Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. (or how Pat Finley’s set of “toddler-ish” drawings shed light on the Chicago Bears’ pointless media policy)

For the past week, Sun Times journalist Patrick Finley has covered the ins and outs of Chicago Bears’ training camp. Entering his fifth year on the Bears beat, Finley has provided readers with an abundance of copy since camp opened on July 27. He has discussed the issues QB Mike Glennon has in throwing deep and the promise associated with rookie Mitch Trubisky. He has conducted one-on-one podcasts with linebacker Danny Trevathan and running back Jordan Howard. He has also filed feature pieces like his look inside the wide receivers’ room and his story about three players who got a second chance thanks to the Bears.

However, it has been his use of awkward artwork in response to the Bears’ restrictive media policies that has fans and journalists alike paying the most attention to him.

Finley said the Bears allow journalists and fans to watch all of the training camp work, but journalists can only take photos and videos during the first 20 minutes of the day. On the other hand, fans can shoot whatever they want, whenever they want and post it wherever they want.

To provide a touch of levity regarding the absurd double standard, Finley did what journalists have done in court for decades: He created artist’s renderings of what he saw.

The only problem? He can’t draw:

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Finley’s “live look at (rookie QB Mitch) Trubisky.”

“I wish I could say I planned it out, but it made my giggle the first day I drew one,  so I kept doing one a day,” Finley said in an email interview Friday afternoon. “I knew it was silly, but also subversive. Also, that’s the way I draw; I didn’t make it look toddler-ish on purpose.”

Over the next several days, he kept adding to his portfolio with drawings of punt return drills:
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The innovative use of tennis racquets and volleyballs as training tools:

And even a fantastic TD hookup today between Trubisky and wide out Tanner Gentry:

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WGN-TV has even made a point of featuring Finley’s work. Finley said his sketches are among the most-viewed tweets he has published all week and has even drawn the attention of some of the Bears’ PR folks:

“In the last couple days, some PR staff members have asked me about it, but not in a threatening way, and certainly with no request that I stop,” he said.

Finley said he hopes his subversive sketches will draw some much-needed attention to the bigger picture: Why is there one set of rules for journalists and another for the general public?

“You’d think that this would help them realize the policy is silly,” he said in an email. “I mean, fans can post videos and photo online all day! — but we passed that point years ago, I think. If anything, it’s been interesting to watch the public’s reaction (on social media at least) to the media policy.”

To see more great writing and interesting artwork from Finley, follow him here on Twitter.

“Nobody is totally worthless. They can always be used as a bad example.” (Or PR in a post-Scaramucci world)

One of Dad’s favorite sayings when I would grouse about someone or something was, “Nobody is totally worthless. They can always be used as a bad example.” That always rang true for me when it came to how I worked as a reporter, a teacher and a media adviser. In many cases, I’d actually form policies based on how someone had done something and how I DIDN’T want to be that person or how I hated the way the person did something.

In examining the Anthony Scaramucci era (a funny term, given that I have fruit in my fridge that outlasted his tenure at the White House), PR expert Aaron Cohen provided some interesting tips on how to “Mooch from ‘the Mooch'” in terms of learning the ins and outs of public relations. It’s worth the read. A few thoughts on a few of his key points:

2. Build solid relationships with reporters.

Notice that I didn’t say “trusted” relationships. Those don’t exist.

It’s fine to play hardball as Scaramucci did, as it can show you’re passionate about looking after the interest of your client or boss. However, bullying or intimidating journalists isn’t going to get you the big coverage you promised.

Remember, even in the age of click wars and fake news, the finest living journalists (the ones you must influence) still report with the highest degree of integrity. Members of the media put their publication’s credibility—and their own—on the front lines every day. Words matter, but so do facts.

This is perhaps the core of all good relationships between news reporters and PR practitioners. I’ll disagree with the “trusted” issue a little bit, in that you can earn trust or destroy trust based on doing or not doing some of the things he notes below (bullying gets you nowhere, while sticking to facts and providing truthful information earns you credibility). However, at the core of the relationship is a professionalism in which it’s clear that you’re not going to be friends, but you don’t have to be enemies, either. It’s a truism that professionals on both sides of the PR/News relationship know and understand. Read Cohen’s take on the “Reporters will quote you” takeaway as well, and you get the idea of how these relationships work. If you want to vent about your day or your coworkers, a reporter should not be a last resort, but no resort at all.

5. Use a nickname for personal branding .

Don’t be afraid of using a catchy nickname as part of your own personal branding strategy. Nicknames to consider for yourself include, “The Bomb,” “The Bird,” “The Dude” and “The Sauce.”

This is the only point with which I’d REALLY disagree.

First, nicknames aren’t always what you’d hoped they’d be. My Dad used to work with a guy who earned the nickname “Shrimpy” when he was about 5 years old. It stuck. You don’t want to be in your 70s and hear someone yelling “Hey Shrimpy!” to get your attention at the grocery store.

Second, they don’t always convey respect. I doubt that a single member of the press corps referred to Scaramucci as “The Mooch” with anything but mockery.

Third, you earn the fungus on your shower shoes and you earn a nickname over time. Don’t give yourself a nickname. It’s the kind of thing that just screams, “I’m way cooler than you think I am.” Most people will disagree with you on that.

Hang on to this list and consider Cohen’s points as you move deeper into the field. It’s a pretty good way to learn something from a bad example.

 

 

 

If your mother says she loves you, go check it out (or why making sure you’re sure matters).

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The adage in journalism regarding verification is: “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” The idea is that you need to make sure things are right before you publish them. You also want to verify the source of the information before you get yourself into trouble.

This issue popped up again this week after former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci had exchanged several emails with a person he thought to be former Chief of Staff Reince Prebus. It turns out, the messages came from a prankster, who baited Scaramucci into an “email battle:”

“At no stage have you acted in a way that’s even remotely classy, yet you believe that’s the standard by which everyone should behave towards you?” read the email to Scaramucci from a “mail.com” account.

Scaramucci, apparently unaware the email was a hoax, responded with indignation.

“You know what you did. We all do. Even today. But rest assured we were prepared. A Man would apologize,” Scaramucci wrote.

The prankster, now aware that he had deceived the beleaguered Scaramucci, went in for the kill.

“I can’t believe you are questioning my ethics! The so called ‘Mooch’, who can’t even manage his first week in the White House without leaving upset in his wake,” the fake Priebus wrote. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

Scaramucci shot back with a veiled threat to destroy Priebus Shakespearean-style.

“Read Shakespeare. Particularly Othello. You are right there. My family is fine by the way and will thrive. I know what you did. No more replies from me,” the actual Scaramucci.

“Othello” is a tragedy in which the main character is tricked into killing his wife Desdemona after his confidante convinces him that she has been unfaithful.

As the article points out, Scaramucci isn’t the first person to be suckered by a prank. Other members of the government had been similarly duped via email. In terms of prank calls, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found himself once speaking with a person pretending to be billionaire David Koch, discussing ways to attack protesters and destroy liberals.   (The prankster told his side of the story on Politico.)

News journalists have also been caught short when it comes to making sure they’re sure about the sources and information they receive. In 2013, KTVU-TV in San Francisco had what it thought was a big scoop on the Asiana Flight 214 crash: The names of the captain and crew. However, the information turned out to be not only a hoax, but an intentionally racist set of names:

Three people were fired and a fourth resigned for health reasons in the wake of this error. In digging into this, it turned out that the NTSB found the source of the names to be a “summer intern” who thought this would be funny. In its own investigation, the station found that nobody asked the source at the NTSB for his name or title. The station issued an apology, as did the NTSB.

It’s easy to laugh at these incidents or to marvel at how dumb somebody was to buy into this stuff. However, we used to say around my house, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” In other words, you could be next.

So here are three simple tips to help you avoid these problems:

  1. Verify, verify, verify: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Look up information on various sites, ask a source for other people who can augment/confirm the information and make sure you feel confident in your content before you publish.
  2. If you aren’t sure, back away: It is always better to be late on something than it is to be wrong. It’s also better to let a random email or a text go without a response than to get sucked in and pay the price later. Some of these are easy, like when a Nigerian Prince promises you untold riches if you would just transfer your bank account number to him. Some are harder: When’s the last time you made sure it was your friend texting you about a “crazy night” and not his mom or dad doing some snooping? We just assume we know the actual source. That can be dangerous, so back off if you’re not sure.
  3. Kick it around the room: One of the best reasons why newsrooms, PR offices and ad agencies exist is to gather collective knowledge in one place. Sure, with technology now, it’s easy for everyone to work “off site” but keeping people in a single physical spot can make it easier to have someone look over your shoulder and see if something you just got “smells right.” Take advantage of other people around you and don’t go at it alone.

“Learn how to bullshit” (and other great tips to becoming better at journalism)

I often tell students that I don’t know everything (big surprise) but if I don’t know something, I’ll tell the students I don’t know it and then I’ll go ask people who do. This includes fact-based things such as what the GNP of Peru is in a given year and experience-based items such as how to get a difficult interview subject to loosen up.

This week, I asked a group of experienced journalists what they saw as the most important skills young journalists could pick up that go beyond what you read in a textbook (farther vs. further, how many words to put in a lead etc.). In reading through the answers, here are the themes that emerged:

  • Break out of your comfort zone: People often fail to differentiate among not liking something, not being able to do something and being uncomfortable doing something. I don’t like eating broccoli, but I am able to do it. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, unless I’m eating it at a friend’s house and his wife or mother says, “So how do you like the broccoli?” and I am forced to lie: “It’s great!”
    I am unable to dunk a basketball. I would like to do it and it would not make me uncomfortable if I could do it. I just physically can’t propel my 5-foot-9, middle-age frame up to the edge of the rim and throw down.
    The point is that in most cases, we don’t like doing something because it makes us uncomfortable, so we say we can’t do it. The truth is, especially in journalism, the more you break out of your comfort zone, the more you will be able to do something because you will experience less discomfort in doing it. Or as one journalist recalled about a summer internship experience:

    I was asked if there was anything I didn’t like to do. I said man-on-the-street stuff. Guess what I did all summer long? It wasn’t punishment, it was a way to get over the bad habit of only talking to people who were paid to talk to me. So many young journos are afraid to cold-call or just go up to someone, and you just have to do it until it doesn’t suck as much or you stop caring about someone saying no or thinking you’re stupid.

  • Learn by doing: Even things you don’t mind doing aren’t always easy, but they become more natural if you practice them over and over again. This is a lot like playing a sport or a musical instrument: It’s easy for people to marvel at the end result when that’s all they see, but a ton of behind-the-scenes work went into making the performance incredible. Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t wake up at age 22 and become incredible basketball players just because they felt like it. Pavarotti didn’t nail every note in La boheme the first time he tried it.
    One of the biggest problems in media writing is that most people feel they’ve been writing their whole lives. They HAVE practiced repeatedly at this craft, so it becomes incredibly frustrating when this writing doesn’t come out as easily or flawlessly as the other writing they have done. The main problem with that is in the underlying assumption that all writing is the same. It’s not. This kind of writing requires different skills and alternative approaches, so it forces you to zig instead of zag. To draw from an earlier example, Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world in the early 1990s, but found that all those skills didn’t make him the best baseball player in the world.
    You need to practice on the field of your sport, so to speak. Or as a journalist with international experience put it:

    At the risk of making an overly obvious point, I’d recommend just writing as much as possible. Take the Ichiro-in-batting-practice approach and do as much work as you possibly can. I work with a fair number of young, recent grad writers, and I’m always amazed at the gulf between the ones who put in a lot of hours with their student paper and the ones who didn’t. The former are just so much sharper. With them, I’m working with a journalist, not someone who has written a bit and is trying to become a journalist.

  • Employ empathy: Either because we’ve all watched way too much TV or because we’re scared to death of doing interviews, the “helicopter” approach to interacting with sources can become our resting pulse. We want to fly over to a source, get in, get what we need and get out of there as fast as possible. A lot of this can be overcome with practice, as others mentioned earlier. However, it’s not just that practice makes perfect (or close to it), but perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.
    This is where the issue of empathy comes in. If you see the person you are about to interview as basically a jar full of answers you need to open up and dig into, you’re going to have a lousy experience with the source. Instead, if you treat that person with dignity, respect and interest, you start to see the human being behind the story you need to tell. In turn, the source will start to see you as a human being as well, instead of a mosquito that is nothing more than a blood-sucking pest. As one sports journalist put it:

    When I first started, my trepidation in building sources is I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can’t just walk up to an “off-limit source” I’ve never spoken to and expect them to answer a hard-hitting question. Start with what they did on summer vacation. Or if they have any plans for their upcoming down time… It breaks the ice and gets the source comfortable, because now they’re talking to a person, not a reporter. Wish I knew that when I first started.

    Or put more succinctly:

    Learn how to bullshit. Practice it.

Not every tip here will work in every situation and  you will likely find your own way through various experiences in the field. Some sources just want you to cut to the chase. Others will never like you no matter how much you effort you put into cultivating them and working with them. In some cases, no matter how much you practice, you will never come to like or enjoy certain aspects of the job. It’s all part of learning and developing skills.

Speaking of skill development, here’s something to consider from a journalist who has worked in print, web, blogs, PR and marketing. I didn’t know where to put, but I just couldn’t leave it out, so I guess I’ll end with it:

Learn to read upside down. Can’t tell you how many times that comes in handy.

Guest Blogging: Write about women’s achievements, not their connections to men

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Tracy Everbach, an experienced journalist and professor from the University of North Texas here to discuss the coverage of women in media. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

“Wife of a Bears lineman wins bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”

That’s what the Chicago Tribune tweeted last summer when Corey Cogdell, a three-time Olympian, medaled in trap shooting. Cogdell happens to be married to Mitchell Unrein of the Bears, and Tribune officials said they simply were trying to make a local connection for their readers.

A lot of people didn’t buy it, voicing their disdain on social media. Why connect an accomplished athlete to her husband, they asked?

The Tribune shouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction. Women often are portrayed in media coverage by their connection to a man — identifying them as mothers, wives, grandmothers and other such descriptors.

Last summer, when Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination for president, several news organizations chose to feature a photo of her husband on home pages and front pages. Some news organizations responded that the reason President Bill Clinton was pictured instead of Hillary Clinton was because she was not present in the arena. Again, many didn’t buy that excuse and saw it as a way to diminish a woman’s accomplishments.

Women have long been overlooked and ignored in media coverage. For example, academic studies show that women only compose about one-fourth of the sources quoted on front pages of newspapers, are quoted as experts much less often than men, and often are stereotyped in media portrayals: characterized by their appearances –their clothing, their hair, their weight, aspects of their bodies, rather than what they do. Even Supreme Court justices are not exempt from this.

When a woman achieves something, she deserves recognition – on her own. Stereotyping is not something journalists do intentionally. They work on deadline, trying to find sources within short time frames, and follow ingrained news values (such as finding a local connection). It takes a great deal of effort to begin thinking in a more inclusive way, whether it involves gender, race, sexuality, or another factor.

Here’s an easy experiment. Envision these people in your mind: a doctor, a professor, an editor, a CEO, an athlete. The chances are that all of the people you pictured were male. Even though we logically know that women hold all these positions (Hey, I’m a professor!), our minds assume the default is male. This is through no fault of our own – it’s because of patterns and beliefs that are ingrained into us since childhood through parents, peers, authority figures, and yes, mass media. We are socialized to accept certain gender roles as “normal.”

To break these habits takes practice. And journalists have little time to practice.

In a college class I teach called Race, Gender and the Media, we discuss these issues for an entire semester. Students come to see that much of what we consume in mass media repeats common stereotypes.

Too many news organizations repeat these clichés and assumptions. So, I urge those in the profession and those who teach journalism to think before they write.

  • Identifying a woman by her motherhood, wifehood or any other connection often is not warranted. Before you do so, ask yourself, would I say it about a man? You’d never write about the president of the United States, “Father of five issues executive order.”
  • If you are going to describe any aspect of a woman’s appearance, make sure it is connected to the story. Or better yet, just leave it out. One of the worst, most irrelevant and demeaning leads I ever read was in a Vanity Fair article about actress Margot Robbie. See how far you can read before feeling nauseated:

America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find the girl next door. In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. As I said, she is from Australia.

(And we wonder why women fall so far behind men in wages, in positions of power, in recognition and respect.)

While researching this piece, I checked the AP stylebook entry on “woman, women.” Note to the Associated Press: Your entry is extremely outdated. Need some help rewriting it? I’ll be happy to give you suggestions.

Look at some of these “gems” from p. 304 of the 2016 stylebook: “Copy should not assume maleness when both sexes are involved, as in: Jackson told newsmen …” (Seriously? Who under the age of 90 uses “newsmen” in 2017?) Also, “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject, as in: Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians today …” (I’ll give an A to any of my college students who knows who Golda Meir was without Googling her name. And really, who these days would even think to describe her that way?)

Hmm … maybe we have progressed somewhat.

Clickbait, murderous gnomes and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

In an attempt to point out how problematic question headlines, question leads and rhetorical questions were in journalism, I wrote a post using a hyperbolic question as a headline to prove my point: Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you?

I inadvertently proved a second point: Why people use them and why they’re worse than I thought.

I posted the headline on Facebook and Twitter, which usually leads to a few dozen hits. About 20 minutes later, I went back to make a minor correction and found that my web traffic had spiked. The tweet was being retweeted like crazy (a relative term for a no-name blog) and I was getting people from Egypt, England and any other E place I’d never been showing up on the site. I don’t get paid for this and there are no ads, so web traffic isn’t vital to putting food on the table or keeping shoes on my kid’s feet, but it is kind of a rush to see actual, live people showing up to read something I wrote.

Here’s the problem: They were one-click wonders. For them, it was essentially clickbait.

They showed up because the headline made them curious, but once they figured out this was basically a site for journalism students and contained no actual murderous gnomes, they left. Traffic in the subsequent days was back to its usual collection of my three closest friends and that one former student who keeps looking for spelling errors so he can torment me.

In quality journalism, regardless of if we are talking about news, ad, pr, marketing or anything else, we don’t want to have what I call a Rummage Sale Theory mentality. The idea behind this “Filak-ism” is based in a tradition in Wisconsin, whereby summer comes and everyone in this proud state starts selling stuff out of their garages on weekends. Cities build events around “citywide rummage days” and there are flea markets all over the place.

A rummage-sale mentality says, “I want to sell this thing and get it the heck out of my garage.” Thus, when you are selling a somewhat wonky lawnmower and someone asks, “Does it run?” you might respond with, “Yeah! Runs great!” The idea is that if this person buys the mower, you will never see him or her again. It’s not like someone is coming back in two weeks to knock on your door and tell you, “Hey, that mower sucks!” It’s a one-time transaction-based relationship with someone you will never see again and about whom you care very little.

You have to approach journalism like the owner of a local store: You live there, people will come to you multiple times and if you mess them over, you are in a lot of trouble. People will avoid your store and tell other people about the bad experiences they had with you. You will gain a reputation that harms your ability to do your job.

Conversely, if you treat people right, give them what they need in an honest and upfront fashion and avoid the one-hit-wonder, clickbait mentality, you will develop great relationships that further your reputation as a trusted resource. It’s why ads need to be more fact than hype. It’s why PR professionals profess transparency as the main virtue of the field. It’s why reporters stick to promises of anonymity, even when it would be better for them to throw a source to the wolves.

In this field, we own the store. We live here. We need to act like it.

We can’t sell people broken lawnmowers powered by homicidal gnomes and expect to survive.

“Didn’t learn Flash. Will Prof. For Food.” (or why journalism schools teach skills, not just software)

Pagemaker.

When I took my first journalism classes back in the early 1990s, it was the thing you HAD to know. At that point, desktop publishing was in its infancy as a journalism skill, and students who knew Pagemaker had the keys to the Kingdom. Rumors spread throughout the J-school of people getting rich job offers and tons of perks simply for knowing the BASICS of how the program worked.

By the time I graduated, Pagemaker was out and Quark was in. EVERYBODY who was ANYBODY had to know and use Quark. Instructors were scrambling to revamp lesson plans to make their design courses Quark-friendly. Editing classes were taught in computer labs, where the few precious copies of this incredible program resided. People hung tight to the idea that Quark and Quark alone would be the program of the future. In fact, when we decided to convert our newsroom from Quark to InDesign in the early 2000s, we almost had a revolt.

Fortunately for me, we had a design professor who told the students the most important thing about journalism education: InDesign is basically Quark with different quick-cut keys. We didn’t teach you how to use software. We taught you how to be designers.

This thought came to mind this morning when I saw that Adobe planned to finally kill Flash no later than 2020. In the mid-2000s, Flash became the web-version of Quark and Pagemaker: The “it” program that would guarantee fortune and glory. I remember sitting in my basement, teaching it to myself from Mindy McAdams’ incredible tutorial text. I feared that if I didn’t know it, I would be a homeless, unemployed faculty member with a little cardboard sign:

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Turns out, it was like those “it” programs in another key way: It will soon cease to be.

This is one of the main reasons why journalism education is crucial. We don’t teach you how to run a program or use software simply as an end. We teach you how to do quality journalistic work, whether it be in writing, reporting, public relations, photography, video, graphics or design. We teach you the underlying aspects of what makes for a good piece and what makes for a bad piece. We then teach you how to critically think about your own work as you seek to improve it and your skills.

The software matters, don’t get me wrong, but the software programs are tools to use once you master the ideas behind how to use them in furthering a process toward an end goal. In other words, you wouldn’t take a class called, “Hammer 101” or “Saw 242.” You might, however, take a carpentry course, where you learn how best to build something and how each tool can help you in that regard.

“The victim, a 29-year-old black man…” (or why do things like race get used like this in stories?)

In one of my favorite annual reads, “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, the author and several of his teammates on the Houston Astros are discussing the issue of race. One man comments that he wouldn’t mind so much that the press described him as “the black first baseman” if they would just refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.” Instead, he was just “the first baseman.”

I thought of that this morning in reading a story of an early morning shooting in one of my old hometowns when I hit this paragraph:

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain told the State Journal that the victim, a 29-year-old black man from the Madison area, was in the driver’s seat of a car parked on Adderbury Lane, and was shot multiple times.

If you comb through the rest of the story, there is no other mention of race or any indication as to why this inclusion of race was important to telling the story. It just shows up and then the story moves on.

The issue of race, gender, sexual orientation and “othering” in the media is well beyond my area of expertise to speak about at length. (I’m hoping to have guest bloggers over the next several months who focus on each of these areas come here to discuss these issues.) I also refuse to become outraged on the behalf of others or point this out as the reason journalism is going to hell in a Ferrari. However, just like everything else on this site, the point is to help beginning journalists learn and here are a few quick suggestions on things to think about before including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other descriptor that doesn’t add value but does point out how someone is “different:”

  1. Would you use the descriptor if the race/gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation etc. were reversed? One of the leads that has stuck in my head for the longest time was this:

    “Wisconsin congressman Steve Gunderson, one of the few openly gay members of Congress, will start a new consulting job in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6”

    I have yet to see a lead that starts off with, “Bill Smith, a straight guy, will be opening a chain of restaurants in the greater Chicagoland area this fall.”
    If the reason for mentioning sexual orientation is crucial, make it clear right where you mention it. The same thing is true for any other descriptor meant to draw attention to race, ethnicity or anything else along those lines.

  2. Does the descriptor add anything of value to the story you are telling? I worked at various places that varied on whether or not to include race in a description. One place had a “four-item rule,” in which any crime story that described an “at-large suspect” must include at least four distinguishing features before we included race as a characteristic. For example:

    Police are seeking a white man in his early 40s, who is 5-foot-9 and 260-280 pounds. He has a shaved head and a goatee and a tattoo of a lizard on his right hand. He fled the store in a 1991 red Pontiac Firebird.

    In this one, you get several “unchangeable” characteristics (height, weight, age, tattoo) as well as some other characteristics that might help distinguish him from other similar people (shaved head, goatee, specific car).

    The goal in descriptors, especially in crime stories like the one described here, is to describe an individual, not a group of people. It also helps to describe criminals who people might spot and be able to help the police find.

    In the story listed above, the race is used to describe the victim, not someone who police need help finding.
    In short, just like everything else, have a reason for adding something to your story before you do it.

  3. Can the descriptor reinforce a negative stereotype regarding the larger group without adding significant value to your story? In 1996, basketball announcer Billy Packer was once calling a Georgetown game when he called attention to his tenacious play by referring to Iverson as “a tough monkey.” Racists have often used ape-based comparatives when demeaning African-Americans, leading to a larger discussion of what Packer meant by his description. (Packer stated repeatedly he did not mean this in a racial way.)
    Certain story types can reinforce stereotypes based. Race and crime, gender and sport, equality and sexual orientation are just a few areas in which a pointless “othering” do more harm than good.
    This doesn’t mean you should never use a descriptor for fear of stereotyping a group of people. If an at-large criminal has held up six convenience stores and you have a strong description of him, not using race for fear of stereotyping doesn’t make sense. However, you should always weigh the value of the descriptor against the potential negative outcomes of using it.

 

 

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.