Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

A number of folks had been asking for some help with an open-records/Freedom-of-Information-Act assignment, so I thought this might be a good time to add it to the mix on the Corona Hotline help page.

What I’ve got here is the assignment my junior-level course is doing regarding open record requests. They’re required to FOIA something in a formal fashion, get the records and write something decent out of it.

(Yes, I know, “FOIA” refers to the federal government and its open records policies etc., while states have “sunshine laws” or “openness standards” or whatever else. I explain the difference, but you can’t turn “sunshine law” into a verb, which is why FOIA is much cooler…)

I’ve also uploaded some appendix work I did in advance of the second edition of the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It lays out a basic letter and explains why it works the way it does.

(Yes, I know there are open-records templates and open-record-request generators online,  but I have them work off of something like this so they can not only get used to doing it, but to see how each piece works. It’s like the difference between buying a new carburetor and rebuilding your old one: If you take it apart and put it back together, you learn how and why it operates the way it does, which can be inordinately helpful in life.)

Students of mine have done some incredible work with this kind of thing, or just answered basic questions like “How much money does the parking department make off of expired-meter tickets?” and “How many people got busted for public urination during this year’s “Pub Crawl?” It’s less about breaking the next Watergate story and more about learning the process. In addition, it helps them figure out what kinds of things they can get and what those items can tell them.

Hope it helps!

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

The Hill He Chose to Die On: Ex-NY Times Reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. uses about 21,000 words to explain how one word cost him his job

My friend Allison and I spent much of the past 25 years talking each other out of doing pathologically dumb things. When it seemed one of us was on the precipice of jumping off Mount Stupid into Idiocy Lake, the other would ask a simple question:

“Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?”

It’s the question that kept us out of a lot of trouble because it asked us to open the aperture of our lens, pull way out on the shot and look at the totality of what we were doing. It essentially asked, “If everything goes wrong, nothing works out right and you get every bad outcome, are you OK with this choice you are about to make?”

In most cases, the answer was “no,” so we went back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. On rare occasion, the answer was “yes,” so we gave it everything we got and hoped for the best, or at least prayed to avoid the worst.

I thought about that today because Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times decided to make a stand amid increasing scrutiny regarding complaints about his use of language in front of high school students. He found out the hard way that, sometimes, when you say you’re willing to die on that hill, that’s exactly what happens.

The Daily Beast decided to run a piece on McNeil last month that focused on a trip he took to Peru with a group of high-school students in 2019. The students and their parents complained at the time about his activities there, according to the article, including his use of “wildly offensive and racists comments.” In that article, the authors cite at least two student complaints that he used the “N-word,” a charge McNeil didn’t deny.

The paper investigated the incident when it occurred and basically did very little in terms of punitive measures. McNeil received a letter of reprimand that stated he would not represent The Times on any more of trips of that kind and that if he screwed up again, he’d get punished and perhaps terminated.

When The Daily Beast came calling for a comment in February, the paper went into crisis mode and begged McNeil to basically apologize for everything anyone involved in that situation accused him of doing. McNeil declined to do so for a variety of reasons, which eventually led him to become an “ex-New York Times” writer as of March 1.

A situation involving a white person using a racist term and subsequently receiving life-altering punishment isn’t new or novel. What does make this situation different, however, is that McNeil decided to outline the entirety of the event and the subsequent fall out from it in a four-part essay on Medium.

McNeil took to Medium to outline his case for what happened on that fateful trip to Peru and why he decided to resign.

The series runs about 21,000 words and McNeil notes that it was vetted by two lawyers prior to publication. A kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this can be found in articles written for the New York Times and The Daily Beast.

McNeil relies on emails, notes and other artifacts from the 2019 situation, noting spots where his memory was used to fill in gaps or clarify situations. He also states that he built this based on fact, not opinion, although that’s clearly not always the case. When you are the lens through which you ask readers to view something, it’s tough to say the picture you create is perfectly representative of reality.

That said, I would recommend anyone to give this a read, along with the coverage of McNeil’s response. It’s a different experience to see something of this length discussing a topic of this type, especially in today’s 24/7, 280-character, InstaPot news cycle.

I read it at least twice from top to bottom and thought it probably could lose about 20% without missing much. McNeil gets repetitive in his statements, particularly in his efforts to explain how and why a sexagenarian found himself using the most disgusting racial pejorative in front of a group of high school students. It also gets a little too far into some “inside baseball” in regard to the NYT, its guild, personal conflicts and more.

Here are a few other takeaways:

IS WE LEARNING YET?: It can’t be said loudly enough, often enough, in enough venues and in enough situations, but we’ll try this once again for the white guys who might not have heard this the first 843,534,233,901 times someone has said this…

DON’T. USE. THAT. WORD. EVER.

I can’t state this with absolute certainty, but if I had to place a bet on this, I’d wager that if McNeil had done all the other things he copped to but NOT said that word, he’d probably still be working at the Times.

According to the essay, which is the only source for this particular aspect of the situation, a student on the trip used that word in a question to McNeil regarding some social media video that had landed some other kid in trouble. McNeil then repeated the term in asking for context about its usage for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

The degree to which this situation is right, fair or anything else, is completely up for debate among people much smarter and better than me. That said, once that word entered the picture, it was like so many other “third-rail topics” we’ve discussed here over the years.

McNeil noted in his writing that he didn’t see himself as a racist and that he’d been to more than 60 countries in his decades-long career at the Times. I’m sure both of those things are true, in that he doesn’t see himself that way and that he isn’t an uneducated, xenophobic rube who views anyone not born within six miles of their family homestead with suspicion.

What’s also true is that he damned well should have known better than to use that word.

THE NYT IS FULL OF COWARDLY WEASELS: I’ve read several “exposes” on the Times before, including “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin, which looks at the Jayson Blair scandal and the paper’s horrible history on the issue of race. The paper often takes a beating for some pretty good reasons in regard to not being as representative, forward-thinking or enlightened when it comes to this issue and several others of similar importance.

That said, it’s still the New York FRICKIN’ Times. It’s the big boy on the block, the 800-pound gorilla in the room and the standard bearer for the concept of free press and its value to our society. It wins Pulitzer Prizes by the boatload for the sheer dint of being the Times and for having the tenacity of a dog with a Frisbee when it comes to important journalistic endeavors. Its name is on some of the most important Supreme Court cases of our time and it is the go-to for people who still believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Yet, when a tripe-filled Dumpster fire like The Daily Beast decides to report a story two years after the event itself, utilizing the reportorial skill set of the former editor of the National Enquirer to do so, this bastion of First Amendment prowess decides to run around looking for a bed to hide under?

Gimme a break.

Gimme another one if the story that McNeil told about the run up to his ouster from the paper is in any way close to accurate. In outlining his meeting with the administrative big-wigs, McNeil states that the paper wasn’t going to fire him, but they encouraged him to “think about” resigning over this.

McNeil’s answer was right on the money: If I resign, I’m basically copping to all of this and agreeing that I am the a–hole this story says I am. (McNeil liberally refers to himself as an a–hole throughout his pieces, so I don’t think he’d mind me stealing from his act here.)

As quoted in the McNeil essays, executive editor Dean Baquet told McNeil he had “lost the newsroom” and that people wouldn’t work with him because of this situation. What followed was essentially the NYT brass saying, “Will you pleeeeeease think about MAYBE just resigning? Please?”

Look, if you really think this guy should no longer work for your paper because he did something so horrible that nobody will work with him, grab yourself some guts and fire this guy. Just step out and say, “I don’t care what the situation, circumstance or context is. If you say that word or commit offenses like these, you will not work here. That’s the long and short of it.” Don’t ask the guy to throw himself in front of a bus because you’re too scared to make a move.

If you DON’T think this is a fireable offense, and you think the newsroom is really about to break out the pitchforks and torches, have the guts to stand up and say, “I don’t like what he said or did, but I’m not going to let two twerps from a glorified blog push around an institution as venerable and storied as ours. Neither should you. If you really have a problem with this guy or this situation, stand up, tell him and hash it out. If you can’t do that, go LiveJournal it out of your head or send some ‘unnamed source’ comments to one of your friends at another publication, but that’s going to be the end of it. I’m standing up for the paper and I’d stand up for any one of you who suddenly saw your entire career flash before your eyes, so let’s get back to work.”

If your paper can take on the Nixon White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, it can weather this storm.

AWARE, NOT TERRIFIED, SHOULD BE THE PREFERRED STATE OF BEING: Stop for a moment and realize that every second you are alive could be your last one. Any one of a million or more things could kill you, both from the inside (cancer, heart disease, brain aneurysm) or the outside (car accident, fire). You are not guaranteed anything, nor will you likely know the moment at which you will cease to exist.

If you want to come to grips with that information, you can go one of two ways: Awareness or terror.

If you choose awareness, you can make smarter decisions about how you live life. You can quit smoking, eat better and work out with the hopes of driving down the risks associated with those potential internal killers. You can employ safety measures like buckling up each time you ride in a car, avoiding texting and driving and apply maintenance to your car that will make it safer to drive. Again, there are no guarantees, but it puts you in a better position to extend your life than NOT doing these things.

If you choose terror, you’re going to see potential death around every corner. You’ll obsess about every twitch in your body as the early warning sign of something that WebMD will confirm as cancer. You’ll lock yourself in a house like Miss Havisham and coat yourself in bubble wrap to avoid potentially fatal incidents. In short, you’ll basically stop living your life in hopes of prolonging it.

I thought a lot about this in reading the pieces McNeil wrote because I honestly worry that people are going to see what happened here and drop into terror mode when it comes to the complex issues that really need to be addressed in our society. If we are constantly afraid that anything we do could come back and bite us in the keester, we’re never going to go outside of our comfort zones. We’re going to cower in a corner and worry that every offense is a death penalty offense, so let’s just not go there.

Being aware of the needs of others, the pain people can cause each other and the perspectives of others means that we’re going to behave in a way that tries to create improvements in society. Being terrified that we’re going to get whacked in an instant, no matter how many positive marks we have on our side of the ledger, is going to lead to a lot more people who know a lot less about a lot of other people.

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR CHOOSING YOUR HILL: I don’t know how any of you feel about this situation or anything I’ve written about it. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to feel about a lot of it.

What I do know is that McNeil has a lot more courage than I do.

He could have done what was asked of him. He could have said how he was sorry and that he’s going to attend some training or something and that he never should have thought about that word or those things or anything and just promised that he’d do the right thing, whatever that was, the next time he faced this situation, the Good Lord willing.

Instead, he said, “This is my hill. Win or lose, I’m willing to die here.”

Say what you want to about the choice, but there is something to be said for having the courage to decide that this is where you want to make your stand.

So many of us are willing to acquiesce to whatever others want because we are fearful of what will happen if we rock the boat. We sell out at the first sign of danger. To quote George Carlin’s line about getting mugged, we essentially say, “Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone!”

McNeil went the other way and it cost him everything he’d spent decades building in a career he’d had since the term “copy boy” was an actual thing.

There’s something to be said for that, regardless of if you think he made the right choice.

The Junk Drawer: A Whole Lotta Awkward Edition

It just dawned on me that there are about six rolls of Scotch Tape in here…

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

OLIVIA MUNN, ASSAULT SUSPECT? We talk about misplaced modifiers all the time here on the site, ranging from the underwear thief who was apparently threatening underpants to politicians who “plan to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the Capitol.”  Here’s one that caught me at first and I really didn’t know which way was up:

The way this reads, it sounds like Olivia Munn jumped in and helped with a beat down, something we could totally understand, given her “Newsroom” character Sloan Sabbith’s bad-ass nature:

The truth is, Munn helped identify the guy who did the attacking, as this other media outlet’s story clearly shows.

If I were the folks at Now This, I’d fix this before she makes it to the rage phase.

Speaking of misconstruing things….

HAL HOLBROOK, PORN STAR?: The legendary actor Hal Holbrook died on Feb. 2 at the age of 95. He was well known for multiple roles he did, especially his portrayal of Mark Twain in his one-man show that ran for decades.

In looking at one publication’s announcement of his death, I had to do a double-take, though, wondering if he’d actually had a side hustle in the adult-film industry:

The reference here to him as a “Deep Throat actor” had me gagging (sorry, had to…) because of what it was saying: He was an actor in the film “Deep Throat.” (For those of you who don’t know, “Deep Throat” was a hardcore porn film, starring Linda Lovelace that became the most successful adult film in history. Research this on your own, as I’m not even THINKING about adding a link here… )

What ACTUALLY happened was that Holbrook was an actor in “All The President’s Men,” where he PLAYED the unnamed source that kept feeding Woodward and Bernstein information about the Watergate scandal. The source, who eventually was revealed to be W. Mark Felt of the FBI, was given the “code name” of “Deep Throat.”

Thus, there’s a big difference between an actor PORTRAYING Deep Throat and an actor PARTICIPATING in Deep Throat.

Speaking of things going wrong…

IF YOU THINK ZOOMBOMBING IS BAD: Students often have “Joe Jobs” that pay the rent (and the bar tab) at a variety of bars, restaurants, stores and more, thus giving them a keen eye for thing that are happening that the rest of us might miss. These moments of “REALLY?!?!” can lead to some great stories.

Case in point: We were talking about this kind of thing in my reporting class, when a student mentioned he worked at Walmart. I asked him if he noticed any trends in terms of people shopping differently, certain items going out of stock more recently or any other such thing. He replied, “No, but we’ve been having some situations with the TVs, now that people have figured out they’re all Bluetooth compatible.”

Turns out, people walking past the TVs notice that their mobile devices want to sync with the big screens, a great feature if you’re at home and you want to show your friends a phone video you shot of your class project or something.  When you’re at Walmart? With a wall full of screens that you can control and nobody can figure out who is doing it?

(If you don’t see where this is going yet, you might want to skip J-School and get going on that successful career in the “naturally oblivious” industry…)

“We’ve been seeing a lot of-” (I stopped him here and begged him to remember I was recording this for the online kids and that I really liked my job) “- ADULT WEBSITES on those screens,” he said.

Walmart has been trying to figure out how to deal with this (and the displeasure of parents who now have a lot of explaining to do to their  grade-schoolers) all to no avail. Could be worth a couple calls.

And, finally, speaking of dogged reporting…

AN UPDATE ON PAT SIMMS: Last week, I posted a piece about one of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, Pat Simms, and her bout with cancer. Folks with a much longer history with Pat also shared their thoughts and stories about her, with a lot of them focusing on her toughness. (“My favorite Pat technique was ‘umbrage,'” a long-time colleague of hers told me. “She could, with a look, tell a politician that no, I don’t believe that for a minute.”)

Pat’s daughter, Sara, has set up a Caringbridge account for people who want updates on her situation or to share supportive and kind messages with her.

I made a point of emailing Sara the link to the piece I wrote, so she could share it with Pat. Sara told me she enjoyed it and that she mentioned it to her mom. The reaction was classic Pat:

I told her about it and she said it was so nice but ‘ I’m not dead yet ‘

 

 

Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

If you bet the one-month line and took the under for “When would my department get its first confirmed case of plagiarism,” please feel free to collect your winnings at the nearest cashier’s window. A student who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with searchlight and a posse apparently turned into Ernest Hemingway in a discussion post for one of my colleague’s classes.

It was so obvious, even other students noticed this and were contacting the prof about it. The even dumber thing was that this discussion was worth TWO POINTS toward the final class grade. So, essentially, the kid put his grade, his class standing and his future at the university in jeopardy over 1/50th of a course outcome.

What was he thinking? Clearly not much.

To keep your students from making the same mistakes as this kid, here’s a look back at a classic post on why cheating in journalism is stupid:

4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right.

And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.

Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester. It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.

It’s also the same when the students are confronted. They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)

Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course:

  1. You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
    Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
    Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
    The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
    We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
  2. You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
    We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
    The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job? Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.
  3. Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
    I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees. Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper. I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back: 

    Vince,

    Small world!

    We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.

    Hope you are doing well.

    I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that. This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.

  4. You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
    Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
    The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
    Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
    I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.

Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.

Student Press Law Center’s Interviews With Top Student Newspaper Editors at HBCUs

As part of its coverage of both Student Press Freedom Day and Black History Month, the Student Press Law Center has interviewed the top editors of student newspapers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The first interview, conducted with Oyin Adedoyin, editor-in-chief of the Spokesman at Morgan State University, talks about how the paper has provided audience-centric content to readers with a strong interest in publications that cover Black news.

For the full interview, click here. Subsequent pieces are upcoming throughout the month.

Reporter/source dating, on-the-record/off-the-record and Filak’s First Rule of Holes: A look at “The Biden White House’s First Media Scandal”

 

If there’s one group of people I have complete and total sympathy for, it is single people who would like to find a meaningful relationship with another human being in today’s world.

Between the digital media pitfalls that exist around every corner (social media stalkers, potential dates finding the stupid tweets you put out seven years ago, the sharing of “personal photos” that get airdropped to the entire world) and the insane life schedules (work, family, health), I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to connect with a new person in hopes of building a life right now.

And that’s not even counting the pandemic. Exactly how do you end a “socially distanced” date? (I can imagine the conversations with friends afterward: “So when he elbow-bumped you, was it like a REAL elbow-bump or was it like he just kind of felt awkward when you went in for the bump and just reciprocated?”)

(Side note: Amy and I have a mutually agreed upon pre-nup that says if one of us forces the other one back onto the dating market for any reason other than death, we give up our rights to any marital property. Plus, I would get to burn her knitting stash or she would get to set fire to my baseball cards, just to be mean. THAT’S how scary the dating pool seems to us…)

So, even though we’ve talked about the concept of source-reporter relationships here as something to avoid when possible, I get why it’s hard for two people like (now former) White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo and political journalist Alexi McCammond to give up the connection due to work entanglements. She had been covering the Biden campaign and he had been promoting it, so once romance entered the picture, things had to change.

According to a profile on the pair in People magazine, they both decided to play by the ethical rules of the field:

“We both realized we both felt the same way,” Ducklo, who joined the Biden White House as a deputy press secretary, tells PEOPLE. “We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”

That meant telling their bosses. An Axios spokeswoman says McCammond, who joined the site in 2017, told her editors about the relationship in November “and asked to be taken off of the Biden beat.” She was reassigned to covering progressive lawmakers in Congress and progressives across the U.S. as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, the spokeswoman says.

“We stand behind her and her coverage,” the spokeswoman says of McCammond, describing her as “a valued member of the Axios team.”

For her part, McCammond says, “When my personal life had the potential to interfere with my work, I didn’t think twice about sharing my happiness in November with Axios that I’d found someone in TJ who shows up for me in a way I’d only hoped for.”

While the People profile was apparently fair game, Ducklo appeared to have a problem with Politico writing about the relationship, according to a Vanity Fair article:

The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after (Politico reporter Tara) Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.

The article goes on to say that Ducklo made derogatory and sexist comments in an “off-the-record” conversation with Palmeri, noting that she had been jealous of his relationship with McCammond. He also used language I’m not allowed to use here, but let’s just say Ducklo said he believed that McCammond was of a greater sexual interest to at least one other man than Palmeri was.

The White House, which initially complained that Palmeri broke the “off-the-record” agreement with Ducklo, announced last week that Ducklo has been suspended for one week for his comments and Ducklo has issued a formal apology to Palmeri and her media outlet.

Over the weekend, Ducklo resigned from his position and issued a formal apology for his actions.

This situation didn’t have to get to this point, so let’s go through a couple points that might help you if you land in a similar romantic entanglement:

DO THE RIGHT THING: The one thing that I can’t stress enough is that initially Ducklo and McCammond DID do the right thing when they became an item. They went to their bosses, talked it out and got everyone on the same page.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, and I can speak from experience. In two of my journalistic stops, I was romantically engaged with a person who was working on the opposite side of the fence: Once it was a city council rep when I was at the State Journal and once it was a police dispatcher when I was the crime editor in Missouri. In both cases, I came clean, but in the former, I didn’t really say anything until we were engaged. (Not exactly bright, but I also wasn’t DIRECTLY on that beat… And yes, that sound you hear is a hair splitting…) In the other case, she got the job after I already had mine, so it was a “ground-level” discussion and everything panned out fine.

As much as this is an awkward situation, it’s like removing a Band-Aid: Grab a corner and yank. You’ll be much better off.

 

CHIVALRY MIGHT BE DEAD, BUT STUPIDITY LIVES ON: The idea of defending a fair maiden from the evil trolls who might do her harm is a swoon-worthy concept in fairy tales. Calling up a reporter and threatening her for reporting on your relationship is dumber than garlic-flavored toothpaste.

Something tells me that McCammond can more than hold her own against pretty much anything anyone tosses at her. She’s a veteran reporter of MSNBC and Axios, so she’s used to political hatchet jobs (which assumes this Politico piece would be one, which isn’t fair to Politico at this point). She’s also probably dealt with a ton of sexism, racism and misogyny as a woman of color who works for national media outlets, so she’s not going to wilt like a magnolia in a rainstorm if someone starts saying mean things about her and her boyfriend in public.

The not-so-smooth moves started when Ducklo called Palmeri’s editor first, in a conversation that just screams, “Hey, bro, get that little lady to back up off me a bit, ‘kay?” When the editor did the right journalism thing, and told Ducklo to call the people working on the story, Ducklo swung and missed again. He didn’t return the call of the MALE co-author who was working on the story, but rather decided to go after the FEMALE co-author with his puffer-fish routine. I can’t imagine exactly why Ducklo thought this was a necessary move or a good idea, but it was clear that he wasn’t thinking a whole heck of a lot.

Having said all this, I have no difficulty imagining how Amy would react if she found out in a very public way that I called up her supervising nurse and told the woman to back off of my beloved or I’ll go all “Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV'” on your ass.

My imagination leads me to sleeping in the milk house for a week, protecting my sports stuff from a fire.

 

THERE ARE LIMITS TO OFF-THE-RECORD CONVERSATIONS: When I think of how on-the-record/off-the-record conversations work, journalists and sources tend think of  as being like a safety measure for both people involved.

I tend to see them this way:

 

In other words, the concept of off-the-record can protect some vital areas, but it’s a vest, not the Iron Man suit. If a source tells you, off-the-record, that they plan to murder a school bus full of children after this interview, you should strongly consider calling the cops. I don’t think there will be any serious journalists writing op-eds on your lack of ethical standards.

Journalists and sources should ALWAYS work out exactly what on-the-record and off-the-record mean before going off of the record. This is where you decide what can be used and how that source should be referred to, among other things. It’s for both of your benefits.

An experienced press aide like Ducklo should know that. He should also know that threatening a reporter’s career and reputation would clearly fall outside of the bounds of what she’d dutifully keep to herself, for fear of revealing a double-super-secret conversation she had a source. He crossed a line and that was going to become public and painful.

Which leads us nicely into the final point…

 

FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: As we’ve explained numerous times on the blog, Filak’s First Rule of Holes is simple: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

Ducklo and McCammond knew from the jump that this kind of relationship was going to garner attention, which is why they played by the rules and made the right moves immediately. They even participated in the media circus part of it, granting a heck of a lot of access to People for that profile.

(Say what you want about the quality of journalism in People or Politico or whatever, but if you want people to respect your privacy, the best way to do that is NOT to be featured in a publication with a circulation of nearly 100 million.)

Even if it wasn’t an “open secret” as Politico mentioned in its Playbook coverage, it was now out there and people were going to figure it out. The best thing to do was to realize you’re standing in a little hole, of your own making, and decide to let the chips fall where they may. This is the kind of story that goes away in a half a news cycle and involves, no personal offense to either of them,  relatively B-list folks in the entirety of the political machine.

Instead, every step Ducklo made came with the sound of a shovel hitting the dirt, digging deeper and deeper. It intensified the scrutiny on the relationship when he went after Palmeri. It extended the news cycle when the word got out about the threats and his assessment of her as a woman and a journalist. It forced the issue to become a talking point for everyone out there from journalistic groups of great importance to twerps like me who run a blog.

(It also basically wrote the headline for half the people out there. How do you not hear the headline in “I will destroy you” when you’re saying it? Also, what’s that rules about not picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?)

In the end, this, too, will pass, but if you want to make sure it passes more quickly if you end up in this spot, just remember that rule about holes.

 

3 reasons why porn mogul Larry Flynt matters to you in journalism, whether you like him or not

Larry Flynt,  who turned strip clubs and a fledgling nudie magazine in the 1970s into a pornographic empire, died Wednesday at the age of 78. To say he changed the field of publishing  and the concept of “adult publications” with his launch of Hustler magazine, is akin to saying Babe Ruth changed how baseball was played.

To put my editor’s mind at ease, as I can already picture the folks at SAGE breathing heavily into a paper bag and fighting off heart palpitations when they saw this headline, this piece isn’t a lionization of a man who clearly had more than his share of  marks on the negative side of his ledger in life.

Critics note that his magazines were not only horrifically crude, but also that his efforts were misogynistic and taboo, as Flynt seemed to revel in the idea of pushing the boundaries of taste and legality as far as possible. Gloria Steinem referred to him as a “violent, sadistic pornographer,” and it’s hard to argue with that, given one of Hustler’s more famous covers featured a woman being fed into a meat grinder.

However, whether you abhor everything to do with pornography or your computer cowers in the corner when it sees you opening up an internet browser, Flynt had an impact on journalism in three key ways that still matter to this day:

 

SATIRE AND HYPERBOLE WERE CODIFIED AS PROTECTED SPEECH

The words “pornographer Larry Flynt” and “landmark Supreme Court Decision” don’t seem like a logical coupling, but they are, in fact, linked in history in a way that provides us with crucial speech and press protections.

Jill St. John In Campari First Time (1983)

One ad from the actual Campari series, featuring actress Jill St. John.

In the early 1980s, Campari liquor was running a series of ads in which famous people described their “first time.” The Q and A format had an interviewer asking about the “first time” and the answers contained a great degree of sexual innuendo. At the end, of course, it was revealed that the people were talking about their “first time” drinking Campari liquor.

In 1983, Flynt parodied the ad, using as his subject the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In the Hustler version, Falwell was said to have had his “first time” in an outhouse with his mother and a goat. It also referenced his need to get drunk before preaching because how else could he spout such ridiculous religious garbage.

A copy of the Hustler ad that was at the center of the court case.

Falwell sued Hustler and won a six-figure jury award for emotional distress, which Flynt appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The Rehnquist court delivered its decision in 1988, unanimously finding for Hustler Magazine. The ruling noted that public figures could not sue for emotional distress over statements that were patently offensive unless those statements could be shown to be factually inaccurate in nature and demonstrated an instance of actual malice.

The bigger point, however, was that the court noted that the First Amendment rights of individuals to make patently offensive statements outweighed the interest to protect public figures from them, so long as the statements could not be reasonably construed as true. In other words, nobody in their right mind was reading Hustler in Jerry Falwell’s congregation and thinking, “Wow! I never knew he had an Oedipal/bestiality obsession before! Guess you learn something new every day!”

The case established both a strong position for journalism in general, codifying actual malice as a standard for libel against public figures as well as providing a shield for humorists who relied on hyperbole to make their points. If Ted Cruz could sue Seth Meyers every time Meyers says his beard looks like a pile of raccoons died on Cruz’s face or something similar, we’d probably never have “Late Night with Seth Meyers” on TV.

If you enjoy shows like “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Daily Show,” “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” “The Colbert Report” or any other show that relies on hyper-exaggeration to make you laugh about public figures, you’ve got Larry Flynt to thank for their existence in their current stasis.

 

THE MAN UNDERSTOOD (AND SOME WOULD SAY EXPLOITED) AUDIENCE CENTRICITY

In the 1960s, the primary men’s magazine was Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. It combined humor, culture, interviews and literature with photos or illustrations of semi-nude or fully nude women to entice its readership. The description of Hefner and the magazine was often “bon vivant,” which roughly translates to a cultural person with refined social tastes and interests.

While Hefner was hobnobbing around town, reflecting the kind of people you’d see in “Mad Men,” Flynt was grinding out a living in the dirtier parts of Cincinnati. The people who visited Flynt’s bars and dance clubs were the blue-collar, truck-driver, factory-worker gritty folks that populated much of the Rust Belt and other similar parts of the country. They weren’t interested in the latest stories from Jack Kerouac or Jean Sheppard. They weren’t buying the silk socks and calf garters advertised in the back of Playboy. They didn’t see the social incongruity of having African American Alex Haley interviewing George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party.

To borrow a phrase from comedian Jeff Foxworthy, they wanted a beer and to see something naked.

Flynt understood this and used that understanding to tap into a completely under-served audience. He saw things from the perspective of readers who weren’t rich or smooth or refined, but had extremely base tastes and were willing to pay for content that reflected them. He came at the publication itself from an audience-centric perspective, knowing that for every one person who would gasp audibly at the horrifying indecency of his publication, there were at least three others who would buy it specifically for that indecency.

A perfect example of his comprehension of how best to serve his audience was illustrated in the 1996 film, “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” in which Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) is arguing with a photographer about how best to shoot a photo of a naked woman. The more the photographer is trying to soften the content and hide the nudity, the more Flynt is pushing back to make the nudity more prominent. Finally, Flynt says, “Look we’re not running a flower shop here. We’re selling the girl. So stop playing with all the props and pillows and flowers and just shoot the girl.”

The concept of audience-centricity has been one that journalism in general has been painfully slow in comprehending. It’s a safe case to make that newspapers continue to crumble because they still have a major disconnect between what matters to the writers and what matters to the readers. The degree to which internet publications have succeeded or failed over the past decade is almost entirely linked to their ability to define, reach and appease an audience. It’s something we now teach in journalism as a matter of course.

You might not like that Flynt was “selling the girl” or how he sold it or what else he did, but the truth is, not many publishers (now or then) had as keen of a sense for whom they were publishing and what those people wanted. You can also argue what people should or shouldn’t want, but that’s a completely different discussion.

And it also leads to the final point…

 

SPEECH AND PRESS SHOULD BE PROTECTED, EVEN IF THEY OFFEND YOU

People who debate the various aspects of the First Amendment have a wide array of opinions regarding Larry Flynt and his overall place in its pantheon. To some, his efforts have created a wider array of protections for speech that otherwise could not have existed had he not gone to such outlandish lengths with his publications. To many, many more people, however, he’s a filth monger who exploited women, debased sex and profited greatly by abusing one of the most important rights of our society: The right to free expression.

Wherever you fall on this issue or this person is completely understandable, particularly if his actions offended you. That said, the concept of a free society is that sometimes you get offended by the expressions of others. You cannot, however, simply destroy speech or press because you dislike what it has to say. Edward Norton, playing the role of Flynt lawyer Alan Isaacman, makes that case in this scene from the film:

Your rights to say what you want are always in jeopardy if other people have the right to shut you up because they don’t like what you have to say. Then the question becomes, “Who sets the standards and who gets to determine the penalties?” The freedoms accorded to us in the First Amendment need to protect all of us, or they protect none of us.

Or, as Flynt was known to say, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it’ll protect all of you.”

Unforgettable Indiscretions: Student newspapers and requests for deleting old stories in the wake of the Boston Globe’s Fresh Start Initiative

In the 15 years or so I advised student newspapers, the most popular feature we produced was the police blotter.

At the Ball State Daily News, the listings appeared under the “Police Beat” title, while UWO’s Advance-Titan went with the more accusatory name of “BUSTED!” In both places, a reporter would go to the campus police station once a week and collect a litany of small crime items that weren’t worth a huge story, but likely held some level of interest to folks.

We tended to have a lot of underage drinking tickets, public intoxication arrests, drug busts and similar consumption concerns. Occasionally, we would end up with a fight, a verbal altercation or a case of vandalism. Anything more serious than that tended to be highlighted and relayed to us by the police department in the form of an alert or a press release.

(The one “BUSTED!” item that sticks in my mind all these years later happened the year before I started advising the paper. A male student and a female student were caught having sex behind the giant concrete UW-Oshkosh sign near the main thoroughfare of campus. When the police “stepped in,” the male begged the cop not to write a report or issue a citation, because then his sexual indiscretion would end up in “BUSTED!” and his girlfriend would find out about it…)

Although these features were popular among our general readers, we found them to be less popular among the people whose names ended up in them. In many cases, we received requests to not publish a particular person’s legal infraction or to remove the reports of them that we had previously printed. At one point, the requests became so popular that the Daily News put the phrase “It’s not our fault you ended up in Police Beat” on the back of the staff T-shirts.

The standing response was that we don’t edit our archives or try to change history. If it happened and we wrote it, it stays put.

Those papers I advised weren’t the only ones to hold that line, as many of student media outlets have policies like this one from the newspaper at Northwest Missouri State University, where my buddy Steve Chappell serves as the adviser:

The Northwest Missourian never knowingly publishes inaccuracies. If any error is found, The Northwest Missourian is obligated to correct the error as soon as possible, regardless of the source of the error. A consistent location, signature and style for corrections and clarifications is recommended.
The Northwest Missourian does not remove any editorial content from its website. However, if there is a factual inaccuracy in a story, the editors will run a correction or an update as needed. When a person calls in question of a fact published they should never be guaranteed a correction will run. A section editor must first confirm that the fact in question is an inaccuracy.

In a lot of ways, this can make sense. The hard-line approach prevents staffers from having to pick and choose among which things are worthy or unworthy of “scrubbing” from an archive. The requirement of factual accuracy being at issue makes it clear that someone being embarrassed or upset over accurate coverage isn’t going to cut it in terms of a correction or retraction.

What seems like a simple cut-and-dried approach to archived indiscretion became more complicated recently when the Boston Globe decided to give people a chance to get a pass on their past. The “Fresh Start Initiative” allows people to request a review of previously published content about them for updates, removal or other reconsideration:

Similar to “right to forget” programs that have cropped up in a number of newsrooms across the country, the undertaking is meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes,or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.

“It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects,” said Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe. “Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.”

Truth be told, student newsrooms have been talking about these concerns for years and have had policies that support whatever position they took. To get a better grip on what student media outlets were doing regarding “take-down requests” and their thoughts on them based upon what the Globe had done, I posed the question on the College Media Advisers listserv.

In many cases, folks explained they had a pretty solid and long-running policy on how they viewed their content. The policy at The Temple News, for example, offers authority to any given editor-in-chief to remove or retain content, but it notes that published content, regardless of format, is seen as part of the “historical record.”

Others, like the Elon News Network at Elon University, provide a pathway to content removal and a process to petition the organization:

ENN has created a review board of organization leaders and faculty advisers to review content that has been petitioned to have content changed. The board will meet at least once a semester to review all requests.

The content removal petition form is available online, and should meet the following requirements:

  • The petition must be filed by the person directly involved, and not be made on behalf of an individual.

  • Three years must have passed from the content’s publication.

  • The form below must be filled out and submitted. Any relevant documents that the review board should be made aware of should be submitted in the form. The review board will not take into consideration any documents submitted after the board has met.

One adviser noted that her students were looking at revising the policy, given the ubiquity of the internet. The line of “Nothing ever truly disappears on the internet” is more true now than ever before. It used to be that a web page could be abandoned and it would fall so far off the beaten path, nobody would find it. Even more, I know at least one student paper where I worked lost a ton of archives when it switched providers.

Today? That stuff would be easy to find and accessible with about two clicks and a simple search term.

(Another interesting angle someone brought up was the way in which efforts to preserve the past are now opening up more windows to older embarrassing incidents. When libraries or media outlets decide to digitize past issues and make them searchable, suddenly that arrest for drinking and driving that your step-dad swears never happened is at your fingertips, complete with his bad 1970s feathered-hair mug shot.)

The question of how to do this is often more concerned with what are the ramifications for doing this at all. In a listserv discussion on this topic, the director of publications at Western Kentucky mentioned a concern I often had in regard to this situation:

The attorney who represents the College Heights Herald and the Talisman has pretty consistently given the advice that you open a Pandora’s Box by granting a takedown request. If you later turn a request down, then you could be subject to being found arbitrary if the matter went to court.

It will be interesting to see if litigation emerges from what The Boston Globe is doing. For the time being, I still favor the “you can’t rewrite history” mantra, with offering to update the story to reflect how it turned out – but with documentation.

As for most legal things, I turn to the Student Press Law Center, which has a giant list of things to consider and processes to follow in this regard. The explanation of how the law works and why it works that way makes a lot of sense. It also outlines the potential legal potholes you might hit along the road.  One other thing SPLC touches on in this write up is the way in which the law and ethics can diverge.

In other words, just because you “can” do something, it doesn’t follow that you “should” do something, and that involves both publishing and removing content. In the case of removing content, the law might say you are on firm ground leaving up the story about the freshman who was arrested after police found him asleep, naked in a tree. However, that kid is now a 30-year-old local minister who has done a world of good, but for some reason, Google’s algorithm keeps putting that at the top of any search of his name. Is it “right” to keep that at the forefront of any discussion of this guy?

To that end, was it “right” to publish it in the first place, even though the law said you could? When it was a day-long or week-long embarrassment that probably won’t make it beyond the campus confines, publishing the content might not seem like that big of a deal. However, if you knew something would follow this person their entire lives and nothing they did could ever scrub it off, would you think twice before publishing something about a drunk freshman peeing in a campus parking lot after a house party?

I don’t know exactly how to split that hair, but an adviser who has worked with me to make the reporting book much better explained his approach in fantastic fashion:

This is the reason I strongly encourage our editors not to pursue stories focusing on minor “crime” stories, things involving drugs and alcohol and general college-aged stupidity. College is a time in a person’s life when they should explore and experiment. And they should not have to live with the punishment of such misdeeds for the rest of their lives. Good gosh, if Google was a thing when I was in college …

I usually err on the side of the person over any notion of journalism ethics.

Human first. Journalist second.

Throwback Thursday: Two Key Questions Every Story Should Answer Clearly For Your Readers

I’ve spent a lot more time watching nightly news during the pandemic than I usually did. What I have found is that a lot of local broadcasters do a good job of making the stories about legal wrangling over mask mandates, vaccine supplies and other COVID-related items amazingly clear and relevant to the audience.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for their text-based colleagues, who seem to want to get more into the minutia and less into the audience value than they should. With that in mind, I pulled up a Throwback Thursday post that might put us back on track in terms of keeping a story’s attention where it should be.

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.

Exercise time: Kin ewe spell batter then Donald Trump’s legal teem?

In the “Dynamics of Media Writing” book, one of the best pieces of advice comes from Kate Morgan, the director of communications in the division of student affairs at the University of Notre Dame:

“There isn’t a job I can think of that doesn’t involve writing in some capacity. Take emails. If a vendor emails me a quote with spelling and grammatical errors, my level of faith in his ability to adequately meet my needs diminishes significantly. Perhaps this makes me a snob, but that’s not my problem. I’m not going to lower my expectations just because someone else is too lazy to write a complete sentence. Given my level of experience in this industry thus far, I’m almost positive I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Although I haven’t checked in with Kate since former President Donald Trump’s legal team filed its response to the article of impeachment levied against him, I’m guessing she probably would have fired this group of knuckleheads after Tuesday’s disaster:

The defense team for former President Donald Trump’s impending impeachment trial was widely mocked Tuesday for issuing a response to the House of Representatives’ article of impeachment that contained both spelling and—according to critics—legal mistakes.

One spelling error that sparked a flurry of comments on Twitter came in the very beginning of Trump’s response, which is addressed to the “The Honorable, the Members of the Unites States Senate.”

Trump’s legal teams (plural) over the years have often had trouble with spelling. In one case, former attorney Sidney Powell misspelled the word “district” twice as well as the word “superior” in an Arizona filing with the state’s highest court.

It’s not only Trump’s team that seems to be having word trouble these days, as I’m looking forward to many more misstatements like this:

Still, I guess if I were paying these folks, I’d want someone to go beyond firing up a spell check and hitting “ignore” 50 times like a sophomore business major whose friends are waiting on him to file a paper so they can go hit a house party.

With that in mind, here’s a good exercise for your copy-editing folk:

Here’s a link to a PDF of the filing. Have your students download it and copy edit the heck out of it. What might also be instructive is to determine how many things are misspelled (as in “Suprior” instead of “Superior”) and how many things are wrong words (as in “erection” instead of “insurrection” or “Unites” instead of “United”). This might drive home the lesson of why it is we should run a spell check on anything before we submit it but also that spell check alone won’t save you from looking stupid.