Accuracy is key in everything we do, and that includes the proper use of terminology to describe crimes, accusations and other dicey topics. I groused about this a long while ago when I noted that the use of “allegedly” makes me twitchy.
As a night-cops reporter, and later a cops editor, I found myself parsing the language a lot, arguing with people who wanted to “simplify” headlines or sentence construction. As I grew into those roles, I realized that big differences exist between certain terms and that I’d rather have ugly sentences than wrong ones. If I’m a grump about this, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Here’s Mark Memmott at NPR on the topic of legal terms:
There were several Web summaries posted over the weekend that flatly said Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. We should not be doing that in any stories, online or on air. NPR agrees with the AP that:
“Homicide is a legal term for slaying or killing.
“Murder is malicious, premeditated homicide. …
“A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”
This kind of thing always takes me back to a great scene in the movie, “And The Band Played On,” which describes the Centers for Disease Control and its staff’s attempts in the early 1980s to understand how AIDS behaved and spread. Each time they would gather to analyze some data or discuss some infection patterns, they had to remind each other to stick to the facts, using a simple phrase: “What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove?” In other words, they thought they understood how the illness was transmitted, they knew about how certain people contracted it, but until they could prove something concrete, they had to work harder to nail things down.
Based on the facts available, we know Jamal Khashoggi is dead, as multiple agencies have confirmed this and provided evidence to that effect. We think Khashoggi was murdered, given that multiple accounts of this indicate that the attack on him was planned at least 12 days in advance of the incident. That said, until this is proven in a court of law, we cannot PROVE a charge of murder on any of the individuals involved. For now, we can say he is dead, someone killed him or that there is an investigation into a homicide. It may seem like splitting hairs, but that’s why we have AP as a rule book to help us out.
Memmott also goes into a discussion about the phrase “arrested for” in describing an individual and a crime:
Compare these headlines and you’ll see why “for” is a problem:
- – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested For Tampering With Nassar Evidence.”
- – “Former USA Gymnastics President Arrested, Accused Of Tampering With Nassar Evidence.
- – “House Intern Arrested For Reportedly Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”
- – “House Intern Arrested, Charged With Doxing Senator During Kavanaugh Hearing.”
His point, which I thoroughly support and frequently make, is that saying someone is “arrested for” something means we know they did it and they have been convicted at some point. It conveys guilt when something isn’t proven, much in the same way “allegedly” or “alleged” do.
Think about it this way: Your professor sees you messing around with your phone during a test and assumes you are cheating, thus he kicks you out of class. It turns out you just got a text from your mom that your dad was in a serious accident and is being rushed to the hospital. Thus, you were understandably worried and trying to find out more information.
In this scenario, you are an “alleged cheater,” in that “allegedly” means you are said to have been a cheater by someone (in this case the professor). It would be even worse if the professor announced that he kicked you out of class “for cheating on the exam.” Clearly in this scenario, you haven’t cheated, but either use of verbiage doesn’t make you look all that great.
In applying the “Band” approach, your professor thought you were cheating, he knew you were messing with your phone during a test, but he couldn’t prove you used your phone to cheat (and he would turn out to be wrong once he tried).
This is why attributions (see the “said” post from the other day) matter and it’s a much better way to go: “Beth cheated on the exam, professor Bill Jones said.” or “Professor Bill Jones accused Beth of cheating on the exam.” Both cases demonstrate the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra we espouse around here. The attributions keep you on the side of accuracy and prevent you from getting into trouble if something turns out to be not what it seemed.
The “What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove” approach goes a long way in helping journalists remain accurate, so give it a chance the next time you find yourself digging around in some murky territory.
Around this time of year, student stress is high, as is the bar for what counts as an excuse for missing class, failing a test or other less-than-pleasant educational outcomes. Students have, for years and years, broken out the sagas of dead grandmothers and grandfathers as a way of getting out of classes and turning in homework late, even though that exact same grandparent died three times this year already.
However, faculty can attest to the fact that excuses rooted in deaths and dental emergencies rarely pass muster. To get a second look or a “I guess I could let you slide…” from a professor, it takes dedication to your story, a heavy dose of weirdness and some good old-fashioned chutzpah. Therefore, we here at the Dynamics of Media, in conjunction with the Hivemind, have decided to honor the students who put forth serious effort in their tales of woe with our “Best BS Excuses in Education” Awards, known now and forever as “The BESSYs.”
Without further ado, let’s get into it:
IN THE CATEGORY OF STRANGE-BUT-TRUE
In all fairness, I have skipped a more than a few classes and come late for a few others. The best excuse was a true one: I was worried about making it to class during a freak snow storm, so I took my motor scooter from my off-campus apartment. When some idiot in a giant Buick hit the brakes for no apparent reason, I couldn’t stop quickly enough on the slushy streets of Madison and I slid directly under the rear of his car and wedged my head between his muffler and the pavement.
Fortunately for me, I was wearing a helmet. Fortunately for him, I was too worried about being late to call the cops, so I just yanked my scooter out of there and drove around him.
I will never forget the look on my TA’s face when he saw me, coated in slush, with a giant rip through my coat and a huge burn mark on of my helmet. As I yanked off the helmet to assess the damage, he just looked at me and said, “I don’t even want to know.”
As much as we’d like to blame all of weird excuses on today’s Millennials and their damned hippity-hoppity music, folks from previous generations weighed in with their best strange-but-true moments:
Well, I was a half-hour late to the final of (NAME’S) Law of Mass Communications because a pack of wild dogs wouldn’t let me out of my house at (ADDRESS), in 1972. I asked her years later and she remembered it, and remembered having to explain it to her as I walked in way late.
Occasionally, the truth bomb includes collateral damage that leads to throwing a family member under the bus:
A variation on the dog ate my homework: my grandmother has dementia and she threw my laptop into a trash compactor and destroyed all my work.
That said, the winner of the “I Don’t Even Want to Know” BESSY Award goes to this story:
My best one was real: New Jersey student couldn’t come to class for a week due to a court order that she not leave the state for a week (and she forwarded it).
IN THE CATEGORY OF “YEP, YOU GOT ME!”
Sometimes, it’s not so much the fact the student skipped, it’s that they got caught in the lie. My favorite story remains listed among the Five Conversations Journalism Professors have in Hell:
Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.
Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.
She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.
The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:
Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.
The desire to dodge and not get caught isn’t unique to this student. One former student fessed up to this moment:
When I worked in sports at (college-based media outlet), my dad qualified for an amateur golf tournament in Orlando and my family wanted us all to go, but it was last minute. I told the editor my grandma had died even though she hadn’t. The tournament was to be broadcast on ESPN, so I spent all week dodging cameras (I worked in sports, remember). Not an original story, but I thought it had a nice twist with the cameras.
However the winner for the “How Did You Know?…Oh…” BESSY Award goes to the cliche double whammy listed here:
A student needed to miss a week before Spring Break because her grandmother died. She forgot we were friends on Facebook and started posting photos of herself on the beach.
IN THE CATEGORY OF OVERSHARING EXCUSES:
Oversharing has been one of those things students tended to do for reasons past my understanding. Professors have shared more than a few stories of students who discussed the nuanced details of their vomiting, disclosed extremely personal medical problems or generally told us stuff we just DID NOT want to hear.
Case in point: A student in our newsroom once told a TA that nobody should steal her chair because her “genital warts are really flaring up.” The same student once noted that she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and despite his attempts at an amicable parting, she “wasn’t going to keep (expletive) him as a friend.”
I still feel the need to wash my ears out with bleach after hearing that…
A colleague at an Iowa institution shared a similar “bleachable” moment that turned out to be not as bad as it initially sounded:
Once got an email from a student informing me he wouldn’t be in class that morning because he “shit the bed.” At first I was like 😳 trying to get that image out of my head. Then I decided to google it and it turns out it’s slang for “really messed up.”
However, the Oversharing BESSY Award, sponsored by the TMI Corp,, goes to the student in this story:
My Japanese colleague once completely freaked when a student told him she couldn’t come to class because of “anal bleeding.”
Also in this “Oh, dear Lord, that’s so gross…” division, we have a second category.
The “I Believe You Because I’m Too Disgusted To Check Up On You” BESSY winner is a tie between these two students:
I had one who said he got sprayed by a skunk!
“I got my hair caught in a low-hanging fly trap.”
IN THE CATEGORY OF “HONESTY IS (USUALLY) THE BEST POLICY:”
It’s the simplest answers that merit the most respect from this professor:
Art students usually just tell the truth….”I overslept”.
That said, the winner for Best Blinding and Burning Flash of the Obvious goes to the student who once noted:
Seeing my family is more important than a 2:30 p.m. bio class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Sorry.
OK. Ouch. At least is wasn’t in the kid’s major…
IN THE CATEGORY OF SINGULARLY LAME ACHIEVEMENT:
The “I’m Not As Cool As You Think” BESSY goes to a broadcast graduate with disdain for the weather:
I interned for the radio play-by-play guys for the Badgers my senior year. I was supposed to go to Mardi Gras with some friends so they knew I was going to miss a game or two, but I decided at the last minute not to go, but didn’t tell the radio guys. There was a basketball game the day after I was supposed to get back, but it was freezing so I didn’t want to walk all the way to the field house, so I told them I was too partied out from Mardi Gras and had to skip that game.
The “But I Was Just Thinking of Your Feelings, Professor” Award goes to two of my former students who told me this:
I always assumed that you would have rather (Yahoo 1), (Yahoo 2) and myself come up with a bullshit excuse to miss class rather than show up in the state we would show up in on Thursday mornings.
Yahoo 1 then chimed in to support this statement:
Fair point! We typically had double the beers in our system than we did hours of sleep by the time 8 a.m. rolled around
(It should be pointed out that Yahoo 1 is about to become a father for the first time. I weep for the future of humanity.)
IN THE CATEGORY OF “I’M KIND OF A BIG DEAL“
Occasionally, name dropping or explaining you were doing something much cooler works out for you, as it did for this current professor who once showed up late for one of his courses:
I was very late to class once and the art prof looked pretty disturbed. I told her I had a good excuse–I was photographing the governor. She believed me but acted as if that was not a good excuse for an art class.
However, the Best Humblebrag Award goes to this student from a wealthy private school:
A student told her professor that she “could not come to class because she was hosting a private trunk show for Isaac Mizrahi.“
And finally, the Best Excuse Ever Award goes to the student who inspired the professor to note “I shit you not” after sharing this excuse with us:
“Pimp C died so I will be missing class all week.”
Thanks to all the nominees and the audience. Hope to see you next year.
The blog is taking the week off for Thanksgiving, but for those of you who are still hanging around at school and you’re looking for something to do, consider this AP Style exercise in the vein of Thanksgiving fun.
If you’re feeling exhausted and just want a moment of inspiration, consider this story:
When it comes to Thanksgiving, this will always be my memory, sitting on the couch with my dad, watching this game. When it got to the last six seconds, Dad got up and told me, “Well that’s the end of that.” I told him, in my 10-year-old perspective of innocence, “But they have six seconds left!”
Dad sat me down in front of the TV and told me, “Watch it then. You’ll learn a little something about how life works.”
(To this day, Dad swears he was watching it right with me. I stopped arguing about five years ago.)
Every time I see a situation like the one involving former Houston Chronicle journalist Mike Ward, who was found to have fabricated sources for his stories, I always think, “What the hell is wrong with this guy (or gal)?” Thanks to my overly Catholic upbringing and the guilt that comes with it, my next immediate thought is, “Hey, there but by the grace of God, go any of us.”
However, at various points in life, family and friends have hit me with a few helpful thoughts that stuck with me that kept me out of a lot of trouble. In hopes that these things might help you in your journalism career (or life in general), here are four of those bits and bites that might be useful:
If you’re going to steal something, steal the whole store
My dad can always make sense of things in a way that usually kept me from doing a lot of stupid things. He once told me a simple adage that helped me understand cost/benefit analysis in a truly elementary way.
“If you’re going to steal something,” he said. “Don’t steal a candy bar. Steal the whole store. I mean when they come back in the morning to open up, there should be nothing left but wires sticking out of the ground.”
His point was that once you steal something (or do something else despicable), you were marked for life, so it better be worth it when you throw away everything for it. I have no idea what Mike Ward was best known for before this, but it’s pretty clear he won’t be known for much else other than this going forward.
It’s hard to find a lot of background on Mike Ward, but he’s not like some of the other “fabulists” like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass who was a 20-something who got in over their heads. He spent more than 40 years in the field of journalism and nearly 30 years doing it in the state of Texas. He was working for one of the best newspapers in the state and a well-respected publication overall.
Was it worth throwing away his whole career and reputation to pep up the stories with random quotes that weren’t all that great to begin with? I doubt he thought about it like that, but I know I always let flights of paranoia take me to the worst possible scenario before I even think about “candy-bar-level theft” let alone taking out an entire store.
Stupid is bad, lazy is worse
I think this one came from my mother, but I’m not 100 percent sure. In any case, the underlying premise of not being lazy usually was Mom’s stock-and-trade when it came to things I was doing.
I know my general laziness was like a stone in a shoe for my mother. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be doing my homework and yell to Mom, who was in another room, “How do you spell (whatever I didn’t want to bother to look up)?” Her answer was always the same, “Look it up! You have a dictionary in there.” In short, don’t be lazy.
It could be unfair to deem Ward as lazy, but the way in which he seemed to make up random people would indicate at least some corner-cutting behavior.
It’s easy to find sources you use all the time for stories and to get used to those folks being ready to comment. The investigation into his various stories found that most of his “meat and potatoes” official sources were real people with legitimate quotes. Those folks could be interviewed with a quick phone call or a simple email.
The “real people” who hated guns or gun control, who planned to vote for a specific party, who didn’t like that the McRib wasn’t available all year and so forth require some “shoe-leather reporting.” Reporters have to go to local diners, knock on doors with “Don’t Tread On Me” flags flying outside, ask people they know for help finding people they don’t and generally chase around to get that one pancake-eating source who can give you the “salt-of-the-earth person” quote.
That part of the job is a major pain in the keester and it can be awkward as hell. Truth be told, I used to prefer asking people for comments after a shooting or a fire or something else horrible than walking up to a guy eating a funnel cake at the county fair to find out how much fun he was having at the event. Still, it’s part of the job, so I did it, despite the fact people treated me like I was from the KGB when I asked for their names.
Why Ward thought he could pull this off was a mystery, but it would seem to either be a dumb decision or general laziness. Neither of those approaches is good, so do your best to avoid both of them as a journalist.
They never did it just once
This one came from a former journalist and great friend of mine who covered the Chicagoland Catholic church molestation scandals of the early 2000s. I used to ask her how she knew for sure that the priests in her stories were serial pedophiles. The information she gathered came from the accusers, usually years or decades later, and was almost impossible to back up with documents or other “official source” content that I had gotten used to using in my own work.
Her answer was simple: She did a ton of digging, verified in every way she could and then she published the content and waited. In almost every case, if she published one or two accusations, she immediately heard from at least three or four other people who told her the same things had happened to them. It was like this scene at the end of “Spotlight.”
“They never did it just once,” Allison told me. “And they always did it the same way.”
She found that if a priest had trapped a child in the 1970s by promising baseball tickets and then luring the young man into his room, he did the same thing in the 1980s and 1990s. It was never a one-off and it was always the same.
Even though the magnitude is in no way the same, I think about this whenever a student mentions that they only cheated on an exam once or only lied about a source once or only did anything else sketchy once. It’s never just once. It’s just that they finally got caught.
When Blair was caught in New York, his student newspaper at the University of Maryland went back and found other fabrications and noted people were alerted to these problems at the time.Ward has a 40-year career in this field and he just got caught now in Houston. I would be willing to bet that this didn’t just happen once and it didn’t just occur to him now to do it. I have no idea how far back people want to go, but it wasn’t “just this once.”
If the thought ever occurs to you to cut the corner “just this once” and make up a source or hide a detail to spare a friend or fake your way through a story, don’t do it. It’s never just once.
It’s only hard the first time. After that, it becomes standard practice without a second thought.
Don’t bring shame on the family
I hear this in my head on a daily basis, courtesy of my father.
As I was preparing to go off to college, my mother was a veritable trove of advice, thoughts and wisdom that made “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” seem underwhelming by comparison. She told me of all things I would see and the experiences I would have and everything else good that college away from home would bring.
Dad was more practical and blunt: “Go have fun, but don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”
Tarnishing the family name was unacceptable to Dad, and to be fair, it kept me out of a lot of stupid situations. To this day, whenever I imagine doing something that might not be all that bright, I can see the headline in my mind: “UWO professor arrested on suspicion of (fill in the stupidity here).” I imagine the folks “back home” seeing my dad in the grocery store or running into him at the local farmer’s market and saying, “Hey… I read about your kid…” I STILL do this and I’m middle-aged, to put it kindly.
However, I also think about mistakes that tarnish that other “family” I referred to in the post about how journalists aren’t the enemy. In his 2016 piece on Janet Cooke, Mike Sager talks about how her fabrications led to the general mistrust of various groups of people. Some of his sources said that Cooke led others to distrust African-Americans in the newsroom. Others said it tarnished all journalism, leaving the public to regard all content with a wary eye.
I wonder what Cooke’s professors at the University of Toledo felt when they saw her quick rise and even quicker fall. I remember a few years back when a journalist in Alaska, Charlo Greene, quit her job during a live broadcast while outing herself as the owner of a marijuana-related enterprise.
A number of professors were chatting about this online when a professor I knew messaged me to say she had been a student of his. In discussing Greene’s collegiate experiences and the current situation, I could almost feel his grimace over the internet. If it were my student, I know I would have been rubbing my head and searching for aspirin while muttering, “Oh, good grief…”
Maybe it’s an old-fashioned notion that has people like me avoiding disaster by asking, “Good LORD! What would the NEIGHBORS think?” but I really believe it goes deeper than that. Each of us owes a debt of some kind to the people who helped us get here. The people who support us. Who take part in our lives. Those folks are family in the best possible sense and to create shame through poor judgment is to spread that shame upon them as well.
I might not always be thinking of myself when I do something good or bad, but you better believe I’m doing my best to not bring shame on those people.
Dear Journalism Students,
You are not the enemy.
Not of your school’s student government.
Not of the college administration.
And certainly not of the American people.
I felt the need to tell you this after yet another very public incident in which a politician castigated a member of the press corps and then eliminated his access to his beat. His crime? Having the temerity to ask questions that many people in his audience have, but that a powerful individual did not want to answer.
Jim Acosta is not a perfect human being or a perfect journalist. He’s not Joan of Arc and he’s not Bob Woodward. However, he’s also not a “rude, terrible person,” nor was he out of bounds in his desire to press the most powerful man in the world on issues that matter to his viewers. I say that without a politically motivated bone in my body. Had it been a Democrat, a Tea Party member, a Dixie-crat, a Whig or a Know-Nothing party member, I would feel exactly the same.
And so should you.
You are not vultures. You are not scumbags. You are certainly not “fake news.” You are not any of the other things I and others have been called simply because we had to tell stories people didn’t like.
You have chosen a profession that gives you an insight into the world that few get and even fewer fully appreciate.
You will be there to create the rough draft of history. You will write stories and take photos that capture slivers of time. You will help people celebrate the greatest events of their lives. You will showcase people in some of their darkest moments as well.
You will produce content that draws anger and rebuke from people who don’t like the fact they got caught doing something stupid. You will also produce content that grandmothers pin to the front door of their refrigerator. You will show up every day and start from zero and when you go home, you will have built another full accounting of the day’s most important events.
You are Sisyphus with a press pass.
You are part of a family now, one that stands with you when times are tough. A family that when it doesn’t know what else to do to help you, will send you pizza from all over the country. A family that feels the pain of what you go through and will tell you, “I’ve been down here before. I know the way out.”
You will take your share of beatings. You will screw up and people will be so happy to jump on those rare errors and use them to discount and dismiss everything you have ever done. You will question yourself for days, weeks, months after those mistakes. You will wonder if what you’re doing matters.
And then, you will get back up. You will persist. Because that’s what we have trained you to do.
I can’t speak for all of your professors, student media advisers or journalistic peers, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say, hang in there. You picked the right job and people out there need you. It feels tough when news organizations are “shedding” jobs to help increase hedge-fund profitability. It’s hard to go home and explain to your parents why you would ever want to do this. It’s not easy to bite your tongue at Thanksgiving Dinner when your Uncle Earl, who raises pugs for profit, starts talking about “the fucking media” and how you and your ilk are responsible for everything from higher parking rates to the Hindenburg disaster.
Hang in there. It will get better. It will get worse. Then, it will get better again. It is what it is.
You will grow. You will improve. You will write, report, photograph, draw, design and build amazing things. You will feel a sense of pride that you made a difference, no matter what the cost. You will develop resiliency and strength.
You can do all this, even though for some of you writing a lead right now feels like trying to throw a strawberry through a brick wall. You will feel this, even as everyone from your roommate to the president of the United States feels compelled to beat the crap out of you. You will matter in the long reach of history, whether it’s on a campus, local, state, national or international level.
You will be many great and mighty things.
But you are not now, nor have you ever been, the enemy of the American people.
The Doctor of Paper
I’m working through a series of longer posts for next week, but this popped up in my “memories” feed and it remains a valuable and valid bit of advice, so I thought I’d share it again here. If you want the link to the original for some reason, here you go.
See you all Monday with some more new content
– Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)
At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right. And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester.
It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.It’s also the same when the students are confronted.
They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. (Or, in at least one case, a note from a parent that told me “The family lawyer will be in touch.) It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)
Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course
- You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
- You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job?
Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.”
- Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees.
Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper.
I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back:
Vince, Small world!We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.Hope you are doing well.
I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that.
This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.
- You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.
Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.
Jim VandeHei came to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, this weekend to help celebrate the department of journalism’s 50th anniversary. A co-founder of Axios and Politico, VandeHei could easily make the cut as one of the department’s most famous graduates and probably even one of the university’s top ten most successful grads.
(My money for the top UWO grad, however, is Craig Culver, the namesake of the custard-driven restaurant chain. Food fame will always trump political or media fame.)
VandeHei gave several speeches over the course of the weekend, focusing on everything from his time at UWO to the issue of fake news. The latter topic became a post on his company’s website and a featured point for Axios’ Mike Allen when he put out his “Axios AM: Mike’s Big 6” column:
VandeHei offered four fairly provocative ideas — one each for politicians, social media, reporters and individuals. Here’s the gist, adapted for Axios …
- Politicians: Stop using the term “fake news.” The worst thing for a country is having people believe lies, or trust nothing. One day soon, something bad will happen, and it will take faith in information to fix it. You erode trust at our collective peril.
- Media: News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media — especially Twitter — beyond sharing stories. Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.
- Social media companies: Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers. One thing is for sure: The current self-policing isn’t cutting it.
- You: We all want to fault others, but each of us is very much to blame. Quit sharing stories without even reading them. Quit tweeting your every outrage. Quit clicking on garbage. Spend a few minutes to verify the trustworthiness of what you read.
Be smart … Remember: If your Facebook feed is filled with garbage, it means you were reading garbage in the first place. The algorithm simply gives you more of what you crave.
P.S. The Axios social media policy, which applies to all our colleagues, prohibits the sharing of political views or derogatory snark online: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.”
Before we dig into the guts of this, a couple key things are worth noting:
- VandeHei gave at least three speeches/panel presentations that day and I was at most of them. This is one part of a larger discussion and it’s also boiled down a lot more, based on Axios’ “Smart Brevity” approach. Keep in this in mind when we get to the deeper discussion.
- The audience for most of these presentations was students at UWO and recent graduates from UWO. Faculty (like me) and other folks (less-recent alumni, spouses of visitors etc.) were listening as well, but the this was mostly targeted at journalism students who were either really green or relatively green.
- Full disclosure: I fanboyed out in meeting VandeHei, as I did with several other people there. I wanted to meet him and thank him for his generosity and assistance in supporting the student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, when we were in the middle of a $50,000 challenge grant to pay off a five-figure debt the paper sustained over the years. I admire the fact this guy built not one, but two successful media organizations in a time in which media itself is taking a beating and it seems like nobody is making money in journalism. It doesn’t mean I’m a shill for this guy or that I can’t think for myself on any of the points he made.
- I was these events as a faculty member who was trying to help keep things running smoothly, not as an impartial media member, determined to write on this. I also geeked out meeting Cliff Christl, the longtime Green Bay Packers reporter and Packer historian. Same deal with getting to see Paige Bonanno of ABC Disney and others. Photos of me are floating around out there with these people.
Given that most of the media world couldn’t find Oshkosh with a map and a compass, it never dawned on me that anyone would hear anything about VandeHei’s speech, let alone take umbrage with his comments.
(In case you don’t know who he is, James Poniewozik is the TV critic for the New York Times, a job he has held since 2015. Prior to that, he spent 16 years as a TV and media critic at Time. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan and has studied creative writing at NYU.)
Poniewozik wasn’t the only critic of VandeHei’s position, but he was among the most prominent and he captured the majority of what I saw out there in terms of disagreement. Rather than trying to sort through all of Twitter, it seemed most germane to analyze this issue based on these seven tweets and try to incorporate additional information where I can.
Consider these four key thoughts:
Freak out if you want, but not on Poniewozik’s point:
I’m really stunned that the thing that didn’t REALLY freak people out was Vandehei’s third point: “Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers.”
The question of “Who decides?” will always be a concern when it comes to the regulation of speech or press. We live in a world in which First Amendment “goes too far” according to at least a quarter of the country, should be undercut by the “opening of libel laws” and the concept of what is “made-up news” seems to be in the eye of the politician.
A media person like VandeHei expressing an opinion on how to fight fake news (keep in mind, that’s the narrow window through which VandeHei is talking about these issues) is interesting. A fellow media person like Poniewozik arguing his opinion against VandeHei’s opinion is interesting, although starting to border on the “media talks about media” inside baseball I hate. The rest of the internet choosing sides on this is what the internet does until someone starts talking about “libtards” or someone else drags Trump and the Russians into it, at which point most of us go back to looking for cute micro-pig videos. I can take or leave that.
However, the last thing I would want at this point in time is some sort of “agency” to essentially engage in prior review and/or prior restraint either actively (through censorship) or passively (through policy that limits specific content). Of everything VandeHei said Friday, that was the one thing that really had the feeling of a truly awful idea. That said…
Absolutism is dumb…:
One of the easier ways to get in trouble as a writer is through absolutism. Whenever I read that something has “never” happened or that “everyone” thinks something or “it always” works that way, my internal BS detector kicks into high gear. Sure, there are a few firsts, lasts and onlies out there in a variety of fields, which is why Oddity is one of the five interest elements we espouse in the book. However, the odds of something being declared an absolute and something actually being an absolute are similar to the odds of winning the lottery.
Therefore, I’m not a huge fan of the line regarding the banning of reporters from doing anything on social media other than promoting stories. For my money, the P.S. at the bottom of the post espouses a much saner version of a social media policy: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.” This is a policy that places responsibility on the journalists and it also provides a much smarter way to look at this topic.
I can’t tell you how many times I practically broke out in hives when someone at one of the student media outlets I advised would say, “Oh, that photo/story/graphic is way too bloody/inaccurate/naked to run in the paper! Just stick it on the website…” The mentality seemed to be that journalistic standards of quality only applied to the dead-tree publications (and the over-the-airwaves broadcasts), but the web was this fun, scrappy kind of place where you could drop F-bombs and innuendo all day.
Media outlets that want people to take them seriously should establish more of a platform-neutral set of standards for content as opposed to thinking something you wouldn’t say on one platform is completely legitimate on another. Either way, a lock-down mentality of “never, never, never” is a bad idea and likely to lead to more harm than good.
…But uninformed ranting is dumber:
I love Axios’ concept of “Smart Brevity,” but it can lead to rabbit-hole criticism like Poniewozik’s tweets on the topic of tweeting an opinion. The whole post involved the idea of how to combat fake news, which got lost immediately upon conversion to Tweet-fighting. The line “Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics” becomes the flashpoint of the argument where Poniewozik equates VandeHei’s line to the concept of never publicly stating any opinion.
He then pushes the point, noting that never publicly stating an opinion is either a heinous form of concealment that treats the readers in a negative way or the inability of the journalists to form an opinion and thus idiocy on the part of the writers. Thus we get idiots, phonies and so forth.
Let’s unpack this a bit:
- Vandehei made it clear in his presentations that he stringently opposes news journalists using social media to express opinions that taint the readers’ ability to trust them.
An example he used related to a city council meeting in which a reporter stated that some proposal was about to be debated and that people should stay tuned to his live tweets to figure out if two reps were going to screw people over (or words to that effect). In other words, if you are expecting a story based on the facts about some local content and the reporter is already calling a couple people involved chuckleheads, how can you trust that reporter on anything else he or she writes?
- Journalists have ALWAYS developed, maintained and expressed opinions on the people they cover. I thought some sources I knew were honest while others I wouldn’t trust any farther than I could throw a cheesecake in a swimming pool. Some people were complete jerkwads while others bordered on handsy in their desperate need for my adulation. I had opinions on all of them.
However, there’s a difference between going to the bar after work and telling your coworkers what a dipstick a county commissioner was during an interview and publicly issuing a “ready-to-go-viral” tirade about that person.
I have often told students that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. A similar view on social media might be valuable: The duty to form an opinion is not the same as the duty to share it with the whole world in 280 characters or less.
- Many differences exist among the positions of having an opinion, expressing an opinion, not developing any opinionated thought and the “snark, jokes and blatant opinion” elements outlined in the Axios post.
Consider this spectrum of items you can use in expression:
Fact (an indisputable element): Jim VandeHei spoke Friday at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh about fake news.
Personal opinion (statement made to indicate personal belief): I think James Poniewozik raised interesting points, but was off base in his criticism of Jim VandeHei’s speech.
Blatant opinion (A personal belief stated as fact): “This is dumb and treats Axios readers as if they are dumb.” OR “People don’t want you to be a robot. They want you to be FAIR.”
Jokes (in this case, I’m guessing attempts at humor in an attempt to degrade or undermine an opposing source or the source’s position): Q: How do you get a University of Michigan graduate off your porch? A: You pay for the pizza. OR Q: How many TV critics does it take to change a light bulb? A: None, they just sit in the dark and write a scathing column about how illumination devices used to be so much better.
Snark (probably closest to sarcasm or other biting comments intended on undercutting a position without relying on the joke format): James, if I need an analysis of “Cop Rock” or a creatively written haiku, I’ll give you a call. Otherwise, I’ll probably rely on the guy who actually has a journalism degree and runs a news organization to come up with some standards for the news media.
There are levels to this and if I had to make a policy for pairing news journalists and social media, it would be a lot closer to the “stick to the facts for the most part, occasionally use the personal opinion when you can support it with facts and don’t do jokes, snark or blatant opinions.” But that’s my personal opinion.
- Multiple people spoke on this topic and several of them agreed with VandeHei’s underlying premise: News journalists now are saying stuff on social media that would be way out of bounds in their traditional publications and that needs to stop. One of those people was Paul Anger, another UWO grad, who retired in 2015 as the editor and publisher of the Detroit Free-Press. I’m not sure if he held to Axios’ absolutism policy regarding social media, but it was clear that his previous publications had specific standards and those included how people should act on social media. It’s not just VandeHei, although in being out front and at a major national political outlet, he’s going to get the most attention.
Consider the Audience
I frequently write about why it is important to understand your audience in crafting your message. To understand VandeHei’s statements, it’s important to keep that concept in mind.
Not to belabor the point, but he was speaking to students, student journalists and recent journalism grads (for the most part). As someone who often speaks to these students, I can tell you three immutable truths:
- It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between fact and opinion when they see it in the media and when they write for the media.
- They don’t always see that they’re playing with live ammunition when they post things on social media.
- They are still learning how to work as journalists.
If this were a speech or panel at an SPJ or NAB or some other professional conference, the tone, nuance and depth might have differed here. Sure, the policy at Axios is still going to be the same, but there might be some additional discussion that merited digging into the gray areas. That’s not the case here as I had students in that audience who are still trying to figure out how to write a lead (or lede if you prefer).
Folks like Jim VandeHei and James Poniewozik have earned the fungus on their shower shoes, so maybe expressing opinions or using social media as they see fit makes sense for them. My students? Not so much, so slapping a few safety devices on these tools is probably a good idea. When they get to the stage of becoming experts on topics and they have opinions that are supported, well-reasoned and likely to benefit readers, it’s the perfect time for them to take to Twitter and share them. However, until that point, it’s probably best to hammer home the idea of playing it safe.
Also, being a professional media practitioner, or simply being educated, doesn’t mean you’re not going to fall on your keys on social media. Or, as Tweet 6 would note, come across as a “got-damn idiot.”
The basic rule of journalism that states, “Just tell me what happened and why I should care as a reader,” is often undermined when journalists rely on soft language and euphemisms. We talked about this at length in the discussion of “weasel voice” in writing and in terms of how writers get a bad rap for their linguistic gymnastics.
However, the following story was something weasel-riffic, thanks to an odd confluence of the story topic and the overwriting common to the New York Times. In the most basic terms, you could boil this story down to a simple sentence:
A woman using a borderline legal implied-sex-for-cash website got conned by a guy who claimed to be rich but wasn’t, thus leaving her stuck with a hotel bill after a three-way.
That sentence is 31 words, but the Times took a bit more time to tell this story. More than 3,000 words and one really awkward correction later, the Times’ had finished its clinic on euphemistic weasel voice. Consider some of the following descriptions and how you can practically see the writer using “air quotes” to the point of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:
- The headline starts with the term “sugar date,” to describe the arrangement between young women and older men looking for an implied-sex-for-cash hook up.
- A subhead refers to this concept as “Escorting 2.0,” like it’s some sort of software upgrade.
- This chunk of text: Last winter, a friend told her about the concept of “sugar-dating”: a “sugar baby” (most often a woman or a gay man) connecting with a “sugar daddy” (a man) in a relationship that offers financial support in exchange for companionship and possibly sex. Accelerated by the anonymity of the internet, sugar-dating is a variation on “escorting,” that practice formerly advertised at the back of New York magazine and the now-defunct Village Voice newspaper. (When you need four sets of euphemism quotes and two parentheticals to get a concept across to your readers, you’re probably having a bad writing day.)
- It refers to SeekingArrangements.com as “a website that helps people interested in monetized dating find each other.” I found it odd that the term “monetized dating” didn’t get quote marks, but it fits the bill of every other euphemism here for prostitution.
- It uses the term “hypergamy” to refer to the concept of marrying for money.
- It refers to the website’s founder’s other hookup site for married people who want to have sex with other people as part of an “ethical cheating” movement. This reminds me of other oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” and “real artificial butter.”
- This sentence officially lost me when it came to what gets the air quotes and what doesn’t: There, some 200 attendees, many silkily coifed young women, paid $50 apiece for admission to panels on topics like styling, personal branding and “financial literacy.” Why is “financial literacy” in quotes? What the heck could that possibly be euphemistic for?
By this point I “officially” ran out of “the overwhelming desire” to find the “air-quoted material” in this “story” about “sugar dating.” (I almost needed to buy a loot box full of air quotes for this post…)
This isn’t to pick on this particular writer or this particular topic, but it does raise some questions about what makes for a story, how you should tell the story and what is an acceptable amount of “weasel voice.” Consider the following points:
When you dig into a story that isn’t a story, consider Filak’s First Rule of Holes:
In reading this story, I found that there were about three or four directions this could have gone that would have been valuable to readers. It could have been a look at how the “sugar industry” works. It could have been about the dangers associated with “monetized dating.” It could have been about the legal issues surrounding these sites. It could have been about the long con this guy (and I’m sure others) are pulling on cash-strapped women who apply to the sites. I’m sure I’m missing other “deep digs” it could have hit.
Instead, it kind of talked about each of these in passing all while telling this one story about this person who was taken advantage of by one guy at one point in time. If she had been a narrative thread for any of these larger concerns, this might have been worth 3,000+ words. However, she was the whole point, which made this feel… perplexing. I found myself like “The Bobs” in this “Office Space” interview:
The duty to report is not the same as the duty to write, so when you find that a story isn’t really doing a whole heck of a lot, you might want to reconsider your approach, your sources or your sense that this is a story at all. Follow Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find your self in one, stop digging.
A Feature Approach Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Doing Journalism
When I first taught feature writing, I had a full class of 15 students and at least that many on the waiting list. They came with the idea that the class fell somewhere between creative writing and a haiku seminar. By the time they figured out how I ran the class, I think I was down to eight students and nobody on the waiting listed wanted to join in the fun.
Features require observation, depth and clarity that couple with strong reporting and valuable content. The observation part was there, almost to a fault, in that I felt like I was reading one of George R.R. Martin’s descriptions of meals in the “Game of Thrones” series or Bret Easton Ellis’ “label-dropping” in the first chapter of “American Psycho.” (I had to Google some make-up and hair-do terminology as well as find out what made certain hotels worth name-dropping…)
However, the story failed to measure up in terms of meeting journalistic rigor for reporting and storytelling standards. If this guy really is conning multiple women on this site, why is he not being reported to some form of authority? If the site is doing a “caveat emptor” approach, that’s one big story. If the police don’t have a tool for stopping this, that’s another big story. (And possibly a call for some legislative discussion as there was to establish punishment for revenge porn and up-skirt photography.)
At the very least, if he’s a scummy weasel, as the author seemed to confirm, why did this guy get away without being named? That was a confusing choice.
Why is this a story now? Even features need a time peg. Is the site changing its approach? Is “Ron/Jay/Mr. Mystery” back on the prowl again? Is there a new law or a new rule that makes this relevant? This isn’t a case of “She should have come forward earlier,” as people can tell their stories at any point they so choose. That said, the writer needs to make it clear why we’re hearing it now and why it should matter to the readers now.
At least a half dozen other holes emerge in the reporting here and there, often brushed over with a weak parenthetical explanation. The writer owes the readers value and clarity. Neither seem prominent here.
Avoid Words That Obscure Reality
When you find yourself using jargon, euphemism or other code words in your writing, you aren’t helping your readers understand your story. This tends to happen when technical topics overwhelm reporters or when PR professionals use terms common to their field but that other people don’t understand.
This isn’t to say that you should blunt the language to the point of distraction, but there has to be a limit as to how much “air quoting” or euphemistic writing you should do. The chunk of weasel voice outlined above clearly demonstrates this, but here’s a paragraph with one term that still has me puzzled:
He said that he looked for women on SeekingArrangement and advertised himself on Tinder as a “sugar daddy” — his profile urged women to “swipe right if looking to be spoiled” — solely because he thought it was a good way to meet women for non-transactional hookups.
I’m uncertain as to the pairing of “non-transactional” and “hookup” in that sentence or if it means what the guy, the writer or what I thought it meant. (Another Google search led me down the path of software engineering… I think… before I found the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of being “an aspiring sugar baby” at the Thought Catalog site. It made me want to beg my wife to never leave me, for fear of what’s in the dating pool out there, and then it made me want to take a potato peeler to my eyeballs.)
Since you can’t use terms like “money for sex” or more direct terms without running afoul of the law, the author here (and others as well) refer to this as “transactional relationships.” A “non-transactional” relationship, thus would appear to be one that lacked a quid-pro-quo approach to the interaction. Or, as you would normally call it, a “relationship.”
When the author refers to this guy running his game on the site in this way, it sounds like he’s saying he puts himself out there as a rich guy because he figured he’d attract women even though he never had any intention of paying them.
If that’s the case, say that. As a reader, I would then be able to say, “Wait a minute, isn’t that fraud? I think I saw a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ episode on that topic at one point…” If that’s not what he meant, make it clearer what he was saying. It’s not a direct quote, so the euphemism is that of the writer. As it stands, I have no idea what I’m seeing.
And that’s the larger point about this article and the writing style: Euphemism and jargon kill it under the guise of a feature format and the effort to make this appear less shady than it is.
I’m not making a moral argument here. You want to hook up with people for any reason whatsoever, go for it. You want to write about those people, that’s fine, too. I’ve read news stories that would make John Waters blush and a Billy Goat puke. That’s not the issue. It’s the lack of directness that limits good writing and quality journalism.
It’s why news obituaries use the term “died” instead of “passed away,” “expired” or “spun from the mortal coil.” It’s also why we avoid phrases like “now singing with the angels” or “resting safely in the arms of Jesus.” (I’ve seen all of these at one point or another.) They obscure reality and make life difficult on the readers.
The fact of the matter is these terms like “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy” and “monetized dating” are easy enough to translate from weasel voice into more direct language. In not doing so, the author harmed the story, irritated the readers and provided little to the sum of human knowledge. If you face situations where people try to obscure reality by telling you they “depopulated an area with an explosive aerial assault” (bombed a village) or “engaged in disinformation” (lied) or “exchanged angry hand gestures” (raised their middle fingers), you need to cut through the obfuscation and give your readers a clear sense of reality.
In short, just tell me what happened and why I care in a clear, concise and coherent way.
As a reporter for Great 98 in Mayville, Wisconsin, Alex Crowe found himself digging into allegations of corruption and special treatment in the city’s police department. His work looked into a Department of Justice investigation that revealed the department helped cover up a drug-related offense at the request of an officer. Tom Poellot, the officer accused of trying to cover for his son, denied that he was involved in any alterations to that police report, even though that information was included in a criminal complaint filed against former Mayville Police Chief Christopher MacNeill.
Crowe’s efforts garnered a lot of attention for the station’s news operation and earned him a first-place award from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in the category of Best Significant Community Impact in 2017.
A year or so later, everything went to hell in a speedboat.
Poellot’s lawyer contacted the station and demanded the station pull down the articles, claiming Crowe broke the law in his reporting.
“He claims we violated Wisconsin Statutes Section 938.396(1)(b)(1) which says you cannot identify a minor involved in a crime,” Crowe wrote in an email. “I wrote that Poellot’s son had been caught at school, but never identified the kid. All word-for-word form DOJ criminal complaint against MacNeill.”
Crowe said the attorney had been extremely aggressive in his approach and Crowe’s superiors at the station were concerned enough to consider pulling the stories off line and scrubbing them from all social media. The costs associated with a protracted legal fight were also potentially prohibitive, Crowe was told.
To better understand the legal issues associated with his stories, Crowe contacted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group that “provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.”
“I sent an email late one night, and received a call back literally minutes later from a lawyer in D.C. who was furious with the way we were being treated,” Crowe wrote. “She put me in contact with a lawyer in Madison who works with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as well as the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. He was able to cite specific Wisconsin State Statutes that provide protections for the press, as well as refute the chief/lawyer’s claims that we were in violation of a different set of statutes. We told the other side that we had been in contact with multiple lawyers who helped us put together a response, and have not heard back from the lawyer representing the chief in Cudahy for weeks. Hopefully, the matter has been resolved.”
(The stories are still available on the Great 98 website here and here and you, so feel free to read them. They’re truly great bits of quality local journalism. If you want to hear what Crowe said about them for this blog when they first came out, you can click here and here.)
I asked Crowe what he learned from this experience and he had a few tips. Below are some of his thoughts (in quotes) and three things I think you can take away from this experience:
Pair intuition and research before you respond.
When I worked as a journalist, a student newspaper adviser, and even as a professor, I would hear about ridiculously absurd statements people would make about the intersection of law and the media. Stuff like:
- “You can’t publish the name of a criminal because the person could sue us.”
- “We don’t have to release that document (to the media) because we don’t feel you are entitled to it.”
- “We know we released that document, but we sent you the wrong one and we’re relying on your ethical integrity as a journalist to destroy it and let us send you a new one.”
- “You published my son’s name in the paper! I’m suing you for making him look bad.” (The “son” had been arrested after participating in a violent, public altercation. I imagine THAT might have made him look bad, but what do I know?)
My favorite one was a response to an open records request in which we were denied access to a set of evaluations that a search committee had inadvertently made public. The responding records keeper stated that the documents were available under some arcane part of Indiana law in which they weren’t public, but rather more like interoffice memos meant to be shared only among about 30,000 students, faculty and staff on the campus. Just not for publication in the student newspaper, with its circulation of about 10,000.
When it came to Crowe’s situation, it felt like bullying to me. The use of a lawyer and a specific state statute can scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t a legal expert. The phrase, “Do X or we’re going to sue you” coming from a lawyer can make you want to cower in a corner and say, “Please don’t hurt me!” Instead, find your own ringer in this game and see what he or she can do to balance the playing field.
Whenever someone threatens to sue you or withholds a document from you or does anything else like that, take a few moments and start processing what you have heard in a logical fashion. Once you do this a few times (and take a decent com law class), you can develop a pretty good BS detector. Let intuition guide you, and then do some research, call some experts and figure out how accurate this information actually is.
“I would encourage any student to read up on the laws/statutes in their state that regard to reporting and publishing of information, because we really needed to know what the law said and who it protected before crafting a response,” Crowe said.
The more you know, the better off you are.
You’re not in this alone. Use your network to find help.
When Crowe first was told he would have to take down the stories, he reached out to me and I helped direct him to the RCFP. How did I know to do this? I didn’t, so I asked a couple of the legal eagles I knew, who had seen this kind of thing before and they pointed me toward that group.
When we talk about “networking” in college classes, this is the kind of thing we’re trying to get across. People you meet and connect with can help you. If those people don’t have the answers, chances are pretty good they’ll know someone who does have the answers.
“I would HIGHLY encourage students to get informed about resources available to them, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Crowe said. “If I wasn’t able to get professional assistance from that organization, I would have been forced to pull the story and it would have been erased from online archives as well.”
For students, the Student Press Law Center is a great resource and the folks there can help with free legal advice when your attempt to do journalism runs into someone else’s desire for you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing.
The ability to say, “Oh, you think you’re going to back me into a corner? That’s not going to happen because I have a lawyer, too” must feel so good. I know it’s probably nothing like this, but I always loved this line from Andrew Garfield in “The Social Network.”
Figure out if this is the hill you are willing to die on and if the juice is worth the squeeze. Then act accordingly.
I just managed to merge two of my favorite Filak-isms into one subhead, so it’s a good day for me. The point is that you need to figure out if it’s worth it to fight back and how far you are willing to go to defend that position. In some cases, the ask is minimal and the degree to which they are a pain in your keester is maximum, so you do it, even though you could stand your ground on an issue.
In this case, however, Crowe saw a much bigger picture and a much more important issue:
“Honestly, it was mostly about the principle of the matter,” Crowe stated. “We did absolutely nothing wrong in our reporting, yet here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage that he doesn’t like while hiding behind his son as a means to try and get the story taken down. I didn’t like the fact that I was being asked to take my very legitimate reporting down just because the subject didn’t like what was written.
“We took our information directly from the DOJ/DCI report, along with other pillars of good reporting (including) interviews and in-person courtroom coverage…” he added. “It was important to keep the work published because, in my mind, if we have to take one story down after a bogus legal threat, that just opens the door for others to follow suit.”
The idea of opening Pandora’s Box or creating a “slippery slope” can occasionally be much ado about nothing. In this case, however, if he backed down, he might have found himself having to back off repeatedly, as his station would have established a problematic precedent: If we punch you hard enough in the nose (legally speaking), you will hide important news we don’t want people to see.
“I’ve learned that there are people who will do whatever it takes to try and get negative coverage erased from the internet,” he said. “This went way beyond someone trying to scrub their image. This is the first time I have had someone really come after me personally for something I reported on, and no matter how legit the reporting was, the lawyers kept coming.”
When you face a situation like this, you’ll be put to the test and you’ll need to determine how far you are willing to go to do what you think is right. Then, you’ll have to be willing to deal with the fall out. In either case, you’ll need to know that you can live with yourself after you make that choice and take your stand.
You might not win every time, but you’ll sleep better at night.