“The Paragraph:” Lessons to learn from journalism’s “filthiest” screw up

Every year, as part of a final exam in my media writing class, my students read the story “Inexperience faces Green Wave Soccer.” The pedestrian look at a high school soccer team more than 20 years in the past seems like no big deal until they hit “the paragraph.”

I can always tell when they do. The class is silent until the fastest reader in the class gasps out loud. Then a few more “Whoa!” and “Pshht!” noises emerge. Eventually, they’re all saying some version of the same thing: “No way! This CANNOT be real!”

The paragraph makes obscene comments about a teenage boy on the soccer team. The writer, Nick DeLeonibus, intended it as a joke that he expected his editor to catch. Instead, the paragraph about Garrett “Bubba” Dixon made its way on to the sports page of Tennessee’s Gallatin News-Express, establishing (for me at least) what is the absolute perfect case of libel.

The story had long ago passed into myth among journalists, journalism teachers and adviser of student media. Some people just “recalled hearing” it while other “swore they had a copy of it somewhere.” Legends emerged about staffers running across lawns to steal back copies from people’s doorsteps and the publisher using the copies to build a bonfire. All we knew for sure was that this was bad.

I always kept a copy at the ready as to demonstrate that, no, this was real and, yes, there were dire consequences. One thing I didn’t know was what happened in the subsequent years since that 1997 story first hit the paper. Veteran journalist Jeff Pearlman, who has a copy of the story taped above his desk, filled in the gaps this week when he published the story for Deadspin. The story walks through how this error was made and the severe ramifications for everyone involved. If you don’t mind coarse language and you really want to know what that paragraph said, this is worth a read.

The reason I posted this and the reason I show this to my students goes beyond the shock value. The lessons behind “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” are as important today as they ever were:

  1. In journalism, you are always playing with live ammo. Gun safety experts tell you to always treat every weapon as if it is loaded. In short, you can kill someone if you’re goofing around or if you don’t keep your head on straight. In journalism, this rule is important, especially in the age of digital and social media because a) you often shoot from the hip and b) you don’t always have an editor between you and a tweet. So when you’re standing in line at the grocery store and some elderly woman is paying for a pack of Freedent gum with a third-party check, you might want to vent your anger on Twitter. Or when you get irritated at a student government official for blowing off an interview, you might feel the urge to tweet about the guy, speculating as to which farm animal he was likely cavorting with instead of showing up.

    Don’t.

    You are publishing content, just as sure as if you were pounding out that soccer story for the paper. Every time you put something out there, you take certain risks. Make sure you keep that in mind when you publish anything on any platform.

  2. If you wouldn’t want it published, don’t write it. I’m fairly confident that the majority of journalists (myself included) has gotten punchy near a deadline or frustrated while writing a headline. Thus, the instinct to write “Quote from Congressman Dipshit goes here if he ever gets off his ass and calls us back,” in a story or “Replace this shitty headline with something less shitty later” into a headline hole kicks in. We do it to just “get something in there.”
    Fight that instinct with every ounce of your being, as it’s not always a guarantee that you will remember to get back to that paragraph or that headline hole and fix it. Also, whatever you think is “so funny” at deadline probably isn’t. (A similar rule exists in broadcasting, which is to treat every microphone like it’s “hot,” in other words broadcasting to the audience. Thus, cussing on the set is highly discouraged.)
  3. Ramifications always exist for your actions. Everything you write will have a ramification of some kind, be it good or bad. Your story about the local kid winning a spelling bee will be the source of pride for parents and grandparents who will clip the story out and hang it on the refrigerator. The piece you wrote about someone being arrested for robbing the local gas station could make people wary of stopping there for gas or it could bring shame onto the robber’s family. Each action has a reaction of some kind.
    The thing that stuck with me all those years was, “Why Bubba Dixon?” The legend was the DeLeonibus had dated the kid’s sister and, as a bit of revenge for a bad break up, decided to pick on him. Another version had the editor picking on DeLeonibus for giving Dixon special treatment as a way to get back with the sister, so he decided to shock the editor by “slamming” the kid. Pearlman’s story demonstrates that neither of these were true. It just happened to be the player DeLeonibus picked out. It could have been Sean Sparkman or Travis Watson or Michael McRee as the butt of DeLeonibus’ attempt at humor.
    Instead, it was Dixon, an honor-roll student with a deeply religious background, who went through hell because of this. Why? It just was. And the ramifications were unending.
    Keep this in mind every time you ply your trade and think about what could happen as a result of your actions. Don’t let it paralyze you, but let it serve as a bit of caution before you hit the “send” button.

 

“Police said.” Two words that can save your rear end

When it comes to attributions, two complaints often emerge in my classes:

  1. They’re boring and repetitive.
  2. They’re unnecessary, as most people can figure it out for themselves.

The truth is, attributions help readers figure out who is saying what, how much faith they should put in the statements and in some cases offer the reporter protection against potential legal action. This last one is particularly true in covering crime, where reporters who quote police or court officials operate usually operate under “qualified privilege.” This means you can quote these officials without fear, even if they turn out to be wrong or change their story.

On June 9, tennis star Venus Williams was involved in a fatal car wreck in Florida. Initial media reports stated that Williams was at fault even though she hadn’t been charged or arrested. The leads on those stories both contain attributions to the police and the remainder of the stories frequently cite the police sources. Why does this matter, if it’s likely she did it and “everybody says so?” Because things can change:

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tennis star Venus Williams legally entered an intersection but was cut off by another car, setting off a chain of events that seconds later resulted in a fatal crash with a third car, police say video released Friday shows.

Even in the above lead, the writer cites the police, who are citing the video, rather than just saying “a video released Friday shows.” This level of attribution is crucial to demonstrate not only who is making the judgment, but also that in this case the source is operating under privilege.

Students often ask me why they should attribute every statement or cite certain sources repeatedly. One conversation I recall even had the student tell me, “The guy obviously did it, so what does it matter?” The truth is, the situation can change and sometimes the only thing that will save your keester is a simple two-word phrase:

“Police said.”

To quote an old police drama, “Let’s be careful out there.”

 

“Allegedly” makes me twitchy

Saw this headline in my daily news feed today:

Allegedly

I’m a convert from the Church of “Allegedly” after I had a conversation with a legal eagle at a student media conference years ago. He explained the concept of privilege as one crime reporters should use, attributing allegations of crime to police, court officers and others who enjoyed absolute privilege in their statements. I asked about the word “allegedly” as a shortcut past that and he responded:

“The word ‘allegedly’ is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

His point, albeit hyperbolic, was that “allegedly” offers you no legal protection as a writer. It’s a thinly veiled accusation that isn’t bolstered by an official-sounding -ly word. Anyone accused of anything by anybody can be “allegedly” involved in something. If you get mad at a professor when you fail a class and you spread a rumor that he’s running an illegal arms-smuggling operation out of his campus office, he’s now an “alleged arms-smuggler.” It’s WHO is doing the alleging and the amount of factual support behind the allegation that matters.

This is why the lead on the story is a much better way to go:

An argument turned deadly Sunday night on Madison’s North Side, as a man shot his friend to death then turned the gun on himself, police said.

Attribute the information to the police (a privileged source in most places). That way, you protect yourself and support your argument in a much better way.