Happy Birthday, Mom: Four things my mother taught me that might help you, too

Back when we didn’t have to socially distance, Mom and I caught a Paul McCartney concert that was absolutely amazing.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my mom a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)


Six months ago, I had to find a way to celebrate my dad’s birthday virtually, thanks in large part to the emerging pandemic and the fear associated with climbing case numbers in Wisconsin.

No way, I thought at the time, this is going to impact Mom’s birthday in November. I wasn’t optimistic enough to assume we’d have a cure by then, but I figured we’d have some sort of control over this thing, mitigating its spread or at least keeping the numbers low.

This is why I don’t get paid to prognosticate.

Numbers are skyrocketing, especially here in Wisconsin and ICU beds are packed to the gills. It also seems like the disease keeps getting closer and closer to us, with more people at Amy’s work testing positive and various family and friends either testing positive or locking down thanks to close contact.

The governor of our state is essentially telling people, “Stay the hell home as much as you can. And if you want to see your family for Thanksgiving, buy a Swanson’s Hungry Man turkey platter and hook up a Zoom call.”

The same 100 miles of I-41 separate me from my folks that did back in March, although it now seems so much longer and bleaker. I held on to Mom’s birthday card until this weekend, planning to sneak down there and throw it to her from a six-foot distance across a frozen backyard. Then, I got a text from Amy saying ANOTHER person she was in contact with tested positive.

I put the card in the mail the next day.

In what is a rather perverse irony, as much as I miss my mother and I know Mom wants to see me, the ability to persist through this giant crap taco known as 2020 was instilled deeply in me by my mother over a lifetime of love and lessons.

So, without further ado, here are four things my mother taught me in life that might be helpful to you, too, as you try to hang in there for as long as it takes:

 

You’re tougher than you think you are, so pick yourself up and get back to work: The kitchen table in every house I ever occupied served as an important place for the family. It was where we ate, sure, but it was where we had family discussions, where we paid the bills, where we did our homework, where we worked through important business and where we just talked out whatever needed to be talked out.

When I was in college, I would come home on a Friday and sit at the table  and talk to my mom about whatever was kicking my ass that day, week or month. Mom would have the ironing board propped up and she’d be plowing through a massive pile of wrinkled laundry as she listened to whatever was happening.

She didn’t always understand exactly why I was so upset about something or why I thought the way I did about the problem at hand. (Truth be told, I was probably being way more of a drama queen than whatever I was complaining about required me to be…) Still, she listened and asked questions and poked back when I went too far into the “woe is me” realm of self-pity.

In each discussion, I found that Mom somehow helped me realize that the problem I brought wasn’t insurmountable or that the impossible task could be done if I’d just work through it. She always told me she loved me, but she never blew sunshine up my keester. She gave me practical advice, helped me see things in a way I hadn’t and set me back on the path I needed to walk.

In short, she told me, “You’re not beaten. Get up. You are tougher than you think you are.”

And she was always right. And still is.

 

Use your gifts to help others as often as possible: Each year of her 45-year teaching career, it seemed, Mom would go back to her school and there would be at least one new teacher who looked as lost as a kid who got separated from their parents during Black Friday at Walmart. In the “teams” and “partners” that the schools used over the years to group the faculty, Mom constantly found herself paired with someone that had about six months of student teaching under their belt and a terrified look on their face.

It would have been so easy for her to have a “Crash Davis grouse session” each time she got paired with a newbie and had to start all over again, explaining everything from the location of the teachers lounge through to how to instill classroom discipline among a throng of hormonally challenged pre-teens. Instead, she found a way to get the best out of these people, giving them ample access to her materials, her lessons and, above all else, her experience.

Mom had a gift for being there for other people in the exact way they need it. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but it’s still something I’ve yet to master. In watching Mom operate, I realized this is part skill, part art and part gift.

What I have been able to do, however, is mimic her giving spirit in this area. When the pandemic hit, I had friends and colleagues in a panic over what to do or how to handle assignments, so I stopped everything I was doing to throw together the Corona Hotline page for journalism instructors. The fact that other people were struggling and I had a line on how to fix those struggles meant it was my responsibility to do something to help them. It’s also the reason I volunteer to critique newspapers, visit classrooms, speak at conventions and more.

If I could help someone, especially because I’d been lucky enough to have a gift that made it possible, well, I better damned well do it. That’s how I was raised.

 

Don’t let others dictate the terms of your life: If others were allowed to set the parameters of how my mother’s life were to play out, she would have been a wonderful housewife who would have raised a kid in a duplex and maybe seen a few of our 50 states while visiting random family members during the summers.

Even that might have been a bit much. The legendary family story had Mom and Dad explaining to my mother’s parents that they wanted to get married, only to be told, “You can’t right now. We need to buy new furniture.”

Instead, she spent 45 years teaching literal generations of kids in Cudahy, Wisconsin, having earned a college education  during the early years of her marriage to my father. She wanted a college degree, so she fought for it. She wanted to teach, so she made it happen.

She has visited Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Italy, England, France, Singapore and probably a dozen other places I’m forgetting, traveling with family and friends to see some of the greatest things this world has ever produced. She always came home and shared her photos and stories with as many people as possible (see the point above) and reveling in the opportunities to learn and grow.

She also spent 53 years (and counting) married to my father, outlasting the furniture that once populated my grandparents’ living room.

It would have been so easy for this shy daughter of a police officer to acquiesce to the demands of other people, particularly growing up in a small town during a time in which norms dictated actions. However, she decided that she had one life and she was going to use it as she saw fit. She wasn’t about to let other people tell her “no” for no good reason.

Her courage served as a model for my life.

The first journalism teacher I ever had the displeasure of meeting told me that I would never be a journalist and I probably wouldn’t be much of anything unless I learned a trade so I could provide for a family.

My undergraduate academic adviser and it seemed like half the student media world told me it was a fool’s errand to try to bring the Daily Cardinal student newspaper back from the brink of insolvency.

My doctoral adviser told me I should look for a high-level research institution so I could do scholarship and avoid dealing with undergraduate writing classes.

In each case, and dozens more, people thought they knew better than I did about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. In each case, I would politely nod my head and then go out and do what I knew I should do. Like Mom, I wasn’t going to let the expectations of people who didn’t have to live my life determine how I would go about living it.

In the end, that sense of self-evaluation gave me the most wonderful life possible.

 

Love what you do, no matter what: For her entire teaching career, Mom taught grade school and middle school students in one school district. Some people would wonder why she hadn’t earned a master’s degree, “moved up” to the high school and taught there. At the very least, why not bounce around to several districts and jack up your earnings and value?

Others, including her own father, thought she should have climbed the ladder, becoming an assistant principal, then a principal and maybe even a superintendent.

I’m glad she didn’t do any of these things because she essentially taught me to love what I do, no matter what.

She easily could have gotten a master’s out of the 1,923 academic credits she seemed to amass over the decades of “continuation learning” that was required of her to keep her teaching certification current. She had more than enough skills, expertise and knowledge to teach any college class on history or English, let alone teaching introductory composition to freshmen in high school. She oversaw plays, musicals, events and more that would have befuddled half the administrators in her district, so the ability to run a school or a district was in no way beyond her capabilities.

However, that’s not what she loved doing. She loved to teach specific subjects to those students in that district. So she did it.

The pressure to move up and climb ladders is always all around all of us. A “better” job is always one that offers more money, higher levels of responsibility and bigger organizations, it seems. If there’s one thing Mom taught me that I try desperately to teach my students is that they shouldn’t chase other people’s dreams. If they want to be happy, they need to find what makes them happy and do that.

If I had the inclination, I’m sure I could be a chair or a dean or a provost or whatever. (Amy would likely love it, dragging me into Brooks Brothers and telling the guy behind the counter to “Fix this.”) I’ve had the chances to do those things, but I’ve begged out of those opportunities every time.

The same is true about moving to a “better” job or a “name” program. Every so often, a friend will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening and you’d be great here…” I politely thank them, think about it and then stay right where I am, teaching kids the difference between “libel” and “liable.”

Being happy doing something you love is like a double rainbow: A beautiful thing that doesn’t come around all that often. Mom found it and stuck with it. In doing so, she showed me that I could (and should) seek the same kind of thing for myself.

That’s one gift I could never thank her for enough.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

Four common threads associated with journalism malfeasance: A look at Ruth Shalit Barrett’s fraudulent story for The Atlantic

There’s a pretty good reason why people constantly scream that the media is full of “fake news” get traction on their arguments:

Two weeks after publishing a long, juicy and instantly viral story about the world of competitive niche sports, and the wealthy parents who push their children to play them, the Atlantic on late Friday appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note informing readers that it was “deceived” by the story’s author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

By Sunday evening, the magazine had gone further, announcing that it had retracted the story altogether. “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” an expanded editor’s note said, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

This wasn’t the author’s first scrape with journalistic malpractice. In the 1990s, she worked at The New Republic where she was fired for plagiarism and taking liberties with her copy. As she noted for this story, written shortly after her dismissal, she was there alongside fellow journalism pariah Stephen Glass, who fabricated multiple stories and faked large portions of others:

“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.

“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.

Leaping forward to her current situation, The Atlantic went to cringe-inducingly painful lengths to lay out the sins of the author and the magazine’s role in letting it see the light of day. In an editor’s note that retracted the piece, The Atlantic noted the following problems with the story:

  • The main character was given the name of “Sloane,” Barrett said, to protect the anonymity of this stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son. It turned out to be the source’s middle name, which made it easy for people to identify her. In addition, the woman didn’t actually have a son.
  • In the deeper dig, “Sloane” explained that Barrett suggested the invention of the fictional son, and then told her to lie about his existence when contacted by The Atlantic’s fact checkers. At first, Barrett denied knowing about this before fessing up later.
  • The wounds that “Sloane’s” daughter sustained during a fencing competition were false or extremely exaggerated. In one case, Barrett described a piercing throat wound that struck the jugular vein and nearly hit the carotid artery as “a Fourth of July massacre.” The wound didn’t even draw blood, as noted by witnesses who posted on social media. A second wound was described as a deep thigh gash, which it was not, the correction notes.
  • A family involved in lacrosse was identified as living in the wrong city in Connecticut.
  • A statement that some families had built Olympic-sized ice rinks in their backyards had to be corrected to merely state that private ice rinks were constructed. (Olympic rinks measure 200 feet by 100 feet, which approaches nearly a half acre of space.)

As these falsehoods and errors began to crop up, the folks at The Atlantic acted like trauma surgeons in a disaster: They kept tying off bleeders and trying to keep the patient alive. The editor’s note lists two dates in which the magazine added corrective information to the story, before making the decision to finally pull it. (A PDF of the article is still available on the magazine’s website.)

Simply put, they didn’t know how deep the rot really was, but they knew the author had purposefully lied to them:

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

We have talked at length about a number of these situations, such as journalist Mike Ward’s use of fabricated “real people” across multiple stories,

Historically, there is always the “Jimmy” story that Janet Cooke wrote, in which she told the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be a fabrication. There is Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources, lied about information he supposedly got from sources and plagiarized the work of other journalists. The New York Times ran a correction of around 7,000 words, in an attempt to fix all of the problems Blair caused and restore some of the paper’s credibility.

Heck, Barrett’s former colleague at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, fabricated content to the point he was portrayed by Darth Vader in a movie.

If you’re looking for a lesson here, the “no duh” one would be not to do this kind of stupid crap, as it is likely to lead to your demise as a journalist while cratering the credibility of every media outlet you ever touched.

If you’re looking for a more oblique lesson, it’s that journalists (and journalism educators, for that matter) are trained to be skeptical pit bulls. We dig into stuff and if we find out you lied, we will burn you so badly you will wish you had died as a child. The Barrett piece started to lose air once outside publications, like Erik Wemple’s blog, began picking at it.

Beyond those two things, consider a few basic observations I’ve come up with about the Barrett situation and some of the previous cheating scandals:

It’s rarely a one-time thing: In the movie version of “Shattered Glass,” New Republic editor Chuck Lane is faced with one piece of copy that he knows is false. The whole story of Ian Restil, a teenage computer hacker, is on the radar of Forbes Digital Tool and reporter Adam Pennenberg. Pennenberg has poked enough holes into this thing to make Lane suspicious and his interactions with Glass confirm it.

The scene that sticks out to me is when Lane finally suspends Glass and is walking past the wall of past issues of TNR. He pauses and you can almost hear the gerbil in his brain hopping onto the treadmill.

He pulls down each issue, flips to the Glass piece in it and starts to read. One by one, he hits something that just doesn’t jibe with reality. He suddenly figures out that this guy has been doing this forever. In the end, 27 of the 41 stories Glass wrote were either partially or entirely fabricated, the movie notes in its epilogue.

This tracks with what you see in the Blair story, where he had been making stuff up and stealing from people for years. His college newspaper, The Diamondback, had issues with him and a retrospective on his tenure at the paper noted people at the time were concerned with his content.

In Barrett’s case, the problems existed decades apart, but they fit this mold.

It’s usually for unimportant crap: My buddy Fred Vultee, a long-time copy editor and now professor at Wayne State University, used to say that you can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean. His point was that the big stories aren’t the only places where disasters occur, but we can screw up just as badly in some of the tiny bits of copy we write as a matter of course.

I find this analogy is pretty applicable here as well, because in most of the cases involving plagiarism or fabrication didn’t do great and mighty things in a journalism sense. In most cases, these fabrications involved some really stupid and tiny things, especially compared to the risk of damage associated with them.

Mike Ward’s actions fit this to a T. He used official sources and their real quotes for the meat and potatoes of his pieces. However, he made up “regular people” and their thoughts out of whole cloth to provide that “spice” in the story. As I mentioned at the time, I get that it’s not a lot of fun to go find those “salt-of-the-earth, real people” at the Waffle House and ask them what they think of a pandemic or something. However, it’s part of the job and if you can’t do it, the very least you should do is avoid faking it.

Glass did “color” pieces, something that’s pretty clear if you review his list of articles. He said he claimed to be a biting expert after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield and he got a radio station to put him on a talk show where he took calls for almost an hour. He said he spent time hanging out with drunk and stoned young Republican turks at the CPAC convention, who sought a “real heifer” of a girl to sexually assault. (“Bad acne would be a plus,” his source was quoted as saying.) He claimed to spend time with bond traders who had to pee in specially made urinals to keep them trading instead of heading to the bathroom. On and on these tales went, each more fantastical than the previous one.

None of it was true, but even more, none of it was necessary. It wasn’t like he was Gary Webb, tracking allegations of a CIA-fueled crack epidemic. He wasn’t trying to get information on the Son of Sam by posing as a bereavement counselor and interviewing a victim’s family. If there had been a kid named Ian Restil who hacked a company named Jukt Micronics, would it have been crucial for everyone to know it? Not really.

A rare exception to this was Blair’s work on the D.C. Sniper case, where he wrote various false claims, including an allegation that authorities found a grape stem at the scene of one of the attacks with shooter Lee Boyd Malvo’s DNA on it.

Overall, however cost-benefit analysis these people took seemed to be all out of whack when it came to what they were doing and what would be added to the sum of human knowledge. What it seemed to do, based on what they’ve said over the years, is fed their egos in some prurient way, which they put above their responsibility to their readers.

Fellow journalists generally have a “Spidey sense” about these folks before the situation blows up:  There are moments in which people around the fraudulent journalists get a “feeling” that something isn’t right. In Blair’s case, there were warning signals all over hell and creation. A group of alumni from The Diamondback sent a letter to the J-school at Maryland after things blew up, outlining all the red flags they saw years earlier. Journalist Seth Mnookin’s book, “Hard News,” outlines the various editors at the New York Times who had huge concerns with Blair before he started “breaking” sniper stories.

The New Republic got complaints about Glass and his stories, noting errors or flat-out falsehoods. As he continued to deepen his fraud, he told a “60 Minutes” interviewer that he got fewer complaints because he was telling entirely fictional stories and that fake people don’t phone the boss.

In Barrett’s case, The Atlantic knew full well that she had a shady past, but the folks who hired her for this piece kind of squinted their way past this, noting her indiscretions were decades earlier and that people can change. Instead, they saw her kick up her malfeasance a notch from plagiarism to flat-out fraud.

Listening to that internal voice that says, “Something’s not right here…” isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First, it’s tough for a lot of journalists to imagine that one of our own would do something like this. It’s antithetical to who we are and what our profession espouses, so thinking this could happen is really hard to swallow.

Second, we are used to hearing crap like this from all sorts of people. Sources who said something might end up getting in trouble once the comment is published, so they call up and claim they never said it. When other reporters complain about the “star” reporter, it can come across like sour grapes. Thus, grousing that this guy or that gal is cutting corners or not fact checking or being a dink can be easily dismissed.

Finally, we can talk ourselves out of this “feeling” pretty easily for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s because everyone is moving at warp speed covering the news, so we just figure it was a glitch or a “one-off” moment. In other cases, we realize that we’re about to accuse someone of something pretty egregious, so we better be damned sure. In most of these cases, these journalists exploited those weaknesses and continue to do their worst.

The dirt never washes off: Not every faker becomes a household name, but those who have done it and gotten caught tend to find their actions essentially ruin their lives. Outside of a couple interviews on a TV talk show and Mike Sager’s piece in CJR, Cooke has been actively out of communication for decades. Pieces often talk ABOUT her, but rarely, if ever, does anyone manage to talk with her. What could have been an incredible journalism career turned to dust.

Glass spent years going through law school, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown, but is unable to practice law, due to his problems as a journalist. He was able to get work with multiple law firms, but he is not an attorney.

Blair’s career was like a bottle rocket, streaking up through the sky quickly and exploding just as suddenly. In speaking with students at Maryland in 2016, he essentially admitted he harmed himself and the profession to the degree he knows he’d never be able to work in the field again.

Barrett got what all three of those folks, and many others, I would imagine, desperately want: A second chance. She took it and blew it. The “how” is easy to understand.

The “why?” Not so much.

 

The Kindergarten Survival Guide

IMG_2219

I did this about 40 years ago. My mother still has it on display in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever drawn, which is why I’m grateful that SAGE employs actual artists for my books.

Today is my birthday and it dawned on me that I’ve now spent more than half my life teaching college students. (Really, I have. The math checks out and everything).

One of the many benefits of spending this much time Peter Pan-ing my way through life is that I get to see a lot of my former students grow into adulthood, family life and parenthood. Seeing the updates of graduations, jobs, weddings and children is one of the best things this job offers as a continually renewing benefit.

Two of my former students, who have been immensely helpful to my book-writing and blog-pimping careers, got married a number of years ago, became parents and raised one heck of an amazing kid. As he completed his pre-school career, his mom asked if anyone on Facebook had any advice for him regarding kindergarten.

In an attempt to be helpful, and maybe amuse his parents, I sent the following “Kindergarten Survival Guide” to this young man and I figured I’d share it here as well. Enjoy:

1) Make sure the teacher knows your name for all the good reasons (good napper, drinks milk well, doesn’t fight) as opposed to all the bad reasons (makes noise, does not work and play well with others)

2) Always be nice to the kid who doesn’t seem to have any friends. If you pick on that kid or be mean to him/her, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

3) Put time and effort into ANY major project that your teacher tells you is “going home for your parents to keep.”

My mother STILL displays the drawing I did for her that was turned into a plastic plate, and had I known that, I would have put more time into coloring it and I wouldn’t have drawn the tree so big.

(It STILL pisses me off that I forgot to color in that guy’s shoe…)

4) There’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing. Just because the bossy girl says, “We are ALL playing kitchen and I’M the chef” doesn’t make it so. Feel free to wander away and read or play with cars or something. You are under no obligation to feed into her delusions of grandeur.

5) Nobody likes a tattletale. Don’t run to the teacher for every minor grievance. Save your tattling for when it counts. Like when a kid accuses you of setting fire to the reading nook or when the milk money goes missing.

6) Kindergarten is not a competition over whose family is more dysfunctional. Feel free not to share everything that goes on at home.

7) You have the coolest mom and dad in the world. You know it, the teacher knows it and your parents know it.

8) Nobody really sleeps during nap time. Except the teacher. Let her snore. She’ll wake up eventually.

9) The kid who says he saw a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day is LYING TO YOU ALL. MAYBE he saw his dad drunk on green beer, but that doesn’t count. Don’t feel bad you didn’t see one. (OK, maybe that’s my own personal scar coming through, but still…)

10) Enjoy every minute of it. You are a great kid and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Gone Fishin’: Safer-At-Home Edition

AtariFishing

Remember to keep a safe distance from other people while engaging in any activity, even virtual fishing. And watch out for that shark.

With the understatement of the year, I’d like to say that this has been a very different semester. (In doing so, my former manager Cliff is probably going to hunt me down, as “very” and “different” were among his least-favorite words to be included in the paper.)

I didn’t take a week off at spring break, as per usual, because there was no real spring break. I tended to write longer things and add more exercises to the blog because it had to happen. The normal things we get to do around this time of year (for me, rummage sales) aren’t around, so it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end or beginning of anything.

If I had a dollar for every time I asked Amy, “OK, what DAY is it?” I’d probably be set for life.

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet.

The Corona Hotline page is still active if you need any exercises and I’m happy to help anyone who needs it. Just hit me up on the contact page.

In the mean time, be safe and be well.

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

Throwback Thursday: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox

In honor of this week’s random lottery of meaningless tragedy, I pulled this post from way back to talk about how people manage to screw things up.

Even as other people were reading my post on Emily Reise and laughing at the fact I misspelled her name, they were sharing their own screw ups over their careers. People declared dead when they weren’t, places listed for events that had no such events and even one marijuana raid that happened somewhere else, much to the befuddlement of neighbors in that area.

It’s never great to make a mistake, but it’s going to happen because, as Sam Kinison once noted, you’re not on a lunch box:

Filak-ism: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox.

Sam-Kinison
Who wouldn’t want this face on their third-grade lunchbox?

 

Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

The late shock-rock comedian Sam Kinison once had the misfortune of ticking off a major comedy figure on a slow news day. Kinison was slated to be the main guest on the “Joan Rivers Show,” but managed to blow it off, leaving Rivers with about 20 minutes of essentially dead air and shadow-puppet tricks. News stations picked this up and it became a pretty big, albeit overblown, deal.

In his posthumously released album, “Live From Hell,” Kinison reflected on the error, leaving me with one of my favorite Filak-isms. “I can (expletive) up. I’m not on a lunch box.” The point being that unlike the kiddie characters and perfect heroes who were marketed on lunchboxes through his youth, Kinison was never going to be perfect.

As a journalist, neither will you.

Trying to be perfect at journalism is your goal, but to quote the famous coach Vince Lombardi, you will never catch perfection. That said, in its pursuit, you will catch excellence and that’s usually good enough. Also during its pursuit, you are going to screw up in some pretty spectacular ways. We already detailed the “filthiest” screw up in all of sports journalism here (as well as one of mine that follows me to this day), but I asked the Hivemind folks for some of the biggest screw-ups they made and if they learned anything from them. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Getting a name wrong can feel like the worst thing in the world, especially after you realize, it’s impossible to make up for it. The most recent error was from an award-winning sports journalist, who managed to confuse an NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer:

DIPpgArXgAAA3kI-566x447

The reason? The writer said he was in the middle of several stories when he caught the Kramer story and had to get it done immediately. When Jerry Kramer started listing off all the people who mattered to him, he mentioned both legendary Packers Jim Ringo and Bart Starr. In his notes, the writer wrote last names, leading to the Ringo Starr moment:

Now, after the initial shock and ensuing, hysterical laugh (trust me, I laughed about 10 minutes, full on tears and everything), a very reasonable question is how does someone write Ringo Starr instead of Jim Ringo? I’m not an idiot. I know who Jim freaking Ringo is. Seems like an impossible error to make, right?

Well, I don’t remember writing “Ringo Starr.” At the point I wrote it, I was typing to fast — between two word docs, remember — to grasp everything I was doing. (This is fairly normal for sports writers; usually we get away with it.) But I do remember Kramer going down the list of teammates he appreciated. “Fuzzy… Forrest… Ringo… Starr…” BAM!

Another longtime journalist had a similar switcharoo moment, confusing the man who played Ben Hur and Moses with one of the “Dirty Dozen:”

I once wrote Charles Bronson when I meant Charlton Heston while making a Soylent Green reference. Forgot to fix it on the page and it made it to print. The complaint letters were well deserved.

We both agreed “The Ten Commandments” would have been different if his mix-up had played out in real life:

It can be even worse if the person is local, in that I doubt Charles Bronson or Charlton Heston even read about the mix up. One writer talked about her experience highlighting the opening of a local business:

One that always sticks with me is when I used the wrong first name of a gentleman who had just opened up a restaurant with his wife. My editor told me that now he couldn’t frame and hang that article highlighting his accomplishment because of my error. He didn’t scream at me because he didn’t have to. I felt terrible when he put my screw-up into those terms.


I DIDN’T MEAN FOR THAT TO GO PUBLIC:

Whenever a student in the newsroom can’t figure out a headline and writes, “SCREW IT, I’LL PICK A HEADLINE LATER” (or in one case, just the F-bomb over and over again) in that space, I get hives. The student always says, “I’m not going to run that,” but that’s not always your choice. In text-based journalism, we always say you should never write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read, even if it’s just as a joke. In broadcast, the rule is to treat every microphone like it’s broadcasting or “hot,” something that is easier said than done. A radio journalist who also worked in PR shared this:

Didn’t realize my mic was hot and said “what the fuck?”

A photojournalist noted that the “I didn’t mean for that to go public” situation isn’t only for the word folks, as only a lucky save by the press operators kept this from getting ugly (or uglier):

This was my photo editor’s goof up. He was showing off to a cute intern one day when he Photoshopped an eye on the middle of a guy’s forehead. He apparently thought he had removed it, but the pressmen discovered it several hundred copies into the first run. They had to re-web the press–He was not fired but was skating on thin ice for a while…

DEATH BECOMES YOU (MAYBE):
Life and death issues are no joking matter. Making an error about someone being alive or dead can affect you as a writer for a really, really long time. (Trust me on that one.) One journalism instructor who worked in the field noted that his assumption about a source seemed to create a life-and-death situation:

I gave a guy cancer in a story (he never had cancer-just advocated for patients with it. Learned that just because you THINK you know someone’s story- double check it. And turn down interviews so close to deadline.

A longtime copy editor managed to “resurrect” a source after catching an error from one of the writers on her publication’s staff:

(I) once brought a man back from the dead: The writer was convinced that saying “the late mayor” was the same thing as “the former mayor.” I always tell my interns that fact-checking and careful editing can save lives.

JUST… OW…
Perhaps one of the most gifted and socially aware journalists and professors I have ever known got hit with perhaps one of the most unfortunate typos ever. Of all the people this could have happened to, it was so unfair this one happened to her, given her genuine understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sensitive issues:

I wrote a story about kids in a summer camp learning about the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers). Somehow a production error changed the word “counselor” to “coounselor” only in some editions. It was not in the edition I got at home or in the office. Imagine my surprise when a woman called me the next morning and started screaming at me that I was a racist and did I think that was funny? I didn’t know what had happened and had to apologize profusely.

The takeaway here is that nobody in journalism is perfect and we all have our moments of “Oh… God… Why?” When it came to the “Ringo Starr” screw up, the writer told me he laughed hysterically until he cried because there was nothing else he could do. Others said they grimaced and moved on. Some said it informs how they teach or what they do to help students avoid their screw ups.

For me, I go all the way back to the guy who gave my high school graduation’s valedictory address. The guy’s name was Willie Nelson (Really. He went by Willie.) and he told the story about how he once got annoyed by his sister and smacked her in the face with a baseball bat. When he was sent to his room as a punishment, his grandfather came and told him some invaluable advice:

“Boy, I hope you learned something today,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s the stupid ones you gotta learn to avoid making twice.”

 

WAY too hot for teacher: How to avoid getting Zoombombed and 3 other things to think about while building your online courses

NOTE: The following video has extremely offensive language in it. It is posted here only to demonstrate the kinds of things people have had to put up with as a result of Zoombombing. Viewer discretion is advised. So are headphones.

During a discussion of how best to serve our students in this time of forced distance learning, a journalism professor in a discussion group made the following statement:

“I don’t understand why people would not be synchronous while also recording for asynchronous if they have a tool that does it easily…” 

The glorious world of the internet answered that pretty well for us this week, as instructors everywhere were introduced to the concept of “Zoombombing”:

Like many professors across the country who’ve been displaced from college campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lance Gharavi suddenly found himself teaching his spring semester courses at Arizona State University online using the Zoom meeting platform. His first Zoom session for an approximately 150-student Introduction to Storytelling course went terribly wrong.

Right off the bat, he said, one of the participants used a Zoom feature that lets a user display an image or a video in the background in order to show a pornographic video.

“I didn’t notice it until a student on chat said something about it,” said Gharavi, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theater. Participants were using fake screen names, some of which he said were very offensive. “The chat window became incredibly active. Most of the comments were not on topic. They were vulgar, racist, misogynistic toilet humor. I would barely even call it humor.”

Instructors aren’t alone in this issue, as a friend of mine noted regarding a Society for Professional Journalists digital meeting:

On Friday, SPJ’s executive director hosted a Zoom meeting with members. But they all saw a member no one wanted: A random man logged on and put his genitals right up to the camera.
Apparently, this is a side effect of the pandemic shutdown. It even has a name: Zoom bombing.

In case it’s not obvious, there’s a reason people get in more trouble on live air than they do when they record a program and run it on air after its been edited. It should also be obvious that you’ll run the risk of having to redo the whole thing instead of just archiving it if some twerp decides to use “Debbie Does Dallas” as a background during class discussion on Zoom.

To prevent Zoombombing, Zoom offers several hints and tips for people setting up their classrooms and meetings, including locking the room, using the waiting-room function and controlling screen sharing. If you are looking at using this tool to teach in a virtual setting, these are great bits of advice and they aren’t that hard to enact.

This approach to teaching feels like whack-a-mole: A problem pops up, we hammer it down with a solution and then, bam, another problem pops up. This is likely the nature of online learning for us for a while as we try to figure out how best to do this as classes progress. It’s like fixing a car while we’re driving it at 100 mph down a bumpy road.

Whether you’re going synchronous or asynchronous, using Zoom or posting lecture notes, well-prepared or running around like Beaker with his hair on fire, consider these three key points in how best to make your classes successful:

 

MINIMIZE FAILURE: One of my favorite stories about legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was the one told in “One Goal” about his first national championship at Minnesota. After his team won it all, his players were celebrating loudly in the locker room, having a fantastic time. A friend went looking for Brooks, whom he later found sitting along in a hallway, completely drained. The line in the book said it all:

“They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.”

This may seem to be a dark and depressing way to look at life, but when it comes to trying to launch a series of online classes in the middle of a semester with almost no lead time for them, it’s actually the best way to look what you need to do.

This isn’t the time to break out six new digital platforms you’ve never used before in hopes of “jazzing” things up or because everyone else out there is yammering about what they’re doing. It isn’t the time to build a new educational philosophy, based on some BS eLearning journal article you read out of desperation. It isn’t the time to prove that you’re better, stronger, faster, cooler or whatever else because you’re terrified that your whole class is going to hell in a speedboat and you have no control over it whatsoever.

Now is the time to rely on the bedrock principles and simple teaching techniques that got you here. If you have platforms that work and have always work, use them. If you have been successful with certain types of exercises, tweak them a bit and stick with them. Be honest with your students and tell them that you’re going to do X, Y and Z but that’s about it.

You don’t have to hit a grand slam here. A base hit wins the game, so choke up on the bat and protect the plate.

 

RIGHT TOOL, RIGHT JOB: As I struggled to learn statistics, Steven Osterlind of Mizzou was a godsend. He looked like the uncle who showed up to Thanksgiving and would do that magic trick where he pulled a quarter out of a kid’s ear. He was always smiling and helpful, even as students like me were as dumb as a brick.

I kept trying to use more and more complex statistical measurements to find answers to my research problems. This guy, who knew more about stats than any 15 people I know, pushed me in the other direction: Simpler tools, better results. His motto was one in which the simplest tool was usually the best.

I like the theory of “right tool for the right job,” and I’m a huge fan of simplicity when it comes to those tools. If I want to hang a picture in my living room, a hammer and nail works just fine. I don’t need to fire up my air compressor and load up a nail gun.

When it comes to thinking about the tools at your disposal, consider this theory. Some classes need video because they require you to show process and activity. Others could get by with audio podcasting only. My students don’t need to see me and I can get away with still images.

I saw someone in a “COVID teaching discussion group” discussing PowerPoint and how to find ways to get student free copies of it. Do they need access to your PowerPoints for any reason or could a set of PDF’ed slides do just as well?

As we talked about with assignments before, try to find the essential elements of what is most important for your students in your class. Then, use the tools best able to deliver those elements with the least amount of complexity.

Another thought? Ask the students what they have and what they would like to get. Several faculty members did email surveys or Doodle polls to find out what made sense for their classes.

(I asked my students once about moving to video and a student told me, “I like the audio podcasts. I put them on right before bed and after an hour, I’m ready to sleep.” I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that…)

 

THE HAM STORY: I swear this came from a priest in a sermon, but after all these years, my memory has blurred a bit. Still, it’s the story I tell all my students when the time comes for them to learn how to think for themselves:

“A newly married couple is having dinner together at home for the first time. The woman is making ham and before she does anything else, she cuts two inches off of each end of the ham.”

“The man asks, ‘Why did you do that?’ The woman replies, ‘It’s my mama’s recipe and you always loved mama’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”

“Later that year, the couple is at the woman’s parents’ home for Christmas dinner. The mother is making ham and she starts by cutting two inches off each end of the ham.”

“The man asks, ‘Why do you do that?’ Mama replies, ‘It’s grandma’s recipe and everyone loves grandma’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”

“Grandma arrives for dinner and the man asks, ‘Grandma, your recipe says to cut two inches off of each end of the ham before you start. Why do you do that?'”

“Grandma replies, ‘Oh! I never had a big enough pan to hold a whole ham, so I wrote that down to remind myself to cut two inches off each end so that it would fit the pan I had.'”

The lesson? Sometimes, something makes sense at the time, but it outlives its usefulness, even as people blindly continue to do it.

I asked people who use Zoom to do their lectures why they use it and I got a lot of “That’s how I was taught in grad school” kind of responses. The same was true of going synchronous for learning, using specific reporting lessons and other similar things. I have no idea if Zoom is the best tool or not. I also don’t know if those approaches were any good or not.

The problem? It didn’t seem like the folks answering the questions did either.

As much as now isn’t the time to break out a whole new approach to things, it doesn’t hurt to question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you come to a satisfactory answer, you’re in great shape.

If not, maybe it’s worth a second look.

 

Happy Birthday, Dad: 4 valuable things I learned from my father that might help you, too

DadSuit

It might be hard to believe that a guy who dressed like this could have valuable advice, but trust me, he always does.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my dad a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)

As my daughter was going stir-crazy the other day, whining loudly about missing her friends, her extracurricular activities and even in-school classes, I told her the one truism I hoped would keep her sane:

“You can’t focus on the things you can’t do because of social distancing. You have to focus on the things you DO get to do. Otherwise, you’ll go batty.”

For me, an introvert with a long-standing aversion to social situations, this has been an easy adage to espouse and obey.

Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.

Like everyone else in this country, Dad is stuck at home with limited contact to the outside world, for fear of contracting a virus that is decimating people at an incredible rate. While this “wait this out at home” rule is rough on a lot of people, it has to be killing my dad, who earned the family nickname of “No-Line Frank” for his disdain of waiting in line for anything. (It probably isn’t any great shakes for my mom, either, as she’s isolated in the house with him like this for at least another month.)

I wish with all my heart I could jet down I-41 and give him a big hug (and a nice bottle of Drambuie) today. The fact I can’t saddens me to the point of distraction. That said, he would be the first one to tell me it’s fine, not to worry and that I should get back to work.

My parents were and still are instrumental in who I am and what I do in life. In honor of dad’s 76th birthday, here are four “Filak-isms” he taught me that helped make me who I am and likely will help me make it through this pandemic unscathed:

HUSTLE WHILE YOU WAIT: I can’t remember when he first said it to me, but I rely on it almost daily: “The best things in life come to he who hustles while he waits.”

Although Dad later told me he heard this in a Credit Union seminar or something, I still attribute it to him because he not only said it, but he lives it. I often joke that I’m a “human twitch” when it comes to keeping busy, constantly writing books, teaching classes, refinishing furniture and doing almost anything else anybody asks of me.

Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him watch a whole ballgame or TV show without getting up and looking for something to do. He might be cleaning out the junk drawer in the dining room or sorting some baseball cards or looking for something in the basement, but he’s constantly on the move. Seeing this always inspired me to find more stuff to do and to keep looking for new opportunities to make the most of my time.

If you’re always hustling, the good things will come your way.

 

DON’T BRING SHAME ON THE FAMILY: I know I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating. Dad told me this when I went off to college and decades later, it still rings true. “When you go out there, have fun,” he said. ” But, don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

The sheer tonnage of stupid things I avoided doing in college, simply based on that bit of advice, could stop a speeding locomotive from moving another inch forward. Even now, when I considered doing something, I would imagine the headline “UWO Professor Arrested for (Fill in whatever stupid thing I thought about doing)” and immediately decided against doing that stupid thing.

Whether it was being a success or just avoiding failure, the goal was pretty simple: When Dad saw someone he knew at the grocery store, it would be great if the person didn’t start the conversation with, “Hey, yeah… Heard about your son… Geez… That’s not good…”

 

YOU ARE NOT AVERAGE: In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card, much to the dismay of my parents. Dad was less than pleased that I wasn’t living up to my potential, whatever that was, and he pretty much knew full well that I fell short because I wasn’t giving a crap.

We were in the middle of a “silent supper,” thanks to my transgressions, when I finally broke the silence with what I thought would be a pretty good argument for my folks to not be so upset: “I read the report card, and it says that a C is average, so-”

Dad cut me off in a firm tone, “You are NOT average.”

I got the point. I could do better. And I knew it.

From that moment, I didn’t get another C on a report card until I hit my freshman year of college. In that case, it was more of a scheduling mistake than a lack of effort, because I took an introductory zoology course that served as the “weed-out” class for the veterinary medicine program at the U.

It’s always easy to take it easy, but that’s not the right way to do things. I was lucky enough to get a set of tools and the ability to use them in a way that matters. I was also lucky as hell to have parents who wouldn’t let me slide because I was good enough to get by or because other people’s kids were doing something worse.

Once that got stuck in my head, I realized that it’s important to always push beyond average whenever possible.

 

FINISH THE WORK FIRST, DRINK BEER LATER: Dad always believed in the separation of work and relaxation. He once told me about my grandfather and how he liked to do part of a job and then relax a bit and then go back and do more of it. Dad fell into the mode that my great-grandfather espoused: Finish the work first, drink the beer later.

What I learned from this was not only the importance of a strong work ethic but also the idea that I could find joy in completion of work. Seeing things get checked off a list or looking at a well-done job brought me happiness that could far exceed the joy of a brief respite and the knowledge that I had to do more work.

Even more, the beer always tasted better when I knew I was done for the day.

Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.

Dad

 

 

 

“Focus on things that are important:” A message to my students during the coronavirus outbreak.

My chair had the great idea of doing a video in which we all recorded a short message for our students, for whom Monday will be the first day of online-only classes. Here is what I hope to be a calming and yet amusing message to anyone who knows me:

For those of you still in the middle of a class build, feel free to check out the Corona Hotline for Instructors page and grab any lessons, exercises or helpful tips you find there. If you want to share anything, feel free to contact me through the site and I’ll get you hooked up.

Be safe and be well.

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

So, you have to teach your journalism class online now, thanks to the coronavirus? We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

Schools throughout the country have reacted to the spread of the coronavirus by pushing for “alternative delivery methods of instruction.” The goal is basically to get people away from one another while not having to cancel class. For most of us that means online instruction, a concept that some folks know well, others have had a little experience and still others react to with a level of freaking out that would impress Beaker from the Muppets.

I’ve taught online for more than a decade now, providing content through various delivery systems for multiple classes. I also am currently teaching courses I’ve taught for upwards of 20 years. Still, I’m probably at the freakout stage, primarily because nobody around here has been willing to pull the trigger on this yet and say, “Look, we’re making the call now. You get an extra week off after spring break to get your stuff together for online delivery. Plan for a month’s worth, but be ready for the whole term.”

I’m also one of those stupid people who likes to help other people, even as I’m drowning. Either I’m as dumb as a bucket full of hammers when it comes to deciding how to prioritize my time, or I’m way too old-school Polish-Catholic, in that we feed everyone else around us, even if we’re starving.

Either way, as my friend Allison would always say when taking on some sort of Quixotic do-good adventure on behalf of her blog: We’re from the internet and we’re here to help.

With that in mind, starting on Monday, I’m turning the blog into a pile of stuff that anyone who wants it can use for free. I’ll link to previous exercises I’ve built, stuff I’m building to teach my students, previous posts on the site and other stuff. Take whatever you want, use as much of it as you want and bastardize it for your own purposes however you want.

In the mean time, either post comments below or contact me through this form to tell me what you need and I’ll see what I have.

For those of you who have never taught online before, or who have limited experience, below is a list of things I’ve figured out over time that might be helpful:

 

YOUR BEST BET IS ASYNCHRONOUS CHUNKS: The argument of how best to reach students and make sure they’re keeping up with things often emerges when we’re dealing with online classes. If we do live-streaming stuff, we can force people to stay on track with certain parts of the class. If we do a full class dump online, we can let students work at their own pace.

Both of these approaches have benefits and drawbacks, and I’ve found that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits in both cases. This is why I’ve come up with a system meant to allow freedom of access while still creating firewalls against students who wait until the day before the class ends to try to do the work: Asynchronous chunks.

Here’s what I do: On day one of week one of the class, I open up everything the students will need for that week’s “chunk” of the course. Any lectures I do, any powerpoints they need, any quizzes they need to take, any readings they will need and any assignments or tests they need to accomplish. The due date for this material is usually Friday by noon of that week.

The students can do whatever they need, however they want, just as long as they meet the deadline of Friday at noon for dropping their work into the drop box for that week or finishing the online quiz portions. I then spend my weekend grading like crazy to try to get this stuff back to them as quickly as I can without making a mess of it. Once they get their graded stuff back, usually Sunday or Monday, I unlock week two and the system starts all over again.

What this does is it allows students to work however they want within a set of parameters. It prevents people from blowing off the work to the last minute, but it also prevents those “go-getter” students from drinking 27 Red Bulls and trying to do the whole class in 72 hours. The lazy ones are what we’re used to, so we might have a plan to deal with them. However, the quick-moving students will likely cause you a problem by screwing up something in week one and then repeatedly screwing it up in the work for weeks two, three, four and five because you didn’t have the opportunity to correct them on it. This “chunk” approach helps with that problem.

 

KNOW WHAT TOOLS THEY HAVE: “Go online” sounds like a great idea, but then again, I’m sure “Let them eat cake” sounded like a plausible solution at the time as well. We have students out here from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Depending on where your students will be sent, home might have the technological wizardry of the U.S.S. Enterprise or of two cans and a string.

A number of folks on various teaching message boards I frequented were talking about how their students were trying to get a month trial of the Adobe Creative Suite for a reduced price. Others talked about how certain video sharing services were allowing campuses free access to some of their higher-end tools to do virtual meetings.

My bigger question was, “Can students even run any of this stuff on what they own?” I’ve seen a number of my students carrying some of the jankiest laptops on Earth. In addition, I have students who live in rural areas where DSL is barely available, let alone anything with a true high-speed to it. If you are fortunate enough to work in a place where everyone is required to buy the same tech or where everyone is rich enough to have their own survival bunker, that’s great. For the rest of us, it comes down to a MacGyver approach of making do with what we have:

If you are still in your regular class periods, ask around to figure out what people have and what they don’t. If you’re not, it’s worth emailing your students before you launch and asking them what they have the capability to accomplish with the tools at hand.

One of the bigger reasons I went to the “chunk” approach was that I had students who were taking my class in areas where they would have to go somewhere to get internet access. (Last summer, two students who took my editing class online were living together in a converted SUV while selling fireworks at a roadside stand. At the start of each week, they would trudge to town and use the wifi from the laundromat to download all the stuff. Then, at the end of the week, they’d repeat the trek and upload their finished work.)

Knowing what kind of tools the students have is vital in limiting frustration on both of your ends.

 

GO BACK TO THE NOUN-VERB-OBJECT FOR YOUR GOALS: When I take students online, the goal is to give them an experience that is as valuable as the one they would get in the classroom. That said, I know full well it won’t be the same experience as they will have in the classroom. It can’t be.

What helped me in building my online courses was the same thing that helped me write books when I had trouble with communicating a concept: I went back to the basics of noun-verb-object. In short, I tried to figure out how to finish the sentence “Students need X” or “I must give students Y.” Doing this allowed me to re-calibrate my thought process on what I was actually accomplishing within the classroom and what needed to come out of that for the online kids. Once I nailed that down, I was able to build things specifically for that class to accomplish that goal online.

Case in point: When I taught media writing online, what I wanted students to get out of a news writing assignment was the issue of balance among sources. To do this in the classroom, I had the students individually interview people (one interview per student) and then I would collect those interviews into a giant pile that everyone in the group could use to write from (think the old “bring a dish to pass” approach).

Online, I couldn’t do that as easily, nor could I employ my “pitch a topic” approach I used in class. For a while I was stuck because I kept trying to replicate the entire assignment online and found I couldn’t do it. Eventually, I realized that I wanted them to a) write a story and b) use multiple sources to c) create balance between viewpoints. When I figured that out, I rebuilt the assignment. I gave them the transcript of a speech I made up, along with two press releases that “reacted” to that speech from various perspectives. (Pro and con) They then had all of that material to use for the assignment. It ended up working just fine.

Did they get the interviewing experience? No, but I realized that wasn’t the point of the assignment, so I didn’t go nutty trying to force that in here. Instead, I found a different way to get them that experience when I had the chance.

Figure out what you want them to do in that simplest way and you’ll be in much better shape as you reconfigure this for a different environment.

 

RE-EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS: People who see this point might be thinking, “He wants us to lower our standards of grading and work quality!” Not really. It is about trying to determine how best we want to assess our students in this new environment.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re catching a flight overseas for a two-week vacation. As the plane is taking off, you’re thinking, “I hope they get us there on time for me to make the opera I have tickets to,” or “I hope they have a good meal for us for dinner” or “I hope that the movie on this flight is good.”

Then, 20 minutes into the flight, all four engines quit and you’re in a total stall over the Atlantic Ocean. You probably are now thinking, “I hope I don’t die.”

That re-examination of expectations doesn’t mean you’re lowering your standards. It means you’re dealing with the reality of your circumstances. If your last thought as the plane crashes was, “Oh, God, not another damned ‘Avengers’ movie…” you have some serious issues.

This point can dovetail nicely with the previous one. A photo colleague and I were talking about this before classes began today. He noted that his students were supposed to be doing studio work at the exact time the university would likely be moving everything online. He thought about re-configuring his class to move the studio assignment later in the semester in hopes things would come back to campus. However, he said if that didn’t happen, he didn’t know what he’d do.

I said I’d dig around and figure out what I MOST wanted out of that studio experience and see how it could be replicated somewhere else. If the goal was to shoot photos against a neutral background, could they use something other than the studio backgrounds to do it? If the goal was to shoot still life images with certain lighting situations, would they have stuff around the house they could use to replicate that? In other words, how could we improvise and adapt the expectations of the work to get them the key aspect of the experience?

Not everything can be done this way, clearly, but in terms of looking at it less as “The assignment demands X, Y and Z” and more in terms of “Here is what I want you to get and that’s what I’m going to grade you on,” the better off you both will likely be.

Clearly, there is a lot more to this than these tips, but I hope they’ll get you started or at the very least, confirm what you already know about this. In between now and Monday, please send me any needs or concerns or pleas for help and I’ll do my best to make this work.

We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do.

Best,

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

 

 

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory: Why the public vs. private tweeting debate for journalists doesn’t matter

Tom Jones at the Poynter Institute asked the question that journalists have wrestled with since their profession became the social purview of the world at large:

One of the more complicated issues newsrooms are dealing with these days is employee conduct on social media, especially Twitter.

Here’s what I mean: A reporter tweets something controversial about the news. Is that reporter expressing his or her own opinion? Or are they representing the company they work for?

This issue became an issue again when the Washington Post suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez for tweeting about the 2003 rape allegation against Kobe Bryant within minutes of Bryant’s death breaking as news. The paper eventually determined that Sonmez didn’t break any of its rules with her tweet, even though editor Marty Baron disseminated a memo that urged caution and restraint for Post staff in the future.

As Jones pointed out in his piece, this isn’t a new thing for media folks. Veteran sports journalist Jemele Hill found herself in the middle of a social-media controversy back in 2017when she called the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and got tagged with a two-week suspension from ESPN. She left the network in 2018 and joined The Atlantic, noting it was a place “where discomfort is OK.” Back in 2013, PR practitioner Justine Sacco found that a single tweet could destroy a person’s life in less than a day. Even after more than a year, Sacco was unable to live down her tweet. It took several more years for her to eventually recover from that single moment.

(This isn’t even just a “media professional thing” in terms of social media leading to concerns in other parts of life. Ask Roseanne Barr, umpire Rob Drakecomedian Gilbert Gottfried, Elon Musk or any one of a dozen other folks about how social media posts led to ramifications in other parts of their lives.)

Journalists traditionally believe in several key tenets that make life difficult when it comes to this idea of public vs. private person in social media communication:

  • They value openness, which means they don’t want to be silent on a topic that matters to them, hide information or allow themselves to be censored.
  • They value the sharing of information with interested audience members.
  • They believe in being involved in stuff, so when something is happening, they feel the need to chime in.
  • They like to produce content, and in most “traditional media” formats, they don’t get (or have to listen to) audience feedback.

Take all of this together and you’ll realize that it’s not all that hard to see why journalists end up on social media a great deal and why it is they have trouble with their employers after a tweet goes bad.

The rules that dictate what they can or can’t they do versus what should or shouldn’t they do is kind of a random mishmash of media company norms, HR memos and a desire to stop audiences from freaking out. Jones notes:

Baron wrote that with social media, the Post should remember this: “(1) The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression. (2) We should always exercise care and restraint.”

In other words, it feels as if Baron is telling reporters to use their heads, to be smart, to watch their tone, to not say anything that might cause an issue.

Makes sense … until you realize that what one person considers a valid take might be inappropriate to someone else. After all, isn’t that what just happened at the Post?

Sort of, but not really.

Here is why Baron’s memo, Jones’ reaction and social media policies in general fall short in splitting the baby between allowing journalists to interact with the audience and a desire to prevent chaos and dystopia from reigning supreme in the Twitterverse:

You Can’t Entirely Know Your Audience: Great reporters used to know their audiences like the backs of their hands. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and their ilk prided themselves in knowing “their readers” and being great at delivering things to them that mattered. Folks like that existed in many publications, I’m sure. (George Hesselberg and Pat “Snoop” Simms, both formerly of the Wisconsin State Journal,  are two folks I got to know who had that finger on the pulse of the readers as they wrote their stories and columns.)

Many reporters, however, relied less on the audience needs and more on the news values or interest elements associated with journalism education to drive their approach to content. Even more, the idea that we would stoop to going through “market research” to figure out how we should cover certain things or what we should cover was an affront to some folks that saw this as an impingement on their freedom of the press.

Today, we have more data than ever to help us figure out  where our clicks come from. (The Dynamics of Writing would like to give a shout out to whatever the heck “Han dot nl” is, as for some reason, it’s driving a ton of traffic to the site from the Netherlands.) We know which posts draw the most clicks, the most likes and the most shares.

That said, we still don’t know our actual audience and here’s why: Once the content is out of our hands, we have no say over what happens to it. What we think is OK for “our audience” doesn’t matter in some cases, because other readers out there can still access it and will still freak out over it.

Case in point: I generally curse in every day life, knowing that most of the people around me are used to it. When I started this blog, I was asked by SAGE to eliminate “unnecessary curse words,” as some of the people who buy the book and read the blog go to far more conservative universities, religious colleges and places that generally have more couth than I do. I tamped that down (as best I could) and stuck with only “necessary cursing” to meet the needs of my audience.

That said, I have no idea at all why people in the Netherlands are consistently reading this blog. For all I know, I might end up having the gendarmes after me (or pikemen or whatever…) for violating some sort of social concerns I don’t know about. I’m glad these readers are here, don’t get me wrong, but I never started this blog with the idea of rocking the Dutch market. They aren’t my intended audience, but it’s not like I can do much to stop them from showing up or seeing stuff.

The larger point is this: If you send something out that you believe to be relatively appropriate to people you think are going to be reading it, you have no way of preventing it from going to a completely different group of people and having everything go to hell in a speedboat.

The “High School Principal at a Porn Store” Theory of Private vs. Public: Journalists like to argue that their social media feeds are their individual, private personas as opposed to a public representation of their work as media practitioners.

In a vacuum, I get that, as there should be a separation between job-related life and life-related life for all of us. It gets a little dicier when you consider that in both their job and their social media lives, reporters are essentially doing similar things (sharing content) in similar ways (social media, typing stuff etc.). Still, we don’t give up all of our rights to be regular people just because we cover the news.

The bigger problem is that human beings don’t operate in a vacuum of life and we can’t always build an unbreakable firewall in our brains like this. We can’t “unsee” things or discount them based on the spheres in which they happen. This leads me to the theory outlined above.

Let’s say you’re driving down a fairly empty stretch of interstate late Saturday night and you blow a tire. You pull over to the only business with a well-lit parking lot: A giant “adult book store” or porn palace or whatever you want to call it. As you’re sitting there, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix your car, you see the principal of your old high school exiting the building. He’s carrying a giant duffel bag full of pornographic DVDs and an inflatable “partner” doll dressed like a Catholic school girl. He doesn’t see you, he gets in his car and he drives away.

Theoretically, you should be able to compartmentalize this: He’s a private citizen, during his off hours, doing nothing illegal, so what’s the big deal? You should put this away as one more interaction with him and ignore it as it relates to his work with the school and your interactions with him when you were in school.

In a practical sense, however, all you can think is, “EEEEEEEWWWW!!! PRINCIPAL JONES! MY EYES! MY EYES!

Everything you thought about this guy is now cast in a completely different light. You start rethinking every comment he ever made about anyone in a different way. You also probably start washing your hands like Lady MacBeth with OCD, remembering the number of “high fives” you got from him as you walked down the hallways between classes.

Again, nothing illegal happened. Hell, you don’t even know if anything horribly sketchy will happen, as this could be part of a giant prank or a lost bet. However, that’s not going to make you feel any better about the situation.

Just because we pretend that a wall exists between the public and the private spheres for the benefit of trying to justify our choices to other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone will graciously make that same distinction once they see what you put out there. People decide how they want to see us based on what they see of us. Claiming something is personal or not part of our career or whatever doesn’t absolve us of the perceptual damage that exists in the minds of others.

A Case of the Man Keeping Us Down: The more journalists feel forces beyond their control are suppressing them, the more likely they are to push back on something. It’s a response learned from years of having people they report on saying, “You don’t need to know that” or “You aren’t going to get that.” It’s also probably hardwired into our genetics at some level, just like being nosy.

Policies like this one that seems to say, “We’re watching you” can lead journalists to feel that need to push back against it, even if they aren’t entirely interested in engaging in the behavior the policy dictates. In other words, even if I’m not a journalist on Twitter who feels it necessary to tweet about whatever is coming into my mind, the minute you try to stop me from doing so is the minute I’m going to be upset about it.

It also doesn’t help that the policies are fluid and lack a sense of  “X actions = Y consequences.” Do I think that the timing of Sonmez’s tweet was particularly brilliant? No. Do I think the consequences were a bit much? Yes. Can I find a clear path through Barron’s memo or the WaPo policy that tells me who was right? Not a chance.

In some ways, this kind of reminds me of the old-school version of Catholic confession, in that it was never clear how the priest knew EXACTLY how many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” were necessary to demonstrate proper atonement for each specific sin. It seemed like a mixture of how upset the priest was, how penitent the confessor was and how much time was left before mass started.

When my job (or my eternal soul) is on the line, I guess I’d like a little more clarity on how the rules apply and how I should know that I’ve got things nailed down appropriately.

Just like anyone else, journalists are going to be judged on their statements in a public setting and like a whole lot of folks, we tend to think our opinion needs to be shared with a lot of people in a public way. Since social media allows EVERYONE to play, it can be difficult to tell people who share opinions and write publicly that they can’t play or that they have to follow different rules.

Like most other things we’re all grappling with in this field, things are more likely to be messy than easy as we figure out what we SHOULD do after we bump into a lot of things we probably SHOULDN’T do.