Throwback Thursday: A shout-out for gender-equity and making sure you’re sure after Baylor’s NCAA men’s basketball title

A lot of hoops-la (sorry, I had to) was made of the Baylor Bears winning the NCAA men’s basketball title this week. The men’s team had never won a title before and was at least seven decades removed from its last championship game.

However, when writers started talking about it, they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely accurate:

Baylor routs Gonzaga as Bears win first national title, end Zags’ perfect season

‘Make a movie out of it’: Go behind the scenes of Baylor’s first national championship celebration

They did it! Baylor Bears dominate Gonzaga to capture first NCAA basketball championship

The problem? Baylor actually had three previous national championships in basketball… all of them on the women’s side.

Some publications did make the distinction for the readers, but more than a few did not.

So with that in mind, we throw back back to another “first” that wasn’t from three years ago to give people a few helpful hints on reporting sports achievements of this type.

 

3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.

 

  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.

 

  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2

 

This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

A rock star with a heroin problem, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” guy and a foul-mouthed cheerleader: The Suicide Squad of free speech court cases

A frequent joke told among lawyers is that the best case is the one with a carload of nuns as your client and a busload of priests as your witnesses. In most cases, however, it seems more like this scene from “The Wire.”

 

When it comes to First Amendment law, it would be great if we had more cases in which polite, articulate young people like Mary Beth Tinker who quietly wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Her choice led to hate mail and threats, but also a ground-breaking Supreme Court case regarding student free-speech rights. And, looking back on it now, people can understand better her underlying concerns about the war as well as her relatively mild statement against it.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. It also provided protections for students who wish to express themselves against intrusion from school overreach.

Unfortunately, an upcoming case in which a high school student did her best “Scarface” dialogue on Snapchat could be the case that undoes a lot of those protections in a digital age:

In 2017, ninth-grader Brandi Levy said on Snapchat some version of what stressed-out students have been saying on the back of the school bus since the invention of buses: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”

The post was shared on a Saturday afternoon during a trip to the local convenience store, disappeared from Snapchat by Sunday afternoon, and caused no disturbance at school whatsoever—except to irritate the cheerleading coach, who banned Levy from the squad for a year.

She filed suit, and in June 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment by disciplining her for the off-campus speech. Now, the Mahanoy district is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

The case doesn’t matter in regard to that single incident anymore. Levy is now a college student, the cheer team has had a complete turnover in terms of membership and nothing the court could do would change what happened in regard to the punishment levied at the time.

However, if the court decides to overturn that appeals court’s ruling, it could mean that schools can now actively monitor social media and punish students for ANYTHING that appears to be “objectionable.” If that doesn’t scare you, you probably had one of the six “really cool” high school principals I was always told existed somewhere.

Me? I dealt with a lot of nuns and balding guys who wore short-sleeve shirts with brown ties. This is terrifying…

This leads to the point of the post: It seems like we NEVER get the perfect Supreme Court case that perfectly showcases speech that deserves to be protected for the betterment of society. It’s never the student newspaper that was censored for reporting that the principal had stolen money or the kid with the bullhorn outside the school telling people not to eat cafeteria food because the workers were being abused.

It’s always something with an F-bomb, a nude pick or a drug reference that we get to stand behind and say, “Hey, look… You CAN’T censor this because… well… geez…”

We don’t get Superman, Batman, Aquaman or Wonder Woman as our defenders of freedom.

We get The Suicide Squad:

In other words, we get a “mental defective dressed as a court jester,” a “guy who wears a toilet seat on his head” and a “shark with hands,” to quote the red-band trailer I’m not allowed to show you here…

If you think I’m kidding about this, consider the following court cases on important topics:

The landmark case for online speech and defamation? Rocker/Actress/Woman I’d be most scared of meeting in a dark alley Courtney Love won and survived an appeal of her “twibel” case (Twitter plus libel) in 2014. Love, whose outlandish behavior and heroin abuse have long been the subject of media coverage, stated that an attorney had been “bought off” instead of helping Love recoup parts of her late husband’s estate.

A crucial Supreme Court case regarding speech at school sponsored events? Morse v. Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. A student held up a sign at an event proclaiming the cryptic message. When the sign was taken away by school administrators, the student later sued claiming his First-Amendment rights had been violated. The SCOTUS ruled that schools have the right to remove pro-drug messages, even though students have some free speech rights at school.

The case that dealt directly with a reporter’s right to maintain confidential sources? Branzburg v. Hayes, which dealt with reporters being forced to disclose the names of sources who were manufacturing hashish.

And, of course, the case involving satire and hyperbole in regard to public figures comes from the apparent patron saint of this blog, pornographer Larry Flynt.

Now, the question of whether students can get smacked around for writing things on their own time on their own social media that school officials dislike comes down to one foul-mouthed 14-year-old cheerleader.

The problem with all of these cases is that it becomes so much easier to suppress speech that is unpopular, vulgar or otherwise disagreeable.

If the reporters in Branzburg were protecting whistleblowers who had uncovered some sort of dark plot by a foreign government to go all “Red Dawn” on the U.S., it would likely feel better to the courts to support their interests in remaining anonymous.

If the school was trying to suppress speech about the superintendent stealing money from the district to buy weed, maybe a “No Bong Hits 4 Superintendent Smith” sign would have garnered a different outcome.

If Sally Fields had tweeted about potential legal malfeasance (while wearing her “Flying Nun” costume), it might not have felt like the entire future of online free speech hinged on whether the defendant was going to lose her mind on the stand and start throwing things at the jury.

If the cheerleader had done her rant without the f-bomb, maybe the courts would be more inclined to side with her at every level.

However, we don’t get to choose the cases that decide our fate, which is why it’s important to make sure that we stand up for all speech because what one person thinks is a felony charge, others might consider a misdemeanor at best. In the mean time, keep an eye on this one, as it’s got a lot more at stake than a lot of people think.

It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

During the 2020 presidential election, multiple people made claims that the voting systems had been rigged to favor Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Several of then-President Donald Trump’s allies and associates took to various media platforms to repeat these allegations, arguing that the voting systems had been compromised and that any outcome which did not place Trump back in the White House was a result of fraud.

Dominion Voting Systems, which produces many of the electronic voting machines used in the election, apparently isn’t too thrilled about this, as the folks there have filed several lawsuits regarding these claims. It’s gotten so bad that some media outlets are keeping track of who is being sued, for how much and for what reason, like ESPN tracking the movement of NFL free agents.

The most recent suit is one that is most likely of interest to the folks reading the blog, as Dominion filed a $1.6 billion suit Friday against Fox News, alleging the company knew it was allowing lies about the election to proliferate:

In the lawsuit, Dominion argued that Fox and several of its on-air personalities elevated baseless claims about the voting company rigging the 2020 election and allowed falsehoods by their guests to go unchecked, including a wild claim that the company’s machines were manufactured in “Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez” and that Dominion’s algorithm manipulated votes so that then-President Trump would lose.

“Fox engaged in this knowing and reckless propagation of these enormous falsehoods in order to profit off these lies,” reads the lawsuit. “Fox wanted to continue to protect its broadcast ratings, catering to an audience deeply loyal to President Trump.”

The lawsuit argues that there are actual damages to the company’s brand, but also to the workers who are just trying to make a living. The suit notes that Fox’s conduct not only will cost the company more than $600 million in the next eight years, but also that front-line workers have been threatened.

Fox has noted that it will defend itself, having already filed several motions to dismiss and that the company “is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

Here are a few things to take away from this and several other lawsuits filed in regard to the voting systems:

A FREE PRESS IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE-FREE PRESS: A lot of folks misinterpret the First Amendment to mean you are protected against all sorts of things when you publish content. The truth is that all the amendment guarantees is that the government shall not prevent you from publishing material. That’s basically it.

It doesn’t mean that other people can’t stop you, like the owner of a website where you post content, the publisher of a newspaper or a producer at a broadcast station. It also doesn’t mean you can get away with whatever you want without paying the price.

When you say something that is false and harmful, you can be in a lot of trouble, which is why professors push so hard on students to make ABSOLUTELY SURE on every fact in a story. It’s also why editors pick and pick and pick at stories with reporters, as to avoid any potential landmines.

If I get up on Fox News and tell the world that I have information supporting the notion that the chancellor of my university is running a cocaine ring out of the student union in exchange for getting away with a murder he committed in 1987, I’m going to be in a HECK of a lot of trouble because it’s not true and it’s going to harm him.

It also leads to the second point…

UNLIKELY, UNREAL AND COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT THINGS: One of the dumber defenses in a Dominion suit is that of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The company is suing her for $1.3 billion, arguing she knowingly spread a baseless claim that Dominion and another voting system company were working with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to rig the election.

Powell has argued in motions to dismiss that her claims were so outlandish that nobody in their right mind would believe them:

It was just conjecture. No reasonable person would conclude those allegations were true statements of fact. Besides, in heated political arguments, people tend to exaggerate. You should dismiss the lawsuit or at least move it to my home state.

That’s essentially the defense offered by Sidney Powell’s lawyers to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Denver-based voting Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. Dominion provides voting equipment to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in 28 states including Colorado.

We’ve talked about this kind of claim earlier this year when porn mogul Larry Flynt died. The “no reasonable person” defense was at the core of his Supreme Court appeal, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for publishing a spoof advertisement involving him. Flynt won the appeal with a unanimous decision, but before Powell pops open the champagne, I’d consider these issues:

  • Flynt was publishing a porn mag, known for all sorts of really outlandish stuff, including a photo of a woman being stuffed into a meat grinder. Powell was on nightly news outlets and other media platforms purporting to deliver truthful information gathered from inside sources.
  • Flynt’s ad claimed that the highly religious Falwell lost his virginity by having sex with his mother and a goat in an outhouse, which is almost the textbook definition of outlandish. Powell was claiming election fraud, something other countries had experienced and something that people within the government were also stating as fact.
  • Flynt was a strip-club owner who published pictures of naked people in magazines that had been banned in multiple cities. Powell had been a counselor to the president of the United States.

When it comes to the idea of hyperbole and satire, or otherwise outlandish things, you have a pretty high bar to clear if you want to be on safe side of that argument. Had Flynt claimed that Falwell stole money from his congregation, he would have likely been on much shakier ground, given that other high-profile preachers had been accused or convicted of such things. The same thing could be said had he claimed Falwell had slept with prostitutes or committed adultery, given the climate of the time. However, nobody reading the Campari spoof thought, “Wow! Reverend Jerry is a really kinky guy! Guess you learn something new every day…”

Powell’s defense in this case is that nobody could have believed a legal expert who worked with the president in regard to voting irregularities when she said the company responsible for voting reliability failed in its task. I’m really interested to see how that plays out, but more out of morbid curiosity to see if the judge can keep a straight face throughout the trial, not because it’ll set a new precedent.

THE MUDDLING OF OPINION AND FACT IS ALWAYS A CONCERN: When I teach basic media writing to students, one of the hardest things for them to figure out is what is an opinion and what is a fact. It often comes down to me scrawling “SAYS WHO?” on their paper 183 times before they understand what they can say and what they shouldn’t say. Occasionally, we would have the discussion of “You are wearing a black shirt. That is a fact. You are wearing a NICE black shirt. That is my opinion.”

Cable news organizations have long muddied the waters of what is opinion and what is fact, almost to the point where people either don’t know the difference or don’t care as long as it matches up with what they believe. I often wonder if a lot of high-profile people end up buying their own BS to the point that they themselves think, “If I believe it, it must be true.”

Journalism pushes harder on people to verify information, clarify where the information originated and remain rigorous in reporting only what we can prove. At least, that’s the goal we have in mind when it comes to separating opinion from fact.

To help us clarify the distinctions a bit better, the U.S. Court of Appeals offered a four-step examination as part of its ruling in Ollman v. Evans (1984) to help people see if a statement falls into the realm of fact or opinion:

Can the statement be proved true or false? Courts have held that factual statements can be proved true or false. A statement like “The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series championships” can be proved true or false by examining their records in the annals of baseball. The truth or falsity of a statement like “The New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever” cannot be determined, because it lacks several key elements for us to examine. In a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false, and this can be the case only if the material of a factual, as opposed to an opinion-based, nature.

What is the common or ordinary meaning of the words? People often use euphemistic language in their daily discourse. If you referred to a sloppy person as a pig, that person might be upset, but they can’t win a libel suit by demonstrating that they are not “an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.” The common meaning that the person has poor personal hygiene or fails to keep their home neat and clean is clearly the way in which most people would interpret that remark.

What is the journalistic context of the remark? Who is saying something and the way in which they are saying it matter greatly in determining if something is a fact or not. For example, if you’re telling a joke involving two men walking into a bar, people are clearly expecting something different than if you are testifying in front of Congress. Content published on the news pages of a legacy media outlet is contextually different from a series of blog posts on a goofball-based website that would make the staff at the National Enquirer roll their eyes. The statements made on air during a newscast are contextually different from those made on a “morning zoo” radio show.

What is the social context of the remark? Where we tend to see opinions and where we tend to see facts often help define which are which. For example, a lecture on the biology related to procreation is expected to be based in facts, while two groups of protesters confronting each other outside an abortion clinic will be a more heated and opinionated exchange.

 

 

Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

(Are you the most important thing in the story? Probably not. So stop telling me you asked people stuff…)

 

One of the weaker writing trends that’s been popping up in a lot of writing lately has been the use of “when asked” as part of a lead-in to a quote, or in some cases, as part of a quote:

When asked if he supported the bill, the mayor said, “Not this stupid version.”

When asked about the how best to improve relations between the university and the town, the chancellor said, “We need to work together on this.”

When asked if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, President Joe Biden had this to say.

Here’s What Alex Rodriguez Said When Asked If He Was Single Amid Jennifer Lopez Relationship Drama

This is dumb for about a dozen reasons, but here are a few that might matter to you as a journalist:

  1. It’s passive voice: “When asked” implies “by someone,” which means you’re introducing the quote from a weak grammatical position.
  2. It’s first person: “When asked by… ME! LOOK! I ASKED A QUESTION!” Are we that thirsty that we need to mention that we had the temerity to ask a guy at the fair how the corn dogs were this year?
  3. It’s a “No duh” moment: Of COURSE they said it when they were asked. Isn’t that how this normally works in life? Think about how weirded out you’d be if some random stranger just ran up to you and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you and all the readers of whatever story that you’ll be publishing that the corn dogs at this fair are FRICKIN’ AMAZING!” I don’t know about you, but I’d be backing away slowly or reaching for some pepper spray.

In the examples above, we have a few other problems as well:

  1. The setup incorporates lousy quoted material: In the first two versions, you get really bad quotes that don’t do a lot for the piece or for the reader. Neither of those quotes add value or quality in a complete quote kind of way. The chancellor quote is lame, while the mayor quote isn’t a full sentence. You can actually make these better through the use of either straight paraphrase or a partial quote:
    1. Mayor Jane Smith said she sees value in a voting-security bill but “not this stupid version,” which would require citizens to cite the pledge of allegiance backwards before casting a ballot.
    2. North Texarkansas State University and the city will continue to clash over parking restrictions unless the city council and the college can work together to resolve ticketing protocols, Chancellor Arlene Selridge said Tuesday.
  2. The set up tells me that you’re going to tell me something: In the latter two, you have actual examples of journalists telling us that they’re going to tell us something. In the Cuomo example, the build up to what the president had to say is the bulk of what’s going on in the sentence. It then leaves us with a “commercial cliffhanger” for that second paragraph. In the A-Rod/J-Lo one, we don’t even get the decency of a full chunk of information as to what that “drama” entails.

    Think about it like this: If your professor walked into the classroom and said, “I have graded your midterms.” Would that be the ONLY thing you’d want to know? Probably not. Then imagine the professor saying, “I have graded your midterms. When asked by my wife how well people did, here’s what I had to say!” Is it getting any better or are you thinking, “Can I use The Force to pull mine out of the pile or an X-power to read his mind and just get my damn grade?”

The reason that paraphrase-quote works well is because each chunk of that structure has a job: The paraphrase tells you something important that will get you deeper into the piece. The quote then provides flavor, color and “sparkle” to that topic of interest while not repeating what you already know.

“When asked” takes away the best parts of both of those elements.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were asked…

Throwback Thursday: Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

A friend of mine sent me a message about how her students were struggling with lead writing because they kept thinking chronologically, missing bigger issues or generally just wandering through the news like a kid who lost their mom at Walmart.

So, for this Throwback Thursday, I picked through all my lead-writing posts for something inspirational and I think I found it.

Of all the lead suggestions I have given over the years, this one might be the best: Look for the “vomit moment.” I hope it helps.


Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.

 

After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.

 

SLAPPing around a grocery clerk: A prominent Georgia family decided to sue a service-industry worker for saying accurate things about them on social media

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bully.

Saying that, however, could have some pretty costly consequences if the Cagle family of Pickens County, Georgia has its way.

The Cagles have filed a suit against Rayven Goolsby, a grocery clerk, for criticizing them on social media for their presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and other statements they made on Facebook about various political and social concerns.

Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”

Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”

(Goolsby’s lawyer Andrew) Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.

One of the primary things we emphasize in journalism is that if you present information that is factually accurate, you are safe from harm when it comes to libel suits and other claims of defamation. What we really mean is that you’re not going to lose a suit if you write that your governor stole $6 million from the state to build a replica of Graceland in his backyard, if you can prove that this actually happened.

That said, getting sued itself can be a painful process that will costs you time and money, while subjecting you to a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. The only real saving grace of being sued as a staff reporter is that you are working for an organization that has lawyers and managers who will take on the brunt of the costs and work with you.

As an individual operating on a social media platform, you take on the role of “publisher” without having all those helping hands and financial backstops to make life a little less terrible. That said, what we have here is pretty clearly a case of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a SLAPP case, as anti-slapp.org explains:

These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.

We’ve talked about SLAPPs before on the blog, including the one that comedian John Oliver faced involving a coal magnate and a giant talking squirrel. To prevent this kind of thing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP laws, which can force plaintiffs to prove they’re not using the courts as a cudgel to shut people up.

According to anti-SLAPP.org, Georgia actually has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law on its books, which states that if a person is found to have engaged in a SLAPP suit, the case will be dismissed and that person is on the hook for legal fees and costs incurred by the person they “SLAPPed.”

In other words, if you have a great deal of money and plan to use it to sue someone into silence, it might end up costing you some additional cash in a way you hadn’t planned on.

Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

A number of folks had been asking for some help with an open-records/Freedom-of-Information-Act assignment, so I thought this might be a good time to add it to the mix on the Corona Hotline help page.

What I’ve got here is the assignment my junior-level course is doing regarding open record requests. They’re required to FOIA something in a formal fashion, get the records and write something decent out of it.

(Yes, I know, “FOIA” refers to the federal government and its open records policies etc., while states have “sunshine laws” or “openness standards” or whatever else. I explain the difference, but you can’t turn “sunshine law” into a verb, which is why FOIA is much cooler…)

I’ve also uploaded some appendix work I did in advance of the second edition of the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It lays out a basic letter and explains why it works the way it does.

(Yes, I know there are open-records templates and open-record-request generators online,  but I have them work off of something like this so they can not only get used to doing it, but to see how each piece works. It’s like the difference between buying a new carburetor and rebuilding your old one: If you take it apart and put it back together, you learn how and why it operates the way it does, which can be inordinately helpful in life.)

Students of mine have done some incredible work with this kind of thing, or just answered basic questions like “How much money does the parking department make off of expired-meter tickets?” and “How many people got busted for public urination during this year’s “Pub Crawl?” It’s less about breaking the next Watergate story and more about learning the process. In addition, it helps them figure out what kinds of things they can get and what those items can tell them.

Hope it helps!

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

Throwback Thursday: So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

This blog post from three years ago kept popping up as a “suggested read” for me on various other posts, so I think it’s the blogging gods’ way of saying it needs a rerun.

Not to get into an Academy Award speech or anything, but I have to say I’ve been really, really blessed and really, really lucky that folks seemed to take a liking to my books. I’m grateful to you all every day because, as we say in the first chapter of every book, if I don’t have an audience, nothing else matters.

The folks at SAGE sent along the cover for the upcoming third edition for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” text, which should be out this August or September, I believe. I’m finishing the copy edits now with my main man, Jim Kelly. (If anyone you know ever tells you that copy editors don’t matter, send them my way for a firm and thorough verbal beat down. Jim has saved my keester so many times, I lost track.)

In case you wanted a sneak peek, here you go:

So, without further ado (or book pimping), here’s a look at what happens when you don’t have a good marketing staff to do your research and you end up on the embarrassing end of an email exchange with someone. (Rest assured, the folks at SAGE are great at marketing, and I can pretty much already guess who’s going to email me with a reminder to “please stop using the phrase ‘book pimping’ on your blog.”)


 

So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

I understand this blog tends to skew more toward news than some folks might appreciate, given that my entire pitch for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” is that ALL disciplines of media (news, PR, Ad, marketing etc.) can get something of value out of it. The skew is due to trying to cover both the media-writing text and the news reporting and writing text in one spot. It also also comes from the idea that a lot of things people perceive as “news” things are actually valuable for all media, including skills like interviewing, research, inverted-pyramid writing and so forth. Finally, it seems that news folks tend to make more public mistakes than do some of the other disciplines, so I get more content there. (If you want me to hit on more topics in the PR/Ad/Marketing stuff, feel free to pitch me some thoughts. I’d love to do it.)

That said, occasionally there is a specific foul up in a specific part of the field that bears some analysis. Consider that when you look at this email I got the other day. I redacted the identifiers as best I could:

Dear Professor Filak,

​Greetings from (COMPANY NAME)! ​I hope this finds you well. In the coming months, (AUTHOR NAMES) will begin to revise the twelfth edition of their introductory journalism text, (REPORTING BOOK NAME). ​This text strives to give students the knowledge and skills they need to master the nuts and bolts of news stories, as well as guidance for landing a job in an evolving journalism industry.
Right now we are seeking instructors to review the twelfth edition of (REPORTING BOOK NAME) ​a​nd provide feedback. This input is invaluable to us, ​as it ​giv​es​ us a greater sense of how to best address both instructor and student needs. ​If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon, would you be interested in offering your feedback?
If you would like to review, please respond to this email and let me know if you will need a copy of the printed text. You should plan to submit your comments via TextReviews by 2/6/18. In return for your help, we would like to offer you (MONEY).
At your earliest convenience, kindly respond to this e-mail to let me know if you are available and interested in participating. ​Again, please let me know if you will need a copy of (REPORTING BOOK NAME)
I’m always happy to help people and I’m not averse to making a buck by pretending to know what I’m talking about, but this felt both awkward and ridiculous. One of the things both “Dynamics” books push a lot is the idea of making sure you know what you’re talking about before you ask a question. The books also push the idea of researching your audience members so you know how best to approach them. Either the person writing this email didn’t do that or just didn’t care.
Here’s how I know that: It’s called “Google.”
Had this person done even a basic search on me she would have learned several things:
  • I am teaching the courses they associate with this book. I teach nothing but these courses, as you can find on the UWO journalism department website. The line of “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” tells me I’m on a list somewhere and this is a form email at best.
  • I wrote several books, including one that is likely to be some form of competition for this book. (I’m not saying it will be as good or better or anything, but my title includes words like “news,” “reporting” and “writing,” so it’s a pretty safe bet we’re vying for the same students.) This was literally one of the top five items on the first page of my Google search. She also sent her message the same day I got this alert from Amazon:NumberOne
    (I have no idea how Amazon quantifies “#1 New Release in Journalism” but I’ll take it.)

    The point is, it wasn’t a secret, so it appeared that she didn’t look me up and was like the guy at the bar telling me, “Hey, see that babe over there? I’m totally going to score with her!” and I’m like, “Uh, dude, that’s my wife…”
    On the other hand, maybe she did look me up, found the book and asked anyway, which is like the even-worse guy at the bar who’s saying, “Hey man, your wife is pretty hot. Any chance you can give me some tips on how to score with her?”

Thinking about all of that for a moment, I did the polite thing and emailed back, explaining how I felt this would be a conflict of interest (it is), and that any advice I gave her would be likely be somewhat problematic as the author of a competing book (it is).  I also noted that I know the book she is pitching well (I do) and I know the authors well (I do), so this would also be a bit awkward for me (it really is). Here was her email back to me, which again made me think she wasn’t actually reading this:

Hi Professor Filak,

Thanks so much for letting me know. We will certainly keep you in mind for future projects!

So, again, the point of the blog isn’t to beat people up for doing things poorly but rather to offer advice on how to do things better. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Research first, then write: You don’t have to do an Ancestry.com profile on every person to whom you market or with whom you engage in outreach, but it’s not hard to Google someone. Most people put more social-media stalking effort into learning about the “new kid” at school than this person put into finding out about me. In marketing, you often have access to proprietary data as well, so you can find out if this person had any previous engagement with your organization. In my case, I used that book for more than a decade and still keep up with it, so that might have been something she could have found.
  • Personalize when possible: If you are sending out 100,000 requests for something like a survey and you are expecting a 10 percent response, you will not have the ability to personalize all of the information on everyone’s card or email. That makes sense. However, when you are microtargeting a group of people with a specific set of skills or interests and that group isn’t going to overwhelm a data center, work on personalizing your content. That line about “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” could have easily been tweaked to say something like, “I see you have taught writing and reporting courses at UW-Oshkosh…” and it wouldn’t have taken much. Making these minor tweaks shows that you have done your research. Engaging in some personalized communication shows your readers you care enough to see them as individuals as opposed to a wad of names on a spreadsheet.
  • Try not to screw up, but if you do, don’t ignore it: The one thing that stuck with me when I got that response email from her was that I didn’t think she figured out what she was actually asking me or why it was weird. I had that feeling that if I had written her back and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do this because I’ve just been placed in an intergalactic prison for the rest of my life for murdering a flock of Tribbles with a phaser I set to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun,’” I would have gotten the exact same email back. The whole exchange really reminded me of this scene:
 The thing that is important to realize is that you are going into a field that has two important and scary things going for it:
  1. It’s small enough that you’re really about two degrees of separation from everyone else, so people know other people.
  2. People in the field love to talk.

If you end up screwing up because you didn’t do the first two things suggested above, don’t compound the problem.

I have no idea if I’ll ever get approached by this publisher to review anything, but I know I will always carry with me the memory of this interaction. Had it been a great interaction, that would have been good for the publisher. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Hill He Chose to Die On: Ex-NY Times Reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. uses about 21,000 words to explain how one word cost him his job

My friend Allison and I spent much of the past 25 years talking each other out of doing pathologically dumb things. When it seemed one of us was on the precipice of jumping off Mount Stupid into Idiocy Lake, the other would ask a simple question:

“Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?”

It’s the question that kept us out of a lot of trouble because it asked us to open the aperture of our lens, pull way out on the shot and look at the totality of what we were doing. It essentially asked, “If everything goes wrong, nothing works out right and you get every bad outcome, are you OK with this choice you are about to make?”

In most cases, the answer was “no,” so we went back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. On rare occasion, the answer was “yes,” so we gave it everything we got and hoped for the best, or at least prayed to avoid the worst.

I thought about that today because Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times decided to make a stand amid increasing scrutiny regarding complaints about his use of language in front of high school students. He found out the hard way that, sometimes, when you say you’re willing to die on that hill, that’s exactly what happens.

The Daily Beast decided to run a piece on McNeil last month that focused on a trip he took to Peru with a group of high-school students in 2019. The students and their parents complained at the time about his activities there, according to the article, including his use of “wildly offensive and racists comments.” In that article, the authors cite at least two student complaints that he used the “N-word,” a charge McNeil didn’t deny.

The paper investigated the incident when it occurred and basically did very little in terms of punitive measures. McNeil received a letter of reprimand that stated he would not represent The Times on any more of trips of that kind and that if he screwed up again, he’d get punished and perhaps terminated.

When The Daily Beast came calling for a comment in February, the paper went into crisis mode and begged McNeil to basically apologize for everything anyone involved in that situation accused him of doing. McNeil declined to do so for a variety of reasons, which eventually led him to become an “ex-New York Times” writer as of March 1.

A situation involving a white person using a racist term and subsequently receiving life-altering punishment isn’t new or novel. What does make this situation different, however, is that McNeil decided to outline the entirety of the event and the subsequent fall out from it in a four-part essay on Medium.

McNeil took to Medium to outline his case for what happened on that fateful trip to Peru and why he decided to resign.

The series runs about 21,000 words and McNeil notes that it was vetted by two lawyers prior to publication. A kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this can be found in articles written for the New York Times and The Daily Beast.

McNeil relies on emails, notes and other artifacts from the 2019 situation, noting spots where his memory was used to fill in gaps or clarify situations. He also states that he built this based on fact, not opinion, although that’s clearly not always the case. When you are the lens through which you ask readers to view something, it’s tough to say the picture you create is perfectly representative of reality.

That said, I would recommend anyone to give this a read, along with the coverage of McNeil’s response. It’s a different experience to see something of this length discussing a topic of this type, especially in today’s 24/7, 280-character, InstaPot news cycle.

I read it at least twice from top to bottom and thought it probably could lose about 20% without missing much. McNeil gets repetitive in his statements, particularly in his efforts to explain how and why a sexagenarian found himself using the most disgusting racial pejorative in front of a group of high school students. It also gets a little too far into some “inside baseball” in regard to the NYT, its guild, personal conflicts and more.

Here are a few other takeaways:

IS WE LEARNING YET?: It can’t be said loudly enough, often enough, in enough venues and in enough situations, but we’ll try this once again for the white guys who might not have heard this the first 843,534,233,901 times someone has said this…

DON’T. USE. THAT. WORD. EVER.

I can’t state this with absolute certainty, but if I had to place a bet on this, I’d wager that if McNeil had done all the other things he copped to but NOT said that word, he’d probably still be working at the Times.

According to the essay, which is the only source for this particular aspect of the situation, a student on the trip used that word in a question to McNeil regarding some social media video that had landed some other kid in trouble. McNeil then repeated the term in asking for context about its usage for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

The degree to which this situation is right, fair or anything else, is completely up for debate among people much smarter and better than me. That said, once that word entered the picture, it was like so many other “third-rail topics” we’ve discussed here over the years.

McNeil noted in his writing that he didn’t see himself as a racist and that he’d been to more than 60 countries in his decades-long career at the Times. I’m sure both of those things are true, in that he doesn’t see himself that way and that he isn’t an uneducated, xenophobic rube who views anyone not born within six miles of their family homestead with suspicion.

What’s also true is that he damned well should have known better than to use that word.

THE NYT IS FULL OF COWARDLY WEASELS: I’ve read several “exposes” on the Times before, including “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin, which looks at the Jayson Blair scandal and the paper’s horrible history on the issue of race. The paper often takes a beating for some pretty good reasons in regard to not being as representative, forward-thinking or enlightened when it comes to this issue and several others of similar importance.

That said, it’s still the New York FRICKIN’ Times. It’s the big boy on the block, the 800-pound gorilla in the room and the standard bearer for the concept of free press and its value to our society. It wins Pulitzer Prizes by the boatload for the sheer dint of being the Times and for having the tenacity of a dog with a Frisbee when it comes to important journalistic endeavors. Its name is on some of the most important Supreme Court cases of our time and it is the go-to for people who still believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Yet, when a tripe-filled Dumpster fire like The Daily Beast decides to report a story two years after the event itself, utilizing the reportorial skill set of the former editor of the National Enquirer to do so, this bastion of First Amendment prowess decides to run around looking for a bed to hide under?

Gimme a break.

Gimme another one if the story that McNeil told about the run up to his ouster from the paper is in any way close to accurate. In outlining his meeting with the administrative big-wigs, McNeil states that the paper wasn’t going to fire him, but they encouraged him to “think about” resigning over this.

McNeil’s answer was right on the money: If I resign, I’m basically copping to all of this and agreeing that I am the a–hole this story says I am. (McNeil liberally refers to himself as an a–hole throughout his pieces, so I don’t think he’d mind me stealing from his act here.)

As quoted in the McNeil essays, executive editor Dean Baquet told McNeil he had “lost the newsroom” and that people wouldn’t work with him because of this situation. What followed was essentially the NYT brass saying, “Will you pleeeeeease think about MAYBE just resigning? Please?”

Look, if you really think this guy should no longer work for your paper because he did something so horrible that nobody will work with him, grab yourself some guts and fire this guy. Just step out and say, “I don’t care what the situation, circumstance or context is. If you say that word or commit offenses like these, you will not work here. That’s the long and short of it.” Don’t ask the guy to throw himself in front of a bus because you’re too scared to make a move.

If you DON’T think this is a fireable offense, and you think the newsroom is really about to break out the pitchforks and torches, have the guts to stand up and say, “I don’t like what he said or did, but I’m not going to let two twerps from a glorified blog push around an institution as venerable and storied as ours. Neither should you. If you really have a problem with this guy or this situation, stand up, tell him and hash it out. If you can’t do that, go LiveJournal it out of your head or send some ‘unnamed source’ comments to one of your friends at another publication, but that’s going to be the end of it. I’m standing up for the paper and I’d stand up for any one of you who suddenly saw your entire career flash before your eyes, so let’s get back to work.”

If your paper can take on the Nixon White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, it can weather this storm.

AWARE, NOT TERRIFIED, SHOULD BE THE PREFERRED STATE OF BEING: Stop for a moment and realize that every second you are alive could be your last one. Any one of a million or more things could kill you, both from the inside (cancer, heart disease, brain aneurysm) or the outside (car accident, fire). You are not guaranteed anything, nor will you likely know the moment at which you will cease to exist.

If you want to come to grips with that information, you can go one of two ways: Awareness or terror.

If you choose awareness, you can make smarter decisions about how you live life. You can quit smoking, eat better and work out with the hopes of driving down the risks associated with those potential internal killers. You can employ safety measures like buckling up each time you ride in a car, avoiding texting and driving and apply maintenance to your car that will make it safer to drive. Again, there are no guarantees, but it puts you in a better position to extend your life than NOT doing these things.

If you choose terror, you’re going to see potential death around every corner. You’ll obsess about every twitch in your body as the early warning sign of something that WebMD will confirm as cancer. You’ll lock yourself in a house like Miss Havisham and coat yourself in bubble wrap to avoid potentially fatal incidents. In short, you’ll basically stop living your life in hopes of prolonging it.

I thought a lot about this in reading the pieces McNeil wrote because I honestly worry that people are going to see what happened here and drop into terror mode when it comes to the complex issues that really need to be addressed in our society. If we are constantly afraid that anything we do could come back and bite us in the keester, we’re never going to go outside of our comfort zones. We’re going to cower in a corner and worry that every offense is a death penalty offense, so let’s just not go there.

Being aware of the needs of others, the pain people can cause each other and the perspectives of others means that we’re going to behave in a way that tries to create improvements in society. Being terrified that we’re going to get whacked in an instant, no matter how many positive marks we have on our side of the ledger, is going to lead to a lot more people who know a lot less about a lot of other people.

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR CHOOSING YOUR HILL: I don’t know how any of you feel about this situation or anything I’ve written about it. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to feel about a lot of it.

What I do know is that McNeil has a lot more courage than I do.

He could have done what was asked of him. He could have said how he was sorry and that he’s going to attend some training or something and that he never should have thought about that word or those things or anything and just promised that he’d do the right thing, whatever that was, the next time he faced this situation, the Good Lord willing.

Instead, he said, “This is my hill. Win or lose, I’m willing to die here.”

Say what you want to about the choice, but there is something to be said for having the courage to decide that this is where you want to make your stand.

So many of us are willing to acquiesce to whatever others want because we are fearful of what will happen if we rock the boat. We sell out at the first sign of danger. To quote George Carlin’s line about getting mugged, we essentially say, “Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone!”

McNeil went the other way and it cost him everything he’d spent decades building in a career he’d had since the term “copy boy” was an actual thing.

There’s something to be said for that, regardless of if you think he made the right choice.

The Junk Drawer: A Whole Lotta Awkward Edition

It just dawned on me that there are about six rolls of Scotch Tape in here…

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

OLIVIA MUNN, ASSAULT SUSPECT? We talk about misplaced modifiers all the time here on the site, ranging from the underwear thief who was apparently threatening underpants to politicians who “plan to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the Capitol.”  Here’s one that caught me at first and I really didn’t know which way was up:

The way this reads, it sounds like Olivia Munn jumped in and helped with a beat down, something we could totally understand, given her “Newsroom” character Sloan Sabbith’s bad-ass nature:

The truth is, Munn helped identify the guy who did the attacking, as this other media outlet’s story clearly shows.

If I were the folks at Now This, I’d fix this before she makes it to the rage phase.

Speaking of misconstruing things….

HAL HOLBROOK, PORN STAR?: The legendary actor Hal Holbrook died on Feb. 2 at the age of 95. He was well known for multiple roles he did, especially his portrayal of Mark Twain in his one-man show that ran for decades.

In looking at one publication’s announcement of his death, I had to do a double-take, though, wondering if he’d actually had a side hustle in the adult-film industry:

The reference here to him as a “Deep Throat actor” had me gagging (sorry, had to…) because of what it was saying: He was an actor in the film “Deep Throat.” (For those of you who don’t know, “Deep Throat” was a hardcore porn film, starring Linda Lovelace that became the most successful adult film in history. Research this on your own, as I’m not even THINKING about adding a link here… )

What ACTUALLY happened was that Holbrook was an actor in “All The President’s Men,” where he PLAYED the unnamed source that kept feeding Woodward and Bernstein information about the Watergate scandal. The source, who eventually was revealed to be W. Mark Felt of the FBI, was given the “code name” of “Deep Throat.”

Thus, there’s a big difference between an actor PORTRAYING Deep Throat and an actor PARTICIPATING in Deep Throat.

Speaking of things going wrong…

IF YOU THINK ZOOMBOMBING IS BAD: Students often have “Joe Jobs” that pay the rent (and the bar tab) at a variety of bars, restaurants, stores and more, thus giving them a keen eye for thing that are happening that the rest of us might miss. These moments of “REALLY?!?!” can lead to some great stories.

Case in point: We were talking about this kind of thing in my reporting class, when a student mentioned he worked at Walmart. I asked him if he noticed any trends in terms of people shopping differently, certain items going out of stock more recently or any other such thing. He replied, “No, but we’ve been having some situations with the TVs, now that people have figured out they’re all Bluetooth compatible.”

Turns out, people walking past the TVs notice that their mobile devices want to sync with the big screens, a great feature if you’re at home and you want to show your friends a phone video you shot of your class project or something.  When you’re at Walmart? With a wall full of screens that you can control and nobody can figure out who is doing it?

(If you don’t see where this is going yet, you might want to skip J-School and get going on that successful career in the “naturally oblivious” industry…)

“We’ve been seeing a lot of-” (I stopped him here and begged him to remember I was recording this for the online kids and that I really liked my job) “- ADULT WEBSITES on those screens,” he said.

Walmart has been trying to figure out how to deal with this (and the displeasure of parents who now have a lot of explaining to do to their  grade-schoolers) all to no avail. Could be worth a couple calls.

And, finally, speaking of dogged reporting…

AN UPDATE ON PAT SIMMS: Last week, I posted a piece about one of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, Pat Simms, and her bout with cancer. Folks with a much longer history with Pat also shared their thoughts and stories about her, with a lot of them focusing on her toughness. (“My favorite Pat technique was ‘umbrage,'” a long-time colleague of hers told me. “She could, with a look, tell a politician that no, I don’t believe that for a minute.”)

Pat’s daughter, Sara, has set up a Caringbridge account for people who want updates on her situation or to share supportive and kind messages with her.

I made a point of emailing Sara the link to the piece I wrote, so she could share it with Pat. Sara told me she enjoyed it and that she mentioned it to her mom. The reaction was classic Pat:

I told her about it and she said it was so nice but ‘ I’m not dead yet ‘