Throwback Thursday: Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

A friend who advises the student newspaper notified a few of us that a large chunk of the paper’s press run had been stolen from around the campus. In digging into it a bit, the staff of the Commonwealth Times at VCU discovered student government folks had likely done the deed in retaliation for some less-than-favorable coverage:

Members of the Student Government Association cleared out copies of The Commonwealth Times from kiosks on Monroe Park Campus, according to multiple confirmations from students and employees, following an article published Wednesday that detailed conflict and allegations of harassment within the organization.

Witnesses said they saw SGA leaders taking the newspapers from a kiosk within the University Student Commons, another outside of Cabell Library, one next to the Trani Life Sciences Building and another outside Hibbs Hall. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation from their employers.

In honor of yet another fundamental misunderstanding of reality, today’s Throwback Thursday post reexplains why stealing student newspapers as a form of censorship is a really stupid idea.

Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

The University Press at Florida Atlantic University led this week’s issue with a blockbuster of a story: The quarterback of the football team had been accused of sexual battery and the university appeared to have botched the investigation. The piece is a detailed and winding narrative that includes an interview with the person accusing Chris Robison, a deep dive into federal law and some incredible storytelling from top to bottom.

Apparently, someone (or multiple someones) didn’t think people should see this, as the staff soon noticed its newspaper bins were empty and piles of the paper had been dumped in the trash. The paper, in kind of tongue-in-cheek move, wrote a thank-you note to the thief or thieves, noting that the move had drawn more attention to the situation than anything the paper itself could have done.

The UP’s editorial noted that this wasn’t the first case of censorship via theft of the paper. It lists about a half-dozen instances in which someone thought the UP wasn’t being positive enough in its coverage and decided to dump the print edition in the trash. This also isn’t the only case of censorship by theft of college or high school newspapers out there. The Student Press Law Center keeps track of these kinds of things and lists dozens of them on its website.

(As an adviser back at Ball State, I saw this kind of thing up close, when we ran a story about the women’s soccer player getting arrested, only to find out that about one-third of our print run had gone missing. Although no one was ever caught, people who saw the folks taking the papers told us they were women, dressed in black Ball State athletic department gear.)

Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle and long-time Student Press Law Center leader, explains in the UP’s editorial that this kind of thing is illegal. LoMonte gave an example of how something can be entirely free (soup at a homeless shelter’s soup kitchen) but its inappropriate use (you pouring it down the sewer) can lead to legal concerns.

Most publications list something in the masthead of the paper, noting that the first copy is free, but additional copies are a quarter or 50 cents. This establishes a value for them in case of just such an incident. In most cases, if you grab a half dozen of them because you wrote an article and want to send one home so grandma can put it up on the fridge, the paper isn’t coming after you. However, when you take them all to deprive others of their right to see the content (including advertising, which financially drives most papers), that’s where the publication gets edgy about this.

In other words, it is possible to steal something that’s free.

Even if it weren’t, censorship by theft is a patently stupid idea for three key reasons:

  • The internet still exists: Taking all the print copies of a paper and destroying them to prevent people from seeing the content makes as much sense as covering your eyes so that other people can’t see you. It doesn’t work.
    The print product, as those of us in student media have been told repeatedly, isn’t where most of our readers live. They live online, so they will see the story much in the same way you did: Someone posts/shares it on a site you read or via social media. You click the link and there it is.
    Unless these censors have a way of hacking your website and taking down the story there, all they have done is overload the trash bins at the university.
  • Censorship draws attention: When someone destroys content is to prevent people from seeing it, all they have really done is make people want to see it more. Truth be told, I never would have seen this story had someone not tried to censor it. Once the person or people destroyed the papers, the UP called them out, the message went viral (at least in my circles) and I suddenly became more interested in what was going on.
    Like anything else we try to keep people from seeing, the harder we try to prevent access, the more people want it. Think about every argument pertaining to limiting access to pornography and you get the right idea here: If someone doesn’t want me to see it, it must be AMAZING!!!
    Now, instead of only a few people on campus finding out about this, and maybe a few folks in disparate patches of readership across the country, TONS of people are finding out who Chris Robison is, what he was accused of and what FAU did in response. The result was akin to trying to extinguish a fire with a bucket of gasoline.
  • Never pick a fight with people who buy data by the terabyte: It’s a bit of poetic license on the old line about challenging the press: Never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. Still, the point holds water. Journalists are much better at putting out content than most people are at censoring it.
    When we had the situation at Ball State, rather than cower in a corner and worry that we had offended people, we actually reran the entire edition of the paper as an insert to the next day’s edition. In the main paper, we wrote an editorial to the people who tried to censor us: “Nice Try. We’re Still Here.” We then promised that if THIS edition went missing, we’d run BOTH papers as inserts the next day and continue until either they stopped or we went bankrupt. The thefts did not reoccur.
    The point is, journalists are essentially stubborn, principled and generally unrelenting. We’re like a dog with Frisbee: We don’t let go. When you decide to come after us, we tend to decide that this is the hill we’re going to die on. Even more, we have connections to other journalists who have chewed the same dirt we have at student media. These people might be “grown ups” now, but they remember what it was like to be picked on and abused back in the day. They, too, have the pitbull personality and are going to stand with these folks. In a game of, “You bring your friends and I’ll bring mine and we’ll see who wins,” journalists are always going to win in this situation.

 

 

‘Your work is important for the community.’ Simpsonian editor discusses the paper’s coverage of a faculty member accused of murder and kidnapping

Student newspapers often find themselves having to cover difficult topics on campus, ranging from athletes breaking rules to administrators misbehaving. The Simpsonian staff at Simpson College in Iowa, however, found itself chasing a story unlike any other I’ve seen in decades of student media work:  A faculty member, assistant professor of economics Gowun Park, was arrested on suspicion of murder and kidnapping:

According to court documents, Park admitted to binding her husband to a chair with a rope, and his hands and feet with zip ties earlier that day.

Police say she duct taped a towel over his eyes and stuffed clothing in Nam’s mouth to prevent him from yelling.

Park did not release Nam from his chair, even though he requested to be untied, according to police.

“Nam was confined to a room and bound to a chair, unable to freely move about and free himself, ultimately leading to his death,” court documents said.

Editor in chief Gunnar Davis, a senior at Simpson College, majoring in multimedia  communications with a minor in sports communication, was responsible for writing the story. He played football all four years and was a starting offensive lineman for the Storm while also engaging in his passion for sports writing. After a term as a sports editor during his junior year, he received an offer to run the paper as the editor in chief this year.

Davis said in an email interview that advisers Brian Steffen and Mark Siebert tipped him off that something strange was happening on campus.

“Professor Steffen actually keyed me in about cops being in the basement of McNeill Hall, the same place as Gowun Park’s office,” Davis said. “He told me to keep an eye on the West Des Moines police department’s Facebook page early in the afternoon. Not long after, the page posted the mugshot of our professor with her criminal accusations. From there, he kind of let me do my own thing until more news updates broke.”

Although multiple state outlets were on the story, Davis said he was able to add more depth and value to The Simpsonian’s coverage because he was on the ground in Indianola.

“Because I knew who she was, we were the one who broke the news that she was a professor at Simpson College,” he said. “Because I was on the campus and they weren’t, I had the advantage of finding out things about her work at Simpson, the administration’s response and what type of things related to her arrest were going on here.

“We broke the news about her employment here. We broke the news that cops were on the campus, searching through her office. We broke the news of our interim president’s blanket statement. We broke the news of her staff profile page being taken down on Simpson’s website. These are all things that took time and sources.”

During his reporting, Davis said he found that the campus community of about 1,300 people was in shock over the arrest and that multiple found it too difficult to discuss.

“I never met Ms. Park, so it was still a bit distant to me,” he said. “When I went and talked to faculty members and students that knew her, they were so stunned. Many of them did not want to talk to me. They would tell me things off record, and then tell me not to use it. I had a friend who was her advisee who had to leave campus for a couple days because he was so upset about it.”

“I used to be really nervous and worry a lot about what others thought of me and my work,” he added. “It’s your job to do outstanding reporting, regardless of what others think. News is news, and sometimes it can be upsetting to others. The only time I am hurt about comments about me and my work is if I don’t get the facts straight.”

Davis said the paper plans to cover Park’s first court appearance on Friday and to also keep up with the story as it continues to develop. Although the situation forced him to do things he had never done before, Davis said he and his staff were motivated by the larger needs of the community.

“When I went home and finally sat down and took the whole situation in, I kind of realized how crazy everything I did was in that day,” he said. “Talking with multiple people who didn’t want to talk to me about an incident so extreme is something that most people wouldn’t want to do — myself included. But, being confident in knowing who you are and what your work is for is important. Your work is important for the community. It matters. Be confident.”

 

Knowing when to break the rules: A great example of chronological storytelling in journalism

Journalism has a number of rules that get drilled into you when you start in the field. A crucial one is that you don’t want to lapse into chronology in your storytelling. If you find yourself telling a story as an event unfolded, you’re hiding important aspects of the story deeper in the piece and not telling the story in a descending order of importance.

As with most rules in journalism, this one can and should be broken when the story demands it, as was the case with Dave McMenamin’s piece on how the Los Angeles Lakers learned of Kobe Bryant’s death. McMenamin tells the story in a temporal fashion, starting with the players getting on the plane on the east coast and then working through the flight.

THE WEARY GROUP trudged across the tarmac and onto the team plane at Philadelphia International Airport.

Awaiting the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of their 10-day, five-game road trip was a cross-country trek back to L.A., with an 11 a.m. ET departure time allowing for a 2:05 p.m. PT scheduled arrival time. This meant their Sunday was supposed to be salvaged by some semblance of an off day in Southern California, after touring through Houston, Boston, New York and Philly amid the chill that comes with late January in the Northeast.

The traveling party filed in — broadcasters, media relations and team support staff in the back; coaching staff, training staff and players in separate sections going from tail to cockpit. It was one of those flights where those in window seats pulled the shades down as soon as they sat down, looking to doze off before the plane even took off.

In telling the story this way, McMenamin doesn’t deprive the readers of important content: The story of Bryant’s death was already weeks old when this story ran. In addition, he uses a heavy amount of description without saturating the reader with overwrought emotional language.

The temporal nature of the flight serves as the thread of the story as McMenamin shows the reader what happened, how the information diffused through the plane from passenger to passenger. He also explains the emotional state of feeling hurt and yet helpless.  The piece gives the readers both the sense of connection the players felt with each other in the moment as well as the isolation they felt from the rest of the world, trapped on a plane thousands of feet in the air.

Beyond the story arc itself, McMenamin does a fantastic job of reporting in this, gathering everything from the details of the game film the coach was breaking down to the size of Dwight Howard, who fled to a tiny bathroom to weep privately. His reporting also required him to be tactful in drawing out details about an extremely difficult moment in these players’ lives.

It’s a great, tough story that showcases the talent and skill of a writer who knew which path to take and what information to get. It’s a keeper, for sure.

The “Do You Believe In Miracles?” AP Style Quiz

Forty years ago today, the United States Hockey team won the gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics, defeating Finland 4-2 in a game that almost no one remembers. That’s because two days earlier, the U.S. beat the Soviet Union, in an upset that became known as “the Miracle on Ice.”

Herb Brooks, who coached the University of Minnesota hockey team to three NCAA championships, built a team of 20 skaters from the college and minor-league ranks to compete against the best the world could provide. The Soviet Union built its team of professionals, men trained to play the game since boyhood and then placed on the Red Army team, where they honed those skills throughout the year.

The Soviets were in line to win their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in 1980, having not only destroyed whatever amateur competition the world could provide, but having crushed the NHL in a series of exhibition contests over the years. (The glorious exception being the 1972 Summit Series and a 1976 beating the Philadelphia Flyers put on them.) They cruised into the medal round, expecting to win easily.

The U.S. eked its way into the medal round, having tied Sweden in the opening game of the tournament and then defeating Norway, West Germany, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The semi-final game against the Russians took place on Friday at 5 p.m., despite U.S. attempts to get the game moved to prime time for TV.

Despite being out-shot 39-16 and never leading throughout the first 50 minutes of the game, the U.S. ended up taking a lead with exactly 10 minutes to play in the third period. Mike Eruzione’s shot on Vladimir Myshkin found the back of the net and the U.S. had a 4-3 advantage. Despite pelting goalie Jim Craig with a barrage of shots over the next 10 minutes, the Russians couldn’t solve him.

In honor of this monumental event, which I could spend a few hundred thousand words yammering on and on about, I put together this AP style quiz based on the Miracle on Ice team and its Olympic run.

Click here to try it out. You don’t need an account to play, but if you have one, it will track your score for an overall ranking. Challenge your professor to play and post a screen shot of your victory to claim bragging rights.

Click here to start the quiz.

Former WSU student newspaper editor earns Polk Award for political writing two years out of school

Two years ago, Chance Swaim was fighting for the future of his student newspaper at Wichita State University. This week, he was honored for his fight against corruption as a journalist with the Wichita Eagle:

Three Wichita Eagle staff members won one of the nation’s top journalism awards for work that included investigations into how former Mayor Jeff Longwell steered a lucrative city contract to friends and supporters.

The George Polk Award for political reporting was shared by Chance Swaim, Jonathan Shorman and Dion Lefler of The Eagle and Luke Broadwater of The Baltimore Sun, it was announced Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The reporters were cited “for turning journalistic intuition into deep dives into public records that revealed municipal misconduct,” according to a news release.

I remember interviewing Swaim after the student government at WSU slashed the paper’s budget, something he noted would lead to “an inelegant death for a 123-year-old student-run newspaper.” In talking with him and emailing with him, I never got the sense he was panicked. Instead, he seemed to have both a sense of the situation and a sense that his staff would somehow find a way to make this work.

At the core of the fight over The Sunflower’s funding was a fundamental failure of the student government to a) understand the importance of a good student newspaper and b) a failure to abide by open-meeting rules and legal procedures to conduct its business. Swaim and his staff consistently pushed on those issues throughout the battle against these cuts, making the case that it wasn’t all about his folks, but about the needs of the campus community.

The Sunflower eventually won, avoiding the funding cut that year and receiving full funding the next. Swaim graduated and took a job at the Eagle, where he continued his efforts to dig into things that mattered and feed his need to be nosy for his readers.

Congratulations to Swaim and his colleagues for this prestigious honor on an important story.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory: Why the public vs. private tweeting debate for journalists doesn’t matter

Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute asked the question that journalists have wrestled with since their profession became the social purview of the world at large:

One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.

Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?

This issue became an issue again when the Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweeting about the 2003 rape allegation against Kobe Bryant within minutes of Bryant’s death breaking as news. The paper eventually determined that Sonmez didn’t break any of its rules with her tweet, even though editor Marty Baron disseminated a memo that urged caution and restraint for Post staff in the future.

As Jones pointed out in his piece, this isn’t a new thing for media folks. Veteran sports journalist Jemele Hill found herself in the middle of a social-media controversy back in 2017when she called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and got tagged with a two-week suspension from ESPN. She left the network in 2018 and joined The Atlantic, noting it was a place “where discomfort is OK.” Back in 2013, PR practitioner Justine Sacco found that a single tweet could destroy a person’s life in less than a day. Even after more than a year, Sacco was unable to live down her tweet. It took several more years for her to eventually recover from that single moment.

(This isn’t even just a “media professional thing” in terms of social media leading to concerns in other parts of life. Ask Roseanne Barr, umpire Rob Drakecomedian Gilbert Gottfried, Elon Musk or any one of a dozen other folks about how social media posts led to ramifications in other parts of their lives.)

Journalists traditionally believe in several key tenets that make life difficult when it comes to this idea of public vs. private person in social media communication:

  • They value openness, which means they don’t want to be silent on a topic that matters to them, hide information or allow themselves to be censored.
  • They value the sharing of information with interested audience members.
  • They believe in being involved in stuff, so when something is happening, they feel the need to chime in.
  • They like to produce content, and in most “traditional media” formats, they don’t get (or have to listen to) audience feedback.

Take all of this together and you’ll realize that it’s not all that hard to see why journalists end up on social media a great deal and why it is they have trouble with their employers after a tweet goes bad.

The rules that dictate what they can or can’t they do versus what should or shouldn’t they do is kind of a random mishmash of media company norms, HR memos and a desire to stop audiences from freaking out. Jones notes:

Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.

Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?

Sort of, but not really.

Here is why Baron’s memo, Jones’ reaction and social media policies in general fall short in splitting the baby between allowing journalists to interact with the audience and a desire to prevent chaos and dystopia from reigning supreme in the Twitterverse:

You Can’t Entirely Know Your Audience: Great reporters used to know their audiences like the backs of their hands. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and their ilk prided themselves in knowing “their readers” and being great at delivering things to them that mattered. Folks like that existed in many publications, I’m sure. (George Hesselberg and Pat “Snoop” Simms, both formerly of the Wisconsin State Journal,  are two folks I got to know who had that finger on the pulse of the readers as they wrote their stories and columns.)

Many reporters, however, relied less on the audience needs and more on the news values or interest elements associated with journalism education to drive their approach to content. Even more, the idea that we would stoop to going through “market research” to figure out how we should cover certain things or what we should cover was an affront to some folks that saw this as an impingement on their freedom of the press.

Today, we have more data than ever to help us figure out  where our clicks come from. (The Dynamics of Writing would like to give a shout out to whatever the heck “Han dot nl” is, as for some reason, it’s driving a ton of traffic to the site from the Netherlands.) We know which posts draw the most clicks, the most likes and the most shares.

That said, we still don’t know our actual audience and here’s why: Once the content is out of our hands, we have no say over what happens to it. What we think is OK for “our audience” doesn’t matter in some cases, because other readers out there can still access it and will still freak out over it.

Case in point: I generally curse in every day life, knowing that most of the people around me are used to it. When I started this blog, I was asked by SAGE to eliminate “unnecessary curse words,” as some of the people who buy the book and read the blog go to far more conservative universities, religious colleges and places that generally have more couth than I do. I tamped that down (as best I could) and stuck with only “necessary cursing” to meet the needs of my audience.

That said, I have no idea at all why people in the Netherlands are consistently reading this blog. For all I know, I might end up having the gendarmes after me (or pikemen or whatever…) for violating some sort of social concerns I don’t know about. I’m glad these readers are here, don’t get me wrong, but I never started this blog with the idea of rocking the Dutch market. They aren’t my intended audience, but it’s not like I can do much to stop them from showing up or seeing stuff.

The larger point is this: If you send something out that you believe to be relatively appropriate to people you think are going to be reading it, you have no way of preventing it from going to a completely different group of people and having everything go to hell in a speedboat.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory of Private vs. Public: Journalists like to argue that their social media feeds are their individual, private personas as opposed to a public representation of their work as media practitioners.

In a vacuum, I get that, as there should be a separation between job-related life and life-related life for all of us. It gets a little dicier when you consider that in both their job and their social media lives, reporters are essentially doing similar things (sharing content) in similar ways (social media, typing stuff etc.). Still, we don’t give up all of our rights to be regular people just because we cover the news.

The bigger problem is that human beings don’t operate in a vacuum of life and we can’t always build an unbreakable firewall in our brains like this. We can’t “unsee” things or discount them based on the spheres in which they happen. This leads me to the theory outlined above.

Let’s say you’re driving down a fairly empty stretch of interstate late Saturday night and you blow a tire. You pull over to the only business with a well-lit parking lot: A giant “adult book store” or porn palace or whatever you want to call it. As you’re sitting there, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix your car, you see the principal of your old high school exiting the building. He’s carrying a giant duffel bag full of pornographic DVDs and an inflatable “partner” doll dressed like a Catholic school girl. He doesn’t see you, he gets in his car and he drives away.

Theoretically, you should be able to compartmentalize this: He’s a private citizen, during his off hours, doing nothing illegal, so what’s the big deal? You should put this away as one more interaction with him and ignore it as it relates to his work with the school and your interactions with him when you were in school.

In a practical sense, however, all you can think is, “EEEEEEEWWWW!!! PRINCIPAL JONES! MY EYES! MY EYES!

Everything you thought about this guy is now cast in a completely different light. You start rethinking every comment he ever made about anyone in a different way. You also probably start washing your hands like Lady MacBeth with OCD, remembering the number of “high fives” you got from him as you walked down the hallways between classes.

Again, nothing illegal happened. Hell, you don’t even know if anything horribly sketchy will happen, as this could be part of a giant prank or a lost bet. However, that’s not going to make you feel any better about the situation.

Just because we pretend that a wall exists between the public and the private spheres for the benefit of trying to justify our choices to other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone will graciously make that same distinction once they see what you put out there. People decide how they want to see us based on what they see of us. Claiming something is personal or not part of our career or whatever doesn’t absolve us of the perceptual damage that exists in the minds of others.

A Case of the Man Keeping Us Down: The more journalists feel forces beyond their control are suppressing them, the more likely they are to push back on something. It’s a response learned from years of having people they report on saying, “You don’t need to know that” or “You aren’t going to get that.” It’s also probably hardwired into our genetics at some level, just like being nosy.

Policies like this one that seems to say, “We’re watching you” can lead journalists to feel that need to push back against it, even if they aren’t entirely interested in engaging in the behavior the policy dictates. In other words, even if I’m not a journalist on Twitter who feels it necessary to tweet about whatever is coming into my mind, the minute you try to stop me from doing so is the minute I’m going to be upset about it.

It also doesn’t help that the policies are fluid and lack a sense of  “X actions = Y consequences.” Do I think that the timing of Sonmez’s tweet was particularly brilliant? No. Do I think the consequences were a bit much? Yes. Can I find a clear path through Barron’s memo or the WaPo policy that tells me who was right? Not a chance.

In some ways, this kind of reminds me of the old-school version of Catholic confession, in that it was never clear how the priest knew EXACTLY how many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” were necessary to demonstrate proper atonement for each specific sin. It seemed like a mixture of how upset the priest was, how penitent the confessor was and how much time was left before mass started.

When my job (or my eternal soul) is on the line, I guess I’d like a little more clarity on how the rules apply and how I should know that I’ve got things nailed down appropriately.

Just like anyone else, journalists are going to be judged on their statements in a public setting and like a whole lot of folks, we tend to think our opinion needs to be shared with a lot of people in a public way. Since social media allows EVERYONE to play, it can be difficult to tell people who share opinions and write publicly that they can’t play or that they have to follow different rules.

Like most other things we’re all grappling with in this field, things are more likely to be messy than easy as we figure out what we SHOULD do after we bump into a lot of things we probably SHOULDN’T do.

 

A judge, a professor and a “wiry marathon runner” want your vote: 3 tips for avoiding stereotyping descriptors in your writing

Election Day is here and I need to pick several folks for state and local elections. Knowing almost nothing about our Supreme Court nominees here in Wisconsin, I did a little digging around for some information on who is running and what they represent.

In voting for a state Supreme Court election, which of the following items do you think voters would most care about learning first?

  1. Previous experience as an assistant attorney general.
  2. A history of work with crime victims, including a stint as the executive director of a statewide victim’s advocacy office
  3. Being an awesome high school athlete 38 years ago

If you picked “3,” you’re thinking like the Associated Press was when publishing profiles of the candidates for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. Here is the opening paragraph of candidate Jill Karofsky’s portion of the “get to know the candidates” bio:

(Jill) Karofsky is a wiry marathon runner who has completed two Iron Man competitions. She also won the state doubles tennis championship in 1982 for Middleton High School.

Compare this to how Justice Dan Kelly is described off the top:

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, appointed (Daniel) Kelly to the Supreme Court in 2016 to replace the retiring David Prosser. An attorney by trade, he represented Republican lawmakers in a federal trial over whether they illegally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s legislative district boundaries in 2011. He’s also a member of The Federalist Society, a conservative organization that advocates for a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

If you think this could be a case of the incumbent getting a bit more focus on the job, consider the opening of the third candidate’s bio. Meet Ed Fallone:

(Ed) Fallone has taught law at Marquette University for 27 years. His mother was raised in Mexico and he has served on the boards of Voces de la Frontera Accion, the lobbying arm of immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, and Centro Legal, a Milwaukee nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services.

I’m not a feminist scholar by trade, but if you can’t see an imbalance here in how the candidates are being introduced, you’re not paying attention. If I had to summarize them by how they were portrayed in those first paragraphs it would be like this:

  • Dan Kelly: Conservative jurist and incumbent Supreme Court Justice.
  • Ed Fallone: Veteran law professor with an interest in immigrant advocacy.
  • Jill Karofsky: Don’t let that flowing robe fool you! She’s athletic as hell under there!

Also, I went through all of the other two candidates’ biographies and I can’t find a single use of a physical descriptor in there, except in Karofsky’s opening paragraph and the use of “wiry:”

I’m not sure why it matters that she’s “wiry” or what that has to do with her jurisprudence, but apparently the writer thought it somehow mattered. I’ve heard the argument that descriptions often “humanize” people in short profiles, but consider this information instead:

Judge Karofsky received the WI Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “Voices of Courage Award,” was named the WI Victim/Witness Professional Association’s “Professional of the Year,” and earned a “Significant Impact” Award from a local organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. She currently serves on the Wisconsin Judicial Education Committee and chairs the Violence Against Women STOP Grant committee. She previously co-chaired the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Response Team, and served on the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse, the WI Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, the Wisconsin Crime Victims Council, and the Dane County Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors.

I doubt that the writer had chosen this route of description on purpose, but it does paint a series of incongruent pictures in which gender appears to be the distinguishing element. As always, the point of this blog is not to beat up on journalists, but rather to teach you how to avoid these problems in the first place. Here are some helpful thoughts on potentially problematic descriptors:

Would you use the same type of descriptor if another race/gender/group was involved? One of my favorite books, “Ball Four,” talked about the aspect of race during a time in which these things were not as openly discussed across a large spectrum of people. In one conversation, one of author Jim Bouton’s teammates noted he wouldn’t mind that newspapers referred to him as the team’s black first baseman if they would only refer to his replacement as the team’s white first baseman.

Instead, it was a first baseman and a black first baseman, thus indicating one was “normal” and the other was an oddity.

When considering descriptors, ask yourself if you would use descriptive elements like this on all people involved in the story. For example, based on this photo, a writer might refer to Fallone as “diminutive” if the writer felt a physical description were warranted in discussing Supreme Court candidates. (I got nothing to describe Kelly, physically, despite my best efforts. I was stuck between “broad-chested” and “square-headed,” neither of which worked, but you get the point.)

Think about how an approach would work across gender, racial, ethnic or other lines before deciding to make one person the standard for “normal” and the others anomalies.

Does the descriptor add something important to the story? In some cases, personal differences can add value to a story. For example, you can’t tell the story of Thurgood Marshall’s life without noting things like how he was the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His position as a pioneer and a ground-breaking figure adds value to the story. However, merely tossing in a descriptor like, “Jim Jones, a black man, said he thinks the Milwaukee Brewers will win the World Series this year,” doesn’t add value and just engages in “othering.”

In the case of the “wiry marathon runner” and high school tennis champion who is running for the state’s Supreme Court, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what value describing her athletic achievements have here, particularly right up top. If there was some sort of “American Ninja Warrior” competition required as part of the election, this might make sense. However, since it’s not, I’m probably going to want to know more about her brains than her brawn.

Does the descriptor lend itself to a stereotypical connotation that likely does more harm than good? When you write about someone in a way in which a descriptor could lend itself to a stereotype, you have to balance the importance of the descriptor against the value the descriptor brings to the story.

When Georgetown coach John Thompson won the 1984 NCAA championship, reporters asked him about becoming the first black coach to win the title. Thompson replied that if the indication was that he was the first person of color to have the acumen to do it, he found that insulting. He noted that many other people of color, years earlier, had just as good of a set of coaching skills as he did, but were never afforded the opportunity to coach, due to the racism of the time.

A study I did years ago with a master’s student of mine looked at how college quarterbacks were described in their draft previews and we found some clear and stereotypical disparities. White quarterbacks received high marks for intelligence, leadership and other similar “mental” elements of the game. Black quarterbacks received high marks for physical or “natural gifts” while receiving negative comments on their intellect. In doing this, we argued, the writers were reinforcing racial stereotypes like these:

This is not to say you can never use a descriptor, for fear of stereotyping someone. However, what it is saying is to make sure that you think before you do it and weigh the “cost vs. benefit” of that descriptor in your work.

 

 

Crime doesn’t pay: Some newsrooms decide to stop running click-bait mugshot galleries

From Poynter and the Marshall Project:

Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.

But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.

The media outlets discussed in this piece by Poynter aren’t cutting ties to mugshots like this, as editors note in the story:

The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.

A criminal mugshot is like any other tool in your journalistic toolbox: You want to use it for the right reason and be able to explain how it helps your audience understand the story you want to tell. I know that I’ve run more than a few mugs with stories I’ve done or encouraged students to include them with stories at student papers I’ve advised.

In one case, a man suspected of drunken driving ran over a young boy who was on a bicycle. The man tried to speed off with the kid stuck under the car, dragging the boy for several yards. Neighbors in the area came running out to stop the guy and get the kid help.

Then, they turned on man, dragging him out of the car and beating him bloody. The mug shot of this man told a story of a person who was both an accused criminal as well as a victim of a crime.  We felt the image added perspective to the situation. This was especially true when the police were looking for people who were involved in the beating, only to find that nobody in the area saw anything…

Another beating story ran at the Ball State Daily News, in which six female students at the school dragged another woman out of a party and attacked her. The police described the beating as “deplorable.” We ran all six mugshots across the top of the paper to showcase who was involved. I can still see the smirks on two of these women’s faces, looks that seemed to say, “You can’t touch me. My Daddy has the world’s best lawyer.”

The mugshot is a public record, and as such, you have a legal right to use it. However, this is where the ethics of journalism come into play and you need to ask yourself if you SHOULD use it.

A few key questions to ask before using a mugshot, or running any kind of content for that matter, might include:

  • Does this add value to the story I want to tell for my readers?
  • Will my choice do more harm than good?
  • What are the potential ramifications of my actions, particularly ramifications that are of a long-term variety?
  • Why do I want to do this?
  • What is the best counter-argument to the choice I want to make right now? Is it good enough to flip the argument?

 

 

Joker vs. Milker: A localization story from the Dairy State

Good localization stories have several key elements in common:

  1. They are timely, often surfacing as an “in the wake of the news” piece.
  2. They are valuable to local readers in a clear and specific way. (In other words, it’s not a “President unveils middle east peace plan; Area high school students say it won’t work” story.)
  3. They deal with things that could or have actually happened. (I once had to write a localization about what would happen if Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Federation, were to die in office, based on a hunch an editor had that he would. Yeltsin survived his term and lived a decade longer.)

During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Joaquin Phoenix took a rather circuitous route through his thoughts, deciding that it would be a good time to crap-talk the dairy industry, among other things:

We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.

Less than a day later, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett turned around this localization for his Dairy-State readers. It’s a great example of knowing an audience, touching on a key topic of interest to that audience and getting a good story together in the wake of the news.

Let’s break down some key things that you probably want to emulate if you need to localize the topic.

Start with the lead:

Dairy farmers are pushing back against an Oscar’s award acceptance speech by actor and vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix who claimed that farmers are cruel to cows and newborn calves.

It’s a straight-up inverted pyramid lead that nails down both the local angle (dairy folks) and the tie to the national story (Oscar speech, ripping on farmers). It doesn’t try to do too much, it makes the point and then it moves on. It also avoids trying to be cute with something like Dairy farmers “having a beef” or “having a cow” about this.

He then moved into a good bridge as well as some key background, before sliding back into the local angle:

The performer, who on Sunday night took home the Best Actor award for his role in “Joker,” used his speech to rip on the dairy industry and the breeding of cows.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” Phoenix said. “And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

That didn’t go over well with dairy farmers.

The experts do a good job of explaining WHY they think the actor was wrong and HOW the cow/calf situation works based their experiences. This is done with good quotes and solid paraphrases that don’t fall victim to jargon:

A newborn calf is taken from its mother, about 20 minutes after birth, but it’s for their own safety, said dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County.

“If that mom had manure on her, we would risk that calf, our best genetics on the farm, getting contaminated with Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria, along with Tetanus and all the other stuff that hangs out on the farm as well,” Hinchley said.

 

Barrett used quality reporting to cover his bases in outlining the story. Check out the sources for this:

  • dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County
  • dairy farmer Carrie Mess from Lake Mills
  • lan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation

In probably a couple hours (given that this story was posted by 12:30 and that Phoenix didn’t make his statements until about 10:30 the night before), Barrett got three good people with a background on the topic to speak intelligently about this. In addition, he wove in quotes from the Oscar speech and reporting on previous elements of Phoenix’s life.

The piece closes well with a decent closing quote that has both a sense of closure and the potential to look ahead:

“We have a free country, with freedom of expression, but we do wish that Joaquin Phoenix would talk with us, rather than at us, because if he did he would learn a lot about the commitment that dairy farmers have for animal welfare,” said Alan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This isn’t the first time he has made remarks like this, but it gets more prominence because it was in an Oscars speech,” Bjerga said.

Overall, the story is short (About 530 words), well structured and chock full of information. It ties a local interest to a broader concern and it provides background context as well.

In short, it’s a textbook example of how to build a great localization piece.