Professor X, not Malcolm X: Screwing up the coverage of Stan Lee’s death

As per usual, when someone screws up something in media, the Bat Signal comes my way:


The man in the photo and the actual dead celebrity is Stan Lee, the comic book legend who helped create and develop myriad characters in the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, X-Men and Spiderman.

Spike_Lee_at_the_2009_Tribeca_Film_FestivalSpike Lee, on the other hand, is a legendary African-American actor, director and producer, known for films like “Do The Right Thing,”  “Malcolm X,” “He Got Game” and “Summer of Sam.”

Clearly this guy isn’t the same as the guy in the newspaper above. Although this was a global embarrassment for the Gisborne Herald of New Zealand, Spike Lee took to Twitter to both reassure fans he’s alive and take the “oops” in stride.

(Spike Lee in 2009. CC BY 3.0 David Shankbone)


Looking dumb is bad, but here are a couple things to learn from this:


Be paranoid, especially when death is involved: Whenever someone dies and you have to write something about that person, you want to make everything involved with that story as clean as a cat’s mouth. Check dates, names, ages and everything else against every scrap of paper and legitimate website you can find. Assume that EVERYTHING you just wrote or will edit is wrong and then set out to prove yourself to be right. This will help you avoid looking dumb.


Carefully edit small bits of copy: Copy desk legend and frequent contributor to the “Dynamics” series Fred Vultee had a great motto when it came to editing: You can drown just as easily in 2 inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean.

His point was that stupid mistakes don’t appear just in long stories or major scoops. They tend to happen in tiny bits of copy, such as news briefs, captions, refer text and other less-glamorous places. My best guess is that someone just hammered the sky box refer on Stan Lee’s death together on deadline without thinking much of it and nobody really gave it a serious edit. That’s how we end up with a dead Spike Lee on the front page.


Learn from your screw ups: I always tell students that I learned more by screwing up than I ever did by doing something right. When I made fact errors, I learned to be more diligent in checking the facts. When I got a source’s quote wrong, I started recording everything. When I wrote one thing when I meant to write another, I started separating my “writing mode” from my “editing mode.”

The narrow escapes from “Stupidville” were also instructive, but when I fell flat on my face and my only response upon seeing the error was, “Oh… shit….,” I learned a lot.

“Don’t Bring Shame On The Family.” 4 helpful thoughts related to the Mike Ward fabrication debacle

Every time I see a situation like the one involving former Houston Chronicle journalist Mike Ward, who was found to have fabricated sources for his stories, I always think, “What the hell is wrong with this guy (or gal)?” Thanks to my overly Catholic upbringing and the guilt that comes with it, my next immediate thought is, “Hey, there but by the grace of God, go any of us.”

However, at various points in life, family and friends have hit me with a few helpful thoughts that stuck with me that kept me out of a lot of trouble. In hopes that these things might help you in your journalism career (or life in general), here are four of those bits and bites that might be useful:


If you’re going to steal something, steal the whole store

My dad can always make sense of things in a way that usually kept me from doing a lot of stupid things. He once told me a simple adage that helped me understand cost/benefit analysis in a truly elementary way.

“If you’re going to steal something,” he said. “Don’t steal a candy bar. Steal the whole store. I mean when they come back in the morning to open up, there should be nothing left but wires sticking out of the ground.”

His point was that once you steal something (or do something else despicable), you were marked for life, so it better be worth it when you throw away everything for it. I have no idea what Mike Ward was best known for before this, but it’s pretty clear he won’t be known for much else other than this going forward.

It’s hard to find a lot of background on Mike Ward, but he’s not like some of the other “fabulists” like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass who was a 20-something who got in over their heads. He spent more than 40 years in the field of journalism and nearly 30 years doing it in the state of Texas. He was working for one of the best newspapers in the state and a well-respected publication overall.

Was it worth throwing away his whole career and reputation to pep up the stories with random quotes that weren’t all that great to begin with? I doubt he thought about it like that, but I know I always let flights of paranoia take me to the worst possible scenario before I even think about “candy-bar-level theft” let alone taking out an entire store.


Stupid is bad, lazy is worse

I think this one came from my mother, but I’m not 100 percent sure. In any case, the underlying premise of not being lazy usually was Mom’s stock-and-trade when it came to things I was doing.

I know my general laziness was like a stone in a shoe for my mother. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be doing my homework and yell to Mom, who was in another room, “How do you spell (whatever I didn’t want to bother to look up)?” Her answer was always the same, “Look it up! You have a dictionary in there.” In short, don’t be lazy.

It could be unfair to deem Ward as lazy, but the way in which he seemed to make up random people would indicate at least some corner-cutting behavior.

It’s easy to find sources you use all the time for stories and to get used to those folks being ready to comment. The investigation into his various stories found that most of his “meat and potatoes” official sources were real people with legitimate quotes. Those folks could be interviewed with a quick phone call or a simple email.

The “real people” who hated guns or gun control, who planned to vote for a specific party, who didn’t like that the McRib wasn’t available all year and so forth require some “shoe-leather reporting.” Reporters have to go to local diners, knock on doors with “Don’t Tread On Me” flags flying outside, ask people they know for help finding people they don’t and generally chase around to get that one pancake-eating source who can give you the “salt-of-the-earth person” quote.

That part of the job is a major pain in the keester and it can be awkward as hell. Truth be told, I used to prefer asking people for comments after a shooting or a fire or something else horrible than walking up to a guy eating a funnel cake at the county fair to find out how much fun he was having at the event. Still, it’s part of the job, so I did it, despite the fact people treated me like I was from the KGB when I asked for their names.

Why Ward thought he could pull this off was a mystery, but it would seem to either be a dumb decision or general laziness. Neither of those approaches is good, so do your best to avoid both of them as a journalist.


They never did it just once

This one came from a former journalist and great friend of mine who covered the Chicagoland Catholic church molestation scandals of the early 2000s. I used to ask her how she knew for sure that the priests in her stories were serial pedophiles. The information she gathered came from the accusers, usually years or decades later, and was almost impossible to back up with documents or other “official source” content that I had gotten used to using in my own work.

Her answer was simple: She did a ton of digging, verified in every way she could and then she published the content and waited. In almost every case, if she published one or two accusations, she immediately heard from at least three or four other people who told her the same things had happened to them. It was like this scene at the end of “Spotlight.”

“They never did it just once,” Allison told me. “And they always did it the same way.”

She found that if a priest had trapped a child in the 1970s by promising baseball tickets and then luring the young man into his room, he did the same thing in the 1980s and 1990s. It was never a one-off and it was always the same.

Even though the magnitude is in no way the same, I think about this whenever a student mentions that they only cheated on an exam once or only lied about a source once or only did anything else sketchy once. It’s never just once. It’s just that they finally got caught.

When Blair was caught in New York, his student newspaper at the University of Maryland went back and found other fabrications and noted people were alerted to these problems at the time.Ward has a 40-year career in this field and he just got caught now in Houston. I would be willing to bet that this didn’t just happen once and it didn’t just occur to him now to do it. I have no idea how far back people want to go, but it wasn’t “just this once.”

If the thought ever occurs to you to cut the corner “just this once” and make up a source or hide a detail to spare a friend or fake your way through a story, don’t do it. It’s never just once.

It’s only hard the first time. After that, it becomes standard practice without a second thought.


Don’t bring shame on the family

I hear this in my head on a daily basis, courtesy of my father.

As I was preparing to go off to college, my mother was a veritable trove of advice, thoughts and wisdom that made “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” seem underwhelming by comparison. She told me of all things I would see and the experiences I would have and everything else good that college away from home would bring.

Dad was more practical and blunt: “Go have fun, but don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

Tarnishing the family name was unacceptable to Dad, and to be fair, it kept me out of a lot of stupid situations. To this day, whenever I imagine doing something that might not be all that bright, I can see the headline in my mind: “UWO professor arrested on suspicion of (fill in the stupidity here).” I imagine the folks “back home” seeing my dad in the grocery store or running into him at the local farmer’s market and saying, “Hey… I read about your kid…” I STILL do this and I’m middle-aged, to put it kindly.

However, I also think about mistakes that tarnish that other “family” I referred to in the post about how journalists aren’t the enemy. In his 2016 piece on Janet Cooke, Mike Sager talks about how her fabrications led to the general mistrust of various groups of people. Some of his sources said that Cooke led others to distrust African-Americans in the newsroom. Others said it tarnished all journalism, leaving the public to regard all content with a wary eye.

I wonder what Cooke’s professors at the University of Toledo felt when they saw her quick rise and even quicker fall. I remember a few years back when a journalist in Alaska, Charlo Greene, quit her job during a live broadcast while outing herself as the owner of a marijuana-related enterprise.

A number of professors were chatting about this online when a professor I knew messaged me to say she had been a student of his. In discussing Greene’s collegiate experiences and the current situation, I could almost feel his grimace over the internet. If it were my student, I know I would have been rubbing my head and searching for aspirin while muttering, “Oh, good grief…”

Maybe it’s an old-fashioned notion that has people like me avoiding disaster by asking, “Good LORD! What would the NEIGHBORS think?” but I really believe it goes deeper than that. Each of us owes a debt of some kind to the people who helped us get here. The people who support us. Who take part in our lives. Those folks are family in the best possible sense and to create shame through poor judgment is to spread that shame upon them as well.

I might not always be thinking of myself when I do something good or bad, but you better believe I’m doing my best to not bring shame on those people.

Real Fake News: Houston Chronicle retracts eight stories after investigation into one of its reporters

It’s bad enough for journalists these days, as people who don’t like what we write simply announce that our work is “fake news.” The last thing anyone in this field needs is something to give these people ammunition.

Enter Mike Ward of the Houston Chronicle:

In September, I informed our readers of the troubling allegation that a veteran political reporter, Mike Ward, had fabricated individuals for a story published earlier this summer. I promised a thorough investigation of Ward’s work and that I would share the results with our readers. Today’s story by David Wood, whom we hired as a freelance investigative reporter, details our findings.

As a result of this investigation, the Houston Chronicle is retracting eight stories written by Ward. In each case, the story’s premise was based on sourcing we cannot confirm. We are correcting an additional 64 stories, each of which had at least one unconfirmed source but whose premise did not rest on an unconfirmed source.

Wood’s investigation revealed a disturbing pattern of “no-show” sourcing for Ward’s “person on the street” quotes.

The review included 744 stories, from early August 2018 back to January 2014, when he was hired after a long career at the Austin American-Statesman. A team of three pulled out the names of 275 individuals who were presented as ordinary Texans and made every effort to find them.

Of the 275 people quoted, 122, or 44 percent, could not be found. Those 122 people appeared in 72 stories.

When compared to a random analysis of another reporter’s use of “person on the street” quotes, the researchers found the sources easily more than 80 percent of the time.

According to Wood’s investigation, Ward refused to comment on the situation and would not respond to emails or phone calls on the matter. His Twitter account is set to private now, thus limiting access to his tweets. It does appear he stopped tweeting about two months ago, when this process was really rolling. This is the last original tweet of his I could find:


Once Wood presented his work to the paper, Chronicle officials believed Ward had made up his sources in multiple cases. When confronted with these findings, Ward resigned. 

Ward isn’t the first person to do this, nor will he be the last. The journalism landscape is littered with names like Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass, where high-profile journalists cut corners and made up sources before they were eventually caught. What makes this situation different is how the risk/reward weightings are completely out of whack.

Blair fabricated content that purported to break ground on the D.C. sniper case and stole content from other journalists or invented information involving high-profile military pieces. Cooke’s fabrication, an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, earned her the Pulitzer Prize, which she forfeited upon discovery of her malfeasance. Kelley was also involved in a Pulitzer-Prize hunt as he wove fictions regarding his face-to-face meeting with a suicide bomber and being part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Glass took journalistic fictions to new heights as he created everything from a 15-year-old hacker to a cult of people who worshiped former President George H.W. Bush.

The sources that Ward created were the kinds of people who were essentially inconsequential individuals or the types of people who might have been located with additional reporting efforts. His “regular Texans” talked about people who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey but still planned to vote for Republicans and citizens talking about the right to carry firearms. The quotes themselves were solid, but not the kind that would add so much to the story as to require their presence.

It’s unclear what would lead a person of Ward’s stature into a situation like this, however, the results are that he no longer has a job in journalism and the rest of us have the public looking at us with suspicious eyes.


GAME TIME! AP Style Quiz, High School Edition

I spent Thursday in Stoughton, Wisconsin, as part of an “in-class field trip” for the student media folks at the school. A friend and I taught the students there how to do everything for student newspapers from editing and writing to design and graphic creation.

In honor of those fun high school days,  here’s an AP style quiz based on the inner-workings of high school.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to take the quiz.

Dear Journalism Students, You Are NOT The Enemy

Dear Journalism Students,

You are not the enemy.

Not of your school’s student government.

Not of the college administration.

And certainly not of the American people.

I felt the need to tell you this after yet another very public incident in which a politician castigated a member of the press corps and then eliminated his access to his beat. His crime? Having the temerity to ask questions that many people in his audience have, but that a powerful individual did not want to answer.

Jim Acosta is not a perfect human being or a perfect journalist. He’s not Joan of Arc and he’s not Bob Woodward. However, he’s also not a “rude, terrible person,” nor was he out of bounds in his desire to press the most powerful man in the world on issues that matter to his viewers. I say that without a politically motivated bone in my body. Had it been a Democrat, a Tea Party member, a Dixie-crat, a Whig or a Know-Nothing party member, I would feel exactly the same.

And so should you.

You are not vultures. You are not scumbags. You are certainly not “fake news.” You are not any of the other things I and others have been called simply because we had to tell stories people didn’t like.

You have chosen a profession that gives you an insight into the world that few get and even fewer fully appreciate.

You will be there to create the rough draft of history. You will write stories and take photos that capture slivers of time. You will help people celebrate the greatest events of their lives. You will showcase people in some of their darkest moments as well.

You will produce content that draws anger and rebuke from people who don’t like the fact they got caught doing something stupid. You will also produce content that grandmothers pin to the front door of their refrigerator. You will show up every day and start from zero and when you go home, you will have built another full accounting of the day’s most important events.

You are Sisyphus with a press pass.

You are part of a family now, one that stands with you when times are tough. A family that when it doesn’t know what else to do to help you, will send you pizza from all over the country.  A family that feels the pain of what you go through and will tell you, “I’ve been down here before. I know the way out.”

You will take your share of beatings. You will screw up and people will be so happy to jump on those rare errors and use them to discount and dismiss everything you have ever done. You will question yourself for days, weeks, months after those mistakes. You will wonder if what you’re doing matters.

And then, you will get back up. You will persist. Because that’s what we have trained you to do.

I can’t speak for all of your professors, student media advisers or journalistic peers, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say, hang in there. You picked the right job and people out there need you. It feels tough when news organizations are “shedding” jobs to help increase hedge-fund profitability. It’s hard to go home and explain to your parents why you would ever want to do this. It’s not easy to bite your tongue at Thanksgiving Dinner when your Uncle Earl, who raises pugs for profit, starts talking about “the fucking media” and how you and your ilk are responsible for everything from higher parking rates to the Hindenburg disaster.

Hang in there. It will get better. It will get worse. Then, it will get better again. It is what it is.

You will grow. You will improve. You will write, report, photograph, draw, design and build amazing things. You will feel a sense of pride that you made a difference, no matter what the cost. You will develop resiliency and strength.

You can do all this, even though for some of you writing a lead right now feels like trying to throw a strawberry through a brick wall. You will feel this, even as everyone from your roommate to the president of the United States feels compelled to beat the crap out of you. You will matter in the long reach of history, whether it’s on a campus, local, state, national or international level.

You will be many great and mighty things.

But you are not now, nor have you ever been, the enemy of the American people.


The Doctor of Paper

“I started to feel the emotional weight of what I was documenting.” Student journalists at the Pitt News reflect on the Tree of Life shooting (Part III)


(Mourners take part in a vigil to honor the people killed in the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last week. Pitt News staffer Knox Coulter photographed the event as part of the publication’s coverage of the shooting. Photo courtesy of Knox Coulter.)

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last week left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh shattered. National media descended upon the Pennsylvania city to tell the story of this destructive act, but some of the best coverage came from student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and their student news operation, the Pitt News.

Several staff members were nice enough to share their thoughts, emotions and advice for the blog, so this week was dedicated to their reflections on their work and the incident.


Today’s post centers on Pitt News photographer Knox Coulter, a sophomore with a passion for photography who grew up in nearby Oakmont, Pennsylvania,. Coulter  explains how he came to cover the vigil at the synagogue and what it meant to him as a photographer and a member of the community.



Part I can be found here. Part II can be found here. If you have questions or comments, click here.

Knox Coulter fell in love with photography when he was in high school, finding his ability to pair his mind’s eye with the camera’s lens.

“I got my first DSLR as a high school graduation gift, which I asked for because I thought I had a good eye for framing photographs,” he said in an email interview this week. “Ever since then, I started bringing it around with me everywhere to take pictures of things; whether it was a random candid of friends, or a unique angle of something, I wanted to become comfortable making the camera capture moments from the unique perspectives that I saw.”

His comfort behind the camera drew him to the Pitt News, where he said he found the perfect opportunity to hone his craft and help his fellow students learn what was going on around them. When the story broke about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the editors tapped Coulter to help cover the vigil for the victims.

“I was equally as nervous as I was humbled to be asked to cover such an emotional event in the last minute,” he said. “I was especially stimulated to cover the event because I had driven past Tree of Life countless times, and still couldn’t cope with the tragedy of the loss myself. When I joined the sea of people flowing to the Soldiers and Sailors building, I started to feel the emotional weight of what I was documenting.”

Coulter said he has photographed emotional scenes before, such as the vigil for Mac Miller and that he felt strong connections in both cases between the work and the scene. The importance of this situation weighed on him, he said, as he began to take photos.

“Upon my arrival, I felt a nervous pressure of having to perform, and ‘get the shot,’ that made me transcend my emotional connection with the event that I was settling in to document,” Coulter said. “At this point, I am dialing in my exposures for different lighting scenarios in the location, and really paying attention to what I think looks the most visually appealing. Once I start feeling comfortable with my exposures in the environment, I start to settle in to it, and truly just see it as I do through the lens, trying to capture the most beautiful, compelling moment that I can.”

Although some journalists say they feel the camera provides a buffer between them and the subjects they photograph, Coulter said he feels the opposite is true, as the camera helps him connect to the people on the other end of his lens.

“When I take a photo that is pleasing to my eye in a situation like this, I feel an immense emotional connection with the moment in which I took the photograph,” he said. “While I was at the Tree of Life vigil for instance, when I first took the photo that eventually made the cover, I had the thought of making someone reading the paper feel something about the situation I was in at the present moment, which made me realize for the first time for the day how much emotional weight the vigil really held. It is very difficult for me to see situations like these that I am documenting for what they are until I have captured some of that immense emotion through the lens. ”

In terms of advice for students and student journalists, Coulter said the goal of doing good work, regardless of the circumstances, helps him feel connected to the material but also helps keep him focused.

“The best advice I have to give about covering the ‘big story’ is just to relax, get there early for comfort, and treat it just like any other shoot,” Coulter said. “It is of the utmost importance to keep yourself relaxed, because there is no way that you can visually pay attention to the situation you’re in to the greatest extent, and thus give yourself the best chance of getting a great photo, if you’re frantically hustling between people and jumping from spot to spot.

“I was quite nervous when I found out that I was to cover this vigil, especially because it was raining and I do not have much experience with lugging gear around in the rain,” he added. “Once I got there about 15 minutes early though, I had a lot of time to settle in and become comfortable with the environment. Once I settled in and my exposures were right though, I could then start capturing and start creating art comfortably.”


“It was so overwhelming.” Student journalists at the Pitt News reflect the Tree of Life shooting (Part II)

Community Reaction_AB

(Participants gather at a vigil in Pittsburgh for the Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims the Saturday of the attack. Pitt News Visual Editor Anna Bongardino photographed this event and several others that happened after the shooting. Photo courtesy of Anna Bongardino.)

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last week left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh shattered. National media descended upon the Pennsylvania city to tell the story of this destructive act, but some of the best coverage came from student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and their student news operation, the Pitt News.

Several staff members were nice enough to share their thoughts, emotions and advice for the blog, so starting today, we will hear from these students who continue to cover this situation.

AnnaMugToday’s post centers on Pitt News Visual Editor Anna Bongardino (left), a senior political science major, who helped the paper cover the events in the wake of the attack, including President Trump’s visit. She outlines the impact the vigil and the national attention had on her and why this kind of coverage matters so much to the paper’s readers.


Part I can be found here. If you have questions or comments, click here.

UPDATE: Anna reached out after the post ran and wanted to add something important to her thoughts.

One important note I have is to say that my central takeaway from covering the events was not that they were overwhelming. The shooting itself was overwhelming — the coverage of it wasn’t. Covering the vigils and protests in the aftermath of a hate crime was uncharted territory for all of us. There was a learning curve involved in producing such a large amount of sensitive content on such short deadlines for the editorial board, the writers and the photographers. But this is my main message: when student journalists have the privilege to report national stories, they should embrace it and take the assignments that are challenging and unfamiliar to them. It’s not easy to report on stories of violence in your own community especially alongside national journalists. There is a balance you need to strike within yourself as a journalist and as a community member who has been affected by those events, but it’s rewarding to know you’re contributing to something so meaningful.

That’s what I would like people to take away from my experience.

The remainder of the original post is below with some minor edits. — VFF


Anna Bongardino was headed to the Pitt News office to give one of her staffers a camera when she found out about the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue.  Having worked in the area for much of her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Bongardino said she knew the area well.

“The synagogue is a 10-minute drive from campus,” she said. “It was a neighborhood I was just in that night before.”

With her editor in chief, Christian Snyder, heading to the scene of the shooting, Bongardino said she didn’t know exactly what had happened but it became readily apparent that the situation was going to be a serious news story.

“I originally thought it was a drive-by shooting or something,” Bongardino said. “I didn’t realize it was a really involved thing right away. It was just all of a sudden Christian is in the office and he was running out to the scene. Now, I was like, ‘Something is going on and it’s not good.'”

As information about the attack filtered in, Bongardino said she decided to cover the events that sprung up over the next several days, including a vigil held the night of the shooting and President Donald Trump’s arrival later the next week.

“I decided that if there were protests or anything else, I would go,” she said. “I was trying to do homework but I couldn’t focus. (The shooting) was so overwhelming. It’s not the city I thought Pittsburgh to be.”

Although she had photographed many events throughout her time in college, Bongardino said the vigil felt different to her in terms of what she felt comfortable in photographing.

“What was difficult was that it was a very fresh thing and people were very emotional,” Bongardino said. “I felt like my camera, instead of being a buffer, it made me feel like I stood out more and that I was being voyeuristic so I was trying to be respectful of these people who were experiencing very real pain.”

“In terms of having an internal discussion with myself (about which photos to use)… I think it was more just during the event,” she added. “‘Is this too emotional to publish?’ ‘Should I take this photo?’ I think that would be a great photo, but it was something I didn’t want to do. People would look at me and I would feel uncomfortable. People have looked at me before, but it felt kind of different this time. The look then said, ‘Why do you really need to take my photo?’ Now it was, ‘Do you really need to take a photo now?’ I feel like I can’t and I feel like I shouldn’t intrude so I think that’s something that as I get more comfortable with… events like this, I think I’ll be able to find a balance.”

Bongardino said it also felt different because of the massive amount of national attention this event received, drawing people to her city.

“It’s a small big city,” she said. “I’m familiar with the professional photographers around here, so I knew all these people and everywhere I went… Then, I’m speaking with someone next to me and it’s a senior White House correspondent. It was way different than dealing with the local media.”

“It’s sombering to realize all that is because of a hate crime,” she added. “That’s a really difficult thing to contend with.”

In terms of the overall experience, Bongardino said she was glad she took part in the media coverage.

“I definitely think for myself, it was kind of healing to cover the vigil and it felt really productive,” she said. “It felt like I was contributing. If you have any doubts going to an emotionally charged or difficult events, go. When you go, do the best you can and allow yourself to feel things. Don’t try to separate your humanity from journalism.

“Still, try to be journalistic and keep your journalistic integrity and don’t exhibit bias but don’t forget you’re a human too. If I could go back and do that vigil again, I would have taken more photos. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and… see what you can do to help the people. Do what’s scary to you. It’s a really important job to let people know what’s going on.”

“You’re dealing with people’s lives, legacies and deaths.” Student journalists at the Pitt News reflect on their coverage of the Tree of Life shooting (Part I)


Armed authorities work the scene at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Christian Snyder, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor in chief of the Pitt News, took this photo as part of his coverage of the event. (photo courtesy of Christian Snyder)


The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27 left 11 people dead and the community in Pittsburgh in shock. National media descended upon the Pennsylvania city to tell the story of this destructive act, but some of the best coverage came from student journalists at the University of Pittsburgh and their student news operation, the Pitt News.

Several staff members were nice enough to share their thoughts, emotions and advice for the blog, so starting today, we will hear from these students who continue to cover this situation.

Today’s post centers on Pitt News Editor in Chief Christian Snyder (above), a politics and philosophy major who grew up in the Pittsburgh area. Snyder was one of the first students on the scene to report on the shooting. Aside from gathering information, taking photos and writing copy, he also had to make managerial decisions regarding what would and would not be published.

Here are some of the pieces the staff has produced over the past week:

11 Dead, 6 Injured in Massacre at Tree of Life Congregation
Affidavit Reveals Details of Shooting
Obituaries: The Tree of Life Shooting Victims
Pittsburgh Rallies, Unites Against Hate
Suspect in Tree of Life Shooting Pleads Not Guilty

Other staffers will be featured throughout the week. If you have questions or comments, click here.

Christian Snyder didn’t plan to be in Pittsburgh the weekend the Tree of Life synagogue shooting occurred. The Pitt News editor in chief expected to spend time in mourning with family members when news intervened.

“I was supposed to drive to Detroit for a family funeral on Saturday, and was packing my things when I heard about the shooting,” Snyder said in an email interview. “A co-worker forwarded our editorial staff a Pittsburgh Public Safety tweet briefly describing the incident. As soon as I heard, I went to the newsroom, got a camera and a press pass, and drove to Squirrel Hill.”

When Snyder arrived, he showed up to an active crime scene that was continuing to develop.

“When we heard about the shooting, and up until about 15 minutes after I got there, authorities had not yet taken the suspect into custody, and we were hearing reports that the alleged shooter had briefly escaped the synagogue,” he said.

“I’ve covered other crime in the past,” he added. “I’ve written about student deaths and photographed a crime scene last year when a body was left on a residential street in Oakland. But this was really different. Like I mentioned, when I arrived in Squirrel Hill the suspect hadn’t yet been apprehended, so there was definitely some nervous energy in the air.”

When the dust settled at the synagogue, authorities had arrested Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver in connection with the shooting. A federal grand jury indicted him on 11 charges of murder, along with hate-crime enhancements for his attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. Media reports stated that Bowers entered the building around 10 a.m. that day, with both an AR-15 rifle and three .357 Glock handguns. He later told authorities, “I just want to kill Jews.”

The Pitt News began its coverage with social media, sending tweets out to its readers regarding the event and sharing safety information, Snyder said. After that, the publication began using multiple platforms to create and share information.

“We published a breaking news story as soon as we could, which was a short 200-word brief,” he said. “Throughout the day I sent photos and reporting to our editors working on the keeping the story up-to-date. We got another reporter to the scene in Squirrel Hill and had our digital team start building maps and making videos.”

Even in the chaos of the situation, Snyder said his team continued to make critical editorial decisions about what to publish and what to hold, placing an emphasis on accuracy over immediacy.

“We’re proud we didn’t report victim counts early, because many publications overestimated the number of victims,” he said. “In a synagogue which only had about 60 people in it, the difference between 11 (the correct number) and 15 (one of the higher early estimates I read) is stark.”

Several vigils followed the shootings as well as a visit from the president, which led to various other demonstrations. All of this is happening about 20 minutes from the Pitt News offices, which has the staff working overtime, Snyder said.

“Obviously this has been a stressful time for our staff,” he said. “We’re trying to cover this as if we weren’t students, at all hours of the day and as thoroughly as possible. We’ve been stretched thin.”

“I’d like to say, it truly has been a trying time in Pittsburgh, and I am proud of our work, he added. “It feels rote, emotionless in the aftermath — I know there will come a time soon that I stop and think about the loss of life I was just three blocks away from. But for now, my energy is focused on the stories emerging from my beautiful community.”

At the closing of the email, I asked Snyder if he had any advice for students or student journalists who might find themselves covering something like this. His response was so good, I couldn’t bring myself to chop it up. Here it is in full:

What advice would I have? Damn. I don’t know what possible advice I could give people about something like this.

First of all, hope and (if applicable to you) pray that you don’t have to cover something like this.

Second: be cautious. You would rather miss the big scoop than make a big mistake. You would also rather miss the big scoop than legitimately put yourself in danger — don’t do something stupid for one photo. Be smart, and remember that experienced journalists have years of experience in dangerous situations and know how to handle themselves. On that note of caution — you’re dealing with peoples lives, legacies and deaths. Don’t forget the grief and emotion associated with things like this.

Third: be bold. You would rather get somewhere an hour early or head on a dead-end tip than sit at home and realize there was more you could have done. Your coverage becomes part of American history, and the only way to truly make our mark as journalists is the document we produce every night. Don’t look at your byline and wish you’d done more work.

And finally: be thoughtful. Be thoughtful toward yourself, and contemplate why you’re covering the event. Did you rush to the scene of the shooting so you could have the first scoop? Are you excited, or are you nervous? Make sure you work through your own emotions in a healthy way, and give yourself time to recover. An hour-long break from the newsroom can work wonders for your ability to stay focused and in tune with the material.

Also, be thoughtful toward others — the victims, the survivors, the community and your readers. Your work means a lot to a lot of people.

Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not To Cheat in A Journalism Course

I’m working through a series of longer posts for next week, but this popped up in my “memories” feed and it remains a valuable and valid bit of advice, so I thought I’d share it again here. If you want the link to the original for some reason, here you go.

See you all Monday with some more new content

– Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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. (Or, in at least one case, a note from a parent that told me “The family lawyer will be in touch.) 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.


No Neuralizer for Nemec: When your alma mater backs off in a suit over open records.

Last week, we noted that Alex Nemec’s alma mater sued him over a set of documents he legally obtained as part of a court ruling. The record keeper at UW-Oshkosh inadvertently sent him copies of the unredacted reports, leading the state’s Department of Justice to file a motion, asking the courts to reopen the matter. Even more, the professor who is the subject of these documents, Willis Hagen, asked the court to force Nemec to “name names” of anyone he might have shared this information with.

The degree to which the state was basically asking Nemec to forget everything he learned in those unredacted documents and never disclose anything about the content within had both First Amendment and privacy issues, as Nemec’s lawyer noted at the time.

On Friday, the state backed off:

32V3931-78 Notice of Withdrawal of Motion to Reopen F-S 10-26-18_Page_132V3931-78-Notice-of-Withdrawal-of-Motion-to-Reopen-F-S-10-26-18_Page_2.jpg

Nemec emailed me Friday to let me know his lawyer had forwarded him this. The upshot is that the state has decided against pursuing the reopening of the case and pursuing the injunction, so he can continue to report as he sees fit based on what he learned, without fear of a neuralizer:

(Next time, Alex… Next time…)

Nemec said the only issue left at hand is if Hagen wishes to pursue his request to “name names,” which would require him to file a motion on his own. If he does, Nemec said, it will come before the judge on Nov. 21.

We’ll keep you posted.