Playing with live ammo: Social media and the umpire who threatened a “CIVAL WAR”

When we discuss law in my intro writing class, I always ask a simple question, “How many of you are on social media?” Every hand goes up. I then ask how many are on specific platforms (Twitter, SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram etc.) and the students respond with similar levels of engagement. When I ask what they do on those platforms, the answers vary: talk to friends, pass along information, “talk shit” (as one student put it), complain about classes and more.

That’s when I hit them with this: “You are all publishers. All the things we’re going to talk about today apply to you, including some scary things like libel and copyright infringement.”

To further emphasize the point, I go back to a Filak-ism I used a lot in the newsroom: “Every time you post something, you’re playing with live ammo. You need to be careful out there.”

I thought about that message when I saw this story about a major league umpire who took to Twitter and expressed a few thoughts on impeachment:

UmpWar

In case you missed it, a public figure just threatened to buy a gun and start a violent, armed conflict if Congress continued with a legal proceeding against the president. He didn’t do it at a bar over a couple beers. He didn’t do it in the umpires room after the game while surrounded by five other folks bitching about life. He did it on a social media platform where the message was published, and reshared hundreds and thousands of times.

Rob Drake, the umpire who issued the tweet, deleted it shortly after the “fit hit the shan” and then deactivated his account. He also issued an apology that sounds like someone else wrote it for him (and not just because all the words were spelled right). Major League Baseball is investigating Drake’s social media presence, but regardless of what it decides, Drake learned that social media can be a lot more scary than the gun he was yammering about on it.

 

“I am a brother.” 3 tips on how to avoid a racially tone-deaf social media disaster like the one from the University of Missouri

Watching my alma maters compete for supremacy in an arena of national attention is usually fun for me, but not this month:

UW-Madison: We built a homecoming video where we cut out all the video involving people of color who agreed to be filmed for it. No way anyone could screw up a situation like this worse than we did.

University of Missouri: Hold my beer.

(CNN)The University of Missouri Athletic Department is apologizing for a tweet it says was meant to celebrate diversity but was instead criticized as insensitive.

The tweet posted Wednesday included graphics of three student athletes and a staff member. Two are black and two are white.

The graphics featuring the white athletes highlighted their career ambitions. Gymnast Chelsey Christensen’s said, “I am a future doctor.” Swimmer CJ Kovac’s said, “I am a future corporate financer.”
Staff member Chad Jones-Hicks’ post said, “I value equality.” Track and field athlete Arielle Mack’s said “I am an African American Woman.”
The post was criticized on social media for defining Mack and Jones-Hicks by their race instead of their goals and accomplishments.
The athletic department deleted the tweet Wednesday night and apologized.

Yes, it really was that bad…

MizzouRace2

In other words, “Look at all the cool stuff we get to do as white people!” and “Look! We’re black!” aren’t exactly interchangeable concepts.

And when you think it can’t get any worse…

MizzouBrother

I kept thinking, “This one has to be an internet spoof version, right? Nobody thinks, ‘Hey let’s call the black guy ‘a brother’ and see what we can get away with…'”

Nope, it’s real, leading me to ask the same question this person asked on Twitter:

AfroTweet

(Hell, you could have run this past Breckin Meyer’s character in “Go” and HE would have caught it…)

The athletic department tweeted out an apology for its actions, which led more people to complain about how tone deaf THAT was as well.

This kind of “someone does something horrible they didn’t see coming, particularly in regard to race” has become kind of a repeating theme on the blog. Although we talked about ways to avoid this kind of thing when we discussed the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirt issue, consider these key points again:

Paranoia is your BEST friend: A great line about one of the greatest hockey coaches guides my actions in journalism quite a bit. After his team had won a national championship, a friend found him emotionally drained sitting quietly away from the celebration. The writer remarked, “They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.” Maybe that seems sad, but that approach keeps your keester out of a lot of trouble.

As we noted the last time we covered this: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”).

Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). Approach your work in this way and you will not always succeed, but you can avoid a lot of failure.

Ask for help: As we noted during the sweatshirt debacle, diversity is not a buzzword. The goal of having a wide array of perspectives and a diverse collection of people with different experiences is to allow a fuller examination of bigger issues.

Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help. Call a friend who knows the topic better than you. Ask a source who is involved in the topic for a quick read. Talk to an expert on the issue with whom you worked on an earlier project. You probably know someone out there who has a connection to almost any topic if you think about it hard enough.

To be fair, I’m usually the person seeking help in this regard because I’m your garden-variety straight, white male, but what I have found is that most people are happy to help if you are honest, humble and forthright. The earnest gesture of, “I don’t understand X but I really don’t want to screw it up,” tends work when you approach people from varied backgrounds. I have asked all sorts of questions when it came to faith, race, gender, LGBTQ issues and more using that approach and I can’t ever remember being yelled at or shamed.

(I do remember once going to see the Kevin Smith movie “Dogma” with a group of friends, none of whom were Catholic. At about a dozen points in the movie, one of them would ask a question about something that just happened and I’d give a quick answer with a promise to explain more later. About halfway through the movie, my friend, Adam, leaned over to me and whispered, “Now you know what it’s like for me, being the only Jew in the newsroom, when we’re covering Passover.” Point taken.)

Know where the landmines are: This one is a direct pull from the sweatshirt post, but it bears repeating. I still ascribe to the Fred Vultee Theory of Drowning, which states you should treat EVERY piece of copy like it could come back to kill you. That said, the level of extreme care should jump up a few notches from the caution I employ in fixing the garbage disposal and the caution I would employ in disarming a nuclear warhead.

Some things just have much lower margins for error, have far higher consequences and are far more likely to kill you. In terms of the United States, gender, race and sexual orientation are the issues that lead to a lot of “Oh, crap, how did we write THAT?” apologies than many other topics. If you know that going in, you can game up a little bit more than normal when you start working on something in that area. It’s a lot like driving through Rosendale: I always try to adhere to the speed limit, give or take 5 mph. However, when I hit the Rosendale city limits, I’m ALWAYS driving 27 in a 30 because I know what I’m getting into.

In the end, you might not avoid every problem, but you’ll do a lot better in avoiding the really stupid ones.

 

Don’t Call ICE, We’ll Call You: A look at the controversy surrounding the Harvard Crimson’s protest coverage

The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at the famed Ivy League school, found itself getting screamed at this week, due to its reporting on a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The newspaper wrote in its Sept. 13 edition about an event on campus, in which people assembled to speak out against the actions of ICE and to call for the dissolution of the agency.

The Crimson reporters did what any good journalists would do: They covered the event that was relevant, useful and interesting in their geographic area. They quoted sources and observed actions for inclusion in the paper. They then decided to ask for comment from “the other side.” The result, as anyone who ever contacted a governmental agency would expect, was a simple line in the story: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”

This is where everything went to hell in a speedboat:

Act on a Dream, the campus group that had organized the rally covered in the article, started an online petition demanding that The Crimson vow to never contact ICE again and to apologize for the “harm it has inflicted.”

“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition read.

It continued: “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”

From a personal standpoint, I had a few quibbles with this:

  1. I’d like some evidence to support the “harm it has inflicted” statement, including a quantification of that harm. It’s easy to say that something will be harmful to people if it’s something we don’t like. (Look at every discussion involving books people want to ban, porn people want to suppress and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.) However, in journalism require facts to make statements.
  2. Political climates almost always suck for at least half of the people in the country. It was problematic for people in the 1950s during the HUAC trials, the 1960s (and more) during the Civil Rights movement, the 1970s during the Vietnam/Watergate mess and even into the 2000s when terrorism hit home and we were a mess of surveillance and jingoism. If you waited until things were “cool” to do journalism, you’re waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last month.
  3. Absolutism is awesome when you’re protesting things, not so much when you live on Planet Reality. Play this out: The Crimson agrees to NEVER contact ICE again. ICE does something pathologically insanely crappy to someone on Harvard’s campus. The campus community is desperate to know what happened. The Crimson responds: “Nope. Sorry. We did a pinky swear we’d never contact ICE.” Gimme a break.

For its part, the Crimson has stood by its reporting, issuing a note that explained why it contacted ICE, as well as what it did not do:

Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the petition continues to add signatures and media coverage continues to grow around this issue, so let’s unpack a few basic journalistic issues here:

Calling the KKK wasn’t fun, either: Journalists often get chided for trying to get “both sides” of stories in which two sides don’t really exist. If the entire scientific community declares there’s no life on Neptune, we immediately feel compelled to call the guy who lives in his parents’ basement, wears a tinfoil hat and blogs at “NeptuneLifeCoverUp.com” to “balance” the story.

That’s not this.

Regardless of your personal feelings on an issue, when a group, an organization or a person is at the center of your coverage, you should reach out to that “side” and offer a chance to enter the conversation. I remember having to talk to a guy who swore he was the “Grand Dragon” of the KKK in Wisconsin because he announced the Klan would be holding a march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Groups that clearly did not want this to happen were all over this, talking to me about why this was a bad idea and what they planned to do if this occurred.

The march was to take place at the steps of the Capitol and for him to do that, he needed a permit. My goal was to find out if he got the permit and, if not, if he was ready to be removed and arrested. I had to spend something like 45 minutes on the phone with him as he kept rambling about his philosophy on race, issuing “scientific proclamations” about race and using language that just made my whole body cringe. In the end, he didn’t get the permit, the thing didn’t happen and the story ran with minimal contributions from him.

Some people were ticked off that I used the guy, but that’s the way journalism is supposed to work: If you have skin in the game, you get a chance to say something. If you don’t do this for everybody, you’re pretty much worthless as a reporter. The sheer volume of people we talk to on a daily basis that do things we dislike or don’t agree with could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.

The Taco Bell Shooting Theory is at work here: I’ve explained this one before: I got a call from a mother screaming up a blue streak about how our student newspaper’s coverage made her son “look bad.” The son, an adult, had engaged in a shoot-out at a Taco Bell drive-thru and was arrested for his part in swapping lead with other patrons.

The point I kept trying to make to her, when I could get a word in edgewise, was that it wasn’t the COVERAGE that made the kid look bad, but rather the SHOOTING he was involved in that made him look bad.

I kept thinking about this when I was reading the story about the protest and about the way in which the people upset with the Crimson reacted to the request for comment. The folks here gathered a couple hundred people in the middle of one of the most well-known colleges in the country and used megaphones to express their displeasure with a government agency they purport surveils them at all times, in front of people who at any moment could call the cops or post images to social media during the event with impunity but it was an UNANSWERED PHONE CALL after the fact from a student media operation that created risk?

How, exactly, does that logically track?

I understand that there are huge risks associated with immigration in today’s political climate, but getting all over the Crimson because it requested a comment from ICE makes as much sense as blaming school shootings on “all that music kids today listen to.”

Flip the coin and see how you like it: The phrase, “How would you like it if we did that to you?” seems rather childish, but it fits this situation quite well. Journalism, when practiced properly, is about keeping yourself out of the story, remaining as objectively neutral as reality will allow and giving your readers the sense that you are telling them something honest and valuable.

The minute we stop doing that is the minute we become no better than the demagogues of our society who use their pulpits to rain hatred upon others for personal gain.

OK, Act on a Dream folks, you don’t like that someone asked ICE for a comment? Fine. What happens when a reporter decides it’s not worth it to check in with you on an issue like this? Even more, what happens if you get a reporter who thinks, “Hey, these people are breaking the law by being here. Why should I talk to an organization that supports criminal actions? Let’s just rely on the ICE folks for our stories.” Something tells me this wouldn’t sit well with the Act on a Dream folks, or anyone else with at least half a brain.

 

 

Hell Lead: Why 66-word sentences don’t help your readers and 3 ways to avoid writing them

As mentioned pretty much everywhere in both books and this blog, the concept for writing a simple lead should be simple:

  • It should be 25-35 words long.
  • It should contain as many of the 5Ws and 1H as possible without overwhelming your readers.
  • It should focus on a single concept to provide focus and clarity to the readers.
  • It should tell your readers what happened and why they care.

Reading the original lead on this story gave me a feeling similar to trying to drink from a fire hose:

More than 1,000 students, teachers and community members marched on the Madison School District’s administrative building Friday in support of a black security guard fired for repeating the N-word when a student called him the racial slur, prompting district officials to vow better education on the history and impact on the N-word and a review of the policies that led to the staffer’s termination this week.

That’s 66 words, or almost DOUBLE the maximum of what you really want to see here. Even more, it’s not just that this is too long, but it’s also WAAAAAY too heavy. (As a brief refresher, length is how we measure leads in a word-by-word approach while weight is about how much content is in there and how all words aren’t created equal in adding to the heft of a sentence.)

When we unpack all of this info, what we learn in the lead includes:

  • About 1,000 people protested at the admin building.
  • They supported a security guard who was fired.
  • The guard, a black man, repeated a racial slur after the student used it against him.
  • The district didn’t say if it would rehire the guy.
  • The district reacted by promising to educate somebody or other on how the slur is problematic and where it came from and why it has the impact it has.
  • The district will review the policies that led to the guard being fired.

Of course, we only learn that if we can wade through all of the stuff in this lead and take the time to figure it out. That kind of “Where’s Waldo?” approach to reading this thing is antithetical to what we’re supposed to be doing with a lead and with journalism in general.

A competing publication did pretty much the same job as this lead with about half of the words:

Wisconsin’s capital city school district is facing national pressure to reinstate a black high school security guard who was fired this week for saying the N-word while telling an unruly student not to use the racial slur.

(SIDE NOTE: The district reversed itself and undid the firing, and Marlon Anderson gets to go back to work.)

The point isn’t to do a “Goofus and Gallant” comparative between the leads, as even the better of them could get some fine tuning. The larger point about this lead is that it wasn’t just one misstep of trying to overcrowd the lead to avoid missing anything. Here are a couple other sentences from the original writer that left me stunned:

This guy is 42…

The swell of support for Marlon Anderson — who worked at West High School before being terminated Wednesday — culminated in a meeting between representatives of the school’s Black Student Union and district officials to discuss the situation that led to Anderson being fired.

 

This one is 53 words…

Emerging after a nearly two hour meeting inside the district’s Doyle Administration Building, Anderson’s 17-year-old son Noah, who is the president of the Black Student Union, addressed a crowd on what he said was a constructive conversation but just the start on making sure African-Americans are involved in school policies that impact them.

And this one is 63 words, which is exceeds the “coked-up Jay McInnery ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ character” level of run-on…

Speaking to reporters after the sit-down, interim Superintendent Jane Belmore and School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district will take a more concerted effort in teaching students about the usage of the N-word and the harm it causes, will review policies that led to Anderson being fired, and will expedite the appeal process to his firing after Anderson filed a grievance Thursday.

The point of writing leads in the 25-35 word range and body sentences in the 20-24 word range is to prevent exactly the kinds of things that happen here:

  • The readers who want to learn something will get lost and give up.
  • The sentence construction gets so complicated that you run the risk of creating modifier problems and other grammatical issues.
  • The pace and flow of the story get all out of whack because you end up with giant sentences followed by a few stubby ones. Thus, it feels like you’re flying down the highway at 110 mph when suddenly you hit a traffic jam.

Here are some tips on how to fix these problems:

  • Know the point of your piece: Yes, stories can get overly complicated, but as investigative sports journalist Eric Adelson once told me, “If you can’t tell me what your story is in about 25 words or less, you really don’t understand what you’re writing about.” I remember at the time thinking it was a harsh assessment, especially given that he did mostly deep-dig pieces. However, when I asked him to do it for me on the steroid scandal story he was in the middle of digging into, he told me,”Players and owners both knew steroids were used in baseball, but nobody said anything because everyone was making too much money because of them.” In less than 25 words, he nailed it. If you know what you’re doing, things become easier and simpler.
  • Make one point at a time: Readers do have shorter attention spans these days, so it feels like if you don’t throw everything at them at once, you’re going to lose them. However, the “Fistful of Jell-O” rule applies here: The tighter you squeeze, the less you have. In pumping content at your readers like you’re unleashing a fire hose filled with information, you repel them instead of engaging them.
    Start each sentence with the promise to your readers that you are going to make one, simple, clear point for them. Then, deliver on that promise. If you do this, and you have a clear understanding of what your readers need, you will keep them engaged and tell them something that matters.
  • Start from the core out: The sentences in the original story we analyzed feel heavy because the writer probably built them from the front to the back. This is how you end up with major dependent clauses that try to do too much or how you end up tacking on “just one more thing” that will make the sentences you write feel unwieldy. It also comes from not really figuring out what the key point you want to make is (see Point 1).
    To minimize the risk of this, start with the core: Noun-Verb-Object. Tell me who did what to whom and focus on that. This will create a much stronger version of the sentence and also shift your attention to making the noun concrete and the verb vigorous. Consider some of these NVO constructions, depending on the story you want to tell:

    • District fires custodian
    • Protestors rebuke district
    • Citizens protest firing

When it comes to how best to tell a story, it often comes down to how simply can you write the content. Start with the simple elements that matter most and expand up on them with each layer of detail. If the sentence gets too long or too complex, you can cut back on the sentence, removing the outer layers and tightening it back toward the core. In most cases, the writing is in the editing.

Today’s Motivational Poster For Absent Students

In a desperate attempt to keep from getting any more, “Hey, I’m going to be missing class today… Am I going to miss anything important? Could you send me the notes?” emails, I’ve plied my limited artistic abilities for this motivational poster. Feel free to steal, share and/or frame it if you think it will help you or a colleague:

Bunnies

Back Monday with what I hope will be fuller classes.

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

Journalism-ese that needs to die: A look at cliches, euphemisms and other dumb things we write

Journalism is a field that combines storytelling and word-smithing for the benefit of an engaged audience. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Within those stories, however, we tend to find that certain stupid phrases, euphemism, cliches and other awkward terminology tend to crop up in our copy.

After a headline managed to touch on two of my least-favorite euphemisms (“Diverse group” and “civic-minded citizens), I asked the hivemind to give me some of the worst our field has to offer in this regard. It didn’t take long for them to take me up on this:

I had a knock-down with an editor once about a phrase – “combed through the ashes” – he (they!) inserted in a lede. (“Combed through the debris” is disaster-coverage ubiquitous, too.) We always looked for a “pool of blood” in one competitor’s copy. The rumor was it was inserted into a strangling story once. Apocryphal. Also, I used to collect “ship of state” quotes from politicians. Reagan had quite a few.

Whenever I hear about “combing through” something, I go back to this scene:

In any case, here’s the list of what we came up with, why it’s bad form to use these things and how to say what you want without resorting to these terms:

 

Euphemistic language: My complaint against “diverse group” includes several beefs, starting with the idea that it’s exceptionally vague. What is “diverse” to one person isn’t necessarily “diverse” to someone else. The last time we all probably agreed on what accounted for a diverse group was while watching the cantina scene from “Star Wars:”

The primary problem is that the writer wants to say something like, “Look! It’s a group of people not totally comprised of rich, straight, white guys!” without actually saying exactly that. Usually describing a group gets you off the hook when it comes to vague descriptors, but that becomes a problem here, too. (Nobody is going to want to look like Archie Bunker describing a “balanced ticket” in politics.)

The solution comes in a few basic parts. First, figure out to what degree this descriptor adds something to the overall telling of the story in the most basic sense. In other words, why is it important to tell the readers that a group is “diverse?” What does the diversity aspect add to the telling of the story, especially at the point of using the descriptor? Second, if you figure this idea does matter, get more specific: HOW is the group diverse? Age? Race? Gender? Politics? Socio-economic status? Then, lay that out specifically and make it clear why that matters. A quote from the folks who put the group together might help here.

A journalism educator hated the term “inner-city” for similar veiled-language reasons, and a former journalist also took issue with “wide array of backgrounds.” In short, if you’re unsure what you’re saying, don’t say it. If you know what you want to say but you worry you’re going to sound like a dink if you say it directly, rethink what you’re trying to say and why you want to say it.

 

Poli Sci lingo:  The concern about “civic-minded citizens” goes along with “concerned citizens,” “taxpayers,” “interested parties” and other similar euphemisms for “people.”

(The “taxpayer” thing always bugged me after a friend of Amy’s had an interesting take on our lives. Amy had just taken a job at the U and her friend said, “It must be nice that you guys don’t have to pay taxes anymore.” Amy was stunned and asked what she meant. “Well, you and Vince both work for the government now, so you don’t have to pay taxes.” Um… No… Amy tried to explain how that wasn’t true, but the woman continued with “Oh, no, I know how this works! We’re the taxpayers and you’re the ‘takers!'” Good grief…)

I’m sure there is a better way of saying “people” without actually saying it, but this isn’t an Athenian democracy in which people in togas are making proclamations from the floor of a marble-lined acropolis. It’s a group of people in flannel who are trying to save the spotted owl or folks who think they pay too much already in taxes. Let’s not write them into a Shakespearean play.

Others had trouble with “traded barbs” as a euphemism for politicians who use the media to make fun of each other. (Unless, literally, they’re playing with Barbie dolls and they agree to exchange them. That might be the closest we get to a “traded barbs” moment. I would also pay to see that on C-SPAN.) For one former journalist, the phrase “ignited a firestorm of controversy” had her “up in arms.” As she put it:

NOTHING IGNITES A FIRESTORM OF CONTROVERSY. Somebody says something and some other people get pissed off, say who, say what, say why.

A journalism educator had similar problems with “doubled down” as a phrase used to describe when someone says something stupid and then reinforces his/her stupidity with further stupidity. The term actually comes from the game Blackjack, where a player can double a bet for a single card down with the hopes of attaining a nearly perfect hand.

I would be OK with the use of this term if we applied it accurately: Person says something stupid and “doubles down” on it. We provide that person with one, and only one, chance to make the winning point. When that doesn’t happen, we get to take all the money and ignore that person until next time.

 

Cop Talk: People aren’t “transported to a nearby medical facility” unless they’re in “Star Trek:

Speaking of medical problems, one of our hive had problems with “fatal injuries,” as she noted “you can’t be hurt when you’re dead.” (I had similar issues in thinking about when people report on thing like airplane crashes: “The crash left 83 people injured and 12 dead.” Do the dead count as injured as well, only, well, fatally injured? Or do the injured have to survive to be counted as injured?)

The police are always looking for a “person of interest,” which sounds like the worst way to describe yourself on Tinder.

In situations involving guns, a friend mentioned “assault weapon” as being a loaded (pardon the pun) term meant to vilify certain guns. It was like saying, “Big scary-looking gun thing!” I felt the same way about “assault rifle,” “the suspect is armed and dangerous,” “dangerous weapon” and other similar lines of thought. I can’t imagine non-dangerous weapons (“He attacked me with a Nerf knife!”) or armed and not-so-dangerous people who just robbed a store (“He was so friendly, I almost forgot he had a gun and was robbing me.”)

SPEED ROUND:

A parent’s worst nightmare: Worst means top-of-the-mark and singular, so unless you have something that applies to all parents and we can all agree on it, you can’t be right with this cliche. (Even if parents mostly agreed, there’s always that one idiot who would be able to say, “Actually, what would be WORSE would be…” like raising children is a game of “Would You Rather?”)

Completely destroyed: Destroyed means completely, so if it’s destroyed, it’s game over. Other redundancies include “extremely unique,” “armed gunman,” “deadly fatal accident” and “disappointing Cleveland Browns season.”

Packed courtroom: How much human density is required to move from just having a full gallery to a packed courtroom? Is there like a sweaty quotient or a “dude is leaning on me” vibe to help us distinguish these items? Unless you have everyone in the courtroom with a suitcase and plane tickets to Cabo, we can skip this one.

The White Stuff: A former journalist and current PR practitioner hates this one when it comes to snow. Trust me, there are more of these and none of them are any good.

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: A year later, I still miss my friend

A number of people I know have been dealing with a number of losses in their lives: family members, friends, pets and more. The grieving process is different for everyone, so it can be difficult for people who want others to “get on with life” when those folks clearly aren’t ready to do so.

I was flipping through the posts from about a year ago to see what would make for a good “Throwback Thursday” post and I was stunned to find that this one was a year old. It didn’t seem possible that Susie Brandscheid has been gone for that long.

This may seem stupid to some people, but even though I wasn’t in frequent contact with Susie as much as I once was, I miss knowing that she’s there. It’s hard to explain, I guess, but maybe revisiting what I wrote will help make more sense of it.

 

Had it not been for Susie Brandscheid, I probably would have been a pretty decent reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.

That thought kept rolling around in my head when I found out she died Wednesday at the age of 70.

Susie was the assistant to the director for UW-Madison’s School of Journalism as well as the graduate student adviser there for decades before retiring a few years back. She also was the keeper of knowledge, the fixer of foul-ups and the soother of students’ battered souls during her decades of service in and around Vilas Hall. Faculty, staff and students sought her advice, her insight and her help each and every day.

She always had the answers we all needed and she seemed to be effortless in her ability to get them for us. It was like having a computer crammed with every conceivable solution to any potential problem mixed with a treasure trove of institutional knowledge.

And she was damned funny, to boot.

She had a special sense of humor that defies explanation. I would camp out in her office whenever possible and trade amusing anecdotes. She would tell me stories about her husband, Pete, a man I never met but whose Quixotic endeavors had me laughing until I cried some days. I would tell her about the weird police-beat stuff I had to cover for the State Journal and she’d turn those dark moments into even darker humor.

There was always something bitingly humorous when it came to Susie. I can still remember one “sympathy” card she had pinned to the cork board on the wall behind her desk. It was black with red lettering that read, “Sorry to hear you’ve been depressed…”

Taped to the inside of the card was a razor blade.

Of all the people who worked in School of Journalism during my six years there, she was the only one I invited to my wedding. She came and it turned out to be another funny story we shared.

About six months after the wedding, I get a call out of the blue from Susie.

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” she said.

I had no idea what she was talking about. It turns out, she had spent the previous few months wondering why she never got a “thank you” card or a note or anything for the card and the check she gave us. I never expected a gift from her, as her showing up was more than enough for us. Also, we were moving, I was finishing my doctorate and we must have sent off a jillion cards, so it never really dawned on me that I hadn’t sent one to her.

A day or two before she called me, she went to put on the outfit she wore to the wedding and she realized she had stuck the card in her jacket pocket instead of dropping it on the gift table. She asked for our address so she could send it out in the next day’s mail.

We had a long laugh about that one.

Any time spent with Susie was like going to confession, visiting a psychiatrist and getting a mental reboot. She kept me sane. She kept me focused. She kept me happy.

She also kept me out of Baraboo.

I was in the first six weeks of my master’s program, and things were not going well. I was working multiple part-time jobs to keep my head above water financially. I was living in a one-room hovel on the end of Bassett Street that was essentially one giant building-code violation. A chunk of the ceiling fell into my bed during a rain storm one night, and the plumbing turned my water so brown that I begged for a Brita pitcher for Christmas.

I also didn’t understand any of my coursework. Each day, I entered a certain professor’s class, swearing up and down that I was going to comprehend him and his theories on the media. Each day, he lost me in the first three minutes and I spent the next hour or so doing the crossword in the student newspaper.

Out of frustration, I applied for a job at the Baraboo News Republic, a daily paper for the hometown of the Circus World Museum (among other things). The editors met with me on a Saturday and the offered me a full-time gig with benefits and a salary that would get me off the “Ramen and such diet.” All I had to do was drop this pointless degree and go to work.

That Monday, I went to tell Susie that I needed to drop my classes and see what I could do about getting some of my tuition money back. Instead, we started talking about why I was going to Baraboo and why I even got into the grad program in the first place.

“I did this so I could teach,” I told her in frustration. “I wanted to see what it would be like to run a classroom and I know I can’t do that without a master’s.”

She paused for a moment and then said, “What if I could give you your own 205 class to teach next semester? Would you stay with the program?”

J-205 was news writing and reporting class of about 15 students, taught in one of the school’s computer labs. Teaching gigs like that were impossibly difficult to get. They went to doctoral students for the most part. Even more, most TA jobs were essentially indentured servitude for professors who taught giant pit classes. A boatload of grading coupled with no actual teaching was basically the gig. Handing a J-205 class to a first-years master’s student wouldn’t just ruffle feathers; it would be like putting an ostrich in a blender.

“I would do anything for that kind of chance,” I told her. “Can you really do that?”

She told me she would make it happen somehow. I believed her. Later that day, I called Baraboo and turned down the job.

It is a rare moment when a person can say with absolute certainty that someone completely changed his or her life without even a hint of hyperbole. That’s what Susie did for me at that point.

Without her, I’m not a college instructor at the age of 22.

Without that experience, I don’t get the job at Mizzou or the doctorate the followed.

Without those two things, I don’t get a tenure-track job at Ball State and my first newsroom advising gig.

I sure as hell don’t end up a tenured professor, a textbook author or an award-winning anything.

Instead, I get to be the most popular cops reporter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

I have a really hard time trying to quantify how monumental Susie was in giving me the life I have today. I also can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of other people have a “Susie saved my life” story just like that.

Maybe that’s the thing that made her so special: Even though I was one of 100 things she had to deal with on any given day, she had this knack of making me feel like I was the most important one. I never felt like a bother or that I was just filling time for her until something more important came along.

My life and where it went mattered to her. I hope she always knew how much her life mattered to me.

So, goodnight, Susie. The world is a lesser place without you.

But everything you gave us will continue to help us better it.

 

 

Facts matter, so get them right (and three reasons why we tend to fail at this important task)

One of the early exercises I do in a reporting class is to provide students with a series of “facts” and ask them to check on their accuracy. If they are correct, the students need to say so and tell me where they found the information. If they are incorrect, they need to say so, explain what is wrong, correct it and then tell me where they found the information.

It’s a simple assignment that involves basically Googling things. It requires no predicate knowledge of journalism or any writing skills other than basic written communication.
Most of them fail.
This came to mind in reading the New York Times’ piece on how factual inaccuracies are plaguing the publishing industry. The article explains that fact-checking practices aren’t standard across companies, or even books. The publisher points at the author in a lot of cases, saying it’s up to that person to be right all the time:

While in the fallout of each accuracy scandal everyone asks where the fact checkers are, there isn’t broad agreement on who should be paying for what is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process in the low-margin publishing industry.
“The standard line from publishers is, ‘We rely on our authors,’ and, well, that’s not good enough,” said Gabriel Sherman, a journalist who paid two fact checkers $100,000 from his advance for his 2014 book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” about Roger E. Ailes and Fox News. “I wish publishers did see the importance of fact-checking as essentially an insurance policy.
The idea that fact checking is one of those things that costs too much, is too hard and takes too long is a dumb one, primarily because without things being right, nothing else matters.

Think about it this way: Would you want your surgeon to say, “OK, we can do a heart repair, but it’s really hard to do it while it’s still in the body, it’ll take a long time and really I’m not sure how much money I’m going to make on this, so let’s rip it out of the body and figure things out from there…” or would you prefer that the doctor keep you alive?

Put another way, it’s like not paying for a hockey goalie because, “Well, we have all these other players on the ice who should be able to stop the stupid puck from getting in the goal.”

That’s not how anything works.

I am borderline paranoid about facts when it comes to the textbooks you read that have my name on them. Part of that is fear of being wrong and having an industry full of instructors who used to be part of an industry full of watchdog journalists pulling apart my content and ripping me to shreds. Part of it is the idea that if you’re paying for something I did, you should get the best possible version of whatever it is I’m doing.

An even bigger part of it comes back to something my father told me when I went off to college: “Don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

Thus, I try to practice what I preach: I edit my stuff like it’s someone else’s and that person doesn’t know anything. I assume every fact I have in there is wrong until I can prove it to be true. I imagine instructors I ardently disliked as a student or a colleague mocking me in front of people and I strive to prevent that from happening.

When you work on a project of any length, it goes through multiple versions and a massive number of edits. A short version is this:

  • I write the chapters, edit them and rewrite them before sending them to the publisher.
  • The company sends them out for review, where people pick apart the drafts.
  • I rewrite the chapters, re-edit the chapters and rewrite them again and send them back.
  • The company then sends them out to a professional copy editor who asks a ton of questions and sends them back to me.
  • I rewrite the chapters, re-edit the chapters and rewrite them again before I send them back to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor then checks on all of my fixes, asks any additional questions and sends them back.
  • I answer all the questions, rewrite the chapters, edit them one more time and send them back to the copy editor. If the copy editor is happy, the chapters get sent to the publisher.
  • The publisher then sends them for page layout where a proofer looks over everything, asks more questions and sends me the pages for another look.
  • I answer the questions, fix the pages, rewrite some stuff and send them back.
  • If the proofer is happy, the pages go to press. If not, they come back to me for one more edit.

Still, even with all this, stuff still goes wrong and errors occur. We have found typos in spots, minor errors that need “clarifications” and other similar issues. I’m knocking on a giant pile of redwood right now as I say, so far, we’ve avoided any massive fact errors.

The reason we make mistakes at this level, and probably even when I was a reporter, comes down to a few simple things. The major problem is that even knowing this, the best we can hope to do is mitigate the errors, as we’ll never stop them entirely. Here’s my list:

  • OF COURSE I’M SURE! WAIT… DAMMIT…: When you spend enough time in any particular field, you become sure of yourself and your experience. That’s natural and normal. However, in that case, you also tend to misremember things and delude yourself into believing you know you are right about stuff.Case in point: last week, I wrote about a censorship issue and noted that we had something happen when I was an adviser at Ball State. Someone stole our press run because we ran a story about a member of the women’s soccer team being arrested. I noted that it was the goalie, something I’d said dozens of times, if not more. I was SURE it was the damned goalie because I was there, I remembered the kid’s name and I could even see the mugshot in my mind’s eye.

    Turns out, I was wrong. I got a text from a reader who was on staff at the time, telling me the player was actually a defensive midfielder, not the goalie. He sent me a link to the original story that I had trouble finding when I went looking. Sure enough, I was wrong. I made the fix but I felt like an idiot and I wondered what else I’ve been telling people over the years that has been off a bit.

    The point of the story was still valid, but the details being wrong undermined my credibility and it really bothered me. I knew that I should look it up or that’s what I would have told a student who was writing it. However, as the “expert” on the topic, I figured I was fine.

    Good rule of thumb that I should have followed: Treat every statement like it’s wrong and then prove yourself right.

 

  • GOING BLIND: When you work on a project for a protracted period of time, you read it over and over and over and over again to the point that you no longer are actually reading what’s on the page. I explained this to someone as “going blind to it,” meaning that I can no longer see anything wrong with what I have done and thus me reading it again is useless.Probably the best money I ever spent in my life was the $60 I gave to a 19-year-old sophomore who worked on the Columbia Missourian’s copy desk. I gave her a check, a copy of the APA style guide and a copy of my dissertation and told her to go to town. She was initially hesitant, saying she didn’t know if she’d understand all the stats and the lingo I was dumping in this thing. I told her I didn’t need her to reanalyze the data; I needed her to look for the patently stupid mistakes I was sure I made.

    She found plenty: repeated words, style errors, sentences that started one way and went the other. I had four or five committee members, all with Ph.D.s, read draft after draft of this and none of them said anything about this stuff. They, too, had apparently gone blind to these things.

    A lot of publications are cutting copy editors or additional line editors or other folks whose job it is to backstop the work to increase profits and (theoretically) reduce redundancies. The problem with that is that we’re not looking at them to do the same job the same way as everyone else did. It’s their fresh eyes and new perspective that matter the most, especially when coupled with those job skills they possess.

 

  • IT WAS FINE LAST TIME: A long time before I started writing books, I remember talking to one of the guys who wrote a book I had long used in my classes. He came into my office and asked how far back, edition-wise, I had copies of his book. He was working on Edition 10, I believe, and I had everything back to Edition 4. He took each one off the shelf, flipped to a single example and said, “Well, I’ll be damned…”It turned out that someone had emailed him about a mistake in an example and asked if he could correct it for the next edition. Being the long-time journalist he was, he wondered how long that error had been there, given the example had been repeated in multiple editions. Turns out it was there as far back as his fourth edition, so if you do the math, it’s probably more than 15 years. How it took this long for one person to bring it up boggles the mind.

    Or maybe not. The idea of inertia tends to creep into what we do when it comes to repetitive processes. It’s why we’re stunned that we get pulled over for speeding (shout out to Rosendale) for going five miles over, even though we’ve never been stopped for this kind of thing before. “Nobody ever said anything, so I guess it was all right,” is a weak excuse for the cop at your window and it’s even worse for not checking on a fact.

    In journalism, we are writing the “first draft of history” to borrow a phrase, so in many cases, we need to update that draft. Sometimes people who are healthy at Time A die at Time B. Sometimes court cases we use as examples of something get settled or overturned. Still, the idea that it worked the last time tends to make us think it’s fine now. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

When it comes to your writing, or mine for that matter, the point that we’re not going to be perfect goes without saying. However, aspiring to reach that point will keep us in the game and hopefully prevent the massive screw ups.

That leads me to the last point: When you see something, say something. A professor at a college in New Mexico (name escapes me) gave his writing class extra credit if they found any errors in my textbook, which he was using for the course. I got a couple emails about typos and one about something I wrote that didn’t make sense. I fixed all of that for the second edition and was grateful.

I know when you’re editing someone else’s work, you don’t want to look like the picky weasel or the grammar dork or anything like that, so you let it slide. Don’t. This isn’t eBay feedback. It’s important that you’re honest, accurate and clear. It’s better the thing gets fixed now than after everyone else on Earth reads it and there’s no hope of going back.

The Junk Drawer: Dead sources who refuse to talk, the use of dead kids as a marketing campaign and other mistakes to avoid

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so let’s enjoy a few of the more awkward moments sent in by the hivemind and other friends out there:

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES: When you’re doing breaking news live, you often find yourself on an adrenaline high and you also try to tell people all the important stuff you did to get them as much information as possible. In the case of KTLA’s Sara Welch, she went above and beyond to get as much information as she could regarding a fatal crash:

I have no idea whom Welch was trying to reach, but I’m guessing she really wasn’t shaking down a dead guy for answers. Then again, this approach sometimes works in the movies: (Probably NSFW)

 

Speaking of shaking down the dead…

MASS SHOOTINGS AREN’T MARKETING OPPORTUNITIES: Certain names or terms are so indelibly linked with horrible things (Nazis, Jeffrey Dahmer, Virginia Tech shooting) that they are essentially the third rail of marketing: You just don’t step on them if you want to make it out of here alive. We have mentioned a few marketing failures in this regard, such as the “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt and the “pillows and skirt by Auschwitz” fashion movement. However, the folks at Bstroy decided to up the “what the hell is wrong with you?” fashion movement by creating hoodies with the names of school shooting sites on them. Naturally, they were laced with bullet holes:

BstroyFAIL

Look, I have a hard enough time understanding why my kid (and seemingly everyone else in her demographic group) wants clothes with holes in them, but I’m pretty sure nobody with an inkling of human empathy or at least one-third of a brain thought this was a good idea.

As the internet freaked out on the “edgy company,” the owners issued a statement that violated “Filak’s First Rule of Holes:

“Sometimes life can be painfully ironic,” the statement reads. “Like the irony of dying violently in a place you considered to be a safe, controlled environment, like school. We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential.”

Mmmhmm… Speaking of bad ideas poorly executed…

WORD CHOICE MATTERS: Case in point, the questioning of a ship captain whose boat exploded into flames:

69511389_10156200929926191_4240205174485811200_n

I like my captain grilled medium-rare, with a little pink… Speaking of conception:

DID THE KID SHANK SOMEONE AT HIS BIRTH?: Misplaced modifiers end up causing all sorts of problem, as does awkward structure and horrible punctuation. These things all deserve attention, even if you’re “just on Twitter.”

DeadSonInJail

The first two times I read this, it sounded like an infant was found dead in his jail cell and all I kept thinking was, “How the hell did a 6-month-old kid end up in jail? Did he hold the delivery room hostage or something?” Eventually, I read it the right way, but honestly, this is an easy clarification.

Two commas solve this problem:

A XX-year-old man, awaiting trial for the death of his 6-month-old son, was found dead in his jail cell, authorities say.

Remember, Twitter did this really nice thing for us in doubling the number of characters we can use to explain things. (Personally, I still don’t like the 280-character limit, as I explained in the “Fat Pants Theory,” but I’m getting used to it.) That said, you should feel free to write in complete sentences and maybe include a little more punctuation as needed.

Have a good start to your week!

Vince

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

 

Throwback Thursday: You Earn The Fungus on Your Shower Shoes

To help people find some of the older posts buried deeply in the history of the blog, we decided to do a few “Throwback Thursday” posts throughout the year.

Today’s “throwback” came from a conversation I had with a student, who told me that another professor explained that “nobody” writes in a certain simple way anymore. He wondered if he had wasted his time learning the 5W’s and 1H, tight leads, the inverted pyramid and more. I found myself telling him this story, so I dug up the post to share with everyone else.

Enjoy!

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


 

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.