THROWBACK THURSDAY: A few tips on making the most of course evaluations (or Why “You suck! Your an asshole!” rarely helps.)

In the last Throwback Thursday of the semester, I’m hoping to help professors who would like actual feedback on their courses. Student opinion surveys often lack value because the students see them as either a chance to employ vengeance or to blow smoke. Neither of these things are really helpful, so here are some hints and tips that might make for a better overall experience:


A few tips on making the most of course evaluations (or Why “You suck! Your an asshole!” rarely helps.)

As the semester draws to a close, students have two equally important things to deal with: Finals and course evaluations. When it comes to finals, most students probably feel like this:

Perfectly normal response, when everything is due all at the same time, every final test or project is worth 80 percent of your grade and every professor thinks his/her final should take precedence over everything else.

And then there are course evaluations: The one moment in time where, behind a cloak of anonymity, students have the ability to grade their instructors. It’s easy enough to imagine you wanting your “Jules Winfield” moment:

I’ve had my share of evaluations over 20 years of teaching college journalism students, so I’ve seen quite a range of commentary over the years. The one that always stuck with me was the student who filled in the whole row of “Strongly Disagree” bubbles on the ScanTron sheet with what appeared to be a frenzied scrawl of a demented clown.

On the back, where students were asked to list three things they liked about me or the class, three things they disliked about me or the class and three things they’d like to see the class do in the future, he (I assume it was a guy) wrote one thing in giant letters:


It is that succinct and yet nonspecific response that led me to today’s post about course evaluations. Some students view it as an opportunity to “get back” at a professor while others use them to lavish praise with exclamation points and emojis to boot. Some students hope their comments will “fix” a class while others see them as never having an effect on how the professor operates.

The truth, as it is with most things, sits in the middle somewhere, as some professors will take every word to heart and others will use your criticism to light the yule log in their hearth. However, consider these thoughts when you fill out your course evals:

  • Numbers are fine but comments matter more: Some schools just give you numerical scales to rate a professor, so you don’t have much leeway here. However, if you are lucky enough to have an evaluation form that allows you to make comments, do so.
    If one student gives me a “3” on “The material made sense to me” and another student gives me a “4,” that doesn’t tell me anything. However, if both of those students wrote that a particular assignment, reading or whatever didn’t make sense or was confusing, I’m going to take another look at that thing. If you apply the “Filak-ism” of how grades don’t matter but what you learn does to your evaluations, you’ll see that one good comment matters more than all the 3s, 4s and 5s you can shake a stick at.


  • Tell me WHY: OK, I suck. Got it. Why do I suck? What specifically makes me suck? Just like you don’t like getting a paper back with no comments on it and a “D” grade, professors don’t like getting vague statements. I can say with absolute certainty that I have changed assignments, class structure and even my teaching based on “why” answers.
    Case in point: In one class a student wrote that he/she thought I was playing favorites by giving the students who worked with me at the newspaper special treatment. The student mentioned that I never called out a newsroom kid for texting during class, but I publicly admonished another student for texting. The student also said I called on the newspaper kids first when we were doing discussions. I hadn’t realized what I was doing, but the student saw it and it made me think twice about how I was conducting myself in the classroom and I altered my behavior. Had the student simply said, “You suck,” I never would have known why he/she felt that way.


  • Don’t undercut your own arguments: I might suck and I might be the other thing that person said about me, but when the student used the wrong form of “your” in proclaiming that edict, he (or she) really had me laughing more than anything else. Lousy grammar and spelling (especially in critiquing a journalism professor) will really diminish the impact of your words. So will statements like, “I quit going to lecture after the third week, but I didn’t feel I really learned anything from this course.” If you want to make me sit up and notice, write it in a way I’ll accept it: Use complete sentences, give me specific examples and don’t make mistakes in your writing.


  • Sunshine and lollipops are nice, but they don’t help either: Having one’s ego stroked is a great feeling. The more exclamation points used in the sentence “Dr. Filak is the best professor ever!!!!!!!,” the more joyous my day will be. That said, once I get past having sunshine blown up my keester, I’m left with little else that matters. Most of your journalism professors have thick skins, so telling them negative stuff will not have them at home drinking vodka and listening to Chaka Khan. However, feeding us sunshine and lollipops doesn’t help, either. Tell us WHAT you liked or wanted us to keep. In some cases, it’s something simple like “I loved that you told jokes to keep the class laughing.” In other cases, it’ll be about content: “I never had to learn about X before, but your approach made it easier.” You should feel free to tell us what to keep and what to get rid of.


  • It’s not personal: Our program assistant and I were chatting about various comments we’ve seen over the years on evaluations. She said when she worked for a different department on campus, she had to type up all the comments on course evals, regardless of content and without changing typos and so forth. Aside from the grammar errors that made her feel like she died a little inside, she said some of them were revoltingly personal. One involved the student’s supposition that the faculty members mother had mated with a goat. Another was for a female professor and commented about how “hot” she was.
    I used to get comments on how I dressed (One student noted that I dressed like a homeless guy. Another once noted: “What’s 12 inches long and hangs from an asshole? Filak’s tie.”) Someone mentioned on an eval that I was going bald. True? Yeah, even probably the tie thing, which is why I don’t wear them any more (well that and I feel more comfortable dressing like a homeless elf). Fair? Not a chance.
    It’s inappropriate to comment on the physicality of people unless it in some way diminishes your ability to understand the material. If a professor was too quiet, it’s fair to ask for that person to speak up. It’s not decent to note that the faculty member was “so ugly it made it hard for me to concentrate.” As they say in every “Godfather” movie: It’s not personal. So don’t make it that way.
    Think about the converse happening to you. If you got a paper back and the professor wrote, “I’d like to give you an A on this, but I could never give that high of a grade to a Chicago Bears fan, so here’s your C,” you’d be rightly upset. If a faculty member told you, “Keep wearing clothes like that and you’ll never get a decent grade” or commented on how “hot” you are, there is no way you would tolerate it. (And by the way, if any of those things do happen, especially the sexual harassment, tell an administrator immediately. There’s no place for that stuff anywhere.)


  • Don’t wait until evals: If you are sitting in week 5 with a lousy grade, no idea what the professor is talking about and a general sense that this class is essentially going to turn your life into a Dumpster fire, don’t wait until evaluations come around two months later to make mention of it. Talk to your professor about concerns when you have them to see if you can rectify a few of the problems you are having. See if you can find some common ground in making the class work better for you.
    If we can fix things before they become irreversible problems, we’re so much happier for it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I don’t get a Christmas bonus or a free set of steak knives for every student I fail, so I have no motive to avoid helping you. Tell me sooner rather than later and we’ll both be better off.

Dear profile writers, Readers don’t give a damn about you, so get out of the story.

Personality profiles are among the best stories journalists will ever write. When reporters get the chance to enter the lives of the rich and famous, the eccentric and reclusive or even the “known but unknown” people around them, they can paint some amazing word pictures that will allow readers to gain incredible insight.

That said, journalists have ruined more than a few of these opportunities because they can’t manage to get out of their own way in telling the story.

Consider this opening of a profile on Woody Harrelson:

It’s a Saturday in June and I’m running on time to meet Woody Harrelson, but one subway delay, one wrong turn, one mother with a double stroller failing to keep pace and clogging the already clogged sidewalks of midtown and I’ll be running behind. Adding to my anxiety: the possibility that I have no voice, not so much as a croak (laryngitis, a bad case).

Brushing past a pair of doormen, I enter the lobby of a residential tower on the southwest tip of Central Park. I beeline for the elevator bank, press the up button, and glance at my phone. Two minutes after the hour. I’m now officially late. My pores open, sweat gushing out. At last, a muted ding as the doors slide apart. I board.

To calm myself, I pull from my bag a sheaf of clippings on Woody. The big takeaway of recent years: He spent his entire adult life cuckoo for cannabis and then, in 2016, gave it up.

In 164 words, the author references herself 12 times. Her subject? Twice.

Profiles recently have suffered from a lot of this kind of masturbatory self-importance, with the writers weaving themselves into the piece as being the one consequential element of the story.


The fact the writer is present should be considered both obvious and inconsequential: The readers came to this piece because they wanted to learn about the person being profiled, not about the writer.

In short, nobody cares about you. The more you find yourself verbally photo-bombing your way into the story for your own edification or out of sheer laziness, the more annoying you will be to your readers and the less valuable your piece will be.

This point became clear this weekend when several folks online were discussing a recent Adam Sandler profile that kept popping up in our news feeds. The opening wasn’t as self-absorbed as the one for the Harrelson profile, but it was similarly focused and similarly annoying:

We cruised down West Pico in Adam Sandler’s ride, a custom Chevy passenger van tricked out in the style of an orthopedic shoe. The cup holders jangled with suburban odds and ends — a pair of tiny glasses belonging to his daughter; a bottle of Dry-n-Clear ear drops. We were bound for Hillcrest Country Club, the oldest Jewish country club in Los Angeles. “You’re going to like this,” Sandler said. He whipped the van into the valet station. Alongside the row of town cars and coupes, it looked like an airport courtesy shuttle.

Compare this to the opening of Mary Jo Sales’ look at “Jon and Kate Plus 8” co-star Kate Gosselin:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu. She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

But Laurie Goldberg, senior vice president of communications at the Learning Channel, which airs Jon & Kate, doesn’t think Nobu’s such a great idea. Kate cried on the Today show this morning, answering questions about why she’s still wearing her wedding ring (“for them,” she said of her children, sniffling), and this afternoon she told People, “I am so emotionally spent” (from her husband’s behavior, which has included philandering with the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave Kate her tummy tuck), and so it might not look good for her to be out enjoying herself at a hot spot.

“You’re like a prisoner,” Kate says of her newfound fame, annoyed.

Kate, who in the first season of Jon & Kate, two years ago, appeared on-screen as a dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen, is now looking very much the celebrity—from her tanned, trained body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.

Her phone rings. “Oh, it’s Kelly”—Ripa, of Live with Regis and Kelly—Kate says, holding up a French-manicured finger, signaling for us all to be silent. She’s going on the show tomorrow morning. She and Kelly gab. “Hiya!”

They both rely on description. They both open with a scene setter. However, while Sales puts the focus on the profile subject (Gosselin), Keiles seems to be writing a piece she wanted to call, “Adam and me.”

Keiles turns the focus on herself once again a few paragraphs after she and Sandler arrive at the club, explaining the story behind the story:

I started chasing Sandler in early 2017. His presence in my own childhood had been mythic — a Jewish cultural influence more imposing than anyone I’d ever learned about in Hebrew school. Thinking about the scope of his career, I was enchanted by the prospect of me, a person of modern and hardly coherent gender, grappling with America’s foremost man-child. I dispatched my editor to email his publicist. At night, from my apartment in Queens, I wondered if Sandman, from his mansion in the Pacific Palisades, was considering my offer.

We followed up. Time was marked by the arrival and deletion of my weekly “Adam Sandler” Google Alert, which detailed a still-persistent comedy career, achieved with infrequent engagement with the press. Soon he mocked me everywhere I went, his face staring down from the subway ads for his latest movie, “Sandy Wexler.” On Netflix, his new stand-up special debuted, and he did the late-night shows. I waited. Months turned to years. And just like that, the Google Alert started to spit out photos from a movie set: Sandler in a louche leather coat and diamond earrings, filming the indie thriller “Uncut Gems.”

Sandler had taken dramatic roles before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.” Then, as now, a question emerged: If he was such a good actor — and he was — then why did he keep making dumb comedies? This was a question I had long since learned that he resented, and in my pursuit, I had been careful to avoid it. Now it seemed the precaution had paid off. By some act of God — or, more likely, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting — we found ourselves together at last, standing in his country club, staring down the gallery of early Hillcrest members.

By this point in the piece, we are learning a lot more about the author than we are about Sandler. We learn about her pursuit of Sandler, Sandler’s influence in her life, how she got an editor to email Sandler, how she wondered if Sandler was considering her offer…

At this point, between the fawning and the overuse of first-person writing, I felt like I was reading a cross between my 14-year-old daughter’s diary and an autobiography Donald Trump wrote while on a coke bender.

Abiding by the theory of “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” I kept reading in hopes of learning something about Sandler that wasn’t tied to the writer.


To Sandler, everyone is “bro” or “buddy,” except for me; I was “kid.” Crossing the busy street that cut through the park, he rested a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then yanked it away, as if weighing the optics of touching a young stranger versus letting that same stranger be run over by a car.

Away from the street, we came across a guy absolutely shredding on the erhu. Sandler, who busked in the subway during college, stopped to throw some money in his hat, and I noticed the ease with which $20 seemed to float right out of his hand. I reckoned in that moment that a 20 to Sandler was probably something like $1 to me. Later, using dubious-but-still-plausible figures from, I calculated that his $20 was closer to my one one-thousandth of a cent.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Adam Sandler has a special nickname for the writer. (oooohhh…)
  • Adam Sandler makes more money than the writer. (So cool!)

I gave up at that point, only cursorily giving a glance at the close of the piece, where Keiles frets about being at a wrap party and wondering if Sandler will remember her. In other words, it ends as it began: All about the writer.

We could continue to beat the dead horse that is this profile, but Keiles is an exemplar, not the cause of this phenomenon. When I groused about a similar approach to a Megan Rapinoe profile, student journalists, professors, former reporters and more all chimed in:

THANK YOU. It’s been so hard teaching our new writers profile writing because they read stuff like this.

I remember this being a MUST DO when I took journalism classes in 1979!

Don’t even get me started with “I caught up with…” and “I sat down with…”

I 100% agree. I hate the inclusion of first person in these things They drive me nuts and ruin the story.

That first person writing drives me crazy!!! I don’t care how you first heard about the person…or how you had to travel to talk to them. You are not the focus of the article!!! It is (EXPLETIVE) lazy.

Based on all of this, consider the following helpful suggestions/concepts:

THE FRAME OF THE MONA LISA THEORY: The Mona Lisa is one of the best-known works of art on Earth. In writing about it for The Independent, John Litchfield called it “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world.” It serves as a metaphor for everything thought to be the best of anything and it is probably the most recognizable image ever created. I saw it in person about 20 years ago during our honeymoon trip to France. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still compelling in a way I can’t properly articulate.

Now, those of you who have seen it, tell me what the frame on the Mona Lisa looks like.

Chances are, like me, you have no damned idea what that frame looked like. Ask anyone you know who has seen it and they probably have no damned idea what it looked like. Nobody I know walked away from the Louvre saying, “Man, that chick was ugly but the FRAME! Now, THAT was something!” The reason? Nobody gives a damn what the frame looks like. It’s just there to display the artwork in a way that doesn’t detract from it or overshadow it.

Your job as a profile writer is to showcase the subject in a way that other people appreciate it. You display the individual in a fashion that helps the audience members connect to that person. You’re like the frame of the Mona Lisa: Hold up the painting for everyone to enjoy and get the hell out of the way.

SHOW, DON’T TELL: This is Journalism 101, but it bears repeating. If you want to let people know how great a game was, don’t tell them, “This was an awesome game!” Instead, show them what happened so that they independently come to the conclusion of, “Wow, this was an awesome game!” This is true in all kinds of journalistic writing, but it’s especially true in profile writing.

The descriptive nature of narrative storytelling should put your readers into a scene so they feel like they’re viscerally experiencing it for themselves. The distance provided by third-person writing often does this best, because it focuses the readers on the experience as opposed to the writer.

When you rely on first person, you basically are retelling an experience and that focuses the reader on you. Save that for Facebook posts, random blogging and roommates who ask, “So, how was your day?” For profiles, put me next to you at the scene and let me engage the situation as much as you did. That’s fun for both of us.

DON’T BE LAZY: Two of the comments above (one of them rather explicitly) mentioned the idea of how first person allows the writer to be lazy. Leads can be tough to write, so profile writers often resort to some version of, “I caught up with…”

Yeah, no kidding. Otherwise, how would you know whatever it is you are telling me? I’d give anything to hear instead, “I couldn’t catch up with (NAME OF CELEB) because I failed to do enough cardio. Thus, I’ll be making up this entire thing…”

First-person writing has its place: Columns, blogs, personal-participation pieces and several other spots in media. The question always should be, “Do I need to use it to make this piece work or not?” If you can get away without using it, you should aspire to do so for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this opening to a profile on former MLB pitcher John Rocker at the height of Rocker’s fame:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

The writer of this piece could have easily started with, “I’m in a car with pitcher John Rocker and I feel like I’m going to die.” Instead, the writing focuses on the subject and the situation. Even when Rocker is directly addressing the writer, first person never enters the mix. Still, we get the picture: John Rocker is a horse’s ass.

No profile is perfect in this regard. Even Gay Talese dropped in a few first-person moments during the legendary profile, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” However, they are few and far between and limited to points where the writer NEEDS to do this instead of where it’s convenient or the writer can’t think of anything better to do.

Think of using first-person writing in a profile like being forced to take a Friday class that starts at 8 a.m.: It should be an unpleasant experience you only engage in when absolutely necessary. Even then, you should want to move on from it as quickly as possible.

SLAPPed around: How people with money who dislike your work can make your life miserable (legally)

About a year ago, we talked about the legal triangle that existed between coal magnate Bob Murray, comedian John Oliver and a 7-foot-tall squirrel named Mr. Nutterbutter.

The short version of this was that Oliver did a big piece on the coal-mining industry, in which he called out Murray’s company and made fun of the 79-year-old for a variety of things he did and said. Murray filed suit in West Virginia, claiming Oliver defamed him and seeking not only damages (to be specified by the court), but also a permanent injunction barring Oliver from ever broadcasting the piece again. It also sought to eliminate all copies of the “Last Week Tonight” story from public viewing.

A year ago, the state threw out the case against Oliver and HBO, stating that this was satire in some cases and free speech in all cases. (I still think the greatest legal argument came from the amicus brief filed by the West Virginia ACLU that noted, “Anyone Can Legally Say, ‘Eat Shit, Bob.'”) When the court tossed the case, Oliver let his fans know about it in a truly “Last Week Tonight” fashion:

Contrary to the title of that clip, however, Murray hadn’t given up the ship quite yet. He appealed the decision to the state’s supreme court before eventually dropping the case recently. Oliver then finally made good on his 2-year-old promise to tell us “the whole story” about what happened with the suit.

(Normally, I would upload the link to the piece here, but I think my publisher would kill me in this case if I did so. I have been told repeatedly that “students at small religious institutions” read this blog as part of their homework. Let’s just say that the dancing and singing number at the end is “a lot.” Feel free to find it on your own on YouTube.)

Oliver, however, didn’t spend all 25 minutes of the main story on a self-congratulatory Broadway-style number that pushed satire into a completely incredible stratosphere. His main point was about the way in which people with money can engage in ridiculous lawsuits to crush dissent, which is something of serious concern to journalists these days.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, use the legal system as a sword as opposed to a shield. The goal of these, according to the Public Participation Project, is to crush free speech with lawsuits that have no merit:

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

In short, even if you win the point as the target of one of these SLAPP suits, you lose because you go broke. We covered this kind of situation when we talked about the small-town Iowa newspaper that went after a police officer who had been showing waaaaay too much interest in underage girls. The cop sued for libel and lost in a huge way. However, the paper ran up a six-figure debt defending itself and turned to a GoFundMe campaign to try to save itself.

In Oliver’s case, it cost about $200,000 to defend the coal piece and led to a tripling of his libel insurance premiums. And that was BEFORE he ran his giant Broadway number that went even further in talking crap about Bob Murray.

About 30 states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books now, which try to cut this kind of nonsense off at the pass. Although they vary from state to state, the gist of anti-SLAPP laws is that the person being sued can ask the court to view the story in question as being in the public interest (or at least free speech). It then is the plaintiff’s job to show that the suit has merit.

If those folks can’t meet that burden and it becomes clear it’s a SLAPP suit, the case gets tossed. In some cases, the law calls for the plaintiff to cover all legal bills derived from this stupid exercise.

However, not every state has these laws (Murray sued Oliver in West Virginia for precisely that reason) and not all laws are equally helpful to journalists. This makes life a little dicey for you if you want to take a shot at someone who has probably done something wrong but is likely to be extremely litigious.

Every time you ply your trade, you run the risk of being sued, regardless of if you did something wrong or if someone is just being a chucklehead. With that in mind, here are a few things to think about when it comes to SLAPPs:

IT’S NOT A SUIT UNTIL IT’S FILED: My good buddy Fred Vultee used to say this a lot on the copy desk when a story about someone threatening to sue would come across his desk. His point, and it’s a good one, was that anyone can threaten anything. Until paperwork is filed, all this huffing and puffing does is create a lot of wind.

As we pointed out in earlier posts, you shouldn’t panic and try to run away whenever someone threatens you with a suit. Instead, you should see what it is that is upsetting that person, if that concern has merit and if something needs to be done to resolve the concern before it gets too far down the road. If you’re wrong, an anti-SLAPP law isn’t going to help you.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press points out, anti-SLAPP laws aren’t meant to solve every legal problem for journalists. They are just one more tool in your toolbox that can be helpful when a specific situation comes up.

If you’re right, and it become clear this person is just trying to mess with you, then you can start thinking about lawyers, laws and SLAPP stuff.

DOES SOMEONE HAVE YOUR BACK?: When we talked to Alex Crowe of The Great 98 a year or so ago, he found himself in the middle of what could be considered a SLAPP case. He reported on a messy police situation, which included a reference to a drug bust and a cop’s kid. The officer involved threatened to sue unless the station scrubbed its website of all stories involving this.

Although point one really applies here, sometimes, just the threat of a suit is enough to make people up the chain nervous about sticking their necks out for you. In Crowe’s case, the first inclination of the people around him was to back off. He did, however, know that if he could protect himself and the station without draining every resource from the organization, he would still be in decent shape. That’s where the RCFP came into play. The folks there provided him with legal advice, some pro-bono counsel and a chance to push back at the threats. That was enough to put the kabosh on the whole thing.

Organizations vary as do bosses. I’ve worked for people who would step in front of a bus for me. I’ve also worked for people who would not only push me in front of a bus, but would be more than glad to drive it over me a couple times if it kept their keesters out of the fire. This was the determining factor for a lot of what it was that I was doing in terms of fighting with angry sources, disgruntled subjects and other folks who were potentially litigious.

If you know where you stand with the people who might or might not stand with you on a situation, you at least have a sense of how scared you should be going forward. For all of his zany antics, something tells me that Oliver had more than a few conversations with his bosses at HBO about what might happen as a result of going after Murray before he aired the piece.

IS THE JUICE WORTH THE SQUEEZE?: In employing this “Filak-ism,” I’m likely to earn the ire of many old-school news journalists. In the idealized world of news, the goal is to tell the truth, consequences be damned. You HAVE to tell the truth and you MUST push back against powerful forces. In the movies, it always looks like this:

There’s that sense of “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” that brings vigor to journalism and that is trumpeted as “this is why we do what we do.” I’ll never argue that in a perfect world, the bad guys get punished, the truth gets told and Gary Cooper always rides off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.

We don’t live in a perfect world and if you need any proof of that, go look at the approval ratings of journalists these days.

My friend Allison and I used to ask when we would deal with difficult situations or plan those Quixotic efforts, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” In other words, if everything goes to hell in a speedboat and you don’t end up winning the day and Gary Cooper gets run over by a horse while Grace Kelly runs off with the blacksmith instead, are you OK with that? Was this worth it?

In the case of Crowe’s story, he felt it was worth it and he ran the risk of losing the fight, the ability to do good news and maybe even his job. In the case of the “Spotlight” story, the Boston Globe eventually got the pieces in front of the public and unveiled some of the darkest elements of the powerful force that was the Catholic church.

In the case of John Oliver, well, we got another awesome moment or 12 from Mr. Nutterbutter, so I guess that was good as well.

The point is, if you’re going to take on someone who will likely torture you with legal stuff and drain your piggy bank of every last cent, make sure you feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor. If you don’t, then let it go and be OK with the fact someone is getting away with lousy behavior because of your choices.

The Junk Drawer: An update on the Daily Northwestern apology, the tao of Vin Diesel and an honest look at journalism salaries

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 here are a few bits and bites of things that are helpful or at least somewhat amusing:

REASON 283,435,139 I’M NOT A DEAN: In covering the Daily Northwestern apology story earlier this week, we took some liberties in explaining the best and worst ways in which people reacted to the paper’s editorial choices. A good number of folks I knew who were Medill alumni emailed the dean of the school, Charles Whittaker, asking exactly what the heck was going on at Northwestern.

Whittaker was in a tough spot: He didn’t control the paper (as is the case with almost all colleges and universities, despite what many administrators like to think) and yet the students running the place were most likely kids in his program. The paper’s actions reflected poorly on the school, even though the school itself had nothing to do with the paper. People wanted him to say SOMETHING, although anyone who has ever worked in crisis communication knows that rarely do statements in times like this satisfy everyone. (And, in many cases, these statements end up doing the PR equivalent of trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline…)

Whittaker put out a statement that, in my view, covered the bases and nailed the key points. It also did so in a way that didn’t throw anyone under the bus and yet moved the school beyond the hand-wringing point most alumni seemed to be stuck on. In reading it, I found that his points tended to mirror some of the concerns we raised here, but he did it with an eloquence that I couldn’t pull off at the time. This paragraph covered the three unpleasant truths I outlined in the post in a much tighter and with better language:

And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.

Again, this is why I couldn’t be a dean. Well, that and I’d have to wear a tie…


YOU LEARN A LOT ON THE WAY TO 500: In listening to all the people talk about the Daily Northwestern’s position and how they were “much tougher back in the day,” I found myself going back to this Vin Diesel clip from “Knockaround Guys:”

Rarely do the words “Vin Diesel,” “stronger journalism” and “great philosophy” converge in a single sentence, but they all seem to work here. If those previous generations of journalists were tougher, it was because they got started earlier on their 500 fights. It’s the battles, the mistakes and the ability to live through everything that happens that gives you that toughness. That’s how you develop thicker skin, as so many people kept telling the staffers at the DN to do. It’s how you learn to tough out certain things and acquiesce in other situations.

You learn a lot of things on the way to 500, but none more important than this: You will survive and you will get better at fighting.

COME FOR THE ABUSE, STAY FOR THE LOW PAY!: Why journalists do what they do is often beyond explanation. In some cases, we find a calling, like a priest or a rabbi would. In other cases, we see how our skills match up with what news organizations need and we go for it. In many more cases, we realize we stink at math, so we figure this is the best field for us.

However, even if you’re bad at math, you can tell pretty quickly that the salaries of journalists aren’t among the highest in the world. Anecdotes often filled the ears of students who were working their way through college that, hey, you’d be better off working a fry machine at Hardee’s than doing this. Still, getting people to talk about money is really rough, so no true salary database existed in this area.

Some folks in the field wanted to change that with an open access Google spreadsheet and some publicity.

Journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism, in the shape of Google docs, is a new development in form. And examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what.

If you want to dig around, feel free to depress yourself here. Also, if you’re living in Kearney, Nebraska or Butte, Montana and you see the six-figure salaries, remember those are mostly in New York where it can cost almost a quarter-million dollars for a parking space.

Still, you can’t beat the hours…

Until next week,


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


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:


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…


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…


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:


(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 “” 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:


Back Monday with what I hope will be fuller classes.

(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.”)


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.