Be “Marshmallow Alert:” Four more things that will prevent your first media-writing class from sucking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many places start up again on Jan. 7, here’s a post to help start up the new year. We will return to our regular posting schedule next week. -VFF)

A year or two ago, I tried to be inspirational for new students who were entering their first media-writing course with a post on the “Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking.” As you can tell by the headline, inspiration isn’t my forte.

Still, with the start of the new year, new semester and new set of classes for many of you, feel free to flip back to the previous version and then enjoy these Filak-isms to help add some merriment (and some thinking points) to your first couple days :

Be “Marshmallow Alert” in Class: I have always taught in small labs because writing, reporting and editing courses were set up that way wherever I worked. I also had the benefit of classrooms where I could see everything students were doing on their monitors and phones. Thus, when I noticed people were screwing around, I could call them out by name (another benefit of small classes) and they would re-engage pretty easily.

That didn’t mean some students didn’t try to engage every electric device they owned short of a curling iron and a Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset to avoid paying attention to me, but I did my best. (My “best” somehow included ripping the power cable out of the back of an iMac and once texting a young lady’s boyfriend three poop emojis and a snowflake after snatching her phone in mid-text.)

However, when I ended up having to teach a mini-pit class with 50 or so students, I wasn’t able to apply that same level of personal call outs and electronic monitoring, so I went a little old school in my solution. I built a marshmallow gun out of PVC piping and loaded ‘er up for each class. When I saw someone dinking around after a couple  warnings, I fired off a round or two in that person’s general direction. That really freaked them out.

By the time that class was done, I was a regular Annie Oakley. It was almost sad that they became so attentive that they didn’t even want to challenge my accuracy any more. That said, the class started participating a lot more and started doing a bit better on graded stuff.

The point is, don’t just vaguely pay attention in class. Pay attention as if a momentary distraction could get you drilled with a tiny white pellet of sugar and then mocked by a room filled with your peers.

Don’t just be alert. Be “Marshmallow Alert.”

 

Use the “Buffet vs. Cost” Theory:

Question: Why is it that so many people eat to the point of exploding while at a buffet?
Answer: “I PAID X DOLLARS FOR THIS! I’M GETTING MY MONEY’S WORTH!”

Apparently, stomach pains, bloating and that constant regurge of generic-soft-serve-vanilla-with-Gummy-Bears taste are all part of getting one’s “money’s worth” out of  a buffet. If this were a sit-down restaurant, these people wouldn’t eat half that much (except for my kid, who would eat the entire bread basket and hide crackers in her socks), but at a buffet, hey, let’s go for death!

When it comes to your education, particularly a writing course in your area of study, you are paying a ridiculous amount of money, or at least a lot more than what the Golden Corral will charge you on “Shrimp Night.” With that in mind, it’s baffling to me that students skip classes, drift off in class and refuse to answer any questions. That’s like going to the Coral (or your own regional buffet of choice) and saying, “Let me pay double for this, but all I want is one of those sprigs of parsley and a cracker, please.”

To heck with that. Gorge yourself.

Ask questions in class, be that annoying kid who always has an anecdote for every example the professor has, visit office hours to go over your graded work to find areas of improvement, color-tab the crap out of your AP style book and more. Get your money’s worth out of this, especially since you’ll actually benefit from the stuff you learn in the writing class. (This is in no way meant to disparage that “Quest Class” on Ancient Babylonian Calf Roping you are forced to take in your Gen Ed program, but trust me when I tell you that media writing is a skill employers will heavily value.)

 

Embrace Your Inner 4-year-old: Anyone who has spent more than 35 seconds in the presence of a 4-year-old knows the only question any of them seems to ask is “Why?” It eventually gets to the point that you want to hand the kid a fork and tell him/her to go play with the toaster. The thing is, though, they really want to understand stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t get why they can’t stay up past 8 p.m., watch another cartoon or give the hamster a bath in the toilet. They have this sense that those are all logical propositions and they really feel like the adults should have to justify the “No” answer to those requests.

When it comes to your media writing class, embrace your inner 4-year-old, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Students have no problem asking “WHY?” when it comes to things like “Why is my grade so low if I turned in almost everything?” or “Why do we have to take the midterm when it’s so nice outside?” (Two questions I’ve actually heard.) However, when it comes to things that are more about learning and improving and less about point deductions and the one sunny day a year we get in Wisconsin, I have found students are quieter than a church mouse on Sunday.

Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about your work. Don’t ask questions about the grade, because, as we explained in the previous edition of this list, your grade will not haunt you for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t understand why you can’t write a news story in chronological order or why it pays to have at least one or two of the W’s (and maybe even the H) in your lead, you’re going to be in trouble.

Talk to your professor whenever you get work back and you don’t understand what made something wrong. Don’t focus on the points or the grade, but rather on the underlying rationale behind the negative outcomes and you’ll be able to improve moving forward.

 

Now is the Time to Care: I know this is cheating because I pulled it from the last list, but it bears repeating. I can’t remember a semester like the one I just had where students treated the final grades I filed as the start of a bargaining session. (It literally felt like something out of contract negotiation: “Dr. Filak, I see you have proposed a D for me here. What I’d like to do is counter with a B- and see where we can find some common ground…”) The time to care about this stuff is now, so look at what it is that you can do to keep yourself on the right side of the best outcomes possible.

I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

Semester Wrap: Let me know how things went

With finals week wrapping up out here, it’s time to take a break from the blog until the start of the next semester. Feel free to pop in on occasion, as I might have something happening here or there between now and the latter part of January, but the daily grind will officially grind to a halt today.

INSTRUCTORS: If you have found a hole in your curriculum that you would like filled before next term, please contact me and I’ll work on filling it over the break. Also, if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the blog, the books or me in general, feel free to hit me up as well.

STUDENTS: I hope this has been helpful to you. If not, let me know WHY that was the case and I’ll work on fixing it before next term. Simply saying “You suck” isn’t going to help me and, besides, I know that already… If you like something and want to see more of it, you can tell me that, too.

May you have a fun holiday season with whatever it is you do when you’re not here.

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

Dear students, Don’t let Everett Piper tell you that you suck.

For reasons past my understanding, this thing is making the rounds again:

The President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University gave a lecture to students they’ll never forget. Recently a student complained about a sermon that made him feel guilty and blamed the school for making students feel uncomfortable. This is not uncommon. Many universities now are so afraid of offending even one student, that political correctness has run amuck.

However, this University is based on religion and so one would expect that discipline, good character and personal accountability would be a big part of the curriculum.

Everett Piper, who is the President of the school, wrote a letter to the students admonishing them that playing the victim, blaming others and not admitting mistakes is not a way to live a productive and meaningful life. Here is the letter titled “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”

Piper’s open letter originally made waves in 2015 when he first posted it and it suddenly went viral, thanks to his leveraging of social media and the talk-show circuit. Every so often, someone finds it again and posts it to a listserv or a Facebook feed and it starts to catch fire again.

Professors often deal with a wide array of students, but it is usually the best and worst ones that make the greatest of impressions. Thus, we tend to recall the kid who skipped seven weeks of class and then showed up for the final or the guy who swears his grandmother died 19 times in the semester to justify his frequent absences. Get about four professors in a room around this time of year and a game of, “I bet you can’t top this” will inevitably happen, as we tell tales about student baffling student behavior.

That said, this letter is total crap for a number of reasons. For students out there reading this, and who are tired of getting dumped on, here are a couple points to ponder before you let a guy like Everett Piper make you feel miserable during finals week:

 

Recall the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers Day

Johnny Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, had a disdain for Old Timers Day, when out-of-shape old players would return and tell stories of their glory. He captured the reason perfectly and with a phrase you should always remember:

“The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I don’t know Everett Piper personally, but if he’s like every other human adult I ever met, I’m fairly confident he wasn’t perfect at the age of 19. If I had a nickel for every mistake I made, stupid thing I said, dumb question I asked and wrong position I held in my college years, I could buy Earth and evict Piper from it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and help other people who are likely to make those mistakes as well.

I occasionally get a question that goes something like, “Wow, you work with college students? Don’t you ever feel jealous of them for (whatever freedom they supposedly have to drink like a fish, hook up every night or just have a metabolism that doesn’t reflexively add inches to my waistline every day)?”

The answer, “No and HELL no.” I remember living off of buckets of Ramen and those frozen chicken things that were probably part cat, but were 10 for $5 at the local convenience store. I remember having to decide between another beer and laundry money. I remember the anxiety associated with asking people out, trying not to screw up a relationship and having to listen to The Cure for hours on end after each break up.

Would I care for a return to crappy apartments where the heat was controlled in only one unit, brown water that came out of the tap and a basement that smelled of god-knows-what? No thank you. I survived the first time and I’m lucky I got out with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Remembering that is what drives me to help you get better.

Too many people eventually get older and develop selective amnesia, thus allowing them to tell kids, “When I was YOUR AGE, I (never/always) did (whatever)…” and really believe it. I’d bet every dollar in my pocket against whatever Piper has in his that there were times when he whined as a student or groused about something being unfair or complained about how he felt without thinking about how it would sound to other people.

It’s not that we have too many trigger warnings or that too much stuff is gluten free or that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without starting a culture war these days. Those are all strawmen, just like Piper’s student at the front of his letter.

The fact is, there have always been good things and bad things that people exalted or wailed about in life. It’s just the people doing it now have forgotten how much they hated hearing about their grandparents explaining how ungrateful “kids in your generation are these days,” which is why they do it to other people.

Keep that in mind if you ever end up the president of a university and you have an urge to yell at a kid for standing on your lawn.

 

Consider the Source

In journalism, we teach people to look at the source of the information before we consider how much weight to give it. Sure, from the outside, Everett Piper may look like the shining beacon of greatness upon the hill of glory, but consider the following information before you worry what he thinks about you:

He grew up in a town of about 8,000 people and attended a nearby private school of about 2,000 people in late 1970s/early 1980s, when you weren’t required to hock an internal organ to pay tuition. Upon graduation in 1982, he took off for the work world, as you can see below:

PiperExperience

So he graduated at the age of 22/23, immediately went into academic administration and never left. Not exactly the story his university tells about him:

A native of Hillsdale Michigan, Dr. Piper grew up in a family that valued hard work, a mindset he carried with him as he moved from industry into pursuing a college degree.

Not sure how much “industry” work he did between the ages of 18 and 23 while in school, but he wasn’t a returning student, or a single parent, or a GI Bill kid, or any of those other kinds of folks I see on a daily basis who work their asses off to survive. He might or might not be the prototypical example of a guy who thinks he hit a triple when he was actually born on third base, but he’s also isn’t a latter-day “Rudy,” either.

Piper’s proud defense of his university not being a daycare seems a bit suspect, as he is making money off the deal. He turned his “catchphrase” into a nice cottage industry of castigating the youth and yelling about the snowflakes on his lawn.

The university even promotes the purchase of this stuff on its website. (What was that story about Jesus and the money changers in the temple? Oh, yeah…)

Also, consider this line from his letter to the masses:

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

(The emphasis on those two statements is mine.)

If the irony of that first line doesn’t send your hater-ade filled soul into laughing fits, I don’t know what will. It’s easy to “arrogantly lecture” people, as Piper has clearly shown with his letter doing exactly that. Also, instead of dumping all over the kid who came to you with this concern about a Bible passage you likely understood far better than he did, why not help that little snowflake “humbly learn” what it meant instead of using the kid as a strawman to bolster your self-serving position?

(Side note: When someone tells me that something “actually” happened and “I am not making this up” in successive paragraphs at the front of a story, I’d bet money that person is making something up.)

(It’s even more amazing than when you have the ability to monetize your grousing…)

The second line (and any other similar phrase) always annoys me when it comes from people in a position of advantage. When is the last time University President and Almighty Deity of Knowledge Everett Piper was called out for his horsepucky? Probably back when people were rocking popped collars and jamming out to Duran Duran. It’s easy to say that people need to be confronted when you possess the power and position to do so, without fear of retribution.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you, read his Twitter feed. The guy has a transphobic Chuck Norris meme up there (as one of his many anti-LGBTQ tweets), called incoming house Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clueless child and referred to universities (all except for his, I’m guessing) as “bigoted, Intolerant, ill-liberal, inconsistent and closed minded.” Not exactly the bastion of intellectual argumentation I’d expect from a guy who reflexively calls himself “Doctor” more times than you’d hear it on a Thompson Twins’ Greatest Hits album.

 

Don’t Let These Guys Win

The problem isn’t that Everett Piper exists or that he has created a nice little business out of shaming college students with the tone of a high-strung school marm. The problem is that he isn’t alone.

Each generation likes to blame the one before for its problems and dump all over the one after it for not being perfect. As mentioned earlier, people like to get together and complain about how “a student did something you wouldn’t believe…”

Like any other stereotype, it contains a kernel of truth. Like any other stereotype, you can beat it. And like any other stereotype, you should call it out when you hear it.

Don’t let Piper and his ilk decide that you damned kids and your hippity-hoppity music are ruining this world and that if we could just get “Happy Days” back on the air, life would be good again. Don’t let this guy sell books off of the assumption that you will crumble or melt or whatever the comparative is that Piper or the next chucklehead uses to deride your generation. When someone decides to grump in your general direction, use your finely honed interviewing skills to pick apart their self-serving rubbish and demonstrate your intellectual journalistic superiority.

Sure, there are self-absorbed twerps in college who will claim their goldfish’s death merits a six-week extension on an already late paper. There are also dingleberries out there who misapply triggers and trigger warnings to mean anything they would prefer to avoid, as opposed to the actual medical situation they are.  There are plenty of examples of students that make us shake our heads until we develop neck cramps.

However, when you see something like this, written by someone like Piper, take a moment and smile. Think to yourself, “Gee, it must be so sad to think so little of the people you are supposed to help that your best approach to dealing with ONE QUESTION is to publicly rip AN ENTIRE GENERATION to shreds with a letter and then go write a book to pat yourself on the back for being superior to anyone under the age of 22.”

Then, go back to working hard to be better than this guy is. Commit yourself to being the antithesis of what he purports you to be. In other words:

3 reasons why censoring student media is the dumbest thing you can do as an administrator

The students at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, just got a top-notch education in the area of journalism, censorship and the power of shame this week. The school newspaper, The Herald, published an in-depth, investigative story that details the questionable transfer of several football players to another high school. The story also highlighted some questionable behavior on the part of administrators and athletic officials in regard to this situation.

Naturally, the school district was shocked by this, so district officials decided to kill the messenger:

An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.

“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.

Censorship of any newspaper flies in the face of freedom of the press, however, administrators often feel they have the right to do so for a couple erroneous reasons:

  1. They are the adults. The students are kids. They believe that in the power dynamic, adult trumps kid.
  2. The Hazelwood decision, which administrators have come to misinterpret as carte blanche to censor.
  3. The principle of “ostrich syndrome,” in which people believe if they stick their head in the sand, nothing bad can happen. Thus, if we can just shut people up and nobody can see the problem, it doesn’t exist.

What followed was pure outrage from pretty much the rest of the media world. Buzzfeed News, the Associated Press and Teen Vogue covered the story as did the local publications in Arkansas. The Student Press Law Center got involved and agreed to repost the stories as a public service so anyone could read them.

Eventually, the school district caved, and the students were allowed to put the story back online. Communications director Rick Schaeffer explained the district’s rationale in a particularly bloodless way:

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” he wrote. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.

In other words, this only “merited thorough review” after you played a game of chicken with the students and not only did they fail to swerve, but they were driving a tank and you were on a bicycle.

Nice save.

Look, the larger problem here is not that the students had to go through all of this, but that this could have been easily avoided if the administration understood the law, realized how media works or just Googled “censoring HS paper goes to hell.” To inspire future administrators to avoid these problems (and also to help you find ways to push back against censorship), here are a few thoughts that should help keep the important stories front and center, despite the ways in which they embarrass school folks:

 

Stop Fighting Fire With Gasoline

The whole reason that administrators attempt to censor student media is because whatever the students published is drawing embarrassing attention to the school. Administrators surmise that if they can kill the message (or the messenger), the attention will stop coming and things will go back to normal.

Simply put, that’s as stupid as trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline.

The first thing that a group of media students will do when you attack them is to make a bigger issue out of it. If they’re good enough to pull together an investigation like this one, they’re not going down without a fight and they clearly have no fear. The more you try to crack them in half, the stronger their resolve will be. That means… Wait for it… more negative attention on your school.

Now, not only does your school look like garbage for whatever the students uncovered, now EVERYBODY is looking at what they uncovered. Furthermore, additional stories are now emerging about the attempt to censor the publication and how lousy the administration is in attempting to beat up on these kids.

People who never even HEARD of your city or your school now know it for all the wrong reasons. Truth be told, even though Springdale, Arkansas is “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I never knew it existed until this censorship debacle hit my Facebook feed.

If you want to avoid problems like this, don’t let stupid things happen in your school in the first place. If you want to avoid making them worse, don’t compound the original stupidity with more of your own.

 

Student Media Kids Have Bodyguards

Administrators are the kings of the castle when it comes to the school itself. Who gets a hall pass, who gets early release, what the dress code needs to be and more are all at the behest of the principal or other similar administration officials. That sense of power can lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which is the assumption that might makes right.

OK, but what happens when you aren’t the strongest person there anymore? What happens when the kids realize this and figure, “Hey, we just need a bodyguard…”

The bad news for you is that they already HAVE those kinds of folks and they aren’t remotely afraid of you. You lack power over them and they have no problem saying, “OK, you wanna play? Let’s play.” These “bodyguards” are folks like the Student Press Law Center, which has a mission and purpose to stand up for students getting messed around by overreaching administrators. These “bodyguards” are journalists at the local and national media outlets, who value the kids’ efforts and disdain censorship of all kinds. (Plus, they probably remember getting messed over by an administrator during their time as students and didn’t like feeling helpless.)

If you decide to step into the ring with the students and do something dumb like this, the students will have plenty of people at the ready who will do everything in their power to make you really regret it.

 

This Is Not Your Father’s Censorship

A few years back, I spoke to a school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where the student publication had been censored and the last line I left them with is one that should ring in your ears forever: “Control is an illusion.”

In the days of Hazelwood (1980s), when an administrator dropped the hammer on a student publication, that was pretty much the end of it. If the paper wasn’t allowed to print something, the students had virtually no other way to get that story out to the public. You were the gatekeeper and you slammed the gate.

That’s not how anything works anymore.

The minute you decide to censor the paper, pull the piece off of the paper’s website or whatever else you think will stop the story from gaining traction, the kids have 12,148 other ways to get this thing out there.

Case in point: The Herald’s story was reposted to the SPLC website so everyone on Earth could read it. People in the student media community were tweeting links to the story everywhere. Someone took a photo of the print edition and it was making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’m sure you could get a T-shirt made with the whole story on it at CustomInk, if you put your mind to it…

The point is, control has always been an illusion, but now more than ever, you have no control over content. The more suppression you attempt to impose, the harder people will work to share the information you want to suppress.

In summary, you need to realize that trying to censor student media these days is like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-O: The harder you squeeze, the less successful you are. If you really want this thing to go away, do the smart thing: Applaud the work of the students, tell whoever asks that you’re looking into it and fix the problem if you can.

It’s the adult thing to do.

Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.

 

After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.

 

Throwback Thursday: Earning the fungus on your shower shoes

One of my favorite early posts involves a Filak-ism I grabbed from the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” where Kevin Costner is explaining to Tim Robbins that things are different in the majors than they are for him now in the minor leagues.The line about “earning the fungus on your shower shoes” is a good one to remember. It’s also important to remember that just because you earned the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD do that thing.The reason more seasoned writers get the leeway they do in terms of breaking with style, writing in something other than third person, skipping the occasional attribution and other things that will cause your grade to suffer is because they can rationalize their choices appropriately.

When an editor asks, “Why did you do this?” the experienced writer comes up with a pretty explanation for that decision. When I ask “Why did you do this?” to my beginning students, they tend to stare at me like a dog trying to do a calculus equation.

If you have a “why” answer and it’s a good one, you’re half way to earning the fungus on your shower shoes. To understand more about this, enjoy the original post below…

The 1988 movie “Bull Durham” features Tim Robbins as an up-and-coming phenom pitcher and Kevin Costner as a weathered, veteran catcher on a minor-league baseball team. Costner has been brought to this tiny outpost in Durham, North Carolina to teach Robbins how to become a major leaguer. This involves more than which pitches to throw or how to control his fastball. Life lessons are peppered throughout the movie, including this bit of wisdom:

In other words, when you make it to the pros, you can do things that you can’t do when you’re still learning the craft. Once you figure out how everything should work according to the rules, then you can start breaking them if you have a reason to do so.

The same thing is true when it comes to writing for various media outlets. One of the biggest complaints beginning writers have is that they have to attribute everything, write in the inverted pyramid, use descriptors sparingly and stick to a bunch of really strict rules. Meanwhile, when they read ESPN, the New York Times, Buzzfeed or a dozen other publications, they see everyone out there breaking the rules. In some cases, the writers shouldn’t be breaking those rules and thus they end up in trouble for not nailing things down, attributing and telling the story in a more formal manner.

However, when writers do break rules and it works, it is because they know what the rules are. In the Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing book, award-winning journalist Tony Rehagen makes this point clearly:

Another aspect of writing like this is to understand that rules exist for the benefit of the writers, he said. Even though he knows he has more freedom as a writer, he said he doesn’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of doing so.

“Well, first of all, you sort of have to earn the right to break a rule,” he said. “If you want to lead with a quote, it had better be a damn good quote. If you want to bury the nut or (gasp) not have a nut graf at all, you had better have complete command of your story and have structured the hell out of it. That takes skill that even veterans don’t possess on every piece.”

To break a rule, you have to know what the rule is, have a reason for breaking it and break it in a way that improves your overall story. That’s something excellent writers like Rehagen earn over years of improving on success and learning from failure.

Start with the basics and master them before you start looking for other ways to do things.

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

“What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” A good approach to accuracy in reporting and writing

Accuracy is key in everything we do, and that includes the proper use of terminology to describe crimes, accusations and other dicey topics. I groused about this a long while ago when I noted that the use of “allegedly” makes me twitchy.

As a night-cops reporter, and later a cops editor, I found myself parsing the language a lot, arguing with people who wanted to “simplify” headlines or sentence construction. As I grew into those roles, I realized that big differences exist between certain terms and that I’d rather have ugly sentences than wrong ones. If I’m a grump about this, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Here’s Mark Memmott at NPR on the topic of legal terms:

There were several Web summaries posted over the weekend that flatly said Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. We should not be doing that in any stories, online or on air. NPR agrees with the AP that:

“Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing.

“Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. …

“A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”

This kind of thing always takes me back to a great scene in the movie, “And The Band Played On,” which describes the Centers for Disease Control and its staff’s attempts in the early 1980s to understand how AIDS behaved and spread. Each time they would gather to analyze some data or discuss some infection patterns, they had to remind each other to stick to the facts, using a simple phrase: “What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove?” In other words, they thought they understood how the illness was transmitted, they knew about how certain people contracted it, but until they could prove something concrete, they had to work harder to nail things down.

Based on the facts available, we know Jamal Khashoggi is dead, as multiple agencies have confirmed this and provided evidence to that effect. We think Khashoggi was murdered, given that multiple accounts of this indicate that the attack on him was planned at least 12 days in advance of the incident. That said, until this is proven in a court of law, we cannot PROVE a charge of murder on any of the individuals involved. For now, we can say he is dead, someone killed him or that there is an investigation into a homicide. It may seem like splitting hairs, but that’s why we have AP as a rule book to help us out.

Memmott also goes into a discussion about the phrase “arrested for” in describing an individual and a crime:

Compare these headlines and you’ll see why “for” is a problem:

  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested For Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”
  • – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested, Accused Of Tampering With Nassar Evidence.

And these:

  • – “House Intern Arrested For Reportedly Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”
  • – “House Intern Arrested, Charged With Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”

His point, which I thoroughly support and frequently make, is that saying someone is “arrested for” something means we know they did it and they have been convicted at some point. It conveys guilt when something isn’t proven, much in the same way “allegedly” or “alleged” do.

Think about it this way: Your professor sees you messing around with your phone during a test and assumes you are cheating, thus he kicks you out of class. It turns out you just got a text from your mom that your dad was in a serious accident and is being rushed to the hospital. Thus, you were understandably worried and trying to find out more information.

In this scenario, you are an “alleged cheater,” in that “allegedly” means you are said to have been a cheater by someone (in this case the professor). It would be even worse if the professor announced that he kicked you out of class “for cheating on the exam.” Clearly in this scenario, you haven’t cheated, but either use of verbiage doesn’t make you look all that great.

In applying the “Band” approach, your professor thought you were cheating, he knew you were messing with your phone during a test, but he couldn’t prove you used your phone to cheat (and he would turn out to be wrong once he tried).

This is why attributions (see the “said” post from the other day) matter and it’s a much better way to go: “Beth cheated on the exam, professor Bill Jones said.” or “Professor Bill Jones accused Beth of cheating on the exam.” Both cases demonstrate the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra we espouse around here. The attributions keep you on the side of accuracy and prevent you from getting into trouble if something turns out to be not what it seemed.

The “What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove” approach goes a long way in helping journalists remain accurate, so give it a chance the next time you find yourself digging around in some murky territory.

 

The “Bessy” Awards: For achievements in student excuses, wild tales and general chutzpah

Around this time of year, student stress is high, as is the bar for what counts as an excuse for missing class, failing a test or other less-than-pleasant educational outcomes. Students have, for years and years, broken out the sagas of dead grandmothers and grandfathers as a way of getting out of classes and turning in homework late, even though that exact same grandparent died three times this year already.

However, faculty can attest to the fact that excuses rooted in deaths and dental emergencies rarely pass muster. To get a second look or a “I guess I could let you slide…” from a professor, it takes dedication to your story, a heavy dose of weirdness and some good old-fashioned chutzpah. Therefore, we here at the Dynamics of Media, in conjunction with the Hivemind, have decided to honor the students who put forth serious effort in their tales of woe with our “Best BS Excuses in Education” Awards, known now and forever as “The BESSYs.”

BESSY

Without further ado, let’s get into it:

IN THE CATEGORY OF STRANGE-BUT-TRUE

In all fairness, I have skipped a more than a few classes and come late for a few others. The best excuse was a true one: I was worried about making it to class during a freak snow storm, so I took my motor scooter from my off-campus apartment. When some idiot in a giant Buick hit the brakes for no apparent reason, I couldn’t stop quickly enough on the slushy streets of Madison and I slid directly under the rear of his car and wedged my head between his muffler and the pavement.

Fortunately for me, I was wearing a helmet. Fortunately for him, I was too worried about being late to call the cops, so I just yanked my scooter out of there and drove around him.

I will never forget the look on my TA’s face when he saw me, coated in slush, with a giant rip through my coat and a huge burn mark on of my helmet. As I yanked off the helmet to assess the damage, he just looked at me and said, “I don’t even want to know.”

As much as we’d like to blame all of weird excuses on today’s Millennials and their damned hippity-hoppity music, folks from previous generations weighed in with their best strange-but-true moments:

Well, I was a half-hour late to the final of (NAME’S) Law of Mass Communications because a pack of wild dogs wouldn’t let me out of my house at (ADDRESS), in 1972. I asked her years later and she remembered it, and remembered having to explain it to her as I walked in way late.

Occasionally, the truth bomb includes collateral damage that leads to throwing a family member under the bus:

A variation on the dog ate my homework: my grandmother has dementia and she threw my laptop into a trash compactor and destroyed all my work.

That said, the winner of the “I Don’t Even Want to Know” BESSY Award goes to this story:

My best one was real: New Jersey student couldn’t come to class for a week due to a court order that she not leave the state for a week (and she forwarded it).

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “YEP, YOU GOT ME!”

Sometimes, it’s not so much the fact the student skipped, it’s that they got caught in the lie. My favorite story remains listed among the Five Conversations Journalism Professors have in Hell:

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

The desire to dodge and not get caught isn’t unique to this student. One former student fessed up to this moment:

When I worked in sports at (college-based media outlet), my dad qualified for an amateur golf tournament in Orlando and my family wanted us all to go, but it was last minute. I told the editor my grandma had died even though she hadn’t. The tournament was to be broadcast on ESPN, so I spent all week dodging cameras (I worked in sports, remember). Not an original story, but I thought it had a nice twist with the cameras.

However the winner for the “How Did You Know?…Oh…” BESSY Award goes to the cliche double whammy listed here:

A student needed to miss a week before Spring Break because her grandmother died. She forgot we were friends on Facebook and started posting photos of herself on the beach.

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF OVERSHARING EXCUSES:

Oversharing has been one of those things students tended to do for reasons past my understanding. Professors have shared more than a few stories of students who discussed the nuanced details of their vomiting, disclosed extremely personal medical problems or generally told us stuff we just DID NOT want to hear.

Case in point: A student in our newsroom once told a TA that nobody should steal her chair because her “genital warts are really flaring up.” The same student once noted that she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and despite his attempts at an amicable parting, she “wasn’t going to keep (expletive) him as a friend.”

I still feel the need to wash my ears out with bleach after hearing that…

A colleague at an Iowa institution shared a similar “bleachable” moment that turned out to be not as bad as it initially sounded:

Once got an email from a student informing me he wouldn’t be in class that morning because he “shit the bed.” At first I was like 😳 trying to get that image out of my head. Then I decided to google it and it turns out it’s slang for “really messed up.”

However, the Oversharing  BESSY Award, sponsored by the TMI Corp,, goes to the student in this story:

My Japanese colleague once completely freaked when a student told him she couldn’t come to class because of “anal bleeding.”

Also in this “Oh, dear Lord, that’s so gross…” division, we have a second category.

The “I Believe You Because I’m Too Disgusted To Check Up On You” BESSY winner  is a tie between these two students:

I had one who said he got sprayed by a skunk!

And

“I got my hair caught in a low-hanging fly trap.”

 

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “HONESTY IS (USUALLY) THE BEST POLICY:”

It’s the simplest answers that merit the most respect from this professor:

Art students usually just tell the truth….”I overslept”.

 

That said, the winner for Best Blinding and Burning Flash of the Obvious goes to the student who once noted:

Seeing my family is more important than a 2:30 p.m. bio class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Sorry.

OK. Ouch. At least is wasn’t in the kid’s major…

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF SINGULARLY LAME ACHIEVEMENT:

The “I’m Not As Cool As You Think” BESSY goes to a broadcast graduate with disdain for the weather:

I interned for the radio play-by-play guys for the Badgers my senior year. I was supposed to go to Mardi Gras with some friends so they knew I was going to miss a game or two, but I decided at the last minute not to go, but didn’t tell the radio guys. There was a basketball game the day after I was supposed to get back, but it was freezing so I didn’t want to walk all the way to the field house, so I told them I was too partied out from Mardi Gras and had to skip that game.

 

The “But I Was Just Thinking of Your Feelings, Professor” Award goes to two of my former students who told me this:

I always assumed that you would have rather (Yahoo 1), (Yahoo 2) and myself come up with a bullshit excuse to miss class rather than show up in the state we would show up in on Thursday mornings.

Yahoo 1 then chimed in to support this statement:

Fair point! We typically had double the beers in our system than we did hours of sleep by the time 8 a.m. rolled around

(It should be pointed out that Yahoo 1 is about to become a father for the first time. I weep for the future of humanity.)

 

IN THE CATEGORY OF “I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL

Occasionally, name dropping or explaining you were doing something much cooler works out for you, as it did for this current professor who once showed up late for one of his courses:

I was very late to class once and the art prof looked pretty disturbed. I told her I had a good excuse–I was photographing the governor. She believed me but acted as if that was not a good excuse for an art class.

However, the Best Humblebrag Award goes to this student from a wealthy private school:

A student told her professor that she  “could not come to class because she was hosting a private trunk show for Isaac Mizrahi.

 

And finally, the Best Excuse Ever Award goes to the student who inspired the professor to note “I shit you not” after sharing this excuse with us:

Pimp C died so I will be missing class all week.”

 

Thanks to all the nominees and the audience. Hope to see you next year.

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving break

The blog is taking the week off for Thanksgiving, but for those of you who are still hanging around at school and you’re looking for something to do, consider this AP Style exercise in the vein of Thanksgiving fun.

If you’re feeling exhausted and just want a moment of inspiration, consider this story:

When it comes to Thanksgiving, this will always be my memory, sitting on the couch with my dad, watching this game. When it got to the last six seconds, Dad got up and told me, “Well that’s the end of that.” I told him, in my 10-year-old perspective of innocence, “But they have six seconds left!”

Dad sat me down in front of the TV and told me, “Watch it then. You’ll learn a little something about how life works.”

I did.

 

(To this day, Dad swears he was watching it right with me. I stopped arguing about five years ago.)

“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.