THROWBACK THURSDAY: “Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

We were discussing horrible headline in class the other day, so I dug this one up from the Wayback Machine and figured it’d be worth a share on Throwback Thursday.

Enjoy!

 


“Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

 

As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.

I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.

One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:

Shot.jpg

The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?

Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)

A similar problem emerges in this headline:

GayStraight

(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)

Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:

WalkerPodcast

The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…

In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:

Smith, Jones dead even in polls

However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:

Smith, Jones dead
even in polls

When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:

Blows

(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)

Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)

SplitsMatter

How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)

Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:

  • Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
  • Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
  • Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
  • Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.

“Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do:” Award-winning sports reporter Ryan Wood discusses his in-depth examination of the NFL concussion settlement’s impact on former players

Ryan Wood, a Green Bay Packers beat reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, covers the day-in, day-out elements of NFL football in the league’s smallest outpost. 

He worked the sports beat at the DeKalb (Illinois) Daily Chronicle, where he covered Northern Illinois University athletics. He also covered the athletic programs at the University of South Carolina and Auburn University before taking on his current job covering the Packers. He has earned multiple awards for his reporting on the team as well as his coverage of the retirement and hall-of-fame moments of players.

Sports journalism requires heavy reliance on quick-hit social media posts and deadline-pounding stories from games, something Wood has perfected over his time in Green Bay. What he thought might be another quick-hit story turned into one of the longest ones of his life: an 18-month reporting journey into the NFL’s concussion settlement with former players and how the league was dodging many players’ claims. His reporting took him from former players and league offices to lawyers and concussion experts to fully understand what was happening with this settlement.

Wood was nice enough to submit to an email interview to give us an inside look at how the story started, what he dealt with throughout the process of building it and some tips on how student journalists can do some quality investigative journalism on their own.


You mentioned when you shared this on social media that you thought this might be a quick story, but it quickly evolved into something that took 18 months of your life. How did you find this story and how did it evolve to the piece that you published?

“The story found me more than I found it. Seems the best stories tend to do that. I was on the phone with an NFL agent at the end of April, just after the 2020 draft, when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round. A story like this was the furthest thing from my mind, but then I got an email forwarded from my editor. It was just a tip that Jim Capuzzi, the son of then-88-year-old former Packers player Camillo Capuzzi, was having difficulties with the NFL’s concussion settlement.
“My first reaction was that there must be something this family was missing. I certainly did not expect it to become a story, much less one that would engulf 5,500 words and 18 months of my attention. I would simply send an email and get an answer, I thought. I emailed Carl Francis, communications director for the NFL’s player association. This seemed like an issue the NFLPA would be interesting in helping solve.
“When I did not hear back, that was my first sign there was something more here.”
The thing that I noticed was the number of former players who spoke at length with you about their personal issues, their struggles after they retired and their battles with the NFL. How did you get these people to agree to work with you and what did you do to establish trust with them, especially after they had all of those rough experiences in life? 
“In reporting, the most important ingredient for cooperation is one word: motivation. A source must be motivated to help. What’s in it for them?
“These former players obviously had a great deal of motivation. They felt like the NFL and claims administrator BrownGreer was not paying money they were owed. The more I spoke with former players and their families, though, the more I came to realize the thing they wanted almost as much as the financial assistance is to be listened to.
“Many of these retired players feel like they’re living in the dark. They’ve gone from adulation, from playing inside stadiums packed with tens of thousands of fans, like modern gladiators, to the obscurity of retirement. Most of them are dealing with significant health issues, sometimes health issues they don’t even understand, and the realities of their situation are unknown to the public. I think they trusted me to tell their stories because I was genuine. The same thing with lead attorney Christopher Seeger giving me 20 minutes on the record.
“I approached this story from a genuine interest in understanding and being fair to every side, and I think that goes a long way when people feel like they’re not being listened to.”
The NFL is a key player in this and yet they didn’t seem all that interested in participating. What steps did you take in trying to get an official league response and how did the league treat your requests? Also, have you received any blow back from anyone attached to the NFL after the piece ran?  
“It took a lot of persistence to get a league response. I first emailed NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy on a Tuesday, 13 days before my deadline, and gave him one week to respond. (I needed a few days to factor in for story revisions after the response.) I called the next day and left a voicemail. I didn’t get a response to the email or call, so I sent McCarthy another email on the ensuing Monday. That email consisted of key reporting details included in the story on how the NFL/claims administrator was treating claims. That email was followed by an immediate phone call, which McCarthy answered.
“We discussed the story while he read the email, and he said he’d do what he could do given legal restraints. McCarthy sent me a statement of several paragraphs the next day, meeting the deadline I had given him. I included the key proponents of that statement in the story.
“I have not received any blow back from the league. I think the reason is because the story fairly presents their side. The interest of fairness is why I sent the followup email. I wanted the NFL to have a chance to respond to the reporting in this story before it was published, not after. That email, I think, was the key to getting a response.”
We’ve had a lot of chatter about how sports reporters and political reporters and others at the highest levels have to “play the game” to get scoops or to avoid being ostracized.  Did you ever consider the ramifications of going after a piece like this or worry about how it might impact your day-to-day work with the Packers or the NFL?  Did you think, “This might get me into some trouble and it might not be worth it” for your career?
“That thought never crossed my mind during the entire 18 months. I’m not really wired that way, for one. Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“But the biggest reason is because I know I have firm backing from my employer. I’m blessed to work at a newspaper committed to doing journalism at the highest level. So I never had to be concerned about backlash.
“A thought that did occur to me early on was that this story was entirely about the NFL, and not the Packers. This issue went above any team to the league level. So I also didn’t have to worry about any blow back from the Packers, who I work with on a daily basis. Not that it would have changed how I reported the story in any way.”
Were there any key moments in the reporting process where you started to see a bigger piece develop? Anything that made you start to realize how big this was and why the story mattered?
“After I did not get a response from the NFLPA, I spoke to lawyers. I got a referral to one lawyer, who gave me referrals to a handful of other lawyers, and the web started to grow.
“What makes this story special is that it falls on a rare cultural cross section of sports, legal and medicine. That’s a lot of factors to weave into one story. I knew the sports, but I needed to understand all the intricacies of from legal and medical perspectives. I knew nothing about the concussion settlement when I started reporting the story, so that was the first step.
“To become an expert, learn from the experts. It was basically like going to school. Those initial conversations were lengthy, at least an hour. I think my longest phone call was more than three hours. What the attorneys were telling me made it clear there was a big story here.
“As for why the story mattered, it was very simple. People needed help and weren’t getting it. Every now and then, we get the privilege and obligation as journalists to help people who can’t find it anywhere else. It’s what makes journalism a service. Those opportunities make this job quite rewarding.”
What advice do you have for student journalists and journalism students who might want to go after a bigger piece like this? Are there any things you found that were really helpful or things you would caution them against?
“Don’t eat the elephant in one bite. A project like this can feel impossible at the onset. You’ve got to start somewhere. A phone call. Another phone call. Just keep going.
“No story in my career has stressed the value of patience more than this one. Reporting a story 18 months can be very rewarding at the end, but it’s exhausting to reach that point. There were moments I had doubts whether the story would ever be published. I constantly questioned whether it would be worth the time investment. So I think it starts there, at the emotional level.
“In terms of reporting, it almost works the opposite. Cast the widest net possible, and narrow it from there. I wanted to speak to everybody: players, family members, lawyers, physicians. Every conversation ended with the same question: Who else do you know that would be good for me to speak with? That’s a critical question for reporters taking on a project like this. The people you’re speaking with sometimes know better than you who else to talk to.”
Anything else you want to say? Anything I missed?
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the necessity of working with a great editor. The industry has devalued editors over the past decade, but this story more than any in my career emphasized the important role they serve to quality journalism.
“There’s no chance this story would have gotten off the ground without the work of my editors. I was fortunate to work with two superb editors over these 18 months. It started with my sports editor, Robert Zizzo. He helped me believe in the story, keep patience when the reporting took longer than I wanted, and was important to one of the most crucial elements, crafting a narrative through the reporting.
“It moved to the desk of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative editor Sam Roe midway through. With Sam, I rewired the story. The analogy we used was keeping the structure of a house, but removing all the appliances, furniture and floors, and then refurbishing it. A major revision to the story was for it to be told through the perspective of players. Initial versions were too heavily reliant on reporting from lawyers. I think the final copy personalizes the story, helping make a dense topic digestible.”

Word choices matter (or why a judge thought people who were shot to death couldn’t be called “victims” of the shooting)

Journalists must have a decent vocabulary to make sure they can communicate effectively to an audience. To assist my students in this regard, kids in my Feature Writing class have been required to smell or feel a mystery substance without being able to see it. They then have to generate 15 words that describe the sensation accurately and clearly.

(If you want to see the “Feel it” Lab or the “Smell it” Lab in action, feel free to click on those links.)

The point I was trying to make in those lessons was that distinctions in verbiage convey specific images to your audience. There’s a difference between “sticky” and “slimy”  or between “cool” and “cold.” In taking a whiff from the mystery bags, students found themselves debating among  the terms “scent” and “odor” and “stench.”

Distinctions like this can make the difference between a vivid word picture and a fuzzy mental image, but really can’t do much harm to the readers or the field. A recent court decision in Wisconsin, however, demonstrates how word choices can literally shape opportunities for justice.

Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for his actions during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. 2020. Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them, as part of a collection of citizens who came down to “monitor” the civil unrest that occurred after police officer Rusty Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times as  Blake was getting into his SUV. Rittenhouse is currently on trial for these shootings and the judge in the case made a specific requirement as to how participants in the case should refer to certain people involved:

During Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial on homicide charges, prosecutors must refer to the two people he fatally shot — Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber — and one he wounded — Gaige Grosskreutz — as Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Huber and Mr. Grosskreutz, or the people who were shot, or as to Rosenbaum and Huber, the decedents.

They may not be referred to as victims.

<SNIP>

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger countered by seeking to bar defense lawyers from calling the men “looters, rioters, arsonists or any other pejorative term.”

While looting, rioting and arson occurred in the two nights before the shooting, Binger argued that unless there’s specific proof Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were engaged in any of those actions, and that Rittenhouse had seen it, the labels are even more “loaded” than what judge ascribes to “victim.”

Schroeder was not swayed.

We have seen this problem before in how certain words can lead readers to have certain emotional reactions. The most famous one is this comparison of people during Hurricane Katrina trying to survive by scrounging for supplies. While the caption on the photo of the Black man shows him “looting,” the caption for the white couple has them “finding” supplies.

In both cases, people were taking items necessary to their survival from places without paying for them (primarily because everything was destroyed or abandoned at that time, and nobody showed up to run the register at the local convenience store). However, the “looting” tag carries with it a criminal vibe while the “finding” tag seems to indicate the people just were walking around and discovered the stuff under a pile of leaves on the sidewalk or something.

Feminist scholars have long noted the incongruity in language as to how men and women are described. A few common pairings include:

  • Women are “pushy” while men are “assertive”
  • Women are “bossy” while men “take charge”
  • Women are “stubborn” while men are “persistent”

We could go on for days, but the point is that language matters in how we tell stories. Here are a couple hints to improve your word selection when it comes to potential biases in language:

 

WOULD YOU USE THE DESCRIPTOR OF THE SITUATION WAS REVERSED?: One of the key ways to determine fairness in language or description is to turn the tables and see if it still works for you. My favorite example comes from Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” in which one of his teammates notes that he wouldn’t mind the papers referring to him as “the black first baseman” if only they would refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.”

The same is true of descriptions like “the female mayor” or “the woman CEO” and so forth. Calling attention unnecessarily to an attribute that you wouldn’t flip the other way is clearly an indicator that you might want to rethink that descriptor. I can’t remember seeing headlines about “the white quarterback” or “the male company president” and I bet most of you can’t either. Same thing with references to a “straight wedding” or a “cis gender politician.”

This doesn’t mean all descriptors of any kind like this should be ignored or eliminated. What it does mean is that you should think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and see if it makes sense.

 

DOES THE TERM HAVE A LOADED MEANING?: I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone described as “a looter” or “a rioter” and had a positive reaction to that person. Those terms carry with them some negative baggage.  Conversely, I’ve seen an array of meanings ascribed to the term “clowning around” that range from bright and happy to racist.

Calling a member of the city council a “bureaucrat” can be technically accurate, as that person is a governmental figure, but it also brings up an image of someone who cares more about laws than people or who obstructs important actions by adhering to the letter of the law.

Calling a new policy a “reform” can be technically correct, as it will reshape the legal landscape in regard to the the way something is done, thus re-forming something. However, the term carries with it a positive meaning that leads people to believe something is a good idea. For example, a plan to cut benefits to working parents who are operating just above the poverty line can be deemed “welfare reform” and seen in a positive light.

The one I just saw that made me think was “unskilled labor.” In a post on this term, someone noted that all labor is skilled. If you took Bill Gates and stuck him with a road construction crew, he would be as lost as can be. If you took Jamie Dimon and put him in charge of a Naperville McDonald’s during lunch rush, he would probably end up with a crowd of really angry people and some severe grease burns. The term “unskilled labor” is meant to diminish the value of what certain people do and thus make it easier to discount them or pay them less.

All sorts of terms have a particular angle on them, such as “pro-life” for people who are against abortion rights, to “anti-death,” to people who opposed capital punishment. The question you need to ask is if your choice of words is providing bias or giving favor to a particular side of a debate.

 

DOES THAT WORD MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS: Whenever I’m writing and I’m half guessing at the meaning of a word, I’m mystically transported back to eighth grade and hearing my mother’s voice yelling from another room, “Look it up!  You’ve got a dictionary in there!”

Systemic Racism: “I Don&#39;t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means” – Crafted For All

We talked about this a bit during one of The Junk Drawer posts, where a reporter talked about this lead and word choice:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

Aside from the 83 other problems we noted, the use of the word “aftermath” is wrong, given that it  means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.”

I still love the student who finally learned after years of using “penultimate” to describe something that was super-extra ultimate, the word actually meant “second to last.”

The point is to know the meaning of the word before you use it.

That’s an important point I hoped I emphasized in that penultimate paragraph.

Stress and Burnout, Part IV: Hints and tips for slowing the burn

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues (as well as other researchers) and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed the earlier posts:


First and foremost, I want to be clear that if you are experiencing severe burnout, either based on the scores you tallied from the Maslach Burnout Inventory or based on intuition after reading the previous posts, you should seek help. Most campuses I know of have mental health professionals who can assist you in whatever concerns you while many others have programs that seek to take care of students who feel like they’re breaking down.

I am not “that kind of doctor,” so please find someone who is.

That said, if you’re feeling a bit crispy around the edges or you want to knock your MBI scores down a few pegs, here are some lower-end suggestions that can assist you in mellowing out a bit, consider these options:

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: If there’s one good thing the pandemic has provided people, it’s the realization that illness can’t be overcome with gumption. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed myself past my limits while sick because, “I don’t have time to be sick.” That phrase is so ingrained in the mentality of journalism folks that we should have it translated into Latin and carved above the door of every student newsroom.

We often had students in the newsroom or the classroom looking like something out of “Dawn of the Dead,” pumping orange juice, cold meds and throat lozenges into themselves like they were stuffing a turkey. They wanted to write “just one more” story or edit “just one more” page, as they sounded like they were hacking up a lung. The idea is that being there at 50% (OK, maybe more like 25%) is better than not being there at all.

The truth of the matter is, if we just took care of ourselves a bit better, we wouldn’t get sick as often (usually). If we did get sick, we would recover to full strength better if we took the break when we needed it.

You can’t do anything when you’re sick or dead, as both tend to diminish productivity.

Early and regular coping techniques are good to keep yourself from dropping off: daily exercise, regular meals that include several parts of the food pyramid and quality sleep.

Now, let’s make something clear here. Walking briskly to the vending machine three times a day does not count for exercise and a regular meal schedule. Sleep isn’t well had passing out on the floor of the newsroom with a coat over your head. You need real versions of each of these elements.

(If you can’t sleep because you’re too worried, that’s another warning sign. You’ll want to see the student health folks for some recommendations.)

 

FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE (OUTSIDE OF YOUR JOURNALISM LIFE): I was always amused when I worked in the newsroom and students decided they had finally had ENOUGH of whatever was bothering them that week.

“I need to get out of here,” they’d mutter. “I gotta leave the newsroom and get away from these people.”

Then, they’d get together with all of the same people they were grousing about and go to a bar or a party where they’d continue to discuss whatever was bothering them in the newsroom. It had the same internal logic of celebrating your first day of sobriety with a bottle of tequila.

There is nothing wrong with loving your job, your newsroom, your classes, your clubs or anything else. However, you eventually need a break from all of those “joyful” activities to just relax and actually enjoy something. You need to find something that brings you to your “happy place.”

Happiness can come from a variety of areas. One adviser I heard from told me she brought her dog into the newsroom on occasion. “You can’t be stressed out when you’re petting a dog,” she said. That’s pretty true. Little kids can also be amazing in this regard. Many years ago, I would bring my 2-year-old daughter into the newsroom. She’d dress up in princess clothes or build block towers with the editors. She’d draw with them and in the end they’d feel better.

The simple and small pleasures have been known to stave off stressful situations. After a particularly stressful day, several of us in a newsroom used to agree to meet online to play a game in which we were in “arena combat” and the goal was to blow each other up until the timer ran out. These days, I force myself to play a game of pinball or two to wind down and get away from the stress of the day.

 

PRIORITIZE AND SET LIMITS: This sounds easier said than done, but it’s like going on a diet or committing to an exercise regiment: Once you get into the groove, it becomes part of what you do.

Prioritizing can help you figure out which things you should focus on and in what order, thus eliminating the feeling of being overwhelmed. For some people, it’s about writing out things that HAVE TO happen in a given day on a list and taking pleasure in crossing them off. For others, it’s about learning how to determine which things need their attention and what things can be ignored, refused or delegated.

An approach I saw once used a color coding system to list off a bunch of things: Red meant it needed to be done before the end of business that day/week/hour/whatever. Yellow meant once the reds were done, a couple of these things could really use some attention. Green meant it got done when it got done and could be ignored for the foreseeable future.

Eventually when the list got pretty much crossed off, the person would make another list and re-evaluate the pieces that were left. Some of those greens needed to become yellows. A couple yellows might be red at this point. In addition, new stuff would fill in here and there in varying colors as well. It worked for that person, which was all it had to do.

Setting limits can be numerical, like, “Once the first five things on this list get done, I’m getting lunch,” or “I owe six emails today and that’s all I’m doing unless there’s a hostage situation that requires me to respond via email.” The limits could also be time-based, like deciding you’re going to turn off the computer by X time at night or you won’t work from A to B times during the day. One particularly clever way of doing this is to charge your laptop to full capacity and then leave your power cord at home. Once you run out of battery juice, you’re done for the day. Everyone else will just have to cope.

If you’re like me, (read: having grown up Catholic or in some other guilt-based system of existence) this can be really tough because you don’t want to feel like you’re letting people down or that you disappointed someone by not doing what they needed. This is how I end up writing letters of recommendation in 12 minutes after some kid I knew three semesters ago emails me with a desperate need and I don’t want them thinking I’m an uppity jerknugget.

However, I try to explain to people that for me to be the thing they want me to be (read: functional, helpful, valuable, intellectually on the ball etc.), I need to avoid burning out. In other words, “Do you want the thing done or do you want it done well?”

 

LEARN WHAT TO CARE ABOUT: If you write every headline in 100 point bold, screaming, you’ll never know what you should care about and your audience will tune you out. Same can be said about dealing with people.

When some professor in the history department makes some snide comment in front of a class about the newspaper or your major or a club you run, let it go. People who think they know what you do while actually having no clue about what you actually do in any of these areas are plentiful. No sense getting bent out of shape over an academic twerp. When the head of the journalism department says, “Your (club/paper/group) sucks. We’re cutting your funding and kicking you out.” That’s something to care a bit more about.

I often go back to the line about “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” when considering how stressed a situation should make me. I also find that people who can’t make this kind of distinction tend to think every hill is the one that EVERYONE around them MUST die on EVERY TIME. Learn to avoid these people and learn to avoid becoming one of these people.

 

HAVE A GOOD CREW IN YOUR CORNER: I remember watching a documentary about the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. By the time the 14th round ended, the fighters were completely spent and both of their respective teams knew it.

Ali looked like he was going to have to quit in the corner, something his crew refused to allow him to consider. Frazier, who later revealed that he had been fighting for most of his career only able to see out of one eye, had his good eye swollen shut by repeated poundings to the head. The legendary trainer Eddie Futch told Frazier that he know the fighter couldn’t see and it was time to throw in the towel. Frazier responded, “Don’t worry. I can visualize him.” Futch refused to listen and ended the fight.

Futch lived to the age of 90 and until his dying day, he said he never once regretting stopping the fight, despite what it meant to Frazier’s legacy and Frazier’s own bitterness toward his former trainer. All that mattered was he wanted to keep his fighter safe.

I guess this is my way of rolling this series all the way back to the boxing analogy from the first piece. One of the most important things to have around you at all times is a good “corner-person” who knows what you need at any given point in time.

(A quality “cut-person” and a good  “hype-person” are nice additions as well.)

In student media, this should be the newsroom adviser: The wizened one who has seen it all and knows when you need a motivating kick in the keester and when to throw in the towel for you. They have to see the bigger picture as you simply plow ahead, round by round. In college, a variety of other advisers can serve this role, such as an academic one or the one overseeing your group, organization or club. It could be anyone out there you know who knows how you tick.

(Side note: In my life, it’s Amy. She’s like a human divining rod when it comes to what I need, when, where and why. If you find someone like that in your life, hang on to that person with all you’ve got.)

The idea here is that sometimes we don’t know ourselves as well as we need to in order to keep ourselves out of trouble. Surrounding ourselves with people who understand us and are able to get through to us can be a saving grace when we are too stubborn or stupid for our own good.

Stress and Burnout, Part III: Definitions and measurements of how burnt you really are

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues (as well as other researchers) and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed the earlier posts:


To understand the impact of stress and burnout, it is important to understand what these terms actually mean. People can often use them colloquially, much in the same way that someone who skipped lunch might note, “I’m starving to death!” The concept of hunger is clear in this, but, in a clinical sense, that statement is not accurate.

When examined clinically and diagnosed appropriately, stress and burnout manifest themselves in measurable ways that create significant negative impacts for the individuals suffering from these issues. With that in mind, we’re going to look at what these things mean, how they impact us and also how to ascertain your level of stress and burnout in your life.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines stress as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.” In other words, when you are forced to do more than you are physically, mentally or emotionally able to do, you endure stress.

Hans Selye, often called the “father of modern stress research,” defined stress as the rate of wear and tear a person receives from engaging in life. Stress can be a sharp, singular experience, like trying to drive through a freak snow storm, but it can also be the day-to-day grind of tolerating the bumper-to-bumper ride to work.

Stress can result from pleasant situations as well, such as getting a promotion at work and fearing that you won’t be able to handle the new responsibilities or getting an invitation to serve as a keynote speaker at a major event and fearing you will screw it up. Generally speaking, stress goes up and down based on a variety of factors in life, and in most cases, people can recover physically, mentally and emotionally from stress.

A researcher named Christina Maslach began investigating the concept of stress and its relationship to burnout in the 1970s. She found that high levels of repetitive stress can lead to an emotional and physical draining that creates a likelihood of burnout.  Individuals who are extremely dedicated to their work often exceed their stress limits without realizing the damage it is doing to them over time. After this pattern of excess becomes chronic, burnout ensues. Once it does, she and her research colleagues discovered, there is generally no cure.

To measure burnout, Maslach and Jackson (1981) developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The scales within this 22-item instrument measured three key aspects of burnout:

  • Emotional exhaustion: People suffering from this aspect of burnout report feeling “used up” at the end of the day or  “drained” by their work. They often report feeling like they are working too hard at something and getting too little in return. Emotional exhaustion can make people feel like they don’t want to get up and face another day of work or other similar activity. It can also lead to frustration, anxiety and fatigue.

 

  • Depersonalization: This aspect of burnout manifests itself through the development of negative and cynical attitudes toward other people. The source of the burnout tends to “harden” a person in terms of their views on things that others might feel empathy toward. Burnout sufferers in this area tend to identify people more as things than individuals. (An example of this might be a physician referring to “the broken leg in room 4” instead of “Danny, who has a broken leg.” A journalism example might be the editor asking “Where’s that photog?” as opposed to “Has Jane returned from taking photos yet?”)

 

  • Personal Accomplishment: This is the scale that measures how much pride individuals take in their successes as they relate to the source of stress. For example, a large final project in a class might lead to a great deal of stress. However, if the professor not only gives you an “A,” but offers to help you get your work published, the hard work and stress can feel worth it due to the reward. This scale runs reverse to the others, in that people suffering from burnout will reflect negatively on their accomplishments or view their achievements as insignificant.

Research in this area has found that burnout can be avoided if high scores on the first two scales (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization) are counterbalanced by a high score on the third (personal accomplishment). Scott Reinardy of KU and I did a look at college media advisers and found that moderate levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were counterbalanced by high levels of personal accomplishment. In other words, the advisers felt that the juice was worth the squeeze when it came to their efforts in student media.

However, research has also shown that high levels of depersonalization tended to lead to lower personal accomplishment scores. In examining teachers, the researchers found that as educational organizations pushed educators to produce higher test scores and other quantifiable measures of success, teachers felt less connected with their students and were more likely to depersonalize the students. This was because personal growth goals were replaced by metrics.

In studying student journalists and journalism students, we’ve found that this kind of goal-orientation can increase the likelihood of burnout. As a deadline-oriented, scoop-driven business, journalism requires participants to push toward an end goal. The drive to get the paper out, get the story editing, get the photo shot and more can supersede an individual’s sense of what it’s doing to them and the people around them.

Thus, it doesn’t matter that Johnny is sick. We need a photo, so call him because he’s the only one we have left to shoot it. It doesn’t matter if Sally’s parents are in town. Someone has to cover the chancellor’s state of the university address. See if she can get her parents to work around that. It doesn’t matter that Carlos has a study group for a midterm tonight. We need a copy editor for sports and nobody else understands AP’s rules on numbers like he does. See if he can borrow some notes or something.

In addition, student journalists are often asked to face things they have never previously encountered as part of being a “cub reporter” who is “cutting their teeth” in the field. Thus, they find themselves talking to people who just had a friend die in a fire or asking a dean about allegations of sexual misconduct. They find that even simple stories can have mistakes that would have just cost them a point or two in some other class but in journalism can lead to fatal factual errors that doom their grades. Even more, people who see their mistakes can express outrage or mockery, leading to additional problems and fears.

Again, not all stressful situations lead to burnout, but it’s often like that car analogy from the previous post: We ignore the warning light telling us that we’re a quart low on oil until suddenly the whole engine seizes up and we’re broken. That’s why it’s important to analyze your levels of burnout potential on the three scales in the MBI to determine how you are doing in any given field.

If you want, you can download a copy of the MBI scale that Scott and I reworked when we were doing our media research. In each case, we had our participants focus their answers or their thoughts on a particular area of life (advising the paper, serving as a newspaper editor etc.). If you want to look at it generally, you can do that as well, although it’s a little harder to pinpoint the causes of potential burnout if you’re not pinpointing the aspect of life that’s stressing you out.

If you and others are interested, you can contact me for a decoder key for the three scales and the break points on the scale that indicate low, moderate and high levels of each.

Tomorrow, we start talking about how to lower the bad scores, increase the good ones and avoid burning out.

 

Stress and Burnout, Part II: Why Journalism Students and Student Journalists Get Hit Hard

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed Part I, you can access it here.


Burning Freak Out GIF by Jin - Find &amp; Share on GIPHY

(If your life feels like this, you’re not alone…)

A few weeks back, a student stopped by my office and she was a mess. She was falling behind on her classes, she was worried about her family and she had serious concerns about if she was majoring in the right area. There was a sense of tension about her that I had seen in hundreds of other students.

She was in full-tilt stress mode and on the edge of a burnout.

We will talk about stress and burnout and how each works in the next post and why one is clearly worse than the other. For the moment, just think about stress being a temporary situation of varying levels with burnout being a permanent one from which there is limited hope of recovery.

In other words, stress is when the oil light goes on in your car. Burnout is when you ignore it until your engine seizes up and your car becomes a 4,000-pound paperweight.

In any case, the student and I discussed what it was that was going on that made her feel so burdened and a lot of what she mentioned fit most of what I’d talked about for years with students.

Here are some of the key things she touched on that consistently lead to heavy stress and potential burnout:

Overachiever syndrome: A lot of college students suffer from this, but journalism students tend to fall into this trap a lot more easily for a variety of reasons. You have always been the human embodiment of the line from “The Breakfast Club,” in which the nerd is asked, “What else would you be doing if you weren’t out making yourself a better citizen?

You were always good at juggling a ridiculous amount of things: In high school, you were the kid who could get A’s, letter in four sports, run the debate team, participate in three student organizations, jog six miles a day and more. When you got to college, you didn’t really stop moving forward.

You kept up that heavy load of stuff and then you tried to pick up that double major or extra minor because someone somewhere told you it would be a good idea and look GREAT on your resume.

You basically had a big red S across your chest. You were a gamer.

Then, you hit the student newsroom or other journalism endeavors and found your muse, so you poured even more of yourself into this than you had any other thing. Suddenly, the center couldn’t hold and you began to panic about your ability to maintain balance. Toss in a feisty pandemic, some personal turmoil and 18 months of breathing through a sweat sock, lest you be blamed for grandma’s untimely death, and things really ground you down to a nub.

Money talks: Perhaps you aren’t an overachiever by choice, but by necessity. You’re working a double shift to cover rent, you’ve got a work-study job at the library to cover tuition and you’re trying to squeeze in 21 credits this term so you don’t have to stick around an extra semester.

I have always said that money might not be everything, but it tends to beat the crap out of whatever comes in second. That’s particularly true when it comes to rent, food and tuition. You can’t always dictate terms on this kind of thing, so as much as you might like to have a free ride, reality steps in and suddenly that extra shift or five at Beef O’Brady’s becomes your default option.

For all the “back in my day” stuff kids tend to hear from adults, I can honestly say the one that galls me the most is when old folks talk about how they worked part-time at McDonald’s in college like they were cleaning sewers with a toothbrush or something that “kids these days” could never understand. Most of my students have two or more jobs that are more than full-time hours. And that’s not enough to even ante up in the college game for a lot of universities these days.

Fewer dogs, heavier sled: I’ve only seen an iditarod once, but it was pretty clear what the point was: All of the dogs pulling the sled in one direction, each working for the betterment of the team.

The point is, many hands make light work.

The problem is, if you’re getting burned out, so are other people, which makes the load heavier and, when coupled with the “over-achiever syndrome,” you end up pulling harder. If you’re in the student newspaper, you’re pulling double or triple duty as a writer, editor, copy editor, designer or more. If you’re in a class with group projects, you’re literally just grabbing the project by the scruff of the neck and doing the work yourself, lest the kid who did six bong rips before your group meeting tank your grade. You don’t want this, but now you feel really backed into a corner and people are relying on you.

Internet buzz kill: I cannot say enough good things about the way in which the Internet has improved my life. Between grading directly on students’ work while they make edits to not having the frustration of repeatedly asking Amy, “OK, WHAT show was this guy ON before?” (thanks, IMDB), I know I get more done now than ever before.

That said, the Internet can really suck your time as well as your will to live, because you never get a moment when you’re not “on.”

Case in point: When I went to school, we finished up the paper as quickly as possible, put it to bed and thanks to Wisconsin’s lax bar time laws, we had an ample time to knock back a few. If someone called the bar where we hung out and said a news story was breaking, hey, that waited until tomorrow. Nothing we could do now.

However, thanks to the web, you’ve got a major buzz kill on your hands. The 24-7 world of web has made it harder for dailies and even worse for weeklies in that you’re trying to run a constant news operation with what used to be a staff for just a once a day or once a week publication. Making it worse, you’re now adding video, audio, slide shows and virtual reality to the mix.

Think about how classes have changed as well: When a blizzard blanketed your area, making the roads all but impassable (Wisconsin = 16 inches, Texas = 16 flakes), you used to get the day off. The same thing was true when your professor’s kid brought home the Black Plague from daycare and now Dr. Smith looks like Dr. Death. Now? They upload a podcast, share a digital quiz they built for last semester’s online-only version and you’re stuck doing work.

Those necessary or unexpected down-time breaks were crucial in keeping you on an even keel. Now? Forget about them. The Internet has spoken.

People are jerks: I had a professor who was an amazingly good journalist about 20 years before he came to teach us. When he was helping out with the student newspaper, we thought it was a great idea. However, the guy worked at the New York Times and practically started every sentence with “Back at the times, we used to…” and that was good for about the first three sentences, but he kept turning this into an indictment of what we were doing now.

Well, we aren’t at the New York Times, we aren’t fully formed veteran journalists and we’re doing the best we can. Still, at least he had the chops to back up his complaints. If I had a nickel for every time that a nitwit who once had a letter to the editor published came at me like they were Bob Woodward over whatever they thought “kids these days” should be doing in the paper, I’d have a lot of nickels.

As we have repeatedly noted here, the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers’ Day rings true: “There sure is a lot of bullshit around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

Many administrators and professors don’t cut the students any slack in general. They seem to forget that the students are just that — students. They’re putting in way more time than they’re compensated for, and they’re learning the ropes as they go along. They’re doing too much with too little support and under far more strenuous circumstances.

One of the things I have noted was that so many of our universities have been so excited to tell us that “We’re back to normal now,” that we’re starting to buy into the illusion. Thus, a lot of professors have gone back to the “no extensions” policies of pre-pandemic days or insisted on obituaries for students who claim a death requires them to miss a class. (I wish I were kidding…) We have people asking students to hop back to work getting that dormant student media club back online and pondering what is wrong with kids these days who don’t want to join up for this exciting opportunity?

Well, it’s because unless your version of “normal” required you to miss classes after coughing twice, get a giant Q-tip crammed into your brain on a frequent basis, Purell the crap out of everything you own and wear a mask more often than the robbery crew in “The Town,” I’d say things aren’t quite normal yet. Watching people pretend like “We’re all normal” is as awkward as the dinner scene from “Reality Bites:”

 

 

The student I was talking about earlier was facing a lot of these things and we had to talk about what things mattered most to her and her mental well-being. It’s never easy to cut something or trim something back. However, we started realizing that the more things she kept doing, the fewer of them she was doing WELL. That only made her feel worse about ALL OF THEM.

And that’s where stress starts to become burnout, as we’ll see tomorrow.

Stress and burnout, Part I: Taking a beating

When I think of my student media experience, both as a student journalist and as an adviser, I think of boxing. You enter the arena in great shape, ready to take on whatever challenges are set in front of you. Each round, you experience a series of fresh successes and more than a little beating, but you keep getting up and answering the bell until either the fight is over or you can no longer stand up.

Beyond the idea of fighting the good fight and the adage that “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” however, is that certain choices have consequences and there can be some serious long-term damage that we should really examine. This came to light when I saw the following editorial from the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily, who explained why she’s taking a week off from everything:

This is not a decision I make lightly. I wouldn’t be doing this unless absolutely necessary, because since my first day here I’ve cared about The Daily more than for myself.

But after almost going to the hospital when leaving The Daily’s office alone late Monday night, I refuse to keep allowing severe panic attacks as part of my day-to-day routine. I refuse to keep losing more hair, weight and blood and as nearly as much sleep.

Yesterday, I told a friend my work at The Daily is ever-so-rapidly destroying my physical, mental and emotional health, not to mention my interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships or my dedication to my academics. He replied this destroying can lead to a “violent and deeply entrenched burnout.”

Claire Hao isn’t alone in this situation. Student newspapers operating during the pandemic often took a “time-out” or two as they dealt with all sorts of chaos surrounding their campuses, their newsrooms and their daily lives. The Daily Gamecock at the University of South Carolina was one of several student media outlets that went dark or hit the pause button due to the crushing weight of their workload:

It’s hard to ask for a break knowing that an already overworked colleague would have to pick up any of the tasks that you were unable to fulfill. So, for the most part, we’ve been pushing through. Waiting for it to get better. Failing to take care of ourselves.

We haven’t been sleeping. We’ve forgotten to eat. We’ve been staring at screens for hours on end. Our negligence of our mental health has started to impact our physical health, and it’s also affected our ability to produce the highest-quality content possible. There was a tension in the newsroom, a feeling that everyone was close to their breaking point.

It’s difficult to step away. We are all deeply invested in the work we do at this paper, but we have to allow ourselves to exist outside our identities as editors and producers. While we strongly stand by our commitment to report, fighting burnout and practicing self-care ensures that we will be able to continue to serve this community to the best of our ability.

Look, I get it. Student media is a voracious monster that can consume any one of us whole. As a student, I essentially lived in the newsroom for days or weeks or months at a time. I kept food in the fridge, a change of clothes in the office and a stick of deodorant and a toothbrush in my desk drawer. All of this was essentially a poor substitute for good meals, solid sleep and actual personal hygiene. Still, that was what was expected of you. This is what you signed up for.

What we were told at the time was that the people before us had done just as much, if not more, with much less of all of those things, so either suck it up or realize you’re just a wuss. The legends of people who did great and mighty things in our newsroom drove us past the breaking point, lest we disappoint the ghosts of journalists past against whom we would never measure up. Pick your ass up off the floor, brush yourself off and get back in there. The fight’s not over.

So, we took it. Each beating was a badge of honor. Each time we got hit, we shook it off as best we could and kept moving forward. We had a myopic approach that said, “Keep your eye on the prize. Keep fighting. You’ve got one more round in you.” We refused to give in, give up or quit. That wasn’t how we were built.

At the age of 20, 21, 22, we didn’t think about the consequences. We never really thought beyond the crisis of the moment. Like boxers, we operated one round at a time. However, in looking back at things now, we realize, like many boxers, that maybe we took a few hits too many. Years later, we see what happened to us, just like Gerald McClelland:

Over the years, I’ve given a number of presentations on burnout and student journalists as well as published research on burnout in the student newsrooms. What I have found is that a great many students who have spent a good amount of time working in these places do register clinical signs of burnout. Here’s a chunk of a presentation I did for student journalists. See if this sounds familiar:

In an effort to measure burnout, researchers Maslach and Jackson developed three aspects of the Maslach Burnout Inventory: an increased feeling of emotional exhaustion; the development of negative, cynical attitudes and feelings toward one’s clients or patients (depersonalization); and the tendency to negatively evaluate oneself through unhappy reflections on one’s self and one’s job accomplishments (personal accomplishment).

They wrote that burnout is a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people-work’ of some kind” (Maslach and Jackson, 1981, p. 99). Burnout is prevalent if workers demonstrate high emotional exhaustion and depersonalization coupled with low personal accomplishment.

The scales these folks developed help measure these three concepts and the degree to which they’re severe enough to merit serious concern. One year, as students in a session were rating themselves on these scales, I had a student ask about the “decoding” chart I had put up on the board.

“What does 11+ mean for that one scale?” one kid asked.

“When you add the scores of those questions together, if you get higher than 11, you’re at a burnout level for that scale,” I explained.

I saw him doing some quick math and then he turned pale white.

“Jesus Christ…,” he muttered. “I’m at 29.”

He wasn’t alone. Students in that room overwhelmingly reported cynical attitudes, a loss of hopefulness, emotional exhaustion and a lack of joy in any accomplishments. They were, to quote the title of one of our studies, “Editor Toast.”

Over the next couple days, I’m going to put together a series of posts based on work that I did with several good friends that analyzed stress and burnout. What I hope will happen is that people will see this as an opportunity to see that they’re not alone, analyze their own well-being and start talking about these issues in public with other folks in student journalism.

If the field itself is going to survive and thrive, the people in it need to do so first.

Throwback Thursday: Ethics versus Access: An interview with the Chapman Panther editor who said, “No Thanks” to covering George W. Bush’s private event on the campus

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen big-name journalists brought under scrutiny for potential ethical lapses.

We looked at Adam Schefter’s situation earlier, in which he provided a source with a complete copy of a story prior to publication, asking if that person wanted anything “added, changed or tweaked” before it went live. A number of people castigated him for this choice, with some arguing that he’s essentially an “access merchant,” trading journalism tenets for scoops.

More recently, it came to light that Katie Couric went out of her way to “protect”  late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she published a story about the SCOTUS icon back in 2016:

Katie Couric has admitted to ‘protecting’ Ruth Bader Ginsburg from public backlash by cutting out negative comments she made about people who kneel during the national anthem.

The former Today show host reveals in her new book that she let her personal political views influence her editing decisions after her interview with the late Supreme Court justice in 2016.

In new memoir, Going There, Couric writes that she edited out a part where Ginsburg said that those who kneel during the national anthem are showing ‘contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life.’

The published story, which Couric wrote for Yahoo! News in 2016, did include quotes from Ginsburg saying refusing to stand for the anthem was ‘dumb and disrespectful’, but omitted more problematic remarks.

In light of these transgressions, I went back and found a case of someone taking the high road for the right reasons. Back in 2019, I interviewed Louisa Marshall, then the editor of the Chapman Panther, who took the step of declining a major interviewing opportunity with a former president because of conditions imposed upon their access.

The student journalists at the Panther explained how they didn’t want to trade press freedom for a good story or give their fellow students a reason to think the paper wasn’t an independent voice beholden only to the audience.

It’s stuff like this that always allows me to tell people who fret about the future of journalism that we’re probably going to be just fine.

Enjoy.

 

Ethics versus Access: An interview with the Chapman Panther editor who said, “No Thanks” to covering George W. Bush’s private event on the campus

When former President George W. Bush came to Chapman University this month to speak at a private event, administrators gave the staff of the student newspaper the chance of a lifetime: You will be the only press allowed to cover the event.

The staff unanimously agreed to turn it down, prioritizing ethics over access, and explaining the paper’s position in an editorial to its readership last week. Things got even more complicated this week, when the staff found out that it had essentially been lied to about who was attempting to restrict the paper’s access and why.

MarshallMug

Courtesy of Kali Hoffman, Panther Photo Editor.

“It was a difficult decision because we worked so hard to get access,” Panther Editor in Chief Louisa Marshall said in an interview late last week. “We sat on it for a while and we came to the conclusion that even though we could be in the same room as a former president and that was a big deal, we couldn’t do this. We knew this was a rare event, but we also knew that we had talked a lot about journalistic ethics. We wrote our first editorial of the year on this, so that set what we were going to uphold.”

Bush came to campus as part of the 20th anniversary festivities that surrounded the naming of the business school. The namesake of the school, George Argyros, was a longtime friend of the Bush family. The events included a cocktail reception that preceded a private dinner and a one-on-one interview between Bush and Argyros’ wife, Julianne. The former president was also honored with a global citizen medal.

The university agreed to let the paper cover the event on three conditions:

  1. No photographer was allowed.
  2. No one was allowed to record the event.
  3. Bush’s people would have to approve everything the Panther had planned to run before it published anything.

“I was a little disappointed, obviously, but it was also not something I was willing to bend our ethics over,” Marshall said.

“Bending the rules sets a bad precedent and for us to stake our overall tone for the semester on ethics and then agree to this,” she added. “You have to be able to practice what you preach.”

Marshall said she took the news back to the staff and sought input as to what was the best way to approach this situation. On one hand, the students had the scoop most college papers would kill for: A true exclusive with a former president of the United States.

On the other hand, submitting their work for prior review and prior restraint meant that they were allowing a source to censor content, thus undermining the whole idea of telling the campus what had actually happened at the event. Even more, it would call into question the entire truthfulness of the article and maybe even the paper.

“We sat on it for a while, ruminating on what we were going to do and what we were comfortable with,” she said. “We decided not to go.”

“There is a certain level of fearlessness that comes with student journalism overall,” she added. “I think I would really stress to someone wanting to be in student media that even though we’re all young and ambitious, we have to cover our bases. The whole aspect of maintaining integrity is to maintain well-rounded reporting. It’s walking an interesting line.”

Instead of taking the deal, the paper published an editorial that explained exactly why it was they weren’t going, what the university tried to make them do to get access and how they felt this was a better way to go.

After the “fit hit the shan” and everyone seemed to pile on Chapman about censorship, the university began backtracking faster than an NFL corner back and “clarifying” more than Windex. The truth of the matter was that Bush’s people had no problem with the paper doing anything and couldn’t care less about reading the story before it went to press. Instead, it was the university that wanted to get a handle on the paper and manage the school’s image at the cost of a free press.

“The Panther found out that the prior review condition was from the university, not Bush’s office, after I got in contact with Bush’s office,” Marshall said in an email this morning. “I asked about the prior review condition and they gave me an answer that was not in line with what the university had previously told me.”

In short, the students called out a former president for an action he had nothing to do with because the university lied to them.

In an editorial published Sunday, the paper was having none of this “Oh, you kids… you just didn’t understand things with your tiny kid brains” BS:

It’ll be very easy to review this entire situation and blame it on a misunderstanding. Undoubtedly, people will claim that there was some miscommunication along the line, that words and blame got pinned on the wrong person, that Chapman meant no harm.

That’s not the case. We didn’t misunderstand anything. We didn’t misinterpret anything. We were told that it was Bush’s office, not Chapman that wanted us to break our commitment to journalistic integrity. Regardless of any sort of miscommunication, that’s what happened.

“A whole part of journalism is to investigate and to question,” she said Monday in an email. “Although the message was communicated to The Panther from Chapman that President Bush’s office was requiring prior review, we took the steps to verify it. The fact that it was the university’s want for prior review and not President Bush’s staff -and that this information was not accurately communicated to us- is disheartening, as we would like to think that the university would be behind our efforts to cover events on campus with integrity.”

Marshall said this was the first negative encounter she has had like this with Chapman’s PR department.

“In my time at The Panther, this has never happened before,” she wrote. “As much as I have believed and continue to believe that administration will work to the best of their ability and maintain a positive relationship with The Panther, this will make me verify what the school directly tells The Panther from now on.”

Marshall said last week she understands that some people would have preferred the paper just agree and cover whatever it could. However, she said the ethical standards of the paper mattered more than a single story.

“Journalistic ethics is something that I’m personally attached to and very married to,” she said. “It’s something that guided my career especially since people in the field have been pained with an un-credible brush. I think in our climate right now, journalistic integrity is something I want to uphold to any kind of extent.”

It was much easier to uphold those standards, thanks to the team of staffers at the Panther, Marshall said. The students worked together on the decision to decline the invitation, run the editorial and then cover the event like any other media outlet.

“It’s a hard line to walk at times between knowing what you’re giving up but also what you’re maintaining…” she said. “I’m so lucky to be with my team. The level of reporting and writing… none of this would be possible without them.”

Marshall graduates in May with a degree in history and a poli sci minor. She has worked at several publications as an intern and said that a lot of what she has learned both as a student journalist and in these other opportunities helped shape her ethical code.

“I would like people and student journalists to know that it’s OK to question the information that you’re provided with; that, in essence, is really why we’re journalists, to investigate and to question,” she said. “As a student, you’d like to think that you can trust what your school tells you. This has not been the case in this situation, but it’s a good lesson to learn early on.”

Big McLarge Huge (Or how to improve the descriptive power in your writing)

(The headline is both a great description that lacks value and also a total excuse for me to include this clip from MST3K’s “Space Mutiny” where the actors mock actor David Ryder with multiple nicknames.)

Descriptions are often crucial in journalism, as your writing will be the only way in which your readers will experience something important. The ability to describe something well can help put the audience right next to you as you outline the excitement of a sporting event, the beauty of a sunset or the tension of a crime scene.

To improve description, we need to look for words that are both universally understood and yet specific in their purpose. We also need to avoid words that are vague, ill-defined or otherwise problematic. Here are a few places where we often fail and ways in which we can improve our efforts:

DESCRIPTORS THAT LACK COMPARISON: One of the easiest ways to describe one thing is to relate it to something familiar to the readers. That’s why metaphors and similes often work well in all forms of writing. Describing the face of an embarrassed person as being “red as a clown’s nose” or the torso of a stout person as “barrel-chested” work because we’re familiar with those items.

(Perhaps my favorite descriptor was a hyperbolic one in which Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn was said to be “the size of your average freeway overpass.”)

The descriptors that don’t work are the ones where we need some form of comparative and it’s not there. To make that point, I’ll ask a student who has used one of these comparatives how tall they are. It often goes like this:

Me: How tall are you?
Student: 5-foot-11
Me: Are you tall?
Student: Not really.
Me: Well, in a K-4 class, you’re a giant.
Student: OK, I guess I’m tall.
Me: But on an NBA basketball team?
Student: Yeah, I’m kind of short.

The point is with out a sense of comparison, I have no way of using the descriptor “tall” in a meaningful way. The same is true of “short” or “thin” or “fat” or “average” whatever else falls into that area.

Instead, find words that are more succinct or spend a few extra words to describe the person, place or thing in more detail.

DESCRIPTORS THAT ARE VAGUE: Specifics are often key to description, as this comparison shows:

VAGUE: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had a few bullets left.”
SPECIFIC: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had three bullets left.”

The vague one offers hope. The specific one says this guy is lunch.

Words like “many” or “some” or “few” lack value as do words like “enough” because they lack a concrete meaning for the people who are trying to understand what you want them to see. To improve this, find ways of using context, specific numbers or other similar means to give the readers a better sense of the situation.

VAGUE: Frank had a lot of bobbleheads.
SPECIFIC: Frank had 1,218 bobbleheads.

VAGUE: Jill had many friends attend her speech.
SPECIFIC: Jill’s friends packed the auditorium to hear her speak.

VAGUE: Jim didn’t have enough money.
SPECIFIC: Jim didn’t have the money to pay both his electric bill and his water bill this month.

Perhaps the greatest (or most pointless) word we use often is “very.” Grammarian Don Ranly was fond of telling students that if they wanted to use the word “very,” they should substitute the word “damn,” as it had exactly the same level of meaning:

“Bill was very lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”
“Bill was damn lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”

“Rashawn was very hungry before dinner.”
“Rashawn was damn hungry before dinner.”

DESCRIPTORS OF OPINION: As noted in previous posts, author Stephen King noted that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I’m not sure about that, but it is true that adverbs and other similar opinionated descriptors can do more harm than good in some situations.

Adverbs often convey the writer’s assessment of a situation, something that readers  or sources might not necessarily agree with. Consider the following:

“He  sustained only minor injuries, including a broken arm.”
“Fortunately, the firefighters limited the spread of the fire to half of the home.”
“The team clearly outperformed its opponent.”

In each case, I’m sure there could be an argument brewing from folks reading this stuff. A broken arm doesn’t seem like an “only” level of an injury. (I remember reading that, in sports lingo, a minor injury is one that happens to someone else.)

Even though the firefighters limited the fire, I doubt people feel fortunate about watching half their stuff go up in flames.

Finally, it’s unclear how clear that performance was or how it was defined. It could be by the score, the level of effort or some other such thing. Even more, maybe fans of the opponent would argue, “No, they just got lucky.”

A good way to fix this is to go hunting for those -ly words in your copy during your first edit. See if those words adequately augment what you’re trying to describe or if they just add conjecture or cause other problems.

Most of the sports reporters condemning Adam Schefter for violating the basic tenets of journalism are adorable hypocrites

ESPN’s Adam Schefter found himself in hot water last week after journalists kept digging through emails procured during the Jon Gruden debacle and found that Schefter was a little too close for comfort with a source:

In one of them from July 2011, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter sent Allen the draft of an unpublished story that was published later the same day.

“Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked,” Schefter wrote. “Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am ….”

ESPN released the following statement in response to the correspondence: “Without sharing all the specifics of the reporter’s process for a story from 10 years ago during the NFL lockout, we believe that nothing is more important to Adam and ESPN than providing fans the most accurate, fair and complete story.”

Schefter released a statement Wednesday saying it was rare for him to send a story to a source in advance of publication and he did so because of the “complex nature of collective bargaining talks.” He added, “In no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”

The overwhelming consensus in Schefter situation is that sharing a complete story with a source is a violation of the most basic tenets of journalism, which should lead to some serious and tangible consequences for Schefter. Poynter’s Tom Jones makes it clear that what Schefter did is a rather a serious offense in the field of reporting itself:

Now, would it be all right to share just a sentence or brief passage to make sure specific language about a convoluted subject is accurate? Perhaps, but only in very rare, last-resort cases and only to confirm facts, not editorial tone. It’s also OK, in many cases, to verbally tell a source what you’re working on and allow them to share their thoughts, preferably on the record.

But a reporter should never share the entire story and should never invite the source to offer something be “added, changed or tweaked,” as Schefter put it.

Fellow sports journalists also took to their various platforms to slap Schefter around for this indiscretion that happened more than a decade ago.

Andrew Bucholz at Awful Announcing noted the lack of ethics this demonstrates, as Schefter would seem to be biased toward the owners in his work, trading inside favors for inside information. 

Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and currently of The Atlantic, stated that Schefter never should have done it, noting that in her 20 years in the field “I’ve never let a source proofread, preview or edit any story.” (In defending Schefter against this and similar claims, business/sports analyst Darren Rovell tweeted that “we’ve all done this in the name of accuracy,” a claim he walked back a bit later.)

Jane McManus, a legendary sports journalist, outlined the way Schefter operates outside of journalism tenets for Deadspin in a piece titled: “Don’t be mad at Adam Schefter, he’s not really a journalist anymore” in which she notes:

Schefter isn’t so much an insider as he is a liaison. He has broken massive news, but he doesn’t do investigative reporting on every piece of information he gets. He can’t afford to alienate league sources, and he needs all 32 NFL teams behind him if he wants to continue to break news across the league.

We also have Barry Petchesky of Defector giving the situation a strong once-over with his piece “Adam Schefter is Pathetic and ESPN is Gutless.” He notes that Schefter’s actions don’t just violate “some arcane, ivory-tower, j-school ethical holdover” but really create a serious problem for sports journalism:

The story in question was not the typical Schefter pap. It would be one thing if Schefter was asking someone to sign off on the sort of disposable, 300-word filler item he usually traffics in. Tom Brady, please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked in this story reporting that you still have “the will to win.” That wouldn’t be fine, exactly, but also who cares.

But this story was actual news. It was a story about CBA negotiations between the players and owners during the 2011 lockout. It was a labor battle, with both sides keen to get their spin on events in front of the public. It was a story with real implications for the livelihoods of the people involved. And Adam Schefter chose to let someone from the management side of the bargaining table have final say on how it was presented.

I could easily turn this into a content curation piece titled, “Hey, let’s take Adam Schefter out back and beat the crap out of him!” And I suppose I could just join the clucking chorus of people who find Schefter’s decision to be a terrible violation of journalistic ethics to grind out a simple post. (Truth be told, I DO think this editorial offer and the cozy relationship between Schefter and former WFT President Bruce Allen, clear in the language in this exchange, are seriously problematic for someone purporting to be an objective journalist.)

Instead, I’m laughing at the sheer chutzpah of some “sports journalists” who are treating Schefter like a he’s a whore in church while ignoring that a large wing of the building has been converted to a brothel. How else could you explain “journalist” Jay Glazer’s actions at the 2010 NFL Pro Bowl where he’s begging the coach to let him call a play during the game?

Let me get this straight: I’m not supposed to take a cup of coffee from a source, but this chucklehead gets to badger a source into letting him become part of the action at a professional sporting event? I somehow doubt I’d get away with yelling out during a city council meeting, “Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! Let me propose an amendment! Let me propose an amendment! C’mon….”

It’s not that I’m against sports or sports journalism. I love reading this stuff for info on my favorite teams and updates on my favorite players. I like to know more than who won or who lost, sure, and much of this field and many of my former students and colleagues have gone on to do a lot of good work in this area.

However, many people operating in the field of sports journalism long ago abandoned the “Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism” that so many of them are claiming to uphold in the wake of the Schefter revelation.

I’m not just talking about the way I can’t get a score in the first three paragraphs of a story because the writer has chosen to blather on about some random detail that they think gives them “insider cred.” Nor am I talking about every lousy rhetorical device and beat-a-dead-horse cliche that shows up in everything they write like rhetorical questions or “game of inches” mentions.

I’m not even talking about the way in which some of these self-professed austere authorities on journalistic writing can’t seem to find a period or a return key if their lives depend on it.

And yes, it still bugs me when reporters say that “Aaron Rodgers has thrown for over 300 yards, completing passes to eight different receivers.” No, he has thrown for MORE THAN 300 yards and of course the receivers are “different.” If we could have cloned Davante Adams, don’t you think we would have done that by now?

And don’t get me started on verbs of attribution…

I’ve given up on all of that ever changing, much in the way that I know nobody really goes the speed limit anymore and rolling stops are totally acceptable behavior unless a cop is nearby and really wants to put the screws to you.

I’m talking about how many of the supposedly vigilant journalists in this area of journalism violate significant journalistic norms on a frequent basis. Consider these areas of concern:

UNNAMED SOURCES: The rule in journalism is that we name our sources except in the most extreme cases. Those cases tend to be things like if the person’s life is in danger or the information is so explosive as to create serious consequences for the source. Think Deep Throat in Watergate, in which the information led Woodward and Bernstein to help bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists makes the clear in two key points:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Sports journalists hand out anonymity like Halloween candy. If you think I’m overstating this, consider this set of stories at the top of an ESPN feed:

You have three journalists, covering three sports, all for ESPN, relying on a “source” or “sources.” And I just randomly grabbed this while trying to make this point on a random weekday in October, so it’s not like I had to work really hard to find an example of this approach. In going through the stories, none of the stories name that “source” or “sources,” so we have no idea who said these things, how likely they are to be true or what those individuals’ agendas might be in sharing this information.

I asked a former student of mine who shall remain nameless (since we’re doing that now, apparently) who covers professional sports about the lack of named sources in this part of the field. He said, “If we made these people put their names on this stuff, they wouldn’t tell us anything.”

OK, I get that it can be tough to get a source to put their name on a statement calling Tom Brady a pretentious dingleberry or something, but that’s something we ALL face in EVERY part of journalism.

The question we often have to ask ourselves in journalism is if the juice is worth the squeeze: Can we get this from another source? Is this material worth giving someone the cloak of anonymity? What will this do to future interactions I have with this and other sources who don’t want to talk on the record?

I would wager a pretty hefty amount that a good percentage of the pearl-clutching contingent that is castigating Schefter right now have at least a few “sources said” pieces in their portfolio.

 

OBJECTIVITY AND FAIRNESS: Most ethical codes surrounding journalism require journalists to adhere to the premise of objectivity and apply the principles of fairness. What that means can vary, but here are some thoughts from a few codes that govern the field:

For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

Ethical journalism resists false dichotomies – either/or, always/never, black/white thinking – and considers a range of alternatives between the extremes.

Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage…

So, be decent, fair, balanced and such, all of which don’t seem to be reflected in The Defector’s piece titled “Kirk Cousins Sucks:

If the proliferation of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has done one thing for us, aside from providing life-saving protection against a deadly virus, it’s to reveal exactly what sorts of dickweeds have always been surrounding us in our daily lives. For example, before the vaccines existed, I always thought of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as a corny, harmlessly dim guy who I would never want to hang out with, but who for the most part seemed decent enough. He was just a dude. But now, I know the truth: Kirk Cousins fucking sucks!

And let’s go to Deadspin, which is where several of my students have told me that they hope to work someday:

Kyrie is Kyrie’s greatest foe. He has an affinity for becoming the catalyst of hoopla and endless Twitter conversations due to his willful and stupid decisions. We’ve become an audience to a man that’s failing and succeeding on a public stage and every hit and miss — on or off the court — is a fascinating watch. And because of that, one thing has become clear: Kyrie Irving has no idea what the hell he’s doing.

These are a few of the more tame ones from a couple publications that shamed Schefter that I can toss up without truly watching the folks at SAGE explode “Scanners style.” Let’s just say these places aren’t exactly taking an evenhanded approach to content.

UNATTRIBUTED OPINION AND SELF-IMPORTANT GARBAGE: Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I also seem to recall at least one editor telling me after I wrote that someone “luckily” escaped a fire, that “If they were lucky, the damned fire wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Maybe that’s a bit too restrictive for the world in which we currently live, but avoiding the inclusion of any opinion is definitely among the basic rules of journalism we supposedly all held near and dear as true bastions of the field. So let’s consider a few sports leads.

Here’s one about my beloved Badgers that ran over the weekend:

MADISON, Wis. — — The one big weakness of Wisconsin’s otherwise outstanding defense this season has been its inability to force turnovers.

(Side note: The Badgers gave up 41 and 38 points on consecutive weekends, so I’m not sure how outstanding that defense is, and no, holding Eastern Michigan to 7 points isn’t supportive evidence of that supposition.)

And here’s one about the Louisiana State game:

BATON ROUGE, La. — — LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price and the Tiger’s offensive line apparently have figured something out.

That could improve LSU’s prospects for the balance of what has been a turbulent season.

And here’s one about Georgia, the No. 1 team in the country:

ATHENS, Ga. — — The final seconds were meaningless.

Except to the Georgia defense.

If I were grading these leads, I’d be scrawling “SAYS WHO?” all over the place.

There’s nothing wrong with not leading with the score, although I’d argue that’s what most people would actually want to read, as opposed to whatever self-important tortured prose the writer feels necessary to impose upon us to inflate their ego. However, if you’re going to dive into this field of random concept leads, let’s do it in a way that actually works.

Find people who say that Wisconsin’s defense is awesome, but sucks at getting turnovers, that LSU is having more turbulence this year than the final scene of “Passenger 57” and that Georgia’s D cared about the final seconds. Then actually quote those people and make that your lead.

Even worse than that is when the journalists decide that it’s super-important to mention themselves in their work. Again, I’ve given up on the “Told ESPN” or “exclusively revealed to WXYZ” or other self-aggrandizing crap that masquerades as “branding” and “marketing.”

However, here’s the lead of Mike Florio’s piece on the latest shoe to drop in the WFT email scandal:

Well, now we know why NFL general counsel Jeff Pash declined a request to be interviewed by PFT.

In one sentence, he references his publication (Pro Football Talk), pats himself on the back for requesting an interview, weaves in first person and essentially writes in the language of “smirk.” Not bad for a guy who took  Schefter to task for not following standard operating procedures when it comes to real journalism. (And that was the best “smirk back” I could manage.)

In any case…

The bigger question of “Is all of this terrible?” deserves to be addressed here. If the people who publish this stuff are serving an audience, providing information and not harming others who don’t deserve it, OK, fine.

Go ahead and call someone a “dickweed” or spend six paragraphs explaining how a coach picking his nose was a profound moment that led to a 58-0 blowout win. Write opinion pieces that go on for about 7,000 words and include the word “doucheknuckle” or whatever.

But admit that’s what you are and stop trying to pretend you wouldn’t do anything outside of the restrictive tenets of journalism because its beneath the dignity of the field you hold in such high esteem. Be honest with yourself and your audience by saying something like, “No, it wasn’t smart what he did, but we’ve all bent a rule here or there and probably shouldn’t have.”

Or to put it in language these folks might understand:

“Let ye who is without an amazingly, viciously, painfully awkward personal or professional screw up look off the free safety and then use your laser-rocket arm to cast that first stone and put it right on the numbers when your team needs it the most.  Otherwise, dig deep into your bag of tricks and diagram a better response in your playbook.”