Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

(Are you the most important thing in the story? Probably not. So stop telling me you asked people stuff…)


One of the weaker writing trends that’s been popping up in a lot of writing lately has been the use of “when asked” as part of a lead-in to a quote, or in some cases, as part of a quote:

When asked if he supported the bill, the mayor said, “Not this stupid version.”

When asked about the how best to improve relations between the university and the town, the chancellor said, “We need to work together on this.”

When asked if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, President Joe Biden had this to say.

Here’s What Alex Rodriguez Said When Asked If He Was Single Amid Jennifer Lopez Relationship Drama

This is dumb for about a dozen reasons, but here are a few that might matter to you as a journalist:

  1. It’s passive voice: “When asked” implies “by someone,” which means you’re introducing the quote from a weak grammatical position.
  2. It’s first person: “When asked by… ME! LOOK! I ASKED A QUESTION!” Are we that thirsty that we need to mention that we had the temerity to ask a guy at the fair how the corn dogs were this year?
  3. It’s a “No duh” moment: Of COURSE they said it when they were asked. Isn’t that how this normally works in life? Think about how weirded out you’d be if some random stranger just ran up to you and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you and all the readers of whatever story that you’ll be publishing that the corn dogs at this fair are FRICKIN’ AMAZING!” I don’t know about you, but I’d be backing away slowly or reaching for some pepper spray.

In the examples above, we have a few other problems as well:

  1. The setup incorporates lousy quoted material: In the first two versions, you get really bad quotes that don’t do a lot for the piece or for the reader. Neither of those quotes add value or quality in a complete quote kind of way. The chancellor quote is lame, while the mayor quote isn’t a full sentence. You can actually make these better through the use of either straight paraphrase or a partial quote:
    1. Mayor Jane Smith said she sees value in a voting-security bill but “not this stupid version,” which would require citizens to cite the pledge of allegiance backwards before casting a ballot.
    2. North Texarkansas State University and the city will continue to clash over parking restrictions unless the city council and the college can work together to resolve ticketing protocols, Chancellor Arlene Selridge said Tuesday.
  2. The set up tells me that you’re going to tell me something: In the latter two, you have actual examples of journalists telling us that they’re going to tell us something. In the Cuomo example, the build up to what the president had to say is the bulk of what’s going on in the sentence. It then leaves us with a “commercial cliffhanger” for that second paragraph. In the A-Rod/J-Lo one, we don’t even get the decency of a full chunk of information as to what that “drama” entails.

    Think about it like this: If your professor walked into the classroom and said, “I have graded your midterms.” Would that be the ONLY thing you’d want to know? Probably not. Then imagine the professor saying, “I have graded your midterms. When asked by my wife how well people did, here’s what I had to say!” Is it getting any better or are you thinking, “Can I use The Force to pull mine out of the pile or an X-power to read his mind and just get my damn grade?”

The reason that paraphrase-quote works well is because each chunk of that structure has a job: The paraphrase tells you something important that will get you deeper into the piece. The quote then provides flavor, color and “sparkle” to that topic of interest while not repeating what you already know.

“When asked” takes away the best parts of both of those elements.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were asked…

Throwback Thursday: Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

A friend of mine sent me a message about how her students were struggling with lead writing because they kept thinking chronologically, missing bigger issues or generally just wandering through the news like a kid who lost their mom at Walmart.

So, for this Throwback Thursday, I picked through all my lead-writing posts for something inspirational and I think I found it.

Of all the lead suggestions I have given over the years, this one might be the best: Look for the “vomit moment.” I hope it helps.

Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.


After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.


SLAPPing around a grocery clerk: A prominent Georgia family decided to sue a service-industry worker for saying accurate things about them on social media

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bully.

Saying that, however, could have some pretty costly consequences if the Cagle family of Pickens County, Georgia has its way.

The Cagles have filed a suit against Rayven Goolsby, a grocery clerk, for criticizing them on social media for their presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and other statements they made on Facebook about various political and social concerns.

Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”

Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”

(Goolsby’s lawyer Andrew) Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.

One of the primary things we emphasize in journalism is that if you present information that is factually accurate, you are safe from harm when it comes to libel suits and other claims of defamation. What we really mean is that you’re not going to lose a suit if you write that your governor stole $6 million from the state to build a replica of Graceland in his backyard, if you can prove that this actually happened.

That said, getting sued itself can be a painful process that will costs you time and money, while subjecting you to a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. The only real saving grace of being sued as a staff reporter is that you are working for an organization that has lawyers and managers who will take on the brunt of the costs and work with you.

As an individual operating on a social media platform, you take on the role of “publisher” without having all those helping hands and financial backstops to make life a little less terrible. That said, what we have here is pretty clearly a case of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a SLAPP case, as anti-slapp.org explains:

These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.

We’ve talked about SLAPPs before on the blog, including the one that comedian John Oliver faced involving a coal magnate and a giant talking squirrel. To prevent this kind of thing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP laws, which can force plaintiffs to prove they’re not using the courts as a cudgel to shut people up.

According to anti-SLAPP.org, Georgia actually has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law on its books, which states that if a person is found to have engaged in a SLAPP suit, the case will be dismissed and that person is on the hook for legal fees and costs incurred by the person they “SLAPPed.”

In other words, if you have a great deal of money and plan to use it to sue someone into silence, it might end up costing you some additional cash in a way you hadn’t planned on.

Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

A number of folks had been asking for some help with an open-records/Freedom-of-Information-Act assignment, so I thought this might be a good time to add it to the mix on the Corona Hotline help page.

What I’ve got here is the assignment my junior-level course is doing regarding open record requests. They’re required to FOIA something in a formal fashion, get the records and write something decent out of it.

(Yes, I know, “FOIA” refers to the federal government and its open records policies etc., while states have “sunshine laws” or “openness standards” or whatever else. I explain the difference, but you can’t turn “sunshine law” into a verb, which is why FOIA is much cooler…)

I’ve also uploaded some appendix work I did in advance of the second edition of the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It lays out a basic letter and explains why it works the way it does.

(Yes, I know there are open-records templates and open-record-request generators online,  but I have them work off of something like this so they can not only get used to doing it, but to see how each piece works. It’s like the difference between buying a new carburetor and rebuilding your old one: If you take it apart and put it back together, you learn how and why it operates the way it does, which can be inordinately helpful in life.)

Students of mine have done some incredible work with this kind of thing, or just answered basic questions like “How much money does the parking department make off of expired-meter tickets?” and “How many people got busted for public urination during this year’s “Pub Crawl?” It’s less about breaking the next Watergate story and more about learning the process. In addition, it helps them figure out what kinds of things they can get and what those items can tell them.

Hope it helps!

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

Throwback Thursday: So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

This blog post from three years ago kept popping up as a “suggested read” for me on various other posts, so I think it’s the blogging gods’ way of saying it needs a rerun.

Not to get into an Academy Award speech or anything, but I have to say I’ve been really, really blessed and really, really lucky that folks seemed to take a liking to my books. I’m grateful to you all every day because, as we say in the first chapter of every book, if I don’t have an audience, nothing else matters.

The folks at SAGE sent along the cover for the upcoming third edition for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” text, which should be out this August or September, I believe. I’m finishing the copy edits now with my main man, Jim Kelly. (If anyone you know ever tells you that copy editors don’t matter, send them my way for a firm and thorough verbal beat down. Jim has saved my keester so many times, I lost track.)

In case you wanted a sneak peek, here you go:

So, without further ado (or book pimping), here’s a look at what happens when you don’t have a good marketing staff to do your research and you end up on the embarrassing end of an email exchange with someone. (Rest assured, the folks at SAGE are great at marketing, and I can pretty much already guess who’s going to email me with a reminder to “please stop using the phrase ‘book pimping’ on your blog.”)


So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

I understand this blog tends to skew more toward news than some folks might appreciate, given that my entire pitch for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” is that ALL disciplines of media (news, PR, Ad, marketing etc.) can get something of value out of it. The skew is due to trying to cover both the media-writing text and the news reporting and writing text in one spot. It also also comes from the idea that a lot of things people perceive as “news” things are actually valuable for all media, including skills like interviewing, research, inverted-pyramid writing and so forth. Finally, it seems that news folks tend to make more public mistakes than do some of the other disciplines, so I get more content there. (If you want me to hit on more topics in the PR/Ad/Marketing stuff, feel free to pitch me some thoughts. I’d love to do it.)

That said, occasionally there is a specific foul up in a specific part of the field that bears some analysis. Consider that when you look at this email I got the other day. I redacted the identifiers as best I could:

Dear Professor Filak,

​Greetings from (COMPANY NAME)! ​I hope this finds you well. In the coming months, (AUTHOR NAMES) will begin to revise the twelfth edition of their introductory journalism text, (REPORTING BOOK NAME). ​This text strives to give students the knowledge and skills they need to master the nuts and bolts of news stories, as well as guidance for landing a job in an evolving journalism industry.
Right now we are seeking instructors to review the twelfth edition of (REPORTING BOOK NAME) ​a​nd provide feedback. This input is invaluable to us, ​as it ​giv​es​ us a greater sense of how to best address both instructor and student needs. ​If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon, would you be interested in offering your feedback?
If you would like to review, please respond to this email and let me know if you will need a copy of the printed text. You should plan to submit your comments via TextReviews by 2/6/18. In return for your help, we would like to offer you (MONEY).
At your earliest convenience, kindly respond to this e-mail to let me know if you are available and interested in participating. ​Again, please let me know if you will need a copy of (REPORTING BOOK NAME)
I’m always happy to help people and I’m not averse to making a buck by pretending to know what I’m talking about, but this felt both awkward and ridiculous. One of the things both “Dynamics” books push a lot is the idea of making sure you know what you’re talking about before you ask a question. The books also push the idea of researching your audience members so you know how best to approach them. Either the person writing this email didn’t do that or just didn’t care.
Here’s how I know that: It’s called “Google.”
Had this person done even a basic search on me she would have learned several things:
  • I am teaching the courses they associate with this book. I teach nothing but these courses, as you can find on the UWO journalism department website. The line of “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” tells me I’m on a list somewhere and this is a form email at best.
  • I wrote several books, including one that is likely to be some form of competition for this book. (I’m not saying it will be as good or better or anything, but my title includes words like “news,” “reporting” and “writing,” so it’s a pretty safe bet we’re vying for the same students.) This was literally one of the top five items on the first page of my Google search. She also sent her message the same day I got this alert from Amazon:NumberOne
    (I have no idea how Amazon quantifies “#1 New Release in Journalism” but I’ll take it.)

    The point is, it wasn’t a secret, so it appeared that she didn’t look me up and was like the guy at the bar telling me, “Hey, see that babe over there? I’m totally going to score with her!” and I’m like, “Uh, dude, that’s my wife…”
    On the other hand, maybe she did look me up, found the book and asked anyway, which is like the even-worse guy at the bar who’s saying, “Hey man, your wife is pretty hot. Any chance you can give me some tips on how to score with her?”

Thinking about all of that for a moment, I did the polite thing and emailed back, explaining how I felt this would be a conflict of interest (it is), and that any advice I gave her would be likely be somewhat problematic as the author of a competing book (it is).  I also noted that I know the book she is pitching well (I do) and I know the authors well (I do), so this would also be a bit awkward for me (it really is). Here was her email back to me, which again made me think she wasn’t actually reading this:

Hi Professor Filak,

Thanks so much for letting me know. We will certainly keep you in mind for future projects!

So, again, the point of the blog isn’t to beat people up for doing things poorly but rather to offer advice on how to do things better. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Research first, then write: You don’t have to do an Ancestry.com profile on every person to whom you market or with whom you engage in outreach, but it’s not hard to Google someone. Most people put more social-media stalking effort into learning about the “new kid” at school than this person put into finding out about me. In marketing, you often have access to proprietary data as well, so you can find out if this person had any previous engagement with your organization. In my case, I used that book for more than a decade and still keep up with it, so that might have been something she could have found.
  • Personalize when possible: If you are sending out 100,000 requests for something like a survey and you are expecting a 10 percent response, you will not have the ability to personalize all of the information on everyone’s card or email. That makes sense. However, when you are microtargeting a group of people with a specific set of skills or interests and that group isn’t going to overwhelm a data center, work on personalizing your content. That line about “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” could have easily been tweaked to say something like, “I see you have taught writing and reporting courses at UW-Oshkosh…” and it wouldn’t have taken much. Making these minor tweaks shows that you have done your research. Engaging in some personalized communication shows your readers you care enough to see them as individuals as opposed to a wad of names on a spreadsheet.
  • Try not to screw up, but if you do, don’t ignore it: The one thing that stuck with me when I got that response email from her was that I didn’t think she figured out what she was actually asking me or why it was weird. I had that feeling that if I had written her back and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do this because I’ve just been placed in an intergalactic prison for the rest of my life for murdering a flock of Tribbles with a phaser I set to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun,’” I would have gotten the exact same email back. The whole exchange really reminded me of this scene:
 The thing that is important to realize is that you are going into a field that has two important and scary things going for it:
  1. It’s small enough that you’re really about two degrees of separation from everyone else, so people know other people.
  2. People in the field love to talk.

If you end up screwing up because you didn’t do the first two things suggested above, don’t compound the problem.

I have no idea if I’ll ever get approached by this publisher to review anything, but I know I will always carry with me the memory of this interaction. Had it been a great interaction, that would have been good for the publisher. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Hill He Chose to Die On: Ex-NY Times Reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. uses about 21,000 words to explain how one word cost him his job

My friend Allison and I spent much of the past 25 years talking each other out of doing pathologically dumb things. When it seemed one of us was on the precipice of jumping off Mount Stupid into Idiocy Lake, the other would ask a simple question:

“Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?”

It’s the question that kept us out of a lot of trouble because it asked us to open the aperture of our lens, pull way out on the shot and look at the totality of what we were doing. It essentially asked, “If everything goes wrong, nothing works out right and you get every bad outcome, are you OK with this choice you are about to make?”

In most cases, the answer was “no,” so we went back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. On rare occasion, the answer was “yes,” so we gave it everything we got and hoped for the best, or at least prayed to avoid the worst.

I thought about that today because Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times decided to make a stand amid increasing scrutiny regarding complaints about his use of language in front of high school students. He found out the hard way that, sometimes, when you say you’re willing to die on that hill, that’s exactly what happens.

The Daily Beast decided to run a piece on McNeil last month that focused on a trip he took to Peru with a group of high-school students in 2019. The students and their parents complained at the time about his activities there, according to the article, including his use of “wildly offensive and racists comments.” In that article, the authors cite at least two student complaints that he used the “N-word,” a charge McNeil didn’t deny.

The paper investigated the incident when it occurred and basically did very little in terms of punitive measures. McNeil received a letter of reprimand that stated he would not represent The Times on any more of trips of that kind and that if he screwed up again, he’d get punished and perhaps terminated.

When The Daily Beast came calling for a comment in February, the paper went into crisis mode and begged McNeil to basically apologize for everything anyone involved in that situation accused him of doing. McNeil declined to do so for a variety of reasons, which eventually led him to become an “ex-New York Times” writer as of March 1.

A situation involving a white person using a racist term and subsequently receiving life-altering punishment isn’t new or novel. What does make this situation different, however, is that McNeil decided to outline the entirety of the event and the subsequent fall out from it in a four-part essay on Medium.

McNeil took to Medium to outline his case for what happened on that fateful trip to Peru and why he decided to resign.

The series runs about 21,000 words and McNeil notes that it was vetted by two lawyers prior to publication. A kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this can be found in articles written for the New York Times and The Daily Beast.

McNeil relies on emails, notes and other artifacts from the 2019 situation, noting spots where his memory was used to fill in gaps or clarify situations. He also states that he built this based on fact, not opinion, although that’s clearly not always the case. When you are the lens through which you ask readers to view something, it’s tough to say the picture you create is perfectly representative of reality.

That said, I would recommend anyone to give this a read, along with the coverage of McNeil’s response. It’s a different experience to see something of this length discussing a topic of this type, especially in today’s 24/7, 280-character, InstaPot news cycle.

I read it at least twice from top to bottom and thought it probably could lose about 20% without missing much. McNeil gets repetitive in his statements, particularly in his efforts to explain how and why a sexagenarian found himself using the most disgusting racial pejorative in front of a group of high school students. It also gets a little too far into some “inside baseball” in regard to the NYT, its guild, personal conflicts and more.

Here are a few other takeaways:

IS WE LEARNING YET?: It can’t be said loudly enough, often enough, in enough venues and in enough situations, but we’ll try this once again for the white guys who might not have heard this the first 843,534,233,901 times someone has said this…


I can’t state this with absolute certainty, but if I had to place a bet on this, I’d wager that if McNeil had done all the other things he copped to but NOT said that word, he’d probably still be working at the Times.

According to the essay, which is the only source for this particular aspect of the situation, a student on the trip used that word in a question to McNeil regarding some social media video that had landed some other kid in trouble. McNeil then repeated the term in asking for context about its usage for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

The degree to which this situation is right, fair or anything else, is completely up for debate among people much smarter and better than me. That said, once that word entered the picture, it was like so many other “third-rail topics” we’ve discussed here over the years.

McNeil noted in his writing that he didn’t see himself as a racist and that he’d been to more than 60 countries in his decades-long career at the Times. I’m sure both of those things are true, in that he doesn’t see himself that way and that he isn’t an uneducated, xenophobic rube who views anyone not born within six miles of their family homestead with suspicion.

What’s also true is that he damned well should have known better than to use that word.

THE NYT IS FULL OF COWARDLY WEASELS: I’ve read several “exposes” on the Times before, including “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin, which looks at the Jayson Blair scandal and the paper’s horrible history on the issue of race. The paper often takes a beating for some pretty good reasons in regard to not being as representative, forward-thinking or enlightened when it comes to this issue and several others of similar importance.

That said, it’s still the New York FRICKIN’ Times. It’s the big boy on the block, the 800-pound gorilla in the room and the standard bearer for the concept of free press and its value to our society. It wins Pulitzer Prizes by the boatload for the sheer dint of being the Times and for having the tenacity of a dog with a Frisbee when it comes to important journalistic endeavors. Its name is on some of the most important Supreme Court cases of our time and it is the go-to for people who still believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Yet, when a tripe-filled Dumpster fire like The Daily Beast decides to report a story two years after the event itself, utilizing the reportorial skill set of the former editor of the National Enquirer to do so, this bastion of First Amendment prowess decides to run around looking for a bed to hide under?

Gimme a break.

Gimme another one if the story that McNeil told about the run up to his ouster from the paper is in any way close to accurate. In outlining his meeting with the administrative big-wigs, McNeil states that the paper wasn’t going to fire him, but they encouraged him to “think about” resigning over this.

McNeil’s answer was right on the money: If I resign, I’m basically copping to all of this and agreeing that I am the a–hole this story says I am. (McNeil liberally refers to himself as an a–hole throughout his pieces, so I don’t think he’d mind me stealing from his act here.)

As quoted in the McNeil essays, executive editor Dean Baquet told McNeil he had “lost the newsroom” and that people wouldn’t work with him because of this situation. What followed was essentially the NYT brass saying, “Will you pleeeeeease think about MAYBE just resigning? Please?”

Look, if you really think this guy should no longer work for your paper because he did something so horrible that nobody will work with him, grab yourself some guts and fire this guy. Just step out and say, “I don’t care what the situation, circumstance or context is. If you say that word or commit offenses like these, you will not work here. That’s the long and short of it.” Don’t ask the guy to throw himself in front of a bus because you’re too scared to make a move.

If you DON’T think this is a fireable offense, and you think the newsroom is really about to break out the pitchforks and torches, have the guts to stand up and say, “I don’t like what he said or did, but I’m not going to let two twerps from a glorified blog push around an institution as venerable and storied as ours. Neither should you. If you really have a problem with this guy or this situation, stand up, tell him and hash it out. If you can’t do that, go LiveJournal it out of your head or send some ‘unnamed source’ comments to one of your friends at another publication, but that’s going to be the end of it. I’m standing up for the paper and I’d stand up for any one of you who suddenly saw your entire career flash before your eyes, so let’s get back to work.”

If your paper can take on the Nixon White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, it can weather this storm.

AWARE, NOT TERRIFIED, SHOULD BE THE PREFERRED STATE OF BEING: Stop for a moment and realize that every second you are alive could be your last one. Any one of a million or more things could kill you, both from the inside (cancer, heart disease, brain aneurysm) or the outside (car accident, fire). You are not guaranteed anything, nor will you likely know the moment at which you will cease to exist.

If you want to come to grips with that information, you can go one of two ways: Awareness or terror.

If you choose awareness, you can make smarter decisions about how you live life. You can quit smoking, eat better and work out with the hopes of driving down the risks associated with those potential internal killers. You can employ safety measures like buckling up each time you ride in a car, avoiding texting and driving and apply maintenance to your car that will make it safer to drive. Again, there are no guarantees, but it puts you in a better position to extend your life than NOT doing these things.

If you choose terror, you’re going to see potential death around every corner. You’ll obsess about every twitch in your body as the early warning sign of something that WebMD will confirm as cancer. You’ll lock yourself in a house like Miss Havisham and coat yourself in bubble wrap to avoid potentially fatal incidents. In short, you’ll basically stop living your life in hopes of prolonging it.

I thought a lot about this in reading the pieces McNeil wrote because I honestly worry that people are going to see what happened here and drop into terror mode when it comes to the complex issues that really need to be addressed in our society. If we are constantly afraid that anything we do could come back and bite us in the keester, we’re never going to go outside of our comfort zones. We’re going to cower in a corner and worry that every offense is a death penalty offense, so let’s just not go there.

Being aware of the needs of others, the pain people can cause each other and the perspectives of others means that we’re going to behave in a way that tries to create improvements in society. Being terrified that we’re going to get whacked in an instant, no matter how many positive marks we have on our side of the ledger, is going to lead to a lot more people who know a lot less about a lot of other people.

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR CHOOSING YOUR HILL: I don’t know how any of you feel about this situation or anything I’ve written about it. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to feel about a lot of it.

What I do know is that McNeil has a lot more courage than I do.

He could have done what was asked of him. He could have said how he was sorry and that he’s going to attend some training or something and that he never should have thought about that word or those things or anything and just promised that he’d do the right thing, whatever that was, the next time he faced this situation, the Good Lord willing.

Instead, he said, “This is my hill. Win or lose, I’m willing to die here.”

Say what you want to about the choice, but there is something to be said for having the courage to decide that this is where you want to make your stand.

So many of us are willing to acquiesce to whatever others want because we are fearful of what will happen if we rock the boat. We sell out at the first sign of danger. To quote George Carlin’s line about getting mugged, we essentially say, “Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone!”

McNeil went the other way and it cost him everything he’d spent decades building in a career he’d had since the term “copy boy” was an actual thing.

There’s something to be said for that, regardless of if you think he made the right choice.

The Junk Drawer: A Whole Lotta Awkward Edition

It just dawned on me that there are about six rolls of Scotch Tape in here…

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:

OLIVIA MUNN, ASSAULT SUSPECT? We talk about misplaced modifiers all the time here on the site, ranging from the underwear thief who was apparently threatening underpants to politicians who “plan to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the Capitol.”  Here’s one that caught me at first and I really didn’t know which way was up:

The way this reads, it sounds like Olivia Munn jumped in and helped with a beat down, something we could totally understand, given her “Newsroom” character Sloan Sabbith’s bad-ass nature:

The truth is, Munn helped identify the guy who did the attacking, as this other media outlet’s story clearly shows.

If I were the folks at Now This, I’d fix this before she makes it to the rage phase.

Speaking of misconstruing things….

HAL HOLBROOK, PORN STAR?: The legendary actor Hal Holbrook died on Feb. 2 at the age of 95. He was well known for multiple roles he did, especially his portrayal of Mark Twain in his one-man show that ran for decades.

In looking at one publication’s announcement of his death, I had to do a double-take, though, wondering if he’d actually had a side hustle in the adult-film industry:

The reference here to him as a “Deep Throat actor” had me gagging (sorry, had to…) because of what it was saying: He was an actor in the film “Deep Throat.” (For those of you who don’t know, “Deep Throat” was a hardcore porn film, starring Linda Lovelace that became the most successful adult film in history. Research this on your own, as I’m not even THINKING about adding a link here… )

What ACTUALLY happened was that Holbrook was an actor in “All The President’s Men,” where he PLAYED the unnamed source that kept feeding Woodward and Bernstein information about the Watergate scandal. The source, who eventually was revealed to be W. Mark Felt of the FBI, was given the “code name” of “Deep Throat.”

Thus, there’s a big difference between an actor PORTRAYING Deep Throat and an actor PARTICIPATING in Deep Throat.

Speaking of things going wrong…

IF YOU THINK ZOOMBOMBING IS BAD: Students often have “Joe Jobs” that pay the rent (and the bar tab) at a variety of bars, restaurants, stores and more, thus giving them a keen eye for thing that are happening that the rest of us might miss. These moments of “REALLY?!?!” can lead to some great stories.

Case in point: We were talking about this kind of thing in my reporting class, when a student mentioned he worked at Walmart. I asked him if he noticed any trends in terms of people shopping differently, certain items going out of stock more recently or any other such thing. He replied, “No, but we’ve been having some situations with the TVs, now that people have figured out they’re all Bluetooth compatible.”

Turns out, people walking past the TVs notice that their mobile devices want to sync with the big screens, a great feature if you’re at home and you want to show your friends a phone video you shot of your class project or something.  When you’re at Walmart? With a wall full of screens that you can control and nobody can figure out who is doing it?

(If you don’t see where this is going yet, you might want to skip J-School and get going on that successful career in the “naturally oblivious” industry…)

“We’ve been seeing a lot of-” (I stopped him here and begged him to remember I was recording this for the online kids and that I really liked my job) “- ADULT WEBSITES on those screens,” he said.

Walmart has been trying to figure out how to deal with this (and the displeasure of parents who now have a lot of explaining to do to their  grade-schoolers) all to no avail. Could be worth a couple calls.

And, finally, speaking of dogged reporting…

AN UPDATE ON PAT SIMMS: Last week, I posted a piece about one of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, Pat Simms, and her bout with cancer. Folks with a much longer history with Pat also shared their thoughts and stories about her, with a lot of them focusing on her toughness. (“My favorite Pat technique was ‘umbrage,'” a long-time colleague of hers told me. “She could, with a look, tell a politician that no, I don’t believe that for a minute.”)

Pat’s daughter, Sara, has set up a Caringbridge account for people who want updates on her situation or to share supportive and kind messages with her.

I made a point of emailing Sara the link to the piece I wrote, so she could share it with Pat. Sara told me she enjoyed it and that she mentioned it to her mom. The reaction was classic Pat:

I told her about it and she said it was so nice but ‘ I’m not dead yet ‘



Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

If you bet the one-month line and took the under for “When would my department get its first confirmed case of plagiarism,” please feel free to collect your winnings at the nearest cashier’s window. A student who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with searchlight and a posse apparently turned into Ernest Hemingway in a discussion post for one of my colleague’s classes.

It was so obvious, even other students noticed this and were contacting the prof about it. The even dumber thing was that this discussion was worth TWO POINTS toward the final class grade. So, essentially, the kid put his grade, his class standing and his future at the university in jeopardy over 1/50th of a course outcome.

What was he thinking? Clearly not much.

To keep your students from making the same mistakes as this kid, here’s a look back at a classic post on why cheating in journalism is stupid:

4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right.

And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.

Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester. It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.

It’s also the same when the students are confronted. They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)

Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course:

  1. You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
    Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
    Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
    The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
    We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
  2. You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
    We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
    The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job? Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.
  3. Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
    I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees. Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper. I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back: 


    Small world!

    We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.

    Hope you are doing well.

    I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that. This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.

  4. You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
    Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
    The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
    Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
    I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.

Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.

Student Press Law Center’s Interviews With Top Student Newspaper Editors at HBCUs

As part of its coverage of both Student Press Freedom Day and Black History Month, the Student Press Law Center has interviewed the top editors of student newspapers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The first interview, conducted with Oyin Adedoyin, editor-in-chief of the Spokesman at Morgan State University, talks about how the paper has provided audience-centric content to readers with a strong interest in publications that cover Black news.

For the full interview, click here. Subsequent pieces are upcoming throughout the month.

Reporter/source dating, on-the-record/off-the-record and Filak’s First Rule of Holes: A look at “The Biden White House’s First Media Scandal”


If there’s one group of people I have complete and total sympathy for, it is single people who would like to find a meaningful relationship with another human being in today’s world.

Between the digital media pitfalls that exist around every corner (social media stalkers, potential dates finding the stupid tweets you put out seven years ago, the sharing of “personal photos” that get airdropped to the entire world) and the insane life schedules (work, family, health), I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to connect with a new person in hopes of building a life right now.

And that’s not even counting the pandemic. Exactly how do you end a “socially distanced” date? (I can imagine the conversations with friends afterward: “So when he elbow-bumped you, was it like a REAL elbow-bump or was it like he just kind of felt awkward when you went in for the bump and just reciprocated?”)

(Side note: Amy and I have a mutually agreed upon pre-nup that says if one of us forces the other one back onto the dating market for any reason other than death, we give up our rights to any marital property. Plus, I would get to burn her knitting stash or she would get to set fire to my baseball cards, just to be mean. THAT’S how scary the dating pool seems to us…)

So, even though we’ve talked about the concept of source-reporter relationships here as something to avoid when possible, I get why it’s hard for two people like (now former) White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo and political journalist Alexi McCammond to give up the connection due to work entanglements. She had been covering the Biden campaign and he had been promoting it, so once romance entered the picture, things had to change.

According to a profile on the pair in People magazine, they both decided to play by the ethical rules of the field:

“We both realized we both felt the same way,” Ducklo, who joined the Biden White House as a deputy press secretary, tells PEOPLE. “We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”

That meant telling their bosses. An Axios spokeswoman says McCammond, who joined the site in 2017, told her editors about the relationship in November “and asked to be taken off of the Biden beat.” She was reassigned to covering progressive lawmakers in Congress and progressives across the U.S. as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, the spokeswoman says.

“We stand behind her and her coverage,” the spokeswoman says of McCammond, describing her as “a valued member of the Axios team.”

For her part, McCammond says, “When my personal life had the potential to interfere with my work, I didn’t think twice about sharing my happiness in November with Axios that I’d found someone in TJ who shows up for me in a way I’d only hoped for.”

While the People profile was apparently fair game, Ducklo appeared to have a problem with Politico writing about the relationship, according to a Vanity Fair article:

The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after (Politico reporter Tara) Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.

The article goes on to say that Ducklo made derogatory and sexist comments in an “off-the-record” conversation with Palmeri, noting that she had been jealous of his relationship with McCammond. He also used language I’m not allowed to use here, but let’s just say Ducklo said he believed that McCammond was of a greater sexual interest to at least one other man than Palmeri was.

The White House, which initially complained that Palmeri broke the “off-the-record” agreement with Ducklo, announced last week that Ducklo has been suspended for one week for his comments and Ducklo has issued a formal apology to Palmeri and her media outlet.

Over the weekend, Ducklo resigned from his position and issued a formal apology for his actions.

This situation didn’t have to get to this point, so let’s go through a couple points that might help you if you land in a similar romantic entanglement:

DO THE RIGHT THING: The one thing that I can’t stress enough is that initially Ducklo and McCammond DID do the right thing when they became an item. They went to their bosses, talked it out and got everyone on the same page.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, and I can speak from experience. In two of my journalistic stops, I was romantically engaged with a person who was working on the opposite side of the fence: Once it was a city council rep when I was at the State Journal and once it was a police dispatcher when I was the crime editor in Missouri. In both cases, I came clean, but in the former, I didn’t really say anything until we were engaged. (Not exactly bright, but I also wasn’t DIRECTLY on that beat… And yes, that sound you hear is a hair splitting…) In the other case, she got the job after I already had mine, so it was a “ground-level” discussion and everything panned out fine.

As much as this is an awkward situation, it’s like removing a Band-Aid: Grab a corner and yank. You’ll be much better off.


CHIVALRY MIGHT BE DEAD, BUT STUPIDITY LIVES ON: The idea of defending a fair maiden from the evil trolls who might do her harm is a swoon-worthy concept in fairy tales. Calling up a reporter and threatening her for reporting on your relationship is dumber than garlic-flavored toothpaste.

Something tells me that McCammond can more than hold her own against pretty much anything anyone tosses at her. She’s a veteran reporter of MSNBC and Axios, so she’s used to political hatchet jobs (which assumes this Politico piece would be one, which isn’t fair to Politico at this point). She’s also probably dealt with a ton of sexism, racism and misogyny as a woman of color who works for national media outlets, so she’s not going to wilt like a magnolia in a rainstorm if someone starts saying mean things about her and her boyfriend in public.

The not-so-smooth moves started when Ducklo called Palmeri’s editor first, in a conversation that just screams, “Hey, bro, get that little lady to back up off me a bit, ‘kay?” When the editor did the right journalism thing, and told Ducklo to call the people working on the story, Ducklo swung and missed again. He didn’t return the call of the MALE co-author who was working on the story, but rather decided to go after the FEMALE co-author with his puffer-fish routine. I can’t imagine exactly why Ducklo thought this was a necessary move or a good idea, but it was clear that he wasn’t thinking a whole heck of a lot.

Having said all this, I have no difficulty imagining how Amy would react if she found out in a very public way that I called up her supervising nurse and told the woman to back off of my beloved or I’ll go all “Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV'” on your ass.

My imagination leads me to sleeping in the milk house for a week, protecting my sports stuff from a fire.


THERE ARE LIMITS TO OFF-THE-RECORD CONVERSATIONS: When I think of how on-the-record/off-the-record conversations work, journalists and sources tend think of  as being like a safety measure for both people involved.

I tend to see them this way:


In other words, the concept of off-the-record can protect some vital areas, but it’s a vest, not the Iron Man suit. If a source tells you, off-the-record, that they plan to murder a school bus full of children after this interview, you should strongly consider calling the cops. I don’t think there will be any serious journalists writing op-eds on your lack of ethical standards.

Journalists and sources should ALWAYS work out exactly what on-the-record and off-the-record mean before going off of the record. This is where you decide what can be used and how that source should be referred to, among other things. It’s for both of your benefits.

An experienced press aide like Ducklo should know that. He should also know that threatening a reporter’s career and reputation would clearly fall outside of the bounds of what she’d dutifully keep to herself, for fear of revealing a double-super-secret conversation she had a source. He crossed a line and that was going to become public and painful.

Which leads us nicely into the final point…


FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: As we’ve explained numerous times on the blog, Filak’s First Rule of Holes is simple: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

Ducklo and McCammond knew from the jump that this kind of relationship was going to garner attention, which is why they played by the rules and made the right moves immediately. They even participated in the media circus part of it, granting a heck of a lot of access to People for that profile.

(Say what you want about the quality of journalism in People or Politico or whatever, but if you want people to respect your privacy, the best way to do that is NOT to be featured in a publication with a circulation of nearly 100 million.)

Even if it wasn’t an “open secret” as Politico mentioned in its Playbook coverage, it was now out there and people were going to figure it out. The best thing to do was to realize you’re standing in a little hole, of your own making, and decide to let the chips fall where they may. This is the kind of story that goes away in a half a news cycle and involves, no personal offense to either of them,  relatively B-list folks in the entirety of the political machine.

Instead, every step Ducklo made came with the sound of a shovel hitting the dirt, digging deeper and deeper. It intensified the scrutiny on the relationship when he went after Palmeri. It extended the news cycle when the word got out about the threats and his assessment of her as a woman and a journalist. It forced the issue to become a talking point for everyone out there from journalistic groups of great importance to twerps like me who run a blog.

(It also basically wrote the headline for half the people out there. How do you not hear the headline in “I will destroy you” when you’re saying it? Also, what’s that rules about not picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?)

In the end, this, too, will pass, but if you want to make sure it passes more quickly if you end up in this spot, just remember that rule about holes.