Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

Help me help you in the next edition of the reporting book

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I always laugh when people say, “Gee, it must be NICE to get a couple weeks off at Christmas time so you can just lounge around…” What actually happens is, I stop teaching for a couple weeks, all my students leave me alone for a while and I go to the office to actually get some work done.

Somewhere in the middle of the hellscape that was this year, the folks at SAGE decided the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” had managed not to embarrass anyone at the company, so a second edition was in order. I’m sure I agreed to do this at some point, with the same, “Oh.. Yeah… Sure…” response I give my kid when she’s asking me for something while I’m in the middle of 11 other things, but it’s all kind of a blur.

I never liked the idea of new textbook editions that slapped a new cover on an old book, subbed in the word “digital” where the word “newspaper” used to be and called it ready to go. If you’re gonna have to buy this thing, I better make it worth your while.

To that point, here are a few things that I’m already planning to stick in this thing, based on what some of you have already told me:

  • Major chunks of what “fake news” really is (how we define it, what people think when they read it, why people make it, why we believe it, what we can do about it as reporters and how not to get snowed).
  • More simple exercises in the book. I picked through a bunch of suggestions you all made and added even more in the “Work it Out” section that comes at the bottom of each chapter.
  • More free stuff: I’m putting more stuff on the blog each time I figure out something helpful.
  • “Best of the Blog” in each chapter. I find there’s a bimodal distribution in how people see the blog: I’m not doing enough or I’m drowning them in too much stuff. For the former people, I got nothing. For those of you looking for a few good posts, I’ve included a “Best of the Blog” element in each chapter that talks about something key within that chapter.
  • Freelancing 101: Someone told me my book would be perfect IF I just had something in there on freelancing. I built several blog posts on this, but now I’ve redone the whole thing as an extra appendix in the back. (I’m quite certain it still isn’t perfect, as we can always find something to be unhappy about. Just ask my kid who wanted an Apple Watch for Christmas…)

I’m sure there’s more going in here, but that’s what comes to mind at this point. Beyond this, tell me more stuff either by contacting me here, by placing comments at the bottom of this post or finding me online and yelling at me that I’m not doing something right. I respond to all of these.

In the mean time, the blog is on hiatus until the start of the next semester in late January.

May you all have a happy and joyous holiday season.

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

5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie

After reading Tracy Everbach’s excellent review of, “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood film that looks at the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Bombing, it became clear that the film missed the opportunity to provide a new generation with important lessons.

In the wake of the movie’s release, multiple groups have dialed in on the film’s key failures. The discussion of how Kathy Scruggs, and by implication female journalists, was portrayed has people upset with the trope that women trade sex for tips in journalism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spoken out about the Scruggs issue, as well as how the movie fails to show that the journalism the paper did that helped turn the tide in Jewell’s favor.

I have long used the Richard Jewell story as an example of what can happen when “EVERYBODY KNOWS!” becomes, “Um… Whoops…” in journalism.

I show, and will continue to show, the ESPN 30 for 30 Short “Judging Jewell,”as it covers the case from all angles, including having representation from the AJC. It’s about 30 minutes and it’s worth the time. So is the “60 Minutes” piece on Jewell from 2002:

 

I have not seen the “Richard Jewell” movie yet, so I can’t say what it actually did or did not do. What I can say is that the film’s approach has enough people upset about the issues listed above (and a few others) that several key things got lost along the way:

 

It wasn’t one reporter or one publication that created this clustermess: The focus on Kathy Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the media coverage feel like a game of one-on-one between Scruggs and Jewell. It wasn’t even close to that.

The Olympics were in town and you had participants from 197 countries present. That put thousands of journalists in that area at the time of the bombing, thus leading to a giant pack of TV and print reporters chasing one big question: “Who did it?”

Pictures and video taken outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment had photographers, videographers, reporters and more swarming the area as Jewell went to work the day after the attack. As the FBI showed up to interview him, and later to search the apartment, the media was all over the place with all sorts of equipment. (In one interview, Jewell said there were at least five satellite trucks in the apartment’s parking lot.)

(Scruggs wasn’t even the only reporter from the AJC to be on the story. In a review of the news coverage that came out after the infamous, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” story, I found nearly a dozen names of journalists attached to stories about the attack.)

People everywhere seemed to be piling on. Entertainers and tabloids called Jewell, “Una-Doofus” and “Una-Bubba,” a reference to the recently captured Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This was a global story.

To pin any one thing on any one journalist or one publication is more than a stretch. As Henry Schuster, a former producer at CNN, noted, “This thing just goes nuclear.”

 

Attributions matter, so use them: The courts that heard Jewell’s cases against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed statements made in several articles in which Jewell was identified as the key suspect in the bombing. In a 2011 Appeals Court Ruling in favor of the AJC’s reporting, the court noted:

On July 31, in an article entitled “`Hero’ denies planting bomb,” the AJC reported that, “[i]nvestigators now say… they believe [Jewell] placed the 911 call himself.” Likewise, in the same August 4 article referenced in Division (III)(A), the AJC stated that “[i]nvestigators have said they believe Jewell … phoned in a warning to 911.”

Again, we cannot agree with Jewell that the challenged statements are actionable. Although the July 31 article repeats the opinion of investigators who reportedly believed that Jewell may have placed the 911 call, it includes within its text the factual premise of that reported opinion.

In other words, the reporter properly attributed the information to an official source, who was acting in an official capacity, thus giving the paper protection against a claim of libel. (This concept is often referred to as “qualified privilege.”) Several other sections of the court’s ruling note similar attributions protecting several of the paper’s other stories.

This is one of the many reasons why I often write “SAYS WHO?” on statements my students make in their stories and why I’m a major pain in the keester about attributing information to a source. It can keep you out of a hell of a lot of trouble.

 

You are a reporter, not God: The one story I kept looking for was the original piece Scruggs and fellow reporter Kent E. Walker published in that July 30 “Extra” edition of the paper that declared, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” I noticed it wasn’t mentioned in the appeals and it wasn’t in the archives I had access to. Jewell stated in multiple interviews that this was the piece that really started the entire whirlwind of controversy about him.

After paying for access to the AJC’s archives, I found it and I could better understand why he thought so. If attributions are like armor and shields against an attack, this story was butt-naked. Consider the first three sentences:

The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police “wannabe” who seeks to become a hero.

This whole opening gives me hives, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one afraid of it. CNN actually read the paper’s piece live on air, making absolutely certain to be clear they were just telling people what the AJC reported.

Who made up this “profile?” How was it conceived? How many other people might “fit” that profile? Who says Jewell is “frustrated?” A “wannabe?” Not a single sentence here is attributed to anyone, least of all an official source acting in an official capacity. Also, by not having ANY attribution, the story reads as if the paper itself is saying the guy is not only the focus of the investigation but he fits the profile of a bomber.

Journalists only get away with those kinds of statements when they are of the “water is wet” variety, so when the AJC states this, it’s like, “Water is wet, the sky is blue and Richard Jewell, a man who ‘found’ a bomb, fits the pattern of the kind of guy who would plant one.”

In a case study of the AJC’s coverage, the author notes that the managing editor, John Walter, made the decision not to attribute the information:

Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the “voice of God” approach when it came to attributing the information. The voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to unnamed sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.

As Walter explained later, he didn’t think attributing the story to unnamed sources “was fair.” The reason, he said, is that “once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there.” In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.

 

A couple things:

  1. I have always found the “Voice of God” approach to be stupid as hell, as it essentially says, “Look, just take my word for it. I’m a journalist and I know stuff.” It removes possible protections you might have and it really does put the media outlet at risk for anything that might go wrong.
  2. I reread Walter’s explanation a dozen times and found it to have the same internal logic as saying, “I smelled gas in a dark room and I didn’t feel safe not knowing where it was, so I felt it was important to light a match and see what I could find.” It reminded me of the way in which our student newspaper editors at Ball State would say stuff like, “Oh that photo/graphic/story is way to bloody/naked/unproven to run in the print paper. Just stick it online.”
  3. You’re not God. You’re a journalist. Act like it.

Again, this wasn’t just the AJC who decided to play God when it came to laying out information. NBC, which ended up settling out of court with Jewell, ran several pieces in which Tom Brokaw took on the “Voice of God,” including one particular exchange he had with Bob Costas, live on air:

“The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case, in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now. Probably enough to prosecute him but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There’s still some holes in this case.”

Brokaw explained to Mike Wallace in a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview his reason for making the statement he did on air. It sounded like a word salad that a drunk puked onto a passing bus:

Brokaw later in the interview said that he had multiple sources in high places in law enforcement telling him they were focusing on Jewell.

Fine. Then say THAT:

“I spoke with multiple law enforcement officials who said Jewell is the primary suspect in the bombing. They also told me they plan to arrest him if and when they get enough evidence together to convict him of the bombing.”

How hard is that to say?

In short, don’t let a sense of either self-importance or general knowledge get in the way of nailing down your facts. If you have a “water is wet” fact, tell it to me straight up. If it’s a “Vince Filak is a great professor” fact, you need an attribution on that thing because, God knows, a lot of folks are going ask, “Says WHO?”

 

A key court ruling about Jewell’s status made a huge difference: Lost in the argument about the accuracy of the reporting was the courts’ decision that Jewell was viewed as a limited-purpose public figure. The initial court ruling, as well as the 2001 appeals court decision, explained why this mattered:

The central issue presented by this appeal is whether Jewell, as the plaintiff in this defamation action, is a public or private figure, as those terms are used in defamation cases.   This is a critically important issue, because in order for a “public figure” to recover in a suit for defamation, there must be proof by clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendant.  Plaintiffs who are “private persons” must only prove that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence. Jewell contends the trial court erred in finding that he is a “public figure” for purposes of this defamation action.   We disagree.

Had Jewell won this point, all he would have needed to show to win the case was that the AJC should have done a better job than it did during its reporting on him. His standing as a limited-purpose public figure meant he had to prove actual malice, which means that the paper knew what it was doing was wrong and did it anyway because the folks there wanted to mess with him.

Private citizens get a lot more protection than public figures in a lot of ways. For example, journalists have frequently reported on allegations that President Donald Trump cheated on his wife with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to keep it quiet. As a public figure (and maybe the MOST public figure in the United States), this kind of stuff is fair game for journalists.

If I, as a private citizen, were to cheat on my wife like that today, the first time the media would be justified reporting on it would be in my obituary that would run the day after Amy found out about it, or in a story about her being charged with murder.

 

Regardless of who was right or wrong, the Jewell case is an important cautionary tale: The movie has a lot of stakeholders trying to shore up their positions: The producers, the AJC, other media outlets, the FBI, Jewell’s family/attorneys and more. When that happens, we tend to find ourselves arguing about what kind of bark is on the tree in front of us instead of seeing the entire forest.

The FBI was under pressure to get this situation resolved, but folks who dealt with the Jewell investigation knew that some agents cut corners they shouldn’t have. In several interviews, Former US Attorney for the Northern District Kent Alexander noted that the FBI tried to trick Jewell into admitting things he didn’t do under the pretense of creating a “first-responder video.” Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen outline a lot of this in their book, “The Suspect.”

The AJC didn’t settle its case while other outlets quickly folded and paid off Jewell. The paper was convinced it reported the news in a legitimate and legally protected fashion and the courts agreed. However, the folks at the paper stated, in retrospect, that there were issues in how everything came together in the reporting. Former Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton explained in his “Judging Jewell” interview that he still isn’t entirely comfortable with the way attributions were or weren’t used, as well as some of the choices the paper made in terms of phrasing.

Last month, Roughton wrote a first-person essay about the movie, the book and his own experiences and it really does leave journalists and journalism students with something to take with them every time they ply their trade:

For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever.

We owe them our best work.

 

Women Journalists Don’t Sleep With Sources, No Matter What The “Richard Jewell” Movie Tells You.

While every other source on earth seemed to be screaming about what was or wasn’t in the new movie about the 1996 Olympic Park Bombing, Tracy Everbach did the thing all good journalists should:

She went to the source and saw things for herself.

Everbach, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, got an early, first-hand look at the movie, “Richard Jewell,” which recounts the way in which Jewell, a security guard at the Olympics, went from hero to bombing suspect overnight. One of the key points of contention in the film is the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story about Jewell being a suspect. In the film, Scruggs is shown agreeing to trade sex for the news tip from an FBI agent.

The AJC demanded that the movie’s producers put some sort of disclaimer at the front of the film, as no one associated with the publication can locate any indication that this ever took place. Even more, it reinforces a harmful stereotype that the only way female journalists can get anywhere  in the field is by sleeping their way to their scoops.

Everbach’s review does what so many others haven’t: It helped me see what ACTUALLY HAPPENED in the film so I can see what it is that people are upset about. It not only lays out exactly the exchange in question, but also adds context on the actual bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph.

Rather than say anything more, I’m going to get out of her way and let you read it for yourself.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: A few tips on making the most of course evaluations (or Why “You suck! Your an asshole!” rarely helps.)

In the last Throwback Thursday of the semester, I’m hoping to help professors who would like actual feedback on their courses. Student opinion surveys often lack value because the students see them as either a chance to employ vengeance or to blow smoke. Neither of these things are really helpful, so here are some hints and tips that might make for a better overall experience:

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A few tips on making the most of course evaluations (or Why “You suck! Your an asshole!” rarely helps.)

As the semester draws to a close, students have two equally important things to deal with: Finals and course evaluations. When it comes to finals, most students probably feel like this:

Perfectly normal response, when everything is due all at the same time, every final test or project is worth 80 percent of your grade and every professor thinks his/her final should take precedence over everything else.

And then there are course evaluations: The one moment in time where, behind a cloak of anonymity, students have the ability to grade their instructors. It’s easy enough to imagine you wanting your “Jules Winfield” moment:

I’ve had my share of evaluations over 20 years of teaching college journalism students, so I’ve seen quite a range of commentary over the years. The one that always stuck with me was the student who filled in the whole row of “Strongly Disagree” bubbles on the ScanTron sheet with what appeared to be a frenzied scrawl of a demented clown.

On the back, where students were asked to list three things they liked about me or the class, three things they disliked about me or the class and three things they’d like to see the class do in the future, he (I assume it was a guy) wrote one thing in giant letters:

“YOU SUCK!!! YOUR AN ASSHOLE!!!”

It is that succinct and yet nonspecific response that led me to today’s post about course evaluations. Some students view it as an opportunity to “get back” at a professor while others use them to lavish praise with exclamation points and emojis to boot. Some students hope their comments will “fix” a class while others see them as never having an effect on how the professor operates.

The truth, as it is with most things, sits in the middle somewhere, as some professors will take every word to heart and others will use your criticism to light the yule log in their hearth. However, consider these thoughts when you fill out your course evals:

  • Numbers are fine but comments matter more: Some schools just give you numerical scales to rate a professor, so you don’t have much leeway here. However, if you are lucky enough to have an evaluation form that allows you to make comments, do so.
    If one student gives me a “3” on “The material made sense to me” and another student gives me a “4,” that doesn’t tell me anything. However, if both of those students wrote that a particular assignment, reading or whatever didn’t make sense or was confusing, I’m going to take another look at that thing. If you apply the “Filak-ism” of how grades don’t matter but what you learn does to your evaluations, you’ll see that one good comment matters more than all the 3s, 4s and 5s you can shake a stick at.

 

  • Tell me WHY: OK, I suck. Got it. Why do I suck? What specifically makes me suck? Just like you don’t like getting a paper back with no comments on it and a “D” grade, professors don’t like getting vague statements. I can say with absolute certainty that I have changed assignments, class structure and even my teaching based on “why” answers.
    Case in point: In one class a student wrote that he/she thought I was playing favorites by giving the students who worked with me at the newspaper special treatment. The student mentioned that I never called out a newsroom kid for texting during class, but I publicly admonished another student for texting. The student also said I called on the newspaper kids first when we were doing discussions. I hadn’t realized what I was doing, but the student saw it and it made me think twice about how I was conducting myself in the classroom and I altered my behavior. Had the student simply said, “You suck,” I never would have known why he/she felt that way.

 

  • Don’t undercut your own arguments: I might suck and I might be the other thing that person said about me, but when the student used the wrong form of “your” in proclaiming that edict, he (or she) really had me laughing more than anything else. Lousy grammar and spelling (especially in critiquing a journalism professor) will really diminish the impact of your words. So will statements like, “I quit going to lecture after the third week, but I didn’t feel I really learned anything from this course.” If you want to make me sit up and notice, write it in a way I’ll accept it: Use complete sentences, give me specific examples and don’t make mistakes in your writing.

 

  • Sunshine and lollipops are nice, but they don’t help either: Having one’s ego stroked is a great feeling. The more exclamation points used in the sentence “Dr. Filak is the best professor ever!!!!!!!,” the more joyous my day will be. That said, once I get past having sunshine blown up my keester, I’m left with little else that matters. Most of your journalism professors have thick skins, so telling them negative stuff will not have them at home drinking vodka and listening to Chaka Khan. However, feeding us sunshine and lollipops doesn’t help, either. Tell us WHAT you liked or wanted us to keep. In some cases, it’s something simple like “I loved that you told jokes to keep the class laughing.” In other cases, it’ll be about content: “I never had to learn about X before, but your approach made it easier.” You should feel free to tell us what to keep and what to get rid of.

 

  • It’s not personal: Our program assistant and I were chatting about various comments we’ve seen over the years on evaluations. She said when she worked for a different department on campus, she had to type up all the comments on course evals, regardless of content and without changing typos and so forth. Aside from the grammar errors that made her feel like she died a little inside, she said some of them were revoltingly personal. One involved the student’s supposition that the faculty members mother had mated with a goat. Another was for a female professor and commented about how “hot” she was.
    I used to get comments on how I dressed (One student noted that I dressed like a homeless guy. Another once noted: “What’s 12 inches long and hangs from an asshole? Filak’s tie.”) Someone mentioned on an eval that I was going bald. True? Yeah, even probably the tie thing, which is why I don’t wear them any more (well that and I feel more comfortable dressing like a homeless elf). Fair? Not a chance.
    It’s inappropriate to comment on the physicality of people unless it in some way diminishes your ability to understand the material. If a professor was too quiet, it’s fair to ask for that person to speak up. It’s not decent to note that the faculty member was “so ugly it made it hard for me to concentrate.” As they say in every “Godfather” movie: It’s not personal. So don’t make it that way.
    Think about the converse happening to you. If you got a paper back and the professor wrote, “I’d like to give you an A on this, but I could never give that high of a grade to a Chicago Bears fan, so here’s your C,” you’d be rightly upset. If a faculty member told you, “Keep wearing clothes like that and you’ll never get a decent grade” or commented on how “hot” you are, there is no way you would tolerate it. (And by the way, if any of those things do happen, especially the sexual harassment, tell an administrator immediately. There’s no place for that stuff anywhere.)

 

  • Don’t wait until evals: If you are sitting in week 5 with a lousy grade, no idea what the professor is talking about and a general sense that this class is essentially going to turn your life into a Dumpster fire, don’t wait until evaluations come around two months later to make mention of it. Talk to your professor about concerns when you have them to see if you can rectify a few of the problems you are having. See if you can find some common ground in making the class work better for you.
    If we can fix things before they become irreversible problems, we’re so much happier for it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I don’t get a Christmas bonus or a free set of steak knives for every student I fail, so I have no motive to avoid helping you. Tell me sooner rather than later and we’ll both be better off.

Allegedly: The word journalists should avoid at all costs and three ways to do it

I remember once talking to a media law expert about the word “allegedly” and what kind of protection it offered reporters.

“None,” he told me. “The word ‘allegedly’ is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

He then explained that “allegedly” is nothing but a thinly veiled accusation that lacks a concreted source to support it. Instead of saying, “Smith then allegedly killed Jones with a hatchet,” a good reporter would say, “Smith then killed Jones with a hatchet, police said” or “the criminal complaint stated” or whatever source this came from. All that “allegedly” means is that someone, somewhere said this thing we are now accusing someone of doing.

Ever since that moment, the word “allegedly” has given me hives whenever I hear it in a media report or see it in a news story.

In the case of a TV report about a police officer recovering from a stabbing, “allegedly” felt not only weak, but downright stupid:

 

Let’s look at the anchor’s lead in here and compare it to the web version the station posted:

TV: “Today marks six days since Student Resource Officer Michael Wissink was allegedly stabbed by a student at Oshkosh West High School before shooting and injuring the teen.”

The passive voice in this isn’t great, especially since broadcast thrives on strong, active verbs. What makes it worse, however, is the use of allegedly, because at first glance, it sounds like we don’t believe he was stabbed. He was just “allegedly stabbed.”

Something tells me we can be pretty sure he was stabbed if he spent six days in a hospital, recovering from his injuries.

Weirder still, while the station is only alleging a stabbing, it’s definite on the shooting and injuring part, stating it with certainty.

The web version fixes this pretty easily.

Web: A school resource officer, who police say was stabbed by a student last week, was released from the hospital Monday.

Notice two important things here:

  1. We don’t have “allegedly” but instead we have an attribution to a source (one that operates under the shield of privilege, to boot).
  2. Although this sentence is in passive voice as well, it’s shorter and tighter than the broadcast opening, something that shouldn’t happen. Broadcast is supposed to be short and tight compared to all other forms of media writing.

The writers of these two sentences were trying to explain that the student is innocent until proven guilty of the attack, so it isn’t smart to say the kid stabbed the cop straight out. However, the use of “allegedly” does more harm than good in here.

About 55 seconds into the story, the reporter offers a less-defensible use of “allegedly” when it comes to explaining what happened to the officer:

TV: “Students and staff lined the streets to show support for the officer who was allegedly attacked on school grounds.”

If the first case made it seem like we possibly didn’t believe the officer was attacked, this case basically says it. Here, the use of “allegedly” is even dumber because it’s unclear who the heck the reporter is trying to protect with his “allegedly” shield.

I see only two, equally stupid reasons for “allegedly” here:

  • The reporter is afraid this guy made up the attack, and thus hopes “allegedly” will cover it.
  • The reporter is afraid the guy got his ass kicked at a bar or something and then staggered over to school and claimed the whole thing happened on school grounds to get worker’s comp.

And, once again, the web version is tighter and it dodges the problem altogether:

Web: The escort went from the hospital in Neenah to Oshkosh. The motorcade passed by Oshkosh West High School where faculty, staff, and students stood outside to cheer.

This delivers essentially the same information (actually in more of a broadcast style as well) and does so with no need for attribution. We can prove the escort went from Point A to Point B without needing a GPS tracker on the guy. Also, we can say without fear that people were outside cheering (We even have photos of that!) so we’re OK there.

“Allegedly” is one of those words that will imbue you with a false sense of confidence in your writing. It can make you feel like you have protected yourself when you haven’t and can give you a feeling of authority when you are completely lacking in it. Here are a couple simple tips to help you dodge the “allegedly” bug:

  • Attribute: If “allegedly” is just an accusation, let’s see who’s doing the accusing. If it’s someone we think should be doing so (police, courts, the pope etc.), then let’s say so. “Police said Smith hit Jones with a golf club.”  If the person alleging this has an axe to grind, we probably want to think twice about it, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the accusation: “John Smith, who divorced Mary Smith last month, said Mary Smith once tried to kill him with a golf club.” (It probably wouldn’t hurt to include a response, if possible: “Mary Smith stated in a court filing that the incident involving the golf club was ‘blown out of proportion’ during the divorce.”)

 

  • Write what you can prove: Instead of telling readers what you don’t know, try telling them what you do. Instead of “The officer was allegedly stabbed by a student,” try  “The officer suffered multiple stab wounds.” The second example from the web does a good job of showcasing how to avoid the “allegedly” issue by just explaining the people lined the streets and cheered. By this point in the story, we probably know about the stabbing, so repeating it here and introducing another “allegedly” doesn’t do much good.

 

  • If you aren’t sure, don’t use it: The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. So, if you get some information that you can’t verify or that feels a little shaky, it doesn’t follow that you HAVE to publish it, with an “allegedly” or otherwise. Try to get a source that will back up what you want to write or find a way to write something that is a bit sturdier than whatever you’re about to allege. If you can’t make that work, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

 

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Exercise time! Pick a song and write a lead (or “Santa sought in hit-and-run homicide.”)

This is still one of the more popular posts on the blog, if you don’t count the “First-Person Target” series and those that covered high school journalists getting shafted. The ability to come up with a fun lead-writing exercise can be difficult, but this one seems to work so we’re reposting it here as we head toward the end of the semester. Enjoy!

—-

In many cases, songs are essentially stories, just told in a different way. If you want a lead-writing exercise that emphasizes critical thought and a bit of fun, have your students write a basic lead to capture the 5W’s and 1H of a popular song. If you want to make it a bit more challenging, add the rule that they can’t use the title of the song in the lead.

Consider this holiday favorite for a simple news lead:

SUMMARY LEAD:
Citing a recent break-up, a Memphis man said Thursday he will be depressed this Christmas, even as he wishes his former girlfriend well.

If you want to have a little more fun or dig a little deeper, this song has been on constantly around here:

Interesting-Action lead:
A North Pole man is accused of homicide after one of his reindeer trampled an area grandmother to death Sunday night.

Name-Recognition lead:
Santa is wanted in a hit-and-run accident that left one woman dead Sunday night as she left a family gathering.

Day-Two lead:
Members of an area family are in mourning Monday after their “grandma” was killed in a hit-and-run accident overnight.

 

Looking for a “concert review” lead? Try this one:

Review lead:
An area percussionist upstaged several other acts in an impromptu gathering Monday in Nazareth that marked the birth of Christ.

 

OK, enough with Christmas…

Summary/Event lead:
Many celebrities celebrate “the festival of lights” rather than Christmas during this holiday season, a Brooklyn man said Thursday.

 

If you want to get away from the holidays all together, you can always pick a song from the recent inductees at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame:

Interesting-Action lead (two sentence edition):
In spite of financial struggles and personal problems, a New Jersey couple said Thursday love has kept them together.
Tommy, an unemployed dock worker, and Gina, an area waitress, said they will continue to fight for a better life because “you live for the fight when that’s all that you got.”

 

No, I don’t know “any bands from this millennium,” and half the songs my students suggested had a little too much cussing in them to make the folks at SAGE comfortable, so here’s something more recent, less caustic and still really poppy.

Broadcast lead:
Don’t wait to have fun in life.
That’s the message a London-based boy band had for its listeners Thursday morning.

Pick some songs and have some fun!

Why we need local news publications and enough reporters to cover things

A cop shot a kid at a high school about five minutes away from my office after the kid stabbed the cop. While rumors were flying everywhere, the local newspaper was relying on quotes a media outlet 100 miles away grabbed from Facebook posts.

Via the Oshkosh Northwestern:

Senior Dakota Meisel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a Facebook message the lockdown was announced around 9:10 a.m. at the beginning of the school’s second period.

“I heard people yelling and running, and I heard a bang but not sure what the bang was,” he said.

Meisel said a teacher came into the classroom looking nervous and told the students to get away from the windows and get into lockdown mode just before the lockdown was announced. Meisel said the students were scared.

“We all got into the part of the room, closed all the doors, turned off the lights, and sat in the back of the class room quiet and we contacted parents and siblings, and waited until told what to do,” he said.

This should clearly illustrate why we are all in trouble if Gannett and Gatehouse and whatever other hedge fund chuckleheads continue to buy every newspaper they can get their little cloven hooves on and strip them out for parts.

Your right to know things is limited in large measure by the number of people who are paid a living wage to go out and find things out that you want to know. When you don’t have strong, active, engaged journalists with boots on the ground in your area, even if you still have a newspaper that supposedly serves you, this is what you get:

Josh, an Oshkosh West senior, told the Journal Sentinel he heard the gunshots.

“I was walking in the hall, and a teacher shoved me into a classroom, and we started barricading the doors, and we all huddled in the corner, and there were gunshots,” he said.

Chloe, an Oshkosh West sophomore, told the Journal Sentinel she first heard people yelling in a hallway.

“My teacher ran in the hallway to try and see what was going on. After she heard the people yelling and people were running through the hall, she shut all the doors and turned the lights off. After that an announcement came on that we were going into a lockdown.”

OK, how in the hell is the MILWAUKEE Journal Sentinel getting these quotes from people who aren’t even in the same AREA CODE as that newspaper while the OSHKOSH Northwestern isn’t? Even more, it dawned on me that I’m reading a newspaper that is quoting ANOTHER newspaper, that is quoting sources who only gave their first names to whatever journalist they somehow reached.

How is it that we’ve gone from “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” to this?

 

Also, I’m trying to imagine how my old managing editors, Cliff Behnke and George Kennedy, would react if I did this instead of hauling my ass down to the scene and digging out everything I could before I published a word.

I’m guessing it would be like this:

(NOTE: To be fair to the Northwestern staff, the story continued to grow and improve throughout the day. To also be fair, TV stations from GREEN BAY, about an hour away, were kicking the paper’s ass throughout the day on this story. To be even more fair, my kid had more information on this situation at the end of the day than the Northwestern did and she doesn’t even GO to that school… Good grief.)

The larger point isn’t that things were better in the olden days where we could smoke in the newsroom and people wore press passes in their hat bands. The point is that we have several serious problems that become clear when we have something exploding in an area that used to have strong local media and now are operating like the outpost in “Dances With Wolves.”

LIMITED RESOURCES: When you see these mergers and buyouts and other things taking place at various media outlets, they are often couched in terms of “shedding” jobs or “rightsizing” an organization. The idea is that with fewer people come fewer salaries, which means more profit for whoever owns the publication.

That sounds great, in theory, until you realize that this undermines the primary value of the newspaper: People who can get crucial information for a paying audience.

When you have a staff of five photographers and cut it down to one, you now lack the ability to photograph multiple things at multiple locations. When you “thin the herd” of reporters so that one journalist is covering multiple beats, you lose the opportunity to develop connections (more on that later) and to have the reporter fully immerse himself or herself in an important single area of information.

Even more, you find that by doing more with less, you burn the reporters to a crisp and thus limit their effectiveness in these kinds of situations. To do this job right, you need to pay for people to do it well and build a staff that is robust enough to cover an area effectively.

LIMITED EXPERIENCE: Various publications I know have recently undergone “buyouts” and “golden handshakes” for reporters who are older or nearing retirement. The idea is often, “Hey, I can buy three fresh-out-of-J-school kids for the cost of this old dude who has been taking up breathable air in this newsroom for the past 30 years!”

True, but you also get what you pay for.

Veteran reporters earn their keep because they have experience and knowledge. They know where to go to get the information that people most want to know first. They know what makes for a smart move and what makes for a dumb one, in most cases, because they’ve made both of them a dozen times and seen the results.

This is why certain reporters in various fields always seem to get the story before anyone else does: They are “the person” to whom everyone goes when they want to get something covered.

These experienced journalists know where the bodies are buried. They have a bank roll of favors built up from years of interactions that they can call in when they need to. They also have created trusting relationships with people who are more willing to tell them something than they are to tell anyone else about it.

This leads to the most important point…

LIMITED CONNECTIONS: It’s not who you are. It’s who you know.

The more time you spend some place and the more time you spend interacting with people who matter in some way to you, the more likely you are to develop important connections and relationships. This is true in every aspect of life.

My folks have lived in the same general area for their entire lives and that shows when it comes to getting things done. When I needed a truck to get moved out of my dorm one year and I forgot to get a U-Haul, my dad “had a guy” who helped out. When I wanted to buy a classic Mustang, but wasn’t sure if the car was up to par, Dad “had a guy” who ran a garage and put the car through the paces. Mom and Dad knew so many people in that area, that they always had a guy or a gal who knew something I needed to know. To say they are connected to the area would be a massive understatement.

Journalists who spend enough time on a beat or with an organization develop relationships with sources in key places, too. These connections can make or break a reporter and also make the difference between getting a story and not getting a story. In some cases, a source will call a reporter when something important like the incident at Oshkosh West happens and tip off the reporter about the situation. This only happens after years of trust-building interactions between the source and the reporter.

People I worked with had folks at schools, courts, police stations, government buildings and more who were able to give them the inside story when they needed something. (I wasn’t a veteran reporter in any stretch of the definition, but after covering enough late-night disasters, I got to know the deputy coroners and the secretary at the police station well enough to get a little help here and there.)

The point is, without these kinds of connections, reporters have about as much luck in finding crucial information quickly as a lost 4-year-old has of finding his mom at Wal-Mart during Black Friday. It’s a random lottery of luck at best and that doesn’t cut it for an audience that can find other sources for information.

 

Dear profile writers, Readers don’t give a damn about you, so get out of the story.

Personality profiles are among the best stories journalists will ever write. When reporters get the chance to enter the lives of the rich and famous, the eccentric and reclusive or even the “known but unknown” people around them, they can paint some amazing word pictures that will allow readers to gain incredible insight.

That said, journalists have ruined more than a few of these opportunities because they can’t manage to get out of their own way in telling the story.

Consider this opening of a profile on Woody Harrelson:

It’s a Saturday in June and I’m running on time to meet Woody Harrelson, but one subway delay, one wrong turn, one mother with a double stroller failing to keep pace and clogging the already clogged sidewalks of midtown and I’ll be running behind. Adding to my anxiety: the possibility that I have no voice, not so much as a croak (laryngitis, a bad case).

Brushing past a pair of doormen, I enter the lobby of a residential tower on the southwest tip of Central Park. I beeline for the elevator bank, press the up button, and glance at my phone. Two minutes after the hour. I’m now officially late. My pores open, sweat gushing out. At last, a muted ding as the doors slide apart. I board.

To calm myself, I pull from my bag a sheaf of clippings on Woody. The big takeaway of recent years: He spent his entire adult life cuckoo for cannabis and then, in 2016, gave it up.

In 164 words, the author references herself 12 times. Her subject? Twice.

Profiles recently have suffered from a lot of this kind of masturbatory self-importance, with the writers weaving themselves into the piece as being the one consequential element of the story.

Why?

The fact the writer is present should be considered both obvious and inconsequential: The readers came to this piece because they wanted to learn about the person being profiled, not about the writer.

In short, nobody cares about you. The more you find yourself verbally photo-bombing your way into the story for your own edification or out of sheer laziness, the more annoying you will be to your readers and the less valuable your piece will be.

This point became clear this weekend when several folks online were discussing a recent Adam Sandler profile that kept popping up in our news feeds. The opening wasn’t as self-absorbed as the one for the Harrelson profile, but it was similarly focused and similarly annoying:

We cruised down West Pico in Adam Sandler’s ride, a custom Chevy passenger van tricked out in the style of an orthopedic shoe. The cup holders jangled with suburban odds and ends — a pair of tiny glasses belonging to his daughter; a bottle of Dry-n-Clear ear drops. We were bound for Hillcrest Country Club, the oldest Jewish country club in Los Angeles. “You’re going to like this,” Sandler said. He whipped the van into the valet station. Alongside the row of town cars and coupes, it looked like an airport courtesy shuttle.

Compare this to the opening of Mary Jo Sales’ look at “Jon and Kate Plus 8” co-star Kate Gosselin:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu. She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

But Laurie Goldberg, senior vice president of communications at the Learning Channel, which airs Jon & Kate, doesn’t think Nobu’s such a great idea. Kate cried on the Today show this morning, answering questions about why she’s still wearing her wedding ring (“for them,” she said of her children, sniffling), and this afternoon she told People, “I am so emotionally spent” (from her husband’s behavior, which has included philandering with the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave Kate her tummy tuck), and so it might not look good for her to be out enjoying herself at a hot spot.

“You’re like a prisoner,” Kate says of her newfound fame, annoyed.

Kate, who in the first season of Jon & Kate, two years ago, appeared on-screen as a dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen, is now looking very much the celebrity—from her tanned, trained body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.

Her phone rings. “Oh, it’s Kelly”—Ripa, of Live with Regis and Kelly—Kate says, holding up a French-manicured finger, signaling for us all to be silent. She’s going on the show tomorrow morning. She and Kelly gab. “Hiya!”

They both rely on description. They both open with a scene setter. However, while Sales puts the focus on the profile subject (Gosselin), Keiles seems to be writing a piece she wanted to call, “Adam and me.”

Keiles turns the focus on herself once again a few paragraphs after she and Sandler arrive at the club, explaining the story behind the story:

I started chasing Sandler in early 2017. His presence in my own childhood had been mythic — a Jewish cultural influence more imposing than anyone I’d ever learned about in Hebrew school. Thinking about the scope of his career, I was enchanted by the prospect of me, a person of modern and hardly coherent gender, grappling with America’s foremost man-child. I dispatched my editor to email his publicist. At night, from my apartment in Queens, I wondered if Sandman, from his mansion in the Pacific Palisades, was considering my offer.

We followed up. Time was marked by the arrival and deletion of my weekly “Adam Sandler” Google Alert, which detailed a still-persistent comedy career, achieved with infrequent engagement with the press. Soon he mocked me everywhere I went, his face staring down from the subway ads for his latest movie, “Sandy Wexler.” On Netflix, his new stand-up special debuted, and he did the late-night shows. I waited. Months turned to years. And just like that, the Google Alert started to spit out photos from a movie set: Sandler in a louche leather coat and diamond earrings, filming the indie thriller “Uncut Gems.”

Sandler had taken dramatic roles before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.” Then, as now, a question emerged: If he was such a good actor — and he was — then why did he keep making dumb comedies? This was a question I had long since learned that he resented, and in my pursuit, I had been careful to avoid it. Now it seemed the precaution had paid off. By some act of God — or, more likely, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting — we found ourselves together at last, standing in his country club, staring down the gallery of early Hillcrest members.

By this point in the piece, we are learning a lot more about the author than we are about Sandler. We learn about her pursuit of Sandler, Sandler’s influence in her life, how she got an editor to email Sandler, how she wondered if Sandler was considering her offer…

At this point, between the fawning and the overuse of first-person writing, I felt like I was reading a cross between my 14-year-old daughter’s diary and an autobiography Donald Trump wrote while on a coke bender.

Abiding by the theory of “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” I kept reading in hopes of learning something about Sandler that wasn’t tied to the writer.

Nope:

To Sandler, everyone is “bro” or “buddy,” except for me; I was “kid.” Crossing the busy street that cut through the park, he rested a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then yanked it away, as if weighing the optics of touching a young stranger versus letting that same stranger be run over by a car.

Away from the street, we came across a guy absolutely shredding on the erhu. Sandler, who busked in the subway during college, stopped to throw some money in his hat, and I noticed the ease with which $20 seemed to float right out of his hand. I reckoned in that moment that a 20 to Sandler was probably something like $1 to me. Later, using dubious-but-still-plausible figures from CelebrityNetWorth.com, I calculated that his $20 was closer to my one one-thousandth of a cent.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Adam Sandler has a special nickname for the writer. (oooohhh…)
  • Adam Sandler makes more money than the writer. (So cool!)
  • Adam Sandler TOUCHED HER SHOULDER!!!!! (OMG, YOU GUYS!)

I gave up at that point, only cursorily giving a glance at the close of the piece, where Keiles frets about being at a wrap party and wondering if Sandler will remember her. In other words, it ends as it began: All about the writer.

We could continue to beat the dead horse that is this profile, but Keiles is an exemplar, not the cause of this phenomenon. When I groused about a similar approach to a Megan Rapinoe profile, student journalists, professors, former reporters and more all chimed in:

THANK YOU. It’s been so hard teaching our new writers profile writing because they read stuff like this.

I remember this being a MUST DO when I took journalism classes in 1979!

Don’t even get me started with “I caught up with…” and “I sat down with…”

I 100% agree. I hate the inclusion of first person in these things They drive me nuts and ruin the story.

That first person writing drives me crazy!!! I don’t care how you first heard about the person…or how you had to travel to talk to them. You are not the focus of the article!!! It is (EXPLETIVE) lazy.

Based on all of this, consider the following helpful suggestions/concepts:

THE FRAME OF THE MONA LISA THEORY: The Mona Lisa is one of the best-known works of art on Earth. In writing about it for The Independent, John Litchfield called it “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world.” It serves as a metaphor for everything thought to be the best of anything and it is probably the most recognizable image ever created. I saw it in person about 20 years ago during our honeymoon trip to France. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still compelling in a way I can’t properly articulate.

Now, those of you who have seen it, tell me what the frame on the Mona Lisa looks like.

Chances are, like me, you have no damned idea what that frame looked like. Ask anyone you know who has seen it and they probably have no damned idea what it looked like. Nobody I know walked away from the Louvre saying, “Man, that chick was ugly but the FRAME! Now, THAT was something!” The reason? Nobody gives a damn what the frame looks like. It’s just there to display the artwork in a way that doesn’t detract from it or overshadow it.

Your job as a profile writer is to showcase the subject in a way that other people appreciate it. You display the individual in a fashion that helps the audience members connect to that person. You’re like the frame of the Mona Lisa: Hold up the painting for everyone to enjoy and get the hell out of the way.

SHOW, DON’T TELL: This is Journalism 101, but it bears repeating. If you want to let people know how great a game was, don’t tell them, “This was an awesome game!” Instead, show them what happened so that they independently come to the conclusion of, “Wow, this was an awesome game!” This is true in all kinds of journalistic writing, but it’s especially true in profile writing.

The descriptive nature of narrative storytelling should put your readers into a scene so they feel like they’re viscerally experiencing it for themselves. The distance provided by third-person writing often does this best, because it focuses the readers on the experience as opposed to the writer.

When you rely on first person, you basically are retelling an experience and that focuses the reader on you. Save that for Facebook posts, random blogging and roommates who ask, “So, how was your day?” For profiles, put me next to you at the scene and let me engage the situation as much as you did. That’s fun for both of us.

DON’T BE LAZY: Two of the comments above (one of them rather explicitly) mentioned the idea of how first person allows the writer to be lazy. Leads can be tough to write, so profile writers often resort to some version of, “I caught up with…”

Yeah, no kidding. Otherwise, how would you know whatever it is you are telling me? I’d give anything to hear instead, “I couldn’t catch up with (NAME OF CELEB) because I failed to do enough cardio. Thus, I’ll be making up this entire thing…”

First-person writing has its place: Columns, blogs, personal-participation pieces and several other spots in media. The question always should be, “Do I need to use it to make this piece work or not?” If you can get away without using it, you should aspire to do so for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this opening to a profile on former MLB pitcher John Rocker at the height of Rocker’s fame:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

The writer of this piece could have easily started with, “I’m in a car with pitcher John Rocker and I feel like I’m going to die.” Instead, the writing focuses on the subject and the situation. Even when Rocker is directly addressing the writer, first person never enters the mix. Still, we get the picture: John Rocker is a horse’s ass.

No profile is perfect in this regard. Even Gay Talese dropped in a few first-person moments during the legendary profile, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” However, they are few and far between and limited to points where the writer NEEDS to do this instead of where it’s convenient or the writer can’t think of anything better to do.

Think of using first-person writing in a profile like being forced to take a Friday class that starts at 8 a.m.: It should be an unpleasant experience you only engage in when absolutely necessary. Even then, you should want to move on from it as quickly as possible.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

With students, faculty and staff desperately hanging on for a Thanksgiving break, I thought a small bit of humor might be the tonic we all need right now. Here’s a throwback post that looks at how cliches have found their way into our writing and why we need to kill them. Enjoy!

 


‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

 

The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)