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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not how anything works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Speaking of shaking down the dead…

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

BstroyFAIL

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

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

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

Mmmhmm… Speaking of bad ideas poorly executed…

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

69511389_10156200929926191_4240205174485811200_n

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

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

DeadSonInJail

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

Two commas solve this problem:

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

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

Have a good start to your week!

Vince

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

 

How to be a “bad quote” for an obituary (and four good questions you can ask regular people while reporting for an obit)

As we mentioned in earlier posts, an obituary is supposed to be a reverent, yet factually accurate, recounting of someone’s life. We don’t have to make a saint out of a sinner or whitewash away any negative elements of the person’s life, but we do want to lean toward being decent and respectful, regardless of our thoughts.

When veteran journalist and political commentator Cokie Roberts died of breast cancer this week at age 75, multiple politicians and journalists provided glowing tributes to her. Some might have seemed over the top, while others appeared balanced and fair. Here is how the two previous presidents approached their offers of condolence:

Former President Barack Obama said Roberts was a role model for women at a time the journalism profession was still dominated by men, and was a constant over 40 years of a shifting media landscape and changing world. “She will be missed, and we send our condolences to her family,” Mr. Obama said.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, called Roberts a talented, tough and fair reporter. “We respected her drive and appreciated her humor,” the former president said. “She became a friend.”

 

Here’s the one President Donald Trump provided:

Flying from New Mexico to California on Air Force One Tuesday, President Trump told reporters Roberts “never treated me nicely” but that he respected her.

“I never met her,” Mr. Trump said. “She never treated me nicely, but I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals. I respect you guys a lot, you people a lot. She was a real professional. Never treated me well, but I certainly respect her as a professional.”

The degree to which you like or don’t like Donald Trump is irrelevant, as is how Roberts might or might not have treated him. (He never really clarifies how she wasn’t nice to him.) What matters is the context in which he is discussing her: She just died.

Had the president made a few mental editing trims before saying anything, this could have been a functional quote. Something like this would have worked:

“I never met her,” Mr. Trump said, “but I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals.”

Boom. Empathy, brevity and clarity while keeping the focus on the dead person.

I have been asked in numerous cases to offer quotes, memories and even eulogies on people I didn’t know that well or in some cases wasn’t that thrilled about (thankfully, that last part didn’t apply to any eulogies). In each case, I found something accurate and fair to say without essentially starting with, “Well, the weasel owed me five bucks and I bet I’m never gonna collect on that now…”

Although the president shouldn’t need this kind of hand-holding while dealing with the media, regular people who don’t deal with the media as much, or who don’t have a PR team to put out a statement, could use some help in coming up with good, honest quotes. Here are a few questions you can ask someone in an obituary interview that might improve the quotes you get:

  • “What are some of your favorite memories about (NAME)?” This one puts the source in the right frame of mind, focusing on memories of the person’s activities on Earth, as opposed to the person being dead. In addition, by noting “favorite” you provide the source with the ability to incorporate all sorts of things. Favorite memories might include those tearjerker moments where the person helped the homeless or dedicated himself or herself to a noble cause. They might also include the time he or she drove home backwards on the interstate because the transmission was screwed up and everyone in the car was out past curfew. (In one case, a favorite memory was of the deceased breaking up a hum-drum political meeting at someone’s house by climbing onto the table and dancing, while totally sober.)
  • “What words would you or other people use to describe (NAME)?” This again is more focused than just “What can you say about the person?” which leaves the source twisting in the wind and reaching for honorific terms and overwrought metaphors. It has a sharper angle to it and allows the person to pick at specific elements of the person much more clearly. Also, you set up an interesting opportunity for a moment of duality: The source might have known the deceased as kind, generous, decent and patient, but other people saw that person as rough, angry and difficult. It shows a layered look at the person through the eyes of people who knew him or her and demonstrates the idea that what everyone else saw might or might not have been on point.
  • “What kinds of things were important to (NAME)?” This helps you cast a stronger light on the individual in terms of life priorities. When people talked about coaching legend Vince Lombardi, they often recalled his famous speech about the only three things that mattered in life were God, your family and the Green Bay Packers. Everything else, he told his players, was a distraction. (David Maraniss, who wrote a biography on Lombardi, once noted that for the coach it was actually like God and The Packers as number one, then golf and then family somewhere down the road. For what it’s worth…)
  • “What would be the one thing you would want everyone to know about (NAME)?” This gives you the chance to help the person come up with a summary of the individual in a way that will also help you encapsulate who that person was. If you hear the same thing from multiple sources, you essentially have the core of your lead, if not your story, right there.

 

FIU back covering football after ripping athletic department over press access

Here’s an update to a piece we did a week or so ago: PantherNOW at Florida International University appears to have resolved its conflict with its athletic department and is back to covering football, according to a Student Press Law Center report. The paper wrote a column criticizing FIU’s decision to block the publication from covering the team after writing several negative pieces over the past year.

According to the SPLC report, PantherNOW received its press passes from the school after the column ran, even though the university SWEARS it never blocked the publication from ANYTHING athletic related:

[Dalton Tevlin, the sports director at Florida International University’s student newspaper] said 12 minutes after the Aug. 29 article was posted online, Assistant Director for Athletic Communications Tyson Rodgers messaged him, telling him PantherNOW had full press credentials for the 2019-20 season. The paper has since resumed coverage of the team and was in the press box for the home opener.

Rodgers, however, denied his office ever withheld access. He said he texted Tevlin after he saw the article and told him their credentials were never held up.

“I texted him that morning and I said ‘hey Dalton your passes have never been revoked.’ We already had them made and sitting in the office ready to go for the first game,” Rodgers said.

Although Tevin said this wasn’t the first dust-up with the athletic department, the MO has always been the same: Freeze out the paper by just ignoring its requests. Rodgers admitted to nothing, other than occasionally maybe being a bad son:

Rodgers said his staff has lost two full-time workers, stretching his workload across all 18 FIU sports teams. He said every now and then he just misses a text and he has never intentionally ignored PantherNOW.

“I text back sometimes and sometimes I miss texts because I get 30 texts a day,” he said. “I even miss my mother’s texts. So it’s not just the media.”

At the end of the day, the paper is back giving its readers coverage on a key part of the school and the athletic department is back doing its job in providing access to media. As with everything else, we’ll keep an eye on this moving forward to see if things change when the spotlight drifts away from FIU.

Theft as censorship: Why stealing “free” newspapers makes no sense

The University Press at Florida Atlantic University led this week’s issue with a blockbuster of a story: The quarterback of the football team had been accused of sexual battery and the university appeared to have botched the investigation. The piece is a detailed and winding narrative that includes an interview with the person accusing Chris Robison, a deep dive into federal law and some incredible storytelling from top to bottom.

Apparently, someone (or multiple someones) didn’t think people should see this, as the staff soon noticed its newspaper bins were empty and piles of the paper had been dumped in the trash. The paper, in kind of tongue-in-cheek move, wrote a thank-you note to the thief or thieves, noting that the move had drawn more attention to the situation than anything the paper itself could have done.

The UP’s editorial noted that this wasn’t the first case of censorship via theft of the paper. It lists about a half-dozen instances in which someone thought the UP wasn’t being positive enough in its coverage and decided to dump the print edition in the trash. This also isn’t the only case of censorship by theft of college or high school newspapers out there. The Student Press Law Center keeps track of these kinds of things and lists dozens of them on its website.

(As an adviser back at Ball State, I saw this kind of thing up close, when we ran a story about the women’s soccer player getting arrested, only to find out that about one-third of our print run had gone missing. Although no one was ever caught, people who saw the folks taking the papers told us they were women, dressed in black Ball State athletic department gear.)

Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle and long-time Student Press Law Center leader, explains in the UP’s editorial that this kind of thing is illegal. LoMonte gave an example of how something can be entirely free (soup at a homeless shelter’s soup kitchen) but its inappropriate use (you pouring it down the sewer) can lead to legal concerns.

Most publications list something in the masthead of the paper, noting that the first copy is free, but additional copies are a quarter or 50 cents. This establishes a value for them in case of just such an incident. In most cases, if you grab a half dozen of them because you wrote an article and want to send one home so grandma can put it up on the fridge, the paper isn’t coming after you. However, when you take them all to deprive others of their right to see the content (including advertising, which financially drives most papers), that’s where the publication gets edgy about this.

In other words, it is possible to steal something that’s free.

Even if it weren’t, censorship by theft is a patently stupid idea for three key reasons:

  • The internet still exists: Taking all the print copies of a paper and destroying them to prevent people from seeing the content makes as much sense as covering your eyes so that other people can’t see you. It doesn’t work.
    The print product, as those of us in student media have been told repeatedly, isn’t where most of our readers live. They live online, so they will see the story much in the same way you did: Someone posts/shares it on a site you read or via social media. You click the link and there it is.
    Unless these censors have a way of hacking your website and taking down the story there, all they have done is overload the trash bins at the university.
  • Censorship draws attention: When someone destroys content is to prevent people from seeing it, all they have really done is make people want to see it more. Truth be told, I never would have seen this story had someone not tried to censor it. Once the person or people destroyed the papers, the UP called them out, the message went viral (at least in my circles) and I suddenly became more interested in what was going on.
    Like anything else we try to keep people from seeing, the harder we try to prevent access, the more people want it. Think about every argument pertaining to limiting access to pornography and you get the right idea here: If someone doesn’t want me to see it, it must be AMAZING!!!
    Now, instead of only a few people on campus finding out about this, and maybe a few folks in disparate patches of readership across the country, TONS of people are finding out who Chris Robison is, what he was accused of and what FAU did in response. The result was akin to trying to extinguish a fire with a bucket of gasoline.
  • Never pick a fight with people who buy data by the terabyte: It’s a bit of poetic license on the old line about challenging the press: Never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. Still, the point holds water. Journalists are much better at putting out content than most people are at censoring it.
    When we had the situation at Ball State, rather than cower in a corner and worry that we had offended people, we actually reran the entire edition of the paper as an insert to the next day’s edition. In the main paper, we wrote an editorial to the people who tried to censor us: “Nice Try. We’re Still Here.” We then promised that if THIS edition went missing, we’d run BOTH papers as inserts the next day and continue until either they stopped or we went bankrupt. The thefts did not reoccur.
    The point is, journalists are essentially stubborn, principled and generally unrelenting. We’re like a dog with Frisbee: We don’t let go. When you decide to come after us, we tend to decide that this is the hill we’re going to die on. Even more, we have connections to other journalists who have chewed the same dirt we have at student media. These people might be “grown ups” now, but they remember what it was like to be picked on and abused back in the day. They, too, have the pitbull personality and are going to stand with these folks. In a game of, “You bring your friends and I’ll bring mine and we’ll see who wins,” journalists are always going to win in this situation.

 

The battle of wills between writers and editors: Three tips to make the editing process more valuable

If you read Ruth Reichl’s column about her editor, Susan Kamil, you can get the idea of how a good editor can make all the difference. In reflecting on Kamil after her recent death, Reichl offered a wonderful assessment of her friend, colleague and editor in a way that is both honest and honorific.

I have been both the editor and the edit-ee throughout my life and I have found neither of them are a bowl of cherries. As the person being edited, I find myself vacillating between the desire to be told how awesome I am and the need to be told where I really screwed up. It’s almost a borderline disorder of personality: When someone tells me I’m perfect, I push back by saying, “No, I NEED feedback so I can improve before people who read the published version rip me to shreds.” When someone heaps “helpful suggestions” upon me, I often feel like saying, “OK, screw you and everyone who looks like you.”

Sounds dumb? Yep, but I bet I’m not the only one in that boat.

As an editor, the frustration is just as palpable: I can see what needs to happen so I’m pulling in one direction. However, the writer keeps thinking, “What the hell does this chucklehead know?” Having to edit strong-willed people has on occasion led to some of my worst moments, including once telling a student, “I’ve taken (bowel movements) that I would be more proud of than I would be of this lead.” It was like, “If you would just be reasonable and see it MY WAY, we’d get done with this a lot faster and better.”

Eventually, I found more equilibrium in the relationship. It also helped when I started finding editors who worked with me in a way that made sense to me. (As Harvey Spector says in “Suits,” you don’t want to play the case. You want to play the person.) It has gotten to a point where each book I do, I ask if Jim Kelly (the former journalist, not the football player) is available to be my copy editor. Otherwise, can we wait on this?

For those of you who don’t get the chance to pick your poison… er… editor… and for those editors who still don’t get why the writers suck at this, consider a few helpful hints that might make the relationship make more sense:

  • You’re both right, but in different ways: In most cases, reporters are the experts on their stories. They were in the field, they’ve done the research, they have the interviews and they collected additional information. When it comes to the “who did what to whom” elements of the story, the reporters are the experts on everything, which is why they can feel frustrated when an editor starts putzing around with their copy.
    Conversely, the editors are the experts on what the readers are seeing, what they need to see and where the gaps exist in the stories they are editing. The reporters are hip-deep in the content and thus sometimes have trouble seeing the forest through the trees. The editors come to the content with fresh eyes, a general interest in the topic and limited background on what’s going on. That’s exactly how the readers will see it, so it pays to have the editors poking around and changing stuff.
    Much like every other situation in life, if multiple people are involved in a collective task, the goal is to play to each person’s strength and away from each person’s weakness. Thus, the editor should get some leeway in terms of changing things that get in the way of the readers’ understanding of the content while the reporter should get more control over the general gist of the story.
  • You must be able to explain why: I often tell my students that little kids are amazing because they always want to understand what’s going on around them. This is why a 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” They want to figure out how something works, how come something is the way it is and what reasons you have for doing something. It’s an innate element of their being.
    Eventually we stop asking those questions, either because we start to figure things out on our own or for fear that an adult might push us into traffic out of frustration. That doesn’t mean we still don’t have those questions, but rather, we stop verbalizing them, so instead of getting decent answers to our concerns, we simply have to stew in our own displeasure.
    As a writer or an editor, the goal of every decision you make should be to have a reason for whatever it is you are doing. Then, you need to be able to verbalize it in a clear and concise fashion for anyone who might need to know. For example, if you used a narrative lead on your story instead of a standard inverted-pyramid lead, your editor might ask, “Why does it take me three paragraphs to get to the point of the story?” If you have a good reason, like “I wanted to set up the lead more as a nut graf, because I keep weaving this guy in the opening back into the story as a thread,” your editor might see things the way you do and let it sit. If you have the “I just wanted to mix it up” or the dreaded “I dunno” answer, you’re probably not going to have things work out your way.
    The same thing is true for an editor: If you want to change something, have a reason to do so. Also, it helps to ask the “why” question of the writer before you decide to make that change. It shows an interest in what the writer has done, and it provides you an opportunity to reconsider your change. As noted earlier, you’re both going to have strengths and weaknesses, so play to the strengths and explain why you think your position is stronger. If you have established trust with the writer, the writer should give you some leeway on this. If not, you need to start establishing trust, like, yesterday.
  • The goal is the same: In the end, the thing you both need to understand is that you both want the same thing: the best possible product. In some cases, this can be inordinately frustrating because you can’t fully agree on what that “best possible product” actually is. In addition, you might have different ways to get there.
    This is where trust comes in and you both need to make a decision about the value of this relationship. In one of the most frustrating relationships of my life, my doctoral adviser and I butted heads constantly on the editing of my dissertation. I kept pushing for the “good enough” version of things and she kept pushing for the “best possible” version of things. It took a long time for me to admit she was right, but she was. Her goal was my goal, even when I couldn’t see it: Write a piece that was going to be easy to defend and that would help me complete my degree.
    At the end of the day, if you are both honest with yourselves and care about the outcome, you will have the best interest of your readers in mind. That means you’ll care less about getting your way or making your changes than you will making sure the reader gets a good, strong, clear and valuable story.
    If that’s not the case, and you just want to win, everyone involved is going to lose.

Throwback Thursday: You Earn The Fungus on Your Shower Shoes

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

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

Enjoy!

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to earn the fungus on your shower shoes.

 

 

Antonio Brown’s “Ain’t No More Games” video, California’s two-party consent law and what you need to know about recording your sources

The saga of former-Raider-turned-Patriot wide receiver Antonio Brown took a strange legal turn this week, thanks in part to a law that actually matters to you as a student journalist.

Brown, a talented and yet volatile player, began this season with the Oakland Raiders by complaining about rules surround his helmet, complaining about his injured feet and ripping his own general manager for levying fines against him. He then asked for his release on social media and the Raiders complied gladly.

In the middle of all this, Brown published a hype video of himself playing with his kids and working out. The video included content from a call between Brown and his coach, Jon Gruden.

 

What makes this problematic is that it appears Gruden knew nothing about the recording of the call, and California has a law against that.

(NOTE: I put this together early Tuesday, only to find out when I woke up this morning that Brown has been accused of rape in a lawsuit. Deadspin posted both the formal complaint on its website along with text messages included in it that Brown is accused of sending to plaintiff Britney Taylor. I had an easier time understanding the legal jargon in the court filing than I did translating Brown’s off-color texts. With all this in mind, I think we can all agree that Brown now has more on his plate from a legal standpoint than worrying if Gruden is coming after him over a phone call. )

States have specific laws when it comes to recording people on the phone (or other similar communication devices), but most laws center on how many people on the call have to know the recording is occurring:

  • One-party consent: This means that only one of the two people on the call needs to be aware that the call is being recorded. In other words, if you live in a one-party-consent state, you can call someone and be recording from the moment of the dial tone. You are not legally obligated to tell that person you are recording or to get that person’s permission to record the call. (Whether you should be up front about this as an ethical consideration is a totally different argument.) According to the Digital Media Law project, 38 states and the District of Columbia operate under this approach.
  • Two-party consent: This means that all people (usually only the two people on the call, but in the case of conference calls etc., everyone involved has to be on board) have to know about the recording and approve of it. California is one of the 12 states that operate this way, which theoretically presents a problem for Brown.

(To find out which way your state swings on this, you can go to this guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which lays out everything in both a grid and a state-by-state analysis for you.)

On one of the Sunday pre-game shows, former Steelers coach Bill Cowher mentioned that it was illegal for Brown to do this. Once I checked to make sure he was right, I reached out to Chip Stewart, a faculty member at TCU and one of my favorite legal eagles, to see what he thought the shake out from this would be, if anything.

His response was kind of what I figured, given that the Raiders wanted to get away from this Dumpster fire as fast as possible:

I’d say it’s not likely Brown would be prosecuted for doing this, but presuming that the conversation – Gruden calling and Brown recording – took place in California, and that the parties reasonably expected that nobody was recording it, then yes, it is technically a violation of California law.

Section 632 of the California Penal Code makes recording a conversation without the consent of all parties to that conversation a crime punishable by up to a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail. But that’s not really going to happen.

I doubt Gruden would make such a big deal of it that he’d want to file a complaint to a prosecutor, and likewise, I doubt prosecutors would take this up on their own initiative to prosecute and drag everyone to court as a witness.

Further complicating this situation, news reports filed late Monday and early Tuesday noted that Gruden had known about the recording and had given his blessing to Brown’s use of it in the video:

Enjoy the awesome: A look at the Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker Finalists

One of the best and worst moments associated with running student media for me used to happen right about now, when the Associated Collegiate Press announced the Pacemaker finalists for the year. The email would spring up in my in box letting me know the finalists were now public and I’d click on the link like a kid seeing if I got accepted to my first-choice college.

I’d scroll through the list, desperately seeking the name of our publication. If I found it, life was great for about six seconds. At that point, I’d realized now I would have an additional month and a half to worry if we actually won or not. (Of all the things I hate about college media, awards were at the top of the list for at least a dozen reasons.)

If I didn’t find it, I’d do a quick search-bar check with our name to see if I somehow missed it. When it turned out that I hadn’t, I took a deep breath and headed over to the editor’s office for “the talk” about what had happened. No matter how I spun it, the editor always looked like I shot her dog. This clearly illustrated I was never going to make it in PR.

It’s a great thing to celebrate the winners and you can learn a TON from reading through the samples of the publications that made the finalists cut. They are, in many ways, a cut above where a lot of publications are. You should absolutely read through their work to find ideas on everything from big stories to recurring features. The design they employ is inspirational and their graphics and photos can be incredible.

The stuff here is incredible in many ways, so please take a chance to look through these entries, see if your school made the cut and congratulate anyone you know (or admire). This is their time to shine and they deserve attention for their quality work.

Here is the list of newspaper finalists.

Is “dumb-ass idea” hyphenated? AP updates its guidance on compound modifiers

If you read this blog at all, you know I have an almost pathological love of hyphens. It’s because I believe they clarify intent, especially in the case of compound modifiers.

I like to joke that I prefer to have a “smoking-hot car…”

262061_2304935341586_1282884_n

…as opposed to a “smoking, hot car.”

HotCar

In its most recent update, however, the Associated Press reworked its rules/guidance/thoughts on hyphens when it comes to “commonly known phrases:”

APHyphen

Journalism professors, editors and everyone else who picks at language took this news calmly and simply as always:

 

Let’s parse AP’s language on this one:

No hyphen is needed if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, early morning traffic, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.

The first problem with this is that “commonly recognized” creates a lot of trouble, as what is common for some people isn’t that common for others. Sure we could quibble about people who don’t like sports not knowing if it’s “first-quarter touchdown” or “first quarter touchdown” (as if you could score a quarter of a touchdown), but that’s the easy stuff.

Consider the style on issues of transgender individuals:

Sex reassignment or gender confirmation: The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender. Balducci considered having sex reassignment surgery during his transition.

The example doesn’t hyphenate “sex-reassignment surgery,” a term that AP just added in June of 2019, so I’m not sure how this fits with the “commonly recognized” element. Also, given the need for things to be “clear and unambiguous,” I’d imagine it should be more helpful if the hyphen were there to clarify that we are reassigning sex (or confirming gender) in the surgery.

The rules on “public land management” had me perplexed as well, in that public land management could be land management completed in an open, public fashion via governmental agencies while public-land management could be the management and care of only public lands.

(Also, because I’m somewhat demented, I started thinking about things like “the golden shower’ act” (or is it the golden-shower act?) associated with the Russia-scandal dossier. Or as one report referred to it “the ‘pee tape’ controversy.” Or is it a pee-tape controversy? These are the thoughts that keep me awake at night… )

We no longer have “third-grade students,” but we still have “a first-hour class” they must attend. Also, we still have “9-year-olds,” but they’re now in a “third grade classroom.”

 

Every year, I provide my students with an AP-style worksheet (or is it AP style worksheet?) that has a number of the key rules they need to know. I’ve already had to go back through and change all the percent items because of a change that freaked us all out in March. Before I started messing around with “one-bedroom apartment” or “four-door sedan,” I figured I’d ask the editor for clarification. The “Ask the Editor” folks at AP were nice enough to respond with this:

We don’t have new rules on hyphenation, contrary to what you may see on Twitter. One-bedroom apartment and four-door sedan are correct; we use hyphens in compound modifiers. We continue not to hyphenate terms commonly recognized as a single phrase. We use high school student, not high-school student; real estate agent, not real-estate agent; climate change report; not climate-change report. We change our style on two terms to conform to that guidance: first grade student (similar to high school student) and first quarter touchdown (the lack of hyphen wouldn’t cause anyone to think there’s such a thing as a quarter touchdown).

So, I spent about 20 minutes trying to think about how I could NOT misinterpret “first grade student” but I COULD misinterpret “four-door sedan,” based on hyphenation issues. I was left without a good answer.

The way that I’ve always explained style to students and why they need to learn it comes down to a few things, none of which are helped here with AP’s approach here:

 

Consistency: The goal of adhering to a specific style is so that everyone who is using a term, a form of punctuation or an approach to writing does so in the same way as everyone else in that field. Sure, there are breaks from the norms here and there, but a lot of those come once we know the rules and consciously decide to go a different way for a good reason. For example, here’s the start of the entry on last names:

In general, use only last names on second reference. When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, generally use the first and last name on subsequent references.

OK, but when you write a feature story about a family that has run a diner for three generations, the last thing you want is a sentence like this:

“Suzy Smith said she talked to Mary Smith about asking their brother, Johnny Smith, to get on board with the restructuring plan, in spite of what Jane Smith and Carl Smith, Suzy Smith’s cousins, wanted to do with the restaurant.”

One of my favorite feature stories a student wrote for me was about a family farm and every time I read it, even 10 years later, I wince at the first name/last name references to everyone. She did it because AP told her to and she feared losing points in the class. Had she asked, I would have told her to break the rule.

Consistency helps us when we move from job to job or from one area of the field to the other. Sure, organizations will implement local style when it comes to certain things, but AP serves as the benchmark for consistency that allows us to avoid looking like idiots when we leave one place and go somewhere else. It also helps to make sure we’re all on the same page when we are looking at a particular way of doing things.

 

Clarity: I remember talking to a friend of mine in college who was taking Japanese to fulfill a foreign-language requirement (or is it foreign language requirement now?) and I asked him how he was surviving it. (I had always heard Japanese was a really tough language to learn.) He told me English was harder because it has all sorts of rules that have all sorts of exceptions to them, making it almost impossible to be right. Japanese wasn’t a breeze, but at least the rules were relatively clear and standard, he told me.

Think about all the rules English has the require kids to sing songs to help remember them, like,  “i before e, except after c, unless it’s an “eh” like in “neighbor” or “weigh.” No wonder my kid uses text lingo and can’t spell to save her life…

AP presents these stylistics as guidelines and ideals, but they also essentially serve as rules for how we do things. That’s why we, as academics, force the students to read the book and abide by it. When the rules are clear, we all tend to follow them or understand why we are penalized when we fail to do so.

Think about it like a posted speed limit: When the sign says “Speed Limit: 55 mph,” we all understand that’s about how fast the state wants us to drive on that road and most of us tend to drive around that fast. When the police officer pulls you over for going 125 mph in that 55 mph zone (or is it 55-mph zone?), there’s at least a sense of “OK, I understand. I’m going to jail.”

However, there are “guidelines” as to how to drive on roads where there is no posted limit, most of which I would wager we don’t know. For example, in zones with no postings in Idaho, the rules are as clear as mud:

Idaho code 49-654 (1) reads: no person shall drive a vehicle at a speed in excess of the maximum limits: 35 miles per hour in any residential, business or urban district, unless otherwise posted; 65 miles per hour on state highways, unless otherwise posted in accordance with section 49-201(4), Idaho Code, and provided that this speed may be increased to 70 miles per hour if the department completes an engineering and traffic study on the state highway and concludes that the increase is in the public interest and the transportation board concurs with such conclusion; 55 miles per hour in other locations, unless otherwise posted, up to a maximum of 70 miles per hour.

Well, that’s not helpful to me if I’m on a rural road where a farm truck pulling hay is going 25 mph while Parnelli Jones is flying up my keester at 80. I’m not certain if the police would let me get away with, “Yes, officer, I know I was going 70, but I swear I thought this road had a traffic and engineering study that concluded it was in my best interest that this not be an unposted 55 zone!”

If you are in charge of making the rules, try not to turn the situation into a game of “Bamboozled.” Come up with some clear thoughts, stick to them and make life easy on those of us who have to deal with them. (Or, more to the point, easy on those of us who have to teach other people how to deal with them.)

 

Improvement: It’s a simple rule that I tend to follow, but change is supposed to make things better. If you change something and it becomes worse, that’s a bad thing. If you change things just for the sake of change, that’s dumber than change that makes things worse.

Case in point: My parents bought a really nice luxury SUV with a set of third-row seats. (I’m guessing it’s not third row seats, as I’m guessing a “row seat” might be something crew folks use…) The problem? To use the area in the back for storage, you had to fold up and remove the seats, each of which weighed about 70 pounds. You then had to store the seats in a garage or basement until you needed them again.

I found this to be colossally stupid, because my smaller, crappier SUV had stow-and-go seats, which meant they just flattened out and things were fine. When the next version of this luxury SUV came along, the engineers figured out that having people who could afford luxury drag a set of seats into a garage wasn’t exactly “on-brand.” The newer edition had electric  stow-and-go seats. It was change that created improvement.

To its credit, AP has made numerous changes over the years that have improved things. Issues pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation have shifted over time, and AP has demonstrated its willingness to hear from people affected by those issues and craft the style entries accordingly. It has helped with everything from how to spell foreign leaders’ names to how the internet differs from the World Wide Web (and when to capitalized each of them…). Those changes definitely improved things. Even simple things, like spelling out all the state names instead of dealing with rules over which ones got abbreviated and which didn’t or when to use AP abbreviations and when to use postal abbreviations did make things better.

When they started putzing with punctuation, it made less sense. The hyphens and the percent changes didn’t make sense. For the sake of peace with honor, I could buy the percent sign situation, if forced to do so. However, compound modifiers seem to be pretty simple in general: If the adjectives can’t independently modify the noun, you connect them with a hyphen. AP’s reliance on the “commonly recognized” exception seems like less of an improvement and more of a “We’re just tired of hearing about this, so do what the hell you want” response.

Maybe that is oversimplification that makes me a smart ass, who doesn’t understand the field as well as those who run the AP.

Smartass

Wait… Make that a smart-ass…