Starting 2021 asking for a favor of Dynamics of Writing readers: Help me help you.

As most of you are either just starting the spring/winter semester, or about to do so shortly, it’s time to get the blog up and rolling again.

Each semester, I start with the same concerns: “How in the hell am I going to be able to blog about something decent four or five times per week?” Each semester, the universe sees fit to throw me enough bad writing, administrative overreach on student media and general stupidity to keep the site stocked with new stuff.

That said, this site is supposed to be about what the audience wants most of all. As I say to my students frequently, “You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for your readers.” Given the array of people who show up here every day, however, this can often feel like dating a hydra with multiple-personality disorder.

With that in mind, I’m asking a simple question: Help me help you. Over the past 569 posts, what are the things you thought, “Man, I’m glad I read that!” or “Wow! That was really helpful.” Conversely, what were the things that made you say to yourself, “Well, that’s 18 minutes of my life I’m never getting back…”

I have stuff in the hopper for various occasions, and I’m sure the  media world at large will continue to feed me wonderful moments of horrid writing to critique. Other than that, I’m all ears. You can contact me here, or just post in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and we’ll kick off the term in earnest tomorrow.

Vince

(A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

A friend of mine on a student media listserv asked this end-of-semester, why-don’t-kids-listen, why-is-God-angry-with-me question about her students and their ability to attribute information properly:
WTF is wrong with “said?” Why can’t students use it?
I’ve begged. I’ve put it on copy-editing lists. I’ve highlighted it on rubrics. I’ve talked to them individually. Nothing works.
Today I’ve seen at least 10 words in place of said and none of those situations required anything other than said.
We don’t know what the fire chief “believes” about the cause of the fire.
The university certainly doesn’t “feel” anything.
My biggest peeve: shared.

In situations like this, it always helps to know you’re not alone, and she wasn’t. More than 20 other emails popped into place after this one, all noting the various trials and tribulations of “said.”

For the last “Throwback Thursday” of 2020, here’s a look back at the last time I looked at “said.”

Said: A perfect word and a journalist’s best friend

Said.

Four letters, one word, simple perfection.

As far as verbs of attribution go, not much else can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:

SaidIsDead

The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”

 

Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.

 

According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

That said, if you want to have fun with verbs of attribution, enjoy the ridiculous ones we gathered below for your reading pleasure. (Whatever happens, don’t blame me if you use one of these on your reporting final…)

“I just can’t shake this head cold,” he sniffed.

“I’m going to have to draw you a picture to get you to understand this,” he illustrated.

“Of course I’m chewing tobacco!” he spat.

“All I know is, I love doing a ton of cocaine,” he snorted.

“This is the saddest movie ever,” he cried.

“Bethany said I was being distant, but it’s her fault we broke up,” he ex-claimed. “And that One Direction CD is totally mine as well.”

“I love this vintage, but I can’t remember what vineyard it comes from,” he whined.

“I used to have a poodle named Princess, but my ex-girlfriend stole her,” he bitched.

“Get me the phone so I can get a hold of Mom,” he called.

“Whose dog is making all that noise?” he barked.

“My empty stomach speaks for itself,” he growled.

“Don’t forget my Post-Its!” he noted.

“I know, I know, I know,” he echoed.

 

 

Get a job, kid! Sound employment advice from LinkedIn’s Andrew Seaman

I have always felt sympathy for the kids I’ve taught who graduated in December. Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, they’re pumping out resumes and cover letters to hiring folks that are trying to keep their year-end budgets in check while planning office holiday parties and trying to do their own holiday stuff.

Even more, in Wisconsin, December is a dismal, cold and gray month that gives people that feeling of misery and provides seasonal affective disorder with a home-field advantage. Nothing like getting rejection letters when you’re also feeling like the world itself is curling up into a corner and dying on you.

One great resource to help those of you trying to find a job during this “unprecedented” time of pandemic, hiring freezes and general misery is Andrew Seaman over at LinkedIn.

Seaman, who serves as senior editor in the job search and career area for this LinkedIn News, spent time as a journalist at Reuters and USA-Today. He was also the chairman of the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethics committee for four years, during which time he helped rework the organization’s ethical code.

(As a minor side-plug, he was also nice enough to be one of the “Pros” for the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book in the “Thoughts from a Pro” feature.)

Seaman has covered many topics over the past few years that are associated with high-wire act we must endure to find a job. His “Get Hired” newsletter has more than a half-million weekly subscribers and always offers interesting angles on important topics. These are archived on the LinkedIn site as well, just in case you missed one of his posts.

Here are a few I would recommend right off the bat:

He’s also got great advice for how to turn down a job, what kind of digging you should do to learn about a company that’s offering a job and how to network well.

The things that make Seaman’s work great come from his background as a journalist:

  • He relies on sources. You can find actual people with actual quotes who actually did things he’s talking about or deal with them in some way. He’s not giving you a “Based on how important I think I am, here are some pontifications” kind of thing. It’s real.
  • His work is clearly written. The journalism end comes through in this because he’s not using industry jargon (or if he is, he defines it) or a load of random lingo. He’s also writing in a concise and smooth way that makes his writing a joy to read.
  • He understands the audience-centricity principle. Seaman knows who is reading his work and he understands what they want out of him. His work is timely and topical. It makes sense to people who are looking for a job. He doesn’t go off on flights of fancy. It’s just damn good stuff.

Hope you enjoy his stuff and good luck with your job search!

 

Thank you for making this necessary: The second edition of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” is now on the press

For the first time in quite some time, I was happy to open an email:

If I don’t say it enough, please let me say it here in the immortal words of Yogi Berra: “Thank you all for making this day necessary.” The fact that so many of you were willing to take a chance on a new book in a time in which books have the appeal of a mauve polyester leisure suit means a lot to me. It’s not easy to adopt a new text and rewrite stuff for a class, especially as we’re being all asked to do more with less, so I appreciate the help and the faith.

As a sneak peek, I wanted to let you all know some things that the new book will include:

  • Social media. The book includes a lot of best practices for blogging and simple-message posting. The book not only shifts more toward stronger “how to” content in the chapters on these topics, but it also addresses these issues as they relate to “fake news,” disinformation, the law and ethics.
  • More exercises. The goal was to provide you with enough stuff that your students would learn to hate me for putting a ton of work in front of them. (I think I’ll have Zoe open my mail for a while after this edition hits the shelves.) I added extra options for simple exercise as well as some more “mid-range” pieces for people who want to do lab exercises. If that’s not enough, there’s always the Corona Hotline page.
  • Best of the Blog: I get that not everyone is sitting on the website every day with bated breath hoping I’ll post something. (Except for my mom. Thanks, Mom.) I also understand that with more than 500 posts over the past three years (Wow… That went by in a blink), you might not always find the perfect post for each chapter to make a key point. To that end, I decided to build a “greatest hits” album of sorts, with each chapter having one blog post that attaches itself to the theme of that particular chapter. As always, all 500-some posts are available on this site and everything up here is freebie for anyone to use.
  • Appendices: As with the last version, we broke out stuff like extra lead exercises, freedom information requests and video editing into the back of the book in appendix format. We also updated the “Get a job” appendix with more advice and added a whole thing on how to do freelance work, relying on three professional freelancers. Why freelancing? Because a professor asked for it, so we did it. (Good tip for anyone else who wants something: I have a hard time letting anyone down, so the more I can do to help you, the better I feel about myself.

As always, the blog will keep things current and humming in the time between editions, so you’ll never be “out of date” in terms of content. And if you want something that I haven’t provided, just ask and I’ll blog it.

This should be available just in time for that hard-to-shop-for person on your holiday list and as a perfect stocking-stuffer for every human being you actively dislike. I’d even be willing to autograph any copy, with the idea that it will decrease the value in it and the bookstore won’t buy it back.

Seriously, though, I really want to let you all know how grateful I am for all your support, help and suggestions over the years. I hope this book is what you want and need to keep the next generation of students moving toward greatness.

Best,

Vince

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

3 ways to avoid letting Tucker Boner, Dick Hertz and Heywood Jablome turn your story into a prank

The world of news features is fraught with danger when you couple unsuspecting reporters with people who enjoy trolling them. A journalism colleague and friend alerted me to this potentially suspect source in a New York Times story about Zillow Surfing:

As my friend noted, “I couldn’t help but think the reporter got duped,” before referencing this classic “source” in a New York Post story:

If you need the joke spelled out, I’ll answer the question for you: “No, I would not like to blow you…”

The Post story is coming up on two decades old, but the folks there are apparently not giving up the ship when it comes to Heywood’s bona fides (sorry… couldn’t resist) as this story is STILL AVAILABLE.

Is it possible that these guys were both real people with just unfortunate names? Sure. I mean, one of the best pitching coaches in baseball history (at least in my mind) had probably the world’s worst name if he wanted people to take him seriously: Dick Pole.

Of all the greatest “add another layer” moments was the year in which Pole played for the Portland Beavers. Although you should know by now I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up, here’s proof:

We could spend hours going through a list of names people have used to punk reporters. The Seymour Buttz and Mike Rotch’s of the world are well known, thanks in large part to “The Simpsons” and Bart’s penchant for pranking the local bar.

There are plenty of cases where “regular” people have names that go beyond common spellings or those we have seen hundreds of times before. We once had a music guy who kept calling us to promote the promising bands he represented. His first name was Spackle. I have no idea how or why…

Even more, there are cases where people share famous names with people who have entered the public spotlight in an unfortunate fashion. (In my time at the State Journal, I worked with a “Susan Smith” right around the time another “Susan Smith” was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Our “Susan” actually wrote a column about these unfortunate pairings…) And, of course, it’s probably no great shakes for these regular folks, either, who have to deal with this on a daily basis:

However, as a journalist, you can’t cut people out of your stories or avoid them just because “that name sounds weird.” With that in mind, here are a few tips for keeping yourself out of trouble in these situations:

Trust but verify: In most cases, you’re getting people to tell you their names and spell them, so you’re in pretty good shape for making sure you got the name itself right.

If the name seems like it might be a “trolling moment,” you can’t automatically assume this person is messing with you. (“So that’s Dick P-O-L-E… wait a minute!”) It would be in poor form to demand ID from that person, but you can get around that concern in a few other ways.

Make use of the other publicly available databases, such as those for court records. Maybe “Yankton Weiner” was sued, filed suit, got a speeding ticket or got a divorce from the former Mrs. Weiner, which would help you figure this out.

Do a search through multiple other websites connected with the topic at hand to see if that person was cited as a source. A quick run through your own news site and a few others in the area would be helpful as well. If you keep coming up empty, telephone directory searches are also helpful.

Also, the internet has a burgeoning public records industry where various companies swear they can find out anything about anybody. If you search for a name, chances are, you’ll get at least something in the free version of the company’s site. Worst case, pay the $20 or whatever if you’re desperate to use the source but afraid of looking like an idiot.

Box the source in: One of the easiest ways to prevent a source from snowing  you is to pin that source down with specific questions about themselves. A person might quickly give you “I. P. Frehleigh” as a name, but would likely be less adept telling you what the I and P stand for. The more questions you ask, the more hemmed in that source will be.

If the source works in some professional field, ask for a business card with the idea that you might want to reach out to them later. If they balk, that’s a pretty good indication that something might not be above board. If they offer a phone number instead, use that number to reach out to them from another phone and see how they answer. Or use a reverse-directory app to get their name from that number.

Throw some basic chatter at the person to get some other information such as, “So how long have you lived around here?” or “Where did you say your office was?” If the answers are quick and easy, the person is likely on the level. If they feel forced, be wary. Either way, write the answers down so you can check them against other information. Also, don’t be afraid to go back and ask a basic question a second time to see if they have it the same way twice: “I’m sorry, but HOW did you spell ‘Frehleigh’ again?”

Ask that source to give you some contact information for their colleagues or other folks who might be just as helpful. This will help limit the number of lies that you can hear. At the end of the day, paranoia will be your best friend, so ask as many questions about the person as you need to

Cut it: There’s no rule that says you have to use a source just because you got the source to talk. Granted, some sources are crucial to a story, but if you review what Mr. Jablome and what Mr. Boner told the reporters here, you can see nothing vital or unique. This is a case of a reporter just deciding, “Well, I got the source, so I’m using him,” a concept in journalism known as notebook emptying.

At the end of the day, I’d rather be one source short than to add to the legend of “Elle Phunt,” “Dee Z. Knutz” or “Barry McCockiner.”

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

I asked a colleague in PR what she would like to see in our editing class if I were to start it over from scratch and try to incorporate the needs of all our sequences into it. It took her no time to answer:

“Teach them how to self-edit,” she said. “They need to look at their copy and realize what’s wrong with it.”

Much of that would be covered with grammar and style, but here’s a key thing that often gets left twisting in the wind: Story holes.

Here’s a throwback post that explains holes, outlines why they happen and explains how to fill them. This can benefit your readers in a lot of ways.

Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole

As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.

The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.

Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”

Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:

Filling holes

A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:

 

A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:

Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.

This situation raises several questions including:

  • Who was the predecessor?
  • Why was he/she unable to complete the term?

You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:

Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.

This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.

Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.

 

An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:

 

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.

 

The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.

OR

Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.

The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.

 

An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.

 

A couple questions are left unanswered here:

  • Who did it first?
  • When did he do it?

Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.

Or

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.

However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:

Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.

That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.

Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.

Four common threads associated with journalism malfeasance: A look at Ruth Shalit Barrett’s fraudulent story for The Atlantic

There’s a pretty good reason why people constantly scream that the media is full of “fake news” get traction on their arguments:

Two weeks after publishing a long, juicy and instantly viral story about the world of competitive niche sports, and the wealthy parents who push their children to play them, the Atlantic on late Friday appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note informing readers that it was “deceived” by the story’s author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

By Sunday evening, the magazine had gone further, announcing that it had retracted the story altogether. “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” an expanded editor’s note said, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

This wasn’t the author’s first scrape with journalistic malpractice. In the 1990s, she worked at The New Republic where she was fired for plagiarism and taking liberties with her copy. As she noted for this story, written shortly after her dismissal, she was there alongside fellow journalism pariah Stephen Glass, who fabricated multiple stories and faked large portions of others:

“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.

“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.

Leaping forward to her current situation, The Atlantic went to cringe-inducingly painful lengths to lay out the sins of the author and the magazine’s role in letting it see the light of day. In an editor’s note that retracted the piece, The Atlantic noted the following problems with the story:

  • The main character was given the name of “Sloane,” Barrett said, to protect the anonymity of this stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son. It turned out to be the source’s middle name, which made it easy for people to identify her. In addition, the woman didn’t actually have a son.
  • In the deeper dig, “Sloane” explained that Barrett suggested the invention of the fictional son, and then told her to lie about his existence when contacted by The Atlantic’s fact checkers. At first, Barrett denied knowing about this before fessing up later.
  • The wounds that “Sloane’s” daughter sustained during a fencing competition were false or extremely exaggerated. In one case, Barrett described a piercing throat wound that struck the jugular vein and nearly hit the carotid artery as “a Fourth of July massacre.” The wound didn’t even draw blood, as noted by witnesses who posted on social media. A second wound was described as a deep thigh gash, which it was not, the correction notes.
  • A family involved in lacrosse was identified as living in the wrong city in Connecticut.
  • A statement that some families had built Olympic-sized ice rinks in their backyards had to be corrected to merely state that private ice rinks were constructed. (Olympic rinks measure 200 feet by 100 feet, which approaches nearly a half acre of space.)

As these falsehoods and errors began to crop up, the folks at The Atlantic acted like trauma surgeons in a disaster: They kept tying off bleeders and trying to keep the patient alive. The editor’s note lists two dates in which the magazine added corrective information to the story, before making the decision to finally pull it. (A PDF of the article is still available on the magazine’s website.)

Simply put, they didn’t know how deep the rot really was, but they knew the author had purposefully lied to them:

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

We have talked at length about a number of these situations, such as journalist Mike Ward’s use of fabricated “real people” across multiple stories,

Historically, there is always the “Jimmy” story that Janet Cooke wrote, in which she told the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be a fabrication. There is Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources, lied about information he supposedly got from sources and plagiarized the work of other journalists. The New York Times ran a correction of around 7,000 words, in an attempt to fix all of the problems Blair caused and restore some of the paper’s credibility.

Heck, Barrett’s former colleague at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, fabricated content to the point he was portrayed by Darth Vader in a movie.

If you’re looking for a lesson here, the “no duh” one would be not to do this kind of stupid crap, as it is likely to lead to your demise as a journalist while cratering the credibility of every media outlet you ever touched.

If you’re looking for a more oblique lesson, it’s that journalists (and journalism educators, for that matter) are trained to be skeptical pit bulls. We dig into stuff and if we find out you lied, we will burn you so badly you will wish you had died as a child. The Barrett piece started to lose air once outside publications, like Erik Wemple’s blog, began picking at it.

Beyond those two things, consider a few basic observations I’ve come up with about the Barrett situation and some of the previous cheating scandals:

It’s rarely a one-time thing: In the movie version of “Shattered Glass,” New Republic editor Chuck Lane is faced with one piece of copy that he knows is false. The whole story of Ian Restil, a teenage computer hacker, is on the radar of Forbes Digital Tool and reporter Adam Pennenberg. Pennenberg has poked enough holes into this thing to make Lane suspicious and his interactions with Glass confirm it.

The scene that sticks out to me is when Lane finally suspends Glass and is walking past the wall of past issues of TNR. He pauses and you can almost hear the gerbil in his brain hopping onto the treadmill.

He pulls down each issue, flips to the Glass piece in it and starts to read. One by one, he hits something that just doesn’t jibe with reality. He suddenly figures out that this guy has been doing this forever. In the end, 27 of the 41 stories Glass wrote were either partially or entirely fabricated, the movie notes in its epilogue.

This tracks with what you see in the Blair story, where he had been making stuff up and stealing from people for years. His college newspaper, The Diamondback, had issues with him and a retrospective on his tenure at the paper noted people at the time were concerned with his content.

In Barrett’s case, the problems existed decades apart, but they fit this mold.

It’s usually for unimportant crap: My buddy Fred Vultee, a long-time copy editor and now professor at Wayne State University, used to say that you can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean. His point was that the big stories aren’t the only places where disasters occur, but we can screw up just as badly in some of the tiny bits of copy we write as a matter of course.

I find this analogy is pretty applicable here as well, because in most of the cases involving plagiarism or fabrication didn’t do great and mighty things in a journalism sense. In most cases, these fabrications involved some really stupid and tiny things, especially compared to the risk of damage associated with them.

Mike Ward’s actions fit this to a T. He used official sources and their real quotes for the meat and potatoes of his pieces. However, he made up “regular people” and their thoughts out of whole cloth to provide that “spice” in the story. As I mentioned at the time, I get that it’s not a lot of fun to go find those “salt-of-the-earth, real people” at the Waffle House and ask them what they think of a pandemic or something. However, it’s part of the job and if you can’t do it, the very least you should do is avoid faking it.

Glass did “color” pieces, something that’s pretty clear if you review his list of articles. He said he claimed to be a biting expert after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield and he got a radio station to put him on a talk show where he took calls for almost an hour. He said he spent time hanging out with drunk and stoned young Republican turks at the CPAC convention, who sought a “real heifer” of a girl to sexually assault. (“Bad acne would be a plus,” his source was quoted as saying.) He claimed to spend time with bond traders who had to pee in specially made urinals to keep them trading instead of heading to the bathroom. On and on these tales went, each more fantastical than the previous one.

None of it was true, but even more, none of it was necessary. It wasn’t like he was Gary Webb, tracking allegations of a CIA-fueled crack epidemic. He wasn’t trying to get information on the Son of Sam by posing as a bereavement counselor and interviewing a victim’s family. If there had been a kid named Ian Restil who hacked a company named Jukt Micronics, would it have been crucial for everyone to know it? Not really.

A rare exception to this was Blair’s work on the D.C. Sniper case, where he wrote various false claims, including an allegation that authorities found a grape stem at the scene of one of the attacks with shooter Lee Boyd Malvo’s DNA on it.

Overall, however cost-benefit analysis these people took seemed to be all out of whack when it came to what they were doing and what would be added to the sum of human knowledge. What it seemed to do, based on what they’ve said over the years, is fed their egos in some prurient way, which they put above their responsibility to their readers.

Fellow journalists generally have a “Spidey sense” about these folks before the situation blows up:  There are moments in which people around the fraudulent journalists get a “feeling” that something isn’t right. In Blair’s case, there were warning signals all over hell and creation. A group of alumni from The Diamondback sent a letter to the J-school at Maryland after things blew up, outlining all the red flags they saw years earlier. Journalist Seth Mnookin’s book, “Hard News,” outlines the various editors at the New York Times who had huge concerns with Blair before he started “breaking” sniper stories.

The New Republic got complaints about Glass and his stories, noting errors or flat-out falsehoods. As he continued to deepen his fraud, he told a “60 Minutes” interviewer that he got fewer complaints because he was telling entirely fictional stories and that fake people don’t phone the boss.

In Barrett’s case, The Atlantic knew full well that she had a shady past, but the folks who hired her for this piece kind of squinted their way past this, noting her indiscretions were decades earlier and that people can change. Instead, they saw her kick up her malfeasance a notch from plagiarism to flat-out fraud.

Listening to that internal voice that says, “Something’s not right here…” isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First, it’s tough for a lot of journalists to imagine that one of our own would do something like this. It’s antithetical to who we are and what our profession espouses, so thinking this could happen is really hard to swallow.

Second, we are used to hearing crap like this from all sorts of people. Sources who said something might end up getting in trouble once the comment is published, so they call up and claim they never said it. When other reporters complain about the “star” reporter, it can come across like sour grapes. Thus, grousing that this guy or that gal is cutting corners or not fact checking or being a dink can be easily dismissed.

Finally, we can talk ourselves out of this “feeling” pretty easily for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s because everyone is moving at warp speed covering the news, so we just figure it was a glitch or a “one-off” moment. In other cases, we realize that we’re about to accuse someone of something pretty egregious, so we better be damned sure. In most of these cases, these journalists exploited those weaknesses and continue to do their worst.

The dirt never washes off: Not every faker becomes a household name, but those who have done it and gotten caught tend to find their actions essentially ruin their lives. Outside of a couple interviews on a TV talk show and Mike Sager’s piece in CJR, Cooke has been actively out of communication for decades. Pieces often talk ABOUT her, but rarely, if ever, does anyone manage to talk with her. What could have been an incredible journalism career turned to dust.

Glass spent years going through law school, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown, but is unable to practice law, due to his problems as a journalist. He was able to get work with multiple law firms, but he is not an attorney.

Blair’s career was like a bottle rocket, streaking up through the sky quickly and exploding just as suddenly. In speaking with students at Maryland in 2016, he essentially admitted he harmed himself and the profession to the degree he knows he’d never be able to work in the field again.

Barrett got what all three of those folks, and many others, I would imagine, desperately want: A second chance. She took it and blew it. The “how” is easy to understand.

The “why?” Not so much.

 

The Avocado Pig and the value of oddity in journalism

In both books, we talk about the FOCII elements of interest: Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Impact and Immediacy. As far as the elements go, we tend to pay a lot of attention to certain ones, and less to others. Conflict, fame and immediacy tend to be at the front of the list, with impact almost being a requirement, based on audience-centricity.

Oddity, is well… the odd element out.

In the past two months, however, I’ve come to appreciate and value the importance of things that are out of the ordinary, thanks in large part to what we have come to call the Avocado Pig.

To make a long story longer than it needs to be, when we moved to the farm, we found out that we didn’t have trash service and that we’d have to haul our own mess to the dump. Amy didn’t want her car to be a filth magnet and I wasn’t about to put rotting crud in the back of our Highlander, so we set about looking for a beater pickup truck to do the deed.

After months of searching in advance of the move, I found one truck that tickled my fancy: A 1975 Ford F-150 super cab. It had everything I wanted: It had a large bed, so I could move a lot of stuff if I needed to. It had a cap on it so the bed wouldn’t fill with snow. It had a “back seat” (and yes, that deserves to be in quotes, given what that actually entails) so I could fit extra stuff or extra kids in there if I got called at the last minute to do after-school pick up. And, it was an older Ford, so I knew how to fix most problems on it, based on my Mustang adventures.

The thing came out of North Dakota, a state that apparently doesn’t use salt on its roads during the winter, so it had almost no rot or rust on it. The guy selling it was doing it as a favor for a friend, so it was reasonably priced and he was happy to tune it up at his automotive business before I bought it. It also didn’t hurt that it was the least amount of money I had spent on vehicle ever.

With all of this going for it, why did it sit on this guy’s car lot for multiple months, you might ask. Well, it screams “1970s” louder than a polyester plaid leisure suit with a John Holmes porn mustache, wearing stack boots:

It’s not only painted 1970s avocado green on the outside, but on the inside panels as well. The dash, the seats and the glove box are all avocado green. The flooring is the same color, done in beautiful shag carpeting to boot. It’s got an AM only radio, making it almost impossible to find anything other than talk radio or polka for in-cab entertainment. It also has a CB radio.

(If you don’t know what that is, ask your parents. Chances are, they will spend the next 20 minutes telling you about some sort of trucker story and explaining why they used something like “Foxy LaRue” as their CB handle.)

This thing is the vehicular equivalent of the uncle who shows up at your wedding in the same ruffled tux he wore to his wedding 30 years ago and proceeds to hit on every bridesmaid in the wedding party.

I didn’t care. It started, ran and hauled stuff. I was able to fix several problems on it for about 10% of what it would cost to hire someone. Also, and it becomes clear if you’ve ever seen how I dress, I could give a crap less about being fashionable or trendy.

As is the tradition in our house, we sought a name for this vehicle, eventually settling on “The Avocado Pig.” Why?  First, it’s avocado green, so that was a given. Second, it’s a fuel pig, in that it has a 390 engine and two gas tanks that need constant refilling, due to its gas-guzzling nature.

It was the kind of vehicle only I could love, or at least that’s what I thought. Turns out, people have some sort of weird fixation with this truck.

It started about a day after I bought it and drove it to my parents’ house in Milwaukee. I was putting stuff into it while it was sitting on the street when I noticed a police cruiser pass. It pulled a U turn and sidled up next to the truck and I thought, “Oh crap…”

“Is that your truck?” one officer asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“What year?”

“1975.”

“That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I told my partner we had to swing around to take another look.”

“Thank you…?”

He left and I was just happy I hadn’t violated Milwaukee’s arcane parking laws somehow.

About a week later, we moved into the farm house and I had it parked out back. A truck pulled into our driveway and someone was banging on the back door. I was elsewhere in the house, so Amy answered the door and was faced with someone who had known the previous owner. We figured this would happen, as the guy lived here for 54 years, but the reason these people stopped had nothing to do with the guy.

“They wanted to know if you were selling the truck,” Amy said with a tone that mixed exasperation and bewilderment. “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

Apparently, if they suffered from some sort of avocado fetish, they weren’t alone. Over the next two weeks, I couldn’t go to the grocery store, the dump or a hardware store without at least one person asking about the truck, including at least one offer to buy it on the spot.

On the way home from work one day, I was at a stoplight, when someone coming through the intersection on my left pulled over on the median. He got out of his vehicle and pointed at me before doing the “Wayne’s World” thing of “We’re not worthy.” He then got back in his brand new truck and drove off.

Later that week, another guy in a truck that Amy said looked like a pimped out UFO showed up while I was at work and asked if he could buy the truck.

At a certain point, this feels like either I’m making this up or that we’re in the theater of the absurd, but I can assure you I’m not good enough at fiction to pull this off as some sort of metaphor. Even more, I had the truck at work a week or two ago and came out to find this note, written on the back of a “WalPhed” box, stuck under my windshield wiper:

I completely understand why people ogle other people’s vehicles. I’ve practically gotten whiplash looking at vintage vehicles and screaming sports cars on the road. But of all the vehicles I’ve owned or driven… the Avocado Pig? Really? The Firebird, the classic Mustang, the Buick Grand National… sure. I also had a 1966 F250 camper edition for truck fans, but nobody seemed to have this level of fascination with it. I’ve been behind the wheel of a vintage Corvette, a Cadillac sedan and even an Escalade or two. Never even got half of a conversation or a cash offer.

What was it about this 45-year-old eyesore that got people into such a lather?

Amy nailed it. “When was the last time you saw something like this on the road? People love weird shit.”

And if we’re measuring weird, the Avocado Pig has it in spades.

So, after that extensive build up that was, as promised, longer than it needed to be, what does this mean to you?

If you want to draw attention to your work, you need to find things that make it unique in a truly distinctive way.

ADVERTISING: Bad advertising tries to get people to pay attention to it through hype, calling things the “fastest” or the “cleanest” or the “richest” or the “cheapest” or whatever “-est” you can manage to stick in there. The intent is to highlight oddity, but all it does is bore people.

Instead of “-est”ing me to death, look for exactly WHAT makes some something faster or better or stronger or whatever in regard to that product. The oddity of this product or good or service is likely right in front of you. Find the characteristic in the product that is special and then tie it directly to the benefit the users can get out of it.

NO: “Filak’s wet wipes are the strongest protection you can get against the coronavirus!”

YES: “Filak’s wet wipes are the only wipes on the market with Plutoxin-7, which means they kill the coronavirus as soon as it lands on any surface that was cleaned within the past 24 hours.”

 

PUBLIC RELATIONS: When you are planning an event or attempting to garner media coverage of something, focus on what makes this situation different from the other 912 things you’ve sent me a press release about in the past month. At a certain point, much like we do with “-est” advertising, we’re going to tune you out the minute we see your letterhead or email address.

The key thing in public relations that tends to get missed in this regard is that PR professionals know what their clients are doing and have a sense of why those actions matter. Because they tend to internalize this, it’s like reporters who become too attuned to “inside baseball” on their beats. In short, the practitioners KNOW the value, so they can’t believe that the reporters can’t see it, too.

What helps is taking that extra step and outlining the “this matters because” step for the reporters. Don’t assume they see the unique element of what you’re doing or the key value in what it is that you’re pitching. Instead, take them by the hand and show it to them by saying, “Look how neat this is!”

NO: Comedian and world traveler Bill Jones will speak at Central College on Friday as part of the school’s “Never Give Up” motivational program.

YES: “Bill Jones, the only man to ever eat an entire elephant in 24 hours, will deliver his “One Bite At A Time” comedy routine at Central College on Friday as part of the school’s motivational program.

 

NEWS: News folks have no problem looking for weird things. It’s why we’ve had “News of the Weird” as a syndicated column for years and why local radio shows play their “Small Town Crime Wave” stuff to the delight of morning-show listeners. That is usually where we find oddity to start and stop.

In short, if it involves a man from Florida, requires a firefighter to note “please don’t use a blowtorch to kill spiders,” or includes the phrase “priest’s three-way with dominatrices,” we’re pretty much clear it’s going to go viral. (If all three of those topics converged, I’m pretty sure we’d break the internet for good…)

However, oddity isn’t just about those items. It’s about focusing on firsts, lasts and onlies, so don’t be afraid to start asking questions like, “When was the last time X occurred?” This sense of wonder can turn an interesting story about a sports triumph into a bigger piece involving certain rarities. It can push you to look for things like what was the longest we had to wait to figure out who was president? Or when was the last time a bishop had to burn an altar that had been desecrated?  Or what was the fastest amount of time it took for someone to drive the cross-country “Cannonball Run?” (That last one is a heck of a story.)

Or even, “How many 1975 Ford F-150 Supercab trucks came in avocado green?”

 

 

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

This post came to mind this weekend after a few last-second wins in the NFL, including my beloved Browns pulling out the win on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.

The stories that emerged after that game and several other comebacks included tons of opinion disguised as fact, with terms like “glorious,” “impossible” and “miraculous” dotting the prose of writers.

Unless you see a guy at the 50 yard line multiplying loaves and bratwursts to feed the entire stadium, feel free to skip the mentions of “miracles.” As for the rest of the hyperbole, I hope this refresher will explain why you can cut that out of stories as well.

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.

Need writing exercises for your media-writing class and sick of talking about COVID? Welcome to the Corona Hotline

“Corona Hotline… Yes, professor, we still have a land line…”

Each year in my writing for the media classes, I have students write a couple stories based on things that interest them. The problem I always faced was how to do this, because this course was an “everyone” course, not a reporting course and this was the first time a lot of these students were having to converse with other human beings for the purpose of garnering content that had to be spot-on, word-for-word accurate. Thus, having them each go out and do a handful of interviews was likely to end poorly for all of us involved…

What I did was have them pitch topics and I’d put them up on the white board. Once we had exhausted their interests, we would have a kind of an Athenian-democracy-meets-The-Hunger-Games kind of session in which we’d cut down the list to about eight topics. Of those eight, each student could vote for three, which would get us to the topics that we’d write on.

The students self-selected into groups based on interests. As I had 15 kids per class, the minimum per group was four and the max was six. They then had to discuss how they viewed the topic and who might make for a good interview subject. Each of them only had to interview ONE person, but they needed to make sure they all weren’t interviewing the SAME person (lotta calls from the police chief asking what the hell I was doing, after I forgot to mention that caveat one year after a particularly rough Pub Crawl Season…)

So, let’s say the topic was Pub Crawl, our twice-per-year event involving way too much day drinking that drives cops nuts and makes the kids do crazy stuff (one year, a young woman dove off her second-floor porch toward a kiddie pool in a back yard. She missed, but survived.)

Here’s how this would go:

Bobby: “OK, I know the police chief so I’ll interview him about what they’re doing different this year and what they want students to do.”

Susie: “Cool… I know a bouncer at The Drunken Clam who has to work on pub crawl and he’s worked the last five, so I’ll talk to him.”

Janie: “I know a girl coming down here for her first pub crawl from way out near Crivitz, so I’ll ask her about how she found it and why she’s coming.”

Nate: “Nice! I know two people who go every year, so I’ll get both of them!”

Clare: “My landlord has buildings all along Main Street and they always get trashed during Pub Crawl. I’ll talk to her about that.”

Troy: “I know a bartender at St. Elmo’s so I’ll interview her about her experiences at Pub Crawl.”

Each of these students then goes off and interviews their person and they send me the transcript of those interviews, along with any other information they found that they want to share. This could include links to previous stories on Pub Crawl, background on the sources and other such things.

I then put all of that material together into one big file for that group and call it something like “Pub Crawl RAW” so they all know it’s the raw material. Then, when they come to lab, they have to write a draft of a story based on whatever is in there that they want to use. They only need to do a two-page, typed, double-spaced piece on that topic. They can pick any angle they want. They only need to include TWO sources, but they can include as many as they see to be helpful in telling the story.

It’s like the old “pot luck suppers” we used to have at church or family gatherings: Everyone brings something and you can eat whatever you want.

That means that Bobby might decide not to use his interview from the police chief, but instead take the info from the bouncer and the bartender and do a “What it’s like to work on Pub Crawl” story. Clare might use her landlord and the police chief interview to talk about the negative aspects of Pub Crawl. Others might do the “why we love Pub Crawl” stories from the perspectives of the student interview.

After they file their stories, we go through the typical drafting processes with edits and suggestions and so forth.

This year, it was a bit tougher because a) half of my students were missing and b) it was hard to get interviews with people because students couldn’t go anywhere. What we came up with was kind of a compromise:

They went through the pitch process and got it down to three topics per class. I then agreed to either pull old interviews from previous classes and “freshen” them with updated information about life these days, or I agreed to make up content out of whole cloth after interviewing them a bit on the topic and digging around for other information. I then made up the names of the people, so there was no confusion, and they went about writing the stories.

I freely admit, I wish I could give them more experience in interviewing. However, in talking to them, I got the sense that they were afraid of going places (we’re a hot, hot, hot spot for the virus) and if they did this, the interviews would likely be weak as hell, which would impact the writing.

Still, this seems to be working, so I thought I’d share the stuff with anyone who needs it. The four topics (Spring Break, General Education Courses, TikTok and Movies/Theaters) are at the top of the Corona Hotline for Journalism Instructors Page, so feel free to grab whatever you want and use it however you want. I did some work to eliminate names and local references, but you might want to give this a look before you ship it out to the kids and they ask, “What the hell is a Kwik Trip?”

Hope this helps. Feedback is always welcome.

Vince

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