Take it easy on the guy. He’s dead. (Or why AI shouldn’t be allowed to write obituaries)

We’ve bandied about the various pluses and minuses here of letting artificial intelligence do our work for us. Whether it was the complete lack of quality writing or using incorrect synonyms, there have been a few amusing moments here and there. Some argue this is a disgrace while others are in the “the AI is getting there, just be patient” camp.

That said, I think we have officially hit one thing we can all agree on: AI shouldn’t be writing obituaries. Case in point, this piece on former NBA player Brandon Hunter:

The headline kind of says it all in terms of why nuance matters. In some cases “dead” and “useless” are easily interchangeable:

“The flashlight is dead.”

“The flashlight is useless.”

In a case like this, however, we shouldn’t be swapping those words, and they actually do create harm. I’d hate to think of what Hunter’s family members thought when this popped up in the news feeds. Also, nothing says, “We don’t think your loved one matters,” like letting a computer take the wheel on the obituary. (MSN has since removed the story, but it lives on in screen shots and the wayback machine.)

That’s to say nothing of the godawful writing this thing did, from the line “performed for the Boston Celtics” (Was he doing a Mr. Bojangles routine at halftime or something?) to the line about how he was “handed away at age 42.” (Still not as bad as the “Maris traded to the Angels” obit headline, but pretty close…)

As with most things, we shouldn’t let the machines do all the work without at least checking on them from time to time.

The best advice ever when it comes to getting an interview from an Emmy-award winning journalist. (A Throwback post)

As we start the unit on interviewing in my classes, a lot of students are getting nervous about talking to people. I like to blame it on a lot of things like COVID’s push to make everything a distance discussion, this generation’s over-reliance on digital communication and a general sense of fear that people will say no.

Truth be told, I was always fearful of calling people up or walking up to people for basic interviews. Strangely enough, I never had a problem walking past a burning building or stepping over something dead to ask a firefighter or a cop, “So, what happened here?” I think the adrenaline of the moment helped push me past my socially awkward nature.

In any case, getting what you need often comes down to knowing who can give it to you. Bothering people for an interview, a set of data or even a ride in a nuclear sub can be arduous, but when it comes to making it happen, this throwback post has some pretty good advice:


“Don’t Take No From Someone Who Isn’t Empowered To Say Yes”

My friend Allison used the quote in the headline this weekend when we were teaching her daughter/my goddaughter how to negotiate for better prices at a flea market in South Haven, Michigan. It turned out to be a golden bit of advice she learned from Peter Greenberg, a Emmy-award-winning journalist who was talking to the students at our old college newspaper.

Here’s the story as relayed by Allison (Greenberg himself recalled this story during a guest appearance on the “Destination Everywhere” Podcast):

Greenberg was explaining how to get an important story and how to persist when people didn’t want to be helpful.

He wanted access to a nuclear attack sub as part of a story he was working on. This was in the late 1980s when this was happening, which happened to be when we were still in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, so letting a journalist wander around a nuclear sub was laughable at best.

Greenberg kept poking at Naval officials for access, each one basically telling him, “There is no way this is happening.” At one point he asked, “OK, if this COULD be done, who would be the one person who could allow it to happen?” It turned out to be the commander-in-chief in the Pacific, stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Greenberg got the Navy to agree to give him the meeting, which was supposed to be kind of a 10-minute, “we had a meeting” meeting. Instead, Greenberg noticed a photo of a ship on the admiral’s wall and Greenberg knew a lot about that particular ship. Instead of talking about sub access, they started talking about the boat. By the time the 10 minutes had ended, the admiral invited Greenberg to lunch and eventually granted him the permission he sought.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes,’” he told the group.

At the heart of his story were three key things that can be helpful to you as a journalist:

TAKE A SHOT: When Greenberg kept hearing “no,” he asked for a meeting that the people essentially told him wasn’t going to lead anywhere. In the podcast mentioned earlier in this post, Greenberg said the people setting up the meeting for him basically asked him why he’d want to fly all the way to Pearl Harbor just to hear “no” from one more person. He figured he had nothing at this point, so he might as well take a shot in person with the one person who could get him what he needed. What was the worst thing that could happen? He might have no story and a case of jet lag and that’s about it.

If the story is important enough to you, you need to take a shot at it before deciding it’s not going to happen. You never know what you might get if you give up before you give it a chance to succeed.

FIND COMMON GROUND: The thing that made this work was a bit of serendipity. If the admiral had a picture of a sunset, a poster of Porsche or a velvet Elvis on his wall, Greenberg might have not found his in. However, as he explained in the podcast, he realized he needed a connection and he found it:

They gave me a ten-minute appointment at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday. I flew up on a Saturday. I walked in to see him. He could care less about me. I was told to have a meeting. He didn’t want to be there. It was an office the size of Grand Central Station. Everybody was in their dress whites. They didn’t want me to be there. It was like a courtesy call, give him a commemorative coin and get him out.

This is the difference. You seek out common ground and I knew that I had maybe fifteen seconds to figure out what the common ground was. I got lucky because behind his desk was a photograph of a boat and it turned out I knew the boat well.

I said to him, “Is that a Bertram 31?” He said, “Damn straight.” I said, “That’s the best boat they ever built.” He said, “You’re not kidding?” I said, “Let me guess. When you make a hard right turn, the engine cavitates and the water pump overflows?” He goes, “Yeah.” I said, “Here’s how you fix it. You’re going to do a bypass on the impeller.”

We start talking like that and ten minutes later, the officer is going to say, “Admiral, your time is up.” He looked at me and said, “Do you got lunch plans?” I said, “I’m all yours.”


That’s called chutzpah and luck.

If I’d walked into his office for that ten-minute meeting, he’s like, “Can I go on a sub?” “Get the hell out of here.”

You want to look for ways to connect with a source during an interview. That’s why doing it in person is often so valuable. You can look around and see things that they have around them to help you size up your subject. Starting with a discussion about a picture or a plaque or even a baseball card they have on display can get you an “in” that makes them see you as a kindred spirit as opposed to a pain the butt.

GO TO WHO CAN SAY YES: I think I’m going to use that quote with every interviewing class for as long as I live now, in that it perfectly captures what we should be doing when it comes to getting key information.

“Don’t take ‘No’ from someone who isn’t empowered to say ‘Yes’” is simple, direct and yet amazingly mind-blowing, as it dawns on me that I’ve probably failed in this regard myriad times in my journalism career and my daily life.

When you want permission for something, you need to go to the person who can grant it. Unfortunately, there are often underlings, minions and other pencil-pushers who get put in your path and try to dissuade you from getting that permission. If it’s important enough for you to pursue that permission, get past those people and go find the person who is empowered to grant it.

Like many things, this can be taken too far or in the wrong way. I am in no way saying you should become the snotty person who is holding up the line at the store, loudly proclaiming, “I need to speak to your manager!” because the bananas are ringing up at 39 cents per pound when the sign clearly said 36 cents per pound. However, I am saying most folks take the first “no” as a reason to give up far too easily.

Find the person empowered to say yes and see what that person says. If it’s still “no” at least you’ll know that nobody else is getting your story. If it’s “yes,” you got what you came here to get.

Two helpful tips to help explain massive stories in 30 words or less

Many of my students look forward to the time in their journalism careers when they can move beyond the the inverted-pyramid, paraphrase-quote structure of meetings, speeches and news conferences. The idea of sinking their teeth into something much longer, more complex and multifaceted feels like a rite of passage from beginner to expert.

Most of them, however, find themselves exceedingly frustrated when they attempt to ply their trade to those bigger pieces, as it can feel like juggling Jell-O while trying to herd cats. The pieces don’t fit together right, the focus seems to drift and the overall concept of the story becomes one blurry mess.

The key thing to writing any story is being able to answer two questions:

  1. What am I trying to explain here?
  2. Why should anyone care?

That is as true for basic meeting stories (“The city council made it illegal to park on the streets overnight, which means State University students will need to find private parking and pay a premium price.”) as it is for major investigations. (“Banks were improperly incentivized and got greedy in the subprime mortgage market, leading to  risky decisions that tanked the U.S. economy.”)

I remember catching a session at a college media convention many years ago, in which an investigative journalist for a popular sports magazine told the students in the room that if they were writing a story, they needed to be able to explain it in less than 30 words.

“If I ask you what your story is about and you tell me, ‘Well… It’s complicated…’ that tells me you really don’t know what your story is about,” he said.

After the session, I introduced myself, told him how much I liked his presentation and then I pressed him a bit on the “30 words” thing. I made the point that if we’re talking about a game story or a speech story or something, I could see his point. However, the work he did? That’s got to be impossible to capture in 30 words.

“No,” he said emphatically. “You need to nail it down like that or you don’t get the message across to the readers.”

To push back, I asked him about what he was working on at that point. This was in the early 2000s when baseball was starting to sniff around the issue of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. He was digging through records, leaked emails and other things that explained who knew what, when and where and how. He also had information on individual players, suppliers and owners who all found a way to kind of absolve themselves of the sin of cheating.

“How in the hell can you boil that kind of thing down to 30 words,” I asked him.

“As far back as the mid-1990s, players were taking steroids and everyone knew, but no one did anything because everyone was making too much money,” he replied.

25 words. Bam.

So how do you get to the point of being able to do something like that with your stories? Here are some simple ways to make it happen:

FOCUS ON THE CANDY: When we talk about basic writing and sentence structure in the book, we start with “The Holy Trinity” of noun-verb-object. The sentence starts with those three elements and then builds outward from that core. This ensures us that we’ve got the main idea at the heart of what we’re trying to say. As we add more content, it has to support and augment that, or it’s no good.

The same thing is true for when we write basic inverted pyramid stories: The lead is the essential foundation of what we’re doing in the story. Each subsequent paragraph has to support or augment that element or it needs to go away.

Writing longer and more complicated stories is no different. Just because you gathered 20 times the material you would normally gather for a simple news story, it doesn’t follow that all of that can or should be added to the piece. In fact, you want to strongly resist the urge for “notebook emptying” when it comes to bigger pieces.

Focus on the core element of what you want to say and get rid of everything that isn’t that. One of my favorite scenes from Aaron Sorkin’s old “Studio 60” show exemplifies this perfectly: Two rookie writers are trying to a sketch about the world’s worst criminal who takes hostages in a bank.

They try so hard to do so much with it, it doesn’t work. Once they essentially realize that problem, the do addition by subtraction and start eliminating stuff that isn’t about their premise. That’s where they get it to work.

FOCUS ON YOUR AUDIENCE: For generations, journalists have operated under the mantra of, “I write, you read, because I know what you need.” The fact was that the audience read the stuff or watched the stuff because they lacked for better options. When there’s one or two newspapers and three or four TV channels, well, you’re stuck with whatever is there.

Today, that’s not the case as not only do we have an almost infinite number of media platforms from which to choose, but we also have exponentially more content providers than at any point in time. The thing that’s going to make you stand out, and thus your story stand out, is understanding what your audience needs from you and then providing it in a clear, coherent and helpful fashion.

In big pieces, we try to show how everything we have gathered can affect everyone who might ever come across our work. It’s like we’re trying to be everything to everyone.

This is where audience centricity really comes into play. For WHOM are you writing this piece? What are the demographic, psychographic and geographic elements that you can use to tailor your piece to a specific group of folks that will benefit from your work?

In talking with my class the other day, we were going through the issues hammering our university right now, including an $18 million budget hole. In that, we started parsing specific audiences and what they would want to know:

  • Students care about their majors getting cut, the classes they need to graduate being available, tuition going up etc.
  • Faculty worry about increased teaching loads, the length of furloughs, the potential elimination of majors.
  • Non-academic faculty worry about getting fired, as we’re cutting about 200 jobs, and those that remain worry about what their jobs will look like after the culling.

In each case, you can create a solid focus based on the audience and then really know what your story is about. It can’t be about all of these things in depth, but it can be several stories that each focus on one key set of stakeholders and the issues that matter to them.


Do you know the way to Inexperienced Bay, Wisconsin? (And why we’re still not fully ready for AI journalism)

I could have sworn this was a joke, but it looks more like Microsoft’s attempt at AI journalism:

(I did the screenshot because I swear this is going away when someone figures it out…)

In case you need translation, the “writer” was referring to the “Green Bay Packers,” apparently assuming the word “green” to be a synonym for “inexperienced” instead of the color/proper noun. It’s also interesting that Jaquan Brisker is apparently playing “security,” as his listed role is “safety.” In football parlance, that’s the player who is the farthest back on the field as a last line of defense against an offensive score, not Paul Blart, Mall Cop.

The “author” also had a few other moments of comedy gold:

Final season, the Bears had the worst document within the league at 3-14, and it earned them the highest decide in April’s draft.

(Translation: Last year, the Bears had the worst record in the league at 3-14, earning them the top pick in the April draft.)

That commerce netted them DJ Moore, who has been one of many recreation’s extra productive large receivers over the previous couple of years…

(Translation: That trade got them DJ Moor, who has been one of the game’s most productive big time receivers…)

Aside from the terrible use of a thesaurus, the “writer” manages to string together some truly godawful sentences that are either nonsense or just run-on messes. The conclusion of the piece captures all that is wrong while giving me a new “phrasing” moment that I’m sure I’ll be using in regular conversation:

However regardless of how a lot Inexperienced Bay and Chicago might battle, their rivalry will at all times be a spark of pleasure for his or her respective fanbases.

EXERCISE TIME: If you’d like your own “spark of pleasure,” dig around on this site (or any other AI disasterbacle of a website) and pick an article for translation. Not only will it help you better understand what’s wrong with AI, but it will also help you sharpen your own writing through word choice and improved clarity.

(h/t to Jason McMahon of the Madison area ink-stained wretches for posting the original.)


Filak’s getting furloughed, so let’s have some fun with this…

This was expected, thanks in large part to the media coverage that explained UW-Oshkosh was going to be $18 million in the hole this year. That said, this wasn’t the best email to get before a holiday weekend:

(If you’d like to see a master course on sterile jargon, enjoy reading Patient Zero here…)

All faculty members are getting some degree of furlough, while the folks who are in the academic staff, administrative staff and other non-tenured spots on the campus await layoffs and other levels of anxiety-provoking announcements.

(Some of us sat through an hour-plus event that included the explanation that to close our $18 million budget deficit, the university would be using the $5 million remaining in its surplus fund, furloughing faculty to save $3 million and then relying on $1 million in cuts. Even my journalism brain realized something was wrong with that math.)

Given my use of humor to deal with darkness, the jokes on this have come fast and furiously through my brain:

  • “Welcome to UW-O, home of the furlough!”
  • “It’s UW-Furlough, where the customer comes… into an empty office at least a few days this month.”
  • “You can’t spell furlough without F-U!”

I also liked the line of “You are not to  be performing any work for UW-Oshkosh” as I’m trying to imagine the enforcement mechanisms that will be employed:

(Sound of SWAT officers kicking down my front door, annoying the dog and scattering the chickens)

Cop: “Filak! Are you GRADING PAPERS? Hands off that laptop now!”

Me: “No! Officer! I swear, I’m just surfing for porn!”

Cop: “Yeah… you BETTER BE!”

In any case, this isn’t a pity party for me but more of an opportunity to go out Irish-Wake style on this thing, so here’s what I’m pitching:


I’ve basically got 11 days to kill, so let’s do something positive with those.  I’m putting out the Bat Signal for anyone out there who is teaching journalism at the high school or college level, anyone running a student media outlet at any level, any group of students who need help in journalism or basically anyone who is looking to take advantage of a journalism professor/blogger chimp with a desire to help you in  any way I can while making a mockery of the system.

I am ready, willing and able to do pretty much anything you want me to do for your classroom, your newsroom, your student media organization or whatever for one of my 11 furlough days.

  • You want me to hop on a Zoom call and teach a topic? Fine.
  • You want me to drive out to your school and meet with students to do some brainstorming for the next issue of the student publication? Totally cool.
  • You want me to come out to your student media conference and teach a dozen sessions on stuff that people want/need? I’m there.
  • You need me to go through resumes, cover letters, copies of your student newspaper, last year’s yearbook and your relatively weak “break-up poetry” from sophomore year? Sure… Hey… Let’s do it!

In addition to that, I’m willing to kick in the following things:

  • A blog post about whatever we did, promoting your place and giving the readers a nice bit of information they can use in their own classroom/newsroom/journalistic lair
  • A copy of the latest edition of any of my textbooks. (I’ve got your choice of Media Writing, News Reporting and Writing, Media Editing and Exploring Mass Com, all of which are suitable substitutes for Ambien.)
  • One of my personalized, hand-burned wooden baseball bats for your office or classroom

(I’ve done some pretty cool bats…)


And, if I sell out the tour on all 11 dates, I’m getting T-shirts with your class/team/organization as an official tour stop.

So, what do you need to do to get in on the hustle? Hit me up via the contact page linked here and tell me the following things:

  • Who you are, what you do and where you are located
  • What you want me to do for your class/group/organization
  • When you want this to happen, as apparently I can only take a certain number of furlough days in a certain set of pay periods for reasons past my understanding
  • How you want to do this (in-person, on Zoom, via the Pony Express, whatever)
  • Why you want to do this

Let’s turn a truly stupid thing into something awesome for you and your folks, which I think Is the unofficial motto of this blog.

Blog lines are open. Operators are standing by.


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


How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist (A Throwback Thursday Post)

The front page of the Daily Tarheel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, captured the chaos of the active-shooter situation on that campus this week through an amazing “type-attack” approach comprised of text messages sent during the event:

The staff’s efforts on this are commendable, even as the situation that spurred their efforts has become far too common. I realized this when I typed “shooting” into the search engine for the blog and came back with far too many posts on the topic.

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” post, we go to late 2021 and go through a primer on covering shootings and chaos I put together at an educator’s request. As much as I hope it will help folks who need it, I really hope a lot fewer people will need it in the future…


How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist

After I ran Thursday’s post on the mass-shooting event in Michigan, a fellow journalism educator posted a note and a request:

I want to get your Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing to read your thoughts on covering shootings.
I teach near Philadelphia, the City if Brotherly Love, that surpassed an annual record of 500 people shot and killed—in 11 months. I am very sad a Temple University student returning from Thanksgiving weekend was shot twice in the chest in broad daylight by a 19-year-old who was trying to carjack him.
Whether shootings are individual or en masse, we must be sensitive to victims and families while seeking answers to curb the killings.
As I’ve said before, if someone asks for something, I will gladly blog about it, so here we go…
I teach crime reporting and breaking news as part of my junior-level reporting class, but I always include a caveat up front:

Reporting on things like shootings, hurricanes, car crashes and other sorts of mayhem doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of guidelines. I can tell you what I’ve done or what I’ve seen, but at the end of the day, how you react to something is entirely your own doing. While we can read press releases and talk about crime, you never know how you’ll react once you’re on the scene of something.

Until you’ve seen a man get pulled out of a thresher or stood 3 feet from a shooting victim’s dead body, you really don’t know how it will impact you in the short term or the long term.

That said, experience has been a pretty good teacher for me, as a crime reporter, a criminal justice editor and a student media adviser, so here is my best advice on how to work a shooting or other chaotic event for the first time.

We’ll look at what to do (or not do) during your reporting phase, your writing phase and your “afterward” phase.



Here are two key pieces of advice when it comes to covering these types of events:

Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.

A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.

Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those efforts conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a shooting or other similar event. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.

You need to understand that the shooter might still be out there, which can be dangerous or deadly for you or other people. Even if the shooter is dead or captured, police are likely still in a state of high tension, looking for other shooters or dangerous devices. You wandering around where you’re not supposed to be can create serious problems for them and you might be mistakenly viewed as a danger to them or others.  Adrenaline and watching too many “journalism movies” can make us feel emboldened to break the rules to get a major scoop.


Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand up against a burning building to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out.

Whatever is going on around you, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.


Use official sources when possible: When we talk about privilege in law, what we are talking about is the right to quote official sources, who are acting in their official capacity, without fear. This generally applies to judges rendering verdicts, congress-folks making proclamations from the floor and probably the pope. In some cases, it also applies to law-enforcement officials and fire folks who are working the scene of what’s going on. Relying on those folks can keep you out of trouble if facts turn out to be less than accurate.

(The law can get squishy here, so it’s always wise to check the rules.)

Even if the law itself isn’t providing you with a shield, interviewing these folks can be better than relying on witnesses or participants when it comes to the big-picture items. Regular folks get rattled when a shooting occurs or a car slams into a wall in front of them. They’re pumping adrenaline and freaking out, so their version of reality isn’t as solid as a crime scene investigator who has seen all this before. Even more, officials tend to have more of the entire picture in hand before they speak, which is beneficial to you as you try to make sense of this.

(Again, this doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over by the officials at some level, especially if they’re hiding something. However, you can REALLY get screwed over if a regular citizen decides to accuse someone of murder on live air. Yes, that actually happened…)

Engage in empathy during interviews with those involved: Trying to interview someone who is the victim of a shooting, a bystander/would-be victim of a shooting or those who are essentially collateral damage (family, friends etc. of a victim) is a ridiculously difficult proposition.

It can feel ugly and vulture-esque to bother people who just went through a chaotic and traumatic event. In some cases, a reporter’s desire to get the story can get them to push sources for information and exacerbate the trauma. Some publications have lousy editors who lean on reporters to dig into the situation with grace and dignity of frisking a dead body for valuables.

I have had a number of interviews in which I’ve had to approach a family member or friend of someone who just died or was injured in a terrible way. In one case, it was the family of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his best friend. In another case, it was the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died after slamming her car into a tree while drunken driving. The first family wanted nothing to do with me; the second talked to me at length. Neither was a pleasant experience.

Empathy and caution go a long way to making this less painful for everyone involved. I tell my students that we’re like waiters at a fancy cocktail party who walk around with hors d’oeuvres on a tray: We offer people something and if they don’t want it, we walk away quickly and politely.

The best example of how to think about this came from Kelly Furnas, a professor of journalism, who was advising student media at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shooting. More than 30 people died during an attack in which a student opened fire on campus. Furnas and his staff at the Collegiate Times had to not only cover the story, but eventually write obituaries for each of the fallen.

A quote he gave me years ago still sticks with me:

“The students I talked to were terrified of the fact that they would need to call these families and I said, ‘You don’t assume that these families don’t want to talk.’ That’s a very important thing to these families to tell the story of their son’s or daughter’s lives. That’s a very important thing. A lot of people not only want to do it, but expect to do it.”

He said the students were told to do their best and just give people a chance to speak. If they were outraged by the reporter’s questions, the reporter was to apologize and walk away.

In the end, however, very few people rejected the request for an interview, he said.

Don’t bail out on your duty to report because you are afraid of what people might say. Give them the chance to say no before you do it for them.



Primary Writing Advice

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: When you are working against the clock, trying to break news and pushing back against competitors and social media folks, it can feel like the weight of the world is on you to get SOMETHING out there.

In the olden days, as in before everyone could be online in 3 seconds after they saw something, we could hang on for a bit before having to produce content for public consumption. Broadcasters got the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts to inform folks. Print journalists could wait until press time to get the best version of reality, or update things between editions.

Today, you are live 24-7, so it can feel like you’re always under pressure to convert whatever you gathered into something for the public.

In the case of chaos, you need to balance that urge against your journalistic training to be accurate above all else. Fast and wrong isn’t doing anyone any good.

If you don’t have something you feel is accurate, supported and clear, don’t pump it out there and figure you’ll fix it later. You can always publish something later. Once you toss something out there, you can never really get it back.


Additional Writing Advice

Play it straight: You are likely living through an emotionally turbulent situation, one unlike anything you’ve faced to this point in your career. Your emotions can run the gamut of fear and anxiety to the sense that you’re about to write the Greatest Piece of Journalism Ever ™ so it’s time to shine.

There’s a reason we teach you the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism, namely so that when faced with something completely out of the ordinary, you can rely on your training to do things right. This is one of those times, so don’t overdo anything.

Tell the people what happened and why they care in the most direct way possible. It’s what good pros do:

A 15-year-old opened fire at his Michigan high school Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding eight others, authorities said, in what appears to be the deadliest episode of on-campus violence in more than 18 months.

Don’t start slathering on adverbs. Don’t hype it with opinions. Don’t turn this into a narrative lead that shifts the focus toward “dig my writing” and away from what happened.

Tell people what happened in the most direct and clear way possible, based on what you can prove.

Speaking of which…


Stick to the facts: In the film “And the Band Played On,” researchers at the CDC are trying to pinpoint the cause of a strange malady that is killing primarily gay men. Their quest to identify the AIDS virus as well as its cause and spread had the virus  hunters relying on a simple mantra: “What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” Unless they could hit the “prove” stage, they refused to state something publicly with certainty.

This approach is a good one for anyone covering chaos, especially something that continues to unfold, like an active shooter situation.

If you can stick to the facts and the material provided to you from reliable sources, you can keep your readers informed and avoid spreading misinformation. If you don’t know how many people were shot, don’t guess. Don’t rely on terms like “arguably” to cover over your limited knowledge, saying things like “This is arguably the worst shooting in U.S. history.”

Say only what you can prove at the time, and that also means taking care with how you are stating something.

For example, police can say something like, “The shooter is no longer a threat.”

OK, does that mean he’s been captured? He was killed? He ran out of bullets? Also are we sure the shooter is a “he?” (Make sure in the reporting phase to check these things, as well as other details before publishing.)

Good work on the front end and sticking to what you know on the back end can lead to simple statements like: “Police Chief John Smith said the shooter, a 15-year-old male student at the school, is ‘no longer a threat.’”


Attribute everything you can: One of the key things you should note in the Washington Post lead was the attribution. Even though “authorities said” is vague, the rest of the story was able to fill in specifically who those authorities are and why we should trust them.

I always try to make the point that attributions are like anchor points when you’re climbing a rock formation: You might not need all of them, but it’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I also note that I’ve never met anyone who has been fired or sued for over-attributing, but more than a few people have ended up on the short end of the stick for under attributing.

When you are writing a story like this, it’s important to look at each statement you type and ask, “Says who?” If the answer is a specific person, include that in the attribution (County Coroner Jill Smith, Police Chief Doug Jones, Superintendent Raul Allegre etc.). If the information is more general, as in you got the same story from multiple people or documents, make that clear as well (Several police officers said the hallway was littered with spent shell casings from an AR-15; Court documents state Principal Helen Carter repeatedly filed reports with the district on this issue; An email chain between the boy’s parents and teachers show that while school officials were worried about his behavior, the parents said ‘Guns are part of his life, so back off.’”)

If you DON’T have a specific source or collective source, where did you get this stuff and how sure are you that it’s right? That’s where people usually screw up, because they assume they know more than they do and they fail to look it up or find a source worthy of attribution.

If you can’t find a source worthy of an attribution, wait until you can before you publish it.


Have someone else read it before it goes out: After you read and reread and reread something again, you can find yourself blind to your work. You also probably cut and pasted a half-dozen things in a half-dozen spots and then undid at least half of that. By the time you think you’re done, you lack any sense of what is actually in there and what you SWEAR you wrote instead.

A fresh set of eyes are a godsend in this kind of situation.

An editor or a colleague who hasn’t read this before will give you a good chance of catching things like if you swapped the name of a victim and the shooter or if you skipped a first reference to a source. It’s something worth doing because you want to make sure you’re right.

My personal stupid thing was that I always got the day wrong for every story I did. For reasons past my understanding, I always wrote that something happened Monday. Didn’t matter what day, week, month or year something happened, I always made it a Monday.

I caught a lot of those on second or third reads, but it was usually up to my editor or a colleague to ask, “Are you sure this happened on Monday?”

Again, you can’t beat a fresh set of eyes.



Never assume you’re done reporting: The thing about chaos is that it doesn’t operate on a schedule. It doesn’t show up as expected or finish up neatly at the end of an hour, like a TV crime drama. You have to make sure you’re frequently checking in to see what’s going on and if you’re still telling people the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Whatever was right as rain at 9 a.m. is completely wrong at 2 p.m.

The arrest that happened last night turned out to be a case of mistaken identity the next morning.

An early body count ends up being much larger or smaller than once was thought.

Assumptions become facts or become worthless as police continue to investigate.

I remember once following up on a story for a fellow reporter who had filed and gone home after her shift was done. The story was about a toddler clinging to life after falling into a creek. The whole story was about hope and prayer and this boy’s will to live. She was a great reporter and a great writer and this was one of those amazing stories she always told.

My job was “just to make sure” if something changed, so about 10:30 p.m., I called the hospital to get an update that might or might not make the paper.

The PR person was kind of half talking to me and half talking to someone nearby when I heard her say, “So… We can tell him then?”

The kid died five minutes earlier when they took him off life support.

I asked about four really bad questions, that ended up having this woman shouting at me something like, “Everything possible was done to save this child’s life!” (which sounds a lot better in print without the anger in her voice). As she’s talking/yelling, I wrote “KID DIED” on a legal pad and held it up for my editor who was across the room.

He saw it and came rushing over as I finished the interview.

“Oh shit,” he told me. “You have four minutes to rewrite the story.”

Long story short, it got done and we got it subbed in for the first edition of the paper. I didn’t get a byline, but I got a hell of an experience and a valuable lesson: Chaos doesn’t operate on your schedule. Make sure you’re constantly checking in.

Engage in self-care activities: One of the easiest things to forget when you’re in the middle of a chaotic event is that you are human and that things do affect you. The job allows you a kind of shield against feeling things or coming to grips with what you’re witnessing at the time.

Don’t kid yourself. You’re taking a beating, whether you know it or not, and you need to heal yourself a bit.

The truth is, you will see things that will gag a maggot, horrors that will haunt you for years and truly inexplicable acts that have you asking “Why?” more times than a 4-year-old after ingesting a pound of sugar. Those things DO leave a scar, whether you want them to or not. They’re there, whether  you realize it or not.

You will need to do some serious self-care activities to keep from sustaining serious damage.

This can be simple decompression things like clearing your mind or coming to grips with things you’ve seen or written. It can be talking through your feelings and emotions with colleagues or looking for things that can help you reset your mind and body.

These things can also include therapy or professional help. Acknowledging and coping with what your work has done to you does not make you weak or soft.

It makes you a human being who wants to take care of their own needs before they can take care of their audience’s.

Three tips to help you think harder about your word choices as a journalist

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re back for the year, applying the new model for the blog with the Wednesday post being about writing and/or reporting. If you missed Mass Com Monday, you can find it here. Please continue to  send suggestions for improvement  or lists of things you need covered here. — VFF)


Students have often told me that when they are writing a story and they hit a lazy patch, a dumb phrase or something else that doesn’t make for good copy, they hear my voice in their heads, barking at them to fix it.

I, too, have a voice like that in my head and it belongs to Cliff Behnke, the former managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Even today, decades since I last saddled up at a terminal in that newsroom, Cliff still scares the hell out of me.

He had the ability to parse words in such a way that made you feel horribly inadequate for not seeing your failings before he did. I can still remember the first experience I had where he did this. I had written a caption for a photo that noted there were “89 different model railroad train layouts” at the expo center.

Cliff made the point that, of course they’re different. Could I imagine if there were 89 of them and they were ALL IDENTICAL? So why bother with “different?”

That kind of insight became a big part of my writing, not just in shedding the word “different” (another one of Cliff’s peeves was “new” as in “They built a new school.” Has anyone ever built an OLD school?), but also in learning to challenge every word I wrote, and more than a few of them that I read. Take this headline from Deadspin for example:

Sexual assault is a horrible, terrible, absolutely no-good thing, so do we need the word “disturbing” to describe the details? I really went through pretty much every iteration of any potential detail I could think of to find one that wouldn’t fit in the realm of disturbing. I came up empty.

The headline could have used any one of a dozen other relatively meaningless words that could draw in a reader. For example, the writer could have gone with “shocking” details that might involve some really weird stuff this idiot tried as compared to the more banal details like he reeked of Polo and drove a Tesla. At least in that case, we wouldn’t have a “new/different” kind of situation here.

With that in mind, here are a couple hints on how to challenge your word choices in journalistic writing:

Addition by subtraction: In the case of “new” or “different” or “disturbing,” you find that the word really doesn’t add anything by being there. No  one would think they built an old school, had 89  identical model railroad layouts or had some fun and exciting details about a sexual assault. Thus, feel free to eliminate the word.  Occasionally, when I challenge a word in this  fashion, I go back to this scene from “A Few Good Men:”

“I felt his life might be in danger…”

“Grave danger?”

“Is there another kind?”

If you lack the internal level of sarcasm to make this work on a daily basis, I’m sure you have a  friend, colleague or definitely a professor of journalism who can help you sharpen that part of your personality.


I do not think that word means what you think it means:  Looking up words is always a good idea,  as not every definition fits the intended meaning. I’m sure one of my students would like to have back about two years of his music reviews in which he kept using “penultimate” to mean “super-extra-ultimate” when it really means “second to last.”

However, I’m even looking at words that people tend to use interchangeably that can add opinion or shift the truth of an issue in an unforeseen way. Consider the words “change” and “improve.”

Both can be true,  but they don’t mean the same thing, even if people involved in a situation kind of wish they did:

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will change the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will improve the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

An improvement always presupposes change. That said, a change CAN be, but isn’t NECESSARILY an improvement. EXAMPLE:

CHANGE 1: Your landlord has installed a set of handrails on your staircase to make it easier and  safer for you to get into the house. 

CHANGE 2: Your landlord has removed the steps from your house and replaced the lawn with a moat full of starving alligators.

Clearly, both change your housing situation, but only one is an improvement.Keep an eye on words that couch reality like “development,” “benefit” and other such things that really need a look to see if they’re really just a “change” kind of thing.


Go back to the Holy Trinity: Most of the reason we get into a jam in writing is because we don’t have that solid noun-verb-object core that makes for the start of a strong sentence. If you can start with those three elements, most sentences will dramatically improve.

Even more, the quality of each element can eliminate the need for those ineffective descriptors that we’ve discussed above.  In the Deadspin headline you get “Details emerge from complaint” as your noun, verb and object elements. “Emerge” makes it sound like something out of a sewer-monster horror movie at best. “Details” couldn’t be more vague if you tried.

Stronger focus on the noun-verb-object structure could really make for a stronger headline:

Texans’ minority owner sexually assaulted women through groping, digital penetration, court complaint states

If that feels too forward, you could go with something a little less active and a little more tame:

Texans’ minority owner accused of sexual assaults, including digital penetration and groping a woman through her underwear

Think about how concrete your noun can be and how vigorous your verb can be. In some cases, if you have to go with a weaker verb, adding clarity and value to the noun and the object can draw the readers into the piece.

A police raid on the Marion County Record’s newspaper office is both a violation of the First Amendment and a case study in astounding stupidity

ABC’s story on the raid, along with actual footage of the raid. 

THE LEAD: The entire force of the Marion, Kansas, police department, along with backup from county sheriff’s deputies raided the newsroom of the Marion County Record on Friday, turning this town of 2,000 people into a battleground for the First Amendment:

A search warrant shows police were looking for evidence that a reporter had run an improper computer search to confirm an accurate report that a local business owner applying for a liquor license had lost her driver’s license over a DUI.

The owner and publisher of the Record, Eric Meyer, along with First Amendment advocates and journalism organizations from across the country, have said the raid went too far.

Police seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the newspaper, its reporters and the home of the publisher. Meyer said police injured a reporter’s finger while taking away her cellphone.


THE BASIC BACKGROUND: The newspaper staff and restaurant owner Kari Newell had a bit of a beef when Newell had its journalists removed her establishment during a public meet and greet  with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner.

Shortly after that, the paper received a tip about Newell’s criminal record:

A confidential source contacted the newspaper, Meyer said, and provided evidence that Newell had been convicted of drunken driving and continued to use her vehicle without a driver’s license. The criminal record could jeopardize her efforts to obtain a liquor license for her catering business.

A reporter with the Marion Record used a state website to verify the information provided by the source. But Meyer suspected the source was relaying information from Newell’s husband, who had filed for divorce. Meyer decided not to publish a story about the information, and he alerted police to the situation.

“We thought we were being set up,” Meyer said.

Police contacted Newell, who alleged the paper had “illegally obtained” information about her, thus leading to the charges against the paper, as well as the raid on the newsroom and multiple private homes.


FIRST-AMENDMENT FALLOUT: The amendment allows for freedom of the press and prohibits governmental interference in the gathering and dissemination of the news, with only a few extreme circumstances warranting this level of aggression.  To put this in perspective, former President Richard Nixon didn’t even stoop to this level against the New York Times in relation to the Pentagon Papers situation, so if you can make Tricky Dick look restrained, your actions are pretty egregious.

More than 30 media organizations signed on to a letter from the Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press, condemning the raid, stating “there appears to be no justification for the breadth and intrusiveness of the search—particularly when other investigative steps may have been available—and we are concerned that it may have violated federal law strictly limiting federal, state, and local law enforcement’s ability to conduct newsroom searches.”

The Marion Police Department is defending its actions via a Facebook post, explaining that, while, yes, in most cases they should use a subpoena, and yes, in most cases, they should be less aggressive and no, they really can’t tell you WHY they did what they did, these extraordinary measures were necessary. Now, stop asking so many questions and go outside and play…


READ THIS NOW: Here’s an interview with the newspaper’s owner, Eric Meyer, via The Handbasket that both explains what happened in the raid as well as some backstory on the paper’s investigation into Police Chief Gideon Cody.

The paper was looking into allegations that Cody retired from his previous post to dodge potential charges of sexual misconduct, which could have led to punishment from that department.


THIS STUPIDITY GOES TO 11: A few random thoughts that explain how truly stupid this situation is…

  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part I: The paper DIDN’T run anything on Newell, instead turning the tip over to the police. If the paper had ACTUALLY COMMITTED A CRIME, would the staffers have called the cops and made a point of alerting them to it? That has the same internal logic as telling the cop who pulled you over, “Officer, I know I was going a little fast, but it’s only because I need to get this trunkload of heroin to Fat Jimmy’s criminal hideout before 5 p.m.”
  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part II: After the paper told the police about the situation, the police told Newell about the situation and Newell then complained about the paper at a city council meeting. This prompted the paper to run a story that corrected record about the situation. In short, if Newell had said nothing, nobody would likely have known anything about this entire issue. Now, half the planet knows about Newell and her DUI.
  • Astounding Level of Stupid, Part III: The easiest way to know this situation has no merit is this quote from the chief and follow up paraphrase: “I believe when the rest of the story is available to the public, the judicial system that is being questioned will be vindicated,” Mr. Cody said. He declined to discuss the investigation in detail. Wait… Where have I heard someone say that before? Oh, yeah! Here, and here, and here… Oh, hell, just Google “I will be vindicated” or “The truth will come out” and then look for a follow up story that involves the length of the prison term involved…


DOCTOR OF PAPER HOT TAKE: This is the case of trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer, and it’s not even clear if a fly was there to be killed.

  • Newell alleged that the paper had “illegally obtained” private information about her DUI arrest, offering no real proof that a) the paper did so or b) how she knew how the paper supposedly illegally did anything. If an allegation this flimsy is all it takes to get the police to raid a home or business, I have a list of folks who are in for a bad week…
  • Information is not “private” just because you don’t like people knowing about it. Embarrassing private details CAN be the source of legal wrangling when publicly exposed, but that’s not this. I’m sure Newell isn’t thrilled that people know about her DUI, suspended license and more, but it’s a matter of public record as a criminal offense.
    • Put another way: If I blogged about the various noises and phrases Amy utters while we have sex, that would fit the “private information” area and she could have legal options of a punitive nature. However, the police report related to how she murdered me for disclosing those noises and phrases on the blog would NOT be private, as police reports are public records. Make sense?
  • Information is also fair game for journalists when they receive it through open-record searches, news tips and other similar things the paper is said to have done here. Even IF (big IF) someone else had done something illegal to find information about Newell and then provided it to the newspaper, the law dictates that the paper is free of wrongdoing as long as it didn’t take part in the illegal acts.

More on this will clearly become part of the blog as more on this becomes available…

Three things student journalists can learn from the Texas A&M Kathleen McElroy hiring debacle

THE LEAD: Texas A&M screwed the pooch when it came to the Kathleen McElroy hiring and is now literally paying for it:

Texas A&M University reached a $1 million settlement with a Black journalism professor who said her tenured position offer fell apart after backlash to her work on diversity and equity efforts, the university announced Thursday.

The university’s leadership apologized to Kathleen McElroy for “the way her employment application was handled” in June when the terms of her proposed contract changed dramatically.

The CNN lead is a bit “sanitized,” but things got ugly as hell in the middle of this saga, that led to the resignation of both the interim dean who would have overseen McElroy and the university president, whom we’ve discussed here before. The Texas-based press was more damning, if not long-winded:

The Texas A&M University System reached a $1 million settlement with Kathleen McElroy and made a public admission that then-President M. Katherine Banks derailed the potential journalism director’s hiring after alumni, including a conservative-leaning group called The Rudder Association, voiced concerns about McElroy’s experience in diversity, equity and inclusion.

The system’s Office of General Counsel released a lengthy report about its internal investigation Thursday, following mounting pressure from faculty who fear that outside interference at the university has infringed on their rights in the hiring and promotion process and chilled their speech in the classroom.


BULLETS AND GUNS: Despite saying she was unaware of everything going on, text messages between Banks and interim Dean José Luis Bermúdez proved otherwise. The incongruity between what Banks said publicly and privately proved to be a “smoking gun” in this whole mess:

While then-President M. Katherine Banks told faculty leaders in a public meeting that she did not know of any regressive changes to McElroy’s contract, the texts prove otherwise. They show her and José Luis Bermúdez, then-interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, orchestrating a plan to move the journalist to a multiyear nontenured professorship and multiyear at-will directorship, which they said would be necessary to get her approved by Texas A&M’s Board of Regents.

The texts show the pair drafting a public defense as to why the changes made sense for McElroy’s purposes. Banks told Bermúdez, “If you get this done, you get a bonus.” They also indicated that nothing would be guaranteed for McElroy.

Banks also used a weapons-based analogy in how lucky TAMU got in making McElroy’s job offer so lousy that McElroy had to back out:

Bermúdez later apologized to Banks, who told him not to worry.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” Banks said. “She is an awful person to go to the press before us.”

“A terrible journalist too,” Bermúdez said.”Completely self-serving.”

Bermúdez said McElroy lied in much of her interview with the Tribune, and Banks responded that she had already told A&M’s chancellor that was the case.

“Just think if she had accepted!!! Ugh,” she texted.

When it came to “dodging a bullet,” I think Banks saw herself this way in this situation:

But it was really more like this…


SHORT SUMMARY: McElroy landed relatively well, in that she has a job back where she was, an apology from the people who messed with her and $1 million settlement to boot. One good friend of mine who is a professor down there noted that the bigger concern is how political pressure came to bear on the academic world in this truly terrible way, and she’s right. That needs some serious overhauling, but for a one-person, one-situation thing, this arc has now closed.


KEY LESSONS FOR JOURNALISM STUDENTS: The whole point of the blog is to help you learn something from everything we see or do, so here are three key things journalism students can take with them in analyzing this mess.

DON’T ACCEPT THE PUBLIC NARRATIVE: We’ve said this a dozen different ways on the blog, including “Trust but verify,” and “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” but it bears repeating here: When people tell you something, don’t take it at face value until you are satisfied that it is accurate.

The image Banks put out of being as innocent as a newborn kitten when it came to all of this basically fell apart once people started digging into what she knew and when she knew it. It also didn’t help her case that she put a lot of her “less-pleasant opinions” in writing via text messages.

As a reporter, you should listen to what people tell you and you should definitely record and report what they say. That said, you can’t just rely on that alone, or else your less reporter and more stenographer. Take what they say and use other people, documents and resources to challenge what you have learned. In some cases it will support that narrative, but in many others, you’ll find significant deviations from the public script.


SOURCES MATTER: This whole situation started to unravel in early July when the Texas Tribune published the key story about the situation unraveling. Texas has literally scores of outstanding major media outlets in print, broadcast and web that are capable of handling a story like this, but the Tribune got there first.

Why? They had McElroy as a source and a connection:

Disclosure: Kathleen McElroy, Texas A&M University, The New York Times, the Texas A&M University System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This is in no way a rip on the Tribune, the staff there or anyone else involved in this really important and well-crafted story. It’s merely to point out the fact that a source found the Tribune to be a trustworthy media outlet that would tell a story and do so in a way that gave the source faith. McElroy could have picked up the phone and called the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin-American Statesman, WFAA or a dozen other places and probably been fine. However, when she and the Tribune connected, an appropriate level of trust and understanding between source and media outlet emerged and we all benefited from this symbiosis.

This is why getting to know sources and developing trustworthy relationships with people we cover can matter so much. I don’t know if I’d trust a random reporter who called me about a story, but there are specific reporters I’d gladly help in many ways because I know who they are and we have established a strong relationship over the years. This is the bedrock of good journalism, and it needs to be something we get back to, now that we don’t have to do every interview on Zoom, for fear of COVID.


JOURNALISM HAS INFLUENCE: There are plenty days in this field when it seems like we don’t do a lot or that we don’t matter for much, but stories like this reinforce the value we have as a profession. Had it not been for the media spotlight and subsequent digging, this situation would have likely gone away in a quiet fashion and no one would have really been the wiser.

However, because someone decided to put the public eye on this issue, a number of changes have occurred. (You can argue if those are big enough changes or the right ones, but that’s not the argument I’m going for here…) You had leadership change, you had a report on this issue, you had the exposure of outside influence on this, you had a financial settlement and you had an apology. It might or might not be enough, but it’s more than it would have been, if not for the role of journalism.

You don’t have to overthrow a government or right a social wrong through your student newspaper to have influence. My favorite story was one in which the student newspaper I was advising got wind of the university’s decision to start charging students 10 cents for a cup of ice water at the campus eateries. They reported on the issue and the students made such a stink about it, the admin backed off. You can say it’s just a dime, but it’s another example of local journalism having a direct impact on a situation in favor of its readers.


FINAL SIDE NOTE: During the debacle that was, I wrote an open letter to Dr. McElroy, tongue mostly planted in cheek, telling her to “drop those zeroes” and get with the heroes over here at UWO because everything here was amazingly cool. In the intervening week, we some how managed to make Sam Bankman-Fried look financially well-balanced:

UW-Oshkosh plans to cut about 200 non-faculty staff and administrators this fall, while furloughing others, UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said Thursday, as the university faces an unprecedented $18 million budget shortfall. The cuts amount to about 20% of university employees.

“It is no longer sustainable for us to operate without dramatic reduction in expenses,” Leavitt said in an email to employees.

Long story short, I clearly have the predictive power of Jim Cramer these days, so trust me on the journalism and less so on the future.




The University of Wisconsin Madison is right that the First Amendment protects the speech of racist idiots, but that’s not as bad as it seems

THE LEAD: My alma mater made the news this week for all the wrong reasons:

A video of a University of Wisconsin student using racist slurs and references began circulating on multiple social media platforms Monday.

The video showed a white UW student using racial slurs and expletives directed toward the Black community. Others could be heard laughing at the rant in the background of the video.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some media outlets have named this person and identified her as a UW-Madison sophomore. The U has only confirmed she is a student, and various other outlets have not verified her name. I couldn’t independently verify the person’s name, so I’m not using it. Restraint is the better part of valor in cases like this.)

SEE IT NOW: Here’s an “edited for TV” version of the video:




  • Mnookin is right about the First Amendment and the way in which it protects even the most odious speech. Governmental agencies cannot be curtail or punish speech, with a few notable exceptions, such as if the speech contains a true threat or falls under the fighting words doctrine of inciting imminent lawless action.
  • The second scenario clearly doesn’t apply here, as she wasn’t inciting a group to do something violent. As for the first one, not to appear glib here, but unless people viewing the video could realistically believe this student could become a ghost and haunt them, while forcing them to “pick cotton” until they died, it doesn’t apply either.
  • The First Amendment provides both the disease and the cure in this case, in that the best way to deal with bad speech is through more speech.
    • The students who have written on various platforms, expressing their outrage and sadness, are availing themselves of their right to speech and press.
    • The students who gathered to let the school know they aren’t happy with this student or the school’s response are availing themselves of their right to peaceably assemble.
    • The students signing the petition that demands this kid get the boot from Badger Town are relying on the right to petition the “government” for redress of grievances.
    • This is how this kind of thing is supposed to work.

DYNAMICS OF WRITING FLASHBACK: Sadly, this isn’t the first time the blog has looked at a situation like this. In 2019, here at UWO, a student posted images on Instagram to “out” several other students who had a whiteboard filled with slurs and a swastika flag in their home. At the time, we touched base with legal eagle Frank LoMonte for a walkthrough on free expression and what was likely to happen to the students who “expressed” themselves in this fashion.

DOCTOR OF PAPER HOT TAKE: I’m not in favor of suppressing speech at any level, even when it comes to terrible speech like this. It’s not that I like the student’s speech (I clearly don’t) but I know that if we start suppressing speech based on content or viewpoint, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes after YOUR content and viewpoint or MY content and viewpoint.

Therefore, what happened is abhorrent, but the backlash that has ensued illustrates a point many people truly don’t understand when it comes to the First Amendment: Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech.

That said, here are some things to think about regarding this situation that aren’t being talked about right now:

  • The university is wrong when it says it can’t boot this kid out of school.
  • Whether the university decides to bounce this kid or not, the outcome will be the same.
    • If I had to guess here, I’m thinking the U is running clock on this situation, hoping to get to the end of the semester and then figure out its next move. I don’t like that kind of mealy mouthed approach to dealing with this, but I also understand that the U might consider it the safest way forward from a legal perspective.
    • At this point, this kid has to know there is NO WAY she’s coming back to this campus in the fall, given the fallout she’s already faced. As more places confirm her name, it’s going to be everywhere and she’s not going to be able to escape the consequences of her stupidity. Think about every time a TA calls roll in a class and all the heads turn knowingly in  her direction. Think about who the hell is going to want to be her roomie next year. She’s headed somewhere else.

KEY TAKEAWAY: As frustrating as it is for ANYONE who thinks, “How the hell can this university let this racist idiot stay here and let her racist stupidity slide?” (And, I count myself among those feeling frustrated), I think a key thing to remember is that the First Amendment works.

  • Nobody stopped her from posting her stupidity, thus, her free speech rights remained intact.
  • The free speech reaction from seemingly everyone on this side of the planet regarding her stupidity has brought the issue to the forefront in a way that is forcing people to deal with the situation.
  • The continued pressure brought to bear in reaction to this student’s stupid expression is likely to create the proper outcomes:
    • The kid is catching hell from every corner of the universe.
    • The kid is likely to be “gone” from school.
    • The school is likely to further solidify its position against people who behave like this.
    • The message of, “We’re not there yet,” when it comes to issues of race is once again highlighted.
    • In light of all of this, the university is going to have to pony up more time, resources and education to deal with this issue.

In the end, all of this is the result of speech and the protections afforded to it in this country.

A Resolution to Cardi B’s False Light Lap Flap Suit and a Reminder to Be Careful in Taking Stuff off the Internet (A Throwback Post)

I apparently haven’t been paying enough attention to Cardi B these days, as I managed to miss the jury verdict in October related to “tattoo-gate” and her album cover I’m still not allowed to show you:

Rapper Cardi B didn’t violate a man’s right of publicity by transposing his back tattoo onto a model for the racy cover of her 2016 mixtape, a California federal jury said Friday.

Kevin Brophy Jr. initially sought $5 million for the transposition of his distinctive full-back tattoo onto the back of another man suggestively performing a sex act on Cardi B on the cover of “Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1.” A jury disagreed, apparently accepting the rapper and reality TV star’s argument that the 2016 cover for her first mixtape was transformative fair use.

In December, a judge denied Brophy’s appeal:

“The jury had an ample basis for its verdict. For example, the jury could have reasonably concluded that the back tattoo on the model on the mixtape cover at issue in this suit was not sufficiently identifiable with Brophy to constitute misappropriation of his likeness or depiction in a false light. Because the model’s face is not visible, identification based on facial appearance is impossible,” Judge Carney wrote.

Even more compelling, he wrote, was the small part the tattoo played in the overall composition of the cover art.

That said, Brophy isn’t giving up. In January, he attempted to revive the suit, arguing that the original trial had significant problems with it.

The first of these alleged prejudicial errors of law involves Brophy Jr.’s purportedly being “deprived of his fundamental and substantial right to cross-examine Cardi B at trial.” Ahead of this trial, the court determined that “each party would have two opportunities to examine each witness,” per Brophy Jr.’s motion.


Regarding the second of the above-noted “prejudicial errors of law,” the filing likewise takes aim at the court’s alleged decision to exclude evidence from Cardi B’s separate defamation trial. The “Up” artist won the latter (albeit as a plaintiff) with the same trial counsel as in the tattoo suit, and Brophy Jr. says that the defamation matter’s claims “are strikingly similar to the claims in this case.”

I still have no idea how he didn’t manage to pull a false-light claim out of this, other than the idea that the model didn’t look enough like him to make people think he was the “model.” Either that, or he couldn’t prove that reasonable people would find it “highly offensive” to be considered the “lap friend” of Cardi B on that album cover.

In any case, here’s a look back at how this all got started and a couple good lessons that still stand up, regardless of who ends up winning…



Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” prequel gets her sued on allegations of invasion of privacy (and two things you can learn from this debacle)

Trying to find fresh and relevant cases involving “misappropriation” or “false light” claims of invasion of privacy can be difficult.

Thank God for Cardi B.

A suit that is headed to trial later this year will determine if the rapper engaged in both of these acts when she included a distinctive tattoo on one of her album covers:

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a man’s distinctive back tattoo was used without his permission in a sexual picture on an album cover by rapper Cardi B.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California refused to dismiss the suit by plaintiff Kevin Michael Brophy Jr., who sports a full back tattoo that shows a tiger battling a snake.


Brophy said his likeness was misappropriated in the photoshopped image in “a misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual way.” He alleges misappropriation of likeness or identity, violation of the right to publicity under California law, and false light invasion of privacy.

Based on the decency standards my editors have for me here, I can’t include a copy of the album cover (I tried adding it to a Facebook post on this and I got flagged for violating community standards…). I also can’t mention the title of the album cover or even EXPLAIN what it is that is happening ON the album cover here.

Just Google “Cardi B,” “album cover” and “Gangsta” and you’ll like find it.

Essentially, let’s just say that Cardi B is drinking a beer while the male model upon whom Brophy’s back tattoo has been superimposed is doing something where the tattoo is fully visible and the man’s face is not.

The concept of misappropriation is the use of someone’s image without their approval. A simple example of this would be if one of my students was running for student body president and thought my endorsement would be valuable to him. Thus, he grabbed a photo of me teaching and included it on his posters without asking for my endorsement.

False light claims tend to put two true things close enough together that people will see them as related, even if they’re not. In cases like these, the court is looking at the “gist” of the material to see if a falsehood is implied. For example, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., actor Jose Solano won a false-light suit after the magazine published his photo along with headlines implying he posed nude in the magazine, which he did not.

Some states, like Colorado, don’t recognize these kinds of legal nuances, rolling them instead into either general defamation or copyright claims, depending on what is at the core of the case. In other cases, the claims are without merit and get tossed quickly, leaving few true battles over who has the right to control a personal image.

In this case, it’s a daily double, in that the “misappropriation” claim of Brophy’s image (it’s a heck of a tattoo…) and the “false light” claim (that isn’t Brophy on the cover, but anyone who knows him and that tattoo would be hard-pressed to determine that on first glance) seem to fit the definitions perfectly.

The rapper’s legal team asked a federal judge to toss the suit back in December, arguing the album art was covered under a fair-use claim, in that the reworking of the tattoo into the piece made the work transformative. The court disagreed and the case will move forward to trial in the near future.

To say Cardi B is displeased with these allegations would be a slight understatement, based on her deposition:

“I’m really upset because I really have to be with my kid. All because of some bulls**t trying to get money and then $5,000,000. Are you f***ing kidding me? That mixtape didn’t even make, not even a million dollars.” Cardi added, “I got real lawsuits with real sh**, and I got to deal with this bulls**t. This is four hours long taking away from my time, my job, my motherhood.”

Ah, yes… If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my own mother’s voice uttering those exact words…

In any case, regardless of how this turns out, here are two key things you can learn from just watching this train wreck take place:

Permission for use solves almost everything: In reading through the coverage of this case and the depositions, it turns out the guy who designed the cover just Googled “back tattoo” and grabbed this one at random. (It also turns out he was paid $50 to build the cover, which could be the cautionary tale of “You get what you pay for,” I suppose.)

I would bet every dollar in my pocket right now against a pile of nothing that when this guy built the cover, he NEVER thought anyone would complain about their image being used in this fashion. The… let’s call it “up close with Cardi B”… nature of this image would likely be bragging rights for almost every human male on the planet, I would imagine.

In this case, he appears to have found the one guy with the one tat who didn’t feel this way. That’s why it’s important to ask people for permission to use their stuff. I could assume that any journalism outlet would LOVE to have its stories or photos or illustrations included in a textbook to illustrate how the true greats of the field operate. However, my publisher believes in covering its keester, so we have permission forms that get signed and stored.

Maybe Brophy is making a power play and could care less how he would be portrayed on an album cover, so long as he got paid. Maybe Brophy is truly a man who views this representation of him as “misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual,” and is truly upset by this. Who knows? The key is that it’s his right to have his body portrayed as he sees fit, which is why this is going to court.

Permission would have made this much easier to figure out, so make sure you get it.

“But it’s JUST for X” is never an excuse: Somewhere in the sprawling field of asterisks that populate Cardi B’s quote above is the notion that the album only made $1 million, so to have to pay out $5 million is ridiculous. The problem here is that she’s not being sued for a portion of revenue. She’s being sued to penalize her for her actions.

The law can be more or less forgiving in certain situations, but it is the law. Therefore, deciding to steal something and then say, “but it was JUST…” isn’t necessarily going to keep you out of trouble. I can’t remember how many times I’ve critiqued a high school or college paper that basically stole an image and published it. (Writing “Photo courtesy of Google” didn’t make it any better.) When I pointed out how much trouble this could create, I got the “Well, it’s JUST for a HIGH SCHOOL newspaper. I’m sure people have better things to do that try to sue us.”

Maybe. But a) Is that a risk you want to take? and b) Is that the lesson you want to teach your students? (“Steal small, kids, and you’ll never have to take responsibility for it!”)

I’ve seen this happen both ways, with bigger news outlets stealing from student newspapers (One told my photographer, “You’re just a student publication. You should be happy we’re using your work…” Um… No…) and student papers stealing from the big dogs. Both cases are wrong and in both cases, you can get into trouble for doing it.

I’m sure this guy who got paid $50 to design this thing for one of the myriad women who would likely crash and burn on “Love and Hip Hop” was thinking, “I’m just doing this thing for beer money. No way anyone buys this stupid thing.” However, he hit big, so now everyone is paying the price.

It’s like speeding: Sure, you might get away with five over, but when the cop in Rosendale pulls you over for doing 31 in a 30, the “But I was just speeding a little!” excuse is not going to fly.