“Welcome to $&^%* Stadium!” How to find and fix misplaced modifiers and similar awkward issues.

As I’ve said before, when a headline goes to hell in a speedboat, the Bat Signal tends to go out among those of us in the field of journalism.

The story in question involves John Schnatter, the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain, who served on the Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville. Schnatter participated in a conference call with a public relations agency when he used a racial slur, thus setting off a chain of events that led to his resignation from the board and his company.

In the wake of these revelations, the university considered removing (and later did remove) his company’s name from the football stadium. During the period of consideration, the New York Times ran this headline, reminding all of us that even all-stars strike out occasionally:

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In reading that headline as it is written, it sounds like the Cardinals will soon be playing at a stadium named after a racial slur. Something tells me that’s not what the Times meant, but it is what the paper’s staffers wrote.

We’ve picked on headlines before here, but this is probably a better chance to poke at grammar, as the headline suffers from some snafus in this area that can filter into all sorts of writing.

Let’s start with the idea of misplaced modifiers, which are words that inadvertently end up describing something they didn’t mean to describe. Consider the following sentence:

Mayor Tom Hicks said he planned to eradicate poverty on the steps of the court house on Monday.

The sentence makes it sound like the mayor has a pretty busy, but narrowly focused Monday: Eradicating poverty that exists on the steps of the court house.

What the sentence intended to say was that Hicks made an announcement Monday while he stood on the steps of the court house and the announcement pertained to his plan to eradicate poverty. There are a couple ways to fix this:

You want to get the modifiers as close as possible to the words you want them to modify. In this case, the misplaced ones are really far away from the word they intend to modify (said), so moving them closer can solve the problem:

Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house that he planned to eradicate poverty.

In this example, you solve the problem of the modifier, but you have a boring lead, in that the when and where are moved to the front of the lead, even though they are the least important elements of that lead.

This is where a second rewrite gets you closer, as you focus on the most important stuff first and then get into the nuts and bolts of the remaining W’s. The “theme lead” approach works better here:

Poverty will no longer plague Springfield after the implementation of the “Help NOW” plan, Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house.

This lead, while not an amazing bit of prose, focuses the lead on specifics of the “what” element and pushes the rest of the info lower in the sentence where it belongs.

For other examples of misplaced modifiers and ways to fix them, you can click here.

Another issues of note in the NYT headline is that of a word that has multiple meanings: after.

In some cases, it means subsequent to or (as journalists love to say “in the wake of”) an event:

Jimmy opened his presents after his mom served birthday cake.

(First, you eat the cake and then you can open your presents.)

In other cases, it means in allusion to, such as a namesake:

Jane and Bob named their child after Jane’s father, Francis.

(The kid is named Francis because Jane’s father was named Francis.)

Other definitions and uses exist, but the point is, the word leads to confusion due to its many accepted meanings. Had the authors used a more specific word or restructured the headline to eliminate the confusing usage, the problem would disappear. Here’s the original:

Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium after racial slur

Other headlines of similar length could include:

Schnatter’s use of racial slur has U of L considering stadium name change

Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium due to racial slur

Louisville considers stadium name change after namesake uses racial slur

None of these are perfect. I hate the use of “might” in headlines (or anywhere) as anything “might” happen. It’s just as easy to say “might not” in any “might” head. “Due to” is wonky terminology, although it avoids the “after” issue. The name in the first example has an issue because not everyone will know “Papa John” by his last name. The third one repeats versions of “name.”

Still, at least people will know the Cardinals won’t be playing at Slur Stadium in the fall.

Here are a couple other headlines that have similar snafus:

Mortgage owners get shot to save $1 million

Boy Scout helps blind women in Springfield

The first one was an actual headline in a national publication during the housing meltdown. The word “shot” was meant as “chance” here, although it sounded more like these people were taking a bullet to get some cash.

The second one is a variation on multiple bad headlines using a word that is both a descriptor (Sally is blind.) and word of action (The sun will blind you if you look directly at it.).

A good way to avoid the multiple-meaning words is to read your copy several times, emphasizing different words each time. It also helps when you have touchy subjects to read even more carefully to make sure you don’t inadvertently make things worse.

Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

EDITOR’S NOTE: The piece I ran Monday regarding the murder-suicide in Vermont was less about the people involved and more about lessons to learn from the situation. The subsequent discussions that followed seemed to shift that focus, so I thought it was important to update and revisit the issue. In doing so, I wanted to make it clear that I know Adam Silverman well. I’ve known him for almost half my life as a student, a colleague and a friend. He contributed to my books and he stood up for my wedding.

I didn’t really think this disclosure was necessary before, as the post was more about the issue than it was about him. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve known Chris Evans, who is quoted in the VTDigger piece, for many years as a student media adviser and friend. Chris, however, did not stand up for my wedding. I’m sure he would have if I asked. Now, on with the post…

The apology the Times Argus issued Monday in the wake of its coverage of a murder-suicide in Vermont should have capped the issue entirely. Unfortunately, the leaders of the paper apparently never heard of Filak’s First Rule of Holes: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

In a brief recap, the paper published an article on Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, a young couple who died in a murder-suicide when LaCroix shot Gaboriault and then himself in her apartment last week. The follow-up story included many details on LaCroix, including his status as “a popular lacrosse coach” at an area high school and how he was “well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area.”

The details on Gaboriault were limited and thus some folks felt the story leaned toward favoring LaCroix. I referred to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, where everyone always praises someone who died in a horrible way, never seeing anything bad the person did or at least not expressing it.

Gaboriault worked for the Department of Public Safety, as does Adam Silverman, who took to Twitter to deconstruct the story and to demand some sort of remedy from the paper. Rob Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the paper, issued an ombudsman’s column on this issue Sunday, explaining the rationale behind what the paper published and offering an apology to people who took umbrage with the story.

It felt like the story arc was over until two things happened:

  1. Silverman took to Twitter to deconstruct and respond to the apology.
  2. The Vermont Digger, a statewide news organization, published a piece on the situation and the editors of the Times Argus spoke.

In both cases, it was like two people wanted to have “the last word” in an argument, so rather than let sleeping dogs lie, both sides picked at the tenuously healing wound.

Silverman’s Twitter feed on this did acknowledge the apology, although it also continued to note the paper’s need to do better. Yes, but it’s hard to “do better” 12 seconds after screwing up and apologizing for it. It’s also pokes at the assertion that the story was a mess but the writer and editor were not to blame for this, which he calls “a paradox.” I can’t make a call on this one either way, but I don’t know a lot of EICs who would dump a reporter or editor under the bus in a public column unless egregious fact errors emerged.

The Digger’s piece did the “media looks at media” approach, which makes sense, in that this is a public spat between a public information officer and a media outlet, who will likely need symbiosis at some point in life. The reporter gave Mitchell a chance to “fire back” (a term journalists have somehow taken to using for no good reason) at Silverman and Mitchell took it:

However, Mitchell said in an interview Monday that he does not believe criticizing newspapers is the public information officer’s role.

“It puts him and the state police in the position of becoming ombudsman of every article about crime,” Mitchell said. “That’s not to say we can’t learn something from his criticism. But there’s a line there that he needs to be careful about. There are many victims of crime in this state. It can’t just be about one or another.”

And so did editor Steve Pappas:

Times-Argus Editor Steve Pappas said Monday that the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.

“Bottom line is, I felt like it was a cheap shot,” Pappas said about Silverman’s social media posts.

This has led to additional Twitter outrage, arguments and other such kerfuffles, thus shifting the focus away from the dead people and the initial problem with the reporting.

So why talk about it here? Because there are a couple things you all can learn, regardless of which area of media you plan to enter:

  • Don’t take the bait: If you go into public relations, you will have plenty of chances to either stoke a story or let it die. When you already find yourself in an awkward position, the last thing you want is for that story to continue. Thus, when the reporter for the Vermont Digger asked Pappas and Mitchell for comments on this, the smart move would have been to say something like, “We always appreciate feedback from all of our readers with the hope of constantly improving our service to the greater Barre area.” It’s simple, true and it gets you off the dime on this. Statements like “There’s a line he needs to be careful about” are going to keep the story rolling the same way that “Yeah? So’s your mother!” will keep a schoolyard fight at DEFCON 1.

 

  • Consider the platform: I often espouse the Filak-ism of “A hammer is a great tool but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb,” and that applies nicely here when it comes to Twitter. I agreed with a number of the statements Silverman made on the initial coverage and I disagreed with some of the other ones both there and in the follow up he did. However, I didn’t like the use of Twitter here because the platform seemed wrong.
    If you have to use a dozen or more 280-character bursts to make a point, it can feel like a deluge of information pouring out into the public. Several folks in the Digger story seemed to reflect that issue, including Chris Evans and Pappas. I’m not sure a press release would have been the way to go here, as it wouldn’t get as much public play, but considering other platform options might have been a good idea. Twitter is more like a lead and/or a headline. If you start lapsing into soliloquies, Twitter isn’t the right platform.

 

  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?: I always ask this whenever dealing with a tough decision, in that I want to figure out if what I’m about to do is worth whatever I’m going to get out of it. It’s akin to the “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” question my friend Allison and I used to ask of ourselves when doing something that had heavy good and bad potential. Both sides really needed to look at this here:
    Silverman made his points and got out there on the issue, garnering an apology and a sense that the newspaper understood enough of what upset people to make the staff rethink its processes. Was it worth it to go back and re-litigate the issue in digging through the ombudsman column and thus pushing harder on it?
    The paper has to work with the state police and to at least some extent, I would guess, Silverman throughout his tenure as the PIO. Was it really worth it grousing to another media outlet about this, ticking him off again and extending the shelf life of the story? I know him well enough to know he’s not going to spite the paper, but the paper did make stuff awkward for the reporters who have to call Silverman for stories in the future. Was it worth it?
    I have my own theory on both of those, but what really matters is to what extent both parties considered these issues and then made their choices. You should also have a similar mental conversation before you make any moves as a media professional.

 

A look at the coverage of a murder-suicide and “he-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome

I got a note this weekend from Adam Silverman, a former editor at the Burlington (Vermont) Free-Press and one of the “pros” in the Media Writing book. Silverman, who now serves as the public information officer for the Vermont State Police, pointed me to a local paper’s coverage of a domestic violence incident that turned deadly:

I think you’d be interested in this from a journalism perspective — maybe something for a class or blog (a case study in what NOT to do).

The first story reads like a standard crime piece, outlining the death of two people, the identities of the dead and the police officers’ takes on what happened and what will happen next. As a professor and former crime journalist, a few things make me cringe (passive voice first person with the “Asked if…” thing; the repetition of certain phrases to the point of distraction; a couple giant run-on sentences etc.) but it was a functional piece.

Silverman’s concern, however, came in the follow-up story, which began like this:

BARRE — Counselors were on “standby” at Spaulding High School and the state Department of Public Safety was in mourning a day after a popular lacrosse coach allegedly shot and killed his estranged girlfriend at her Barre apartment and then turned the gun on himself.

As a matter of disclosure, Silverman works for the same organization that employed Courtney Gaboriault, the “estranged girlfriend” mentioned in the lead of that story.

“This was a tragedy that hit close to home in the Department of Public Safety. Courtney was a colleague and friend to many,” he wrote in an email. “The dismissive nature of the TA’s story angered and upset many people within the DPS family, including our commissioner and the head of the Vermont State Police. We could not let this go without calling out the TA publicly.”

Even with that level of attachment, he does a good job of logically unpacking a lot of his concerns with the whole story, which you can find on this Twitter thread. Here are my issues with the piece that in some cases mirror and other cases diverge from Silverman’s take:

  • The word “allegedly” always gives me hives, but here it’s doubly dumb. The police say in the third paragraph that this is a no-doubt-about-it murder suicide, so using “allegedly” to cast a doubt makes it seem like we’re going to end up in an episode of CSI, where the truth is hidden somewhere.
  • The references to the two people who died in this incident, Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, are markedly different. LaCroix, who police said shot Gaboriault and then himself, is touted as “a popular lacrosse coach” at Spaulding High School, while Gaboriault is referred to as “his estranged girlfriend.” In other words, “Locally liked good guy and this person he used to date involved in murder-suicide.” Ouch.
  • As Silverman points out, LaCroix gets several laudatory mentions in the story (“coached boys lacrosse and substitute taught at Spaulding” and “his adoptive father, David, serves on the School Board” and “He was a three-sport standout” and “Well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area…”) before Gaboriault is even named. All we learn about her is that she worked for the DPS for about five years. No idea if she was “well-known or generally liked” in any city or town’s “greater area.”
  • This line: “Though LaCroix and Gaboriault were together for several years, friends and family members said she ended their increasingly troubled relationship and he did not take it well.” The use of “increasingly troubled relationship” really doesn’t explain exactly what was going on here or who was the instigator or recipient of the “troubling.” The vague language doesn’t paint a picture here that helps the readers clearly see the situation and kind of glosses over who might have been doing what to whom.
  • He did not “take it well?” Eeesh…
  • I don’t have the chops to fully unpack this from a feminist perspective, but even I can see that pretty much every mention of Gaboriault has her as some sort of referential object associated with LaCroix. The story calls Gaboriault “his estranged girlfriend” in the lead, “his former girlfriend” a few paragraphs later and near the end of the article it mentions that “LaCroix met Gaboriault” when they attended college. I’m sure I’m missing more of this, but those stuck out to my untrained eye, so that’s not nothing.
  • References to the death of LaCroix often come in passive voice or lack acknowledgement of action. The line “LaCroix is now dead and so is his former girlfriend, Courtney Gaboriault” makes it sound like something happened to them as opposed to LaCroix initiating the action that cost both people their lives. The same is true with the press-release quote the author used from the school district: “The district and the school community is deeply saddened by the death of Luke LaCroix,” she said. “We sent his family our heartfelt condolences (and) we will cooperate with the authorities in any way we can assist.”

In an ombudsman piece for the Times Argus, Rob Mitchell took a look at the coverage after multiple readers complained about its tone and approach. If you want to spend a buck for a day pass  on the site, you can find the whole thing here. Below are a few excerpts and some thoughts that might be generally helpful:

Mitchell first acknowledges the lack of balance in how LaCroix and Gaboriault were treated in the follow-up story, with many more details and plaudits used in his description. He also explains how reporting works in a solid, albeit a little passive fashion: An event happens, we put something out, the next day happens, we follow it up with whatever we can get as fact emerge etc. In trying to find sources, Mitchell argues, reporter David Delcore was trying to find “warning signs” from people who knew LaCroix, only to find that people just really liked him:

“What Delcore found is that the community around him was having trouble equating the lacrosse coach with the man who committed a heinous act of murder. This is the reasoning behind including so much detail about the murderer. It was not Delcore’s choice to paint a picture of him as a “good guy” – that was the story the community told.”

I refer to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, a condition that emerges when someone the interview subject knows gets caught up in something horrible, usually something of their own making. I’ve dealt with this on a number of occasions as a reporter, an editor, a media adviser and even as someone watching the news with non-journalists who ask, “What the hell are they talking about?”

I remember the mother of a college football player who took part in a shoot out at the drive-thru window of a Taco Bell screaming at me over the phone for writing this in a way that made her son “look bad.” I also remember having to explain to students that nobody is ever going to look at someone just after they died and say, “Bastard still owed me five bucks…” EVERYONE is a good person or is well liked or was THE LAST person on EARTH who would ever do whatever horrible thing it is they were accused of doing.

Not to parallel these situations, but consider these articles on convicted and executed serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy:

BundyGacy2Gacy

And more to the point, Bundy’s mother thought he was a wonderful and innocent child all the way until her dying day. Very rarely do you get an honest assessment like this one in the wake of someone’s death.

Mitchell also tries to explain the thinking of the publication in regard to its focus on LaCroix and his “well-known and generally well-liked” status within the community:

There is extensive debate within the journalism community about how to approach this. How much weight do we give to reporting about perpetrators of horrific crimes? What purpose does reporting on the motives, the lives or the personalities of killers serve? In this case, the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities – they are among us, often unrecognizable as abusers to people other than their victims or a close circle of friends and families. Part of our role as journalists should be to educate the community on how to identify these signs, and the steps to intervene.

Consider the passive voice: “there is extensive debate…” This phraseology exemplifies the art of the dodge. The same can be said of the use of the rhetorical questions that follow, giving the reader a sense that there is so much confusion and discussion that any answer will likely be wrong. In addition, the line about how “the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities” makes it sound like the article really dug in on this whole line of thought.

Pardon me, but that’s crap on both accounts.

First, there isn’t “extensive debate” out there on how to cover these things. The debate on how to cover domestic violence ended somewhere around the time that airlines outlawed smoking on planes. The goal of any first-day crime story is to explain the 5W’s and 1H to the best of the writer’s ability. The goal of a second-day story that becomes focused on domestic violence is to use experts as an overarching network of explanatory elements with friends, families and authorities who are aware of the case providing specific anecdotes that fill in the broad strokes of the theory.

Second, this story does nothing in the way of covering domestic violence as it relates to this situation. The only people mentioning domestic violence are the police who speak of it as an epidemic and whoever decided to list the contact info for the domestic-violence hotline. I’m uncertain as to where the police press release gets the “domestic violence” angle on this relationship, but the release speaks of it as if this were the unfortunate conclusion of a long-term violent relationship. No one else in here mentions anything having to do with this specific relationship fitting the pattern of one steeped in domestic violence. (This is not to say this wasn’t the case or that the shooting itself was not a case of domestic violence, but nowhere in the story does the writer draw a line between the broader issue and this specific relationship.)

The closing of the piece offers an apology and a look forward, with a promise that the paper will strive to do better. I believe Mitchell on this account, given that I doubt he or anyone else at the paper foresaw the backlash on this story. I also believe that this story wasn’t an intentional hatchet job, but rather more of a lazy story, powered by sources who had a stake in protecting the reputation of someone they knew.

The key take aways for you here are simple, if not difficult:

  • Seek balance: In cases like these, two people died and two people had families and friends who will miss them and who will deal with heartache and pain. Don’t paint one side well and the other poorly simply because you don’t have as much “good stuff” for Person A as you do for Person B.

 

  • If it’s not ready, hold it: Nobody likes being last on a story, but running a half-baked piece out there to show you got there first won’t do a lot of good. In a case like this, it does a lot of harm. If you don’t have the full piece, wait until you do or until you and your editors are comfortable that you have given everyone a fair chance to present information. Then go for it.

 

  • Consult an expert: Some stories are outside of the traditional understanding of reporters, in that they require nuance or the reporter isn’t an expert on the given topic. Stories involving sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes in this vein often require some clarity from pros. Even if the topic isn’t crime, if you feel you don’t know enough about an area or topic that has sensitive issues or nuance beyond your understanding, contact someone who knows this and let that person guide you or help you help your readers more fully understand.

 

  • Fess up: The best thing about this is that the paper stepped up and spoke back to the readers who spoke out on this topic. Mitchell seemed to do a little too much of the “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game” thing for my taste, giving the writer and editors a pass. However, he did say the paper acknowledged the position of the readers and the paper did apologize while making offers to improve its efforts in the future. That’s something not every paper would do, but it something you should aspire to as writers. When something goes wrong and you had a hand in it, fess up and be forthcoming.

Judge not, lest ye end up in a similarly painful situation: Ali Watkins, James Wolfe and getting “involved” with sources

When we write the textbooks that you learn from, I and other authors lay out clear and concrete rules for how things “should” work, as we cover everything from interviews to ethics. On the black-and-white pages of piety, things always seem simple and direct: Do this, don’t do that, be this, don’t become that…

So, when a story like this one breaks about the New York Times’ Ali Watkins and her three-year romantic relationship with a source, the textbook author in me should say, “Here is a clear example of a breakdown in ethical behavior and a harbinger for all you budding reporters out there of what not to do.” However, in a case like this, I go back to the Herb Score Axiom on Errors: “Don’t be too quick to second guess. Sometimes there’s a good reason that someone made a bad play.”

Journalists and sources often find themselves careening toward each other in professional and social situations that lead to potentially painful consequences. We end up on late-night phone calls or in dive bars with people who can help us see things that might matter to us and our readers. We mix business and pleasure because the lines blur and we occasionally make an imperceptible pivot from small talk to “Uh-Oh.”

The Times has an extensive code of ethics and addresses the issue of romantic entanglements:

Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.

In other words, we’d prefer it if the world were perfect, but since it’s not, here are some guidelines. Still, rather than thinking, “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” many journalists have found time to criticize Watkins in some pretty irrelevant ways, laying out tawdry details and “tsk, tsk”-ing her in some inappropriate ways. Stories reference the age gap between them (she being in her mid-20s and him being in his mid-50s during the affair), as a damning element of this situation. The same is true of the stories that unwind Wolfe’s marital status, reinforcing a “homewrecker” stereotype. Some writers paint Watkins as the young girl who wandered into thicket of Washington jungle where she fell under the spell of an older man. Others insinuate she slept her way into scoops.

I don’t know Watkins personally, nor do I know enough about her situation to defend it or lambaste it. Based on the keyhole view I got from the media reports on her, I imagine her reality is much more nuanced than those cut-and-dried assessments of her character purport it to be. I can, however, sympathize with her, as I found myself in two similar situations where professional and personal overlapped in a truly awkward fashion.

In my first reporting job, I worked night-time general assignment, so I didn’t really have a beat or a stock set of sources I called repeatedly, other than the on-duty coroner and whoever was working the overnight shift at the sheriff’s office. Through several mutual friends, I ended up meeting a woman I started to date and things eventually got serious. She was into politics, a field that bored me to death, but as her “significant other,” I got dragged to a lot of cheese-and-cracker parties where county supervisors, city counselors and state reps blathered on about their plans to divvy up the world even more. Eventually, she won election to the city council and somewhere after that, we got engaged.

In the two-plus years I worked at the paper, I never once covered a city council meeting. I did a ton of committee meetings (way more planning and zoning meetings than I cared to count) and a number of fundraising speeches, but never a council meeting. Still, the minute we decided to go this route, I called my editor and told him that I’d been dating her for a while and that we were now engaged and it was best to say something. He said it was no problem and congratulations and that he’d see me Monday.

When I showed up for my shift on Monday, he told me that the city reporter was out sick so I had to go cover the city council meeting. I protested, explaining that a) I was engaged to a city council rep and b) we had told everyone so it was going to be weird. His response stuck with me: “It’ll be fine. Just don’t quote her.”

The rest of the night was awkward as hell. Ever rep came up to me and gave me some level of crap about, “Hey, what are you doing here?” One asked if I was going to be a “hype man” for her while someone else asked, “Are you here to keep an eye on your girl?” As bothersome as it all was, it paled in comparison to later cheese-and-cracker parties and late-night bar gatherings, where half the people treated me like a narc and the other half tried to use me to plant stories. We eventually broke off the engagement for none of these reasons, but not having to deal with the weirdness was a good secondary benefit.

The “just don’t quote her” line stuck with me for years and continued to bother me. I would have thought the editor would have done more to protect me or the paper or both from the situation. In reading through the various stories on Watkins, it seems clear she wasn’t hiding her relationship. It also seems clear her editors didn’t really get all excised about this source sending her jewelry and asking her out. Nobody stepped in and said, “Break it off or you won’t have a job.” It was kind of a “just don’t quote him” situation.

The second time this happened to me, I was engaged (again) and I was the editor of the police and courts beat in Columbia, Missouri. My soon-to-be wife was a police dispatcher for the university’s police department. Everybody was aware of the situation on both ends and nobody put up much of a fuss. I was finishing my Ph.D., which meant this situation was likely to be over in less than a year. Plus, in a city like Columbia, where the J-school is a dominant force, it’s tough to avoid situations like this in attempting to form a social relationship.

(Side note: I think it’s important to note here that I don’t want any of you coming to the conclusion that I was somehow attracting women to me like a boy band simply because both of these situations start with me being engaged to people. I find it a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes that one human being, let alone two, would consider me an acceptable life partner. If you ever meet me, I’m sure you’ll agree with a, “Really? This guy?” analysis of my socially awkward manner and lack of all manner of discernment.)

In any case, Amy and I found ourselves doing a dance similar to the one Watkins and Wolfe did. On more than one occasion, she came home from work and wanted to unburden herself of a day’s worth of stupid criminal stories and workplace ineptitude. However, she would look at me and say, “I’m talking to my husband now. I’m not talking to a journalist, right?” I’d feel edgy, in that I could practically smell the news tips in her exasperated tone.

After a bit of hemming and hawing on my part, she’d say, “Go out on the porch and come back in when you’re my husband.” Ten minutes to a half hour later, I’d return to hear about how a football player got pulled over for the fifth time or how the police chief wrecked his car twice in two days. I knew which cops competed for “the most tickets written” prize and which guy drove his motorcycle into his neighbor’s living room on accident. And, there was that one time she called me to tell me she had one of my reporters in her holding cell.

After work get-togethers were awkward as well, with her friends being guarded around me and my friends expressing frustration with uncooperative police sources. Even though we loved our jobs, we also were grateful when we didn’t have this conflict of interest in our lives.

The point in rehashing all of this is to explain that the simple answer (don’t date a source) is easy to say in a textbook or a classroom, but it is often reductive in the real world. I find it somewhat similar to the argument about people who tell you the best way to avoid having naked pictures of yourself on the internet is to never take any naked pictures of yourself.

No, this isn’t a hall pass to go hook up with that SGA kid you thought was sweet or to go all Anthony Weiner with your cell phone. My point here is that life can get messy and that teaching an “abstinence only” position for all all potential conflicts of interest can leave you unprepared for what to do when reality intervenes on your plans.

You should try to avoid dating sources, but if something happens where you find yourself in that situation, tell your editors. If your editors are like Watkins’ first editor (Mr. “As long as he’s not giving you stock”), tell other people you think can act as sounding boards and firewalls for you. Establish ground rules with your significant other and stick to them as best as you can. If the situation becomes too difficult, see if you can transfer beats or determine how valuable the relationship is to you. I loved crime reporting and editing, but if it was give up the beat or give up Amy, I’d give up the beat in a heartbeat.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Regardless of your best efforts, things are bound to get messy.

 

“I wasn’t going to roll over and give up:” Catching up with Alex Nemec and his “No-Comment Story” open-records lawsuit

Back in April, I posted a story on how to make a story out of a series of “no comment” statements. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh something about the removal of a professor from a classroom.

Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Last week, an appeals court in Wisconsin ruled that Nemec was entitled to the records he sought about previous university investigations into Hagen. The records will remain sealed for 30 days, during which time, Hagen can decide if he will appeal the decision to the state’s supreme court. If he chooses not to do so, the records will be released. If he decides to appeal, the case will continue.

I checked in with Nemec after the court made its ruling for an update on the case and his thoughts about the process:

You graduated back in December, your current job has no attachment to this at all, it’s been 18 months since the catalyst (his removal from class) that got you interested in this and you still have no idea what is in these things. Why did you continue to push for this release when you could have said, “To hell with this” and let it go?

I continued to push for this because it was the right thing to do. Open records laws are important to journalists and the more cases we win as journalists, the more cases there are to point to when we are receiving push back from people who don’t want to release them. If we continue to rack up the reasons why, there won’t be many reasons left as to why not.

In addition, I kept fighting this cause I wanted these records and wanted to know what was going on. A professor being pulled out of class by police officers is a big deal and I don’t really care if it wasn’t some huge scoop where he did something awful at the school, the students and taxpayers should know why.

This could have all been done and over with for a long time now if Hagen or the College of Business had just talked to me and told me what was going on. I intervened in this lawsuit because I believed it was the right thing to do after talking with you. I wanted to make sure this thing went my way and that the people understood what happened.

Lastly, I wasn’t going to roll over and give up just because I’m not affiliated with the case anymore. One, that’s just lazy and you can’t be lazy in this business. I had to fight the good fight for the sake of the industry. Two, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that he had beaten me or succeeded in delaying it for so long that I just gave up.

Who has been helpful to you on this and what can you say to other student journalists about the SPLC?
Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center helped me in the beginning with the circuit court case and getting things moving for me to be an intervenor. After Hagen had appealed, he referred me to Christa Westerberg and Aaron Dumas at Pines Bach LLP, both of whom have been incredibly helpful in writing briefs and keeping me updated where the case was in system. They explained to me every step of the way what was going on and answered questions when I had them. I can’t thank any of them enough.

The SPLC is a wonderful resource that every student journalist should be aware of if they are having issues with records request or any other legal matter with their student newspaper. They are there to help and I’m so thankful they were there for me.

If you had it to do over again, would you? Why or why not?

I would absolutely do it over again given I had the same resources I have now. Receiving all this help pro bono is obviously a HUGE help, I don’t know what I would have done had it not been pro bono. But yes, given the same resources I have now, I would do it again because it is important that the University community and the taxpayers know what is going on and aren’t being left in the dark.

Anything you’d like to tell student journalists out there who are looking into a “big story” via open records?
To the students who have a scent of a big story of open records, absolutely go for it. Open records is a great thing to get a handle on and understand, not even as a a journalist, but as a citizen. Journalists are suppose to inform the public of happenings in the community and open records is a great way to do that. If someone is denying the open records request, they are more than likely hiding something, which is in turn, a great story to write.
Given my experience with open records requests, they can be either quick and easy and you’ll get what you want fairly soon, or you end up in a year and a half lawsuit. Long story short, pursue open records stories.
More often than not, my money is on that if they won’t give you the records, it’s a good story and one you’ll enjoy writing.

The application of ethical, accuracy and accountability standards to Time’s “Welcome to America” cover

The photo of a nearly 2-year-old Honduran girl sobbing while she and her mother were detained at the U.S. border has become a cultural touchstone in the debate over immigration. Photographer John Moore was a few feet away when he snapped the iconic frame and said it was one of the most emotionally draining photos he has taken in his career. Moore said at the time he did not know if the girl and her mother had been split up, as the government’s policy at the time was one of family separation. It turned out the girl and her mother had not been split up and that she had stopped crying once her mother picked her up.

All of this made Time magazine’s decision to up the ante with this cover concerning to people across the journalistic spectrum:

TIme

The photo illustration has led media outlets to call the cover a mistake or worse. Time’s editor recently defended the publication’s cover, even after it ran a correction about it, saying the girl became “the face of the story.” With all of this in mind, consider a few thoughts:

The face of WHAT story: The defense editor Edward Felsenthal offers about the girl being the face of the story depends on what you see as “the story.” She’s not the face of family separation at the border, as everyone found out later in the process. She’s possibly the face of children of people who try to enter the country illegally under this administration. She’s definitely the face of what happens when toddlers are hungry, thirsty or over-tired, which is what her mother explained to the border patrol. The problem with this cover is that it leaves too much open to interpretation and it appears that the story Time thought it was telling at the time turned out to be inaccurate.

Ethics and accuracy: In the ethics chapter, we broke apart several of the big journalism organization’s ethical codes into some key areas of agreement, one of which was accuracy:

 Journalists view accuracy as their primary professional value. The RTDNA code places “truth and accuracy above all” while the NPPA code dictates that journalists should “be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” SPJ notes that, “ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.” When journalists fall short on accuracy, they open themselves to accusations of sloppiness and bias, both of which undercut their credibility.

Early in the discussion of the photo itself, Moore said he didn’t know what happened to the girl and her mother in terms of separation but feared the worst. However, it didn’t take long for multiple outlets to find out from governmental and family sources that the girl was not separated from her mom. As a national magazine, Time probably has the resources to check this out and should have.

This nails why Time screwed up: It wasn’t accurate and comprehensive in its use of this visual. It also didn’t place truth and accuracy above all else (although some might argue it told a larger “truth” that overrode the issue of pure “accuracy). However, it’s important to consider this line from the RTNDA’s code:

The facts should get in the way of a good story. (emphasis in the original) Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.

Instead of looking at this from a perspective of “Does this fully and accurately reflect the reality of this situation?” Time decided to “go for it” with a visually stunning and iconic cover. In doing so, there’s a trade off between nuanced accuracy and guttural emotion. In terms of accuracy and ethics, it seems like a bad trade.

Corrections and Accountability: The ethical codes used in the text all espouse accountability. Making a mistake sucks. Having to tell people you made one really sucks. However, the ethics of the field demand this of us for a good reason:

The RTDNA code states, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”

<SNIP>

It might seem counterintuitive that telling people you made mistakes will make them trust you more. However, journalists and researchers have found that audience members trust people more when they acknowledge and correct their mistakes. This is why SPJ states simply and clearly: “Acknowledge mistakes and correctly them promptly and prominently.”

However, there’s a difference between correcting the record and being accountable for a mistake in a couple specific ways. For example, you can correct the record while holding others accountable for their screw ups. I know I’ve run at least a few, “Due to inaccurate information released by X Police Department…” corrections because something went wrong upstream from me and I ended up publishing something incorrect. That’s legitimate when it’s clearly someone else’s fault. However, when you screw up and it’s your screw up, you should both correct the record and be accountable for your actions.

In Time’s case, the editor tries to have it both ways: Correct the record but say we were right anyways. In defending the decision to run the cover, the editor talks around the accuracy issue with the “nobody in the media knew” arguments. He also argues that this was more symbolic of a larger issue that goes beyond one girl and one moment.

That’s crap.

If journalism is really about telling people what happened and why they should care, we have to be willing to do that as well when we screw up. I would have had much more respect for the guy (and the controversy would likely die down more quickly) if he had said something like, “Look, we probably should have vetted this more and if we didn’t know for sure she was separated, we should have gone with a different shot. That’s on me.” He could have said, “Had we done more with text on the front to provide nuance and layers, people might not be so upset and that’s on me.” Heck, he could have said pretty much anything better than what he said about this if you wanted accountability. In that interview, he almost walks back the correction in a way, explaining they technically didn’t correct the cover.

A good lesson to take away from this is simple: If you screw up, own it.

Could be worse: As much as this is the outrage du jour, this isn’t the first time that Time magazine had a cover that fell on its keys. The classic example is the “darkening” of O.J. Simpson’s mugshot, but here are a couple other covers Time probably wishes came with a “do-over” option:

Hitler

In 1938, Hitler strikes a reflective pose for his “Man of the Year” cover. No, really, that happened…

1101870831_400

The “Look! Smart Asians!” cover was another head-scratcher…

And of course, who can forget the cover that asked the question:

MomBreast

No… No, I am not… But here is an interesting follow up from Jamie Grumet in 2016 about her experiences in being “the breastfeeding mom” on that cover.

GAME TIME! AP quiz, county fair edition

The annual county fairs are starting to take place out here, where you can smell farm life and eat anything anyone has ever thought of making with batter and a deep fryer. To honor our traditional days of being overfed and cheated out of a prize by a carnie, enjoy this classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 short, “A Day at the Fair.”

 

Also, here’s an AP style quiz based on those fun fair days.

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.

Click here to begin!

“Doctor of Paper” origins and some journalistic thoughts on titles and the #ImmodestWomen discussion

A friend of mine at the University of Oklahoma posted this picture of her Twitter feed shortly after she added the “Dr.” title to her name:

DrMoore

She pointed out that this was the first time something she put out there really went “viral” and that it wasn’t all love, luck and lollipops when it came to the responses she got:

Hater

The roots of the #ImmodestWomen movement started with Dr. Fern Riddell, who posted on Twitter her desire to be called “Doctor,” based on her expertise and her Ph.D.:

Fern

Others joined, as noted in the article, while some folks griped or condemned or just flat-out trolled this idea. I’m sure for some people, who haven’t walked the academic walk, the whole “Doctor” notion can feel like this:

 

This issue has batted around for years in various social media groups, and I know the hivemind chatted about it a bit ago with folks noting that male professors often got the “Doctor” or “Professor” honorific while female professors got the “Miss,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.” or first-name treatment. I mentioned that I often eschewed the title of “Doctor” because a) I look like a homeless elf half the time, so putting a title on me is like putting prom dress on a pig and b) I never really felt like a “real” doctor.

Which leads us to the origins story of how I came up with “@DoctorOfPaper” and what it means…

When I graduated from Mizzou with my Ph.D., I did the “doctor” thing on graduation night and made dinner reservations under “Dr. Filak” for Amy and me at a fancy restaurant. Later that night, we ran into a student of mine who had just graduated and who was celebrating at a patio bar with her family.

She brought us over so she could introduce us to her mom and sister and everyone else there. During the chit-chat, I mentioned that I had just received my doctorate, which led to this:

Student’s Mom: “So what is your specialty then?”
Me: “Oh, no… I did my Ph.D. I got my doctorate in journalism.”
Student’s Mom: (Pauses before bursting out with laughter) “Wait… You mean… you’re a DOCTOR of PAPER?” (continues to laugh into her alcoholic slushy)

Amy loved that, so whenever she felt I needed to come down a peg or two, she’d remind me I was a “doctor of paper.” It was good-natured ribbing, but the point was clear: When someone’s dying in a restaurant and someone shouts, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I shouldn’t stand up and explain, “Yes! And please allow me to explain how the human surveillance need as part of uses and gratifications theory is why people all over the restaurant are staring at this choking guy.”

Thus, I usually let the whole “Doctor” thing slide with students. That said, one thing that a friend pointed out, which I hadn’t thought of at the time, was that I had the privilege to do that because, as a male professor, students showed me deference up front. For her, she had to fight to get that respect and she wasn’t giving it up for anyone. It’s an important point and a key difference.

Titles can be a weird thing in a lot of ways. A guy my dad worked with used to coach my basketball team from fifth to eighth grade and I always knew him as “Coach Groppi.” When I was about 30, my grandmother died and he came to the funeral. I hadn’t seen him in more than a decade but when he tapped me on the shoulder and said hi, the first words out of my mouth were, “Coach Groppi!” Habits can be hard to break, apparently…

So why is this on a journalism blog and why does it matter to you? Because there are some key things you can take with you as you report and write. Plus, it adds a good critical thinking notion to your thoughts as well as an ethical element. Consider a few points:

  • Style matters: When it comes to the simple idea of style, AP has gone out of its way to make things a little easier on you when you write in this area. Everyone gets “last-name-only” treatment on second reference and we eschew courtesy titles for folks up front, including “Mr.” “Mrs.” “Ms.” or even “Dr.” (The New York Times has its own thing with courtesy titles I’ve never understood, so I’m sidestepping that one.) As a writer in a publication that follows AP, abide by the rules in your copy and you’ll be OK there.
  • Inequity: Style wasn’t always so “up with people” about how it treated people who weren’t straight, white men. Women in publications used to be referred to as “Mrs. John Smith” as opposed to something like “Mary Smith” on first reference. I remember once seeing a story about a city council action in the 1960s, in which one guy was referred to as “the Negro councilman.” Nobody else had a racial identifier. We discussed the idea of how words create hierarchy and word choice is essential to equality here before. If one race, class, gender or whatever is getting X treatment, use X treatment across the board. The whole goal of style is consistency, but the underlying issue should also be fairness in how you deal with folks.
  • The “Mudcat Grant” theory: Jim Grant pitched in the majors for 14 years in the majors, becoming the first black pitcher to ever win 20 games in the American League. He became known as “Mudcat,” he once explained, because some coach at his first Spring Training or Rookie Camp thought he looked like he came from the south, so he nicknamed him as “Mudcat.” Grant said he almost got tossed out of camp because when someone called for “Mudcat Grant,” he just assumed it was someone else. Eventually, Grant had a discussion with the coach about this and explained that it wasn’t his name. “It is now,” the coach, who was white, told the scared rookie. At the end of the day, he dealt with it because he had to but the point is, people deserve the right to be called whatever they feel is most appropriate. We do it with names, as some people go by Vince or Vincent, but not Vinny or Vito. I had a friend who went by his middle name (Andrew) because his first name (Michael) was also his father’s name and he didn’t want to go by “Junior.” We do it with titles, such as university leaders. (I don’t recall a lot of Twitter rage when a university head is called “President Smith,” with people saying, “You’re not a REAL president! Where’s your army, you pencil-necked geek?”)
  • Just the smart thing to do: There’s one other thing I liked learning about with Jim Grant’s experiences. He had a simple philosophy: “I try to be nice to everybody.” That’s a pretty good idea for everybody, but specifically for journalists who are approaching people and asking for some of their time. I’m not a person who puts a lot of emphasis on etiquette (I can hear Amy laughing already with the use of “a lot” there…), but when people want something from me, they tend to get further with honey than with vinegar. When students send me emails that start with “Dr. Filak” and then they ask for something, I’m probably more inclined to read on and consider it. When I get the salutation of “Hey Filak” or even once “Brah” (not even a “Dear Brah” or “Dear Dr. Brah.” Just “Brah.”), I’m probably less inclined to read it. Why take a strike against you for no good reason right at the start of the at-bat? When you research the person to whom you wish to speak, look for the Ph.D. and address your email, text or call accordingly. As we noted in the interviewing section, let the source dictate the tone of formality and act accordingly. It’s just the smart thing to do.

 

 

“Definitely Doable:” Either hire or fire a pervert and other headline advice for the rest of us.

Whenever someone screws up a headline in the worst of all ways, it doesn’t take long before people I know are shining the Bat Signal in my direction:

Shecky

The headline in question is a little easier to see here along with some context for the story:

Doable

The story about Amelia Benjamin winning the Miss Kansas Outstanding Teen carried the double entendre headline “Definitely Doable,” which includes a term that is that at the heart of this classic SNL skit. When I initially saw the headline, I told the person who asked me about it that this was likely a case of one of two things:

  1. The phrase was in the story somewhere and it made sense there, but out of context, it’s truly horrifying.
  2. Someone in the newsroom did the “I’d do her” joke, wrote the headline as a spoof and said, “We’ll change that before it presses” and never did.

Turns out, it was the first issue, as the story (which has a more appropriate headline on its web version) included this quote:

In Pratt last week, Benjamin said she wasn’t quite sure what to expect because this was her first time participating in the Miss America organization teen pageant.
“It was really hard for me to be away from my family for a week because we are have always been so close, but it was good for me coming here,” she said. “This week taught me that this is definitely doable.“

There are about 93 problems with all this, including that this young woman will be the “definitely doable girl” for a long time, but here’s the worst one: This isn’t the first time the Pratt Tribune has landed in the headlines for a headline. This classic was the Tribune’s as well:

Handjob

We talked about this when it happened, along with a series of other headlines that went awry, and provided some advice to the Trib and other folks who want to avoid these problems. The best advice I can give them after this screw up is to find out what went wrong and do one of two things:

  1. If the same person keeps writing these headlines, fire the pervert before he or she (OK, if I had to put money on it, it’s a he) gets you into even bigger trouble.
  2. If it truly is a situation where nobody really saw either of these headlines as being potentially sexual, hire a pervert to read everything you write and have him or her (probably a him) try to turn anything you type into something dirty.

For the rest of us, here are a couple other headline helpers beyond what we covered last time:

  • Create better headline specs: One of the reasons I’m sure “Definitely Doable” ended up in the paper was because the space left for the headline didn’t give the writer a lot of options. One basic rule we used to have at a paper I worked on was, “If you cut the hole, you need to know how to fill it.” In other words, you can’t give someone a one-column head space for a story about California kindergarten rules under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, unless you can suggest a decent headline for that space.
  • Do a headline throw-down: When you get into a jam with a headline, get away from the computer and do a throw-down session that will give you a fighting chance of coming up with something decent. Create a list of potential nouns, verbs and objects that could tell the story, based on what you read. List everything you can think about and empty your head. If you have some colleagues around, get those folks involved as well. This will provide you with a potential word bank for the headline and a chance to see how certain words might fit that space. If you find a pairing or an NVO structure you like, see if it fits. If it doesn’t, try swapping longer words for shorter ones on your list. Get close and see if some minor tracking or a small reduction in point size would help.
  • Consider a deck: This headline probably wouldn’t have been helped by a deck but other versions might have. If you don’t have the width for a good noun-verb-object headline, see if you have a punchy word or phrase that could be explained well with a deck head, conversation deck, c-deck or whatever else people are calling that secondary headline these days. If you don’t have to win the day with a single headline, you can make the deck head carry the load for you.

And, it goes without saying, think like a 12-year-old boy before you publish something. If that kid can turn your head into a “head” joke, get rid of it. You could always ask for different headline space or simply ask someone else to give it a try. When all is said and done, that headline should be “definitely doable.”

 

 

When life gives you lemons, turn them into marketing gold: Country Time and its “Legal Ade” campaign

If you want to see a perfect example of how to use a stupid situation into a great marketing opportunity, look no further than what Country Time Lemonade is doing this summer.

Stories have emerged throughout the country of over-zealous officials slapping fines on little kids for the crime of running a lemonade stand without a business permit. The argument, somehow, is that trying to peddle the semi-warm watery grave of several gnats for a quarter a cup requires city or state sanctions. Although many have ridiculed these ham-handed approaches to justice, Country Time took it up a notch.

According to Ad Week, Country Time is fighting fire with fire by offering its “Legal Ade” services to the kids who find themselves at the wrong end of the long arm of the law. The program offers to pay the legal fees arising from their entrepreneurship. The company set aside about $60,000 for this program, which is peanuts for the Kraft-owned brand. The free media and attention has got to be worth exponentially more, with major news outlets running glowing stories about this campaign.

If you go back through the marketing chapter in the media writing book, you can see a few reasons why this works and how you can emulate this approach in your writing:

  • Simplicity: The message is an easy one for people to grasp. Kids are getting screwed and we’re standing up for them. This doesn’t go deep into the weeds on how or why or whatever about the law. Instead, it shows sad kids and how the company is giving them a big bat to play ball against the chuckleheads who have hit them with fines.
  • Tone: The whole idea of fining 4-year-olds for running a lemonade stand in their front yard is ridiculous. It smacks of being officious and arrogant, and has the feeling like these governmental agents have so little power in life they have to lord over children. The Country Time campaign plays right back at that vibe with a faux-serious tone: “OK, you think you have the law on your side? Check out our legal dream team that’s gonna make you wish you were never born!” It’s a fantastic approach to take that makes people laugh while still supporting the main assertion: Kids are getting screwed and we’re standing up for them.
  • Strategic relevance: The idea here is to make the creative aspects of the campaign relevant to the product itself. This is a lemonade company standing up for little kids who have lemonade stands. Had kids been getting shafted for running rummage sales or bake sales, this “Legal Ade” campaign wouldn’t work as well. However, this is like Briar Rabbit in the briar patch. The components go together perfectly.

This is a great example of how creativity and circumstance can really propel a brand into the public consciousness. If you see an opportunity to serve your clients when a situation like this emerges, go for it.