Throwback Thursday: You Earn The Fungus on Your Shower Shoes

To help people find some of the older posts buried deeply in the history of the blog, we decided to do a few “Throwback Thursday” posts throughout the year.

Today’s “throwback” came from a conversation I had with a student, who told me that another professor explained that “nobody” writes in a certain simple way anymore. He wondered if he had wasted his time learning the 5W’s and 1H, tight leads, the inverted pyramid and more. I found myself telling him this story, so I dug up the post to share with everyone else.

Enjoy!

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


 

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

Antonio Brown’s “Ain’t No More Games” video, California’s two-party consent law and what you need to know about recording your sources

The saga of former-Raider-turned-Patriot wide receiver Antonio Brown took a strange legal turn this week, thanks in part to a law that actually matters to you as a student journalist.

Brown, a talented and yet volatile player, began this season with the Oakland Raiders by complaining about rules surround his helmet, complaining about his injured feet and ripping his own general manager for levying fines against him. He then asked for his release on social media and the Raiders complied gladly.

In the middle of all this, Brown published a hype video of himself playing with his kids and working out. The video included content from a call between Brown and his coach, Jon Gruden.

 

What makes this problematic is that it appears Gruden knew nothing about the recording of the call, and California has a law against that.

(NOTE: I put this together early Tuesday, only to find out when I woke up this morning that Brown has been accused of rape in a lawsuit. Deadspin posted both the formal complaint on its website along with text messages included in it that Brown is accused of sending to plaintiff Britney Taylor. I had an easier time understanding the legal jargon in the court filing than I did translating Brown’s off-color texts. With all this in mind, I think we can all agree that Brown now has more on his plate from a legal standpoint than worrying if Gruden is coming after him over a phone call. )

States have specific laws when it comes to recording people on the phone (or other similar communication devices), but most laws center on how many people on the call have to know the recording is occurring:

  • One-party consent: This means that only one of the two people on the call needs to be aware that the call is being recorded. In other words, if you live in a one-party-consent state, you can call someone and be recording from the moment of the dial tone. You are not legally obligated to tell that person you are recording or to get that person’s permission to record the call. (Whether you should be up front about this as an ethical consideration is a totally different argument.) According to the Digital Media Law project, 38 states and the District of Columbia operate under this approach.
  • Two-party consent: This means that all people (usually only the two people on the call, but in the case of conference calls etc., everyone involved has to be on board) have to know about the recording and approve of it. California is one of the 12 states that operate this way, which theoretically presents a problem for Brown.

(To find out which way your state swings on this, you can go to this guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which lays out everything in both a grid and a state-by-state analysis for you.)

On one of the Sunday pre-game shows, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher mentioned that it was illegal for Brown to do this. Once I checked to make sure he was right, I reached out to Chip Stewart, a faculty member at TCU and one of my favorite legal eagles, to see what he thought the shake out from this would be, if anything.

His response was kind of what I figured, given that the Raiders wanted to get away from this Dumpster fire as fast as possible:

I’d say it’s not likely Brown would be prosecuted for doing this, but presuming that the conversation – Gruden calling and Brown recording – took place in California, and that the parties reasonably expected that nobody was recording it, then yes, it is technically a violation of California law.

Section 632 of the California Penal Code makes recording a conversation without the consent of all parties to that conversation a crime punishable by up to a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail. But that’s not really going to happen.

I doubt Gruden would make such a big deal of it that he’d want to file a complaint to a prosecutor, and likewise, I doubt prosecutors would take this up on their own initiative to prosecute and drag everyone to court as a witness.

Further complicating this situation, news reports filed late Monday and early Tuesday noted that Gruden had known about the recording and had given his blessing to Brown’s use of it in the video:

Is “dumb-ass idea” hyphenated? AP updates its guidance on compound modifiers

If you read this blog at all, you know I have an almost pathological love of hyphens. It’s because I believe they clarify intent, especially in the case of compound modifiers.

I like to joke that I prefer to have a “smoking-hot car…”

262061_2304935341586_1282884_n

…as opposed to a “smoking, hot car.”

HotCar

In its most recent update, however, the Associated Press reworked its rules/guidance/thoughts on hyphens when it comes to “commonly known phrases:”

APHyphen

Journalism professors, editors and everyone else who picks at language took this news calmly and simply as always:

 

Let’s parse AP’s language on this one:

No hyphen is needed if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, early morning traffic, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.

The first problem with this is that “commonly recognized” creates a lot of trouble, as what is common for some people isn’t that common for others. Sure we could quibble about people who don’t like sports not knowing if it’s “first-quarter touchdown” or “first quarter touchdown” (as if you could score a quarter of a touchdown), but that’s the easy stuff.

Consider the style on issues of transgender individuals:

Sex reassignment or gender confirmation: The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender. Balducci considered having sex reassignment surgery during his transition.

The example doesn’t hyphenate “sex-reassignment surgery,” a term that AP just added in June of 2019, so I’m not sure how this fits with the “commonly recognized” element. Also, given the need for things to be “clear and unambiguous,” I’d imagine it should be more helpful if the hyphen were there to clarify that we are reassigning sex (or confirming gender) in the surgery.

The rules on “public land management” had me perplexed as well, in that public land management could be land management completed in an open, public fashion via governmental agencies while public-land management could be the management and care of only public lands.

(Also, because I’m somewhat demented, I started thinking about things like “the golden shower’ act” (or is it the golden-shower act?) associated with the Russia-scandal dossier. Or as one report referred to it “the ‘pee tape’ controversy.” Or is it a pee-tape controversy? These are the thoughts that keep me awake at night… )

We no longer have “third-grade students,” but we still have “a first-hour class” they must attend. Also, we still have “9-year-olds,” but they’re now in a “third grade classroom.”

 

Every year, I provide my students with an AP-style worksheet (or is it AP style worksheet?) that has a number of the key rules they need to know. I’ve already had to go back through and change all the percent items because of a change that freaked us all out in March. Before I started messing around with “one-bedroom apartment” or “four-door sedan,” I figured I’d ask the editor for clarification. The “Ask the Editor” folks at AP were nice enough to respond with this:

We don’t have new rules on hyphenation, contrary to what you may see on Twitter. One-bedroom apartment and four-door sedan are correct; we use hyphens in compound modifiers. We continue not to hyphenate terms commonly recognized as a single phrase. We use high school student, not high-school student; real estate agent, not real-estate agent; climate change report; not climate-change report. We change our style on two terms to conform to that guidance: first grade student (similar to high school student) and first quarter touchdown (the lack of hyphen wouldn’t cause anyone to think there’s such a thing as a quarter touchdown).

So, I spent about 20 minutes trying to think about how I could NOT misinterpret “first grade student” but I COULD misinterpret “four-door sedan,” based on hyphenation issues. I was left without a good answer.

The way that I’ve always explained style to students and why they need to learn it comes down to a few things, none of which are helped here with AP’s approach here:

 

Consistency: The goal of adhering to a specific style is so that everyone who is using a term, a form of punctuation or an approach to writing does so in the same way as everyone else in that field. Sure, there are breaks from the norms here and there, but a lot of those come once we know the rules and consciously decide to go a different way for a good reason. For example, here’s the start of the entry on last names:

In general, use only last names on second reference. When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, generally use the first and last name on subsequent references.

OK, but when you write a feature story about a family that has run a diner for three generations, the last thing you want is a sentence like this:

“Suzy Smith said she talked to Mary Smith about asking their brother, Johnny Smith, to get on board with the restructuring plan, in spite of what Jane Smith and Carl Smith, Suzy Smith’s cousins, wanted to do with the restaurant.”

One of my favorite feature stories a student wrote for me was about a family farm and every time I read it, even 10 years later, I wince at the first name/last name references to everyone. She did it because AP told her to and she feared losing points in the class. Had she asked, I would have told her to break the rule.

Consistency helps us when we move from job to job or from one area of the field to the other. Sure, organizations will implement local style when it comes to certain things, but AP serves as the benchmark for consistency that allows us to avoid looking like idiots when we leave one place and go somewhere else. It also helps to make sure we’re all on the same page when we are looking at a particular way of doing things.

 

Clarity: I remember talking to a friend of mine in college who was taking Japanese to fulfill a foreign-language requirement (or is it foreign language requirement now?) and I asked him how he was surviving it. (I had always heard Japanese was a really tough language to learn.) He told me English was harder because it has all sorts of rules that have all sorts of exceptions to them, making it almost impossible to be right. Japanese wasn’t a breeze, but at least the rules were relatively clear and standard, he told me.

Think about all the rules English has the require kids to sing songs to help remember them, like,  “i before e, except after c, unless it’s an “eh” like in “neighbor” or “weigh.” No wonder my kid uses text lingo and can’t spell to save her life…

AP presents these stylistics as guidelines and ideals, but they also essentially serve as rules for how we do things. That’s why we, as academics, force the students to read the book and abide by it. When the rules are clear, we all tend to follow them or understand why we are penalized when we fail to do so.

Think about it like a posted speed limit: When the sign says “Speed Limit: 55 mph,” we all understand that’s about how fast the state wants us to drive on that road and most of us tend to drive around that fast. When the police officer pulls you over for going 125 mph in that 55 mph zone (or is it 55-mph zone?), there’s at least a sense of “OK, I understand. I’m going to jail.”

However, there are “guidelines” as to how to drive on roads where there is no posted limit, most of which I would wager we don’t know. For example, in zones with no postings in Idaho, the rules are as clear as mud:

Idaho code 49-654 (1) reads: no person shall drive a vehicle at a speed in excess of the maximum limits: 35 miles per hour in any residential, business or urban district, unless otherwise posted; 65 miles per hour on state highways, unless otherwise posted in accordance with section 49-201(4), Idaho Code, and provided that this speed may be increased to 70 miles per hour if the department completes an engineering and traffic study on the state highway and concludes that the increase is in the public interest and the transportation board concurs with such conclusion; 55 miles per hour in other locations, unless otherwise posted, up to a maximum of 70 miles per hour.

Well, that’s not helpful to me if I’m on a rural road where a farm truck pulling hay is going 25 mph while Parnelli Jones is flying up my keester at 80. I’m not certain if the police would let me get away with, “Yes, officer, I know I was going 70, but I swear I thought this road had a traffic and engineering study that concluded it was in my best interest that this not be an unposted 55 zone!”

If you are in charge of making the rules, try not to turn the situation into a game of “Bamboozled.” Come up with some clear thoughts, stick to them and make life easy on those of us who have to deal with them. (Or, more to the point, easy on those of us who have to teach other people how to deal with them.)

 

Improvement: It’s a simple rule that I tend to follow, but change is supposed to make things better. If you change something and it becomes worse, that’s a bad thing. If you change things just for the sake of change, that’s dumber than change that makes things worse.

Case in point: My parents bought a really nice luxury SUV with a set of third-row seats. (I’m guessing it’s not third row seats, as I’m guessing a “row seat” might be something crew folks use…) The problem? To use the area in the back for storage, you had to fold up and remove the seats, each of which weighed about 70 pounds. You then had to store the seats in a garage or basement until you needed them again.

I found this to be colossally stupid, because my smaller, crappier SUV had stow-and-go seats, which meant they just flattened out and things were fine. When the next version of this luxury SUV came along, the engineers figured out that having people who could afford luxury drag a set of seats into a garage wasn’t exactly “on-brand.” The newer edition had electric  stow-and-go seats. It was change that created improvement.

To its credit, AP has made numerous changes over the years that have improved things. Issues pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation have shifted over time, and AP has demonstrated its willingness to hear from people affected by those issues and craft the style entries accordingly. It has helped with everything from how to spell foreign leaders’ names to how the internet differs from the World Wide Web (and when to capitalized each of them…). Those changes definitely improved things. Even simple things, like spelling out all the state names instead of dealing with rules over which ones got abbreviated and which didn’t or when to use AP abbreviations and when to use postal abbreviations did make things better.

When they started putzing with punctuation, it made less sense. The hyphens and the percent changes didn’t make sense. For the sake of peace with honor, I could buy the percent sign situation, if forced to do so. However, compound modifiers seem to be pretty simple in general: If the adjectives can’t independently modify the noun, you connect them with a hyphen. AP’s reliance on the “commonly recognized” exception seems like less of an improvement and more of a “We’re just tired of hearing about this, so do what the hell you want” response.

Maybe that is oversimplification that makes me a smart ass, who doesn’t understand the field as well as those who run the AP.

Smartass

Wait… Make that a smart-ass…

Student news outlet says “FU” to FIU football

The student journalists who work at various college, university and high school media outlets often suffer a number of indignities not laden upon their colleagues in professional area of the profession. They get overlooked, treated like second-class citizens and often chastised like sit-com kids for real or perceived slights.

I remember one particularly infuriating case in which a student photo editor went to the police department to get a copy of a mug shot. The desk worker said no such document existed, only to have the photo editor point out that a copy of the image was pinned to her cork board.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s for the REAL newspaper.” (Meaning of course the Gannett publication in town)

In most cases, the student media outlets have no real recourse but to take the smack on the keester and say, “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”

That’s what makes the approach of PantherNOW, the student media outlet at Florida International University, so refreshing. After getting stonewalled by the university’s media reps and sports information folks, the paper decided not to cover football this year. Making its reasons clear, the publication put together a thoughtful, reasoned and clear column that explains what happened.

While the students haven’t exactly pinpointed the source of FIU’s discontent, they have mentioned a possible sticking point in the column:

We have not been given a reason why we have been shut out of every coverage opportunity. After PantherNow reported that running back Shawndarrius Phillips, who had a warrant for his arrest the entire 2018 season was still playing on the team, we notice a rise in neglect for PantherNOW.

(You mean an organization associated with coach Butch Davis might have been overlooking shady things, acting in a “bush league” fashion and tussling with the media over openness? Get out of here…)

The students took a tough stand, as football is often the golden child of sports journalism. However, it’s the kind of stand worth taking when you know that you’re  going to get lousy treatment or worse. In the mean time, you can still read some great coverage of other sports at FIU on the PantherNOW website.

Conversely, if you want to find out how FIU lost to Tulane by four touchdowns, you’ll have to consult ESPN.com or some other publication.

Two Key Questions Every Story Should Answer Clearly For Your Readers

One of the most important things to remember about media writing (or good writing in general) is that you aren’t writing for yourself. You are writing for your audience.

What makes for a good understanding of your audience, how best to reach your audience, how audience characteristics change your approach to writing and many other things have been covered thoroughly here before. Rather than rehash them, let’s boil everything down to two simple questions you need to answer for your readers:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why do I care?

This might seem overly simplistic, but then again so is the noun-verb-object structure and it works pretty well for most of us. To that end, think of these questions as the “core” of what you’re trying to do for your story, much in the same way that NVO provides the core for a good sentence.

QUESTION 1: WHAT HAPPENED?

To answer this question, you actually will want to start with some noun-verb-object construction to focus on the crucial aspects of the story you want to tell:

Brewers beat Cubs
Mayor blasts city council
University passes budget

The simplicity of each of these starter sentences provides you with the “who did what to whom/what?”  content you need to best inform your readers as to the core theme of the story they need to read. Beyond that, you start filling in the additional elements of the 5W’s and 1H to help them see more of what happened (How badly did the Brewers beat the Cubs? Why is the mayor ripping the city council? What is in the university’s budget?) and then you can move them along to the next point in the piece.

When it comes to what you add to this, it’s a lot easier to point out what NOT to do than it is to tell you what you SHOULD do. A few avoid-at-all-cost elements include:

  • Soft language: Simplicity is to be rewarded, so value concrete nouns and vigorous verbs. Don’t tell me someone “is no longer alive.” Tell me the person died. Don’t tell me a person “could potentially be found to be the robber.” Tell me “Police said Smith is a robbery suspect.” Direct and clear doesn’t mean cruel. (comedian George Carlin once noted that people should not be deemed “those with severe appearance deficits.” They’re just ugly.) It means being as clear as possible. Think about it this way, do you want your doctor telling you, “Well, it appears that you might have engaged in behavior that led to some significant health issues of the sexual nature which could potentially lead to some negative outcomes if not dealt with accordingly” when you go for an office visit? Or would you prefer: “You got an STI. Take this pill and you’ll be fine. Be more careful next time.”
  • Jargon: What makes for jargon is a lot like beauty: It’s often in the eye of the beholder. This is why understanding your audience matters a great deal. Getting “a pair of Hookers” in car speak means a significant upgrade to your exhaust system. Getting “a pair of hookers” in cop speak can mean 30 days in jail to five years in prison. Think about how likely it is your audience will understand a concept before you use it. In many cases, you can find simpler and clearer words that will avoid your need to use the jargon. If you can’t, you probably want to include at least some form of explanation to your readers. If you find yourself doing this more than once or twice per story, reconsider what you’re doing.
  • Self importance: Yes, marketing and branding are important elements of everything now, including news coverage. However, the more time you spend patting yourself on the back that you wrote something by including breathless statements like, “In an exclusive interview with the Star-Times” or “told the Herald-Press,” the less time you are spending telling people what they need to know. In many cases, you aren’t as exclusive as you think you are. In other cases, telling people that you guessed right first can really appear tasteless.

 

QUESTION 2: WHY DO I CARE?

This is the bigger one of the two, given that it’s easy to tell people what happened in most simple media-writing exercises. Why they should care? That involves understanding the audience well, understanding the impact of the topic at hand well and finding a way to pair the two successfully.

The first thing you have to understand is that something “being important” isn’t self-evident. The second thing you have to understand is that not everyone sees things the way you do. These issues came perfectly into focus for me once when a student wanted to write a story the UWO student newspaper about how the U.S. should annex Puerto Rico. Given the audience the paper serves, the lack of a newspeg and the general “WTH” reaction most of the staff had to the topic, I asked why our readers should care about this. The student’s response: “EVERYONE should care!”

Um… That’s not how this works.

While I was an editor at the Columbia Missourian at Mizzou, a colleague used to make students finish the sentence, “This matters because…” before the student could start the lead of the story. The point she wanted to make was: If you don’t know why it matters, you can’t tell me anything useful.

One of my more interesting moments involving the “this matters because” philosophy came here at UW-Oshkosh when our fundraising arm (the UWO Foundation) found itself in some hot water. At the time, the organization was considering bankruptcy and other unpleasant actions to deal with some serious financial problems. I remember asking my reporting students what they thought about the situation and they all stared at me blankly.

A subsequent conversation went something like this:

Student: Why should I care about this?
Me: How many of you get scholarships to attend UWO?
(All hands go up.)
Me: So where do you think most of that money is located?
Student: The foundation? So…
Me: Wait for it…
(Students all furiously start Googling UWO Foundation and Scandal)

As far as they knew, nothing going on over there mattered to them, which was the exact opposite of reality. In the end, things got resolved, but at the time it was worth at least a passing look for those students.

Look at every possible way you can think of to convey specific value to your readers when you are writing a story. Why should they care that the city council is raising property taxes? Maybe that means rents will go up. Why should they care about street construction? Maybe it means parking in their area will change. Why should they care about cuts to the health inspector’s budget? Maybe it means a little less inspection and some awful conditions at their local eateries.

The point is to find ways to relate what you are doing to your readers so they can see that your work has merit. It doesn’t have to come down to the level of a “See Dick and Jane” book, but don’t assume everyone knows what matters and why. Help them understand and care. This will improve their connection to the topic as well as to your media outlet in general.

 

3 takeaways from the Washington Post’s 579-word correction on a story about family farms

We have covered the issue of corrections here a few times, including the massive ones issued for the obituaries of politicians John McCain and Richard Lugar. At 135 words and 144 words, respectively, these pale in comparison to the correction the Washington Post recently issued on Korsha Wilson’s piece on black families trying to hold onto their ancestors’ farm land.

This correction covers 15 bullet points and 579 painful words.

To put that in perspective, consider this:

  • If you added the McCain and Lugar corrections together and DOUBLED them, the word count would still fall short of 579 words.
  • According to media coverage on the incident, the correction went on so long, it needed to be jumped in the print edition.
  • When I worked at a daily newspaper, we were taught that it was about 30 words to a column inch, which would make this correction 19.2 column inches. That is nearly twice the length of most stories I was allowed to write for meetings, breaking news stories and featurized obituaries at the time.
  • The correction is about one-fifth the size of the original story.

Longer narrative stories that deal in complex issues, especially historic ones, run a lot of risks when it comes to accuracy. People’s recollections sometimes run counter to other people’s memories. Nuance can be lost in the writing, thus leading to mistakes due to slips in verbiage. Even more, longer pieces that weave in multiple sources can feel like juggling Jell-O, leading the writer to attribute a statement to a wrong source or to make a cut-and-paste mistake.

Some of these pitfalls are at the core of Wilson’s piece, but they don’t account for the majority of the problems. Consider these corrections:

  • The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
  • The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
  • The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
  • Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
  • Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
  • The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.

  • Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.

In other words, about half of the 15 bullet points involved simple fact-checking issues I would expect a student in a basic reporting class to be able to manage. Tom Jones at Poynter also noted the sloppy journalism, but said he thought the Post should get kudos for going to such great lengths to correct the record.

I would agree to a point, in that fixing mistakes is always a good idea. That said, not making so many mistakes would have been a better way to go with this. Wilson wasn’t a veteran staff member who got a pass on stringent editing because she was a known commodity. I would imagine that editors would drill down more deeply in a freelance piece to make sure it met the standards of the publication.

Also, Executive Editor Marty Baron’s pretty bland and opaque statement on the issue didn’t shed a lot of light on the issue:

“We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”

(And for a last piece of perspective, everything you read right to this point totals 579 words, the exact same length as the correction.)

The goal with this blog isn’t to beat up on people, but rather to help you learn from the mistakes of others. With that in mind, consider these thoughts:

  • Fred Vultee’s Theory on Drowning: Professor Fred Vultee of Wayne State University is an editing expert and a veteran journalist of the days in which smoking in the newsroom was common. We worked together at the Columbia Missourian back in the early 2000s, where he was fond of telling me (and anyone smart enough to listen) that, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was to treat small bits of copy (briefs, captions etc.) with the same care as the magnum opus stories that went on for scads of inches and wove together complex story lines.
    I liked to expand this to include the idea that it’s rarely the complex and nuanced issues of a painstakingly detailed story that lead to corrections, but rather the simple, stupid stuff you should have check on in the first place. This story exemplifies that with the mistakes on name spellings, dates and numbers.

 

  • Assume everything you wrote is wrong. Go prove yourself to be right: We talked about this one before, but it bears repeating. Fact checking is a vital aspect of what you do as a reporter. Sure, we could leave that to the editors, but with newsroom cuts and overworked staff, editors aren’t the safety net they used to be. (Case in point, this piece apparently went through the Post’s rigorous editing process and still ended up with more than a dozen points that needed correcting after the fact.)
    Write based on your notes, your recall and your research, but then edit the hell out of your work with the eye of a skeptic. Assume every fact is wrong until you can prove it right. (A former student of mine once interned at a place that required reporters to circle every verifiable fact and print out a piece of solid source copy to demonstrate its veracity.) If you read better on screen, edit it there. If you catch more stuff on a printed page, kill a tree or two if necessary. Whatever helps you examine your work clearly and with an eye toward detail, do it. You want to be able to point out to an editor exactly how you know you are right.

 

  • Get back up and try again: If you enter this business thinking you’ll never screw up, you have some wishful thinking happening in your head. A year or so back, I asked people in the hivemind about things they fouled up as journalists. These venerable writers, reporters, photographers and even professors noted a wide array of, “Oh crap…” moments that had each of us thinking, “There but by the grace of God go I…”People who were following the Post’s correction with the glee of an arsonist watching a four-alarm fire got their shots in on the writer for her work, with one noting:“At this rate, it is a wonder the author even got her name right. Speaking of which, the author of this hot mess is one Korsha Wilson… By the looks of what happened to Wilson’s Washington Post article, she should probably stick to writing about food.”

    Not to be rude here, but what a dick. Nothing says, “I’m a professional journalist” like kicking people when they’re down. And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the writer of that insightful commentary likely has a correction or two in his writing history.

    We’re all going to screw something up at some point. I’m sure Korsha Wilson wanted to crawl into a hole and die when this story went south and her mistakes went viral. When I screwed up on a local level before things like this could spread beyond a print circulation area, that’s exactly how I felt each and every time I made a mistake. I feared making another mistake to the point that I was almost assured of making one, a syndrome that gave birth to my “handful of Jell-O” axiom.

    My hope for her is the same hope I have for any of you who screw up (read: everyone in journalism), which is that once you fix the mistake and you take your flogging, you persevere. Get up, dust yourself off and go back to work. The best way for people to forget you had a horrible moment is to have a few great ones.

“Journalism is never done. It’s just due.” (Embracing your “a-ha!” moment)

At the age of 19, I had one major goal that was driving my journalism education: Impress Steve Lorenzo.

Steve was the instructor of my first journalism writing class and he was pretty much exactly the guy I wanted to be: Smart, funny, talented and gifted. He had a way of grabbing the most chaotic sentences off the screens of our Mac Classic computers and crunching them down into incredible journalistic prose. He was able to reorder your messy chronology into a perfect inverted pyramid on the fly, never once stopping to ponder what he needed to do. The way you or I would wiggle a finger is how Steve would keyboard our work to perfection: It was as if journalism was attached to his central nervous system.

Of all the things he taught me, the most important came when time was running out during a lab exercise and I was one of the last people in the room. I was trying to make the words of a lead do what he said they needed to do, even as those words were being decidedly uncooperative. I was always looking for “another word for…” whatever it was I was trying to write. (I think it was an accident brief. You can only say “accident” or “crash” in so many ways…)

As Steve called out the minutes until our stuff was due, I kind of yelped out a phrase that I know I’ve heard at least a squillion times as an instructor: “But I’m not DONE yet!”

Steve’s response: “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”

Whether he came up with that on his own or he borrowed it from someone else, I’ll never know. (I use this constantly and always do my best to disabuse students of the notion that I was smart enough to come up with it on my own.) However, that became the “a-ha!” moment for me that made journalism a lot less painful. (It still was painful, but not as much as it would have been had I not heard that bit of wisdom.)

His point was that you can always make something a bit better or a bit smoother or a bit clearer if you had five more minutes or 10 more months to work on it. However, the goal of journalism is to put forward the best possible representation of reality for your readers in the time you have available.

As I began to work deeper into journalism and then into journalism education, I took this to heart and used it to craft what I called my “90% rule.” The idea was that I wanted my writing to be 90% of the way to “as good as it’s gonna get” in two good swings: Draft one-Edit 1 and Draft 2-Edit 2.

After that, everything was a function of time and diminishing returns. I could spend six hours debating a comma that might make something .00001% better, but that’s a waste of time. That said, if I put in another hour and got it to 95%, that would be good if I had the hour to give. If not, at least 90% gets me to a point where I don’t embarrass myself.

For those of you still looking for your “a-ha!” moment or just feeling like you’re a 3-year-old who lost your mom at Walmart when you write, give this Columbia Journalism Review article a look. Dozens of top-notch journalists reveal when they learned a lesson they carry with them to this day. They share their “a-ha!” moments, with some being successes that inspired them while others were failures that left scars.

Another good read, especially if you’re the kind of person who can’t let go of a piece, is this take on perfectionism. A lot of students I know struggle to make something perfect, even when they aren’t entirely sure what it is they’re doing. That added investment and struggle is admirable, but it can also be devastating when they get the graded piece back and realize it seemed to be all for nought.

In any case, the best thing I can tell you about the “a-ha!” moment is it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You can’t go looking for it, but don’t worry.

It will find you eventually.

Keep the “journalist” in “photojournalist” with solid reporting and quality captions

A student editor reached out to me with some thoughts on a recent post, so I offered her the chance to pick a topic for me and I promised I’d give it a shot. It didn’t take long for her to get back to me:

I think the next biggest issue I’ve been dealing with is photographers, and even reporters, being too scared to talk to people, or even too lazy. I had a photographer try to argue with me a few weeks ago about whether it was “important” to get people’s names in captions if the picture is of them. Which, duh, it is.

Duh, indeed.

Photojournalists often have a thankless job in a newsroom setting. They are told to find visually appealing moments at meetings and speeches, which is kind of like trying to find a nun at an AVN awards ceremony. They get “assignments” after other people have figured out what the news is supposed to be and then they have to somehow figure out how to grab images that reflect whatever a writer or editor thought the story should be. (Also, back in the day, they used to get stuck in a chemical dark room with limited ventilation. God alone knows what that stuff did to them. I tried to learn film developing once in one of these places and I felt high for about two days…)

As a way to not only deal with that, but also to reaffirm their place in the media ecosystem, the word “journalist” is built right into their titles. It used to be just “photographer,” (or in some cases, “picture box monkey”) which indicated the only purpose they had was to grab images. In other words, “Let’s leave the news stuff to the big kids, OK, there, pal?”

Journalism is baked into every bite of what these folks do. They need to tell stories, communicate effectively and help audience members understand why things matter. Part of that is in the images themselves, as the photogs grab slivers of time that convey action, reaction, emotion, depth and feel. A good image can give people a sense of place and time. However, it can’t do the job alone. This is why images almost always have captions and the captions really do make the difference in storytelling.

Consider this photo:

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Interesting and engaging. You get facial expressions and actions. For a “dude at table” photo, it’s pretty solid. However, without a caption, you lack the ability to understand much about what’s going on. A standard two-sentence caption should work like this:

Sentence 1: Tell me what’s going on in the photo without being patently obvious and do it in present tense.

Sentence 2: Provide me with an explanation as to why what’s going on here matters to me with depth, background and other additional information.

Now, let’s see how a caption makes you feel about this photo:

All-Star Shortstop Bucky Johnson signs an autograph for a young fan prior to the presentation of his Most Valuable Player award. Johnson set American League records for homers, hits and runs last year as he helped the Cleveland Indians win their first World Series since 1948.

A nice heartwarming piece with some fun, some feel and an “awwww” moment.

However, that’s not even close to what’s going on in this photo. This is a court image of Scott Peterson at the defense table with his legal counsel. He’s in the process of being convicted of murdering his wife and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay. He received the death penalty and has been on death row for more than 15 years.

Feel a little differently about it now?

The point is, the more information you include in a caption, the better the caption will be and the more helpful it will be in letting your photo tell the story.

When I had to write captions for photos on night desk,  I was really lucky to work with Joe Jackson, one of the best photojournalists I ever knew. Joe would not only gather a whole bunch of information for me to write the captions, but when he knew I was working on it, he would come over and tell me what he saw when he was shooting the frame and why he chose that image for publication. That helped me tell a better story in my writing and thus help his photo do a better job of communicating his intent.

With that in mind, consider the following tips for gathering information for captions:

  • Names: People who are identifiable in the image should be named. You also want to gather some additional information about who they are and why they are at the newsworthy event you are covering.
  • Actions: Find out what people are actually DOING and get specific. Two people laughing in a photo can be nice, but a caption that says they “share a laugh” is as pointless as a paraphrase that tells me “Smith had this to say:” If they’re laughing after listening to a comedy club act, that’s one thing. If they’re laughing at a murder victim’s vigil, that’s another thing. It’s the same thing when someone is on the phone in a photo (and those aren’t all that great as images, by the way): Find out who is on the other end of the line, what the conversation is and how things panned out.
  • Details: You are a journalist so get nosy. “Find out the name of the dog and the brand of the beer,” was the mantra of a former editor of mine, and that applies here as well. Find out as much as you can about the people in the images and what is going on. For example, is the person going to speak in favor of a labor agreement or against it at a big meeting? Is the person local or from out of town? Is the person at the county fair there to compete in some event or just eat his/her weight in funnel cakes? More depth is good.

In terms of how best to write these things, Kenneth Irby of Poynter put together a great list of “hot tips” for just such an occasion. Consider them words to live by.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

A group of my sports writing students were asked to write a story about a football game between two fictional college rivals, in which one comes back from a huge deficit to win on the last play of the fourth quarter. A good number of them attempted to hype the story rather than tell it, especially in the lead:

Thanks to an unbelievable fourth quarter capped by a 28-0 run, (WINNERS) came back to defeat (LOSERS), 31-28.

It seemed like (LOSERS)had the game wrapped up going into the fourth quarter, but in football, you must play all four quarters to the best of your ability if you want to win the game, no matter what level you’re playing at. 

In Wild and Wonderful  fashion, (WINNER) roars back to score 31 unanswered as they knock off (LOSER) in the closing seconds of regulation.

The (GAME) ended in extraordinary fashion with a last second touchdown.

Others wrote about it being “incredible,” “super,” “amazing” and so forth. And, yes, according to the information they received it was the largest comeback in conference history, so it might well have been all of those things.

However, your job is to show the readers what is going on by presenting factual information, not trying to sell them something by hyping it up. If you do the former, you’ll notice that your readers will come to the conclusion you want them to all by themselves. If you do the latter, you’ll find that the readers will resist your efforts to get them to see the situation in the way you want them to.

Don’t believe me? Consider the Joke Theory.

My wife and I laugh about how we’re always so competitive. But I know I always laugh more.

OK, that’s a lame joke, but I was hamstrung a bit by trying not to insult men, women, college students, professors, animals, trees and some frat kid named Chad’s little brother. That said, a few of you might have laughed at that. I at least had a chance.

Now consider if I started it this way instead:

I’m going to tell you a really funny joke. It’s probably one of the best jokes you’re ever going to hear. You’re going to be laughing so hard, you’ll cry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you retell it to everyone you know. OK, here we go…

The hype kills the hope that I’m getting a laugh, just like the hype undercuts your position with your readers. Don’t tell them something is funny, amazing or whatever else. Show them the thing as it is and let them come to that conclusion.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Read this version of a story about a man caught breaking into a couple’s home, eating their food, wearing the wife’s Christmas “onesie” and dressing his cat, named Spaghetti, in a cashmere sweater he stole. What drives this story is the straight-up fact-based reporting that has you wondering, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?” (Well that and quotes like this: “No one leaves a dressed cat in a crawl space unless they’re coming back or they’re still here,” Smith told the paper. “So I got out and shut the door.”)

Now, if the writer, instead of doing this, had started commenting on this throughout the story, here’s what you might get:

“In the most bizarre case of burglary and home invasion ever known, a 38-year-old man was arrested Sunday night.

The odd fellow, who named his cat Spaghetti, which makes no sense, was caught in a crawl space in the home. A creepy crawler, indeed!

The weirdo put on the wife’s “onesie” night dress, which the woman obviously said she didn’t want the police to bring back for her. He also dressed Spaghetti in a cashmere outlet the couple had for one of its Chihuahuas, just adding to the weirdness of the night.”

Which version does the job better? Clearly the first one.

The point is that you need to have faith in your readers that they’ll see what you see when you write, without having to poke or prod them via commentary or hype. You also need to have faith in your own writing that you’ll get your point across well enough without having to use hype as a crutch to do the job.

Jim Bouton: A truth-teller who showcased the value of voice in writing

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My first copy (of many) of “Ball Four.” The best 50 cents I ever spent.

I found myself speechless last night when I learned of the death of the man who taught me to love voice in writing.

Jim Bouton, a major-league baseball pitcher in the 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 80, the victim of several strokes and a condition called vascular dementia.

I felt like I just got punched in the heart, a somewhat ridiculous notion given that I’d never met the man. However, I really felt like I KNEW him, a testament to his ability to write in a way that put his voice inside my head.

Bouton was somewhat unremarkable as a pitcher, compiling a record of 62-63, earning one all-star bid and one World Series title. He was, however, a remarkable storyteller and chronicler of a single season with the Seattle Pilots, a team that itself lasted for only one year. Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” told the stories of life inside the locker room, on the team bus and within the players’ lives in a way that had never been done to this degree before.

Others had written books that took people inside the locker room before Bouton came along and others wrote far more shocking locker room books after the publication of “Ball Four.” However, what made Bouton stand out, at least in my mind, was his voice and the way he spun his tales. The man had a way of making the reader feel like each story within the book was a shared experience from a close friend.

I came across my first copy of the book at a garage sale when I was about 20 years old. I had heard about “Ball Four” when I read a sports column a year or two earlier, so when I saw the rumpled paperback for sale, 50 cents seemed like a decent investment.

It was love at first read.

What struck me immediately was what struck Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam, who wrote in a review that “Ball Four” was “a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.” The opening line lets you into Bouton’s life in an unvarnished, honest and fearful way:

“I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams…”

His dreams were those of a pitcher: To find his way back to the big leagues. To win games and become an award-winner. To beat his old team, the one that tossed him aside when he hit rock bottom. He freely admits that he doesn’t expect any of those dreams to happen, but he still wants to chase them. He wants to see if he has a little bit left in the tank.

The book doesn’t just chart the dreams of one man, but the realities of many men of that time. Ballplayers had been venerated through “milk and cookies” reporting, as Bouton noted. Their exploits on the field had been catalogued and deified while their exploits off the field had escaped notice in the press, with a wink and a nod from fawning reporters. The men engaged in all sorts of activities from popping “greenies” (amphetamines) to improve their play to “beaver shooting,” which involved spotting good-looking women in the stands during a game.

(Ballplayers cheating on their wives was a big reveal in “Ball Four.” The line that sticks out in my mind was Mike Hegan’s response to the question, “What’s the hardest thing about being a professional ballplayer?” Hegan: Explaining to your wife why she needs a shot of penicillin for your kidney infection, a clear reference to picking up an STI while on the road.)

Bouton took on issues of race, gender and fame in his book in a way that rankled the old guard of the game. He wrote about the heroes of the game, including Mickey Mantle, in such a way that he was cast out as a baseball pariah. (My edition was his 1980 update, which included his life after the original book had been published. He noted that the San Diego Padres burned copies of his book and left them for him in the visitor’s locker room. Pete Rose, who would later be banned from baseball for far worse transgressions than Bouton purportedly committed, once stood on the top step of the dugout and screamed at Bouton: “FUCK YOU, SHAKESPEARE!” Reporter Dick Young called Bouton a “social leper.”)

The irony was that the more often the baseball establishment tried to discredit and shame Bouton, the more frequently people bought his book to see what the buzz was all about. As I dug into the book, 20 years after its first pressing and 10 years after my edition had been published, I found myself transported to this incredible island of misfit toys filled with humor and strangeness. Each time I came across a passage I liked, I ripped off a small piece of my reporter’s notebook and bookmarked it. Eventually, the bookmarks so overwhelmed the book that that they essentially lost value.

“Ball Four” became one of about four books I tried to reread at least once per year, as it provided joy and new insights in each reading. At 20, the 30-year-old Bouton seemed like an elder statesman, a wizened truth-teller and inside source to me. When I read it at age 30, I saw Bouton as an every man, someone who dealt with family troubles, work hassles and a day-to-day life that was both remarkable and ordinary. When I read it at 39, I found myself focusing on the update, “Ball Five,” where he attempted a baseball comeback at age 39. The sense of longing and the sense of a need to scratch an itch, to right a wrong and to write one last chapter made sense to me, even though I’d never once thrown a knuckle ball.

The rereadings I did between now and then have actually shaped a lot of what you read here on the blog and in the textbooks I wrote for SAGE. I found myself focusing on a few elements of Bouton’s writing that gave it the vibe and feel that keeps me coming back to it time and time again. Here are three things I got out of it that I hope will inspire your writing as well:

VOICE: In writing the book, Bouton had to make notes about various situations as they happened on anything he could find. In the retrospective shows about his efforts, he displayed a trove of cocktail napkins, hotel stationary and plane tickets with pencil-scrawled bits of information. Once he was safely back in the confines of his home or his hotel room, he would use those notes to flesh out his thoughts by speaking into a portable tape recorder.

The “write it like you would say it” motif is a large part of what makes the book readable and engaging and gives it a true sense of voice. Although I don’t use the recorder trick to do so, I try to write like I would speak when I’m putting together almost anything that doesn’t involve academic research. (Academics don’t like voice. They want everything to sound like it’s being chronicled in a British accent by a guy with a bow tie and a stick up his keester.)

One of my students told me, “It’s weird but when I am reading the chapters, I hear your voice in my head.” I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, so I told her, “I hear voices in my head, too. My doctor says there’s medicine for that, but I’m afraid I’d get lonely.” I also figured that she could hear the voice because she HAD heard my voice in class. However, I ran into a student who was using the book for his class at another university and the first thing he told me was, “You sound exactly like I thought you would.”

Once you get good at the 5W’s and 1H and you can nail down a fire brief with the best of ’em, you get a little more license to write stories that require voice and feeling. The ability to use that voice, not for your own edification, but to tell stories that connect with your readers, can be a huge benefit for everyone involved. Start now by finding that voice and seeing how well it works as you tell stories.

HONESTY: Journalists are required to tell truth to power, regardless of the cost. Many of us, myself included, fall short in that area on a fairly regular basis. We don’t want to go into the corner and fight for the puck. We don’t want to ruffle feathers of sources that were decent to us or who might find a way to make our lives hellish. We don’t want to rock the boat. So, we don’t say what we see or dig into those darker corners for fear of what it might lead to.

In his life after baseball, Bouton worked as a television sports journalist for six years, where he found that telling truth to power or focusing on things the powers-that-be don’t want you to focus on led to just as many problems in media as they did in baseball. He was shunned by other journalists and players were all warned to “watch what you say” when they saw Bouton coming.

Bouton’s honesty cost him a lot in life. He lost his job in baseball, although Bouton critics would point out his pitching in 1970 had a good deal to do with that as well. He angered people in baseball so much that he wasn’t able to attend funerals for his former teammates and he never got invited to baseball events like “Oldtimers’ Day.” (As Bouton noted, “Understand, everybody gets invited back for Oldtimers’ Days, no matter what kind of rotten person he was when he was playing. Muggers, drug addicts, rapists, child molesters all are forgiven for Oldtimers’ Day. Except a certain author.”)

What struck me, however, wasn’t Bouton’s honesty about the world at large or about the escapades of his teammates, but his personal honesty. In the second edition of “Ball Four,” he talks about getting divorced and how scary it was for him. In his third update to the book, he discusses the death of his daughter, Laurie, who was killed in a car accident in 1997. In both cases, his vulnerability is as clear and prominent as it was in the original text.

He fears being cut and says as much. He worries about his teammates who are seen as nothing but bargaining chips to be shuttled around the league for other pieces of the team’s puzzle. He worries about money, security, family and more. He lets you in as a reader and that’s what makes his stories feel the way they do.

Most of what I write doesn’t have a lot of room for voice or this kind of honesty, but I push it where I can because as I’ve told anyone who will listen, I don’t just want to be a name on a book spine. It’s why I reach out to teachers who adopt the texts and respond to students who email me with questions. (It’s also why I actively try to thank the students who are given extra credit in their classes to find typos in the books and email me with their discoveries.)

Honesty breeds humanity and it makes for much better stories and connections between the reader and the author. Not every story will call for that, but it’s worth it to try when the opportunity presents itself.

HUMOR: The greatest compliment I can pay to anyone is to say, “You really made me laugh.” Bouton really made me laugh.

In some cases, it was with simple statements: “Did you know ethyl chloride can be fun?”

In other cases, it was with just crude stories, such as the time he explained how Ray Oyler caught a curveball right in the cup while warming up a pitcher in the bullpen. (Back then, the cup was a metal insert into the jock strap. Hitting someone in the cup was called “ringing the bell.”)

In most cases, it was just the way he told me about bits of life that helped me feel like I knew him. His adopted son from Korea was learning English and was doing well, although occasionally he would mix something up like burping and then saying, “Thank you.” His take on teammate Gary Bell closing the ninth inning of a game had a similar flair: “It was a minor miracle. He’s supposed to pitch tomorrow, he ran 15 wind sprints before the game and ate three sandwiches in the fourth inning. When he came into the clubhouse in the seventh to put on his supporter, he asked no one in particular if it was too late to take a greenie.”

(Bouton also wasn’t afraid to offer self-deprecating statements. He explained that he was such a poor hitter that his teammates nicknamed him, “Cancer Bat.”)

Back then and even today, people are far too serious. I can already hear people aghast at the idea of laughing at casual drug use or mocking a child who was learning a second language. Some people are perpetually offended and look at anything as a chance to pontificate on a point of extremely limited merit. What those people fail to understand is that some things can just be funny without leading to a higher discussion of larger issues.

I love funny things, even if not everyone can agree with what makes something humorous. It’s why I try to weave odd little Easter Eggs into the books. (You might notice that the phone number I use every time I need to reference one is 867-5309. If you don’t get it, look it up.) It’s why I try to use examples that are less stringent public policy and more “a guy in a onesie was arrested with his cat named Spaghetti.” Humor helps us remember things. It helps us learn. It also helps us enjoy life a little more.

If there’s one thing “Ball Four” taught me, that was it.

And that if you want to win, pretty much have to “smoke ’em inside.”

(If you want to understand that line, go read the book. It’s worth it.)