3 things to learn from the “Tom Petty is Dead” debacle besides “check your facts.”

Rock legend Tom Petty died Monday at age 66 after suffering from cardiac arrest. What should have been a simple story got horribly complicated because a few news sources jumped the gun and declared him dead before he actually was.

TMZ, CBS and Rolling Stone were among the publications that reported Petty died in the afternoon. It turned out he was clinging to life but he was still alive. He died later that night, with an official confirmation from his spokesman that this was true, this time. However in the four hours between the first report and the actual death, the internet was flipping back and forth between him being alive and him being dead. Celebrities were providing condolences, which led other people to think that either he HAD died and the star knew something the rest of us didn’t or that everyone else knew something the star didn’t.

In short, it was a mess.

When it comes to a “teachable moment,” the obvious one is “Make sure you check your facts” or “Know what you’re talking about.” (Some reports called Petty’s ailment a “heart attack” which it wasn’t. Congestive heart failure, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are all somewhat different and here’s how.)¬† However, here are three other things journalism students can take away from this debacle:

  1. Once you press “send,” you can’t get it back: The line about false information attributed to Mark Twain was pretty accurate- “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In today’s world of social media and digital speed, that lie has an even bigger head start. This is why we should always treat that “send” button like the “big red button” it is. Everyone out there issued corrections immediately upon finding out that the LAPD clarified Petty’s status, but that still didn’t stop the deluge of “Petty is dead” content. “Send” is serious business and one you send it out there, you can’t ever really undo it.
  2. You are part of an information ecosystem: Grade-school science classes show you how a bug eats some poison and then the bird eats the bug and the snake eats the bird and so forth, each time passing the poison along. In media, especially these days with easy access to other media outlets’ content, we operate in much the same way.
    Even in “pre-digital” times, we still had an ecosystem that could get messed up pretty easily. On more than one occasion, a reporter at a newspaper wrote a story that was really wrong. A reporter at a second newspaper in that town couldn’t get all the facts that first story had (mainly because it was wrong), but didn’t want to fall behind, so he “cribbed” information from the first story and then included it in his story with a vague “sources said” attribution. The morning radio news folks saw the story in BOTH papers so they did a “rip and read” approach and just rewrote the story for the morning newscast using that info. Suddenly, EVERYONE is reporting something that is factually inaccurate.
    You have a duty to your audience to be accurate, but you also have a role in a media ecosystem to maintain. If you put poison in to the system with lousy reporting, or if you perpetuate poison by passing along information you didn’t independently verify, you’re destroying that ecosystem and ALL OF US in that system will be worse for it.
  3. Real people can get really hurt when we’re wrong: In the case of Petty’s death, you could argue in a reductive sense that the publications weren’t really wrong, but instead they were early. The guy had congestive heart failure, he wasn’t recovering and hey… it was only four hours, right? Not even close.
    AnnaKim Violet Petty, Tom Petty’s daughter, was one of the people dealing with the situation when reporter of her father’s death began to roll in. He wasn’t dead, even as more and more people kept reporting it. In response to the ongoing throng of misinformation, she sent several messages and made several posts that show exactly how painful this was for her. Other family members and friends also likely experienced that painful dissonance based on media reports and their own knowledge of his condition.
    Journalists often want to break news, be first and show what we know to our audience. There isn’t anything wrong with that as long as we’re right, responsible and decent about it. As much as we think of famous people as being in the public domain, they have kids, spouses and friends who can get hurt if we overstep bounds or fail to fact check in our search for fortune and glory.

Five “hurricane stories” you can write if it’s not even raining on your campus

When I worked in Mizzou at the Columbia Missourian, we would have our 3 p.m. editorial budget meetings each day where people from all of the desks of the paper would discuss the next day’s issue. Most of the content was local, as our reporters (students) scoured the area for whatever was happening within the confines of Boone County. However, we also had a wire/national editor who was responsible for pitching pieces that AP pushed out that day.

Every time a natural disaster would hit some part of the world, we always had the same conversation. The wire editor (a student) would pitch the story about it: “Hurricane (whatever one) just hit land (wherever it hit land). Officials say you have (whatever amount of damage and deaths). The senior member of our staff (a faculty member with decades of professional and educational experience) would always respond the same way: “When it starts raining on Cherry Street, let me know and we’ll run it.”

Her point was that until we had a local angle on something like that, our audience was likely to get news of the event elsewhere and that our job was to stick to stuff in our area. It was a bit deflating for the student wire editors, but the point remains a good one: You need to serve your audience, and in most cases, that’s going to be something local.

With that in mind, here are five basic “hurricane-related stories” you can dig into if your campus isn’t cleaning up from Harvey or in the path of Irma:

LOCAL ASSISTANCE EFFORTS: This is among the easiest stories to do as a localization, in that the urge to help people who are hurt is a natural one. You can look to your school itself to see if it’s taking donations of food, money or other needed items to send to the victims of the hurricanes. You can also look to see if any student groups are doing anything of a similar nature. Fraternities and sororities often have national offices that can coordinate larger efforts among their member chapters, especially if they have chapters on campuses in the path of the storm. Look at any student organization that is usually doing some sort of “help-based” initiative like working with Habitat for Humanity or doing Alternative Spring Breaks, as they might have a plan to head to the area and assist in the recovery efforts.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS: Another smart localization opportunity comes from finding local people who have connections with the area of the disaster. Students in some cases live in those areas but are going to school on your campus. (During Hurricane Katrina, it turned out my TA for the newsroom lived in the path of the storm and still had tons of family down there. She actually watched her home wash away on CNN.) You might have faculty who have colleagues working in that area or students with friends attending schools affected by the disaster. Put out the Bat Signal on your various social media channels and see if you can find people willing to tell you what has happened to their friends and family and if they are planning to do anything in response to this. (After she got back from helping her family work through the aftermath of Katrina, Kim did a “first-person, as-told-to” piece that won several awards and helped her sort through her experience.)

YOU GOT A PLAN?: Not every campus will experience a hurricane, but most spots in this country have their own types of disasters that need a plan. You don’t want to hear this from your campus administration:

Some places deal with tornadoes, while other places deal with earthquakes. Some places get frozen  while other places get scorched. What plans are in place for your campus when the disaster du jour hits? How often does the campus review these plans and how much effort does the administration make in letting students know about them?


ARE YOU COVERED? Much of the discussion after a disaster is how how can people recover from it. From friends and former colleagues in the area, I’m hearing about how “wind coverage” isn’t the same as “water coverage” or “flood coverage” when it comes to insurance. Most people I knew in college were lucky enough to think about getting any kind of coverage for any kind of disaster, ranging from a tornado hitting their apartment complex to a roommate who escaped under the cover of night with their laptop.

Renters insurance is always an interesting topic in terms of cost and value. It’s also worth a look into seeing what kinds of coverage kids who live in dorms have. So, if a pipe explodes in the dorm, some idiot with a homemade waffle iron burns down half of Smith hall or the “there’s no way a tornado hits us” proclamation turns out to be false, how safe is their stuff? Some places have limitations on how much money they’ll cover or what can be replaced. Clothing, in particular can be a costly thing:

Look into what mechanisms are in place to help people recover if something bad happens in your area or what precautions they should take in terms of insuring their stuff to make recovery more possible.


A SHARED EXPERIENCE: I have never lived through a hurricane or an earthquake, but I once experienced a tornado running nearby. The two-inch-thick galvanized-glass windows in my apartment were bowing in and it was one of the first times I really wondered why I moved into a “tornado alley” area.

Many people in your area might not know what the disaster actually FEELS like in terms of the actual event, the devastation, the losses and the recovery. However, some people in your area might have lived through a similar disaster to the one you are covering, so go talk to them. You can learn a lot from watching CNN and hearing Wolf Blitzer use the word “devastating” in all of its iterations, but having a person known to your community explain what it’s like wading through chest-deep water in her living room has a completely different feel. Again, reach out and see who is available and what they can share.

Many other stories matter and will pop up through brainstorming, so if you think of something worth noting, feel free to chip in on the comment list below.

And for those of you in the area of Harvey, Irma and whatever the heck is behind Irma, please be safe. We need you.

Transferable skills: Why you should major in journalism (and why people should hire you)

One of the primary themes in both books is “transferable skills.” I borrowed this from a former student and editor at the student newspaper I advise here at UW-Oshkosh.

Andy was looking for staff members to fill out the ranks of reporters, designers, photographers and graphic artists, but was coming up short in the journalism department. In an attempt to improve his odds of building a staff, he took his pitch for the paper to a wide array of other departments on campus, telling students in English, sociology, art, poli sci and more that the paper had something to offer them: transferable skills.

In other words, if you can write for a class, we can help make you better at it and therefore make you more marketable. If you can shoot still-life images in a studio for an art class, we can get you opportunities to shoot a wider variety of images and thus make you more marketable. Not everyone bought what he was selling, but we did get a broader swath of people.

Jill Geisler, one of the pros in the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing, published a piece for the Poynter Institute on why people outside of journalism should hire journalists. At its core are the principles of transferable skills: Journalists can write well, think critically, make deadlines, solve problems and more.

The underlying assumption here is that journalists learned these skills at some level through schooling and experience. Most of the reasons she offers as rationale for hiring journalists also applies to explaining why people should consider journalism as a major and participate in student media opportunities.

Consider this a cheat sheet the next time someone says, “Why are you majoring in journalism?”

“Didn’t learn Flash. Will Prof. For Food.” (or why journalism schools teach skills, not just software)


When I took my first journalism classes back in the early 1990s, it was the thing you HAD to know. At that point, desktop publishing was in its infancy as a journalism skill, and students who knew Pagemaker had the keys to the Kingdom. Rumors spread throughout the J-school of people getting rich job offers and tons of perks simply for knowing the BASICS of how the program worked.

By the time I graduated, Pagemaker was out and Quark was in. EVERYBODY who was ANYBODY had to know and use Quark. Instructors were scrambling to revamp lesson plans to make their design courses Quark-friendly. Editing classes were taught in computer labs, where the few precious copies of this incredible program resided. People hung tight to the idea that Quark and Quark alone would be the program of the future. In fact, when we decided to convert our newsroom from Quark to InDesign in the early 2000s, we almost had a revolt.

Fortunately for me, we had a design professor who told the students the most important thing about journalism education: InDesign is basically Quark with different quick-cut keys. We didn’t teach you how to use software. We taught you how to be designers.

This thought came to mind this morning when I saw that Adobe planned to finally kill Flash no later than 2020. In the mid-2000s, Flash became the web-version of Quark and Pagemaker: The “it” program that would guarantee fortune and glory. I remember sitting in my basement, teaching it to myself from Mindy McAdams’ incredible tutorial text. I feared that if I didn’t know it, I would be a homeless, unemployed faculty member with a little cardboard sign:



Turns out, it was like those “it” programs in another key way: It will soon cease to be.

This is one of the main reasons why journalism education is crucial. We don’t teach you how to run a program or use software simply as an end. We teach you how to do quality journalistic work, whether it be in writing, reporting, public relations, photography, video, graphics or design. We teach you the underlying aspects of what makes for a good piece and what makes for a bad piece. We then teach you how to critically think about your own work as you seek to improve it and your skills.

The software matters, don’t get me wrong, but the software programs are tools to use once you master the ideas behind how to use them in furthering a process toward an end goal. In other words, you wouldn’t take a class called, “Hammer 101” or “Saw 242.” You might, however, take a carpentry course, where you learn how best to build something and how each tool can help you in that regard.

GAME TIME: Can you spot the fake news?

Fake news means roughly whatever anyone wants it to mean at this point in time. For some, it is satire, partisanship or general trolling meant to fool the public. For others, if the information doesn’t jibe with their worldview, it must be fake news. For journalists, true “fake” news is information purported to be real but lacking in any factual or substantive information, regardless of intent.

The tricky part about spotting fake news is that the fakers have become exceptionally good at mimicking the style, structure and approach journalists take to storytelling. Even people trained to be suspicious of information and verify stories before publishing them can be fooled. To help people see how well their BS detectors function, a pair of Fellows at the JOLT lab built a game that present real and fake news, asking the participants to determine which is which.

The Factitious system not only provides you with the stories, but can provide you with the sources if you need a little help. In addition, if you misjudge a piece, Factitious fills you in on the telltale signs you should keep an eye on for future encounters.

To play the game click here!

(H/T Tracy Everbach, University of North Texas for the head’s up on this)