5 bits of advice for student journalists covering chaos

Over the past month, the level of crime and disaster coverage has really jumped up a notch throughout the country.

We’re running through the alphabet at a pretty brisk pace when it comes to naming hurricanes, with Harvey smashing into Texas and surrounding areas while Irma did serious damage to Florida and many parts of the Deep South.  We had the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that led to a “Tiki-Torch march” on the University of Virginia campus as well as clashes between racists and counter-protestors that left one woman dead and many more injured.

This week, St. Louis was the epicenter of both peaceful protests and violent outbursts, leading to more than 80 arrests Sunday night. The source of this unrest was the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis Police officer who was charged with murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man believed to be selling drugs, in 2011.

Student journalists are frequently at the forefront of these events, covering dangerous situations for their fellow students. The folks at the Rice Thresher talked last week about their experiences covering hurricane damage around their area, and they continue to cover the aftermath of the devastation. The Cav Daily at UVA was in the middle of the chaos both for the march on campus as well as the events that unfolded the next day. A more becomes known about the city’s efforts, the reporters at UVA continue the coverage.  In St. Louis, both the student reporters at St. Louis University and Washington University covered the protests in the wake of the Stockley’s acquittal.

Covering disasters, crime and mayhem can be scary as hell. I spent most of my professional J time on a night desk or the crime beat, so I’ve seen more than a few things that would make a Billy Goat puke. I also have sent student journalists into situations where danger was palpable and fear was inevitable. Based on that background, and the fact it seems likely you might end up covering something like this, here are five simple tips when you need to cover chaos:

  1. Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. I once went to the scene of an accident where a compact car traveling about 50 mph went head on into a compact car traveling 50 mph toward it. A lot of blood and glass. A TV reporter was on the side of the road, throwing up into the weeds, trying to hold it together for a stand up. In floods, you might find dead people or wounded people. Fights break out at protests and violence spills everywhere. (Tim Dodson’s line about the “chemical irritant” in the air during the “Unite the Right” rally sticks in my head when I think of how crazed a scene can get.) Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of an accident. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand. I interviewed a fire chief once who told me that a reporter wanted to get a shot of a burning building and moved too close to the structure. When one of his firefighters chopped into the roof, there was some sort of explosion through one of the windows, thus raining fire, glass and debris on the startled journalist.

    Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

  3. Paranoia is your best friend. Always make sure you are following up your stories on disasters. Things can change in a heartbeat, literally. When a young boy fell into a creek and was clinging to life, a reporter wrote a tale of how the priest was praying with the family and how God would make everything work out well. Unfortunately, as deadline approached, it turns out the kid was taken off of life support and died. A rewrite of that story was critical. Make sure you check back to see the condition of people involved in disasters, the official cause of fires, how many people are actually still without power following a storm and more. The more you worry that things might be changing, the better off your copy will be. In terms of crime, make sure you are sure on the specific charges, the ID and name spelling of anyone accused of anything and that you have slapped attributions on everything that needs one.
  4. Be humane. When you cover bad things, chances are you’ll run into bad people. When someone does something that harms others and you have to go after that person, you should do so with vim and vigor. However, that crime also affects a lot of good people as well. It could be the wife of a guy who she never suspected of running a dog-fighting operation. It might be the sister of a victim who was shot and killed by an under-trained cop. It could be a parent who just identified the body of her only daughter. Life isn’t easy on these people. It’s also true in disaster stories, where people have watched their homes wash away on TV or they just lost everything they ever loved. It’s a horrible event and these people are traumatized. Yes, you are on deadline and yes, the adrenaline is flowing. However, you need to make sure you act in a way that will allow you to live with yourself the next day. The story is fleeting, but if you are insensitive, rude or in some other way problematic, your impact will last a long time.
  5. Take care of yourself. Covering crises will have an impact on you in some way. How exactly? I don’t know and neither will you. I can’t tell you how you will react to seeing a dead body, a tornado-torn neighborhood or a road strewn with auto glass. One of the toughest student journalists I ever knew ended up almost broken covering a story about a garbage collector who died when he was crushed by his own truck. Why that story got her when others didn’t, I don’t know. However, you need to understand that these things have an impact on you. The DART center (www.dartcenter.org) helps journalists deal with the trauma they experience every day, from war to crime and beyond. In the end, you might just need someone to talk to. However, you can’t do your job if you are really messed up. Take the time to take care of yourself.

“Learn how to bullshit” (and other great tips to becoming better at journalism)

I often tell students that I don’t know everything (big surprise) but if I don’t know something, I’ll tell the students I don’t know it and then I’ll go ask people who do. This includes fact-based things such as what the GNP of Peru is in a given year and experience-based items such as how to get a difficult interview subject to loosen up.

This week, I asked a group of experienced journalists what they saw as the most important skills young journalists could pick up that go beyond what you read in a textbook (farther vs. further, how many words to put in a lead etc.). In reading through the answers, here are the themes that emerged:

  • Break out of your comfort zone: People often fail to differentiate among not liking something, not being able to do something and being uncomfortable doing something. I don’t like eating broccoli, but I am able to do it. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, unless I’m eating it at a friend’s house and his wife or mother says, “So how do you like the broccoli?” and I am forced to lie: “It’s great!”
    I am unable to dunk a basketball. I would like to do it and it would not make me uncomfortable if I could do it. I just physically can’t propel my 5-foot-9, middle-age frame up to the edge of the rim and throw down.
    The point is that in most cases, we don’t like doing something because it makes us uncomfortable, so we say we can’t do it. The truth is, especially in journalism, the more you break out of your comfort zone, the more you will be able to do something because you will experience less discomfort in doing it. Or as one journalist recalled about a summer internship experience:

    I was asked if there was anything I didn’t like to do. I said man-on-the-street stuff. Guess what I did all summer long? It wasn’t punishment, it was a way to get over the bad habit of only talking to people who were paid to talk to me. So many young journos are afraid to cold-call or just go up to someone, and you just have to do it until it doesn’t suck as much or you stop caring about someone saying no or thinking you’re stupid.

  • Learn by doing: Even things you don’t mind doing aren’t always easy, but they become more natural if you practice them over and over again. This is a lot like playing a sport or a musical instrument: It’s easy for people to marvel at the end result when that’s all they see, but a ton of behind-the-scenes work went into making the performance incredible. Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t wake up at age 22 and become incredible basketball players just because they felt like it. Pavarotti didn’t nail every note in La boheme the first time he tried it.
    One of the biggest problems in media writing is that most people feel they’ve been writing their whole lives. They HAVE practiced repeatedly at this craft, so it becomes incredibly frustrating when this writing doesn’t come out as easily or flawlessly as the other writing they have done. The main problem with that is in the underlying assumption that all writing is the same. It’s not. This kind of writing requires different skills and alternative approaches, so it forces you to zig instead of zag. To draw from an earlier example, Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world in the early 1990s, but found that all those skills didn’t make him the best baseball player in the world.
    You need to practice on the field of your sport, so to speak. Or as a journalist with international experience put it:

    At the risk of making an overly obvious point, I’d recommend just writing as much as possible. Take the Ichiro-in-batting-practice approach and do as much work as you possibly can. I work with a fair number of young, recent grad writers, and I’m always amazed at the gulf between the ones who put in a lot of hours with their student paper and the ones who didn’t. The former are just so much sharper. With them, I’m working with a journalist, not someone who has written a bit and is trying to become a journalist.

  • Employ empathy: Either because we’ve all watched way too much TV or because we’re scared to death of doing interviews, the “helicopter” approach to interacting with sources can become our resting pulse. We want to fly over to a source, get in, get what we need and get out of there as fast as possible. A lot of this can be overcome with practice, as others mentioned earlier. However, it’s not just that practice makes perfect (or close to it), but perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.
    This is where the issue of empathy comes in. If you see the person you are about to interview as basically a jar full of answers you need to open up and dig into, you’re going to have a lousy experience with the source. Instead, if you treat that person with dignity, respect and interest, you start to see the human being behind the story you need to tell. In turn, the source will start to see you as a human being as well, instead of a mosquito that is nothing more than a blood-sucking pest. As one sports journalist put it:

    When I first started, my trepidation in building sources is I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can’t just walk up to an “off-limit source” I’ve never spoken to and expect them to answer a hard-hitting question. Start with what they did on summer vacation. Or if they have any plans for their upcoming down time… It breaks the ice and gets the source comfortable, because now they’re talking to a person, not a reporter. Wish I knew that when I first started.

    Or put more succinctly:

    Learn how to bullshit. Practice it.

Not every tip here will work in every situation and  you will likely find your own way through various experiences in the field. Some sources just want you to cut to the chase. Others will never like you no matter how much you effort you put into cultivating them and working with them. In some cases, no matter how much you practice, you will never come to like or enjoy certain aspects of the job. It’s all part of learning and developing skills.

Speaking of skill development, here’s something to consider from a journalist who has worked in print, web, blogs, PR and marketing. I didn’t know where to put, but I just couldn’t leave it out, so I guess I’ll end with it:

Learn to read upside down. Can’t tell you how many times that comes in handy.

Cliffhanger questions are for “Game of Thrones,” not journalism

The goal of good writing is to make sure you answer the questions your readers have. At the very least, you don’t want to create questions and then leave them unanswered. CNN’s report on the latest poling numbers for President Trump does exactly that:

Washington (CNN) Only 36% of Americans approve of President Donald Trump’s performance in the Oval Office, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll has found.

That gives Trump the lowest approval rating at the six-month mark of any president in 70 years, ABC News reports.

As the story goes on, I kept waiting for the answer of, “Why 70 years ago?” Did they only start doing polling like this 70 years ago? Was there a guttural level of unique hatred for Truman or Eisenhower at one of their six-month marks? How close was the closest guy to this number for Trump? Or as Sunshine would say:

I kept reading and kept looking, but no dice. As the story wore on, CNN seemed less interested in answering the questions I had about that record-breaking low and more interested in pelting me with as many numbers as possible. It was like CNN kept loading up a bratzooka with percentages and firing them into the story:

In the end, I went elsewhere to find the answers, namely the ABC story CNN references. To be fair to CNN, the video did cover some of the items I wanted to know, but as a journalist you a) can’t assume the audience is going to look at the video and the text, even if you set it to autoplay and b) you don’t want to force readers to look elsewhere for answers.

This is especially true if it’s your fault they have the questions in the first place.

“Picked up some Hookers!” (or why knowing your audience matters)

Hooker-Headers-Heart-511x412

A guy I know who works on classic cars made a social media post a while back that told everyone who follows him that he “picked up some Hookers” over the weekend.

Not one person shamed him online or forwarded the information to the guy’s wife. A lot of people responded with comments like “happy for you” or “so excited,” mainly because his audience was other car nerds.

Hookers, in car parlance, are exhaust headers named for their inventor, Gary Hooker, who constructed his first set of these back in the early 1960s. Headers like these provide your engine with more power because they help move the exhaust gas out of the engine more quickly.

In a more general context, it could appear that this guy was bragging about purchasing the services of prostitutes. In a car context, he was just making the engine more powerful.

And that is why understanding your audience matters.

News writers often cover topics that fall into “beats” when they work for general-interest publications like local newspapers or news magazines. Bloggers often have specific niches as do magazine writers for publications on health or hobbies. Public relations professionals have internal publics, who share an intimate understanding of how an organization works, and external publics, who often lack the detailed knowledge of a company or group. In each case, the writer has to understand what the readers know and don’t know as to best fine-tune the material and clarify the vocabulary.

Too often, we forget that people don’t know everything we know as writers, and thus we lapse into jargon, lingo and “alphabet soup” that can alienate the audience. Here are a couple thoughts to help you refine your writing as you work to reach your readers:

    • Who is reading this? Don’t assume that you know your audience or that the audience is as informed as you are. Go check it out. Web analytics, market research and other similar data can help you figure out who is most frequently reading your work. This can help you determine if mostly local folks who know what “The Dean Dome” is or if the audience contains mostly out of state people who need the formal name (the Dean E. Smith Center) and some information about location and purpose.
    • At what level are they reading this? A student once wrote an incredibly good piece for one of my writing classes on the issues surrounding raw milk. As I read it, I felt like I learned a ton and I suggested she get it published, probably in a local agricultural publication. The student, who grew up on a farm and had frequently read the publication, smiled at me like a parent smiles at an innocent child. “Um… This is really way too overly simplified for farmers…,” she explained.
      For me, a non-farmer, she was writing at exactly the right level: Assume I’m somewhat educated but have spent no time on a farm. For farmers, this would have read like a “See Dick and Jane” book. Know how much your audience knows, how much background the readers will need and how slowly you need to walk into a topic to avoid losing anyone.
    • Avoid alphabet soup for the most part. If your writing looks more like an eye chart than it does a story, you probably have a few too many abbreviations or acronyms in there. Some of these letter-based terms make sense within niche markets. If a business journal notes that a CPA for a B2B marketer uses GAAP, this will likely make sense to readers who know that CPA means “certified public accountant,” B2B means “business to business” and GAAP means “generally accepted accounting practices. However, for most of us, it looks like we would either need to spin the wheel again or buy a vowel. AP suggests using generic terms like “the organization” instead of using an abbreviation or acronym that would be confusing to readers.


(Case in point from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”)

  • Help people out. In traditional media, it never hurts to include a brief definition or some context clues for audience members who might need a little help on an unfamiliar topic. If you’re working on the web, a link or two might make the difference between informed and lost readers. Always give people a chance to figure out what you’re telling them.

At the core of all storytelling is language and shared understanding. For health aficionados, adjusting your carbs might lead to weight loss, while car folks know adjusting your carb will help your engine run better. Somewhere in between, the rest of the world resides, so it’s on us as writers to make sure we make our message clear.

“Police said.” Two words that can save your rear end

When it comes to attributions, two complaints often emerge in my classes:

  1. They’re boring and repetitive.
  2. They’re unnecessary, as most people can figure it out for themselves.

The truth is, attributions help readers figure out who is saying what, how much faith they should put in the statements and in some cases offer the reporter protection against potential legal action. This last one is particularly true in covering crime, where reporters who quote police or court officials operate usually operate under “qualified privilege.” This means you can quote these officials without fear, even if they turn out to be wrong or change their story.

On June 9, tennis star Venus Williams was involved in a fatal car wreck in Florida. Initial media reports stated that Williams was at fault even though she hadn’t been charged or arrested. The leads on those stories both contain attributions to the police and the remainder of the stories frequently cite the police sources. Why does this matter, if it’s likely she did it and “everybody says so?” Because things can change:

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tennis star Venus Williams legally entered an intersection but was cut off by another car, setting off a chain of events that seconds later resulted in a fatal crash with a third car, police say video released Friday shows.

Even in the above lead, the writer cites the police, who are citing the video, rather than just saying “a video released Friday shows.” This level of attribution is crucial to demonstrate not only who is making the judgment, but also that in this case the source is operating under privilege.

Students often ask me why they should attribute every statement or cite certain sources repeatedly. One conversation I recall even had the student tell me, “The guy obviously did it, so what does it matter?” The truth is, the situation can change and sometimes the only thing that will save your keester is a simple two-word phrase:

“Police said.”

To quote an old police drama, “Let’s be careful out there.”