Couldn’t have said it better myself: How a great quote can grab your readers by the eyes

Direct quotes are an important part of journalistic storytelling. They allow the sources to speak directly to the readers in the sources’ own words, providing both information and a “feel” for the topic with the choice of their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, some journalists view quotes as just “meat” between the slices of bread that are “paraphrase” in their stories, and the writers care very little about the quality of that meat. Just because someone said something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good quote. It’s our job to separate the trash from the treasures when it comes to that word-for-word component of our stories.

When you get great quotes, they can really grab your reader’s attention as they just nail the underlying concept of a story in a way that few other things can. Here is a series of quotes that fit the bill and that make reading the whole piece worthwhile:

 

“Showing up to a school with zip ties is not a way to solve a problem.”
-Vail Unified School District Superintendent John Carruth

The story behind this one comes from a story about the “mask battles” we have seen during the pandemic. An Arizona man was contacted by a school employee and told his son had to quarantine at home after being in close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

Instead, the father and two “other men” (the words “dudes,” “buddies,” and “idgits” would seem to be more on point here, but then again this is Washington Post) went to the kid’s school to demand the kid be taken back:

“Apparently Mesquite Elementary thinks they can break the law and act like the covid Gestapo,” the man wrote, referencing Nazi Germany’s secret police. “We will be headed over there shortly to disagree. Come join us because we won’t have this in OUR community!”

Later that morning, the father and his son arrived at the school. The other two men met them in the school’s parking lot, Carruth said.

In a live video posted to Instagram, one of the two men who joined the dad told his followers that they were about to “confront this administration” for “breaking the law.

“If necessary, we’ll do a citizen’s arrest,” the man said before showing off the “law enforcement zip ties” they brought.

So these three yahoos end up in Principal Dianne Vargo’s office, threatening her with arrest if she didn’t let the kid back in school. The whole thing escalated until Vargo left the office and called the police. The men, who moments earlier were so certain of the legality of their actions, left before the cops showed up.

In reviewing the incident for the Post, Carruth mentioned the need to model good behavior for kids and such, before delivering a great closing quote.

 

“I’m like Gerard Butler in ‘300.’ I’m in the hot gates at Thermopylae, holding the pass against the million-man Persian army.”
-Lawyer John Pierce

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kj11Pj2T7Bw

Quick question: He does know that Leonidas ended up with about 1,085 arrows through him at the end of that movie, right?

Pierce is the now-missing attorney for defendants associated with the Washington, D.C., riot on Jan. 6. Aside from his comparison to the leader of the Spartan resistance, he has offered up some insight as to how he planned to get his clients off:

A self-described pro-Trump populist, Mr. Pierce has promised, for example, to force the government to give him video footage of the Capitol for several days before and after Jan. 6, and has said he will demand information about every police officer working at the building that day. He has also vowed to subpoena hostile witnesses like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ostensibly to learn what she may have known about security at the Capitol before the attack.

Without citing evidence, Mr. Pierce has said he intends to implicate the F.B.I. and the intelligence community by showing that the riot was something like a grand act of entrapment or an inside job. He has often talked about his cases with a conspiratorial zeal, painting himself as something like a lonely legal warrior out to save his clients from an overreaching government.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HVejEB5uVk

All of the words the New York Times puts together to explain and describe this guy don’t do half as good of a job as Pierce’s own quote does.

 

“The defendant stated he was trying to show off for his date. The female said she was screaming at him to stop, but he refused. This was their first date.”
– Police Report, Clearwater, Florida

Some of the greatest quotes ever come from police officers trying to explain something completely insane in a report that requires them to be clear, concise and even-handed in the description. (My personal favorite was a road rage incident in which the combatants “exchanged hand gestures,” according to the report.)

In this case, a 22-year-old man apparently eyed up a cop at a stoplight and then decided to lead the officer on a high-speed chase. The reason? He wanted to impress the woman riding on the motorcycle with him:

Police temporarily broke off the chase while Beverly darted through traffic, running multiple additional red lights and traveling “at well over 100 [miles per hour].” They were able to apprehend him at an intersection minutes later. Court records indicate that Beverly also refused to slow down as his date was “screaming at him to stop.”

The article did not note if the couple had planned a second date…

 

“Mr. Lee was incredibly stupid, felony stupid but, I think given the situation and the fact that he has absolutely no record I am going to listen to pretrial services.”
– Arizona Judge Rosemary Panuco

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yScR9ngQLyI

(“My client’s a moron. That’s not against the law…”)

Judges operate under what is called “absolute privilege,” which means they can say stuff the rest of us would really like to but can’t for fear of being sued. Thus, they tend to have some of the best quotes when it comes to summing up situations like this one:

Tucson police released surveillance video from a Suntran bus showing Zachary Lee just before he got off the bus and approached the police officer last Friday at 29th and Swan.

The video showed the sergeant’s vehicle parked.

The risk assessment form read, “According to the arresting agency, the defendant got into a verbal exchange with a Tucson Police Department Sergeant, who was conducting unrelated surveillance in an unmarked car.”

Mike Storie represents the Tucson Police Officer’s Association of which the sergeant is a member. He said the assessment is incorrect.

“Actually, there were no words exchanged. The sergeant was in a vehicle with the windows rolled up and never spoke to this person,” Storie said.

The video showed Lee using hand gestures. Storie said lee was throwing gang signs, shortly after that he added Lee began firing at the officer. Tucson police said they found a gun on Lee when he was arrested, and casings at the scene that matched the gun.

The judge in this case released Lee prior to the trial without requiring him to post bail, something that drew the ire of the prosecutor and the police. To explain her rationale as to why a man accused of trying to kill a cop could go home for the day, she relied on a pretrial report and a sense of the man’s own stupidity.

I don’t know what kind of judge she is, but I would love to interview her if these are the kinds of quotes she comes up with.

Throwback Thursday: Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

With a lot of folks starting the semester this week, instructors are going to be spending a lot of time trying to help students learn how to write leads.

A couple profs asked if I had any older posts I could pull up for a “Throwback Thursday” that might show what makes for some bad leads and explain why they’re terrible. I dug around and here’s what I’ve got from 2018. I updated the links to make sure you could still get the original material as well.

Hope this helps!

 

Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.

Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:

 

Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…

Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:

Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.

I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”

 

The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:

  1. The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
  2. The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.

This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.

 

Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?

Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?

Answer: Like this.

Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.

This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that treatment scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:

  • He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
  • His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
  • Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.

I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.

LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?

Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.

This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:

  • In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
  • In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
  • Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.

There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.

Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:

Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:

“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.

Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.

By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.

 

Principal failure: Why public relations matters for school districts and how some places are really, really bad at it

Few organizations have a greater need for public relations assistance than do educational institutions. Between edgy parents, state oversight and a rotating stream of burnt out teachers, schools tend to have a need for a calming influence and a clear voice during turbulent periods.

I’ve dealt with a number of administrations over the years, primarily when someone does something dumb that infringes upon the free press rights of students, and I’ve found that if these folks just had someone to help them plan what to say and how to say it… well… they’d end up a lot better off.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong without some PR help:

My daughter is entering her junior year at the local high school, which had been looking for a full-time principal for about a year. Like everything else, the administration at the school was kind of in flux due to the pandemic. Eventually, though, the school hired someone for the job.
With school right around the corner, the parents recently received an email from the new hire at the school:

August 11, 2021

Hello Omro Foxes!

Welcome back to the Fox Den.

    I am Chris Fox, the new Principal of the Omro High School Fighting Foxes.  Yes, that really is my last name.  I am settling into the building and meeting new people everyday.  I look forward to meeting all of the outstanding students and their families as we begin a new school year.  We are going to have a great school year lifting each other to new heights and continuously improving.  The maintenance and custodial crews are working very hard to improve the building and put a clean new look into the Fox Den.  Teachers and staff are enjoying their summer but are very excited about meeting the students in their classrooms again.  We want to welcome all returning students and our new students to Omro High School.

The letter goes on to talk about new people in new places and all the great stuff we’ll be seeing this year. Overall, he seems like a nice guy, he has some humor (our mascot is the fox, so that’s kind of amusing) and he’s got some interesting background. This could be a good start to the year.

The next day, we get this emailed to us:

As a parent (OK, probably more because I’m a nosy journalist…) I was a bit perplexed that within a period of less than 24 hours, we went from “Hey I’m the new guy and I’m excited” to a tersely worded statement from the superintendent saying the “new guy” is now the “former guy.” So, I shot an email to Superintendent Jay Jones, asking what the heck happened, knowing full well he probably couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me anything. His response came on Aug. 13:

Good Morning Vince,
I am not allowed to provide the reason that Mr. Fox decided to resign. Mr. Fox has employee/personal rights that must be followed. He tendered his resignation this week and the board met last night and approved the resignation.
Sincerely,
Jay Jones

In doing some basic math, I realized that if Fox sent his “glad to be here” message on Wednesday and the board approved his resignation on Thursday, that resignation was likely turned in before that initial message went out. At best, it was the same day he sent it. Regardless, his response made things weirder, not clearer, for me.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this, oddly enough. The principal who was supposed to take over my grade school when I was in eighth grade bailed on us just before the start of school to take a better job with more money.

So, I went to his LinkedIn page to see if maybe a rival school had ponied up a better gig and found this:

(A bit flummoxed, I sent a note to an Omro Facebook group, asking if anyone knew what was going on. Of the flood of messages I got, about one-third came from parents who asked the same thing, one-sixth made jokes about how this was somehow Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s fault and the rest chastised me for “starting the rumor mill” or being a general a-hole for digging into the man’s private life. )

I could continue to dig into this guy and this situation for days, trying to get someone to answer the basic “What the heck is going on around here?” question, but that’s not the point of this post. The point here is that there were several simple things public relations professionals could have done to help the school district cut all this off at the pass. Here are a couple of those things:

PLAN FIRST, WRITE SECOND: I have seen a number of these three-line press releases before from school districts, police folks and other organizations that should be hiring PR professionals. They come across like a Jedi mind trick: “We are making a statement. You will have no questions. Go back about your business with the innocence of a newborn kitten.”

That’s not going to happen, so you need to plan for it.

People are going to be upset, curious, nosy, worried and a dozen other things in a situation like this. We have lived through far too much to just let a statement like that stand without question. We also were just told a day earlier BY THIS GUY that he’s happy to be here and now he’s gone? Asking “What the heck just happened?” is a normal, human response that you should be ready for.

Public relations practitioners learn early to plan out a strategy for the entire lifespan of a crisis, or at least as much of it as they can easily foresee. They won’t make a move without understanding how that move will lead to three other things happening down the road. They come loaded for bear with answers and explanations that they can anticipate needing to provide after receiving questions and concerns from their audiences. Only THEN do they make a statement publicly.

Speaking of which…

BE TRANSPARENT: My buddy, Pritch Pritchard, used to tell me how hard it was for him to get his PR students to understand the antithetical concept that says people trust you more if you tell them everything that is happening in a crisis situation. Pritch was in the Navy for 25 years and did public information, so he also noted he had similar problems explaining that to people above his rank and pay grade as well.

The goal of PR, he explained, should be transparency. The more you hide something, the worse it gets.

To explain this to my writing students, particularly those who were going into PR, I once played the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue” for them. There’s a point in the song where part of it gets bleeped out:

We talked about all the things it could be and their imaginations ran toward the truly vulgar. As it was, what actually got bleeped out was the phrase “the S.O.B.” (A later version included the full version of that abbreviation.) They all seemed stunned that it could have been something that benign, which made my point that hiding (or bleeping) this thing only made the situation worse in the minds of the audience.

In bringing it back to PR and education, you will deal with a TON of concerns that parents have about what goes on at their kids’ schools, and rightly so. Those of us who are parents worry about what’s being taught, who the teachers are, what students are doing to each other, what rules are being violated, who might be bullying someone, if there’s vaping/sex/other terrifying stuff happening in the bathrooms and more. When someone up and leaves like this, our minds tend to wander to the most terrifying things that could be going on.

Not telling us anything gives our minds a chance to really kick into panic overdrive.

All we know is that Fox resigned. Did the board discover a dark secret about him or something he did and thus issue an ultimatum like this?

 

Or was Fox the good guy here? Was it Fox had a beef with a policy regarding masks and pulled out at the last minute? Was it a promise someone made to him that they reneged on and thus he did the only thing he could do? Did the board operate in bad faith, thus bringing into question its ability to hire the next-next principal?

Or was it something more personal? We’re in a pandemic, so everything is out of whack. Was it a family issue or a personal matter that he couldn’t deal with at the same time as being principal?

The mind can go in a dozen or more directions, but trust me when I say that literally 99.7% of the things that MIGHT have led to a resignation like this are far less problematic than the remaining one or two that jumped to the front of my mind immediately.

(And I’m not alone on this. I won’t repeat what I thought here, but when I laid this scenario out for a half dozen family members and friends, they each immediately jumped mentally to the same “EEEEWWWW” scenario that was in my mind. One response was great: “I’d CCAP the guy,” a friend said, turning our court record database search system into a verb. I had already done so. I found nothing there that would shed light on this situation. )

PR practitioners know that you want something like this dealt with quickly and in a way that restores the faith of the audience. This is where transparency serves the best interests of everyone involved. I understand there are rules and regulations, but transparency is crucial to keeping something like this from getting far, far worse in the minds of your constituents.

Which leads to the final point:

EMBRACE SYMBIOSIS: In the animal kingdom, symbiosis happens between different species that coexist in a way that can benefit each. The clownfish using the sea anemone for safety while the anemone receives nutrients from the waste of the fish is a good example. My personal favorite is the oxpecker and the rhinoceros:

In a case like the one involving the principal and the school district, a little symbiosis could go a long way in keeping both parties happy while reassuring parents of what happened here.

Sitting down together to plan out what they want to release, what they agree upon saying and how best to present this information to the public should be PR 101.

Fox has a legal right to say he doesn’t want the reason for his resignation to be released. That said, he might have been amenable to allowing the district to say certain things while avoiding other specifics in a press release to avoid any wild speculation. The district might be worried about what people would think if the administration said any more than the three lines in that press statement. That said, maybe getting permission to put a little more meat on the bone there would have helped the parents of the district be less fearful of what’s going on.

A symbiotic agreement on what can be said or how to best present what is clearly a weird outcome, couched in a series of odd moments, could benefit both sides, even as this relationship is clearly over. A good PR practitioner would find a way to arbitrate some sort of closure that would allow Fox the ability to exit in a “peace with honor” way while moving on to whatever he wants to do next, while simultaneously giving the district the ability to move forward in its next hire.

When it comes to public relations, it’s often about making everyone as marginally happy as possible. Good PR practitioners know that a truly quality solution benefits each player in the game. If only the practitioner’s client benefits, other stakeholders and member of the public can feel distrustful if they realize they’ve been duped. If the practitioner’s client doesn’t benefit, well… why is that client paying for this person’s services?

In many cases, practitioners serve as counselors, psychiatrists, arbitrators, surrogate parents and wise overseers for people who have become too involved in a situation to see the forest for the trees. It’s the practitioners’ ability to see what each move the client makes on the chessboard will result in six or seven moves later in the game that make these media professionals valuable.

At the very least, they can tell you what NOT to say that will only serve to make things worse, a maneuver that many educational institutions could really use help with.

Student media outlets provide great coverage of Hurricane Ida for their readers

Hurricane Ida bulled its way onto the shores of Louisiana on Sunday night, causing massive flooding and storm damage throughout the area. New Orleans in particular saw devastation, as the entire city lost power amid what forecasters are calling one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the U.S.

Amid the chaos, student media outlets are pumping out content to their audiences, touching on the “big story” scope of the issue, but also drilling down into things that matter directly to students on their campuses.

These publications understand the importance of knowing what’s going on at the college level, because while CNN and The Weather Channel are focused on mega graphics and drone coverage of devastation, students on those campuses want to know what’s open, what’s broken and where they should go to stay safe.

The students here are operating in less-than-ideal circumstances and are working to remain safe while still informing the people they serve. This is incredibly selfless and it’s also why it always infuriated me when “professional” media operatives or professors would note that campus media staffers were “just playing journalist.”

I don’t think the hurricane is taking it easier on these folks just because they’re college kids.

Take a look at some of the great stuff they’ve done in the past 24-48 hours:

Here’s a piece from the Tulane Hullabaloo that explains not only what the storm is doing to the campus area and what most concerns administrators:

A major concern of the Tulane community is the large tower crane overlooking several student residences on campus. In the Aug. 28 update, Tulane administrators provided insight into the status of the crane and its ability to withstand hurricane-force winds.

It also gives students information on how the school is handling the situation for students living on campus:

In an additional update posted to the Tulane University instagram page, off-campus students who feel unsafe were urged to come to the Lavin-Bernick Center prior to 8:30 AM.

This is the first time the LBC-Commons complex is serving as an impromptu housing arrangement for many students. 

The Maroon at Loyola University in New Orleans took a look at what students, faculty and staff were doing in advance of the hurricane, finding more than a few who opted to make a run for it:

Those who have experienced hurricanes in the past are especially sensitive to the shift in plans. Visual communications freshman Virginia Armstrong is from Puerto Rico and said she was without power on the island for three months after Hurricane Maria.

Seeing people gather water bottles and other essential storm supplies struck a nerve in her before she drove off Friday night with her roommate and suitemate to stay at a relative’s home in Jackson, Mississippi.

“The pain never really goes away,” Armstrong said. “It’s there. You live with it.”

At Louisiana State University, multiple student media outlets were covering the storm and it’s impact on the student body on multiple levels. Tiger TV, the broadcast outlet at LSU, has posted updates about class cancellation and statements from university officials.

It has also nudged students toward its Twitter account, where it continues frequent updates as to what is happening around the students:

 

The Reveille, which has served as the campus newspaper since 1887, constructed a “tick tock” style  set up on the front page of its website. This updates with key information as it becomes available, such as cases of storm damage, power outages and official announcements.

In addition, the staff continues to post breaking news stories on the site right underneath the website’s banner head, like this one on the cancellation of classes.

Aside from the breaking news and damage estimates, the publication managed to find some space to let people know about the status of the school mascot, a 4-year-old tiger named Mike. I would be willing to wager that this story tops all the others in terms of site hits today:

Mike the Tiger isn’t spending Hurricane Ida swimming in his pool or hiding under trees: he’ll be staying snug indoors and eating goat-milk popsicles until the high-speed hurricane passes through LSU’s campus.

I’m sure I”m missing some other good stuff out there, so feel free to add it in the comments.

 

Yik Yak is back: Love it or hate it, this anonymous social media tool has value for journalists

Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that drew heavy criticism for the horrifying crap its users posted, has returned after a four-year hiatus, promising new rules and better behavior:

Before shutting down, Yik Yak was the subject of hate speech and cyberbullying across high school and college campuses.

But with the newly launched app, the owners say they’re committed to taking a strong stance against threats and other abuse.

“On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information,” the company says on its website.

The app had a four-year run, starting in 2013 and closing in 2017, amid diminished use and criticism that it protected awful people and the awful things they said. The new owners have pledged to keep the anonymity the users loved while weeding out the bad actors:

We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary.

On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information.

If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak. One strike and you’re out.

I’m not sure how a model that says “Nobody knows who you are, but we can ban you if you misbehave” works, but I’m not a tech dude, so I’ll let that slide and believe it when I see it. Also, if we’ve seen anything over the past eight years, it’s a massive spike in misinformation, cyber-rage and online harassment, so I imagine the folks at Yik Yak will find themselves working like this when it comes to trying to stop the bad actors from getting through:

 

Prior to this reboot, I asked one of my media writing classes if they ever heard of Yik Yak or used it and I probably would have been better off asking them if they ever rode a penny farthing bicycle, given the blank stares I received. Apparently, four years is enough time to completely obliterate market awareness among the 18-24-year-old market.

However, when Yik Yak was at its peak, the staff members at the paper I advise followed it with an almost religious furvor. The paper ran the “Top Five Yaks” of the week on the entertainment page. I wasn’t a fan of the app or its approach to media, and I knew that for every “good” thing we got out of Yik Yak, there were at least a dozen awful things that I couldn’t believe people had the audacity to write. Still, there were moments that gave me hope this thing could work.

With all that said, here are some potential benefits Yik Yak can provide to campus journalists and journalism students with its return:

GEOGRAPHY IS FRONT AND CENTER: When I wrote the first edition of the reporting book, I featured Yik Yak because it touched on the audience element of geography, something few other social media platforms did at that time. While the other apps were trying to expand people’s reach to the farthest reaches of the globe, Yik Yak was keeping its users close to home.

The platform used a 5-mile radius to establish a local community, which was usually enough to capture a college campus and maybe even a few off-campus venues. Whenever someone in that range tossed out a “yak,” everyone in that zone could see it. Those people didn’t have to “follow” someone to see what they were saying or sort the posts into certain streams. This kept people abreast of what was going on all around them.

The benefit of this approach is that your geographic location follows you (or at least it did… We’ll see how this new version shakes out) while still allowing you to have a home base. Thus, you can see what’s going on around you when you visit a friend at another campus, while staying on top of what’s happening back home. It is the digital equivalent of reading a good local newspapers while you’re on vacation.

Geography is often the overlooked audience element, as demographic and psychographic information tend to be both easier to define and more relevant in a digital world. However, this app shows that world nearest to the user can matter a great deal.

 

BREAKING NEWS TIPS AT THE READY: When I groused about the return of Yik Yak on Facebook, one of my former editors reminded me, “That’s how I found out about the ricin kid.” UWO student Kyle Smith was arrested on suspicion of possessing the deadly substance in 2014, a story the Advance-Titan broke at the time. Follow ups that remain online show he eventually pleaded guilty to the crime and received a 40-month prison sentence.

Another said, “That’s how we found out about the dorm fires.” At the time, someone had set fire to multiple pieces of furniture in the laundry room of one of the residence halls. (That Advance-Titan story has somehow managed to disappear into the internet ether as well, but it was a big deal.)

I remembered both of those pieces and they were amazingly good ones, but I had forgotten we got the tips through “yaks.”

In flipping back through a few issues of the paper I kept from those days in the mid 2010s, I realized that Yik Yak alerted us to accidents on campus, police calls to certain buildings, those fires and, of course, the FBI swooping in on “the ricin kid.” Obviously, we did a lot more digging into each of those stories before publishing them, but they each had their genesis in Yik Yak.

To that end, it basically became a digital police scanner (and then some) of sorts for us. When someone “yakked” about something like, “WTF R all the cops doing @ South Scott?” we could run over to that residence hall and figure it out. We also knew that whatever people were yammering about on the app was happening within a bike ride of our office, so we could figure out what was going on and quickly decide if it merited coverage.

 

ANONYMITY DOES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES: I am fully aware of the dark side of the anonymity of Yik Yak. Professors have been threatened and sexually harassed in their own classrooms DURING CLASS. People have used the app to make racist statements and threats, with one even saying they would “shoot every black person I see. Users have threatened rape on too many occasions to count.

In short, I’m still not thrilled that this thing is back, despite general reassurances from the app’s new owners that this will be a kinder, gentler Yik Yak. However, now that the die has been cast, it’s probably worth trying to make chicken salad out of this chicken crap. And that starts with understanding the value of anonymity when paired with an easy-to-use platform.

Back in the pre-digital days, newsrooms often had a tip line, where people could call in about things that concerned them or that they thought people had the right to know. It could be a complaint about their landlord or it could be an allegation against a city official or it could be some truly whacked-out weird story that only made sense in the demented mind of the caller. Journalists were able to separate wheat from chaff and dig through these tips, many of which yielded important stories.

The distinction here is that the tip-line tips that failed to pass muster never saw the light of day back then, while Yik Yak is basically a full public display of EVERYTHING, including whatever racist, sexist, homophobic, terrifying crap some imbeciles decided to type up with their thumbs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t diamonds in the cesspool, so it’s worth digging around.

When granted anonymity and easy access to something that gives them a voice, people are more likely to be honest in exposing things that are problematic. Journalists often talk about how things like Larry Nassar’s behavior and Harvey Weinstein’s behavior were “open secrets” among people in their areas of employment, but nobody would put that information out for public display. The #metoo movement has its roots in the idea that sexual violence affected more people than anyone knew, but the survivors remained silent for fear of public identification among other reasons. The ease of use associated with social media allowed the hashtag to spread and more people to come forth without having to fill out a 23-page document.

Yik Yak has the potential to take those key elements and provide you with information about things happening around you that people otherwise wouldn’t say publicly. It could be that the track coach is skimming money or that a professor in the art department is “handsy” with certain students. It could be that a CA or RA is selling weed to people on their floor or that the security cameras at a residence hall have been broken for six months.

With most “hush hush” stories, once there is a crack in the foundation, other people begin to chip in their experiences and help bring the whole house down. A single “yak” could start that process or at the very least get you the thread you need to start digging into that story more deeply. Like all stories rooted in anonymous tips, you should make absolutely certain that you have fully reported the piece before it sees the light of day.

However, every story has to start somewhere. Maybe it’ll be on Yik Yak this time.

 

 

 

5 Back-To-School Stories College Newspapers Should Do As COVID-19 Rises Again

Marty McFly's Radiation Suit Minecraft Skin

“Welcome to Journalism 221! I’ll be your professor this semester. Let’s recap the university’s safety rules regarding COVID-19…”

With many colleges and universities getting back into gear this week (We’re off for at least a couple more weeks, but I know a lot of folks are already strapping on masks and wading back into classrooms.), here are five potential story ideas for student newspapers:

RECAP THE RULES: This is a basic one that I’m sure most folks have thought of, particularly given the rise of the Delta Variant. (Honestly, it sounds like it should be a lousy movie sequel, brought to you from the people who turned “Sharknado” into a cottage industry… “This fall, get ready for ‘COVID-19, Episode II: The Delta Variant!’…“)

Still, the things that are going to be important to hit on will be the basics, such as:

  • Will move-in procedures  for residence halls/dorms change in any meaningful way for people this year?
  • What are the rules that govern mask wearing on campus, both inside of buildings and outside of them?
  • What are clubs, groups and organizations allowed to do or not do in terms of gathering and recruiting? For folks with a lot of clubs, a “student org fair” could be a super-spreader event that the administrators want to cancel. For folks with a strong Greek system, fraternity and sorority chapters tend to have rush near the front of school, so there’s a lot of social events. Who sets the rules and what are they?
  • What are testing procedures for COVID on campus and follow-up precautions in case of positive tests?
  • Are classes being given only in person, only online or in a hybrid/whatever situation? Do students still have “opt-out to online” options or not?
  • What are professors building in terms of “back up” for students who have the illness or have to quarantine after a close contact?

There are dozens of other questions, so consider having a think-tank kind of session with your staff and have someone write them down as you think of them to see how many stories could develop.

LANDLORD LIFE: Complaining about landlords who rent to college students is as common of an occurrence as complaining about tuition hikes and the lack of decent parking. This time around, however, there are more things to consider regarding landlords than if they’re gouging students or if they still haven’t located the source of that smell in the basement:

  • Rental availability: When I was in school 119 years ago, we had to sign next year’s lease for our August move-in date in early January. Students now tell me that around here, they get about three weeks of living in the property before landlords either have them sign up for year two or start showing the property. Given the limitations associated with the 2020-21 school year (isolation protocols, distance learning etc.), it might be a good time to check in with some big and small rental folks in your area to see how things are proceeding for their rentals.
  • Eviction moratoriums: When the Feds cracked down on evictions during the pandemic, most news stories focused on the poor and underprivileged people in big cities who couldn’t make rent during the shutdown period. College students were also renters, so the same rules applied to what could or couldn’t be done to them in regard to evictions. Thus, it might be interesting to see how this affected local landlords and if there are concerns regarding back rent that might never get covered.
  • Bankrupt businesses: Not every rental business is a giant monolith of towers of steel and glass, owned by a hedge fund and operated by a landlord who swims around in a Scrooge McDuck vault of money every night. The “mom-and-pop” rental folks who own a few beat-up houses or who have one small building also tend to populate the landscape of college rentals. Check to see how many of these either didn’t make it due to revenue loss or how many just called it quits, selling off their properties with a raging housing market.

CHECK THE PLAYERS ON YOUR SCORECARD: Old-time baseball vendors used to hawk programs by proclaiming, “You can’t tell who the players are without your scorecard!” (This was probably no more true than for the Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals series, after the teams shipped off a collective 17 players to other teams as part of a trading deadline fire sale. That represents about one-third of the players the teams would collectively carry.) The point here is that after about 18 months of isolation, semi-isolation and general lack of daily connectivity to the campus for most folks, it might be worth seeing who is still on campus and who is gone?

  • Any top-level administrators or high-level athletic coaches decide to go elsewhere or retire?
  • How many professors have called it a day? Any seriously senior-level folks decide to say, “Screw it. I’m not learning Canvas (or BlackBoard or D2L or whatever). I probably should have retired two years ago.” or are folks hanging on? A data check of retirements and resignations comparing the past year to the previous five or ten might be a good idea.
  • How many of the “legends” of campus have left? The cool custodian, the lunch server who always asked “How you doin’?” or the librarian who looked like they were installed when the library was built in 1875 might be gone. Also, think of other folks that make stuff happen on a day-to-day basis that might have been transferred, quit or retired?
  • Death. I know. It’s not a fun one to think about, but sometimes leaving a university isn’t an issue of choice. Check to see if the school has had any students, faculty, staff or administrators who died since you last checked in on everybody.

YOUR PANDEMIC GRADES… JUST AS GOOD. RIGHT?: I don’t think I’m alone in my doubt whenever university officials told us that the online/hybrid/KODAN Armada/whatever version of teaching was going to be “just as good” or “exactly the same” as what we did in a traditional classroom setting. It reminds me of those giant metal boxes they hang on the bathroom walls at truck stops that say, “If you love “Ralph Lauren’s Polo Black,” you’ll love our Pollos Hermanos scent. Insert $1.50 in quarters and push button C-5!” Although the original wasn’t my favorite, the truck-stop version smelled like sour milk and cat urine, so, no, it wasn’t “just as good.”

Someone, somewhere has to have a sense of what grades looked like over the three pandemic semesters (or two if you only want to count 2020-21) and how they compare with what happened before that. There are always anecdotes from students or teachers, but the data could reveal a few things:

  • How many more drops were there in courses during the pandemic terms as opposed to prior terms? If it was a lot more, find out why. If it wasn’t a lot more, report that as well.
  • How did grades fluctuate for both students AND professors? Students might say their grades were better or worse, but the data can back that up, generally speaking. It might also be interesting to see if you can find out if professors’ grading shifted during this time. Grades might be lower, because students had difficulty with life as well as the new environment. They might be higher because traditionally hard-ass professors decided to start giving out more A’s and B’s because of the difficulties.

ATHLETIC ATROPHY: I know a number of our sports had cancellations last year or severely diminished seasons. This is particularly true for sports that have a smaller budget, receive less attention or generally aren’t the kinds you’d see on TV outside of ESPN:8 The Ocho. With that in mind, it might be interesting to dig into the sports area to see how the teams are getting along at brushing off the rust, hitting the workout circuit and generally getting ready for another season

For some teams, it might be great, as it’s a time to let the nagging injuries heal that don’t get a chance to do so under normal circumstances. For others, it might be risky with the idea of muscular atrophy, bad eating/exercise habits setting in or a general loss of connection to the sport.

Hope these help or at least jump-start some ideas for future stories!

The Junk Drawer: The “Bad At Your Job” edition

(Allegedly, we’ve got enough paint in here to fix the Plover water tower.)

 

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

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

 

WHERE IS BILL GATES AND HIS SQUIGGLY RED LINE WHEN YOU NEED THEM?

I often rely on spell check to bail me out of a “how is that spelled?” situation. That said, people can’t always rely on a spellcheck function to save them, as the folks in Plover, Wisconsin found out recently:

As painters scrambled to fix the error, some folks, like those at RayGun T-shirts had some fun with this:

In other news…

THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL-SENTINEL HAS LEARNED BASIC MATH

Some things are kind of patently obvious, but when you say them in sports with conviction (or a big honkin’ headline) they seem almost profound. To wit, in advance of Game 5 of the NBA finals, my hometown paper made this bold proclamation:

Let’s review how the NBA finals and basic math work:

  • The Phoenix Suns have the home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, meaning four games will be played in Phoenix and three will be played in Milwaukee.
  • To win a best-of-seven series, a team needs to win four games out of the seven available.
  • If only three games are played in Milwaukee, the Bucks will obviously need to win at least one game in Phoenix.

This reminds me of the time I heard a coach say something along the lines of, “Most of our best come-from-behind wins happened when the other team was ahead.”

And, the Bucks did win one in Phoenix and won the championship, so I guess the headline wasn’t wrong, just dumb…

In other “Bucks-related news…”

 

IT’S A LEAD, NOT A CLOWN CAR

(If you’ve got this vibe happening in your lead, you might want to rework it…)

I get that not every lead can be 25-35 words, simply covering the 5W’s and 1H, but there needs to be some sort of limit to how much stuff a writer tries to cram into a single sentence. Here’s a look at a lead written shortly after the “Bucks in Six” victory on Tuesday night:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

That’s 67 words, which is almost twice the “legal max” for a decent news lead. The problem with this lead isn’t just that it’s too long, but also that it’s a rambling word salad that abuses every element of writing we teach:

  • Lousy word choice: “Aftermath” means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.” If this was this wonderful and legendary thing, it shouldn’t have aftermath for Giannis. It should have aftermath for the Suns.
  • Adjective-palooza: “Immediate aftermath” and “legendary performance” go without saying, but there’s also “his five-year, supermax contract extension.” You could chop upwards of five words out of here and still have the same meaning.
  • “Partial Quotes” that “don’t help:” Read both of those partial quotes and tell me exactly why they are in quote marks. Save partial quotes for things that merit them like odd phrases or dangerous terms: (During his post-game interview, forward Bob Smith called referee Jim Xfer a “racist, cracker punk” for calling a foul on him in the game’s closing seconds, adding, there was no way Xfer would make “that bulls–t call on a bench-warming white boy.”)
  • Drowning the noun-verb-object: When students have difficulty figuring out what a sentence is trying to convey, I tell them to do a simple sentence diagram so they can locate the noun and verb (and possibly the object). Once they find those, they can build around them judiciously. Here, the author drowns the sentence core in all sorts of slop that doesn’t help people understand the point of the story. The simpler and more plain the sentence core, the better off you are. Let this cheesy PSA from the 1980s be your guide:

And finally, speaking of leads that need a hug…

 

ALLEGEDLY, ALLEGATIONS ARE ALLEGED

When it comes to words to avoid, put “allegedly” at the top of the list. As we’ve detailed here before, this offers you no legal protection, hides the source of the allegations and often leads to misplaced modifiers.

I get the journalists are often trying to couch their statements or cover their keesters, but the use of allegedly here makes even less sense than it usually would:

A vehicle allegedly struck a 6-year-old girl who was riding a bike on the 2100 block of High Ridge Trail in Fitchburg between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Sunday evening.

A few reasons why this is dumb:

  • If “allegedly” is meant to keep us safe as writers (which it doesn’t do, but let’s just say it does for the sake of the argument), exactly what are we worried about getting sued for here? Are we worried that an unnamed vehicle will sue? The girl’s parents? The bike? Allegedly used in association with a direct accusation at least would make sense (“Sen. Jane Jones allegedly stole money from her campaign fund.”) but here?
  • If “allegedly” is trying to cover us as writers in case the thing we said happened didn’t happen (which again… yeah… I know… broken record here…), what are we trying to say in the lead? That we don’t believe the girl? (“Mommy! I got hit by a car while riding my bike!” “Honey, is that really true or were you doing street BMX again?”)
  • If we are really worried about couching things in the lead, why was this the headline: 6-year-old riding bike struck by vehicle in Fitchburg

When it comes to “allegedly,” we’ll let Lou Redwood of “Semi Pro” have the final say here:

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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

Stories with holes: It’s not really journalism if you leave me with more questions than answers

10 Cities With the Big Bad Pothole Problems | Firestone Complete Auto Care

If your story looks like this, you’ve got problems.

Sunday morning had me facing my own level of mortality when my dad flashed the obituary section of the paper in front of me and asked, “Did you know this guy?”

Sure enough, I did.

Peter and I had gone to high school together and even been on the debate team at the same time. He was a year ahead of me and was wicked smart. He tutored me in geometry, a Herculean task to say the least, and he was the school’s valedictorian the year he graduated.

He went off to two Ivy League schools, earning a law degree and spending much of his career in patent law out on the West Coast. He died far too young, at age 47, which left me with the question I’m sure most people would have asked:

“How did he die?”

Despite my best googling and research skills, I couldn’t figure this out. I asked a couple people we held in common over the years, only to have them asking the same question I had. I even emailed his law firm and they didn’t have anything to tell me.

Which leads us to the point of this piece: Journalistic content shouldn’t have your readers asking crucial questions when they are done with the story. When I teach editing, I refer to stories that have this problem as having holes. The job of reporters and editors is to make sure the holes get filled or discussed before a story is published.

In the case of obituaries, we’ve discussed this before and explaining that they’re more for the living than the dead, so we need to make sure they serve as a complete telling of the person’s life. It should be clear that the story of the person’s life is the most important portion of the story, but it also remains the case that the only reason we’re telling it now is because the person has died.

(Side note: When I worked at a newspaper a long time ago, the local style guide dictated that an obituary written on anyone under the age of 70 included the cause of death whenever possible, as most people would be curious of what caused this person’s too-soon demise. I found an older edition of the style guide, which required the COD for those older than 60. Several of us surmised that our boss changed it when he got older, as he didn’t want to be in the “acceptable to be dead” demographic.)

(Second side note: I have told Amy that when I die, however I die, she needs to include the cause of death in my obituary. I don’t care if I died breaking my neck by falling off the couch trying to kiss my own butt as part of a TikTok challenge. If it mattered enough for me to die while doing it, tell people. I don’t need folks speculating…)

In the case of larger investigative stories, holes can unintentionally undermine the credibility of sources. When something is missing and readers have questions, they can become suspicious of the entire story.

Case in point: The Kansas City Star dropped a bombshell story of a former KU football player who stated that several of his former teammates harassed and threatened him and his family. The allegations included a teammate loosening the lug nuts of one of his car’s tires, teammates bursting into his apartment to threaten his family and the athletic department trying to buy his silence to the tune of $50,000.

The story mentions four players, but never names them.

I spent half the story wondering who these former KU football players were.

I spent the other half of the story why, if these allegations were credible, the paper didn’t name these dudes who attacked and threatened this kid.

Neither question got answered in the text, leading me to wonder more about the kid making the allegations and the author of the piece than anything else.

Filling in holes like this can allow the readers to make up their own minds about the credibility of sources, the seriousness of a situation and a dozen other things. However, when they are left hanging, they can’t exercise proper judgment.

I recall reading a story more than a dozen years ago about a small-town beef between a mayor and a city administrator over something the mayor had said. The administrator called it something like “the most offensive slur I have ever heard” while the mayor said it was something like “just a plain-folks saying that was being misinterpreted.”

I read the whole story, waiting to see what was said. The writer didn’t include it, didn’t clue me in on what it might be (a racial slur, a demeaning phrase describing people with disabilities, a sexist remark) and also didn’t tell me why that wasn’t included.

The fact I remember this, while I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, clearly demonstrates that holes can stick with a reader for quite some time.

Here are a few things you can do to find and fill holes that will have your readers thanking you:

CONVERSE WITH THE READER AS YOU WRITE: Journalism has long had a tradition of filling in 5W’s and 1H or checking off news values and considering the job done. Those elements still have value, but we really should be spending more time focusing on the needs of the audience.

After all, when those tenets were crafted, journalists usually knew their audiences intimately and the number of sources of information were far more limited than they are now. Audience-centricity was baked into the process back then and people couldn’t just hop on the internet and find answers to their questions elsewhere.

A good way to make sure that you’re working for the audience is to imagine a conversation with the readers when you are writing. You tell them the most important thing you can and then follow the thread of how you imagine that conversation will go:

You: Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house around 2 a.m.

Reader: OH NO! Is everyone OK?

You: No one got hurt because the smoke detector woke them up and they got out right away.

Reader: How bad was the fire?

You: The house is a total loss. Firefighters say more than $200,000 in damage.

Reader: How did this happen?

You: The water heater in the basement got a short circuit and started some oily rags on fire…

When you’re done going through the process, see if what you’ve written does what it needs to or if there are holes. Also, you can review the ordering of your content to see if it follows the pattern of what you think they’ll want to know first. This helps you avoid starting the story with “The Berlin Fire Department, assisted by volunteer firefighters from the town of Aurora, responded to a report of a fire at 111 S. Main St. around 2 a.m. Sunday…”

IF YOU GIVE THE READERS DIRECTIONS, MAKE SURE THEY CAN FOLLOW THEM: A number of stories will tell people to do something or avoid something or respond to something. These stories become problematic when people aren’t told how to do these things.

Back when the illness we were all freaking out about was the Swine Flu (H1N1), a local daycare had an outbreak and had to shut down. The people at the daycare told parents to watch their kids carefully for symptoms of the illness. In fact, the story on the outbreak mentioned this important activity at least three times in six paragraphs.

The problem? The story never said what the symptoms were, so that wasn’t really helpful at all.

A similar story I remember reading was back when Zoe was about 4 and she really had an interest in Santa. The local paper reported that breakfast with Santa, which was in danger of being cancelled, had been green-lit, thanks to a generous donor. The whole story talked about how kids were going to have breakfast with Santa and that it was so great we didn’t lose breakfast with Santa and how important breakfast with Santa was.

The story never once mentioned when and where the event was taking place. Did the writer expect parents to wander the streets of Omro, looking for a fat guy in a red suit?

In the digital age, we can, obviously, look up things like H1N1 symptoms or local events on a city website, but that’s not the point. If we’re supposed to inform readers about important things, we need to go all the way. Saying, “Well, they can look it up” is akin to listing Chicken Kiev on the menu at a nice restaurant, and then serving patrons bunch of raw ingredients and a recipe card.

IF YOU CAN’T (OR WON’T) FILL THE HOLE, ACKNOWLEDGE IT: Not all holes in stories come from poor writing and reporting. In some cases, information isn’t available. In other cases, a publication decides to err on the side of caution while reporting. Even more, the publication might have a policy that prohibits the publication of certain content.

In those cases, you’re going to leave a hole. When you do, explain what’s going on so your readers can follow along:

“At the family’s request, the name of the MegaJackpot winner will not be released.”

“The cause of death has not been determined, the medical examiner stated.”

“In accordance with the Daily Tattler’s policies, stories do not name assault victims and instead provide a first-name-only pseudonym.”

Explaining WHY the paper wasn’t naming names could have been really helpful Kansas City Star story:

“Due to the lack of supporting legal documents/At the request of the paper’s legal team/Because we believed the kid enough to run the story, but not enough to risk a libel suit, The Kansas City Star is not naming the four players accused of harassing Caperton Humphrey…”

At that point, I could figure out if this was a case of “The lawyers won’t let us, even though we have the goods” or a case of “This story’s hanging by a thread anyway, so let’s not make it collapse.” Knowing which way the wind is blowing on this story would not only satisfy my own curiosity, but it would also make me feel more or less willing to share it on my social media.

In the end, make sure you’re giving the readers the most complete picture possible, even if that means explaining why that picture is incomplete.

Reviewing the “foul-mouthed cheerleader” Supreme Court decision with a legal eagle

About a week or so ago, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the case of Mahanoy v. B.L., supporting the free expression rights of students who were operating outside of the schoolhouse gates and on their own time. We took a look at this decision at the time on the blog, picking through the outcomes of the case, but here’s a brief recap:

Brandy Levy was a cheerleader in 2017, when she dropped several F-bombs on Snapchat after failing to make the varsity squad. Although her social media post was done on a Saturday, at a local convenience store and caused no major school disruption, officials at Mahanoy’s high school penalized her by banning her from cheer activities for a year. When Levy and her parents were unable to get the school to reconsider this situation, they sued over the abridgment of free speech.

As with most major court decisions, a lot of the important content is in the nuances of the decision and what precedents the case can set for future situations. To help untangle what happened and what this case means, legal eagle Daxton “Chip” Stewart was nice enough to grant the blog an interview on this topic. Stewart is a full professor at Texas Christian University, where he teaches courses in media law. He has a Ph.D. in journalism from Mizzou and a JD from the University of Texas School of Law. He has also written “Social Media and the Law” and co-authored “The Law of Public Communication.”

Below is an edited transcript of the interview conducted a few days after the decision came down:

Before the ruling came out, what were you generally expecting the court to say in this case? In other words, did this ruling surprise you or was is something you saw coming?

“I want to say I saw this decision coming… I had a conversation about this a few days before I said, ‘Probably what the court is going do is extend Tinker to off campus speech in certain circumstances and that’s exactly what they did. So in a way I sort of saw that coming but I had a lot of fear and justified fear. Some of this was when the third circuit decision came out last summer, it was a great decision and I was gleeful about it.

“I’m working on a new edition of the social media law book and I thought, ‘This is great.’ We finally have a federal court of appeals saying off campus speech has First Amendment protection from administrator supervision and extra-curricular speech or extra-curricular activities are an extension of curricular activities so if you discipline somebody for doing something regarding extra-curricular activities like suspending them from the football team or the dance team, that’s a violation of the First Amendment. We didn’t have a decision say that clearly at this level before. So I loved that third circuit decision…

“So my fear was the Supreme Court doesn’t take up decisions to say, ‘Good job, Third Circuit! We agree.’ They take up decisions because they think there was some kind of error that needs to be resolved. So I was very worried that they were going to come in and strike down the Third Circuit opinion and basically do what they did in Morse versus Frederick, which is hedge or decide against the students. So going in my fear was the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled in favor of a student in 50 years. It was Tinker and then basically a lot of curbing and limiting Tinker… Case after case after case, it was someone saying, ‘Let’s extend Tinker here!’ and the court saying, ‘Nope.’

“So in that context with 50 years without a good pro-student, free-speech case, I was worried they’d go down that path again. And they didn’t and that surprised me.”

 

Aside from the ruling itself, did the 8-1 majority decision surprise you at all? It seems like most decisions are coming across as 5-4’s these days, so to have that number of justices on one side of a free-speech case… Was that surprising to you when you saw it?

“A little bit, yeah. I thought at least it would be 7-2 and the two being Alito and Thomas. We knew Thomas wasn’t going to agree. Thomas famously continues to say Tinker was wrongly decided… So my concern was that it was going to be a majority of Alito and Thomas, where they bring along the three Trump appointees to constitute a 5-4 majority…

That the eight could come together and agree that this kind of speech is protected was a very good thing to see. A little bit surprising, but a very good thing.

 

What’s your general sense of what this ruling says for free expression, particularly as it pertains to high school and maybe even college students? What are some key things people should be aware of when it comes to this ruling, either positive or negative in relation to free expression?

“Two things, really. One is explicit, one is implicit. The explicit is that the Tinker test is going to extend to off campus speech not during school activities. We saw in Morse versus Frederick, the ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ case, that the SC said in that one, ‘Yes, this speech was off campus, it was an Olympic torch relay, but it was a school-sponsored activity, so the Tinker test applies here.’ The court had not gone so far as to say, ‘We’re going to extend it not only to off campus but also off campus, non-school activities.’

“In this case, it was a girl writing on Snapchat at the Cocoa Hut, a convenience store. So the Supreme Court says, ‘Yes, the First Amendment even applies there… Students still have free speech, First Amendment protections not just inside the school house gates but also off campus in their free time, in their non-school time, even if it might have on-campus implications.’ So the First Amendment extends out into the real world, 24-7 when it comes to schools disciplining student speech. That’s a great outcome.

“A better outcome might have been that schools have no authority to discipline students over external speech and that was kind of the coalition that Breyer built for his balancing test was to say, ‘OK, school administrators do have some rights to sanction off-campus, non-school speech if it’s going to have an influence on campus, like starting on campus disruption.’ They mention harassment and dangerous violence. All things considered, it’s a pretty good outcome.

“So that’s your explicit one: The Supreme Court saying, ‘We’re going to extend Tinker, off-campus, 24/7. School administrators, if they want to discipline students for what happens on non-school time, they have to pass the Tinker substantial disruption test.’ That’s a good outcome.

“As for the implicit one, it goes back to the Third Circuit decision, which says extra-curricular activities have value and can create an avenue for appeal for students who have been disciplines by those extra curricular activities.

“So, in this case, we’re talking about a student on the cheer squad or who didn’t make the cheer squad or whatever it was being punished. In the past we did not have a good decision in which the court said, ‘That’s protected by the First Amendment.’ You can’t just kick someone out of school for speech but you can take them off the dance team or the football squad because that’s not school.

“So the implicit one here is that even the cheer squad, having been suspended from the cheer squad… You have a right to sue for that. It’s valuable There’s a First Amendment harm. That’s where this is the only way this decision works is to recognize that extracurricular activities at schools are valuable and that you and sue if you lose the privilege to be on a team due to speech. That’s really, really valuable.”

 

Do you think this will at all deter schools from trying to clamp down on unpopular expression? Or will it continue to be business as usual for administrators and educators who want to suppress free speech?

“I do worry about that. You have what the law says, what the Supreme Court says and then you have what actually happens in practice. The cheer squad is going to have a policy,  A football coach is going to have those rules and if you don’t like those rules, you’re going to have to be willing to go to court and sue over those rules. They’re still the boss and they don’t care about judges and courts. There is very little for them to lose due to qualified immunity where they say, ‘I thought I was doing the right thing.’ So, the law for public officials have that right.

“Practically, you’re still going to have basically speech codes and behavior codes that clearly restrict free speech rights. There are going to be dress codes, behavior codes and social media codes and people are going to be disciplined for them. It’s just going to be easier for them to sue and win now because it’s clear in every court in the country now. That’s great, but you’re still going to have to be willing to take on the expense of suing your school and hoping that four or five years later, you get a good decision.”

Usually when a court makes a free speech or free press ruling on a high school level, some college administrators think, “Hey, we can do that too!” and vice versa. Do you see this decision having any impact on colleges?

“What I expect and what I hope is that we already have a sliding scale where little kids have the least rights, college kids have the most rights. I sort of expect that whatever restrictions a HS can place on kids, it’s going to be hard for a college to do that.

“The thing in this case is that it uses Loco Parentis, which is asking how much room do we give the administrators in high school to act as parents to oversee the kids. I loved the line that said, ‘We highly doubt that BL’s parents gave the school the right to act in Loco Parentis at the Cocoa Hut.’ Private time, the school isn’t acting as a parent when she’s off campus. Well, once you’re adult, once you’re in college, you don’t have loco parentis because you’re adult. I don’t think this case will work in a college situation because you won’t have the loco parentis issue.”

 

If there were any big take away you think you would want people to have that we hadn’t discussed to this point, what would it be? What’s crucial that goes beyond the basics?

“When Breyer says why this is important, he uses that “Schools are the nurseries of democracy line.’ Breyer says that we need to understand that public schools are where students learn how to be good democratic citizens, good participants in a democracy. We need these places to educate people about the value of free speech. Free speech is necessary in these environments to build good citizens of our democracy and that includes speech we don’t like in some cases.

“This is something that a lot of free speech organizations and advocates like SPLC and FIRE have been pushing for years: If we have our high schools be places where administrators can act like petty tyrants when it comes to free speech, then the lesson students get is that it’s OK to be a tyrant over speech and they carry that into their college years and their adult lives. What they learn is that it’s OK to sanction speech you disagree with or don’t like…

“This is what petty tyrants do. They silence speech they don’t like. When it starts with principals and teachers telling students, “We’ve got the power and we can silence speech we don’t like,” students get that message and they live that out. That’s a real problem… We should be teaching our students to tolerate speech they disagree with, not punishing them for saying things we disagree with. And we should be leading by example.”

Gimme an F! Gimme a U! Supreme Court rules in favor of foul-mouthed cheerleader, free expression for students

 

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that schools cannot regulate students’ off-campus speech in the same manner as if the speech happened on campus, giving free-expression advocates an important precedent in today’s social media age. In an 8-1 decision on the case of Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the school infringed upon the First Amendment rights of Brandy Levy when it attempted to suspend her from the cheer-leading squad.

We talked about this case at length when the Court heard arguments back in April, but the short version is this: In 2017, Levy didn’t make the varsity cheer squad and took to Snapchat to F-bomb the process and her school. The snap was done outside of school and on her own time, deleted shortly after it was posted and caused no major problems at the school. Still, the school decided to suspend her from team activities for a year. When an agreement couldn’t be reached to undo the punishment, she and her parents sued the school.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer made three key points that should help free-expression advocates in the future:

  1. While the school has an interest in the activities of the students while they are off campus, it is the parent, not the administrator, who makes the rules for the kids (and dispenses the punishments) when the kids aren’t in school. Thus, if the parents are cool with a kid spending the weekend dropping F-bombs on Snapchat, the school will just have to cope.
  2. If the school had won this case, it would essentially have the right to monitor student speech and punish students for it on a 24/7 schedule. That could give students ZERO opportunities to free expression that was not school approved for the entirety of their academic careers. If Tinker established that students don’t shed their Constitutional rights by entering the schoolhouse gates, students sure as heck shouldn’t shed them by the mere dint of being of school age.
  3. Schools have a vested interest in allowing free speech of the students, so that they can learn how to contribute to the marketplace of ideas. In other words, if you don’t give them the chance to learn how to do this, they’ll never do it well.

Breyer also noted that there were already ruling on the books that would deal with concerns the school had regarding issues like fighting words, true threats and bullying, also saying this didn’t rise to that level.

Despite the pro-student ruling, some journalists noted that this ruling didn’t provide a decisive blow for free expression:

B.L. offered the justices an opportunity to announce a single unifying rule that would govern all free speech cases involving off-campus speech by public school students. But the Court dodged that opportunity.

The reason is that it is quite difficult to come up with such a unifying rule. Though Breyer’s opinion holds that Levy’s school went too far when it punished her, he also acknowledges that there may be examples of off-campus speech that should be punished by public schools — including cases of “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals” or “threats aimed at teachers or other students.”

I can see the point there, but let’s consider a few key points:

  1. Free speech won on this one, despite the “Suicide Squad” style case we were dealing with here. Nobody likes a mouthy teen, so the fact that people the age of Levy’s parents and grandparents stood up for her right to F-bomb the universe says something important about the rule of law and the protections of the First Amendment.
  2. It was an 8-1 ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that I’m still not clear on, but he stood alone. (I’m interviewing a legal expert for next week’s post, so I’ll try to get an answer on that.) I was thinking if we won at all on this one, it would be a 5-4. Getting eight of nine of these people to agree on anything from free speech to which D.C. restaurant has the best egg rolls is a miracle of modern man.
  3. It establishes some ground to prevent school districts from trying to write rules that allow them to regulate social media and off-campus speech. Sure, they can give it a shot now, but this ruling gives free-speech advocates a pretty heavy bat to swing back.

To close up, here are a few tidbits that I loved:

Give Me Freedom AND Give Me Cocoa Hut: It was great watching the nine most revered legal minds in our country today issue an opinion with multiple F-bombs in it. It was also great having them dissect the use, tenets and purpose of Snapchat in a decision as well. However, I loved this section most of all, in which they explained the school’s lack of loco parentis on behalf of B.L. when she made the post:

“B. L. spoke under circumstances where the school did not stand in loco parentis. And there is no reason to believe B. L.’s parents had delegated to school officials their own control of B. L.’s behavior at the Cocoa Hut.”

I want a “Loco Parentis at the Cocoa Hut” T-shirt…

Drama? We’re talking about DRAMA? I’m sure legal scholars will have a serious set of debates regarding the lack of a bright line established in the following paragraph, regarding the necessary level of academic disruption to allow for the punishment of off-campus speech:

Third, the school presented some evidence that expresses(at least indirectly) a concern for team morale. One of the coaches testified that the school decided to suspend B. L., not because of any specific negative impact upon a particular member of the school community, but “based on the fact that there was negativity put out there that could impact students in the school.” App. 81. There is little else, however, that suggests any serious decline in team morale—to the point where it could create a substantial interference in, or disruption of, the school’s efforts to maintain team cohesion. As we have previously said, simple “undifferentiated fear or apprehension . . . is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker, 393 U. S., at 508.

Me? I’m the parent of a high school cheerleader and I can tell you unequivocally that EVERYTHING on the face of the PLANET could be covered by the school’s claim regarding diminution of morale vis a vis the cheer squad.

The drive home from practice every night is a play-by-play of who is ignoring whom on Snapchat(“Leaving people unread is so much drama,” I have been told…) or who is saying who isn’t putting in enough effort or who is skipping practice to be with her boyfriend or who is calling whom a “hoe” today because… well… they’re just a FRESHMAN and they sent a Snap to someone else’s boyfriend and shouldn’t have…

The school might have been better off just saying, “Look, if they’re breathing and on the cheer squad, we have jurisdiction over them” rather than trying to claim a cheer squad could be drama free.

Don’t Hate the Snap, Hate the Quadratic Equation: What leads to a “substantial disruption” of school activities is a key trigger to allow for schools to suppress student speech. The school’s claim of such disruption was discussed at this point in the ruling:

[T]he school argues that it was trying to prevent disruption, if not within the classroom, then within the bounds of a school-sponsored extracurricular activity. But we can find no evidence in the record of the sort of “substantial disruption” of a school activity or a threatened harm to the rights of others that might justify the school’s action. Tinker, 393 U. S., at 514. Rather, the record shows that discussion of the matter took, at most, 5 to 10 minutes of an Algebra class “for just a couple of days”

I remember algebra courses quite well and I can guarantee that I would have gladly discussed ANYTHING to kill off 5-10 minutes of that class period. I somehow doubt we can lay the blame on Levy for this here.