You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News

KobeLAT

The death of Kobe Bryant led to a massive outpouring of media coverage, social media mourning and public grief over the past 24 hours. For my money, the place that did the best job of this was the L.A. Times, which dedicated multiple pages to the former Lakers star. It covered the accident, mourned the loss, didn’t sidestep the ugly (even a photo from his “rape allegations press conference” made the inside page) and generally did a good job on a breaking news piece. The layout and headline treatments also reminded me why when it comes to a huge story, newspapers still can do it the best, regardless of circumstances.

(If the LAT is like any other newsroom I’ve ever worked or visited, I’m betting it was a pretty sparse crew on staff when all this took place on Sunday morning. Getting this kind of “flood the zone” coverage on a weekend in today’s gutted newspaper world says a lot.)

One thing that emerged in this breaking news cycle was to what degree the gossip news site TMZ was derelict in its duty as journalists when it published the news about Bryant about an hour after the incident. Officials chastised TMZ for its “very cold” approach to this, noting that families and friends of those who died had yet to be notified personally before the news broke. TMZ, for its part, has yet to respond to that aspect of its reporting, but it continues to publish on Bryant after breaking the story.

While it seems that professionals and the public alike are having a go at TMZ for its role in this situation, here are four thoughts that, while probably impolite, are both accurate and worth considering:

You’re never going to shame TMZ: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami took their shots at TMZ, noting that the publication was “extremely disrespectful” and “very cold” for reporting Bryant’s death this early. Others in the media also took to Twitter to add their condemnation of the decision to publish the information about an hour after the sheriff’s department received notification of the crash. Talking heads all over the place continue to cluck about how “this kind of publication makes us all look bad” and how TMZ “isn’t real journalism.”

Here’s an unfortunate reality: TMZ couldn’t care less.

This publication has made its bones (pardon the pun) on reporting the deaths of celebrities. It was first on the spot for the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince. It ran the Ray Rice “punch in an elevator” video, showing the former NFL player laying out his fiancee with a single swing and then dragging her limp body down the hallway.

Even more, here are a couple screen shots of things they ran just before the Bryant story broke:

CardiBTMZShoutingTMZ

And those were just two of the better and yet SFW ones available. Sleaze, mayhem, celebrities and death is what they do. A bit of side shade on Twitter from an undersheriff isn’t going to bring those folks around to the world of buttoned-down journalism.

Trying to make TMZ feel guilty is like trying to humble Kanye: It might make you feel superior to try, but it’s not going to work.

Most media folk won’t admit it, but they would have done it too: It’s easy for people who DIDN’T publish this first to say what they WOULD HAVE DONE if they HAD gotten the information first. It’s hard to say for sure what they ACTUALLY would do if put in that spot.

The old-guard media folks, who had three broadcasts or two newspaper editions a day, had more of a luxury to wait than current journalists, for whom a minute might be 58 seconds too late. Even more, I’ve seen what people get like when they get an exclusive story or find themselves at the front end of a scoop-able story. There’s not a lot of sober reflection and deep thinking involved, and far too often, people let the desire to get it first beat down their sense of human decency.

I’m not saying we SHOULDN’T aspire to being more humane in what we do. It’s just that the gap between the hypothetical and the actual is often a lot wider than we would like to believe it to be, especially when the actual makes us look bad.

(If you don’t believe me, watch about six minutes of a show like “Temptation Island” where “committed” couples explain how they’d never, ever, ever, EVER break up. In three minutes,  Blake has left Ashlynn in the room to go make out with Trevor’s fiancee, JayCee, in the hot tub.)

The first story I saw was on another media site (not TMZ) that posted about 20 minutes after the TMZ news broke. Additional news outlets were also cranking out stories shortly after, each falling back on that original “as first reported on TMZ” notice.

(It’s amazing how quickly they all swept those stories away and those early notices once they could get their own sources and after everyone decided to pile on TMZ. If you look on various “mainstream” media outlets now, you’ll find no reference to how TMZ got there first, unless it’s to chastise TMZ.)

What I didn’t see, and might never see, is a timeline that tells me when the officials notified the families of the people involved alongside the information of when each media outlet published its breaking news story.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that TMZ wasn’t the only media outlet to push out a piece before everyone’s family got the word of the crash. That’s not to say this was appropriate, but it is worth noting that a lot of the “holier-than-thou” outlets clucking about the disgraceful state of TMZ probably ran as fast as possible to grab second place in the race to report the story.

The police couldn’t care less about the media 98.9% of the time: Both Villanueva and Murakami have a point: It’s better if the safety officials can do their jobs and notify people before the media does. However, and I can say this based on personal experience, if you are a media professional waiting for police, sheriffs, state highway patrol folk or other officials acting in an official capacity to tell you everything you need to know, it’ll be like waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last week.

If you look at the stream of stories on CNN, for example, you’ll notice that it identifies pretty much everyone on board. Even after those stories ran, the sheriff declined to confirm the identities of those people. If you check out the sheriff’s department social media even today, the IDs aren’t posted. You have people responding to the tweets and posts with more information than the sheriff is willing to divulge.

Journalists know that the police will release information in whatever time frame they feel to be appropriate and that in most cases, you’ll get more info seeking other sources. As much as the police have often said to journalists, “I know you have a job to do…” they also don’t make the journalists’ job a priority. At best, they see the media as something to deal with like paperwork and jock itch: annoying, problematic and part of the curse of being them. At worst, well… I’ve heard the phrase “the F—ing Media” so often from cops I know that I honestly wondered if we’d created a new branch of journalism. (Y’know, like the Space Force…)

This isn’t to say that journalism is more important than the work of police or firefighters or first responders or anyone else who runs toward danger to help people in trouble. It’s not. However, pretending that if the TMZ people had just waited five more minutes until the police called them and said, “We’ve notified the family, so go ahead” everything would have been fine is disingenuous and borders on laughable.

Did this actually happen? I have come to the conclusion that being a “non-denominational skeptic” places me in the awkward role of asking questions people don’t like to hear. However, in journalism, we’re taught that if your mother says she loves you, you should go check it out. Therefore, here’s the question:

Did Bryant’s family (or anyone else on the chopper’s family) get the news of the death from TMZ?

Murakami’s tweet seems to say so:

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed. I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

I can’t find any reference in a post, a note, a tweet or a story that says this actually happened. I saw press releases from various organizations, tweets from tons of people and at least two dozen stories on various “respectable” media sites, but I could not find a single statement that would corroborate this. TMZ isn’t saying anything, either, on this topic. (If I missed it, feel free to email it to me via the contact page. I’ll give you the credit for showing the world I’m a dipstick.)

You can easily respond to this with a “That’s not the %@#^%ing point, Vince!” statement, and I get that. However, consider these two equally valid concerns:

  1. If we’re not into the accuracy of facts when they fit the point we want to make, what the hell are we doing in this job? Sure, I get the idea that it would be horrible if I died and my wife got a call like this:
    “Hello, is Mrs. Filak home?”
    “This is Mrs. Filak..”
    “Yeah, not any more… This is TMZ asking for a quote about the death of your husband five minutes ago.”
    However, if we’re going to let the sheriff’s folks use “couldabeen” BS about TMZ’s actions to make a point, why not let them go all the way? Why not have them invent the tears in the eyes of the other Bryant children, as they heard the news on TMZ? Why not let them slather on the details of how Vanessa Bryant got the alert from TMZ mere seconds before her phone rang with the news from the sheriff? The point is, if something is accurate, use it. If not, don’t let people use you to perpetuate something that is not.
  2. As much as this was an easy slam for the sheriff’s folks to make, kicking a publication like TMZ, it wasn’t meant for TMZ alone. This is the media version of a brush-back pitch, in which the sheriff threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. The goal of a pitch like this is to let the media think long and hard about digging back in the batter’s box.
    TMZ is gonna TMZ. We’ve established that. However, when the L.A. Times or the Orange County Register or the Pomona Tidbit or whatever else is out there gets a tip like this, the sheriff and his colleagues in law enforcement hope this kind of incident will get them to slow up or pull a punch. In most cases, the media outlets will react with a higher level of discretion than TMZ, I would imagine, but simply putting the thought of “we might be the bad guys” in the media’s head is enough to cause some concern. It’s like how people tend to drive slower once they see someone else getting pulled over by a cop.
    In a speeding case, it’s probably a good idea. Here? It might be a toss up.

An attribution-verb word search for beginning journalism students

Professors are always looking for exercises to help their students learn important lessons. After my introductory media writing class had a few “issues” with properly attributing quotes, I decided to put together this handy little word search. Feel free to steal it and use it:

SAID

Let’s just say that Wednesday was a trying day…

Hope the rest of your week goes well.

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

CNN settles with Covington Catholic Kid over “racist confrontation” that turned out not to be

While we were on break, a story we covered last year got an interesting update. CNN settled a lawsuit out of court with Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandman, regarding its coverage of his interaction with a Native American drummer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last year.

Sandmann sought $275 million from CNN over its coverage of the confrontation he and his classmates had with an elderly Native American man while visiting Washington, D.C., on a school trip in January of last year. The amount of the settlement was not made public during a hearing at the federal courthouse in Covington on Tuesday, according to a local Fox affiliate.

In case you forgot, Sandman was in D.C. as part of the “March for Life” rally to protest the legal state of abortions. While outside the Lincoln Memorial, he and other Covington Catholic students appeared to be in some sort of row with another group that was shouting at them. Nathan Phillips, an activist there as part of the Indigenous Peoples March, stepped between the groups and drummed as part of an attempt to diffuse the situation.

(Or at least that’s the best version of a synopsis that I can provide, given that it seemed every media outlet wanted to have its own angle on this thing.)

Video of Sandman and Phillips standing nearly nose to nose went viral, as it seemed everyone with a Twitter account and an an internet connection studied each frame like it was the Zapruder film. To some Sandman was “smirking” or “mocking” or in some other way demeaning/threatening Phillips. To others, Sandman was just standing there, looking like an awkward high school kid.

At the time this happened, we wrote about it here and here.

One of the key problems associated with the situation for me was that general folks on social media, and media professionals as well, saw this incident as a way to represent a “larger truth” about everything from white privilege to toxic masculinity.

Each time, I poked back saying, “Yes, you are right that those things exist and they are bad, but how do you KNOW it was THESE KIDS who did what you are accusing them of doing?” Each time, I got the, “You don’t understand and you’re wrong” answer.

Well, on at least one point, I turned out to be particularly prescient:

So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:

I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.

My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.

I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.

And although a settlement doesn’t mean anyone necessarily admitted guilt, it does mean the defendants were worried enough about their position to cry “Uncle.”

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

Help me help you in the next edition of the reporting book

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I always laugh when people say, “Gee, it must be NICE to get a couple weeks off at Christmas time so you can just lounge around…” What actually happens is, I stop teaching for a couple weeks, all my students leave me alone for a while and I go to the office to actually get some work done.

Somewhere in the middle of the hellscape that was this year, the folks at SAGE decided the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” had managed not to embarrass anyone at the company, so a second edition was in order. I’m sure I agreed to do this at some point, with the same, “Oh.. Yeah… Sure…” response I give my kid when she’s asking me for something while I’m in the middle of 11 other things, but it’s all kind of a blur.

I never liked the idea of new textbook editions that slapped a new cover on an old book, subbed in the word “digital” where the word “newspaper” used to be and called it ready to go. If you’re gonna have to buy this thing, I better make it worth your while.

To that point, here are a few things that I’m already planning to stick in this thing, based on what some of you have already told me:

  • Major chunks of what “fake news” really is (how we define it, what people think when they read it, why people make it, why we believe it, what we can do about it as reporters and how not to get snowed).
  • More simple exercises in the book. I picked through a bunch of suggestions you all made and added even more in the “Work it Out” section that comes at the bottom of each chapter.
  • More free stuff: I’m putting more stuff on the blog each time I figure out something helpful.
  • “Best of the Blog” in each chapter. I find there’s a bimodal distribution in how people see the blog: I’m not doing enough or I’m drowning them in too much stuff. For the former people, I got nothing. For those of you looking for a few good posts, I’ve included a “Best of the Blog” element in each chapter that talks about something key within that chapter.
  • Freelancing 101: Someone told me my book would be perfect IF I just had something in there on freelancing. I built several blog posts on this, but now I’ve redone the whole thing as an extra appendix in the back. (I’m quite certain it still isn’t perfect, as we can always find something to be unhappy about. Just ask my kid who wanted an Apple Watch for Christmas…)

I’m sure there’s more going in here, but that’s what comes to mind at this point. Beyond this, tell me more stuff either by contacting me here, by placing comments at the bottom of this post or finding me online and yelling at me that I’m not doing something right. I respond to all of these.

In the mean time, the blog is on hiatus until the start of the next semester in late January.

May you all have a happy and joyous holiday season.

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

5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie

After reading Tracy Everbach’s excellent review of, “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood film that looks at the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Bombing, it became clear that the film missed the opportunity to provide a new generation with important lessons.

In the wake of the movie’s release, multiple groups have dialed in on the film’s key failures. The discussion of how Kathy Scruggs, and by implication female journalists, was portrayed has people upset with the trope that women trade sex for tips in journalism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spoken out about the Scruggs issue, as well as how the movie fails to show that the journalism the paper did that helped turn the tide in Jewell’s favor.

I have long used the Richard Jewell story as an example of what can happen when “EVERYBODY KNOWS!” becomes, “Um… Whoops…” in journalism.

I show, and will continue to show, the ESPN 30 for 30 Short “Judging Jewell,”as it covers the case from all angles, including having representation from the AJC. It’s about 30 minutes and it’s worth the time. So is the “60 Minutes” piece on Jewell from 2002:

 

I have not seen the “Richard Jewell” movie yet, so I can’t say what it actually did or did not do. What I can say is that the film’s approach has enough people upset about the issues listed above (and a few others) that several key things got lost along the way:

 

It wasn’t one reporter or one publication that created this clustermess: The focus on Kathy Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the media coverage feel like a game of one-on-one between Scruggs and Jewell. It wasn’t even close to that.

The Olympics were in town and you had participants from 197 countries present. That put thousands of journalists in that area at the time of the bombing, thus leading to a giant pack of TV and print reporters chasing one big question: “Who did it?”

Pictures and video taken outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment had photographers, videographers, reporters and more swarming the area as Jewell went to work the day after the attack. As the FBI showed up to interview him, and later to search the apartment, the media was all over the place with all sorts of equipment. (In one interview, Jewell said there were at least five satellite trucks in the apartment’s parking lot.)

(Scruggs wasn’t even the only reporter from the AJC to be on the story. In a review of the news coverage that came out after the infamous, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” story, I found nearly a dozen names of journalists attached to stories about the attack.)

People everywhere seemed to be piling on. Entertainers and tabloids called Jewell, “Una-Doofus” and “Una-Bubba,” a reference to the recently captured Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This was a global story.

To pin any one thing on any one journalist or one publication is more than a stretch. As Henry Schuster, a former producer at CNN, noted, “This thing just goes nuclear.”

 

Attributions matter, so use them: The courts that heard Jewell’s cases against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed statements made in several articles in which Jewell was identified as the key suspect in the bombing. In a 2011 Appeals Court Ruling in favor of the AJC’s reporting, the court noted:

On July 31, in an article entitled “`Hero’ denies planting bomb,” the AJC reported that, “[i]nvestigators now say… they believe [Jewell] placed the 911 call himself.” Likewise, in the same August 4 article referenced in Division (III)(A), the AJC stated that “[i]nvestigators have said they believe Jewell … phoned in a warning to 911.”

Again, we cannot agree with Jewell that the challenged statements are actionable. Although the July 31 article repeats the opinion of investigators who reportedly believed that Jewell may have placed the 911 call, it includes within its text the factual premise of that reported opinion.

In other words, the reporter properly attributed the information to an official source, who was acting in an official capacity, thus giving the paper protection against a claim of libel. (This concept is often referred to as “qualified privilege.”) Several other sections of the court’s ruling note similar attributions protecting several of the paper’s other stories.

This is one of the many reasons why I often write “SAYS WHO?” on statements my students make in their stories and why I’m a major pain in the keester about attributing information to a source. It can keep you out of a hell of a lot of trouble.

 

You are a reporter, not God: The one story I kept looking for was the original piece Scruggs and fellow reporter Kent E. Walker published in that July 30 “Extra” edition of the paper that declared, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” I noticed it wasn’t mentioned in the appeals and it wasn’t in the archives I had access to. Jewell stated in multiple interviews that this was the piece that really started the entire whirlwind of controversy about him.

After paying for access to the AJC’s archives, I found it and I could better understand why he thought so. If attributions are like armor and shields against an attack, this story was butt-naked. Consider the first three sentences:

The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police “wannabe” who seeks to become a hero.

This whole opening gives me hives, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one afraid of it. CNN actually read the paper’s piece live on air, making absolutely certain to be clear they were just telling people what the AJC reported.

Who made up this “profile?” How was it conceived? How many other people might “fit” that profile? Who says Jewell is “frustrated?” A “wannabe?” Not a single sentence here is attributed to anyone, least of all an official source acting in an official capacity. Also, by not having ANY attribution, the story reads as if the paper itself is saying the guy is not only the focus of the investigation but he fits the profile of a bomber.

Journalists only get away with those kinds of statements when they are of the “water is wet” variety, so when the AJC states this, it’s like, “Water is wet, the sky is blue and Richard Jewell, a man who ‘found’ a bomb, fits the pattern of the kind of guy who would plant one.”

In a case study of the AJC’s coverage, the author notes that the managing editor, John Walter, made the decision not to attribute the information:

Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the “voice of God” approach when it came to attributing the information. The voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to unnamed sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.

As Walter explained later, he didn’t think attributing the story to unnamed sources “was fair.” The reason, he said, is that “once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there.” In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.

 

A couple things:

  1. I have always found the “Voice of God” approach to be stupid as hell, as it essentially says, “Look, just take my word for it. I’m a journalist and I know stuff.” It removes possible protections you might have and it really does put the media outlet at risk for anything that might go wrong.
  2. I reread Walter’s explanation a dozen times and found it to have the same internal logic as saying, “I smelled gas in a dark room and I didn’t feel safe not knowing where it was, so I felt it was important to light a match and see what I could find.” It reminded me of the way in which our student newspaper editors at Ball State would say stuff like, “Oh that photo/graphic/story is way to bloody/naked/unproven to run in the print paper. Just stick it online.”
  3. You’re not God. You’re a journalist. Act like it.

Again, this wasn’t just the AJC who decided to play God when it came to laying out information. NBC, which ended up settling out of court with Jewell, ran several pieces in which Tom Brokaw took on the “Voice of God,” including one particular exchange he had with Bob Costas, live on air:

“The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case, in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now. Probably enough to prosecute him but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There’s still some holes in this case.”

Brokaw explained to Mike Wallace in a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview his reason for making the statement he did on air. It sounded like a word salad that a drunk puked onto a passing bus:

Brokaw later in the interview said that he had multiple sources in high places in law enforcement telling him they were focusing on Jewell.

Fine. Then say THAT:

“I spoke with multiple law enforcement officials who said Jewell is the primary suspect in the bombing. They also told me they plan to arrest him if and when they get enough evidence together to convict him of the bombing.”

How hard is that to say?

In short, don’t let a sense of either self-importance or general knowledge get in the way of nailing down your facts. If you have a “water is wet” fact, tell it to me straight up. If it’s a “Vince Filak is a great professor” fact, you need an attribution on that thing because, God knows, a lot of folks are going ask, “Says WHO?”

 

A key court ruling about Jewell’s status made a huge difference: Lost in the argument about the accuracy of the reporting was the courts’ decision that Jewell was viewed as a limited-purpose public figure. The initial court ruling, as well as the 2001 appeals court decision, explained why this mattered:

The central issue presented by this appeal is whether Jewell, as the plaintiff in this defamation action, is a public or private figure, as those terms are used in defamation cases.   This is a critically important issue, because in order for a “public figure” to recover in a suit for defamation, there must be proof by clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendant.  Plaintiffs who are “private persons” must only prove that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence. Jewell contends the trial court erred in finding that he is a “public figure” for purposes of this defamation action.   We disagree.

Had Jewell won this point, all he would have needed to show to win the case was that the AJC should have done a better job than it did during its reporting on him. His standing as a limited-purpose public figure meant he had to prove actual malice, which means that the paper knew what it was doing was wrong and did it anyway because the folks there wanted to mess with him.

Private citizens get a lot more protection than public figures in a lot of ways. For example, journalists have frequently reported on allegations that President Donald Trump cheated on his wife with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to keep it quiet. As a public figure (and maybe the MOST public figure in the United States), this kind of stuff is fair game for journalists.

If I, as a private citizen, were to cheat on my wife like that today, the first time the media would be justified reporting on it would be in my obituary that would run the day after Amy found out about it, or in a story about her being charged with murder.

 

Regardless of who was right or wrong, the Jewell case is an important cautionary tale: The movie has a lot of stakeholders trying to shore up their positions: The producers, the AJC, other media outlets, the FBI, Jewell’s family/attorneys and more. When that happens, we tend to find ourselves arguing about what kind of bark is on the tree in front of us instead of seeing the entire forest.

The FBI was under pressure to get this situation resolved, but folks who dealt with the Jewell investigation knew that some agents cut corners they shouldn’t have. In several interviews, Former US Attorney for the Northern District Kent Alexander noted that the FBI tried to trick Jewell into admitting things he didn’t do under the pretense of creating a “first-responder video.” Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen outline a lot of this in their book, “The Suspect.”

The AJC didn’t settle its case while other outlets quickly folded and paid off Jewell. The paper was convinced it reported the news in a legitimate and legally protected fashion and the courts agreed. However, the folks at the paper stated, in retrospect, that there were issues in how everything came together in the reporting. Former Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton explained in his “Judging Jewell” interview that he still isn’t entirely comfortable with the way attributions were or weren’t used, as well as some of the choices the paper made in terms of phrasing.

Last month, Roughton wrote a first-person essay about the movie, the book and his own experiences and it really does leave journalists and journalism students with something to take with them every time they ply their trade:

For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever.

We owe them our best work.

 

Women Journalists Don’t Sleep With Sources, No Matter What The “Richard Jewell” Movie Tells You.

While every other source on earth seemed to be screaming about what was or wasn’t in the new movie about the 1996 Olympic Park Bombing, Tracy Everbach did the thing all good journalists should:

She went to the source and saw things for herself.

Everbach, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, got an early, first-hand look at the movie, “Richard Jewell,” which recounts the way in which Jewell, a security guard at the Olympics, went from hero to bombing suspect overnight. One of the key points of contention in the film is the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story about Jewell being a suspect. In the film, Scruggs is shown agreeing to trade sex for the news tip from an FBI agent.

The AJC demanded that the movie’s producers put some sort of disclaimer at the front of the film, as no one associated with the publication can locate any indication that this ever took place. Even more, it reinforces a harmful stereotype that the only way female journalists can get anywhere  in the field is by sleeping their way to their scoops.

Everbach’s review does what so many others haven’t: It helped me see what ACTUALLY HAPPENED in the film so I can see what it is that people are upset about. It not only lays out exactly the exchange in question, but also adds context on the actual bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph.

Rather than say anything more, I’m going to get out of her way and let you read it for yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YOU SUCK!!! YOUR AN ASSHOLE!!!”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Allegedly: The word journalists should avoid at all costs and three ways to do it

I remember once talking to a media law expert about the word “allegedly” and what kind of protection it offered reporters.

“None,” he told me. “The word ‘allegedly’ is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

He then explained that “allegedly” is nothing but a thinly veiled accusation that lacks a concreted source to support it. Instead of saying, “Smith then allegedly killed Jones with a hatchet,” a good reporter would say, “Smith then killed Jones with a hatchet, police said” or “the criminal complaint stated” or whatever source this came from. All that “allegedly” means is that someone, somewhere said this thing we are now accusing someone of doing.

Ever since that moment, the word “allegedly” has given me hives whenever I hear it in a media report or see it in a news story.

In the case of a TV report about a police officer recovering from a stabbing, “allegedly” felt not only weak, but downright stupid:

 

Let’s look at the anchor’s lead in here and compare it to the web version the station posted:

TV: “Today marks six days since Student Resource Officer Michael Wissink was allegedly stabbed by a student at Oshkosh West High School before shooting and injuring the teen.”

The passive voice in this isn’t great, especially since broadcast thrives on strong, active verbs. What makes it worse, however, is the use of allegedly, because at first glance, it sounds like we don’t believe he was stabbed. He was just “allegedly stabbed.”

Something tells me we can be pretty sure he was stabbed if he spent six days in a hospital, recovering from his injuries.

Weirder still, while the station is only alleging a stabbing, it’s definite on the shooting and injuring part, stating it with certainty.

The web version fixes this pretty easily.

Web: A school resource officer, who police say was stabbed by a student last week, was released from the hospital Monday.

Notice two important things here:

  1. We don’t have “allegedly” but instead we have an attribution to a source (one that operates under the shield of privilege, to boot).
  2. Although this sentence is in passive voice as well, it’s shorter and tighter than the broadcast opening, something that shouldn’t happen. Broadcast is supposed to be short and tight compared to all other forms of media writing.

The writers of these two sentences were trying to explain that the student is innocent until proven guilty of the attack, so it isn’t smart to say the kid stabbed the cop straight out. However, the use of “allegedly” does more harm than good in here.

About 55 seconds into the story, the reporter offers a less-defensible use of “allegedly” when it comes to explaining what happened to the officer:

TV: “Students and staff lined the streets to show support for the officer who was allegedly attacked on school grounds.”

If the first case made it seem like we possibly didn’t believe the officer was attacked, this case basically says it. Here, the use of “allegedly” is even dumber because it’s unclear who the heck the reporter is trying to protect with his “allegedly” shield.

I see only two, equally stupid reasons for “allegedly” here:

  • The reporter is afraid this guy made up the attack, and thus hopes “allegedly” will cover it.
  • The reporter is afraid the guy got his ass kicked at a bar or something and then staggered over to school and claimed the whole thing happened on school grounds to get worker’s comp.

And, once again, the web version is tighter and it dodges the problem altogether:

Web: The escort went from the hospital in Neenah to Oshkosh. The motorcade passed by Oshkosh West High School where faculty, staff, and students stood outside to cheer.

This delivers essentially the same information (actually in more of a broadcast style as well) and does so with no need for attribution. We can prove the escort went from Point A to Point B without needing a GPS tracker on the guy. Also, we can say without fear that people were outside cheering (We even have photos of that!) so we’re OK there.

“Allegedly” is one of those words that will imbue you with a false sense of confidence in your writing. It can make you feel like you have protected yourself when you haven’t and can give you a feeling of authority when you are completely lacking in it. Here are a couple simple tips to help you dodge the “allegedly” bug:

  • Attribute: If “allegedly” is just an accusation, let’s see who’s doing the accusing. If it’s someone we think should be doing so (police, courts, the pope etc.), then let’s say so. “Police said Smith hit Jones with a golf club.”  If the person alleging this has an axe to grind, we probably want to think twice about it, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the accusation: “John Smith, who divorced Mary Smith last month, said Mary Smith once tried to kill him with a golf club.” (It probably wouldn’t hurt to include a response, if possible: “Mary Smith stated in a court filing that the incident involving the golf club was ‘blown out of proportion’ during the divorce.”)

 

  • Write what you can prove: Instead of telling readers what you don’t know, try telling them what you do. Instead of “The officer was allegedly stabbed by a student,” try  “The officer suffered multiple stab wounds.” The second example from the web does a good job of showcasing how to avoid the “allegedly” issue by just explaining the people lined the streets and cheered. By this point in the story, we probably know about the stabbing, so repeating it here and introducing another “allegedly” doesn’t do much good.

 

  • If you aren’t sure, don’t use it: The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. So, if you get some information that you can’t verify or that feels a little shaky, it doesn’t follow that you HAVE to publish it, with an “allegedly” or otherwise. Try to get a source that will back up what you want to write or find a way to write something that is a bit sturdier than whatever you’re about to allege. If you can’t make that work, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

 

 

 

God (and your husband) will be watching: The failed Peloton Christmas ad campaign

Unless you have been living in a cave, or a part of the country in which your brother’s spouse is considered inheritable property, you probably know that Peloton has landed on the “most-hated” list for gifts this Christmas, thanks in large part to the ad shown above.

Social media users have skewered the ad for its gender stereotypes, its use of a “gender normative” set of characters and its generally creepy “God is watching” vibe:

Peloton is so far sticking by its widely mocked holiday ad. The spot, called “The Gift that Gives Back,” continued to air Tuesday evening on networks including ESPN, Lifetime, Bravo and HGTV, according to ad-tracking service iSpot, even as criticism grew.

The ad, about a woman whose husband gifts her an apparent life-changing exercise bike, sparked a gender backlash that clearly clashed with any seasonal cheer the brand was expecting.

“It’s a complete male fantasy ad,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist, noting that the spot could inspire men to be “gifting heroes” and get “skinnier spouses.”

A Peloton costs between $2,250 and $2,700, depending on which package you buy. That’s pretty pricey for something destined to become a high-tech clothing rack. It’s probably even more expensive when you factor in the therapy you’ll need when the instructor starts screaming at you to work harder or in the case of this parody, your divorce:

A good friend who is a feminist scholar nailed the Peloton ad in a way I couldn’t:

She is already fit and she documents every minute for him as if he is watching her every move. Look at her face. At the end she says her life is so much better but there is no evidence given why her life is better, except that she gets up before dawn when she doesn’t want to so she can ride some bike for him. No one should do such things only because another person wants them to.

After I read that post, I went back and rewatched the ad. I noticed things like the look on the wife’s face on day one: It’s a mix of fear and “I hope to please you.” The fact she records every day for the purpose of eventually showing him the video at the end is freakish. The fact that she seems to be biking at all hours seems obsessive. The daughter seeing her already-thin mom biking like a maniac provides a strange modeling behavior. Also, what the hell was the guy doing all this time? Is he in a room full of TVs watching her like Billy Baldwin in “Sliver?”  At the local bar getting fat on beer and pork rinds, because, hey, it’s not like he has to worry about his waistline.

Holiday ads for high priced items tend to really lead to awkward advertisements. The Kay Jewelers “Woman who is scared of lightning and needs man to protect her” ad stereotypes women in multiple ways. Also their slogan of “Every Kiss begins with Kay” seems to imply, “Wanna get laid? Buy her some jewelry!”

Pick any Lexus ad that involves a big red bow and you essentially can see even more awkwardness. If you want to step past the fact it’s pretty much always some rich handsome dude buying some trophy wife woman an overpriced Toyota with better hubcaps, you can still see some real creepy in this ad:

Not sure what they were going for here. “Lexus: Bring out the little girl in your wife.” Eeew.

If the maxim, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is true, Peloton is getting a heck of a lot of value out of body-shaming a stick-thin woman. People are debating the ad online and morning shows are running it on a constant loop to give it an official “tsk tsk.”

However, the truth probably is that the company did more harm than good to its brand. The stock price, which got a quick uptick after the ad went viral, has since gone back down, in a slide some are calling a “nightmare.” Also, any guy who picked up a Peloton in November thinking, “She was asking about this thing. I’m a great guy for getting it.” is now swearing up and down to Citibank that this was a fraudulent charge.

Maybe the only person who came out of this with any benefit was Monica Ruiz, the wife in the commercial, who scored another gig based on her role: