Stuff I Said: Talking about “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” with The Clackamas Print

After the “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” post ran, a student journalist reached out from Clackamas Community College in Oregon to get a few of my thoughts on how speed and accuracy tend to bump into each other a lot in media these days.

(In case you missed it, the family of Nick Sandmann, the student in the video, is suing the Washington Post over its coverage of him. The suit, which asks for $250 million, argues that publication ran several “false and defamatory” articles and backed them up with similarly problematic tweets.)

The interview questions were good and in reading the responses I gave, I found myself saying, yet again, “Well, hell… I really need a filter. Or a translator from ‘Filak-ism’ to English.” Here’s one such moment:

TCP: What do you think the coverage of both the BuzzFeed story and the Covington Catholic Kids says about modern journalism?

A: I don’t know if this is necessarily a “modern journalism” thing, other than to say the reach of media is now able to do a lot more damage when a story goes south. It’s like if I were to be reckless with a firearm: If I’m reckless with a .22 pistol, I can hurt some people, but if I’m reckless with a rocket launcher, I can do a lot more damage. That’s the difference between things in the pre-digital era and now.

Yep. I definitely need a translator… In any case, you can read the whole exchange here.

“Count to Five:” Why Clarence Thomas’ interest in relitigating Times v. Sullivan isn’t going anywhere fast

The editor of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama published an editorial in which he called on the Ku Klux Klan begin night rides against “Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats (who) are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama.”  This became the biggest freakout moment of the day Tuesday for journalists, journalism professors and anyone with a vested interest in media, until Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pulled a “Hold my beer” moment.

Thomas, writing for himself only in a concurring opinion, stated that Supreme Court should reexamine the 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, in which the court held that a public figure had to prove actual malice in order to win a libel suit:

He said the decision had no basis in the Constitution as it was understood by the people who drafted and ratified it.

“New York Times and the court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Justice Thomas wrote.

Thomas’ writing involved the court’s decision to reject an appeal from Kathrine McKee, one of the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. She claimed she had been libeled because Cosby’s lawyer called her dishonest. As a public figure, the court held that Sullivan applied and thus she had to show actual malice had occurred.  (Sullivan is one of the most important free-press decisions ever issued by the court as it makes it much harder for public figures to use libel laws as a sword instead of a shield. For a good synopsis of the facts on Sullivan, you can go here. If you want to read the whole decision, you can go here.)

About six seconds after news of Thomas’ statements on Sullivan emerged, journalism folk in all of my social media feeds began mildly to seriously panicking over what this could mean. My first two thoughts were:

  1. Clarence Thomas? The last time I thought about him at all was when I got excited to see Wendell Pierce playing him in an HBO film about the Anita Hill controversy. (To be fair, Pierce probably played Thomas better than Thomas plays himself.)
  2. This guy is shit-talking the Warren Court on a 9-0 decision? That’s like me calling out LeBron James based on basketball talent. Also, although unanimous decisions are the norm on the Roberts Court, it’s hard to imagine it running the table on a decision as crucial as Sullivan.

To get something like this rolling, Thomas would need to find four other justices to see the law the way he does in this area, which is a tall order. Still, the idea that something this important could be undone by someone this unimportant bothered me, so I asked media-law expert Daxton “Chip” Stewart to give me a sense how worrisome this bit of news is.

“First thought, it’s nothing to freak out about because Thomas has always been like this,” Stewart said via email. “(Former Justice Antonin) Scalia famously hated Times v. Sullivan, but he knew he couldn’t get a majority to go along with him, so he gave up trying to kill it. Thomas isn’t so shy. Remember, he wrote a separate concurring opinion in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case to say that Tinker was wrongly decided and students have no free speech rights. The guy is no friend to the First Amendment rights that the Court has recognized over the past century.”

Stewart said even though no one sided with Thomas in his decision, the question of what this means going forward will depend on how the rest of the judicial system reacts.

“The most important thing about this Thomas opinion is that nobody else joined it,” he said. “He’s out on a limb. The potential problem is that it opens up a window for other aggrieved anti-media judges to think that maybe overturning Sullivan is in the realm of possibility or at least legitimate legal discussion. They’re already doing the same thing in Roe v. Wade — appellate court judges boldly rejecting it as precedent, saying it was wrongly decided and it’s time for the Supreme Court to overturn it. That flies in the face of the entire notion of stare decisis.

Thomas is also floating a trial balloon to see if any of the new appointees think this is an idea worth pursuing. The Times pointed out in its coverage today that both justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch haven’t stridently opposed the Sullivan ruling, with Gorsuch saying during his confirmation hearing that he relied on Sullivan during one of his prior rulings.

Stewart said it is possible that both men could lean more toward President Donald Trump’s idea of “opening up the libel laws” and thus shift their stance on this issue. He also noted that Justice Samuel Alito is a “wild card,” but that Chief Justice John Roberts “cares too much about SCOTUS legitimacy and precedent to burn it on something as small (to him) as press freedom.”

“So the big risk would be if another Trump appointee were to come on in the seat of one of the liberal/moderate wing of the court (Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor) and join up an anti-media bloc of Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and maybe Alito,” he said. “Then there’s five votes to undo Justice (William) Brennan’s historic opinion in Sullivan.

“And as Brennan famously said, the most important thing for a justice to be able to do is to count to five.”

 

A quick look at the history and value of the Associated Press (and an interview with a pro, to boot!)

A good number of my students hear “AP” and immediately think of the giant style guide that they have to buy for each class. However, the Associated Press is a lot more than that, owning an impressive history of doing quality journalism around the globe.

A story released today by the Columbia Journalism Review takes a look at some recent rough times the AP has had in terms of operating its foreign bureaus, a topic that might or might not be of interest to you. However, I would strongly suggest reading it anyway, as it contains a really nice, clear history of the creation and development of the organization itself.

In addition, I’ve posted a “Tips from a Pro” interview with AP editor Janelle Cogan that we featured in the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It’s a good look at how strong, clear journalism should be valued above all else.

Here’s Janelle:

As the acting enterprise editor for the South Region of the Associated Press, Janelle Cogan sees a lot of quality news features, watchdog pieces and enterprise stories each day. Even with those longer stories and broader topics, she said the basics of journalism remain at the core of her approach to content.

“Journalists need to ask and answer the basic questions,” she said. “When you’re writing and reporting a story, don’t assume your audience knows the context or background of the subject matter – it’s such a big part of your job to provide that. Give scope, give context.”

Cogan has held a number of positions at the AP, including desk editor, weekend supervisor and a morning supervisor before she took on the enterprise role. In this position, she works on stories that come from 13 states and Washington, D.C. Before joining the AP, she worked as a copy desk chief, an assistant city editor, a features editor and a designer. In all of her time in media, she said the biggest changes have been to the volume of news that organizations have created as well as the speed at which it is delivered.

“No one is waiting for tomorrow’s paper to see the results of the game, the election, the fire, the shooting,” she said. “So the way we report and write that news has changed, too. We have to provide quick, understandable, digestible bites of news. When we have the latest numbers/report/development, we need to get it out there. So we write in a way that puts that info at the very top of the story. Especially as a story develops, we probably aren’t writing in a terribly flowery or “writerly” way. We are writing crisp, clear, basic sentences. We are authoritative. We are transparent.”

To keep the writing focused, Cogan said she pushes writers to “show, don’t tell” a story, eliminate clichés and remove jargon. She said she pushes her writers cut superfluous words and to tell her the story in a clear and concise way.

“It’s better to be straight with them – conversational, even,” she said. “How would you tell me this story if we were chatting over coffee or a beer? That may just be the best way to start your story. A pet peeve of mine as an editor: When you pitched me this story, we were probably both excited about the idea – when you turn in a draft, if that excitement and that initial nugget is gone, you need to go back.”

 

ONE LAST THING: If you could tell the students reading this book anything you think is important, what would it be?

“Don’t be afraid to take risks and get out of your comfort zone; you must try new things and expand your skills and horizon! In terms of being a journalist, this means: You aren’t *just* a writer. You aren’t *just* a photographer. You aren’t *just* a VJ. You’re a journalist. The format will change, and you should try all you can: write, take photos and video on your iPhone, create and post interesting tweets, produce an interactive, edit your colleagues’ work. It’s all important.”

“Public archives are your best friend:” How student journalists broke the story on VCU’s history of blackface, “slave sale” fundraisers and more

Over the past few weeks, media practitioners vigorously reported on the “blackface” revelations associated with politicians in Virginia and the student journalists at the Commonwealth Times were no different. In digging deep into the archives of Virginia Commonwealth University, the students there found not only a history of blackface photos, but also racist references to Native Americans and Asians as well.

The article and photo package the students built showed that these racist elements included a “slave sale” and blackface imagery in a yearbook as late as 1989.

VCUBlackface

The front page of the Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University. Courtesy of Allison Dyche and the CT staff.

Allison Dyche, the director of student media at Virginia Commonwealth University, said since the revelations emerged that a blackface photo ran on the yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, the students at the CT pursued the story like many other journalists throughout the country.

“The students have been closely following the story about Gov. Northam since it broke,” she said. “We’re the capital of Virginia, so it’s all happening right down the street from us. The students from The CT covered Northam’s press conference, and published a timeline of events in their paper this past week. They’ve been covering the story nonstop, because they’re great journalists, it was changing on an almost daily basis with new updates, and because it’s happening where they live and go to school.”

News editor Fadel Allassan, a senior majoring in political science, said he saw stories about Northam’s situation as well as a story regarding racist photos in yearbooks at the nearby University of Richmond. It was at that point, he said he wondered what might be hidden deep in the VCU archives.

“We had been seeing old racist yearbook photos pop up all around us and I decided to look into it,” he said. “I went to the physical archives at VCU and looked for a couple of hours. I didn’t find anything until the building closed. On my way out, I started talking with the gentleman working at the archives as he closed up shop, and he told me to keep digging because I would find stuff, as he had seen some racist imagery in the books before.”

Allassan said he offered his reporters an opportunity to help him look into the yearbooks and news writer Hannah Eason jumped at the chance. Eason, a sophomore broadcast major from Farmville, Virginia, said she knew it was a big story and didn’t want to miss out on it.

“Considering the current journalism climate with every news organization pulling yearbooks– after Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook exposure– we didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I looked through the yearbooks all night on Thursday and we published on Friday. We didn’t want someone to break the story before us, considering (the books) were in public archives and anyone could be doing research about it.”

The staff had to make decisions on what would run and how to explain the photos, Allassan said. The goal was to provide a thorough view of what the yearbooks from the past presented and how recently racist images were included in these volumes.

“We had to edit the story, take out the photos we weren’t sure about,” Allassan said. “In some of the photos, it was too unclear as to what was going on, so we left them out. It was hard because some of the photos were from the ’40s and ’50s and hard to see. We then had to figure out the best web presentation and how to treat the story appropriately.”

Once the story hit the web, Dyche said the students received a lot of attention for their efforts, with publications like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Daily Progress and the Winston-Salem Journal   covering their work. She said she hadn’t heard any negative reactions from the administration.

“I’m not aware of any pushback the students received from anyone,” she said. “The library archive is available to anyone, so the students were able to access it easily. I have not received any emails or phone calls either. The story published on Friday afternoon on The CT’s website. The reporter, Hannah Eason, was interviewed by a local TV news outlet that evening.”

Eason said her experience with this story just reinforced the notion that stories are everywhere and that public documents are a valuable commodity for journalists.

“I would tell a student that public archives are your best friend,” she said. “There can be cool stories (or huge, in this case.) As a journalist, I think it’s easy to forget that police records, court papers, legal documents, and even library archives can be goldmines of information which can lead to a great story. Connect your research/findings to something current and important and — BAM! —  you’ve got a story.”

Eason also said she considers this story the most important one she has produced for the CT. In terms of the overall impact in the area, she said the university has consistently worked to provide a progressive atmosphere, in spite of issues like this one.

“I think we’ve all been pretty consistent that blackface is wrong, disgraceful, and outright racist,” Eason said. “That hasn’t changed. VCU has overall been pretty progressive in standing up for minority groups and making a point to make them feel included/welcomed/loved. I think that the hardest part of this has been Northam’s connection to it. I feel that Northam was pretty well-liked by the younger college demographic, especially in Richmond.”

Allassan said he hopes the story will help students at VCU reexamine the history of the area and think about it more deeply.

“As students we’re often not aware of what it means to be a campus located directly where the capital of the Confederacy stood,” he said. “That notion is pretty jarring if you compare it to how progressive and diverse our school is. We may have been ignorant as to what our history is, but I wonder if these recent events will change that.”

In terms of moving forward, Dyche said her students are continuing to cover the situation at the capitol and keeping track of what other elements might emerge regarding these issues on campus.

“I’m thrilled to see my students taking the initiative to go look through archives to find things to help drive a story even closer to home than it already was,” Dyche said. “They were timely with the story, and set aside hours to go search through the archives to see what they could find. I love to see students find new and old ways of finding new story ideas, and to see them put in the necessary effort to make a story happen.”

“The fact that the story was picked up by so many other news outlets just drives home the fact that it was a timely story and one that needed to be shared, and I’m glad to see my students are the ones taking the time and putting in the work to inform their audience,” she added.

 

 

 

Can you park in Boston after a snowstorm? How graphics, journalism and old-school Nintendo can lead to a fun time.

If you are pretty much anywhere above the Mason-Dixon Line this week, you are buried in snow. (If you are in Florida or somewhere else in which 55 degrees is considered an “arctic chill,” kindly keep your thoughts to yourself.) Between school closings, massive plows and the fairly frequent multi-vehicle crashes on the highway because SOME IDIOTS don’t know how to FRICKIN’ DRIVE… (sorry)…,  it become pretty obvious why many of us consider “snow” a true four-letter word.

However, guest blogger, founder of the LGBTQ+ Experiment and graphics guru Pat Garvin found a way to make snow emergencies fun for readers of the Boston Globe. A few years back, Garvin built an old-school Nintendo-style game for the Globe’s website that allows users to “hustle” for a street parking spot during a snow emergency.

 

GarvinSnow

A screen shot of Pat’s fantastic game.

“For years, I had wanted to make some sort of game for BostonGlobe.com,” Garvin said. “I renewed my interest after some Globe colleagues and I checked out an arcade bar that had recently opened. As we played these vintage 1980s games with their unmistakable look and feel, I got the idea that I wanted to make something that recreated that feel with that same quick visual shorthand that comes from those blocky visuals. What it would be, I don’t know.”

Garvin noticed something interesting about Boston: The way in which people deal with parking in a snow emergency.

“I went to work the next day and found inspiration from a pending snowstorm,” he said. “Boston is unlike anywhere else I have lived in that many in the city use household objects to save parking spaces after a snowstorm. They can — and will — use anything: a lawn chair, a traffic cone, old tables, etc. People take the practice with a religious seriousness, and people who take parking spots that had a space saver have returned to their car to find nasty notes and in come cases, their cars vandalized. I decided to make a game allowing users to hunt for parking spots after a snowstorm, knowing they might risk the chance that if they take a spot that has been saved with a space saver, they might get their tires slashed or their window broken.”

Garvin used the names of his colleagues as inspiration for the buildings (a music critic was the namesake of a record store while a movie house was named for a movie critic.) as he used Java Script and jQuery to create the game. The purpose, he said, was to have fun and yet focus on something truly associated with Boston.

“Projects that allow me to mimic a style that I know readers and users will recognize is fun because it gives me both structure to follow and creative license to convey something in a different way,” he said. “The hidden jokes in the background are fun because they will reward the people who pay attention to detail. This is not a traditional project per se, as there are no maps, charts, or information graphics. There are few words here other than the intro and kill screens. But this project is informed by the same news judgment that would inspire a react story or a features story.”

The game borders on the ridiculously impossible, which pretty much sums up how hard it is to get a space on the streets of Boston after a snowstorm. Every time a blizzard whips up some chaos out there, Garvin’s work becomes a welcome distraction for the folks in that area.

“A lot of the stories and interviews I had seen about parking space savers was from the perspective of Bostonians who felt a right to a spot because they had shoveled the spot and felt a sense of ownership,” he said. “The reasoning and justification seemed to begin and end there. But if you have to drive through the streets and need to park, what then? What if you’re a working parent and you need to drop your child off with a relative? Or what if you are a medical professional coming to visit a diabetic patient in his home? By taking the shovelers out of the game and focusing only on the cars and the spots, I hope I got people to think about space savers from a slightly different angle.”

Think you have what it takes to get a spot? Click here to play the Globe’s snowstorm parking game.

As student journalists, how do you report on rape allegations? Pretty much the same way you report on anything else.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article posted on a writing website that had her seriously concerned and had me grateful that I wasn’t in her shoes.

The college-aged woman who wrote the article stated that the head of a university’s student government had raped her. She outlined the history of their relationship, including previous consensual sexual interactions, discussed her own history of sexual encounters and detailed the incident in which she states the man had sex with her without using a condom and without her consent to do so.

In addition, she outlined specific allegations including:

  • She was not the only person with whom this man had non-consensual sex: “It appears that there are many more young women than just myself who have been assaulted or harassed by him,” she wrote.
  • She heard from another woman that this man had infected multiple partners with chlamydia. (She wrote that she underwent testing and her test came back negative.)
  • She heard from that same woman that this man had cheated on her with multiple partners.

My friend advises the student publication at the university where this woman attends (or attended) school and where this man serves as the head of the student government. In other words, this has massive ramifications for the audience her paper serves.

The question then becomes, “How does a student media outlet go about reporting on a rape allegation, made in this fashion, in a decent, fair and ethical way while also keeping a watchful eye on any legal ramifications?” The answer in the headline is a bit glib, but it is more true than not: Basically the same way you report on anything else.

Consider these basic building blocks:

Background research must come first: Nobody wants to look like an idiot when they get into a story where they have no prior knowledge of the topic. While really bad reporters kind of fake their way through a topic, good reporters dig deep to fully understand it well enough to speak intelligently on it. Consider this the first thing you must do for ALL stories, whether you’re trying to explain how the sport of curling works (my first “what the hell do I know about this?” story that required ridiculous amounts of research) or trying to figure out how to ask questions in an interview with a rape survivor.

No matter how scary the story, you are not the first person to cover any given topic. That means there are experts out there who can help you figure things out. In the case of a story on rape, the people at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the folks at the Dart Center can provide you with information on the topic at hand and how to navigate your reporting. In many cases, organizations like these have put together guides, tips and hints, such as the Dart Center’s guide to covering sexual violence and trauma or its step-by-step outline of how to report on campus rapes and sexual assaults.

The best way to not feel like you’re going to do something stupid in your reporting and writing is to make yourself as smart as possible on the topic.

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: This is the first rule of all good journalism. In other words, go do some digging for yourself before you rely on anything you hear second hand. Ask for an interview with the woman who wrote the story so you can hear her story first hand. Ask for an interview with other people directly attached to the story, such as the man accused in this story. Look for things elements of the story that can be verified without traumatizing anyone or making it look like you have already decided who is right and who is wrong.

Cases involving false rape allegations are quite rare, but the premier example of a story like this that went off the rails in a horrifying way was the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The piece told the story of “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student who told the writer she had been gang raped at a fraternity party. “Jackie” also stated that the administration wouldn’t do anything to help her and that it was more concerned in protecting the image of the school than investigating her situation.

The piece ended up being retracted and it led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the magazine. The fraternity reached a $1.65 million settlement with the magazine, while the administrator made out to be the “chief villain” of the story reached a confidential settlement, after a federal jury awarded her a $3 million judgment that the magazine was appealing.

A post-mortem analysis of the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone found that the magazine had failed to do basic reporting to verify the claims asserted in the story and that the piece had basic facts wrong. The report stated the reporter never interviewed the friends “Jackie” had mentioned, instead relying on her recollections of what they told her. It also noted that specific parties and dates of events didn’t fit with actual events or parties, something that would have been easy enough to verify. The report also outline other similar things like this that could have been done to help put the magazine on a stronger footing or better decide how to proceed with the piece.

Simply put, you are a reporter, so report. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe someone, but you have to make sure you can support the content you publish to the best of your ability.

Check your legal liabilities: The Student Press Law Center provides student journalists with free legal advice on a wide array of topics. If you have concerns that a story might libel someone, a call or email to SPLC is worth your time. The “Dynamics” textbooks list off the key elements of libel as:

  • Publication: Did you disseminate the content to someone other than the person claiming to be libeled?
  • Identification: Is the person claiming to be libeled named or otherwise easily known based on how he or she is described in the story?
  • Harm: Can the person claiming to be libeled demonstrate serious damage to his or her reputation? This usually involves being accused of a crime or associated with “unsavory” illnesses.
  • Fault: Can the person claiming to be libeled show that the person publishing the content either did something wrong or failed to do something that should have been done to prevent the libelous content from being published?

In case you’re wondering, a story like this would go four-for-four in terms of these items. That means you’re into the defenses against libel, including truth, privilege and so forth. What also makes this interesting is the issue of what level of fault the man in this story would have to prove. Ordinary citizens only have to prove negligence, which is easier to show, while public figures have to demonstrate actual malice. In that instance, the public figure has to show the material was false and that the publisher had a reckless disregard for the truth. The SPLC is your friend, so give the folks there a call with questions before you publish.

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: If you do your reporting and you aren’t certain you have enough of the story to tell the story, wait until you can gather enough content to feel more secure. If you find that your reporting hasn’t revealed enough to support or refute conclusions crucial to the story itself, don’t feel pressured to publish something because you are worried about “how it would look.” You are responsible for what you publish, so you need to feel confident you can stand behind what you put out there.

It’s always better to be late than wrong.

 

Once you get deeper into the writing, you should pay additional attention to style, word choice and clarity to avoid creating problems for your sources and your readers. In addition, having a legal eagle and an expert in the field give you a quick review for some thoughts and polish points to consider won’t hurt either.

This is obviously a serious and delicate topic, which means tact matters as does basic human decency. That said you can do all of this and adhere to quality reporting standards to make sure you put your best possible story forward.

Faux-tography: What is real any more and how should journalists deal with it?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to borrow a cliche, the “beholder” today might be your camera’s AI set up.

Here are two interesting articles on what one writer deemed “faux-tography,” which is really the degree to which an image no longer represents the color, texture, vibe and feel of its original subject. As far as an artistic eye is concerned, I have absolutely none, so this isn’t even close to my field. If you don’t believe me, just ask my wife how many times we get into arguments when she asks for a “blue” sweater and I end up picking out about nine of them that are in no way what normal people would consider blue.

Still, the idea fascinates me in the broader sense of journalism and reality. The concept of manipulation isn’t new, in that photographers and editors have merged images to create tension, moved pyramids to make photos more compelling and even changed how we view moments of historical importance. In most cases, it was the human being behind the camera or in the darkroom or at the keyboard making those choices actively and deciding to live with the consequences.

What is and is not allowable isn’t always that clear. Professionals who were around during the transition from wet labs to digital media used to argue that you shouldn’t do any more with PhotoShop than you can in the darkroom. Of course, a legendary photo manipulation from photo titan Matthew Brady occurred in the Civil War era, so there is that… Even more, we often note that toning, cropping, lightening or darkening images is completely fine, but then you run into things like this and like this so it’s not always so clear cut.

A good place to start any discussion of photo manipulation is the NPPA’s code of ethics, which you can find here. Another good thing to ponder is the degree to which you are actively making choices in what you shoot, frame, crop and tone. Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it matters a great deal, but it also helps to know that the HAL-9000 isn’t putting its interest ahead of yours.

Dumb, stupid or idiotic? Questioning the questions we ask in interviews

The line I use when it comes to interviewing is, “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” However, it dawned on me this week in reading through some students’ analyses of press conferences that some distinctions should exist regarding the specific level of “duh” related to questions journalists ask.

Dumb questions: Journalists fear looking like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I know that I sweated out more than a few interviews with the only thought running through my head being, “Please, don’t think I’m dumb.” Dumb questions, as outlined in Jason Feifer’s article here, aren’t questions that should embarrass you, provided you have prepared well for an interview.

In this sense of the word, these are basic questions that the source has easy answers for on topics that are common in his or her field. In some cases, people avoid asking a source to clarify what an abbreviation means or how a process works for fear of looking dumb (and thus avoiding asking a “dumb question.”).

Feifer is right that you should feel free to ask for clarification and to ask the person to explain things like he or she would to a 5-year-old. I always try to research a topic before I go there, but there are things that will come up that I don’t understand. If the source balks at explaining this or tries to treat you like a dummy, simply explain, “You are the expert at this. This is why I’m asking you these questions. I don’t know this stuff as well as you do and I want to make sure I get it right so we both don’t look dumb.”

Stupid questions: These are the questions that you want to avoid because they are flat-out goofy, incorrectly phrased, rely on misinformation or otherwise make the sources question the size of your brain pan. Here’s a list of the stupidest questions asked in court and it covers a lot of those areas of concern. Perhaps the best one is this:

Q: What happened then?
A: He told me, he says, ‘I have to kill you because you can identify me.’
Q: Did he kill you?

The legendary question of this variety is the one that so many people swear didn’t happen, even as others swear it did. In the lead up to Super Bowl XXII, the press focused on Washington’s Doug Williams, who was poised to be the first African American to start at quarterback in the NFL title game. At one point a reporter was said to have asked Williams, “So, how long have you been a black quarterback?” Despite frequent attempts to debunk this myth, the story lives on as an example of a question that was really, really stupid.

In most cases, you can avoid stupid questions by doing a few things:

  • Research your topic well. The more you know about something, the less likely you will be to ask something that sounds really stupid.
  • Read your questions aloud to someone else before you ask them of your source. A lot of times, questions sound good in your head but somewhere between your brain and your mouth, a translation issue occurs. This is why it’s always a good idea to ask them aloud. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second person go over them with you to make sure you’re asking what you think you’re asking.
  • If you’re not sure how something will sound, try to come up with a better way to ask it. If you can’t get at it that way, at least explain in advance to the source that you’re struggling to come up with a way to ask for some specific information. At least that way it won’t come out of left field.

 

Idiotic questions: These are the ones you should never ask at any point for any reason. They lack any semblance of decency and they often come across as really asinine. The question that got me rolling on this post was one a sports journalism student brought up that I had missed. A reporter asked Russell Westbrook if fellow basketball player James Harden was worth a “max contract.” In NBA speak, that means “Is he worthy of being one of the highest-paid players in the game?”

It isn’t easy talking about how much money you make, let alone commenting on what you think someone else should make. It’s an idiotic question and Westbrook dealt with it as such.

In other cases, it’s simply a rude question that no one should be expected to answer. Consider this one asked of actress Scarlet Johansson in an interview about her role in “The Avengers” films:

Because nothing says, “serious journalist” like asking an actress if she was “going commando.”

A similarly idiotic question came out when another male journalist decided to ask Anne Hathaway about her body:

(This blog could fill up the entire internet with nothing but idiotic questions male journalists asked of female athletes, actors and celebrities, so we will move on.)

It’s not always just what the question is but how it’s asked that can make it idiotic. Prior to the 1981 Super Bowl, a reporter was asking quarterback Jim Plunkett about his family’s unfortunate health history, including his father’s progressive loss of vision. However, he asked it this way: “Lemme get this straight, Jim. Is it blind mother, deaf father or the other way around?” Think about how you would react if that question were asked of you in that fashion.

When it comes to asking questions, you always want to put your best foot forward. At the very least, you don’t want to step barefoot into a steaming pile of cow dung. Do your research, look at your material, review your questions and ask them out loud before you get to your source. Then, you’ll likely be in better shape to conduct an interview that doesn’t embarrass you or your source or both.

What Super Bowl? The New Orleans Times-Picayune and knowing your audience

While the rest of the football universe spent Monday morning either celebrating New England’s sixth Super Bowl win or complaining about it, the folks in New Orleans woke up to a newspaper front that captured the city’s mood perfectly:

tpblank

If you aren’t a football fan, or aren’t from the NoLa area, you probably didn’t hear about the NFC championship game that sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl and sent the New Orleans Saints home for the year. During the Saints final drive in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 20-20, the referees blew a pass-interference call that would have essentially won the gain for New Orleans. However, instead of getting a first down and a chance to run out the clock before a game-winning field goal, the Saints had a 4th-and-10 situation, so they kicked a field goal.

The Rams tied the game in regulation and went on to win 26-23 in overtime.

Still steaming two weeks later, the staff of the paper decided not to cover The Big Game and instead protest its existence with this cover. How good of an idea this was seemed to be directly related to your connection to the area.

A journalism education Facebook group I’m on posted this image and asked if this was a colossal waste of space, and the majority of folks initially thought it was:

This is almost an ethics issue. My reaction to this front is that it cheapens the front page. Think of all of the important content that could have been there.
NOLA has stewed over this for two weeks.

<SNIP>

Blowing up the front may have jumped the shark.

<SNIP>

Yeah, this was petty and shouldn’t have been done. Write an editorial about it. Sports really isn’t that important, and I’m a sports fan.

<SNIP>

What a waste of space and opportunity! I’m sorry if you are a football fan–I’m not–but N.O. needs to get over it! … there is so much more important news than the silly Super Bowl, blown call or not. Jeepers.

My two cents on the matter was that I probably wouldn’t have done this because I’m usually a wuss when it comes to going way out on a limb, but that I did like it for two reasons:

  1. Audience centricity: These folks know their readership, particularly in the print-distribution area, pretty well, so if they have the vibe that this is what people are thinking and feeling, they probably hit a home run with their audience. Meeting your audience where they are and touching on what they think is important tends to work well, and a local paper, which the TP is, should know what matters most to the readers.
  2. Fail big: Even if this was a disaster-bacle and the readers ended up hating it, at least the paper failed big. It’s easy to try to hedge your bets against really screwing up by doing something minor, but it takes guts to go for it, which the paper did here.

To see if I was right about this, I put out a call to my friends and colleagues in the area and it turns out, the people down there loved this thing:

This is a great case of a newsroom knowing its audience. The city partied yesterday to celebrate the season and collectively mourn what coulda shoulda been. The Times-Pic covered it all on its digital platforms yesterday, so I think the front page was a great way to show the city’s sentiment, while still having coverage inside the paper. And people did not watch the big game. The numbers prove it: locally, the game got a 26.2 rating, compared to 55 last year.

<SNIP>

It’s real, and it’s going over brilliantly.

<SNIP>

Local reaction to Super Bowl and the blown call ranges from genuine outrage to dipshittery.

This reaction from the folks in the area reinforces the idea of audience centricity and the importance of knowing your audience. When it came down to it, the paper took a huge risk, but it ended up becoming the talk of the town and beyond. National media covered the paper’s front page live on air and on the web. The Washington Post featured all of the outrage, including the parade the fans had to grouse about the Big Game’s lack of value to them.

Even more, the paper clearly made an impact where it mattered most: Sales.

“The paper sold out at shops & paper machines,” a good friend told me.

When was the last time the paper could say that?

3 teachable moments for media students from the Gov. Ralph Northam “blackface” controversy

In case you missed it, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent the weekend under pressure to resign after his association with a racist photo during medical school came to light. Northam, a Democrat, had a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page with a person wearing a KKK hood and robe and another other in blackface:

NorthamYearbook.jpg

Follow-up stories also found that while at VMI, Northam had the nickname “Coonman,” which has racist overtones, to say the least. Northam has stated he will not resign, even as pretty much everyone else on the planet is telling him he has no choice.

In terms of “teachable moments,” we could easily list about 1,023,324 of them starting with “don’t be a racist idiot.” However, since this is a journalism-based blog, let’s stick to three items related to media concerns:

Student media leaves a long trail: When Brett Kavanaugh was up for his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, we talked about this issue at length, but it bears repeating here: Student media can be eternal. In that earlier post, we cited at least a half-dozen cases in which politicians, jurists and others had something they wrote as an under-informed undergrad come back to haunt them. What makes this case interesting is that this was from Northam’s days in medical school, which pushes his age much further into adulthood when his page hit the press.

Sure, it might seem cute to put something in press that you find to be “funny” at the time, like a drinking quote, a puffery-based quote about your virility or something else that would make you wince later, but consequences do emerge. Consider this “hysterical” moment from a college paper and its senior sendoff columns:

chronicle_cunt

I never was a huge fan of drop caps, but this made them worse…

I suppose, if you were inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt, you could argue that this was a random lottery of accidental ordering, but five other senior sendoff columns on the subsequent page had drop caps that spelled out “PENIS.” I can’t recall what happened to the students in this case, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. It also isn’t great that this happened in the internet age, so I’m sure I’m not the only person with this photo.

As both media practitioners and people who plan to live a fruitful life past the age of 22, take a good, hard look at what you publish. The association you have with those choices doesn’t seem like it ever really goes away.

 

Before you open your mouth, figure out what you should say: Public relations and crisis communication experts get an unfair bad rap in many cases. The whole “Covington Catholic MAGA kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation had a contingency of people complaining that at least one of the kids involved hired RunSwitch PR, a firm linked to heavy hitters in the Republican Party, including Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney. The argument was that the kids knew they were wrong, racist and evil, so the PR firm came in to soften their image and “spin” this whole thing for them.

I’m not in any position to comment on that particular case, because I honestly don’t know what happened there in regard to the firm or the kids. I can tell you that people often argue that hiring a PR firm makes you look slimy, in the way that demanding a lawyer when you get accused of a crime makes you look guilty. I’ll disagree on that point because this is clearly a case where some quality public relations practitioners and crisis communication experts could have made a big difference in a positive and clarifying way.

PR experts will tell you that before you make a public statement, you need to know what you want to say. In addition, you need to have a handle on ALL the facts of the case before you take a stand. This is akin to the news rule that you need to report before you publish. Regardless of what happens next, that approach makes sense, and a good PR firm would have told Northam this. It also would have kept him away from the press until he knew what the heck was happening with this situation and what he wanted to say.

Sure, you can argue that we might not know the truth about the situation if Northam had time to “shape his message,” but how much do we actually know now? At first it was, “I’m very sorry I did this” and then it was, “I’m not saying which of these racist figures was me,” and then it was “I don’t think that was me in the photo,” and now it’s “I never put that photo on my page.” We’re about 10 seconds away from him doing a press conference run by Shaggy.

If Northam had taken a couple hours, met with a good group of PR practitioners, he could have formed the best possible message for himself going forward. Even if that message ended up being, “I was a racist chucklehead and I’m sorry,” at least it would have been a single message from a single voice that allowed him and the rest of Virginia to move forward.

Trust, but verify: The original story about the yearbook page broke on a website called Big League Politics, a right-wing website with ties to Breitbart News and other similarly inclined publications: 

Virginia Democrat governor Ralph Northam posed for a blackface photograph.

Big League Politics has obtained photos from Northam’s time at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which he graduated in 1984.

Northam and a friend were photographed together — one in blackface, one in Klan robes.

Two things come to mind upon seeing this:

  1. The publication clearly has a conservative viewpoint, so there’s always a risk that simply taking the negative information it published about a Democrat as gospel and running with it could lead to the spread of misinformation.
  2. The publication doesn’t cite a source to explain HOW it verified that Northam was in that photo, a charge that Northam now denies (while copping to something he somehow thinks is better, namely using shoe polish to “darken” himself as part of a Michael Jackson contest).

This is a case where the journalistic rule of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out” applies. In other words, don’t ignore the story, but do find out for yourself if it’s true before you publish anything. CBS noted its efforts in this regard:

A reporter from CBS News affiliate News 3, Brendan Ponton, went to the Eastern Virginia Medical School library in Norfolk Friday afternoon and found the page on which the photo appears.

The Washington Post made a similar notation in its story:

The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.

You will also notice the nuances in the description these outlets use in regard to the photo. While BLP says Northam is in the photo, the others make it clearer that it appeared on his page, but Northam denies it’s him and no one can prove that it is at this point.

When it comes to something like this, it’s always important to make sure you have your facts straight and that you can demonstrate how you verified the information.