed many tears when farming has taken tumbles in the markets.

Earlier this week, a random truck came peddling down our farm lane. If you’ve lived in the country before, you know that it’s considered somewhat brazen to enter farmland without being invited or knowing the owners. It heightens my anxiety to see an uninvited guest driving up our quarter-mile lane. Like any good farm wife, I first set the dogs after the man, hoping that their barks would run him off. But the man walked up to the door, knocked, and stood there waiting.

He was a salesman. I have nothing against door-to-door salespeople at all, though it’s uncommon for them to visit rural farmers.

The man held a clipboard with a plat map of area farms, including ours. The map was highlighted and written on. He told me about how he was selling specialized insurance to area farmers with a special focus on cancer, mortality, and long-term medical problems.

“We have insurance for farmers because you know, the mortality rate is getting bad,” the salesman said. “You know, farming is pretty bad right now and there’s a lot of farmers killing themselves. Don’t you think you need insurance like this on your husband?”

I was shell-shocked that this man had just said what he had to me. Completely and totally floored.  Clearly, he had not done even a simple bit of research on the farms that he had highlighted and marked on his plat map. He didn’t know his audience at all.

You see, my husband is actually a college music professor and we’re hobby farmers. But most importantly, my father-in-law died on our farm during the height of the hedge-to-arrive disputes in the late 1990s. State-wide media reported on it noting his suicide and the many others.

I stood, staring at this man. I’m certain my jaw dropped and my brow furrowed. “You need to leave now,” I told the man in my meanest mom/teacher voice. “Now!”

Then my cell phone started ringing. Then our landline began ringing simultaneously. I repeated that the man needed to leave and he did, though I’m quite certain he had no idea what he had just done to offend me.

The phone calls were neighbors telling us the man’s sales pitch, knowing how it would affect us and knowing how it would send us into a tailspin.

The man didn’t know his audience. He hadn’t done any research into the area or the people that he would be speaking with. He had a highlighted plat map but a simple Google search would have told him more about the homeowners in the area he was visiting.

A simple comparison of that information against his product would have given him even more information about how to sell his product. Instead, this man didn’t sell a single product that day, but many were offended by his pitch, all because they knew my father-in-law and respected our family who have been part of the community for more than a century.

Knowing your audience is of the utmost importance whether you work in sales and marketing, public relations, even journalism. Your audience demographic affects how you write, how you approach your audience, and even how your audience views you and your product.  If you don’t know your audience, you’re doing your audience a tremendous disservice and make yourself look like a heartless professional.

On the record, off the record, unnamed and anonymous: Understanding terms associated with shielding sources in the wake of the NYT’s “resistance” Op-Ed

The New York Times took a rare step in journalism Wednesday, publishing an op-ed piece from a staff member of the White House in which the person declared he or she was “part of the resistance” that was working against President Donald Trump. What made the decision to run this piece different from other exposes over the years is that the Times allowed the staffer to remain anonymous to the public, thus shielding the person’s identity from public scrutiny.

As the president slammed the paper and the staffer, other people posited theories and suppositions as to who this person is and what he or she was attempting to do with this essay. The Times also offered some insight, explaining how this worked and providing the public the opportunity to question the paper’s vetting process on this source.

Journalists will have to decide how to handle reticent sources and inside information. Although this kind of piece is rare in media circles, reporters will likely run into frequent requests from sources to have information remain private or to not have their names attached to content. To help you understand what is and isn’t fair game and what these terms mean, here’s a short excerpt from the upcoming book, “Dynamics of Media Editing” that covers a few of the basics terms in this area:

On the record

This is the most common form of interview standard. When a writer and a source engage in a series of questions and answers regarding a topic, the interview is said to be on the record. This means the source can be quoted and information provided can be used and attributed to the source. When journalists identify themselves as such and begin asking questions, convention dictates the material obtained at this point is on the record.

 

Off the record

This term is often misunderstood and has caused a great deal of consternation for journalists and sources alike. In the most basic sense, deciding to go off the record is an agreement between a source and a journalist to discuss something that will not be attributed in a way that on-the-record information will be. What will be used and how it will be used needs to be clarified.

In some cases, the people will agree the material is “not for direct attribution,” meaning the material can be used but not attributed to the source by name. The reference to a “senior White House official” would fit an indirect attribution. In other cases, the material is said to be “not for attribution,” meaning the material can’t be attributed to the source, but can be used. Finally, the term “deep background” is used to describe material that is only to be used to foster further reporting. This is more of a news tip than anything else.

The interviewer and source should agree upon the rules and the way in which the information is to be used before the interview. They must also agree what is on and off the record. A source cannot unilaterally decide to go off the record, and journalists should remind a source of this. A clear understanding of how the interview and the material that is discussed will be handled can prevent bruised egos and hurt feelings.

 

Unnamed source

Journalists often converse with people who do not want to have their names used. The reasons can vary, but it is up to the journalist to determine whether the information the source will provide is worth keeping that person’s name a secret. When someone has important and unique information, you might agree to use that person as an unnamed source. When the person is talking about whether he or she is enjoying the county fair and yet doesn’t want to give his or her name, make sure the reporter knows enough to find another source.

 

Anonymous source

This term has tended to blanket unnamed and unknown sources, but in its purest definition, it skews more toward the latter. An unnamed source is someone the writer knows but who has received anonymity from that writer. In other words, the writer wants to use the information from the source and has agreed to do so without naming that source.

An anonymous source is often someone who is unknown to the writer. An email tip or a phone call from someone who will not give his or her name fits this definition. Although using unnamed sources can be risky, using anonymous sources can be dangerous. When discussing the situation with your staff members, make sure you understand if the source is anonymous or just unnamed. In addition, you need to determine the truthfulness of the information and value behind it. Finally, you will want to have the reporter get on-the-record information to verify and support the information from the unnamed or anonymous source.

4 tips to avoid having Mike Rotch and Seymour Butts as sources in your story

The traditional “person on the street” interview has given way to the “tweet on the information superhighway” when it comes to getting a public perspective on big news. Journalists used to head out to a bustling area of town to talk to random citizens about issues ranging from who would win the World Series to what the upcoming year would bring:

I remember having to do a few of these things for localizations or reaction stories on things like the arrest of a person suspected of murder to the fans thoughts on Green Bay winning the Super Bowl. I can honestly think of nothing more pointless than trying to get drunken Packer fans on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to tell me something about their emotional state after winning The Big Game. The only person who had it worse than I did was Rick Blum. This poor guy from Channel 3 was standing on top of his van trying to go live at 10, as drunks pelted him with snowballs and chanted, “RICK BLUM SUCKS!” over and over again.

Interviewing the general public on any topic can be dicey, but it can get worse when you find out you are the victim of a horrible practical joke, as was the case in 2001 when the New York Post’s Neil Graves interviewed a local real estate developer:

HeywoodJablome

If you don’t get the joke, Google Mr. Jablome or ask the closest pervert you know. Making this worse, I found this article again just last night and his quote is STILL THERE. Either the Post doesn’t get it or someone on the copy desk SWEARS he knows the guy.

It could always be worse, as this KTVO-TV morning team in Kirksville, Missouri, came to realize during a simple “Happy Birthday, Viewers!” segment that went horribly, horribly wrong:

 

The reason I bring this stuff up was because the descendants of Heywood Jablome and Dixie Normous showed up in KTVU-TV’s coverage of the Nike/Colin Kaepernick discussion. Check out the source for the quote at the bottom:

Barry

Honestly, I missed it the first time, but fortunately, I have plenty of well-trained former students out there, such as Alex Nemec, who basically had to walk me through this with four text messages until I saw it. (If you’re still missing it, read it aloud and also realize anything with the word “cock” in it has a really good chance of being dirty.)

I could spend all day looking up the various media outlets that got stung by quoting “Mike Rotch” or “Seymour Butts,” (and if the afternoon gets slow, I probably will), but the point here is to help you figure out how to protect yourself from these kinds of twerps. Consider the following advice:

  • Watch “The Simpsons.” Or at least this compilation. If Bart Simpson called Moe’s Tavern looking for your source, it’s probably a good idea to go interview someone else for that scintillating, “Do you like sweet corn?” quote at the county fair.

 

  • Go a few tweets deep: If you feel the best way to weave in that “man of the people” vibe into your writing is to find people on Twitter who you don’t know but are blathering on about your topic, look at a few tweets. “Barry” has a few interesting tweets on his timeline on a variety of topics. If I posted the ones here related to his quote about how Kaepernick’s Nike ad is affecting his marriage, I’m sure half the SAGE marketing team would have heart attacks. (Let’s just say he noted that his marriage was harmed when he caught his wife being unfaithful to him with a man wearing only Nike socks.) Here are a few tamer tweets he posted:

BurnNikes

DogNike

He also has a wonderful diatribe about how he has been constantly on heroin… Long story short: Is this REALLY a source you would want to represent anything you’ve written? If you are going to use a Twitter user, try to find someone who a) you recognize, b) has something important to say and c) doesn’t look like a loon in everything he or she is saying

  • Trust, but verify: The Russian proverb works wonders here, as not every double entendre of a name is a prankster. The Cleveland Indians once had a pitching coach named Dick Pole. I’m not kidding. Here is a doubly unfortunate card of his when he pitched for a minor league team in Portland:

DickPole

I knew a weird guy who used to show up at baseball card shows with a binder full of cards like this called his “Book of Dicks,” containing cards of Dick Allen, Dick Pole, Pete La Cock, Woody Held and others. The point is, those are real names, so it’s not always an attempt to punk you if you get a weird name.

However, it’s up to you to go take a look around and see if there is any supporting evidence that guys like Barry McCockiner exist. One of the downsides of Twitter is that you are limited to what people tell you about themselves, so it’s a little more difficult to verify the source. In the case of Mr. Jablome, a check of area real estate developers could have limited the embarrassment. In either case, you obviously can’t “card” a source to verify his or her name, (although some jokesters have gone to great lengths to prove their identity) but you can do some Googling and social media checks to see how likely it is that Jack Mehoff is a real person.

  • Ask for help: As we noted in earlier posts, it pays to have a person in your organization with a demented mind. The old saying of “it takes a thief to catch a thief” rings true in this type of work as well. You should read the name aloud, have others do the same and then eventually hit up Jimmy The Crime Guy or whoever in your organization has the ability to turn anything into a dirty joke. If Jimmy can’t figure it out, you’re probably safe.

Four fact-checking tips inspired by the NYT’s four-error, 135-word correction on John McCain’s obituary

The most anxiety-provoking story I ever oversaw was an obituary. Louis Ingelhart was likely the most important person in the history of Ball State University’s journalism program. He arrived in Muncie in 1953 and essentially developed almost every meaningful program associated with journalism during his time there, including the creation of a journalism minor, major and the department. He served as the department’s first chairman and also oversaw the Ball State Daily News for a time.

Beyond that, he was a legend in press freedom. He won dozens of First Amendment awards and had awards named after him. He was elected to the state’s journalism hall of fame as well as the College Media Association hall of fame. His list of awards and accolades reads like the “to-do list” of a journalism titan.

It was the day before the spring semester was to start when I got a call from someone at the newsroom, telling me they heard Louie had taken ill. It was about 5 p.m. and we had a skeleton crew working at the paper that night, given the first issue back was usually sports recaps and a few fluffy features. By the time I got to the office, we had it confirmed that he died. It was 6 p.m. and we had six hours to rip up the paper and make an appropriate tribute to this man.

Signs were posted all over the newsroom reading “IN-GEL-HART” so that no one would misspell his name. We had students combing through various publications and images to make sure we knew exactly when he graduated from college or what his job in which city. We had designers scratching out various front pages and photography editors scanning in 50-year-old black and white images.

At one point, my editor said something to me about how we needed to not take this so seriously or something and I recalled a line that hockey coach Herb Brooks told his players after they won the Miracle on Ice game. His team was playing Finland for the gold medal after the Miracle and his team wasn’t as focused as he felt it should be. Rather than talk strategy, he simply said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave.” That was exactly how I felt at that moment. Every name had to be right. Every fact had to be right. If we spelled something wrong in a headline it would be there forever. If there ever was a day to not screw something up, this was the day.

I thought about that today when I found a copy of the New York Times’ correction on John McCain’s obituary:

TimesCorrections

That’s one heck of a long correction for a publication with the journalistic chops of the New York Times. It’s also hard to fathom that the staff didn’t have time to get this thing out from the files and really polish it up. McCain had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2017, and it wasn’t looking good for months. With that, someone probably should have figured it would be a good idea to really start working on this obituary.

(Most people of any significant societal distinction have an obituary on file at the NYT. Each time the person does something else of interest, it gets added to that file so the obit is as up to date as possible. When the person dies, papers like the Times just have to weave in the date, cause of death and age before sending it out to the world.)

I can give the paper a pass (sort of) on the family issue. A guy who is 81, you tend not to think, “I wonder if his mom or dad is still alive.” Plus, when it comes to survivors, there is always a risk of leaving someone off, no matter how hard you try to avoid the problem.

However, the other errors all come from facts that are at least 20 years old and pretty simple to verify. That hurts.

Rather than beat up on the Times, though, the goal here is to help you see some things you can take with you from this debacle. Here are four hints to help you avoid screwing up in a situation like this:

 

Beware of “-est” statements: The statement about fire on the Forrestal being the “deadliest” incident, provides you with a good lesson about how absolutism can get you in trouble. Absolutes are always interesting and yet difficult to prove in many occasions. This is why Oddity is an interest element and why things that are the first, last or only of their kind matter to people.

However, 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.

 

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: When people write or edit, they often look at a statement and assume it to be true unless they can prove it false. If I told you that, “I have a 13-year-old daughter,” chances are, you’d think, “OK, that’s probably true.” However, if I told you, “I have a 101-year-old daughter,” you’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that’s true. I gotta check that out.”

The point is, we start from the assumption of “True unless provably false.” If you want to avoid mistakes when the chips are down, reverse that approach to your fact-checking behavior. Look at each element of a sentence and think, “That’s probably wrong. I need to check on it.” Examine each factual component of a story and think, “How could that totally screw me over by being wrong? I need to prove it’s right.”

I often espouse the Filak-ism that paranoia is my best friend, and that really applies here. Obviously, it would be great if you had time to look up every fact and check on every comma in every story this way, but you have to be practical in this. However, if it’s a “you’re going to take this to your (expletive) grave” -level assignment, the “wrong until proven right” approach works pretty well.

 

How you state something matters: The Jack Kemp error comes from someone not knowing the history of professional football in the United States. The AFL was an upstart league that formed in the 1960s and eventually merged with the NFL. Kemp was a quarterback for the Bills until the end of the 1969 season, the last season the two leagues remained separate under a merger agreement.

Had the obituary stated he played professionally for the Buffalo Bills, that would have worked. Had it said he was a professional football player, that would have been fine. However, weaving in that minor detail about the NFL created an error because of how it was stated.

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 statement has the same trappings of the Kemp situation when it comes to understanding the history of the game. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls, with six victories. However the NFL was around long before the Super Bowl and titles go back to the 1920s. Thus the team with the most NFL championships is the Green Bay Packers, who won 13 league titles.

A similar thing happened in terms of phrasing during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 20 others before killing themselves. At the time, some reporters called it the “deadliest attack” at a school in U.S. history in some cases, which was inaccurate. It was the deadliest school shooting at that point, but the deadliest attack was an incident in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927. A man there blew up a school, killing 44 people and injuring 58 others. Thus, “shooting” and “attack” were not interchangeable.

 

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.

Game Time! An AP-Style News Quiz

The Associated Press style book is the bible (not Bible) of media writers. It helps provide consistency, structure and clarity for writers in news, PR, advertising and more. (Broadcasters have their own style for on-air scripts, but they still need AP style for filing text-based web stories.)

Think you have a handle on AP? Give this quick quiz a shot.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to take the quiz.