The Kids Are All Right: In defense of The Daily Northwestern staff and its apologetic editorial

Before we start this post, does anyone else want to take a shot at the staff of The Daily Northwestern?

In case you’re not sure about hopping on the bandwagon, but you really like piling on, here’s a brief recap of the controversy surrounding the students in Evanston: Jeff Sessions (for reasons past my understanding) spoke on the Northwestern campus about the “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda” last week and was met by protests. As one of the protests got rowdy, two journalists from the DN began doing journalism: Taking photos, interviewing people and so forth. The coverage ran across multiple platforms and showcased what happened.

Shortly thereafter, the student activists admonished the paper for running photos and calling sources (y’know, journalism stuff) because they feared the administration might punish them for their actions and the DN made it easier for the admin to find these folks. In response, the paper ran an editorial, signed by EIC Troy Closson and other members of the paper’s masthead, apologizing for covering the protest and creating “trauma” for the protestors:

One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.

<SNIP>

Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.

With all of that in mind, anyone else want to kick Closson in the groin on this one? Anybody else want to pony up with a “death knell of journalism” beef? Somebody in the cheap seats want to shit-talk Northwestern because of its rep as one of the best J-schools in the country?

In case you need inspiration, here are a few things that have come through my media feeds in the past 24 hours in response to the eddy:

Did someone hack into the newspapers site and post this as a joke? I am amazed that journalists would post this for real. I will wait to see if something is up before I comment further.

In honor of full disclosure, I asked the same question when this was posted in a Badger journalism alumni chat room. One of the perils of the internet is you get to be kind of a dick really quickly instead of having to wait for the printing press to go through its machinations.

This is ghastly. Where are they getting these ideas from?

Astonishment is fun, but it’s so much more fun when you can blame everything on a generational divide:

This feels like a Gen Z thing to me, an apology characteristic of an
o’er-sensitive generation that doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a
neo-manifestation of the “safe space” discussion that we’ve had.

What is happening to collegiate journalism, with Gen Z at the helm, if we are now seeing student journalists backpedaling and apologizing, for reporting on events that transpire within our campus communities and for seeking out the people that they photographed or quoted —- to ensure they got it right?! I honestly cannot believe the times we are in, if this is the new norm… overly sensitive to a FAULT! This is absolutely incredible!

Damned Kids

Veteran journalist and Chicago blogger Robert Feder collected some of the national Twitter outrage, including a couple of my favorites:

Richard A. Harrison:These idiots are literally apologizing for committing journalism. God help us all. . . . It just reflects the sorry state of today’s “journalism.” In fairness to these student journalists, it’s not much of a leap from sanitizing language for political correctness (see, e.g., AP Style Manual) to apologizing for hurting people’s feelings for no apparent reason.

John Aravosis: Dear God. Northwestern University’s student paper just disciplined student journalists for covering a protest of Jeff Sessions on campus. This editorial is a disgusting un-American betrayal of the tenets of journalism. Their sin: Covering a protest and asking for interviews.

Derrick Blakley:The Daily has got it seriously twisted. You don’t ask permission for those involved in news stories whether they want to be covered or not. The protesters decided on their own to disrupt a public event. If they wanted to protect their identities, not be photographed or interviewed, they could and should have stayed home. For the Daily to cowtow to such “grievences” is to flush the basic principles of journalism down the toilet. As a embarassed Medill grad, I now know what slogan The Daily should run under their masthead: “None Dare Call This Journalism.”

Truth be told, I didn’t like the editorial any more than anyone else. I thought that the approach Harvard took to a similar concern was a much better move, and I said so at the time. However, before we go any further on this, let’s layout a few unpleasant truths:

YOUR GENERATION SUCKED, TOO: I despise generational politics because it’s essentially punching down from a position of self-delusion. I often apply the Johnny Sain Theory of Old-Timers Day here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” So, no, you would not have run this editorial back in your day, but I bet you screwed up in some equally stupid fashion.

I remember hearing rumors of my student newspaper running the headline “VICTORY!” when Saigon fell, as the paper’s staff had been radically anti-Vietnam. I thought THAT was pathologically stupid, as did many of the adults who criticized the paper at the time. The staffers who are now in their mid 60s or older still vacillate between defending the action as “brave” or doing the “You’re too young to understand. You had to be there.” excuse.

OK, well, if that’s the case, try being here in the now as well. Your screw-ups didn’t go viral in 26 seconds, thanks to social media. Your mistakes won’t be found on Google for generations, so every time someone wonders about you, that’s the first thing that pops up. (If we want to find out what stupid crap you did “back in the day,” we’ll need access to bound volumes of crusty newsprint and a respirator to deal with the dust.)

Each of our generations has had its own crosses to bear, and the only one we all seem to have in common is having to deal with people from the previous generation telling us how much better they were at everything than we are.

MISTAKES HAPPEN. FEAR MAKES THEM MULTIPLY: You learn more by screwing things up than by ever doing them right. I believe that and if conversations with former students are any indication, they believe that, too. This is why they never come to me with stories about how they got an A on a paper and that helped them in life. Instead, the tell me about how an error cost them serious points and they never forgot the lesson.

Mistakes happen and seeing what the results of those mistakes are can help you get better at stuff in the future. What doesn’t help is when you’re afraid of making another mistake.

What essentially happened here was that the paper did what it instinctively felt was right: cover the event. People screamed at them that they were wrong and they probably freaked out and got scared. This is normal human behavior. (Things like running toward a fire, asking what caliber gun blew someone’s head off and bothering folks at the scene of a fatal accident takes some practice.) So in their panic, they went the other way and tried to make things OK for THOSE people, succeeding in pissing off OTHER PEOPLE, who now feel they need to apologize to their readers, the alumni of the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Awesomeness, anyone ever impacted by apologies and the entire field of journalism itself.

So, with all that in mind, I can only imagine how little impetus these students are going to have in ever covering anything ever again, other than local corn roasts and places where people get awards for saving puppies from a fire.

Being afraid sucks and it cuts into productivity. When all you’re thinking is, “Don’t screw up,” you’re not thinking, “Let’s do a good job.” If you put pressure on yourself not to screw up THIS ONE THING, you’ll likely dodge that mistake but make six other worse ones.

It’s best to think of screw ups like this like we do any other wound:

  • It’s going to hurt for a while. How much depends on the severity.
  • You can’t un-hurt yourself. You can only heal.
  • It’s harder for a wound to heal when it is constantly being picked at and reopened.
  • Eventually a scar forms and it reminds you of what happened so you don’t do it again.

BEING A DICK DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING: When was the last time someone was a total a-hole to you and it led to a positive result? I’m picking through my memories and I’m having a hard time coming up with a single instance of that in my own life. Even if the person was right, it usually took a long time for me to figure out the lesson associated with that person’s diatribe. Even more, I still usually didn’t take the lesson to heart and all I could remember thinking was: “Yeah, but what a dick…”

One year, we took a group of student journalists to cover a Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. The students were from various small programs and had limited experience covering anything close to this kind of thing. Still, the Twins gave them one-day, full-access press credentials and let them have at it.

The game was a crazy one and even the most veteran journalists were running around like their hair was on fire trying to get stuff done. One of our students was in a pack of reporters around a player, asking questions. The student did what he thought he should have done: Waited until everyone was done and then ask a question when the other reporters left. It turned out to be a faux pas, confusing the player and angering some of the other journalists. Some people did the “damned kids” thing or just rolled their eyes.

Pat Borzi, a journalist who covered decades of sports stuff including pro baseball and the Olympics, took a different tactic. He waited until both of them were off deadline, and in a mostly empty press box. He took the student to the side and explained what the kid did that was wrong and what he should have done. He did it in a stern but fair voice, journalist to journalist. He also talked to me and my fellow adviser about this so we could share it with our group. I greatly admired his approach and I consider him to be a role model for how social learning should happen in journalism.

Had Borzi ripped into the kid in the press box or came up to me and yelled about these damned kids and how they have no business in here, no one would have learned anything and I never would have appreciated his expertise and wisdom.

I would have just left thinking, “What a dick.”

That’s what I thought when I was reading through the Twitter posts, even those whose core ideas (don’t apologize for doing journalism, worry less about what other people think about etc.) I agreed with. And I’m not even the one getting shredded out there.

If you want people to get better at something, treating them poorly for failing to do it right is the least effective way to pull that off.

 

So, anyone else want to take one last shot at the paper? Last chance… OK.

Now I’ll shut up so you can listen to Closson, as he took to Twitter to talk about this. His thread brings up multiple points, some of which I agree with and others I don’t. However, his closing set does do exactly what I’d want to see out of a leader:

ClossonThread

In other words, we’re doing the best we can, we are glad to hear what people say, but if you feel the need to punch down on someone, leave my staff alone and take your best shot at me.

I’d work for someone like that any day.

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…

Mom’s birthday is coming up soon, so in honor of the woman who brought me into this world (and managed to resist every urge to take me out of it when I screwed up), here’s the journalism post on our most revered verification rule: If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.

Love you, Mom. (Just ask Dad for verification…)


If your mother says she loves you, go check it out…

 

Iphonetext

The adage in journalism regarding verification is: “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” The idea is that you need to make sure things are right before you publish them. You also want to verify the source of the information before you get yourself into trouble.

This issue popped up again this week after former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci had exchanged several emails with a person he thought to be former Chief of Staff Reince Prebus. It turns out, the messages came from a prankster, who baited Scaramucci into an “email battle:”

“At no stage have you acted in a way that’s even remotely classy, yet you believe that’s the standard by which everyone should behave towards you?” read the email to Scaramucci from a “mail.com” account.

Scaramucci, apparently unaware the email was a hoax, responded with indignation.

“You know what you did. We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize,” Scaramucci wrote.

The prankster, now aware that he had deceived the beleaguered Scaramucci, went in for the kill.

“I can’t believe you are questioning my ethics! The so called ‘Mooch’, who can’t even manage his first week in the White House without leaving upset in his wake,” the fake Priebus wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

Scaramucci shot back with a veiled threat to destroy Priebus Shakespearean-style.

“Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there. My family is fine by the way and will thrive. I know what you did. No more replies from me,” the actual Scaramucci.

“Othello” is a tragedy in which the main character is tricked into killing his wife Desdemona after his confidante convinces him that she has been unfaithful.

As the article points out, Scaramucci isn’t the first person to be suckered by a prank. Other members of the government had been similarly duped via email. In terms of prank calls, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found himself once speaking with a person pretending to be billionaire David Koch, discussing ways to attack protesters and destroy liberals.   (The prankster told his side of the story on Politico.)

News journalists have also been caught short when it comes to making sure they’re sure about the sources and information they receive. In 2013, KTVU-TV in San Francisco had what it thought was a big scoop on the Asiana Flight 214 crash: The names of the captain and crew. However, the information turned out to be not only a hoax, but an intentionally racist set of names:

Three people were fired and a fourth resigned for health reasons in the wake of this error. In digging into this, it turned out that the NTSB found the source of the names to be a “summer intern” who thought this would be funny. In its own investigation, the station found that nobody asked the source at the NTSB for his name or title. The station issued an apology, as did the NTSB.

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents or to marvel at how dumb somebody was to buy into this stuff. However, we used to say around my house, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” In other words, you could be next.

So here are three simple tips to help you avoid these problems:

  1. Verify, verify, verify: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Look up information on various sites, ask a source for other people who can augment/confirm the information and make sure you feel confident in your content before you publish.
  2. If you aren’t sure, back away: It is always better to be late on something than it is to be wrong. It’s also better to let a random email or a text go without a response than to get sucked in and pay the price later. Some of these are easy, like when a Nigerian Prince promises you untold riches if you would just transfer your bank account number to him. Some are harder: When’s the last time you made sure it was your friend texting you about a “crazy night” and not his mom or dad doing some snooping? We just assume we know the actual source. That can be dangerous, so back off if you’re not sure.
  3. Kick it around the room: One of the best reasons why newsrooms, PR offices and ad agencies exist is to gather collective knowledge in one place. Sure, with technology now, it’s easy for everyone to work “off site” but keeping people in a single physical spot can make it easier to have someone look over your shoulder and see if something you just got “smells right.” Take advantage of other people around you and don’t go at it alone.

GAME TIME! Halloween-themed AP Style Quiz

It’s hard to think about it being Halloween, when you have this scene happening outside your house at 7 a.m.:

IMG_3373

The plows had already gone through once and it took me 20 minutes to find my window scraper. That said, since the calendar says it’s Oct. 31, here’s an AP style quiz based on a Halloween theme.

You don’t have to establish an account to play. It’s 10 questions and you will be judged on speed and accuracy.

Take a screen shot of your score and post it everywhere! Challenge a professor (who likely wants this break more than you do) and earn bragging rights for the year.

To start the quiz, click here.

Playing with live ammo: Social media and the umpire who threatened a “CIVAL WAR”

When we discuss law in my intro writing class, I always ask a simple question, “How many of you are on social media?” Every hand goes up. I then ask how many are on specific platforms (Twitter, SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram etc.) and the students respond with similar levels of engagement. When I ask what they do on those platforms, the answers vary: talk to friends, pass along information, “talk shit” (as one student put it), complain about classes and more.

That’s when I hit them with this: “You are all publishers. All the things we’re going to talk about today apply to you, including some scary things like libel and copyright infringement.”

To further emphasize the point, I go back to a Filak-ism I used a lot in the newsroom: “Every time you post something, you’re playing with live ammo. You need to be careful out there.”

I thought about that message when I saw this story about a major league umpire who took to Twitter and expressed a few thoughts on impeachment:

UmpWar

In case you missed it, a public figure just threatened to buy a gun and start a violent, armed conflict if Congress continued with a legal proceeding against the president. He didn’t do it at a bar over a couple beers. He didn’t do it in the umpires room after the game while surrounded by five other folks bitching about life. He did it on a social media platform where the message was published, and reshared hundreds and thousands of times.

Rob Drake, the umpire who issued the tweet, deleted it shortly after the “fit hit the shan” and then deactivated his account. He also issued an apology that sounds like someone else wrote it for him (and not just because all the words were spelled right). Major League Baseball is investigating Drake’s social media presence, but regardless of what it decides, Drake learned that social media can be a lot more scary than the gun he was yammering about on it.

 

“I am a brother.” 3 tips on how to avoid a racially tone-deaf social media disaster like the one from the University of Missouri

Watching my alma maters compete for supremacy in an arena of national attention is usually fun for me, but not this month:

UW-Madison: We built a homecoming video where we cut out all the video involving people of color who agreed to be filmed for it. No way anyone could screw up a situation like this worse than we did.

University of Missouri: Hold my beer.

(CNN)The University of Missouri Athletic Department is apologizing for a tweet it says was meant to celebrate diversity but was instead criticized as insensitive.

The tweet posted Wednesday included graphics of three student athletes and a staff member. Two are black and two are white.

The graphics featuring the white athletes highlighted their career ambitions. Gymnast Chelsey Christensen’s said, “I am a future doctor.” Swimmer CJ Kovac’s said, “I am a future corporate financer.”
Staff member Chad Jones-Hicks’ post said, “I value equality.” Track and field athlete Arielle Mack’s said “I am an African American Woman.”
The post was criticized on social media for defining Mack and Jones-Hicks by their race instead of their goals and accomplishments.
The athletic department deleted the tweet Wednesday night and apologized.

Yes, it really was that bad…

MizzouRace2

In other words, “Look at all the cool stuff we get to do as white people!” and “Look! We’re black!” aren’t exactly interchangeable concepts.

And when you think it can’t get any worse…

MizzouBrother

I kept thinking, “This one has to be an internet spoof version, right? Nobody thinks, ‘Hey let’s call the black guy ‘a brother’ and see what we can get away with…'”

Nope, it’s real, leading me to ask the same question this person asked on Twitter:

AfroTweet

(Hell, you could have run this past Breckin Meyer’s character in “Go” and HE would have caught it…)

The athletic department tweeted out an apology for its actions, which led more people to complain about how tone deaf THAT was as well.

This kind of “someone does something horrible they didn’t see coming, particularly in regard to race” has become kind of a repeating theme on the blog. Although we talked about ways to avoid this kind of thing when we discussed the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirt issue, consider these key points again:

Paranoia is your BEST friend: A great line about one of the greatest hockey coaches guides my actions in journalism quite a bit. After his team had won a national championship, a friend found him emotionally drained sitting quietly away from the celebration. The writer remarked, “They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.” Maybe that seems sad, but that approach keeps your keester out of a lot of trouble.

As we noted the last time we covered this: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”).

Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). Approach your work in this way and you will not always succeed, but you can avoid a lot of failure.

Ask for help: As we noted during the sweatshirt debacle, diversity is not a buzzword. The goal of having a wide array of perspectives and a diverse collection of people with different experiences is to allow a fuller examination of bigger issues.

Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help. Call a friend who knows the topic better than you. Ask a source who is involved in the topic for a quick read. Talk to an expert on the issue with whom you worked on an earlier project. You probably know someone out there who has a connection to almost any topic if you think about it hard enough.

To be fair, I’m usually the person seeking help in this regard because I’m your garden-variety straight, white male, but what I have found is that most people are happy to help if you are honest, humble and forthright. The earnest gesture of, “I don’t understand X but I really don’t want to screw it up,” tends work when you approach people from varied backgrounds. I have asked all sorts of questions when it came to faith, race, gender, LGBTQ issues and more using that approach and I can’t ever remember being yelled at or shamed.

(I do remember once going to see the Kevin Smith movie “Dogma” with a group of friends, none of whom were Catholic. At about a dozen points in the movie, one of them would ask a question about something that just happened and I’d give a quick answer with a promise to explain more later. About halfway through the movie, my friend, Adam, leaned over to me and whispered, “Now you know what it’s like for me, being the only Jew in the newsroom, when we’re covering Passover.” Point taken.)

Know where the landmines are: This one is a direct pull from the sweatshirt post, but it bears repeating. I still ascribe to the Fred Vultee Theory of Drowning, which states you should treat EVERY piece of copy like it could come back to kill you. That said, the level of extreme care should jump up a few notches from the caution I employ in fixing the garbage disposal and the caution I would employ in disarming a nuclear warhead.

Some things just have much lower margins for error, have far higher consequences and are far more likely to kill you. In terms of the United States, gender, race and sexual orientation are the issues that lead to a lot of “Oh, crap, how did we write THAT?” apologies than many other topics. If you know that going in, you can game up a little bit more than normal when you start working on something in that area. It’s a lot like driving through Rosendale: I always try to adhere to the speed limit, give or take 5 mph. However, when I hit the Rosendale city limits, I’m ALWAYS driving 27 in a 30 because I know what I’m getting into.

In the end, you might not avoid every problem, but you’ll do a lot better in avoiding the really stupid ones.

 

Don’t Call ICE, We’ll Call You: A look at the controversy surrounding the Harvard Crimson’s protest coverage

The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at the famed Ivy League school, found itself getting screamed at this week, due to its reporting on a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The newspaper wrote in its Sept. 13 edition about an event on campus, in which people assembled to speak out against the actions of ICE and to call for the dissolution of the agency.

The Crimson reporters did what any good journalists would do: They covered the event that was relevant, useful and interesting in their geographic area. They quoted sources and observed actions for inclusion in the paper. They then decided to ask for comment from “the other side.” The result, as anyone who ever contacted a governmental agency would expect, was a simple line in the story: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”

This is where everything went to hell in a speedboat:

Act on a Dream, the campus group that had organized the rally covered in the article, started an online petition demanding that The Crimson vow to never contact ICE again and to apologize for the “harm it has inflicted.”

“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition read.

It continued: “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”

From a personal standpoint, I had a few quibbles with this:

  1. I’d like some evidence to support the “harm it has inflicted” statement, including a quantification of that harm. It’s easy to say that something will be harmful to people if it’s something we don’t like. (Look at every discussion involving books people want to ban, porn people want to suppress and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.) However, in journalism require facts to make statements.
  2. Political climates almost always suck for at least half of the people in the country. It was problematic for people in the 1950s during the HUAC trials, the 1960s (and more) during the Civil Rights movement, the 1970s during the Vietnam/Watergate mess and even into the 2000s when terrorism hit home and we were a mess of surveillance and jingoism. If you waited until things were “cool” to do journalism, you’re waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last month.
  3. Absolutism is awesome when you’re protesting things, not so much when you live on Planet Reality. Play this out: The Crimson agrees to NEVER contact ICE again. ICE does something pathologically insanely crappy to someone on Harvard’s campus. The campus community is desperate to know what happened. The Crimson responds: “Nope. Sorry. We did a pinky swear we’d never contact ICE.” Gimme a break.

For its part, the Crimson has stood by its reporting, issuing a note that explained why it contacted ICE, as well as what it did not do:

Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the petition continues to add signatures and media coverage continues to grow around this issue, so let’s unpack a few basic journalistic issues here:

Calling the KKK wasn’t fun, either: Journalists often get chided for trying to get “both sides” of stories in which two sides don’t really exist. If the entire scientific community declares there’s no life on Neptune, we immediately feel compelled to call the guy who lives in his parents’ basement, wears a tinfoil hat and blogs at “NeptuneLifeCoverUp.com” to “balance” the story.

That’s not this.

Regardless of your personal feelings on an issue, when a group, an organization or a person is at the center of your coverage, you should reach out to that “side” and offer a chance to enter the conversation. I remember having to talk to a guy who swore he was the “Grand Dragon” of the KKK in Wisconsin because he announced the Klan would be holding a march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Groups that clearly did not want this to happen were all over this, talking to me about why this was a bad idea and what they planned to do if this occurred.

The march was to take place at the steps of the Capitol and for him to do that, he needed a permit. My goal was to find out if he got the permit and, if not, if he was ready to be removed and arrested. I had to spend something like 45 minutes on the phone with him as he kept rambling about his philosophy on race, issuing “scientific proclamations” about race and using language that just made my whole body cringe. In the end, he didn’t get the permit, the thing didn’t happen and the story ran with minimal contributions from him.

Some people were ticked off that I used the guy, but that’s the way journalism is supposed to work: If you have skin in the game, you get a chance to say something. If you don’t do this for everybody, you’re pretty much worthless as a reporter. The sheer volume of people we talk to on a daily basis that do things we dislike or don’t agree with could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.

The Taco Bell Shooting Theory is at work here: I’ve explained this one before: I got a call from a mother screaming up a blue streak about how our student newspaper’s coverage made her son “look bad.” The son, an adult, had engaged in a shoot-out at a Taco Bell drive-thru and was arrested for his part in swapping lead with other patrons.

The point I kept trying to make to her, when I could get a word in edgewise, was that it wasn’t the COVERAGE that made the kid look bad, but rather the SHOOTING he was involved in that made him look bad.

I kept thinking about this when I was reading the story about the protest and about the way in which the people upset with the Crimson reacted to the request for comment. The folks here gathered a couple hundred people in the middle of one of the most well-known colleges in the country and used megaphones to express their displeasure with a government agency they purport surveils them at all times, in front of people who at any moment could call the cops or post images to social media during the event with impunity but it was an UNANSWERED PHONE CALL after the fact from a student media operation that created risk?

How, exactly, does that logically track?

I understand that there are huge risks associated with immigration in today’s political climate, but getting all over the Crimson because it requested a comment from ICE makes as much sense as blaming school shootings on “all that music kids today listen to.”

Flip the coin and see how you like it: The phrase, “How would you like it if we did that to you?” seems rather childish, but it fits this situation quite well. Journalism, when practiced properly, is about keeping yourself out of the story, remaining as objectively neutral as reality will allow and giving your readers the sense that you are telling them something honest and valuable.

The minute we stop doing that is the minute we become no better than the demagogues of our society who use their pulpits to rain hatred upon others for personal gain.

OK, Act on a Dream folks, you don’t like that someone asked ICE for a comment? Fine. What happens when a reporter decides it’s not worth it to check in with you on an issue like this? Even more, what happens if you get a reporter who thinks, “Hey, these people are breaking the law by being here. Why should I talk to an organization that supports criminal actions? Let’s just rely on the ICE folks for our stories.” Something tells me this wouldn’t sit well with the Act on a Dream folks, or anyone else with at least half a brain.

 

 

Hell Lead: Why 66-word sentences don’t help your readers and 3 ways to avoid writing them

As mentioned pretty much everywhere in both books and this blog, the concept for writing a simple lead should be simple:

  • It should be 25-35 words long.
  • It should contain as many of the 5Ws and 1H as possible without overwhelming your readers.
  • It should focus on a single concept to provide focus and clarity to the readers.
  • It should tell your readers what happened and why they care.

Reading the original lead on this story gave me a feeling similar to trying to drink from a fire hose:

More than 1,000 students, teachers and community members marched on the Madison School District’s administrative building Friday in support of a black security guard fired for repeating the N-word when a student called him the racial slur, prompting district officials to vow better education on the history and impact on the N-word and a review of the policies that led to the staffer’s termination this week.

That’s 66 words, or almost DOUBLE the maximum of what you really want to see here. Even more, it’s not just that this is too long, but it’s also WAAAAAY too heavy. (As a brief refresher, length is how we measure leads in a word-by-word approach while weight is about how much content is in there and how all words aren’t created equal in adding to the heft of a sentence.)

When we unpack all of this info, what we learn in the lead includes:

  • About 1,000 people protested at the admin building.
  • They supported a security guard who was fired.
  • The guard, a black man, repeated a racial slur after the student used it against him.
  • The district didn’t say if it would rehire the guy.
  • The district reacted by promising to educate somebody or other on how the slur is problematic and where it came from and why it has the impact it has.
  • The district will review the policies that led to the guard being fired.

Of course, we only learn that if we can wade through all of the stuff in this lead and take the time to figure it out. That kind of “Where’s Waldo?” approach to reading this thing is antithetical to what we’re supposed to be doing with a lead and with journalism in general.

A competing publication did pretty much the same job as this lead with about half of the words:

Wisconsin’s capital city school district is facing national pressure to reinstate a black high school security guard who was fired this week for saying the N-word while telling an unruly student not to use the racial slur.

(SIDE NOTE: The district reversed itself and undid the firing, and Marlon Anderson gets to go back to work.)

The point isn’t to do a “Goofus and Gallant” comparative between the leads, as even the better of them could get some fine tuning. The larger point about this lead is that it wasn’t just one misstep of trying to overcrowd the lead to avoid missing anything. Here are a couple other sentences from the original writer that left me stunned:

This guy is 42…

The swell of support for Marlon Anderson — who worked at West High School before being terminated Wednesday — culminated in a meeting between representatives of the school’s Black Student Union and district officials to discuss the situation that led to Anderson being fired.

 

This one is 53 words…

Emerging after a nearly two hour meeting inside the district’s Doyle Administration Building, Anderson’s 17-year-old son Noah, who is the president of the Black Student Union, addressed a crowd on what he said was a constructive conversation but just the start on making sure African-Americans are involved in school policies that impact them.

And this one is 63 words, which is exceeds the “coked-up Jay McInnery ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ character” level of run-on…

Speaking to reporters after the sit-down, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district will take a more concerted effort in teaching students about the usage of the N-word and the harm it causes, will review policies that led to Anderson being fired, and will expedite the appeal process to his firing after Anderson filed a grievance Thursday.

The point of writing leads in the 25-35 word range and body sentences in the 20-24 word range is to prevent exactly the kinds of things that happen here:

  • The readers who want to learn something will get lost and give up.
  • The sentence construction gets so complicated that you run the risk of creating modifier problems and other grammatical issues.
  • The pace and flow of the story get all out of whack because you end up with giant sentences followed by a few stubby ones. Thus, it feels like you’re flying down the highway at 110 mph when suddenly you hit a traffic jam.

Here are some tips on how to fix these problems:

  • Know the point of your piece: Yes, stories can get overly complicated, but as investigative sports journalist Eric Adelson once told me, “If you can’t tell me what your story is in about 25 words or less, you really don’t understand what you’re writing about.” I remember at the time thinking it was a harsh assessment, especially given that he did mostly deep-dig pieces. However, when I asked him to do it for me on the steroid scandal story he was in the middle of digging into, he told me,”Players and owners both knew steroids were used in baseball, but nobody said anything because everyone was making too much money because of them.” In less than 25 words, he nailed it. If you know what you’re doing, things become easier and simpler.
  • Make one point at a time: Readers do have shorter attention spans these days, so it feels like if you don’t throw everything at them at once, you’re going to lose them. However, the “Fistful of Jell-O” rule applies here: The tighter you squeeze, the less you have. In pumping content at your readers like you’re unleashing a fire hose filled with information, you repel them instead of engaging them.
    Start each sentence with the promise to your readers that you are going to make one, simple, clear point for them. Then, deliver on that promise. If you do this, and you have a clear understanding of what your readers need, you will keep them engaged and tell them something that matters.
  • Start from the core out: The sentences in the original story we analyzed feel heavy because the writer probably built them from the front to the back. This is how you end up with major dependent clauses that try to do too much or how you end up tacking on “just one more thing” that will make the sentences you write feel unwieldy. It also comes from not really figuring out what the key point you want to make is (see Point 1).
    To minimize the risk of this, start with the core: Noun-Verb-Object. Tell me who did what to whom and focus on that. This will create a much stronger version of the sentence and also shift your attention to making the noun concrete and the verb vigorous. Consider some of these NVO constructions, depending on the story you want to tell:

    • District fires custodian
    • Protestors rebuke district
    • Citizens protest firing

When it comes to how best to tell a story, it often comes down to how simply can you write the content. Start with the simple elements that matter most and expand up on them with each layer of detail. If the sentence gets too long or too complex, you can cut back on the sentence, removing the outer layers and tightening it back toward the core. In most cases, the writing is in the editing.

Ethics versus Access: An interview with the Chapman Panther editor who said, “No Thanks” to covering George W. Bush’s private event on the campus

When former President George W. Bush came to Chapman University this month to speak at a private event, administrators gave the staff of the student newspaper the chance of a lifetime: You will be the only press allowed to cover the event.

The staff unanimously agreed to turn it down, prioritizing ethics over access, and explaining the paper’s position in an editorial to its readership last week. Things got even more complicated this week, when the staff found out that it had essentially been lied to about who was attempting to restrict the paper’s access and why.

MarshallMug

Courtesy of Kali Hoffman, Panther Photo Editor.

“It was a difficult decision because we worked so hard to get access,” Panther Editor in Chief Louisa Marshall said in an interview late last week. “We sat on it for a while and we came to the conclusion that even though we could be in the same room as a former president and that was a big deal, we couldn’t do this. We knew this was a rare event, but we also knew that we had talked a lot about journalistic ethics. We wrote our first editorial of the year on this, so that set what we were going to uphold.”

Bush came to campus as part of the 20th anniversary festivities that surrounded the naming of the business school. The namesake of the school, George Argyros, was a longtime friend of the Bush family. The events included a cocktail reception that preceded a private dinner and a one-on-one interview between Bush and Argyros’ wife, Julianne. The former president was also honored with a global citizen medal.

The university agreed to let the paper cover the event on three conditions:

  1. No photographer was allowed.
  2. No one was allowed to record the event.
  3. Bush’s people would have to approve everything the Panther had planned to run before it published anything.

“I was a little disappointed, obviously, but it was also not something I was willing to bend our ethics over,” Marshall said.

“Bending the rules sets a bad precedent and for us to stake our overall tone for the semester on ethics and then agree to this,” she added. “You have to be able to practice what you preach.”

Marshall said she took the news back to the staff and sought input as to what was the best way to approach this situation. On one hand, the students had the scoop most college papers would kill for: A true exclusive with a former president of the United States.

On the other hand, submitting their work for prior review and prior restraint meant that they were allowing a source to censor content, thus undermining the whole idea of telling the campus what had actually happened at the event. Even more, it would call into question the entire truthfulness of the article and maybe even the paper.

“We sat on it for a while, ruminating on what we were going to do and what we were comfortable with,” she said. “We decided not to go.”

“There is a certain level of fearlessness that comes with student journalism overall,” she added. “I think I would really stress to someone wanting to be in student media that even though we’re all young and ambitious, we have to cover our bases. The whole aspect of maintaining integrity is to maintain well-rounded reporting. It’s walking an interesting line.”

Instead of taking the deal, the paper published an editorial that explained exactly why it was they weren’t going, what the university tried to make them do to get access and how they felt this was a better way to go.

After the “fit hit the shan” and everyone seemed to pile on Chapman about censorship, the university began backtracking faster than an NFL corner back and “clarifying” more than Windex. The truth of the matter was that Bush’s people had no problem with the paper doing anything and couldn’t care less about reading the story before it went to press. Instead, it was the university that wanted to get a handle on the paper and manage the school’s image at the cost of a free press.

“The Panther found out that the prior review condition was from the university, not Bush’s office, after I got in contact with Bush’s office,” Marshall said in an email this morning. “I asked about the prior review condition and they gave me an answer that was not in line with what the university had previously told me.”

In short, the students called out a former president for an action he had nothing to do with because the university lied to them.

In an editorial published Sunday, the paper was having none of this “Oh, you kids… you just didn’t understand things with your tiny kid brains” BS:

It’ll be very easy to review this entire situation and blame it on a misunderstanding. Undoubtedly, people will claim that there was some miscommunication along the line, that words and blame got pinned on the wrong person, that Chapman meant no harm.

That’s not the case. We didn’t misunderstand anything. We didn’t misinterpret anything. We were told that it was Bush’s office, not Chapman that wanted us to break our commitment to journalistic integrity. Regardless of any sort of miscommunication, that’s what happened.

“A whole part of journalism is to investigate and to question,” she said Monday in an email. “Although the message was communicated to The Panther from Chapman that President Bush’s office was requiring prior review, we took the steps to verify it. The fact that it was the university’s want for prior review and not President Bush’s staff -and that this information was not accurately communicated to us- is disheartening, as we would like to think that the university would be behind our efforts to cover events on campus with integrity.”

Marshall said this was the first negative encounter she has had like this with Chapman’s PR department.

“In my time at The Panther, this has never happened before,” she wrote. “As much as I have believed and continue to believe that administration will work to the best of their ability and maintain a positive relationship with The Panther, this will make me verify what the school directly tells The Panther from now on.”

Marshall said last week she understands that some people would have preferred the paper just agree and cover whatever it could. However, she said the ethical standards of the paper mattered more than a single story.

“Journalistic ethics is something that I’m personally attached to and very married to,” she said. “It’s something that guided my career especially since people in the field have been pained with an un-credible brush. I think in our climate right now, journalistic integrity is something I want to uphold to any kind of extent.”

It was much easier to uphold those standards, thanks to the team of staffers at the Panther, Marshall said. The students worked together on the decision to decline the invitation, run the editorial and then cover the event like any other media outlet.

“It’s a hard line to walk at times between knowing what you’re giving up but also what you’re maintaining…” she said. “I’m so lucky to be with my team. The level of reporting and writing… none of this would be possible without them.”

Marshall graduates in May with a degree in history and a poli sci minor. She has worked at several publications as an intern and said that a lot of what she has learned both as a student journalist and in these other opportunities helped shape her ethical code.

“I would like people and student journalists to know that it’s OK to question the information that you’re provided with; that, in essence, is really why we’re journalists, to investigate and to question,” she said. “As a student, you’d like to think that you can trust what your school tells you. This has not been the case in this situation, but it’s a good lesson to learn early on.”

Throwback Thursday: Looking for stories? Learn to wonder more

This time of the semester is rough for students in journalism courses and student journalists alike, thanks to a deluge of midterms and projects that got blown off six weeks ago because you had “plenty of time” to complete them by now. The staffs of newsrooms have thinned and the quality of our brain power has also gone gotten downright skinny. With that in mind, here is a throwback to a “wonder” post that should help with a few possible stories to fill the void until you can reboot the brain and survive the midterms:

—-

Little kids are great for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their sense of wonder.

A 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” Kids want to know how stuff works, why it happens and the answers to all sorts of other important questions.

At some point, we stop incessantly asking “Why?” because we fear of looking stupid or because we stop caring about how things work. We stop engaging with the world around us and we no longer enjoy the wonderment we once experienced as little kids.

That’s a shame, because wondering more will lead to some incredible stories. When you notice things happening around you, stop and wonder for a minute or two. Here are five random stories that came from wondering about random things happening out here:

  • What does a 150-pound, 60-year-old fish taste like? Out here in the arctic north, it’s sturgeon season, which means hundreds of men and women park shanties on the icy lake (when it’s icy enough) and engage in the tradition of spearing these giant fish. When I first moved back to Wisconsin, people were talking about this in a doctor’s office waiting room and I was fascinated by the activity. (“It’s like lying with your head in a fire place, looking up a chimney and waiting for a bird to fly overhead,” someone told me.) They told me stories about family fishing, the generational aspect of it, the thrill of the hunt and more. However, when I asked what it tasted like, nobody knew because none of them actually ate the fish. I don’t know why, but they just never did. The sturgeon was used as fertilizer, one person said, although she wasn’t entirely sure how. Someone else said you had to bury them. Me? If I’m freezing my butt off in a shed for a day or two to get a fish, I want some eats.

 

  • What do other people want to know? The Freedom of Information Act and state open records make certain documents to the public. If you are at a public university, you can get all sorts of information, including people’s salaries, departmental budgets and contracts the U signs with outside agencies.
    One thing that most people don’t think to request? A list of the open records requests that people have made over a given period of time. (I had a student do this once. When I asked him why he did it, he said, “I just want to know what other people want to know.” Good point.)

 

  • Why Pepsi? Speaking of contracts a university signs, on our campus there is only one place I can actually buy a Diet Coke: A convenience store. Every place else, all I can get is a Diet Pepsi, which to me tastes like I’m licking a piece of chemically treated sheet metal. How does your university decide who gets the vending contract on your campus, how long is the contract and what kind of cash does the U get for exclusivity?

 

  • What’s life like for competitive eaters? Molly Schuyler won the Wing Bowl eat off last week, devouring 501 chicken wings in 30 minutes. (Me? I’m lucky if I get my money’s worth out of a Pizza Ranch buffet.) Competitive eating champions like Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi have become famous for their ability to down dozens of dogs, wads of wings and tons of tacos. How is it that these people became GOOD at this? Even more, what is life like for them outside of the arena of eating? Do people know them by sight? Are they banned from the Golden Corral? Do they eat normally in every day life and just go for it on competition day? Also, how do they burn through the thousands of calories they consume as part of their careers? (A conservative estimate of 81 calories per chicken wing means Schuyler took in more than 40,000 calories in a half hour, or about 20 times what an average woman usually consumes in a day.)

 

  • You mean it’s not just “frowned upon?” The state’s largest paper out here did some digging through data to put together an extended look at complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other similar charges at the state’s universities. A number of problematic results emerged, although one ended up catching my staff’s eye. It seemed that one case involved a student and a professor who had maintained a “consensual relationship” which turned into a complaint when the professor apparently wasn’t willing to stop bugging the student once they broke up.
    Our question: How is there not a rule against this in the first place? When I saw this, I had a flashback to a “Friends” episode.

Aside from all of us going “eeeeeewwwww…,” we wanted to know why there isn’t an actual rule about this. We also were curious to know if this ever didn’t end in the disaster we all imagined it to be. Find out what the actual rules are on your campus about this and if any personnel or criminal reports are available for any of these cases that went sour.

And here are five more random thoughts that might or might not lead to anything:

  1. Who is the longest tenured faculty member on your campus and how long has it been since you did a profile on him or her?
  2. Which building on your campus burns the most energy and what moves are being made to make it greener?
  3. What is the most popular food item that your campus food service workers make and how many of that item get sold each day/week/semester/year? What makes it a big deal for your students?
  4. What is the most arcane rule still on the books at your school or in your city?
  5. What is the least-often claimed scholarship on your campus and what makes it a difficult one to achieve? (A scholarship for professional banjo players of Bohemian descent? A scholarship that requires perfect attendance since kindergarten?)

“We live in mighty times:” Mary Beth Tinker urges high school students to exercise their First Amendment rights

Tinker

Today’s world of anger, mistrust and public friction is a lot like the era in which Mary Beth Tinker went from being a scared teenage girl to being the namesake of a landmark Supreme Court decision, the First Amendment icon said Friday.

“We live in mighty times,” she said. “These times are so much like the times were when I was growing up. It does make life a little more interesting.”

Tinker spoke at UW-Whitewater as part of the Kettle Moraine Press Association’s scholastic journalism conference, in which she told students about her free-speech activities and urged them to find something that matters to them.

“The press is so important to our democracy…,” she said. “You hold government accountable. You hold those in power accountable.”

In 1963, she first wore an arm band to school to protest racists who had been bombing black churches to keep segregation in place, she said. (“They’re back again,” she added.) However, it was her decision to take part in a larger protest against the Vietnam War in 1965 at the age of 13, that brought her to the forefront of the free-speech movement. The school suspended Tinker and several others, including her brother, John, for the actions.

“A lady called on the phone and threatened to kill me,” Tinker said. “She told me, ‘Kids don’t know anything about Vietnam. Guess what I found out? Adults didn’t know anything about Vietnam. They couldn’t find it on the map.”

The Tinkers and other sued the district and lost at every level of appeal except the one that mattered most: The U.S. Supreme Court. In its 1969 decision, the court ruled 7-2 in favor of Tinker, with Justice Abe Fortas famously noting that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

At the time, Tinker said she wasn’t thinking about being a free-speech icon.

“We lost at the district level and we lost at the appeals level,” she said. I went on with my life. I went rollerskating and I went back to my classes… I had no idea how important that case was.”

Fifty years later, Tinker continues to preach the importance of student activities that serve the best the First Amendment has to offer. She told the audience of student journalists that they should find something that matters to them and speak out about it.

“The number one reason for censorship?” she asked rhetorically. “An article reflects poorly on the school… Without controversy we have no democracy, we have no education. We can deal with controversy in ways that are respectful.”

One of the biggest things that came out of the entire legal fight, Tinker said, was that the courts opened the door to more speech from traditionally suppressed sources.

“The court ruled sometimes students have something to teach our teachers,” she said. “It said, ‘Students are persons.'”