A quick look at the history and value of the Associated Press (and an interview with a pro, to boot!)

A good number of my students hear “AP” and immediately think of the giant style guide that they have to buy for each class. However, the Associated Press is a lot more than that, owning an impressive history of doing quality journalism around the globe.

A story released today by the Columbia Journalism Review takes a look at some recent rough times the AP has had in terms of operating its foreign bureaus, a topic that might or might not be of interest to you. However, I would strongly suggest reading it anyway, as it contains a really nice, clear history of the creation and development of the organization itself.

In addition, I’ve posted a “Tips from a Pro” interview with AP editor Janelle Cogan that we featured in the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It’s a good look at how strong, clear journalism should be valued above all else.

Here’s Janelle:

As the acting enterprise editor for the South Region of the Associated Press, Janelle Cogan sees a lot of quality news features, watchdog pieces and enterprise stories each day. Even with those longer stories and broader topics, she said the basics of journalism remain at the core of her approach to content.

“Journalists need to ask and answer the basic questions,” she said. “When you’re writing and reporting a story, don’t assume your audience knows the context or background of the subject matter – it’s such a big part of your job to provide that. Give scope, give context.”

Cogan has held a number of positions at the AP, including desk editor, weekend supervisor and a morning supervisor before she took on the enterprise role. In this position, she works on stories that come from 13 states and Washington, D.C. Before joining the AP, she worked as a copy desk chief, an assistant city editor, a features editor and a designer. In all of her time in media, she said the biggest changes have been to the volume of news that organizations have created as well as the speed at which it is delivered.

“No one is waiting for tomorrow’s paper to see the results of the game, the election, the fire, the shooting,” she said. “So the way we report and write that news has changed, too. We have to provide quick, understandable, digestible bites of news. When we have the latest numbers/report/development, we need to get it out there. So we write in a way that puts that info at the very top of the story. Especially as a story develops, we probably aren’t writing in a terribly flowery or “writerly” way. We are writing crisp, clear, basic sentences. We are authoritative. We are transparent.”

To keep the writing focused, Cogan said she pushes writers to “show, don’t tell” a story, eliminate clichés and remove jargon. She said she pushes her writers cut superfluous words and to tell her the story in a clear and concise way.

“It’s better to be straight with them – conversational, even,” she said. “How would you tell me this story if we were chatting over coffee or a beer? That may just be the best way to start your story. A pet peeve of mine as an editor: When you pitched me this story, we were probably both excited about the idea – when you turn in a draft, if that excitement and that initial nugget is gone, you need to go back.”

 

ONE LAST THING: If you could tell the students reading this book anything you think is important, what would it be?

“Don’t be afraid to take risks and get out of your comfort zone; you must try new things and expand your skills and horizon! In terms of being a journalist, this means: You aren’t *just* a writer. You aren’t *just* a photographer. You aren’t *just* a VJ. You’re a journalist. The format will change, and you should try all you can: write, take photos and video on your iPhone, create and post interesting tweets, produce an interactive, edit your colleagues’ work. It’s all important.”

“Public archives are your best friend:” How student journalists broke the story on VCU’s history of blackface, “slave sale” fundraisers and more

Over the past few weeks, media practitioners vigorously reported on the “blackface” revelations associated with politicians in Virginia and the student journalists at the Commonwealth Times were no different. In digging deep into the archives of Virginia Commonwealth University, the students there found not only a history of blackface photos, but also racist references to Native Americans and Asians as well.

The article and photo package the students built showed that these racist elements included a “slave sale” and blackface imagery in a yearbook as late as 1989.

VCUBlackface

The front page of the Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University. Courtesy of Allison Dyche and the CT staff.

Allison Dyche, the director of student media at Virginia Commonwealth University, said since the revelations emerged that a blackface photo ran on the yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, the students at the CT pursued the story like many other journalists throughout the country.

“The students have been closely following the story about Gov. Northam since it broke,” she said. “We’re the capital of Virginia, so it’s all happening right down the street from us. The students from The CT covered Northam’s press conference, and published a timeline of events in their paper this past week. They’ve been covering the story nonstop, because they’re great journalists, it was changing on an almost daily basis with new updates, and because it’s happening where they live and go to school.”

News editor Fadel Allassan, a senior majoring in political science, said he saw stories about Northam’s situation as well as a story regarding racist photos in yearbooks at the nearby University of Richmond. It was at that point, he said he wondered what might be hidden deep in the VCU archives.

“We had been seeing old racist yearbook photos pop up all around us and I decided to look into it,” he said. “I went to the physical archives at VCU and looked for a couple of hours. I didn’t find anything until the building closed. On my way out, I started talking with the gentleman working at the archives as he closed up shop, and he told me to keep digging because I would find stuff, as he had seen some racist imagery in the books before.”

Allassan said he offered his reporters an opportunity to help him look into the yearbooks and news writer Hannah Eason jumped at the chance. Eason, a sophomore broadcast major from Farmville, Virginia, said she knew it was a big story and didn’t want to miss out on it.

“Considering the current journalism climate with every news organization pulling yearbooks– after Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook exposure– we didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I looked through the yearbooks all night on Thursday and we published on Friday. We didn’t want someone to break the story before us, considering (the books) were in public archives and anyone could be doing research about it.”

The staff had to make decisions on what would run and how to explain the photos, Allassan said. The goal was to provide a thorough view of what the yearbooks from the past presented and how recently racist images were included in these volumes.

“We had to edit the story, take out the photos we weren’t sure about,” Allassan said. “In some of the photos, it was too unclear as to what was going on, so we left them out. It was hard because some of the photos were from the ’40s and ’50s and hard to see. We then had to figure out the best web presentation and how to treat the story appropriately.”

Once the story hit the web, Dyche said the students received a lot of attention for their efforts, with publications like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Daily Progress and the Winston-Salem Journal   covering their work. She said she hadn’t heard any negative reactions from the administration.

“I’m not aware of any pushback the students received from anyone,” she said. “The library archive is available to anyone, so the students were able to access it easily. I have not received any emails or phone calls either. The story published on Friday afternoon on The CT’s website. The reporter, Hannah Eason, was interviewed by a local TV news outlet that evening.”

Eason said her experience with this story just reinforced the notion that stories are everywhere and that public documents are a valuable commodity for journalists.

“I would tell a student that public archives are your best friend,” she said. “There can be cool stories (or huge, in this case.) As a journalist, I think it’s easy to forget that police records, court papers, legal documents, and even library archives can be goldmines of information which can lead to a great story. Connect your research/findings to something current and important and — BAM! —  you’ve got a story.”

Eason also said she considers this story the most important one she has produced for the CT. In terms of the overall impact in the area, she said the university has consistently worked to provide a progressive atmosphere, in spite of issues like this one.

“I think we’ve all been pretty consistent that blackface is wrong, disgraceful, and outright racist,” Eason said. “That hasn’t changed. VCU has overall been pretty progressive in standing up for minority groups and making a point to make them feel included/welcomed/loved. I think that the hardest part of this has been Northam’s connection to it. I feel that Northam was pretty well-liked by the younger college demographic, especially in Richmond.”

Allassan said he hopes the story will help students at VCU reexamine the history of the area and think about it more deeply.

“As students we’re often not aware of what it means to be a campus located directly where the capital of the Confederacy stood,” he said. “That notion is pretty jarring if you compare it to how progressive and diverse our school is. We may have been ignorant as to what our history is, but I wonder if these recent events will change that.”

In terms of moving forward, Dyche said her students are continuing to cover the situation at the capitol and keeping track of what other elements might emerge regarding these issues on campus.

“I’m thrilled to see my students taking the initiative to go look through archives to find things to help drive a story even closer to home than it already was,” Dyche said. “They were timely with the story, and set aside hours to go search through the archives to see what they could find. I love to see students find new and old ways of finding new story ideas, and to see them put in the necessary effort to make a story happen.”

“The fact that the story was picked up by so many other news outlets just drives home the fact that it was a timely story and one that needed to be shared, and I’m glad to see my students are the ones taking the time and putting in the work to inform their audience,” she added.

 

 

 

As student journalists, how do you report on rape allegations? Pretty much the same way you report on anything else.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article posted on a writing website that had her seriously concerned and had me grateful that I wasn’t in her shoes.

The college-aged woman who wrote the article stated that the head of a university’s student government had raped her. She outlined the history of their relationship, including previous consensual sexual interactions, discussed her own history of sexual encounters and detailed the incident in which she states the man had sex with her without using a condom and without her consent to do so.

In addition, she outlined specific allegations including:

  • She was not the only person with whom this man had non-consensual sex: “It appears that there are many more young women than just myself who have been assaulted or harassed by him,” she wrote.
  • She heard from another woman that this man had infected multiple partners with chlamydia. (She wrote that she underwent testing and her test came back negative.)
  • She heard from that same woman that this man had cheated on her with multiple partners.

My friend advises the student publication at the university where this woman attends (or attended) school and where this man serves as the head of the student government. In other words, this has massive ramifications for the audience her paper serves.

The question then becomes, “How does a student media outlet go about reporting on a rape allegation, made in this fashion, in a decent, fair and ethical way while also keeping a watchful eye on any legal ramifications?” The answer in the headline is a bit glib, but it is more true than not: Basically the same way you report on anything else.

Consider these basic building blocks:

Background research must come first: Nobody wants to look like an idiot when they get into a story where they have no prior knowledge of the topic. While really bad reporters kind of fake their way through a topic, good reporters dig deep to fully understand it well enough to speak intelligently on it. Consider this the first thing you must do for ALL stories, whether you’re trying to explain how the sport of curling works (my first “what the hell do I know about this?” story that required ridiculous amounts of research) or trying to figure out how to ask questions in an interview with a rape survivor.

No matter how scary the story, you are not the first person to cover any given topic. That means there are experts out there who can help you figure things out. In the case of a story on rape, the people at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the folks at the Dart Center can provide you with information on the topic at hand and how to navigate your reporting. In many cases, organizations like these have put together guides, tips and hints, such as the Dart Center’s guide to covering sexual violence and trauma or its step-by-step outline of how to report on campus rapes and sexual assaults.

The best way to not feel like you’re going to do something stupid in your reporting and writing is to make yourself as smart as possible on the topic.

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: This is the first rule of all good journalism. In other words, go do some digging for yourself before you rely on anything you hear second hand. Ask for an interview with the woman who wrote the story so you can hear her story first hand. Ask for an interview with other people directly attached to the story, such as the man accused in this story. Look for things elements of the story that can be verified without traumatizing anyone or making it look like you have already decided who is right and who is wrong.

Cases involving false rape allegations are quite rare, but the premier example of a story like this that went off the rails in a horrifying way was the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The piece told the story of “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student who told the writer she had been gang raped at a fraternity party. “Jackie” also stated that the administration wouldn’t do anything to help her and that it was more concerned in protecting the image of the school than investigating her situation.

The piece ended up being retracted and it led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the magazine. The fraternity reached a $1.65 million settlement with the magazine, while the administrator made out to be the “chief villain” of the story reached a confidential settlement, after a federal jury awarded her a $3 million judgment that the magazine was appealing.

A post-mortem analysis of the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone found that the magazine had failed to do basic reporting to verify the claims asserted in the story and that the piece had basic facts wrong. The report stated the reporter never interviewed the friends “Jackie” had mentioned, instead relying on her recollections of what they told her. It also noted that specific parties and dates of events didn’t fit with actual events or parties, something that would have been easy enough to verify. The report also outline other similar things like this that could have been done to help put the magazine on a stronger footing or better decide how to proceed with the piece.

Simply put, you are a reporter, so report. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe someone, but you have to make sure you can support the content you publish to the best of your ability.

Check your legal liabilities: The Student Press Law Center provides student journalists with free legal advice on a wide array of topics. If you have concerns that a story might libel someone, a call or email to SPLC is worth your time. The “Dynamics” textbooks list off the key elements of libel as:

  • Publication: Did you disseminate the content to someone other than the person claiming to be libeled?
  • Identification: Is the person claiming to be libeled named or otherwise easily known based on how he or she is described in the story?
  • Harm: Can the person claiming to be libeled demonstrate serious damage to his or her reputation? This usually involves being accused of a crime or associated with “unsavory” illnesses.
  • Fault: Can the person claiming to be libeled show that the person publishing the content either did something wrong or failed to do something that should have been done to prevent the libelous content from being published?

In case you’re wondering, a story like this would go four-for-four in terms of these items. That means you’re into the defenses against libel, including truth, privilege and so forth. What also makes this interesting is the issue of what level of fault the man in this story would have to prove. Ordinary citizens only have to prove negligence, which is easier to show, while public figures have to demonstrate actual malice. In that instance, the public figure has to show the material was false and that the publisher had a reckless disregard for the truth. The SPLC is your friend, so give the folks there a call with questions before you publish.

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: If you do your reporting and you aren’t certain you have enough of the story to tell the story, wait until you can gather enough content to feel more secure. If you find that your reporting hasn’t revealed enough to support or refute conclusions crucial to the story itself, don’t feel pressured to publish something because you are worried about “how it would look.” You are responsible for what you publish, so you need to feel confident you can stand behind what you put out there.

It’s always better to be late than wrong.

 

Once you get deeper into the writing, you should pay additional attention to style, word choice and clarity to avoid creating problems for your sources and your readers. In addition, having a legal eagle and an expert in the field give you a quick review for some thoughts and polish points to consider won’t hurt either.

This is obviously a serious and delicate topic, which means tact matters as does basic human decency. That said you can do all of this and adhere to quality reporting standards to make sure you put your best possible story forward.

Dumb, stupid or idiotic? Questioning the questions we ask in interviews

The line I use when it comes to interviewing is, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” However, it dawned on me this week in reading through some students’ analyses of press conferences that some distinctions should exist regarding the specific level of “duh” related to questions journalists ask.

Dumb questions: Journalists fear looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I know that I sweated out more than a few interviews with the only thought running through my head being, “Please, don’t think I’m dumb.” Dumb questions, as outlined in Jason Feifer’s article here, aren’t questions that should embarrass you, provided you have prepared well for an interview.

In this sense of the word, these are basic questions that the source has easy answers for on topics that are common in his or her field. In some cases, people avoid asking a source to clarify what an abbreviation means or how a process works for fear of looking dumb (and thus avoiding asking a “dumb question.”).

Feifer is right that you should feel free to ask for clarification and to ask the person to explain things like he or she would to a 5-year-old. I always try to research a topic before I go there, but there are things that will come up that I don’t understand. If the source balks at explaining this or tries to treat you like a dummy, simply explain, “You are the expert at this. This is why I’m asking you these questions. I don’t know this stuff as well as you do and I want to make sure I get it right so we both don’t look dumb.”

Stupid questions: These are the questions that you want to avoid because they are flat-out goofy, incorrectly phrased, rely on misinformation or otherwise make the sources question the size of your brain pan. Here’s a list of the stupidest questions asked in court and it covers a lot of those areas of concern. Perhaps the best one is this:

Q: What happened then?
A: He told me, he says, ‘I have to kill you because you can identify me.’
Q: Did he kill you?

The legendary question of this variety is the one that so many people swear didn’t happen, even as others swear it did. In the lead up to Super Bowl XXII, the press focused on Washington’s Doug Williams, who was poised to be the first African American to start at quarterback in the NFL title game. At one point a reporter was said to have asked Williams, “So, how long have you been a black quarterback?” Despite frequent attempts to debunk this myth, the story lives on as an example of a question that was really, really stupid.

In most cases, you can avoid stupid questions by doing a few things:

  • Research your topic well. The more you know about something, the less likely you will be to ask something that sounds really stupid.
  • Read your questions aloud to someone else before you ask them of your source. A lot of times, questions sound good in your head but somewhere between your brain and your mouth, a translation issue occurs. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask them aloud. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second person go over them with you to make sure you’re asking what you think you’re asking.
  • If you’re not sure how something will sound, try to come up with a better way to ask it. If you can’t get at it that way, at least explain in advance to the source that you’re struggling to come up with a way to ask for some specific information. At least that way it won’t come out of left field.

 

Idiotic questions: These are the ones you should never ask at any point for any reason. They lack any semblance of decency and they often come across as really asinine. The question that got me rolling on this post was one a sports journalism student brought up that I had missed. A reporter asked Russell Westbrook if fellow basketball player James Harden was worth a “max contract.” In NBA speak, that means “Is he worthy of being one of the highest-paid players in the game?”

It isn’t easy talking about how much money you make, let alone commenting on what you think someone else should make. It’s an idiotic question and Westbrook dealt with it as such.

In other cases, it’s simply a rude question that no one should be expected to answer. Consider this one asked of actress Scarlet Johansson in an interview about her role in “The Avengers” films:

Because nothing says, “serious journalist” like asking an actress if she was “going commando.”

A similarly idiotic question came out when another male journalist decided to ask Anne Hathaway about her body:

(This blog could fill up the entire internet with nothing but idiotic questions male journalists asked of female athletes, actors and celebrities, so we will move on.)

It’s not always just what the question is but how it’s asked that can make it idiotic. Prior to the 1981 Super Bowl, a reporter was asking quarterback Jim Plunkett about his family’s unfortunate health history, including his father’s progressive loss of vision. However, he asked it this way: “Lemme get this straight, Jim. Is it blind mother, deaf father or the other way around?” Think about how you would react if that question were asked of you in that fashion.

When it comes to asking questions, you always want to put your best foot forward. At the very least, you don’t want to step barefoot into a steaming pile of cow dung. Do your research, look at your material, review your questions and ask them out loud before you get to your source. Then, you’ll likely be in better shape to conduct an interview that doesn’t embarrass you or your source or both.

What Super Bowl? The New Orleans Times-Picayune and knowing your audience

While the rest of the football universe spent Monday morning either celebrating New England’s sixth Super Bowl win or complaining about it, the folks in New Orleans woke up to a newspaper front that captured the city’s mood perfectly:

tpblank

If you aren’t a football fan, or aren’t from the NoLa area, you probably didn’t hear about the NFC championship game that sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl and sent the New Orleans Saints home for the year. During the Saints final drive in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 20-20, the referees blew a pass-interference call that would have essentially won the gain for New Orleans. However, instead of getting a first down and a chance to run out the clock before a game-winning field goal, the Saints had a 4th-and-10 situation, so they kicked a field goal.

The Rams tied the game in regulation and went on to win 26-23 in overtime.

Still steaming two weeks later, the staff of the paper decided not to cover The Big Game and instead protest its existence with this cover. How good of an idea this was seemed to be directly related to your connection to the area.

A journalism education Facebook group I’m on posted this image and asked if this was a colossal waste of space, and the majority of folks initially thought it was:

This is almost an ethics issue. My reaction to this front is that it cheapens the front page. Think of all of the important content that could have been there.
NOLA has stewed over this for two weeks.

<SNIP>

Blowing up the front may have jumped the shark.

<SNIP>

Yeah, this was petty and shouldn’t have been done. Write an editorial about it. Sports really isn’t that important, and I’m a sports fan.

<SNIP>

What a waste of space and opportunity! I’m sorry if you are a football fan–I’m not–but N.O. needs to get over it! … there is so much more important news than the silly Super Bowl, blown call or not. Jeepers.

My two cents on the matter was that I probably wouldn’t have done this because I’m usually a wuss when it comes to going way out on a limb, but that I did like it for two reasons:

  1. Audience centricity: These folks know their readership, particularly in the print-distribution area, pretty well, so if they have the vibe that this is what people are thinking and feeling, they probably hit a home run with their audience. Meeting your audience where they are and touching on what they think is important tends to work well, and a local paper, which the TP is, should know what matters most to the readers.
  2. Fail big: Even if this was a disaster-bacle and the readers ended up hating it, at least the paper failed big. It’s easy to try to hedge your bets against really screwing up by doing something minor, but it takes guts to go for it, which the paper did here.

To see if I was right about this, I put out a call to my friends and colleagues in the area and it turns out, the people down there loved this thing:

This is a great case of a newsroom knowing its audience. The city partied yesterday to celebrate the season and collectively mourn what coulda shoulda been. The Times-Pic covered it all on its digital platforms yesterday, so I think the front page was a great way to show the city’s sentiment, while still having coverage inside the paper. And people did not watch the big game. The numbers prove it: locally, the game got a 26.2 rating, compared to 55 last year.

<SNIP>

It’s real, and it’s going over brilliantly.

<SNIP>

Local reaction to Super Bowl and the blown call ranges from genuine outrage to dipshittery.

This reaction from the folks in the area reinforces the idea of audience centricity and the importance of knowing your audience. When it came down to it, the paper took a huge risk, but it ended up becoming the talk of the town and beyond. National media covered the paper’s front page live on air and on the web. The Washington Post featured all of the outrage, including the parade the fans had to grouse about the Big Game’s lack of value to them.

Even more, the paper clearly made an impact where it mattered most: Sales.

“The paper sold out at shops & paper machines,” a good friend told me.

When was the last time the paper could say that?

3 teachable moments for media students from the Gov. Ralph Northam “blackface” controversy

In case you missed it, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent the weekend under pressure to resign after his association with a racist photo during medical school came to light. Northam, a Democrat, had a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page with a person wearing a KKK hood and robe and another other in blackface:

NorthamYearbook.jpg

Follow-up stories also found that while at VMI, Northam had the nickname “Coonman,” which has racist overtones, to say the least. Northam has stated he will not resign, even as pretty much everyone else on the planet is telling him he has no choice.

In terms of “teachable moments,” we could easily list about 1,023,324 of them starting with “don’t be a racist idiot.” However, since this is a journalism-based blog, let’s stick to three items related to media concerns:

Student media leaves a long trail: When Brett Kavanaugh was up for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, we talked about this issue at length, but it bears repeating here: Student media can be eternal. In that earlier post, we cited at least a half-dozen cases in which politicians, jurists and others had something they wrote as an under-informed undergrad come back to haunt them. What makes this case interesting is that this was from Northam’s days in medical school, which pushes his age much further into adulthood when his page hit the press.

Sure, it might seem cute to put something in press that you find to be “funny” at the time, like a drinking quote, a puffery-based quote about your virility or something else that would make you wince later, but consequences do emerge. Consider this “hysterical” moment from a college paper and its senior sendoff columns:

chronicle_cunt

I never was a huge fan of drop caps, but this made them worse…

I suppose, if you were inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that this was a random lottery of accidental ordering, but five other senior sendoff columns on the subsequent page had drop caps that spelled out “PENIS.” I can’t recall what happened to the students in this case, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. It also isn’t great that this happened in the internet age, so I’m sure I’m not the only person with this photo.

As both media practitioners and people who plan to live a fruitful life past the age of 22, take a good, hard look at what you publish. The association you have with those choices doesn’t seem like it ever really goes away.

 

Before you open your mouth, figure out what you should say: Public relations and crisis communication experts get an unfair bad rap in many cases. The whole “Covington Catholic MAGA kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation had a contingency of people complaining that at least one of the kids involved hired RunSwitch PR, a firm linked to heavy hitters in the Republican Party, including Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney. The argument was that the kids knew they were wrong, racist and evil, so the PR firm came in to soften their image and “spin” this whole thing for them.

I’m not in any position to comment on that particular case, because I honestly don’t know what happened there in regard to the firm or the kids. I can tell you that people often argue that hiring a PR firm makes you look slimy, in the way that demanding a lawyer when you get accused of a crime makes you look guilty. I’ll disagree on that point because this is clearly a case where some quality public relations practitioners and crisis communication experts could have made a big difference in a positive and clarifying way.

PR experts will tell you that before you make a public statement, you need to know what you want to say. In addition, you need to have a handle on ALL the facts of the case before you take a stand. This is akin to the news rule that you need to report before you publish. Regardless of what happens next, that approach makes sense, and a good PR firm would have told Northam this. It also would have kept him away from the press until he knew what the heck was happening with this situation and what he wanted to say.

Sure, you can argue that we might not know the truth about the situation if Northam had time to “shape his message,” but how much do we actually know now? At first it was, “I’m very sorry I did this” and then it was, “I’m not saying which of these racist figures was me,” and then it was “I don’t think that was me in the photo,” and now it’s “I never put that photo on my page.” We’re about 10 seconds away from him doing a press conference run by Shaggy.

If Northam had taken a couple hours, met with a good group of PR practitioners, he could have formed the best possible message for himself going forward. Even if that message ended up being, “I was a racist chucklehead and I’m sorry,” at least it would have been a single message from a single voice that allowed him and the rest of Virginia to move forward.

Trust, but verify: The original story about the yearbook page broke on a website called Big League Politics, a right-wing website with ties to Breitbart News and other similarly inclined publications: 

Virginia Democrat governor Ralph Northam posed for a blackface photograph.

Big League Politics has obtained photos from Northam’s time at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which he graduated in 1984.

Northam and a friend were photographed together — one in blackface, one in Klan robes.

Two things come to mind upon seeing this:

  1. The publication clearly has a conservative viewpoint, so there’s always a risk that simply taking the negative information it published about a Democrat as gospel and running with it could lead to the spread of misinformation.
  2. The publication doesn’t cite a source to explain HOW it verified that Northam was in that photo, a charge that Northam now denies (while copping to something he somehow thinks is better, namely using shoe polish to “darken” himself as part of a Michael Jackson contest).

This is a case where the journalistic rule of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out” applies. In other words, don’t ignore the story, but do find out for yourself if it’s true before you publish anything. CBS noted its efforts in this regard:

A reporter from CBS News affiliate News 3, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk Friday afternoon and found the page on which the photo appears.

The Washington Post made a similar notation in its story:

The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.

You will also notice the nuances in the description these outlets use in regard to the photo. While BLP says Northam is in the photo, the others make it clearer that it appeared on his page, but Northam denies it’s him and no one can prove that it is at this point.

When it comes to something like this, it’s always important to make sure you have your facts straight and that you can demonstrate how you verified the information.

5 simple things Jimmy Breslin did as a reporter and writer that can make student journalists great, too

The name Jimmy Breslin probably means as much to anyone born after 1980 as the names of any president between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. However, in the pre-digital era of journalism, Breslin ruled New York as a columnist, writer and reporter without equal. (Breslin preferred the title of “reporter,” eschewing the term “journalist” as a “college word” that didn’t befit a man who didn’t go that route in life.)

Thanks to HBO’s latest documentary, “Deadline Artists,” a new generation of students and media practitioners can get a glimpse of Breslin and fellow columnist extraordinaire Pete Hamill, along with the way they practiced their craft. In watching this film, I picked out five simple things Breslin viewed as crucial when reporting and writing that can help student journalists easily improve their work:

Embrace noun-verb-object simplicity: Breslin and Hamill worked together for a time at the New York Daily News, and people who worked with both of them at that point talked about how different they were as writers. Breslin sweated over every word, while Hamill would breeze through a piece in no time flat. Hamill was a poet while Breslin used simple building blocks of verbiage to construct his epic pieces. However, they shared a set of roots that gave them the one thing they both swore by over the years.

Breslin and Hamill talked at length about growing up Irish-Catholic in New York and how the nuns used to drill grammar into them. In the film, they discuss the way in which “Noun-Verb-Object” became their primary “Holy Trinity” in the church of journalism. Breslin recalled the need for “concrete nouns, active verbs” to make sure he avoided the wrath of the sisters and that he carried it with him forever more.

If you go back and take a look at Breslin’s work, for all the detail and fluidity of it, the core of his sentence structure relies on those simple building blocks of concrete nouns, vigorous verbs and clear objects. He essentially wrote sentences from that NVO core outward to the various rings of descriptors that would accentuate his copy.

Even if you can’t style your work with a Breslin-like nuance, you can always start with that simple core and build your way on out.

Look for the story where nobody else is: Breslin is famous for a number of pieces he wrote in his time, but his coverage of the Kennedy assassination remains among his most-cited examples of how to work a story. When the president was killed, journalists flocked to Dallas to get the official story from the official sources, acting in an official capacity.

Breslin didn’t see value in “pack journalism,” so he went after the story a different way: He tracked down the doctor who was responsible for trying to save the life of the country’s 35th president. “Death in Emergency Room One” follows the day of Malcolm Perry, a surgeon who had to substitute in for his boss that day when Kennedy arrived at the hospital. In addition to getting Perry, he found others involved in the last moments of JFK’s life and the first few moments after it ended to help craft a compelling tale.

Breslin one-upped himself when it came to the Kennedy funeral. Everyone else wrote of the splendor of the day: The young widow with her children, the heads of state who came to pay tribute, the horse-drawn carriage that brought Kennedy to his final resting place and more. Breslin went the other way, getting out of the press pack and heading to the grave site to find the guy who actually dug the hole for the casket. His piece told the story of both “the common man” and a common man: Clifton Pollard, who worked on a Sunday in Arlington Cemetery in an effort he called “an honor.”

Both stories typified the basics of Breslin: Find the story that others aren’t telling and tell it well.

Get the details and use them well: The previous two pieces also showcase another hallmark of Breslin’s work: an amazing attention to detail. Look at the way in which he uses detail to paint a picture of Perry the moments before the president arrived:

Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.

“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.”

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the president of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

Think about how much detail Breslin gathered there to paint a picture with his words: The brown door, the gray tiled walls and the cream colored ceiling. The aluminum hospital cart carrying the president with the lamp glaring down on it. Even more, Breslin thought to ask not only, “What were you doing when you got the page?” which likely would have led to the answer, “Eating lunch,” but also “What were you eating?” (salmon croquettes)

The story doesn’t end with Perry, however, as Breslin continues telling the tale:

Everything that was inside that room now belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy and Father Oscar Huber and the things in which they believe.

“I’m sorry. You have my deepest sympathies,” Father Huber said.

“Thank you,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Father Huber pulled the white sheet down so he could anoint the forehead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy was standing beside the priest, her head bowed, her hands clasped across the front of her plum dress that was stained with blood which came from her husband’s head. Now this old priest held up his right hand and he began the chant that Roman Catholic priests have said over their dead for centuries.

“Si vivis, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis. In nomine Patris et Filio et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”

The prayer said, “If you are living, I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen.”

The priest reached into his pocket and took out a small vial of holy oil. He put the oil on his right thumb and made a cross on President Kennedy’s forehead. Then he blessed the body again and started to pray quietly.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,” Father Huber said.

“And let perpetual light shine upon him,” Jacqueline Kennedy answered. She did not cry.

The use of color was incredible in this piece: the plum dress, the white sheet and even the red blood. He also wove in the pre-Vatican II Latin version of the blessing and the other elements of prayer associated with Catholicism, something Kennedy himself had to often address as the first Catholic president.

In terms of the “Honor” story, Breslin gathers reams of tiny details that help paint the picture in vivid ways.

WASHINGTON — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does.

<SNIP>

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Breslin has colors again: khaki overalls, yellow garages and a yellow reverse hoe. He also had the name of Pollard’s wife (Hettie), the name of his boss (Mazo Kawalchik) and even had Pollard’s nickname (Polly). Food again is mentioned by name (bacon and eggs) and his specific salary ($3.01 per hour) contrasts with the aristocracy surrounding the rest of the event. The details add the specific touches that tell the larger story.

When you go to a scene, profile a person or craft a narrative, look for the specific details that let your readers see what you see, hear what you hear and smell what you smell. Get the name of the dog that was barking, the brand of the beer the guy was drinking and the specific color of car the woman was driving. Even if you don’t end up using these things, it’s good to have them in case you need them.

Get out of the newsroom: Breslin talked a great deal about how he hated using the phone and how it wasn’t really a reporting tool. He would go places and meet real people who told him what was really going on. An African-American reporter who worked with Breslin told a story about how Breslin asked this guy to take him to the sketchiest dive bar for black people in the city because he wanted to tell the stories of the people there. The guy said he told Breslin that it might get ugly and Breslin would have no real protection there, but Breslin insisted. In the end, Breslin worked the bar like he did every other scene and had people telling him important stories all night.

It didn’t always work out well for him when it came to going places. In August 1991, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn erupted into three days of rioting after a fatal car accident sparked tensions between the black and Jewish communities in the area. Breslin, then in his early 60s, took a cab down to the area to cover the melee, only to be dragged out of the car, beaten and robbed. The assailants also stripped him down to his underwear and trashed the cab. Still, he had no qualms about going down there and bristled at the notion that heavy punishment should be doled out to the young men who attacked him. It was his decision to go down there.

The phone, email and text messages often feel safer to newer journalists, even when life and limb aren’t on the line. However, you will never feel the tension of a scene over the phone, capture the sound of laughter over email or generally paint any picture worth painting via text.

As Breslin would have likely put it, get off your ass and get over there.

Don’t make stuff up: Calling the characters Breslin used in his columns “larger than life” would be a massive understatement. He talked about an arsonist he called “Marvin the Torch,” an art thief he dubbed “Rembrandt,” and “Fat Thomas,” an illegal bookie and maybe more. Breslin wove tales so rich with these characters and vivid description that some people argued that guys like “Fat Thomas” didn’t exist except in Breslin’s imagination. In true Breslin fashion, he told his detractors to head over to Costello’s Bar in Midtown, grab a drink with him and see for themselves.

Sure enough, there was Fat Thomas. And there was Marvin the Torch. And Rembrandt. And a bunch of other “There’s no way this guy is real” guys that Breslin wrote about. They were all exactly as Breslin had described them, even the 400-pound bookie who inspired Breslin to check into hotels in the South under the pseudonym, “Martin Luther Fats.”

The problem for those of us less-talented scribes is that we don’t have “those folks” about whom we can write. We lack access to wise guys, bookies, weirdos and other everyday people who create the rich tapestry of life. Because of that, our writing feels beige compared to the technicolor that Breslin could provide on a daily basis. That’s not an indictment of us, but rather a testament to Breslin.

Still, rather than accept these limitations and remain less vibrant than Breslin and others in his rare pantheon, many journalists have cut corners, exaggerated beyond reality and flat-out lied. There are the classic cases of Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, who created characters out of whole cloth in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley in the 2000s who fabricated content as well. Even well-meaning pieces rooted in a broader reality, such as the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” did more harm than good when a writer decided “color” was more important than “fact.”

The desire to find your own “Fat Thomas” is an admirable one that you should pursue doggedly. However, if your passion becomes an obsession, it can lead you to create an Ian Restil, a Jimmy or even a Jackie. Always remember that choosing to cheat like this rarely turns out well.

 

 

 

GAME TIME! AP Style Quiz: Snow-Pocalypse Edition

(It’s like this, but colder and without the weird maze thing.)

In Wisconsin, we rarely get riled up over snow storms, but the one that hit overnight was something that had people freaking out for days. Our area is slated for about 18 inches and then a polar vortex is supposed to drop temps into the negative double digits.

So, with me being trapped in the house, I figured it would be a good excuse to punch down a snow-pocalypse edition of an AP quiz for those of you who are in areas where 50 degrees has the meteorologists telling you to dress in layers. I hope you enjoy pondering our misery, as you ponder these 10 questions.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click this link to begin the quiz.

That’s not how anything works: How journalism students can find inspiration in the failures of others

Given the week we had in terms of news, social media, angst and more, I figured we could all use a bit of humor…

When you find yourself struggling with your journalism work and wondering if there will be a job for you at the end of this whole endeavor, cheer up and realize that being even marginally good at writing, reporting and thinking will put you ahead of some of these people.

Graphical Gaffes

You might remember a few years back when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, used this chart as part of a hearing on Planned Parenthood, in an attempt to show a spike in abortion provision and a drop in cancer screens at the organization’s clinics:

Planned Parenthood

You might also recall that it led to some serious derision by people who understand how graphics are supposed to work. The larger numbers are lower than the smaller numbers in 2013, the lines go in an uninterrupted pattern of incline or decline (something that rarely happens with data) and no data points exist other than the first and last years. Politifact also noted that the chart has no Y axis and one journalist took it a step further, stating, “This is not how charts work!

Here in the great state of Wisconsin, our outgoing governor, Scott Walker, decided to one-up Chaffetz with a graphic intent on explaining how a lame-duck legislative session didn’t really undermine his successor, Tony Evers. Walker, a Republican, provided a Venn Diagram (a term I’m using loosely here) to show that even though he signed off on legislation that shifted power away from Evers, a Democrat, and back to the Republican-led legislature, his powers and Evers’  powers were essentially the same.

This did not go well:

VennWalker

For those of you unfamiliar with how Venn diagrams are supposed to work, consider this simple one:

Venn

In other words, the overlap is where things are similar, with the differences being on the outside. I have no idea what Walker’s chart shows, other than this isn’t how charts are supposed to work.

 

Support, not repeat:

When you put together a paraphrase-quote pairing, the goal is to have a strong paraphrase that establishes who will be speaking and the topic upon which that person will speak. The quote should add value and perhaps even some “spice” to the piece. What you shouldn’t do is give your readers the sense they are living in “Groundhog Day” like this one:

VosQuote

I’m not sure if I should be more worried that the partial quotes are EXACTLY the same as they are in the full quote below, or if the reporter went with “hardcore” and “hard-core” in subsequent paragraphs. I am a freak for hyphenation…

 

It’s a lead, not an allegory.

Leads are meant to have as much good information packed into them as possible. That said, we tend to think of 25 to 35 words as the range for one of these things. Another tip I often offer is to take a normal human breath and read it aloud. If you feel tight at the end of it, or you run out of breath entirely, you probably need to trim it or cut it.

Try that with this lead and you’ll likely need some smelling salts or CPR:

BOSTON — Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said that in the wake of his outbursts at coach Brad Stevens and forward Gordon Hayward on the court at the end of Saturday’s loss at the Orlando Magic, and pointed criticisms of Boston’s young players afterward, he called LeBron James and apologized for the way he handled criticism from James when the two were teammates in Cleveland.

Not counting the dateline, you’re looking at 63 words or more than double the low end of a solid lead. It wouldn’t take much to get this thing down to that range, particularly if the writer didn’t feel it necessary to outline Irving’s transgressions in granular detail right up top.

Remember, tell people what happened, but don’t overload their brains in doing it.

 

Wait for it… Keep waiting…

Some stories are so horrifying, it’s hard to get everything into the lead. Not to say that journalists don’t try:

WAUSAU – The Wausau baby sitter charged with killing a 2-month-old boy in her care tried to hide the infant’s death from his mother and then went swimming at a Wausau hotel with her boyfriend and son, police say.

There’s a lot to freak out about here when it comes to the arrest of Marissa Tietsort, (this all happened in Wausau, in case you didn’t get that from the three mentions of it up there) but if you keep reading you’ll find out a few other things that are problematic that get stuck a little too low, like this one in the fifth paragraph:

Tietsort has been in jail since October on a $250,000 cash bond in a separate child abuse case.

Or this, which is about two sentences from the bottom of the nearly 1,000-word story:

In 2010, Tietsort’s boyfriend filed for temporary restraining orders after he told investigators she was abusing their two sons. Records show social services workers have removed four of Tietsort’s children from her care and were unaware that she had given birth to her fifth child.

Annnd this, which is the second-to-last sentence in the whole piece:

Tietsort is now in the Marathon County Jail and pregnant with her sixth child.

I’m thinking this could be information worth knowing a little bit earlier in the story…

It feels kind of like this:

 

Speaking of placement…

Sometimes stories and images have issues when they are put too close to one another. This is the case in which a criminal investigation and nice feature photo led to a question about what’s in your sandwich:

DeadCats

I’m still not going vegan, but this set up does give me pause.

 

My name is Forrest… Forrest Management

Typos can really do you in, even if you are the president.

TrumpForrest

(The tweet was later corrected. That doesn’t make me feel any better. Neither did his “hamberders” tweet. I don’t care which political party you support. I support spelling and editing.)

 

Good Head + Good Deck – Common Sense = Bad Example

Zombie Motorist

Unless we are fearful of a zombie driver, I think it’s safe to say this guy isn’t going to do this again, Captain Whoeveryouare.

 

Become a “non-denominational skeptic:” Three follow-up thoughts on the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation

Nothing reduces the overall productivity of my life like watching people I know lose their mind on social media. In the aftermath of the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” video, the “second” video(s) that purport to show “the real story,” the half-dozen tweeted videos showing high school boys acting badly in the area of the Lincoln Memorial and everyone’s “No, YOU’RE the one who doesn’t get it” posts, it’s a miracle I had time to bash my head repeatedly into my desk and pray for the sweet release of death.

Rest assured, though, that concussion was worth it…

With the hope of salvaging something of value out of that lost time (and head wound), please consider this follow up to yesterday’s post on this topic that might help you as student journalists:

 

“Pretty Sure” isn’t what we’re aiming for

One of the longest and most difficult arguments I had was with a journalist for whom I have a great amount of respect. She posted an 8-second video found via Twitter that had a young man (I’m guessing teens) say, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.” The statement is appalling and the behavior inexcusable. Here is the capture of the Tweet:

CovingtonRape1.jpeg

I have no problem calling the kid out. I have no problem with this video being used to exemplify toxic masculinity. I have no problem if you want to rip on the kid for being a Bengals fan either. However, when pressed about how she knew this kid was part of the group from Covington Catholic High School, here is her response:

Covington Rape 2

So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:

I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.

My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.

I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.

The point is: If you publish content that states something is a fact, you have to be sure it is a fact. I’m trying to imagine if I had come back to the newsroom at the State Journal and told our managing editor that I was “pretty sure” about something I put into a story that’s now been called into question. Or that “I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t need it to be” for the larger truth I’m trying to tell. I imagine Cliff’s reaction would have been like this, only slightly less nuanced:

If you’re not sure, you haven’t finished the job. Either become sure or don’t publish it as a fact.

 

Become a “non-denominational skeptic”

It’s easy to call BS on things you don’t like or when information comes from a source you tend to distrust. It’s hard to accept facts when they run contrary to what you want to believe. This is the unfortunate byproduct of living in a society in which people now feel entitled to not only their own opinions and own sources of information but also their own reality. This makes doing objective, fair and factually accurate journalism difficult and exceedingly frustrating.

I’ve interviewed people with whom I share little in common and in some cases for whom I held nothing but contempt. There was a firefighter who handed out anti-gay literature while on the job. There was the leader of a Wisconsin branch of the KKK. There was the head of an organization that pressed back against any attempt to have anything religious near anything secular.

I also interviewed people with whom I empathized, sympathized and just flat-out liked. There was the mother whose 17-year-old daughter died when her car crashed into a tree. There was the owner of a jewelry store who gave away a diamond ring to a less-fortunate woman near Christmas. There was the fire chief who was trying to fire the guy who passed out the anti-gay literature.

That said, whether I liked them or disliked them didn’t matter. My job was to dig and poke and make sure what I put out in the public sphere under my byline was factually accurate. Just because something fit what I perceived to be the truth didn’t mean I should treat it with kid gloves. Also, just because I didn’t like someone’s position on something, it didn’t follow that they were lying about everything.

If you fall into the “trust the nice guy/gal” trap, you can end up like this scene from “Shattered Glass:”

A good way to keep yourself from letting your personal feelings shade your approach to journalism is to become a non-denominational skeptic. (I don’t mean this in the religious fashion, but more in terms of deciding not to pick sides.) Check out EVERYTHING with the same level of vigor. Treat EVERY statement as though it must pass rigorous fact-checking before it is published, regardless of how much you believe it to be the case.

If you treat content provided to you by your best friend and your worst enemy with the same level of skepticism, you’ll make your work much stronger and you’ll worry a lot less about the bottom falling out on you at any point.

 

Pushing for accuracy is not excusing behavior

“How can you be excusing this behavior?” someone asked me.

The person had taken issue with the fact that I wasn’t ready to fully accept that the kid making the “rape” comment was from Covington Catholic. I also wasn’t going to accept the statement that a group of teenage boys offensively cat-calling a woman were from their either because I didn’t see proof of either statement.

This person’s point was that, in calling for something beyond “the person posting the video said so,” I was essentially saying, “Hey, that’s fine.”

My point was that I needed to know HOW this person came to the conclusion that THIS PARTICULAR group of idiotic twerps was from THAT SPECIFIC school. In the “drumming” video, you could see school apparel on multiple people. In the “rape” video, I didn’t see anything tying the school to the kid. I also saw a mix of teen boys and girls, which struck me as odd, as Covington is an all-boys school. There was also an image in the original video that had a kid wearing gear from another school, so it wasn’t clear they were ALL from Covington.

And as far as the “cat-calling” video, the blur of guys and the 8-second walk-by gave me no sense that this was anything more than the videographer’s assumption these kids were from that school after the “drumming” video went viral.

In no way was I excusing lousy behavior. In no way was I saying that if these kids weren’t from Covington, it was totally cool that they acted like jerks. What I was saying was facts matter, so let’s get them right. If you can show me how you came to that conclusion and I can see your point, fine. I’m with you. If not, I’m not going to extrapolate just because we know the other kids came from that school.

Asking for accuracy doesn’t make you a bad person and isn’t condoning anything.

When you deal with controversial topics or report on sensitive issues, you might have to ask questions that are impolite or that could cause people to chafe a bit. This used to happen to me when I had to report on people who had died and family members were trying to craft a narrative. Asking, “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any proof that Bill won the Congressional Medal of Honor. How are you so sure he did?” when building an obituary can make you feel awkward. I had to ask the mother of that dead 17-year-old if she was aware her daughter was legally drunk while driving, because she had made a statement contrary to that. It sucked.

That said, I had to get stuff right.

If I published a story and erroneously called a man convicted of rape “a convicted murderer,” I would need to run a correction because it’s not true. That doesn’t make me an apologist for the guy. It doesn’t tell the readers, “Hey, this guy’s pretty OK.”

What it says is that I want to get the facts right.