Be “Marshmallow Alert:” Four more things that will prevent your first media-writing class from sucking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many places start up again on Jan. 7, here’s a post to help start up the new year. We will return to our regular posting schedule next week. -VFF)

A year or two ago, I tried to be inspirational for new students who were entering their first media-writing course with a post on the “Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking.” As you can tell by the headline, inspiration isn’t my forte.

Still, with the start of the new year, new semester and new set of classes for many of you, feel free to flip back to the previous version and then enjoy these Filak-isms to help add some merriment (and some thinking points) to your first couple days :

Be “Marshmallow Alert” in Class: I have always taught in small labs because writing, reporting and editing courses were set up that way wherever I worked. I also had the benefit of classrooms where I could see everything students were doing on their monitors and phones. Thus, when I noticed people were screwing around, I could call them out by name (another benefit of small classes) and they would re-engage pretty easily.

That didn’t mean some students didn’t try to engage every electric device they owned short of a curling iron and a Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset to avoid paying attention to me, but I did my best. (My “best” somehow included ripping the power cable out of the back of an iMac and once texting a young lady’s boyfriend three poop emojis and a snowflake after snatching her phone in mid-text.)

However, when I ended up having to teach a mini-pit class with 50 or so students, I wasn’t able to apply that same level of personal call outs and electronic monitoring, so I went a little old school in my solution. I built a marshmallow gun out of PVC piping and loaded ‘er up for each class. When I saw someone dinking around after a couple  warnings, I fired off a round or two in that person’s general direction. That really freaked them out.

By the time that class was done, I was a regular Annie Oakley. It was almost sad that they became so attentive that they didn’t even want to challenge my accuracy any more. That said, the class started participating a lot more and started doing a bit better on graded stuff.

The point is, don’t just vaguely pay attention in class. Pay attention as if a momentary distraction could get you drilled with a tiny white pellet of sugar and then mocked by a room filled with your peers.

Don’t just be alert. Be “Marshmallow Alert.”


Use the “Buffet vs. Cost” Theory:

Question: Why is it that so many people eat to the point of exploding while at a buffet?

Apparently, stomach pains, bloating and that constant regurge of generic-soft-serve-vanilla-with-Gummy-Bears taste are all part of getting one’s “money’s worth” out of  a buffet. If this were a sit-down restaurant, these people wouldn’t eat half that much (except for my kid, who would eat the entire bread basket and hide crackers in her socks), but at a buffet, hey, let’s go for death!

When it comes to your education, particularly a writing course in your area of study, you are paying a ridiculous amount of money, or at least a lot more than what the Golden Corral will charge you on “Shrimp Night.” With that in mind, it’s baffling to me that students skip classes, drift off in class and refuse to answer any questions. That’s like going to the Coral (or your own regional buffet of choice) and saying, “Let me pay double for this, but all I want is one of those sprigs of parsley and a cracker, please.”

To heck with that. Gorge yourself.

Ask questions in class, be that annoying kid who always has an anecdote for every example the professor has, visit office hours to go over your graded work to find areas of improvement, color-tab the crap out of your AP style book and more. Get your money’s worth out of this, especially since you’ll actually benefit from the stuff you learn in the writing class. (This is in no way meant to disparage that “Quest Class” on Ancient Babylonian Calf Roping you are forced to take in your Gen Ed program, but trust me when I tell you that media writing is a skill employers will heavily value.)


Embrace Your Inner 4-year-old: Anyone who has spent more than 35 seconds in the presence of a 4-year-old knows the only question any of them seems to ask is “Why?” It eventually gets to the point that you want to hand the kid a fork and tell him/her to go play with the toaster. The thing is, though, they really want to understand stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t get why they can’t stay up past 8 p.m., watch another cartoon or give the hamster a bath in the toilet. They have this sense that those are all logical propositions and they really feel like the adults should have to justify the “No” answer to those requests.

When it comes to your media writing class, embrace your inner 4-year-old, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Students have no problem asking “WHY?” when it comes to things like “Why is my grade so low if I turned in almost everything?” or “Why do we have to take the midterm when it’s so nice outside?” (Two questions I’ve actually heard.) However, when it comes to things that are more about learning and improving and less about point deductions and the one sunny day a year we get in Wisconsin, I have found students are quieter than a church mouse on Sunday.

Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about your work. Don’t ask questions about the grade, because, as we explained in the previous edition of this list, your grade will not haunt you for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t understand why you can’t write a news story in chronological order or why it pays to have at least one or two of the W’s (and maybe even the H) in your lead, you’re going to be in trouble.

Talk to your professor whenever you get work back and you don’t understand what made something wrong. Don’t focus on the points or the grade, but rather on the underlying rationale behind the negative outcomes and you’ll be able to improve moving forward.


Now is the Time to Care: I know this is cheating because I pulled it from the last list, but it bears repeating. I can’t remember a semester like the one I just had where students treated the final grades I filed as the start of a bargaining session. (It literally felt like something out of contract negotiation: “Dr. Filak, I see you have proposed a D for me here. What I’d like to do is counter with a B- and see where we can find some common ground…”) The time to care about this stuff is now, so look at what it is that you can do to keep yourself on the right side of the best outcomes possible.

I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

Semester Wrap: Let me know how things went

With finals week wrapping up out here, it’s time to take a break from the blog until the start of the next semester. Feel free to pop in on occasion, as I might have something happening here or there between now and the latter part of January, but the daily grind will officially grind to a halt today.

INSTRUCTORS: If you have found a hole in your curriculum that you would like filled before next term, please contact me and I’ll work on filling it over the break. Also, if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the blog, the books or me in general, feel free to hit me up as well.

STUDENTS: I hope this has been helpful to you. If not, let me know WHY that was the case and I’ll work on fixing it before next term. Simply saying “You suck” isn’t going to help me and, besides, I know that already… If you like something and want to see more of it, you can tell me that, too.

May you have a fun holiday season with whatever it is you do when you’re not here.

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

3 reasons why censoring student media is the dumbest thing you can do as an administrator

The students at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, just got a top-notch education in the area of journalism, censorship and the power of shame this week. The school newspaper, The Herald, published an in-depth, investigative story that details the questionable transfer of several football players to another high school. The story also highlighted some questionable behavior on the part of administrators and athletic officials in regard to this situation.

Naturally, the school district was shocked by this, so district officials decided to kill the messenger:

An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.

“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.

Censorship of any newspaper flies in the face of freedom of the press, however, administrators often feel they have the right to do so for a couple erroneous reasons:

  1. They are the adults. The students are kids. They believe that in the power dynamic, adult trumps kid.
  2. The Hazelwood decision, which administrators have come to misinterpret as carte blanche to censor.
  3. The principle of “ostrich syndrome,” in which people believe if they stick their head in the sand, nothing bad can happen. Thus, if we can just shut people up and nobody can see the problem, it doesn’t exist.

What followed was pure outrage from pretty much the rest of the media world. Buzzfeed News, the Associated Press and Teen Vogue covered the story as did the local publications in Arkansas. The Student Press Law Center got involved and agreed to repost the stories as a public service so anyone could read them.

Eventually, the school district caved, and the students were allowed to put the story back online. Communications director Rick Schaeffer explained the district’s rationale in a particularly bloodless way:

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” he wrote. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.

In other words, this only “merited thorough review” after you played a game of chicken with the students and not only did they fail to swerve, but they were driving a tank and you were on a bicycle.

Nice save.

Look, the larger problem here is not that the students had to go through all of this, but that this could have been easily avoided if the administration understood the law, realized how media works or just Googled “censoring HS paper goes to hell.” To inspire future administrators to avoid these problems (and also to help you find ways to push back against censorship), here are a few thoughts that should help keep the important stories front and center, despite the ways in which they embarrass school folks:


Stop Fighting Fire With Gasoline

The whole reason that administrators attempt to censor student media is because whatever the students published is drawing embarrassing attention to the school. Administrators surmise that if they can kill the message (or the messenger), the attention will stop coming and things will go back to normal.

Simply put, that’s as stupid as trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline.

The first thing that a group of media students will do when you attack them is to make a bigger issue out of it. If they’re good enough to pull together an investigation like this one, they’re not going down without a fight and they clearly have no fear. The more you try to crack them in half, the stronger their resolve will be. That means… Wait for it… more negative attention on your school.

Now, not only does your school look like garbage for whatever the students uncovered, now EVERYBODY is looking at what they uncovered. Furthermore, additional stories are now emerging about the attempt to censor the publication and how lousy the administration is in attempting to beat up on these kids.

People who never even HEARD of your city or your school now know it for all the wrong reasons. Truth be told, even though Springdale, Arkansas is “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I never knew it existed until this censorship debacle hit my Facebook feed.

If you want to avoid problems like this, don’t let stupid things happen in your school in the first place. If you want to avoid making them worse, don’t compound the original stupidity with more of your own.


Student Media Kids Have Bodyguards

Administrators are the kings of the castle when it comes to the school itself. Who gets a hall pass, who gets early release, what the dress code needs to be and more are all at the behest of the principal or other similar administration officials. That sense of power can lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which is the assumption that might makes right.

OK, but what happens when you aren’t the strongest person there anymore? What happens when the kids realize this and figure, “Hey, we just need a bodyguard…”

The bad news for you is that they already HAVE those kinds of folks and they aren’t remotely afraid of you. You lack power over them and they have no problem saying, “OK, you wanna play? Let’s play.” These “bodyguards” are folks like the Student Press Law Center, which has a mission and purpose to stand up for students getting messed around by overreaching administrators. These “bodyguards” are journalists at the local and national media outlets, who value the kids’ efforts and disdain censorship of all kinds. (Plus, they probably remember getting messed over by an administrator during their time as students and didn’t like feeling helpless.)

If you decide to step into the ring with the students and do something dumb like this, the students will have plenty of people at the ready who will do everything in their power to make you really regret it.


This Is Not Your Father’s Censorship

A few years back, I spoke to a school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where the student publication had been censored and the last line I left them with is one that should ring in your ears forever: “Control is an illusion.”

In the days of Hazelwood (1980s), when an administrator dropped the hammer on a student publication, that was pretty much the end of it. If the paper wasn’t allowed to print something, the students had virtually no other way to get that story out to the public. You were the gatekeeper and you slammed the gate.

That’s not how anything works anymore.

The minute you decide to censor the paper, pull the piece off of the paper’s website or whatever else you think will stop the story from gaining traction, the kids have 12,148 other ways to get this thing out there.

Case in point: The Herald’s story was reposted to the SPLC website so everyone on Earth could read it. People in the student media community were tweeting links to the story everywhere. Someone took a photo of the print edition and it was making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’m sure you could get a T-shirt made with the whole story on it at CustomInk, if you put your mind to it…

The point is, control has always been an illusion, but now more than ever, you have no control over content. The more suppression you attempt to impose, the harder people will work to share the information you want to suppress.

In summary, you need to realize that trying to censor student media these days is like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-O: The harder you squeeze, the less successful you are. If you really want this thing to go away, do the smart thing: Applaud the work of the students, tell whoever asks that you’re looking into it and fix the problem if you can.

It’s the adult thing to do.

That’s not what I meant, but it is what I wrote: The perils of not rereading your headlines

In the state of Wisconsin, we have an interesting few weeks after our midterm elections. Democrats won both the governor’s office and the attorney-general’s race while both branches of the State Legislature remained in the hands of the Republicans.

Before the power of the governor and attorney general transition from Republican to Democrat, legislative leaders called a lame-duck session to make some “last-minute adjustments” to the rights and responsibilities of the offices they will no longer control. (Side Note: The fact that one party is doing this or not doing it is inconsequential to me. I don’t like it because it seems hypocritical, given the rage that Republicans expressed when Democrats tried a similarly dumb session in 2010 as power was shifting. Both of these things are inconsequential to the point I’m making, but I figured it was fair to toss that out there.)

After a late-night/early-morning marathon session, the House and Senate voted mainly along party lines to do get some things done that they felt they couldn’t get done once the transition of power was complete. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as done a great job of covering each iteration of this from top to bottom, but it appears their efforts might have been undone with a lousy headline:


The story clearly points out that the lawmakers did reject a bill to protect pre-existing conditions. It also makes clear that the lawmakers did scale back Democrats’ power in those aforementioned offices. However, that’s not what the headline says. It appears to say that there is one bill that was rejected and that bill would have protected pre-existing conditions AND scaled back Democrats’ power.

Pretty much anyone following this would have seen that change as a big deal, because it would have been a 180-degree flip for the Republicans in the Legislature. Pretty much anyone following this would have ALSO figured that there was a better chance of outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker riding into the chamber at 3 a.m. on a unicorn, before leading both sides in an impromptu version of the gang dance from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video than that flip occurring.

That said, “Aw, you know what I meant” isn’t a legal or professional defense against a mistake like this. If you don’t believe me, reconsider our discussion of this gem:

(They never had this program when I was in school…)

Here are three simple tips for making sure you don’t goof up a headline:

  1. RTFS: This stands for a number of things, but “Read The FULL Story” is probably the least offensive version of it. In most cases, you run into problems when you only read a few paragraphs and figure you can nail the headline. In some cases, that’s true, such as a bare-bones inverted-pyramid story on a baseball game. However, most things are more nuanced than “who beat whom and what was the score” so make sure you give yourself the chance to read through the whole thing before you start writing the headline.
  2. Have someone ELSE who isn’t involved in the story read the headline: Many problems in writing come from a writer who has a lot of knowledge of a topic assuming too much about what other people might know. Other problems stem from the “you know what I meant” syndrome that writers fall back on after they fall on their keys in public. I’d bet that most people who read the Pratt Tribune didn’t think the kids were really getting a “first hand job” either, but again, that’s why a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes on your writing will help make things better.
  3. Focus on helping your readers. The first time I read this headline, I thought, “Hey, maybe all the attention got to them.” Then, I read the story and realized that I was wrong, which made me angry at the situation and angry at the headline writer. Part of it felt like it might have been just a late-night goof, but the other part of it felt like, “Just put a headline on this thing and people will read it anyway.”

    We usually get ticked off at click-bait heads like, “How to make $1 million in a day!” or “You’ll never guess how good THIS STAR looks after a stint in prison.” However, we’re pretty good at this point about ferreting out the clearly weaselly heads and we kind of get over it. In a case like this, it’s a trusted source that looked bad, and that can do more damage than a particularly hyperbolic head in a lousy publication.


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.


George H.W. Bush deserved better leads for his obituary (Plus tips to help you write one of these things well)

Obituaries are tough pieces to write for a number of reasons:

  1. The event that necessitates an obituary (someone dying) rarely happens at a predetermined or convenient moment.
  2. Sources are often grieving or in some other way impaired, leading to difficulty in getting accurate or quality information from them.
  3. It might be the first time a person is put in the public eye via your media outlet and it will likely be the last. Thus, accuracy becomes even more of a paramount interest than it is in every other piece you do.
  4. When you are writing on a famous person and everyone is watching, if you screw up, you’re going to take that mistake with  you to your own grave.

On the other hand, the lead for an obituary should be pretty simple because it’s hard to miss the point: Somebody died.

Noun-verb. Throw in a few accomplishments. Get the “when” right. Keep it to the 25-35 word range. Don’t include a fact error. Easy peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Which is why it was baffling to see how so many publications swinging wildly and missing like crazy when it came to reporting the death of George H.W. Bush this weekend.

If you want to see what happens when you pack too much random stuff into a lead and forget the point, take a look at the Washington Post’s attempt: 

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, was a steadfast force on the international stage for decades, from his stint as an envoy to Beijing to his eight years as vice president and his one term as commander in chief from 1989 to 1993.

This lead is meandering 51 words, and yet did you notice that something is missing? Yeah… the fact he died. Also his age. You’ll need to read down to the THIRD paragraph for those tidbits.


Not to be outdone in trying too hard, here’s the NY Times take on the death of 41:

George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.

I tell my students to read their leads out loud and if they run out of air before the end, their lead sentences are probably too long. This one is a lung-busting 63 words, or almost double the maximum for decent leads and had the run-on sentence feel of an over-sugared 4-year-old telling someone about a day at an amusement park.

The bigger issue is that including everything possible about this guy, they failed to help people focus on a specific thing or two that really mattered.

USA Today went with the two-sentence lead:

HOUSTON — George Herbert Walker Bush, the president who managed the end of the Cold War and forged a global coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, has died at age 94. In a political career that spanned three decades, he lost his bid for re-election and lived to see his son win the Oval Office.

Not bad in terms of the key elements of who he was and what he did that mattered, but this could have easily been trimmed down to make for one good sentence.


Bush’s “hometown paper” decided to go with the “mega-link” approach:

George Herbert Walker Bush, whose lone term as the 41st president of the United States ushered in the final days of the Cold War and perpetuated a family political dynasty that influenced American politics at both the national and state levels for decades, died Friday evening in Houston. He was 94.

I’m a huge fan of hyperlinking, but when about 80 percent of your lead is a link, why should I bother to read your story here? Chance are, the most important stuff in your lead is covered in that other piece.


Not sure what to make of The Telegraph’s detail-oriented approach, but it is distinctive:

George HW Bush died surrounded by family and friends after a last meal of soft boiled eggs, yoghurt and fruit juice as Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, sang Silent Night at his bedside, it has emerged.

The phrase “last meal” makes it sound like he was being executed or that the meal itself did him in. Also, “it has emerged” has both a creepy and odd sense to it. Not sure why…

The best of the bunch came from CBS, who properly prized brevity and clarity. Here’s the CBS website’s lead:

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, whose long life in the public sphere was defined by service to his country, has died. He was 94.

Of all the leads I could find, this one nailed the guts of the story perfectly without overdoing it with details. The guy lived for 94 years, held some of the most influential positions in the country and took part in some of the most important events of the century. We’re not going to cover all of them in the lead, so give me a solid focus and move me on. Good call.

When it comes to writing leads for obituaries, think about a few basic things:

  1. Focus on the noun-verb elements (person died) and then build outward with the “where” and “when.” Start there so you don’t forget it.
  2. “Why” should reflect why this person mattered. Most important people who receive news-style obituaries will have some claim to fame, so focus on that. If you find that there is too much “fame” to handle all the key famous incidents, look for a common theme among the fame, as the CBS lead did (lifetime of public service covers his military service, his various posts in various aspects of government and his later life work with Bill Clinton on Haiti and other similar projects).
  3. “How” is important to some extent, depending on the cause of death and the degree to which it was a logical progression of life. When you have a 94-year-old man with a degenerative disease, a quick mention in the lead works if you feel the need or you can push it down deeper into the story and not lose anything. If a 21-year-old star athlete dies in the prime of his life, the “how” will likely become the central focus of the piece.
  4. Tell me a story. The best obituaries are the ones where you learn something about someone that makes you wish you had known that person during his or her life. That’s where the lead comes in. If you can focus that clearly on that “gee, I’m glad I know that” element in the lead, you’ll have a great story that grows from it.

Throwback Thursday: Earning the fungus on your shower shoes

One of my favorite early posts involves a Filak-ism I grabbed from the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” where Kevin Costner is explaining to Tim Robbins that things are different in the majors than they are for him now in the minor leagues.The line about “earning the fungus on your shower shoes” is a good one to remember. It’s also important to remember that just because you earned the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD do that thing.The reason more seasoned writers get the leeway they do in terms of breaking with style, writing in something other than third person, skipping the occasional attribution and other things that will cause your grade to suffer is because they can rationalize their choices appropriately.

When an editor asks, “Why did you do this?” the experienced writer comes up with a pretty explanation for that decision. When I ask “Why did you do this?” to my beginning students, they tend to stare at me like a dog trying to do a calculus equation.

If you have a “why” answer and it’s a good one, you’re half way to earning the fungus on your shower shoes. To understand more about this, enjoy the original post below…

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.



“What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” A good approach to accuracy in reporting and writing

Accuracy is key in everything we do, and that includes the proper use of terminology to describe crimes, accusations and other dicey topics. I groused about this a long while ago when I noted that the use of “allegedly” makes me twitchy.

As a night-cops reporter, and later a cops editor, I found myself parsing the language a lot, arguing with people who wanted to “simplify” headlines or sentence construction. As I grew into those roles, I realized that big differences exist between certain terms and that I’d rather have ugly sentences than wrong ones. If I’m a grump about this, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Here’s Mark Memmott at NPR on the topic of legal terms:

There were several Web summaries posted over the weekend that flatly said Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. We should not be doing that in any stories, online or on air. NPR agrees with the AP that:

“Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing.

“Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. …

“A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”

This kind of thing always takes me back to a great scene in the movie, “And The Band Played On,” which describes the Centers for Disease Control and its staff’s attempts in the early 1980s to understand how AIDS behaved and spread. Each time they would gather to analyze some data or discuss some infection patterns, they had to remind each other to stick to the facts, using a simple phrase: “What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove?” In other words, they thought they understood how the illness was transmitted, they knew about how certain people contracted it, but until they could prove something concrete, they had to work harder to nail things down.

Based on the facts available, we know Jamal Khashoggi is dead, as multiple agencies have confirmed this and provided evidence to that effect. We think Khashoggi was murdered, given that multiple accounts of this indicate that the attack on him was planned at least 12 days in advance of the incident. That said, until this is proven in a court of law, we cannot PROVE a charge of murder on any of the individuals involved. For now, we can say he is dead, someone killed him or that there is an investigation into a homicide. It may seem like splitting hairs, but that’s why we have AP as a rule book to help us out.

Memmott also goes into a discussion about the phrase “arrested for” in describing an individual and a crime:

Compare these headlines and you’ll see why “for” is a problem:

  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested For Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”
  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested, Accused Of Tampering With Nassar Evidence.

And these:

  • – “House Intern Arrested For Reportedly Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”
  • – “House Intern Arrested, Charged With Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”

His point, which I thoroughly support and frequently make, is that saying someone is “arrested for” something means we know they did it and they have been convicted at some point. It conveys guilt when something isn’t proven, much in the same way “allegedly” or “alleged” do.

Think about it this way: Your professor sees you messing around with your phone during a test and assumes you are cheating, thus he kicks you out of class. It turns out you just got a text from your mom that your dad was in a serious accident and is being rushed to the hospital. Thus, you were understandably worried and trying to find out more information.

In this scenario, you are an “alleged cheater,” in that “allegedly” means you are said to have been a cheater by someone (in this case the professor). It would be even worse if the professor announced that he kicked you out of class “for cheating on the exam.” Clearly in this scenario, you haven’t cheated, but either use of verbiage doesn’t make you look all that great.

In applying the “Band” approach, your professor thought you were cheating, he knew you were messing with your phone during a test, but he couldn’t prove you used your phone to cheat (and he would turn out to be wrong once he tried).

This is why attributions (see the “said” post from the other day) matter and it’s a much better way to go: “Beth cheated on the exam, professor Bill Jones said.” or “Professor Bill Jones accused Beth of cheating on the exam.” Both cases demonstrate the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra we espouse around here. The attributions keep you on the side of accuracy and prevent you from getting into trouble if something turns out to be not what it seemed.

The “What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove” approach goes a long way in helping journalists remain accurate, so give it a chance the next time you find yourself digging around in some murky territory.


Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend


Four letters, one word, simple perfection.

As far as verbs of attribution go, not much else can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:


The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”


Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.


According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

That said, if you want to have fun with verbs of attribution, enjoy the ridiculous ones we gathered below for your reading pleasure. (Whatever happens, don’t blame me if you use one of these on your reporting final…)

“I just can’t shake this head cold,” he sniffed.

“I’m going to have to draw you a picture to get you to understand this,” he illustrated.

“Of course I’m chewing tobacco!” he spat.

“All I know is, I love doing a ton of cocaine,” he snorted.

“This is the saddest movie ever,” he cried.

“Bethany said I was being distant, but it’s her fault we broke up,” he ex-claimed. “And that One Direction CD is totally mine as well.”

“I love this vintage, but I can’t remember what vineyard it comes from,” he whined.

“I used to have a poodle named Princess, but my ex-girlfriend stole her,” he bitched.

“Get me the phone so I can get a hold of Mom,” he called.

“Whose dog is making all that noise?” he barked.

“My empty stomach speaks for itself,” he growled.

“Don’t forget my Post-Its!” he noted.

“I know, I know, I know,” he echoed.



Professor X, not Malcolm X: Screwing up the coverage of Stan Lee’s death

As per usual, when someone screws up something in media, the Bat Signal comes my way:


The man in the photo and the actual dead celebrity is Stan Lee, the comic book legend who helped create and develop myriad characters in the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, X-Men and Spiderman.

Spike_Lee_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_FestivalSpike Lee, on the other hand, is a legendary African-American actor, director and producer, known for films like “Do The Right Thing,”  “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game” and “Summer of Sam.”

Clearly this guy isn’t the same as the guy in the newspaper above. Although this was a global embarrassment for the Gisborne Herald of New Zealand, Spike Lee took to Twitter to both reassure fans he’s alive and take the “oops” in stride.

(Spike Lee in 2009. CC BY 3.0 David Shankbone)


Looking dumb is bad, but here are a couple things to learn from this:


Be paranoid, especially when death is involved: Whenever someone dies and you have to write something about that person, you want to make everything involved with that story as clean as a cat’s mouth. Check dates, names, ages and everything else against every scrap of paper and legitimate website you can find. Assume that EVERYTHING you just wrote or will edit is wrong and then set out to prove yourself to be right. This will help you avoid looking dumb.


Carefully edit small bits of copy: Copy desk legend and frequent contributor to the “Dynamics” series Fred Vultee had a great motto when it came to editing: You can drown just as easily in 2 inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean.

His point was that stupid mistakes don’t appear just in long stories or major scoops. They tend to happen in tiny bits of copy, such as news briefs, captions, refer text and other less-glamorous places. My best guess is that someone just hammered the sky box refer on Stan Lee’s death together on deadline without thinking much of it and nobody really gave it a serious edit. That’s how we end up with a dead Spike Lee on the front page.


Learn from your screw ups: I always tell students that I learned more by screwing up than I ever did by doing something right. When I made fact errors, I learned to be more diligent in checking the facts. When I got a source’s quote wrong, I started recording everything. When I wrote one thing when I meant to write another, I started separating my “writing mode” from my “editing mode.”

The narrow escapes from “Stupidville” were also instructive, but when I fell flat on my face and my only response upon seeing the error was, “Oh… shit….,” I learned a lot.