The “Smell It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Smell It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of smell from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. Here’s a simple walk through:

Each year, I change up the smells. I try to find variations in terms of things being “heavier” or “lighter” in terms of the smell or “fresher” vs. “dirtier.” In most cases, I tend to pick something “industrial” from my garage (as long as it doesn’t say on the bottle that breathing it in will cause brain damage or something). I also like to pick between my woodcrafting stuff (wood oils, stain), my wife’s essential oils for the fall (spicy, cozy), cleaning products (citrus, soapy) and some sort of food product. I stick with oils or liquids, as I can’t hide the items well enough and still keep them in a plastic bag to use actual items. One year, I used beef jerky, which was great for the smell, but students kept saying, “This smells like beef jerky” because they could see it. A chunk of cloth with a bit of liquid on it works a lot better.

To make the process fair, I have three bags and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “smell” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they smelled in the bag. Here’s how it works, with a few edits:


Once the students get done smelling, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:


Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same bag and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

The students then list all their words on the board under their bag’s number:


Once it’s done, we debrief. I reveal what was in each bag and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the bag. (In this case, it was a splash of a hazelnut-vanilla liqueur, a dose of 2-stroke 50:1 motor oil and a sampling of doTERRA (an essential oil made of citrus and spices/herbs).

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

A legal eagle’s look at the Jemele Hill suspension, ESPN’s position and what students need to know about “the law” vs. “the contract.”

ESPN journalist Jemele Hill was suspended Monday for two weeks after she spoke out on Twitter once again on issues of racism and discrimination. In mid-September, Hill used Twitter to call the president a racist and stated that President Trump was “the most ignorant, offensive president” of her lifetime. More recently, she offered advice on social media to people who opposed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ stand on benching players who “disrespect the flag.”


Rather than dealing with the issue of if Hill was right or wrong from a content perspective, I wanted to look at the legal issues surrounding this in hopes of providing guidance to journalism students. As we mentioned in both books, the First Amendment, freedom of speech and punishment for speech are all often misunderstood. With that in mind, I contacted Daxton “Chip” Stewart, an expert in free speech and the First Amendment to walk through this situation.

Stewart, an associate dean and associate professor of media law in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, said he has discussed the Hill situation in class, both in terms of the law and the societal role of journalists. He said the first thing he often has to explain is that Hill’s suspension is not a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“This is a private company and a private deal,” Stewart said. “ESPN isn’t the government, so there’s no First Amendment issue here at all.”

He said broader free speech issues are of interest here, such as how a private organization allows its employees to engage in speech activities, but non-governmental institutions like ESPN can set policies that limit speech.

“If I violated a (similar) policy and if TCU punished me, I wouldn’t have a case,” Stewart said. “This is a private contract matter… In this case, ESPN has a social media policy and if she breaches it, she can be punished.”

Even if she were tweeting on her own time or adding a disclaimer about her tweets not representing anyone but her, Stewart said this wouldn’t matter as far as ESPN and the suspension go in relation to the First Amendment. That said, other rules and laws protect individuals rights that are outlined in the First Amendment.

“When you get beyond speech, there are federal anti-discrimination laws,” he said. “ESPN can’t say they’re only going to hire white men for jobs or something like that because that would clearly show a violation.”

“You can’t exclude people because of race, ethnicity or gender or ESPN couldn’t force you to go to a church as a part of your job,” he added, noting some exceptions to the “church” situation exist for people employed by some religious organizations.

The simple fact of employment, Stewart said, is that most people are “at-will” employees, which means they can be fired for almost any reason that isn’t clearly outlined as illegal in those anti-discrimination laws.

“You can be fired for any reason as long as it’s not discrimination or because you’re a whistle-blower or similar reasons in law,” he said. “A private university, for example, could fire you for doing something it didn’t like. Even if we think it’s a valid free speech activity, they can fire you because they just don’t renew your contract.”

That said, the “it’s not illegal but can still cause you problems” angle the book outlines for situations like this can cut both ways. Journalists have come to Hill’s defense and Stewart said the ramifications of this move are bad for ESPN.

“Nothing good is going to come from this for ESPN,” he said. “It’s really really bad optics and a really bad practice but it’s not illegal. They can absolutely make this choice.”

“Some of these sorts of incidents have a lot of collateral damage,” he added. “A lot of employees might be afraid to talk about it… They don’t want to be next. It’s a job. It’s a great job and who wouldn’t want to work for ESPN? But when ESPN disciplines an employee for something like this, a lot of people are going to clam up.”


  1. Know the rules or ask before you break them: Jemele Hill is a smart, qualified journalist who knew what she was doing both times she sent the troublesome tweets. Other people don’t always know what a policy says or what a rule allows for. Thus, if you are considering a job somewhere and you have already built your social media brand, it would behoove you to figure out what the rules are and if you are willing to abide by them.
    “Anticipate potential conflicts and talk to your boss,” Stewart said. “See if you can get clearance. At least have that discussion or that argument ahead of time. If they ask you to sacrifice more than you are willing to give, you might decide to walk away from the job.”
  2. You are in an impossible situation: One of the big points Stewart wanted to make was that students going into the field will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this kind of thing. Media organizations hire people who have a voice and a point of view because they engage the audience and draw a following. However, when the wind blows the other way, things can get dicey.
    “You need to engage with your readers and social media is part of your brand and the news media encourage this,” he said. “They expect you to be a person and an interesting person, but don’t you dare step into controversial topics. It’s an impossible line. It’s like ‘Be authentic, but not on these things.'”
    “Your voice is important until people start complaining and then we want you to stop using your voice until we tell you to use it again…” he added. “It places an unfair expectation on students going out there but never the less it is the expectation.”
  3. Ask yourself, “Is this the hill I’m willing to die on?” Hill not only understands the topic upon which she is speaking, but she lives it as well. Stewart noted that her voice and her perspective on broader issues has great value to her employer and likely contributed to her hiring. She also understood this was a controversial topic and one that would likely put her at odds with her employer.
    She did it anyway and took the suspension.
    She hasn’t said as much, but I’d gather she felt the juice was worth the squeeze on this and that this topic mattered more than whatever ESPN would do to her.
    Not every topic on Twitter, every post on Facebook or every photo on Instagram fits that bill. When deciding if it’s worth it to take that stand, know beforehand what the punitive outcomes are likely to be and if you can live with them if they happen. Also, know how you would feel if you didn’t take that stand and how you would feel having failed to do so.
    Weigh the consequences and then make your decision.


Local newspapers and trash-sniffing bears: How audience-centric journalism works

Whenever I travel, I tend to grab a copy of the local newspaper to see what matters to the readers of that area. In the larger metro areas, you get a lot of the same types of things: crime, governmental wrangling, national news, international news and big-time sports. Over the years, I also noted a trend of unfortunate similarities among regional papers because most of them are now owned by a single company, Gannett. Thus, you get a lot of “USA TODAY NETWORK – (FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE)” bylines on stories that have a general local feel, but lack a clear connection to the specific town or city in which the paper lives.

Still, a number of true “local” papers exist in various parts of various states, including mine. When my in-laws used to live in a place called Beecher, Wisconsin, we would often visit them and a stop at a gas station along the way gave me a chance to sample the local press. The one vivid memory I had was during a spring trip “up north” at a time of heightened international tensions, some sort of congressional shriek-fest and a lot of worries about an upcoming state election.

The front page story on the local paper? Six tips on how to keep bears emerging from hibernation from getting into your trash.

I couldn’t find a single story on Obama or Europe or even our state legislature on the front page. It was about the local fishing forecast, a festival at a local church and, of course, the bear thing. The publishers of those papers were local folks, writing about local things that mattered to local citizens.

Sure, things like peace in the Middle East and who was likely to do what in the U.S. Senate mattered to those people in a broader sense, but the local press figured (probably rightly) that people who read their paper would have gotten that stuff from CNN or FOX or some big-news website. They didn’t have a reason to rehash that stuff. On the other hand, it was a pretty safe bet that Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity wasn’t going to run a series on how deer were in heat and thus leading to more car accidents on Highway 141 (a real concern around these parts).

Here are a couple local papers I grabbed on the way to work:


Top story: How local bridge work isn’t going to hurt the fishing in the area. Other stories? The building of a new assisted living community, how the local schools are doing in state tests/budgets, local zoning laws and an upcoming Oktoberfest walk/run.

I’m not going to endorse or admonish the writing quality or design approach on either of these publications, but I will tell you that I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the content matters to the area readers. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I live in Omro, a city of about 3,300, and my wife desperately wants to raise chickens in our yard for reasons past my understanding. She’s always keeping an eye on zoning changes that might allow for this. I pray that this never happens.)

The big take away here is that you need to know what matters most to your readers and then provide content that meets the needs of those readers. It might seem “unimportant” to cover things like this, especially when other people you know are writing about political unrest in Russia or North Korea’s missile program.

However, if you ever walked out to your trash and saw a 300-pound black bear pawing through your garbage, you’d probably want to know how to keep that from happening again.

Put your copy on a diet and give it a haircut: How to fix sentences that are too long and too heavy.

Consider this sentence from a sports story that ran Thursday:

Eyebrows were raised when Francona picked Bauer instead of Kluber, and the eccentric right-hander, perhaps best known for slicing a pinkie open while repairing a drone during last year’s postseason and bleeding all over the mound in Toronto, delivered a performance that started October just right for the Indians.

And this one from a news story about the sentencing of a defendant:

Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 15, were 12 when they were charged as adults after telling detectives they plotted to kill their friend Payton Leutner to placate Slender Man, an internet boogeyman they said would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the act.

And this one from a crime story:

Murphy of Milwaukee is charged with two counts each of fleeing and eluding, causing great bodily harm, two counts each of hit-and-run, great bodily harm, two counts of driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm, two counts of resisting an officer, causing injury, and car theft.

And this lead on a bankruptcy story:

In a busy day in Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the UW Oshkosh Foundation filed a legal action against the University of Wisconsin System, won preliminary permission to pay out $500,000 between now and the end of the year and expressed confidence that 1,200 pages of documentation it filed with the court would keep endowed and other restricted funds away from creditors.

The common thread is that each of these sentences is too long and too heavy. Each one is a minimum of 47 words and lead is a whopping 60 words. Information of value exists in each of these sentences, but it is almost impossible to extract it from the writing itself.

The concept of “length” and “weight” are important in journalistic writing. Depending on your area of the field, what constitutes too long will vary. Broadcasters write in the shortest sentences (8-15 words usually) while text-based publications like newspapers and news websites run about 20-24 for body copy sentences and 25-35 words for leads. Magazine writers can go longer, but usually that’s for effect, using the length of a sentence to create pace or set a mood. In the sentences above, the length creates confusion and buries crucial concepts deep in the verbiage.

Weight, however, is primarily based on feel, word choice and sentence content. In counting length, the word “I” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each counts as one. Obviously, in terms of adding to the complexity of the sentence, these words are not equal. In addition, the weight of a sentence can increase dramatically when a writer stuffs too many facts, numbers or concepts into a single story, thus weighing down the reader with information. Heavier sentences feel unwieldy and can leave a reader confused.

Here are three tips to identify problems like these and keep your writing lighter and and tighter when it comes to weight and length:

  1. One sentence, one concept: The reason you should start with a noun-verb/noun-verb-object structure and build outward is that you remain focused on the core principles that matter in the sentence. Each sentence should have a main assertion or a key message that you capture in the NVO core. Just like every paragraph in an inverted pyramid story should build upon and reflect the lead, every element you add to a sentence should build upon and reflect that NVO core. When you try to do too much with one sentence, you end up with sentences like the one you saw above. If you have multiple concepts, pull each one out and see if it can stand on its own as a single sentence. It’s better to have several shorter, easier-to-digest sentences than one long one that no one can get through.
  2. Read it out loud: One of the best tricks you can use to find grammar problems, structure problems and length/weight problems is to read the sentence aloud. If the sentence flows smoothly off your lips and clearly tells the story, you’re fine. If the sentence makes your tongue feel like it’s falling down a flight of stairs, you need to work on it. When it comes to length and weight, take a normal, human breath (not like the Titanic is going under and you’re trying to survive) and read the sentence out loud. If you get to the end and your chest starts feeling tight and you’re running out of air, it needs a trim. If you run out of air before you hit the end, you definitely need to go back through this and give it another look.
  3. Edit for your audience: In a lot of cases, we write from the perspective of journalists and other experts in the fields we cover. That’s where jargon, overly specific content and other problems tend to emerge. After you write something, go back and read it from the perspective of your audience. For example, if you wrote a story for your college newspaper about a student injured in an accident, you might include the phrase, “Smith was transported to a nearby medical facility for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.” Does that sound like anything you would ever say? Have you ever gotten seriously hurt and yelled to a friend, “Hey Bobby! I need you transport me to a nearby medical facility!” Probably not. “Taken to a hospital” works a little better.
    In the court story above, the listing of the charges could be better handled in a simple breakout box where the author would list them out in bullet points. The lead on the bankruptcy should be two sentences, with a more generic explanation of the documentation in the lead if it needed to stay there. Also, you can get rid of throwaway terms like “in a busy day” or “the eccentric right-hander.” In each sentence, ask yourself if you are telling your readers what they need to know in the best way possible. If so, leave it alone. If not, make it so.


3 things to learn from the “Tom Petty is Dead” debacle besides “check your facts.”

Rock legend Tom Petty died Monday at age 66 after suffering from cardiac arrest. What should have been a simple story got horribly complicated because a few news sources jumped the gun and declared him dead before he actually was.

TMZ, CBS and Rolling Stone were among the publications that reported Petty died in the afternoon. It turned out he was clinging to life but he was still alive. He died later that night, with an official confirmation from his spokesman that this was true, this time. However in the four hours between the first report and the actual death, the internet was flipping back and forth between him being alive and him being dead. Celebrities were providing condolences, which led other people to think that either he HAD died and the star knew something the rest of us didn’t or that everyone else knew something the star didn’t.

In short, it was a mess.

When it comes to a “teachable moment,” the obvious one is “Make sure you check your facts” or “Know what you’re talking about.” (Some reports called Petty’s ailment a “heart attack” which it wasn’t. Congestive heart failure, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are all somewhat different and here’s how.)  However, here are three other things journalism students can take away from this debacle:

  1. Once you press “send,” you can’t get it back: The line about false information attributed to Mark Twain was pretty accurate- “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In today’s world of social media and digital speed, that lie has an even bigger head start. This is why we should always treat that “send” button like the “big red button” it is. Everyone out there issued corrections immediately upon finding out that the LAPD clarified Petty’s status, but that still didn’t stop the deluge of “Petty is dead” content. “Send” is serious business and one you send it out there, you can’t ever really undo it.
  2. You are part of an information ecosystem: Grade-school science classes show you how a bug eats some poison and then the bird eats the bug and the snake eats the bird and so forth, each time passing the poison along. In media, especially these days with easy access to other media outlets’ content, we operate in much the same way.
    Even in “pre-digital” times, we still had an ecosystem that could get messed up pretty easily. On more than one occasion, a reporter at a newspaper wrote a story that was really wrong. A reporter at a second newspaper in that town couldn’t get all the facts that first story had (mainly because it was wrong), but didn’t want to fall behind, so he “cribbed” information from the first story and then included it in his story with a vague “sources said” attribution. The morning radio news folks saw the story in BOTH papers so they did a “rip and read” approach and just rewrote the story for the morning newscast using that info. Suddenly, EVERYONE is reporting something that is factually inaccurate.
    You have a duty to your audience to be accurate, but you also have a role in a media ecosystem to maintain. If you put poison in to the system with lousy reporting, or if you perpetuate poison by passing along information you didn’t independently verify, you’re destroying that ecosystem and ALL OF US in that system will be worse for it.
  3. Real people can get really hurt when we’re wrong: In the case of Petty’s death, you could argue in a reductive sense that the publications weren’t really wrong, but instead they were early. The guy had congestive heart failure, he wasn’t recovering and hey… it was only four hours, right? Not even close.
    AnnaKim Violet Petty, Tom Petty’s daughter, was one of the people dealing with the situation when reporter of her father’s death began to roll in. He wasn’t dead, even as more and more people kept reporting it. In response to the ongoing throng of misinformation, she sent several messages and made several posts that show exactly how painful this was for her. Other family members and friends also likely experienced that painful dissonance based on media reports and their own knowledge of his condition.
    Journalists often want to break news, be first and show what we know to our audience. There isn’t anything wrong with that as long as we’re right, responsible and decent about it. As much as we think of famous people as being in the public domain, they have kids, spouses and friends who can get hurt if we overstep bounds or fail to fact check in our search for fortune and glory.

The horrifying revisions of my textbooks: Chapter by chapter, shooting by shooting

The first draft of what would become the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” featured a sample chapter written in 2008, discussing at length the Virginia Tech shooting. I was pitching a reporting book to another publisher when the rep for that company asked for two chapters that could help her sell the book to her acquisitions committee.

Kelly Furnas, then the adviser at the student newspaper at VT, had done a session at a student media conference about his newsroom’s efforts in the wake of the attack. I knew Kelly through friends and helped book him for that session. I also was able to talk to him after the session for this chapter, assuming that the magnitude of this event would never be equaled.

It turned out I was wrong about that, much to my continuing dismay.

The arguments of when is the right time to discuss broader issues are beginning to emerge in the wake of Monday’s attack in Las Vegas. So are the calls for all sorts of regulations, restrictions, restructuring and more. It is hard to see the carnage wrought upon the citizens of this country and remain dispassionate or above the fray when it comes to the continually evolving topic of attacks like this one.

As a reporter and then an editor and then an adviser, I always believed in the simplest of ideas when it came to covering something like this:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Provide facts and let them speak for themselves.
  • Don’t try to oversell it.
  • Just let the readers know what happened.

This blog isn’t a podium or a pulpit, nor will I use it to advance whatever agenda or whatever “side” some displeased readers would disparagingly note I must be on as a professor, a journalist or whatever other label was convenient.

That said, it struck me tonight as I thought about the morning post that the two books featured here, “Dynamics of Media Writing” and “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” catalog the expansive nature of violent outbursts, here and abroad. Even more, they do so in a way that shows me something exceedingly painful: My continual endeavors to update these volumes in a meaningful way as they relate to these horrific events is an ongoing, losing effort.

After a few years of discussions, the book in which the Virginia Tech shooting story was included did not come to fruition. The proposal was scuttled when the publisher decided to “go another way,” corporate-speak for “we didn’t really think this was worth the time.”

About three years after that happened, I met a rep from SAGE while at a journalism convention. I was looking for a book to use in my writing across media class, while Matt was trying to convince me to write one instead. In writing the pitch, I built two chapters for him, one of which was on social media. I included a reference to the Aurora, Colorado shooting, in which a gunman shot up a theater during the midnight showing of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” The point there was not to show the magnitude of the attack, but rather what can happen when people are inept at social media: The hashtag used (#aurora) to keep people abreast of the unfolding situation was co-opted by a fashion boutique to promote the Aurora dress.

After reviewing the pitch and the chapters, Matt came to the conclusion that I really had two books: one for general media writing and one for news reporting, so he signed me to both. This was 2014 and I had already written several chapters for each book. Almost by accident, I had layered in references to additional shootings.

In my initial discussion of the importance of geographic referents in the audience-centricity chapter, I tried to explain how a reference to a “Cudahy man” who had killed six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin drove me to a fit of anxiety. My mother taught grade school and middle school in that town for 40-odd years at the time, so I feared some level of connection between Mom and a monster. (As it turned out, there was none as he had moved to the area more recently. In addition, the whole explanation was overly complicated, so I cut it during one of the draft chapters.)

In the reporting book, I referenced the Charlie Hebdo attack in my discussion of hashtags. In the media writing book, I included a reference to Sandy Hook in discussing magnitude. In a law chapter for one of them, I discussed the Boston Marathon Bombing and the “Bag Men” cover that essentially libeled two guys who just happened to be at event.

At one point, I added and cut references to the Northern Illinois shooting, in which a grad student killed five and injured 17. I knew the DeKalb area, as my grandfather had been a police chief there for years and I had interviewed for a job there about four years before the shooting. The adviser at that student paper was also a friend of mine at the time.

I remember thinking when I cut it that it was because it hadn’t been “big enough” for people to easily recall it. It galls me to think that five dead and 17 wounded could be prefaced by the modifier “only.” Unfortunately, it was accurate: Sunday’s attack in Las Vegas had fatalities ten times that one and injuries scores and scores beyond that attack.

Somehow, and I honestly don’t know how this happened, I was between edits or editions of both books when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in 2016. I could find no reference to this in any draft chapters and it defies logic that the murder of 49 people somehow slipped past me or didn’t make the cut in one of these books.

However, in finalizing the Reporting book, I ended up coming back around to the story Kelly Furnas told me all those years ago. I was building a section on obituaries and realized I never actually published the story he told me about how his staff wrote literally dozens of obituaries for a single issue of the paper. He had long left VT, but I found him and got his permission to finally publish this incredible explanation as to how his extremely green reporters gritted their teeth and met this challenge.

That book is currently in press and is already out of date as a result of the attack in Las Vegas. However, the Media Writing book is in the completed draft phase of a second edition, so this information will likely supplant some previous horrifying event and make the cut. At the very least, I’m going to include the Jack Sins incident to outline the importance of fact checking, even when it feels almost slimy to do so.

In looking back, it’s not so much the number of these incidents or the magnitude of them that disturbs me in an inexplicable way. Rather, it’s that I have recounted these events not by impacted memory but rather a search through my hard drive, using key terms like “shooting,” “dead,” “killed” and “attacked.”

Each time I added one of these “recent events,” it was fresh, clear and horrifying. As I review them now, it is more like looking through a photo album that provided refreshed glimpses and renewed recollections of vague people and places.

Each incident wasn’t so much of a “I’ll never forget” moment as a “Oh, now I remember” one.

3 things journalism folk should learn from a troll during the Las Vegas shooting

Many people awoke Monday to the news that a gunman had killed 50 people and injured 400 more in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Mesquite, Nevada who police have named as the shooter, was killed on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel after the attack.

Police said he fired repeatedly from the hotel onto a country western music festival happening across the street along the Las Vegas Strip. Witnesses said the shooting was relentless and police have no motive for the attack at this time.

For some people, it was a time to question who we are as a nation. For others, it was frantic search for loved ones and a time to mourn those they knew who died or who cling to life.

For still others, it was time to be an a-hole.

A Twitter user posting under the name “Jack Sins” posted that he was desperately seeking his father, who was missing after the attack:


It turns out that this was a fraud. The profile photo was the same one used elsewhere to pull the same stunt during the Manchester attack. In addition, it’s an internet meme. The “lost dad?” He’s porn star Johnny Sins.

Mashable reached out to this user to find out why he would use a horrific shooting to do something like this. His answer is almost more repugnant than his actions:

Mashable reached out to the troll to ask why he’s spreading misinformation during such a critical time.

“I think you know why,” he replied. “For the retweets :)”

He also said he’d probably do it again.

The point of the post isn’t to shame this guy, as that’s got to be impossible, but rather to provide a learning moment for journalism students who are starting off in the field and might be inclined to rely on social media for information. Consider these three takeaways from this situations:

  1. If your mother says she love you, go check it out: Part of the thing that separates journalism folk from some other media users is a dedication to separating fact from fiction and providing accurate information. Early reports in the wake of a chaotic event are almost always inaccurate at some level, so journalists always have to proceed with caution. Even in this case, media reports note erroneous reports about additional shooters at other properties along the strip. Some of those are based on honest errors while others are simply rumors that spread. Your job is to go out there and figure out what is right and what isn’t before publishing it. That’s especially true of things you see from sources you don’t know, which leads to point two…
  2. Sources matter: One of the big things we push in J-school is the use of official sources acting in an official capacity for a couple reasons: a) It protects you in case of information being erroneous or potentially libelous, thanks to the issue of privilege; b) Official sources have names and titles you can verify and they also tend to be much more conservative with what they say because they know they will be held to account for it. However, in cases like this, it’s not possible to ignore the human angle and simply churn out police-report-level data. This is why interviewing people who survived, people who escaped and other similar “real people.” The biggest thing you should do is verify your sources before you publish them. The people at the scene have a somewhat easier time doing this, as many reports noted people covered in blood or hunkering near injured friends. It’s hard to fake that, even if they wanted to. However, social media users can be sending information from anywhere and can do so with impunity.
    To that end, you really need to fact check the heck out of your sources when you can’t do a face-to-face interview. Look at how long the source has been on that platform, how many followers they have, what other posts/tweets they have made and what other topics they have covered. Treat this vetting the way you would any other “anonymous tip” that comes to you from a source you don’t know. Unless you are sure, don’t repost it. It’s your reputation and the reputation of your news organization on the line.
  3. People can be a-holes: If you read the interview between this troll and Mashable, it’s a pretty safe bet your thoughts will be somewhere along the lines of, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” Most people have gotten some level of internet hoax or email blast where a king in Naganaworkhere has a squillion dollars in gold that he wants to give you, once you send him your bank account numbers and we know that’s crap. It’s also a pretty easy thing to explain: Somebody wants to dupe rubes out of their money.
    When it comes to something like this, the question of “Why?” is less obvious. The retweets aren’t going to be all that helpful in a lot of ways. Sure, there are ways to monetize heavily trafficked social media accounts, but beyond that’s going to be a one-hit wonder at best.
    As much as many people want to believe in the best in people and help people in a time of crisis, there are some folks out there who just want to screw with you for no good reason. As an individual, that can feel like a sting when you realize you contributed to the spreading of false information on a “gotcha” prank. As a journalist, there are far larger impacts. It never feels good to question people in the time of crisis, but if you remember that not everyone has the best of intentions, you can reasonably and tactfully apply a healthy level of skepticism to claims like this.

How Audience-Centricity Plays a Role in Bears/Packers Coverage

When the oldest rivalry in the National Football League began its 195th meeting Thursday night, two people integrally involved in the “Dynamics” books were on each side of the battle. Ryan Wood, who covers the Green Bay Packers for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, and Pat Finley, who serves as the Bears beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, watched a 35-14 Packer victory, saw the game delayed by a lightning storm and included the usual chippy play that happens when these teams meet.

Wood has been featured on the blog before and offered his “Professional Thoughts” for the basic reporting chapter in the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book. Finley talked here about his use of social media (including his viral sketches of Bears’ practices) and also contributed his “Professional Thoughts” to the second edition of the “Dynamics of Media Writing,” which comes out next year. Both journalists have repeatedly stressed that in all they do, serving the audience matters most.

This fortuitous happenstance of having both of them covering the same event from different sides gives us a chance to see how they applied audience-centricity to their work. Consider this “core theme” paragraph by Wood in his game story:

The Packers trounced the Chicago Bears early and didn’t look back, winning 35-14 on Thursday night at Lambeau Field. Before the Bears had their second offensive snap, the Packers led, 14-0. The first half ended with the Packers scoring three touchdowns, and the Bears providing three turnovers.

Finley has a similar set of information, but a different approach:

(The Bears) lost 35-14, a margin that somehow failed to properly capture the particularly putrid stench of the game. The Packers reclaimed the all-time series lead, and, just four days after winning their first game of the season, the 1-3 Bears again appear in disarray.

When it came to other key plays, each author focused on aspects that would be of most interest to his audience. Finley looked a turnover in the context of quarterback Mike Glennon’s poor performance and a growing drumbeat among Bears fans to bench him in favor of first-round draft pick Mitch Trubisky:

Glennon, perhaps playing for his quarterbacking life, dug the Bears in yet another hole. Down 7-0, he was sacked by Clay Matthews on the team’s first offensive play and fumbled. Jake Ryan recovered at the Bears’ 3-yard line, and Rodgers threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb three plays later.

Wood’s look at that same play included a key interest element: oddity. Clay Matthews’ sack made him the all-time franchise leader in this department:

On Chicago’s first snap from its own 25-yard, outside linebacker Clay Matthews crashed the left side and sacked Bears quarterback Mike Glennon 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Matthews’ sack, which pushed him to first in franchise history with 75 in his career, jarred the football loose from Glennon.

For anyone watching the game, the scariest moment of the night came when the Bears’ Danny Trevathan struck Packer receiver Davante Adams in a helmet-to-helmet collision that knocked Adams out and sent his mouth guard flying across the field. Finley ends his story including this bit of information:

The Bears’ defense raged against the Packers’ field position advantage all night, but were responsible for its most horrific moment — a helmet-to-helmet Danny Trevathan hit that sent Davante Adams off the field on a stretcher and to the hospital with a head and neck injury. Trevathan could face suspension.

Wood, on the other hand, noted the “cheap shot” in several paragraphs in his game story and also wrote an extensive sidebar on the event, which you can read here. One of Finley’s colleagues also wrote a piece on the hit, which places emphasis on different aspects of the event and uses a different tone than the one Wood used.

Additional coverage came from both writers’ colleagues, with Packer coverage focusing on the team’s 3-1 start and the success of its patchwork offensive line. Finley’s publication had multiple columnists calling for the start of the Mitchell Trubisky era.

Both writers (and their publications) told stories about the same event, but from different perspectives based on what they thought their audience would want to know. Bears fans don’t want to hear about how great Aaron Rodgers is or how Clay Matthews broke a record at their team’s expense. Packer fans don’t want to hear about the carousel of quarterbacks that the Bears have seemingly been riding since Sid Luckman left town.

This is the main goal of good journalism personified: Know your audience and tell them what they need to know in a way they want to hear it.

3 reasons Twitter moving to 280 characters won’t help journalists communicate more effectively (Or, “Filak-ism: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should)

(Once again proving that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it.)

Before I wrote my first book for SAGE, I sketched out a handful of “Rules of the Road” that had to apply to ALL journalism. That ratty piece of hotel stationary with fading black ink on it sits in front of me every day at work, a reminder of the core principles of what matters most in this field.

When Twitter announced the other day that it was taking a trial run at doubling its character limit, I hated it, specifically because it violated several of those “Rules,” specifically:

  • Right tool for the right job
  • Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should
  • Audience (and timeliness) matter most

In other words, Twitter could make it so tweets are 914,292 characters each, but that won’t make them any better or more helpful to readers, thus negating the value of the tool.

Here are three reasons why Twitter’s move to 280-character isn’t a great idea and/or why you should still shoot for that 140 limit:

  1. Noun-Verb-Object tells the best story: One of the biggest problems students have in transitioning from other forms of writing to media writing is learning to write tightly. One of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of strong sentence structure. In both books, we talk about the idea of starting with the noun-verb-object approach to a sentence and then building outward from that. Twitter, in its 140-character perfection, forces you to do that if you want to get your point across. When a sentence lacks a concrete noun or a vigorous verb, the writer must slather on adjectives and adverbs to get a point across. That makes for longer, weaker, lousier sentences.
  2. The Homeowner Theory on the Accumulation of Stuff: The more space you have, the more worthless crap you will accumulate.
    My first “grown-up job” had me moving 500 miles across the country and as such, they included a nice perk: A moving service. I packed everything in my studio apartment and had it ready for what I expected would be a full day of moving guys coming in and out of my place. The three movers walked in, looked around and started to laugh. “Is this it?” My total accumulation of goods didn’t even cover the back wall of the truck.
    The next move was from a two-bedroom apartment to our first house. The house had a giant rec room, where I dreamily envisioned adding a pool table and giant entertainment center. At the time, however, all we had to put in there was the beige velour floral couch I bought off a guy’s dead aunt for $50. We put the couch in that room and started laughing uncontrollably. It was this tiny speck of furniture in this giant room. We eventually bought a sectional and a pool table.
    Each move meant a bigger place and more crap. No matter what we thought we were doing, we kept adding more and more stuff. Thus the point: If you have extra space, you’re going to fill it with a lot of stuff you probably don’t need. If you are like our friends who live in tiny big-city apartments, you know you need to maximize space and get rid of stuff you don’t really need.
    Its true of space in a home, time in your day and characters in your tweet. If you are limited to 140, you’ll make the most of it. If you get 280, you’ll fill that space as well. Eventually, 280 also will seem too small because you keep cramming extra stuff in there and you get used to the larger size. It’s like knowing you’re gaining weight and that it’s not good but instead of trying to exercise more, you just buy bigger pants.
  3. It fails to demonstrate audience centricity: Look at the explanations that people have offered for this switch to 280:

    The idea of extending the length of Twitter posts has been contentious internally, batted around among product groups that are trying to find ways to persuade people to use the service more frequently. At 328 million users, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to attract more people. Investors have grown nervous, as that slowing of user growth has affected the company’s revenue.

    “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” the company said.

    As a result, Twitter said, if rules around characters are loosened, English-speaking users — who tend to use more characters in tweets — will also hit character limits less frequently. That may, in turn, lead English-speaking users to post more regularly.

    So, in short, Twitter is looking at this as a way to get more people sending more tweets as part of a profit motive and people who got used to the 140 characters are essentially just “emotional” in their concerns. Notice what’s missing here: The focus on people who RECEIVE information on twitter, a.k.a. the audience.
    The value of any tool you use in media writing is how well it does in reaching your audience members and providing them relevant, useful and interesting information. Nothing about the increase of the characters focuses on how much better the tweets will be or how the audience will be best served. The reason? It won’t, primarily for the reasons outlined in Points 1 and 2.

In the end, this might be tilting against windmills and everything will be fine. However, keep in mind this is just a “test” of the new limit so if you get to play with it, don’t get too attached. After all, once you get used to 280, it’s going to be hard to fit into that 140-character space.


“Is a big story worth it?” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell explains how you can tell

Investigative journalist Jaimi Dowdell recently published a two-part series with co-author Kelly Carr that examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight that has allowed drug dealers, corrupt officials and people linked to terrorism to take to the skies with impunity. The journalists dug through thousands of pages of documents, revealing how planes were registered in ways that concealed the identity of the owners and how licensing of pilots provides almost no guarantee that these people are who they say they are.


Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, published the stories in the Boston Globe, where she was working as a “Spotlight Fellow.” The project grew out of the movie “Spotlight, which chronicled the paper’s work to expose the child sexual abuse scandal associated with clergy in the arch diocese. Participant Media, Open Road Films and First Look Media created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which provides recipients the ability to do their own investigative work at the Globe alongside the Spotlight crew.


Dowdell, who along with Carr spent more than a year investigating, researching, interviewing and writing these pieces, is one of the featured journalists in the upcoming “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book providing “A View from a Pro” and more. In the book, she offers this advice for students who are trying to figure out if the “big story” is worth the time and energy necessary to tell it:

  • Does this story answer a question? The best investigations and data stories answer a question. Stay away from noun stories. Don’t do a story on “crime” or “salaries” because it just won’t be that good. Seek to answer a question or explain a phenomenon and you’ll be in better shape.

  • Does the story break new ground? Look and see what has been done on the topic. Just because a story was done in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, but how can you move it forward? What is different? Why is this important now or to your community?

  • Does the story have potential for impact? We want people to care about your work. Why should they care about this? Is there room for change?

  • Are there victims or does this affect people? Again, you want people to care about your work and this helps.

  • Does this have a point to it? Keep making yourself write down a sentence or two explaining the story. What is the story? What is the news? If you can’t do it in a couple of sentences you need to go back to work. Keep asking yourself, “Is this a story?” Get feedback from other people. Be honest with yourself because your time is limited.

In closing, she made a key point that is true of all good stories:

“At the end of the day, you need to have a passion for the story and a desire to stick with it. Otherwise, no matter how good the story or how deep the pool of resources you have, the story will fail.”