‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

Guest Blogging: Journalists need to understand rape culture to report on sexual abuse

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 recent spate of sexual assault stories in the media and journalists’ obligations while covering this topic. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

“It was 40 years ago.”

“Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a 30-year-old single male asking a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old out on a date.”

These are actual quotes from public officials defending Roy Moore, Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. Moore is accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 and of pursuing several other teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore called these allegations “fake news.”

The Moore story is just one of a cascade of sexual abuse accusations that have become public in recent months, from candidate Donald Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, to Anthony Weiner’s emailing pictures of his penis to girls and women, to Harvey Weinstein’s “casting couch,” to Kevin Spacey’s molestation of young men.

How do we as journalists handle these types of stories?

It is helpful to understand that these are NOT stories about sex. They are stories about violations and crimes against girls and women, boys and men. They are stories about power and taking advantage of others who don’t have it.

It also is helpful for journalists to understand the concept of “rape culture.” This is defined as an accepted societal belief that normalizes rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Rape culture blames the victim for her or his own assault or harassment and encourage myths such as “she asked for it,” “he couldn’t help himself,” and other falsehoods.

The visual below may help explain the concept. (The graphic is not perfect. The words at the top of the pyramid are “Rape,” “Incest,” “Battery,” and “Murder.”) In a nutshell, rape culture often deters victims and survivors of sexual violence from coming forward about crimes because of a fear they won’t be believed, that they will be blamed, that they will be ridiculed and/or feelings of shame.


The Associated Press Stylebook offers surprisingly little help on covering sexual abuse, beyond an entry under “privacy” that tells us not to identify people who have been sexually assaulted unless they voluntarily identify themselves. Yeah, okay.

When accusations are flying, what are our obligations as journalists?

First, we should show compassion for those who are victims or survivors. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a Justice Department-funded agency, finds that a majority (63 percent) of sexual violence cases never are reported to police.

Rarely are such accusations false, and we should understand it takes courage for someone who has been abused to come forward. The Sexual Violence Resource Center also finds that only about 2 percent to 7 percent of sexual violence cases are falsely reported. Therefore, as journalists, we always should be skeptical, but should keep in mind that false reports are a tiny proportion of reported cases. Some news organizations tend to jump on these false reports as big stories, which caused them to appear more prevalent than they really are. More on that in a minute.

In addition, we should focus our journalism on the bigger picture rather than dwelling on individual cases. Topics to address include:

  • Why do survivors of abuse decline to report cases? The fact that many women and men have been coming forward about celebrities in the past few months points to a possible beginning of change to rape culture. It shows that when survivors bond together, they can find strength in each other.


  • Why do men (and most of the perpetrators are men, even when men are the victims) engage in such behaviors?


  • What about our society and culture supports the myths that victims are to blame for their own assaults? That false reports are rampant?


  • Why don’t we talk more about sexual consent and what it means? This is an excellent video that helps define consent by comparing it to a cup of tea. College students love it. (Profanity warning here. There also is a “clean version” for middle and high school students.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQbei5JGiT8


The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a stellar resource for reporting on sexual violence. For example, it advises: “Rape or sexual assault is in no way associated with normal sexual activity; trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution. People who have suffered sexual violence may not wish to be described as a ‘victim’ unless they choose the word themselves. Many prefer the word ‘survivor.’”

At this point, I’m guessing some journalists are asking, “What about the Rolling Stone story?” The magazine ran a story in 2014 that described a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. The story was later debunked and the magazine retracted it. Rolling Stone was ordered to pay the fraternity $1.65 million.

While the Rolling Stone story had many problems, the main ones were not false accusations; they were journalistic failures. The story was based on one source, a survivor who apparently had been through a traumatic experience at some point. The reporter and editors did not check or corroborate records and sources to verify details of her story. Columbia Journalism Review took the story apart in detail, calling it “A failure that was avoidable.” CJR also published tips to avoid repeating the mistakes and noted that the incident should not deter journalists from reporting on the valid problem of campus rape.

Journalists reporting on these types of stories need to know some of the basics about sexual abuse and violence, as well as myths that continue to be perpetuated. Accurate and fair journalism is essential to changing rape culture. It also is the first step to changing sexual harassment behaviors in newsrooms.


Guest Blogging: A look back at media coverage of several transgender candidates’ election victories

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Bethany Grace Howe, a doctoral student who has written extensively on issues pertaining to the transgender community, discusses the media coverage of election victories by transgender candidates throughout the country. If you are interested in guest blogging on a topic of interest, please contact us here.

I won’t pretend that as a transgender woman the Nov. 7, 2017 election of Danica Roem’s historic election to lead Virginia District 13 didn’t thrill me. The first woman to be elected and one assumes seated as a state representative, I’m proud of her and what she means for people like myself.

Even more towards my own personal joy, it’s especially wonderful because she defeated someone who billed himself as the state’s “chief homophobe.” I won’t deny my sense of schadenfreude at seeing him sent packing from government. Or, to put it in a way more typical of my liberal-Oregon roots: “Karma’s a…”

That said, as a journalist I’m also excited about what the night meant for myself and others like me. Not because of what the media said, but what it did not. Not one article in a mainstream publication mentioned the details of Roem’s transition. Not the liberal New York Times, nor the more conservative Washington Examiner. Even Fox News considered that irrelevant to the story at hand.

Can it be said all media outlets did so? No. Though I have no immediate means to prove it, I suspect on election night some of the more right-wing conservative talking heads chose to do so. (And maybe some liberal ones, too.) Not surprisingly in the least, Breitbart labeled her “a man living as a woman.” And I’d have to pretend to be surprised that they would make such a choice.

That, however, is the point: they made a choice. One that my perusal of media covering that evening and election shows responsible media outlets are making in a way that respects the identity of transgender people.

In Minneapolis, two African-American transgender city council representatives were elected the same night as Roem. No mention was made of their transition in the election coverage.

Outside Atlanta a transgender woman was elected to city council in Doraville. No mention was made of her transition in the election coverage.

And in Erie, Pennsylvania, a transgender man was elected to the school board. No mention was made of his transition in the election coverage.

If this seems repetitious, then I’ve made my point: transgender people should not have to explain or defend their identities any more than members of other diverse groups. People of color or religious faith: we don’t make them quantify and defend their experience. No one asks them to prove they’re African-American, nor how long they’ve been a Christian and why.

I suppose it could be argued that this is a trend limited to major media markets, or those in more liberal blue states, like Minnesota. Atlanta, though more liberal than the rest of the state, is certainly not a hotbed of transgender liberalism. And Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, where the Erie School Board newspaper coverage was based, is in Cumberland County, a location that saw Donald Trump outpoll Hillary Clinton by 18 percent.

Does this mean everything is just dandy out there in the world of transgender people and media? Certainly not; Breitbart and other faux-news sites like it will remain widely-read purveyors of hate and ignorance. I’ve no doubt either that there are small-town media outlets where small-minded editors prevail over contemporary ethics. Though you don’t have to look that far – or that small – to see where transgender people still must defend their identity.

Danica Roem born September 30, 1984) is an American journalist and politician of the Democratic Party from Northern Virginia. In the 2017 elections, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Roem won the Democratic primary on June 13, 2017, and the general election on November 7, 2017. He is set to become the first openly transgender person to both be elected to a U.S. state’s legislature and serve his term.”

“‘He’ was elected.” “‘He’ is set.” “He” – a incorrect pronoun the article goes on to repeat 17 times (along with “his”) in an article of just over 600 words. For what it’s worth, they included “she” or “her” a half-dozen times. Bad editing? Perhaps.

But I was kind of hoping Wikipedia would be at least as current as their entry regarding the latest Hollywood pervert to come down the pike. Priorities, I guess.


Journalism Folk: Help Me Help You (on this blog, at least)

The “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book is entering its printing stage, which means whatever happens next has to be on this blog. No more “Wait! We have a new example of a disaster we can stick in there!” or “DAMMIT! What do you mean “YikYak” isn’t a thing anymore?” rewrites.

The nice thing about the way this blog is set up is that you can access “chapter topics” I’ve covered over time, so you can assign a chapter and say “Also, go read what this yahoo had to say about Chapter 6 on his blog” or something. There’s also always something new to say, given the rapid rate in which we have news flowing, disasters brewing and people generally falling on their keys in public.

The purpose of this blog was to help instructors who used the book (and those who don’t but enjoy the vibe of this approach) to tackle topics that matter to them and their students. For the most part, I’ve been guessing (hopefully well) but if this book is to become more than a colorful doorstop, I need to make this worth your time.

With that in mind, here’s my ask today: Help me help you. Either email me, hit me up on Twitter or just post something below here to tell me what you want me to cover, examine or discuss on this blog. Tell me what you want to see more of or less of as we go forward.

How to annoy your survey participants in six easy steps

As a researcher, I end up asking a lot of people to participate in surveys I’m doing and studies I’m conducting. As such, I feel compelled to reciprocate whenever someone out there is asking for help in a similar vein. Thus, when a survey from one of my alma maters landed in my in box, I decided to give it a shot. Ten minutes out of my life? Happy to help.

I’m not sure how much help I was to the people who put the survey out, but given the various problems I had with this survey, I’m hoping I can help you all learn how to avoid what went wrong for them. Thus, you have today’s look at how you can really annoy your survey participants in six easy steps:



This is perhaps the simplest rule for trying to gather information from people who really don’t owe you anything: Make it a simple, intuitive and error-free experience.

To do that, you need to have people within the group or who won’t be part of the larger data pool take your survey before you send it to your population/sample. This is where you work out the kinks, troubleshoot confusing items and generally make sure you don’t look dumb. It became clear to me in the first screen that this group failed to do this:

(NOTE: The blank spot is where the name of the university was. I deleted it to be decent.)

OK, do I click “next” to continue before or after I select my graduation group? Also, does clicking “next” move me to the next screen or do I need to click the arrow (something that seems more intuitive)? I tried a few ways of doing this and the only rule seemed to be that I had to make a click on “next” and pick my year at some point before I clicked on the arrow (which I was never actually told to do).

You are conducting a survey, not giving me a game of “Oregon Trail.” Make sure I know what I need to do or that you tell me how to do it simply. That’s one big thing in pretesting digital surveys.



In some cases you want people to tell you multiple things on an item (Which of the following ice cream flavors do you like? Select as many as you want). In other cases, you want to force a choice (Which flavor of ice cream is your favorite? Select one.) When it comes to forced choices, you need to make sure you WANT to force the choice and that the forcing of that choice is conveyed to the participant in a way that allows him or her to make the best choice. Here’s where it doesn’t work:


OK, but I did both Print and Broadcast. Which am I supposed to pick? The one most closely attached to my job? The one I liked best? The first one?

This happened at least twice more in this survey:

(I tried to click more than one and couldn’t. Trust me, this place has no trouble finding me for stuff like this.)
(Again, “all that apply” turned out to be “pick one.”)

If you want to force a choice where I might want to select more than one, remember the ice cream example: Tell me to pick a specific item (your favorite flavor). If that isn’t clear, explain what you want me to do if I fit more than one category (If you completed more than one track, please select the one you most closely associate with your current field of employment.). This will put the onus on the participant to choose, while still giving the person a sense of direction.



As we noted before on this blog, people can be jerkweeds for their own sense of enjoyment. You want to make sure they don’t have ways to screw up your data. In a similar vein, you don’t want to give people a chance to mess something up accidentally as well. This can happen when you give me mutually exclusive options that I can select simultaneously, as you can see below:

Mutually Exclusive Checkboxes

I could check all of the boxes I wanted, even though it makes no sense to say that I will tell you all of the things I donate to even though I donate to none of them and prefer not to tell you about it. If you need to get at if I donate or not, you can do one item that forces a choice (Do you donate money to organizations of any kind? Y/N/Won’t say) and then let the choice on that lead to another question. This is called logic within digital programs and allows people who pick “Yes” to get a screen filled with potential places you donated money (non-profits, universities, OTBs etc.) and people picked anything other than “Yes” to skip that item and drop into the next “everyone gets to answer” question.

(To be decent to the people doing the survey, I unchecked the options that didn’t make sense and answered honestly. It seemed like the right thing to do…)



People generally understand simple choices like rankings (Of the following three sports, please rank them in the order you enjoy watching them, with your favorite choice ranking first and your least-favorite choice ranking third.). People also are used to scales if those scales have numbers that attach themselves to choices (On a scale of 1 to 5 in which 1 = Strongly disagree, 3 = Neither agree nor disagree and 5= Strongly agree, please rate the following items.). However, when you have a set of rules and measurements like we’re playing “Bamboozled,” you will annoy the hell out of your participants. Consider these three answers:

Which 5 is 5?

According to the numerical equivalency the sliders gave me, each of these answers correspond to the number 5 on a scale of 1-7. I have no idea if that’s true or if my positioning of the sliders will indicate that I like Learning/Enrichment much more than career advancement (if I move either of those sliders just a teeny, tiny bit to the right and left respectively, you have a two-point gap on a seven-point scale). If I really wanted each of them to be EXACTLY 5, did I need to align them perfectly? And if so, where along that “five continuum?”

Why we needed sliders for this was beyond my ability to comprehend, as buttons with numbers would have worked out just fine.



In some cases, you will want to reaffirm people’s choices before they proceed on a question (You noted that you have a Ph.D. How many years beyond your master’s degree did it take for you to complete that degree?). However, you don’t want to confuse people for no good reason. I was asked this question:


I picked “Yes” and then went on to a second screen where I was given some particularly unhelpful options regarding my rung on the corporate ladder. Once I finished that, I got this:


Well, I said I AM employed, so I’m worried that I’m screwing up their data set. I want to go back and check, but I was not only unable to do it with an arrow at the bottom of the page (“Forward” is not only our state motto but also the edict of this survey.) but I couldn’t use the browser’s “back” arrow either. Fortunately, they sent me another link and I did the same thing and found that, no, I wasn’t screwed up. The survey was.

The same thing was true of confusing items like this one:

Extremely Likely TWICE

Which “extremely likely” is the right one? Or is this like a Russian election and you just really want me to pick something supportive?



Research (particularly marketing research) is supposed to be mutually beneficial. In other words, the goal is for the organization to learn something and the participant to feel good about taking part in the work. The best response you can hope for from participants is, “That was pretty interesting. I’d like to know what you find out.” The worst response you can get is what I got from a friend of mine who just completed the same survey:


Before you go through the trouble of asking people to help you, make sure you are doing your level best to be respectful of their time. Give them a clean, clear and simple instrument, have all the kinks ironed out and make sure they feel as good about the process as you do.

Twitter’s move to 280 Characters and the “Fat Pants Theory” of fixing the wrong thing

Twitter officially announced its move to 280 characters per tweet this week and generally speaking, people were a tad annoyed more about what they didn’t get than what they got:


The edit button issue is part of a larger problem: Organizations that don’t listen to their users. One of the biggest pushes on this blog and in these books is the idea of putting your audience’s needs front and center when you ply your trade. Some people on Twitter made that concern clear:


The second issue is that while Twitter is telling people that very few tweets reached the 280 character mark, it doesn’t mean they won’t. When Twitter first rolled this out, we noted this issue as the “bigger house” approach to having too much stuff. Apparently, we’re not alone in that thought:


In rethinking this, however, the house thing isn’t entirely accurate, in that more space can lead to more stuff, but it’s not necessarily the worst thing on Earth. A more accurate “Filak-ism” might be the “Fat Pants Theory.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Let’s say I’m wearing jeans that are Size X and they fit fine, I’m eating well and the pants feel good.
  2. I start working out less because I’m lazy and I start eating more of my meals out of the vending machine at work and Taco Bell on my way home from work, thus my pants start feeling tighter and tighter. I’m uncomfortable in my pants.
  3. I solve the problem by buying larger pants. I now have jeans that fit me fine.

I know I have pants of various waistband sizes at home because of the “Fat Pants Theory,” even though I also know that buying new pants doesn’t solve the underlying problem: I need to get off my ass, work out more and eat better food. If I don’t do this, not only will those earlier pants fail to ever fit me again, but I’ll eventually grow out of these pants and the cycle will continue.

Twitter is doing exactly this: Instead of forcing people to learn how to improve writing, clarity and focus, they simply gave them larger pants and said, “Enjoy eating lard while you lay on the couch watching ‘Stranger Things.'” As journalists, the temptation to let a few of those tweets slide toward 150, 160 and 170 characters doesn’t seem like a big deal, just like that extra bag of chips or that extra Burrito Supreme doesn’t really hurt at first. In the end, however, we’ll eventually be begging for 560 characters if we aren’t careful.

Since it’s here and we aren’t going to get rid of it, consider the following issues when deciding to tweet under this new level of textual freedom:

  • Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should: The old Filak-ism rears its ugly head here again, with the idea that extra space means extra responsibility, not just extra freedom. Some organizations clearly got that idea when they posted their response to this change in restrictions:
    Make sure that whatever you put into your tweet goes to the core of the primary point you are trying to get across and also that you remain focused on what the audience needs.
  • Edit anyway: One of the benefits of having a character limit was that it forced Twitter users to think and edit. The economy of the format meant you needed to swap out terms like “sustained injuries” for terms like “was hurt.” If you felt you needed the term “injuries” or “sustained,” you had to find ways to trim characters in other areas. It forced people to tighten their tweets. During that process, we were able to make sure that we had words spelled properly or that we had the precise message we wanted to send.

    Here’s a great look at how 280 can become 140 if we just focus on the writing:

  • Use this opportunity to fix some problems: As much bad as this change can do, you can use it to do some real good. First, one of the key, lame excuses for poor texting behavior was the character limit. People used “text speak” and annoying abbreviations, arguing that it was due to the restrictions of twitter. Thus you got this:

    OK, Twitter just doubled your space. Time to use actual words and complete sentences. U R able 2 wrt w/o BS abbr. so ppl w/brains can C U have 1 2.

    Second, a lot of social media policies were developed in a hurry because companies and organizations knew they needed one, even though nobody making the policy really knew what the policies should be. In some cases, these rules are arcane and in other cases, they never made sense. A number of places are considering changes in their policies to meet the opportunities of the new 280-character limit:

    Take this opportunity to weasel your way into the conversation and help set some logical boundaries and remove pointless restrictions. This rare policy shift will force leadership to reassess the rules on a larger level, so don’t miss this chance to get into the mix and help improve social media where you work.


3 things that will make your coverage of a chaotic public event more believable

A 26-year-old man in Sutherland Springs, Texas entered a church during Sunday prayer and opened fire on the congregation with a gun, killing 26 people and injuring at least 20 more. This happened around a month after a mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which 59 people died and more than 500 other people were injured. In both cases, the motives remain unclear.

What is clear, however, is that journalists are finding themselves covering crises, disasters and violent outbursts more frequently these days and the dividing lines on how best to cover them can vary wildly.

Reporting on crises and disasters can be exceptionally difficult for journalists for many reasons. First, the humanity factor kicks in for a lot of people, making it hard for them to get past the horror of what they have just seen and focus on telling the story. Even veteran journalists can get mentally “frozen” by the horrific nature of things like what happened in Texas on Sunday.

Second, information during these events comes at the journalists rapidly and with little in the way of verification. This becomes even more difficult as social media often floods the area with innuendo, suppositions and even intentionally false information. Journalists have to rely on their experience as well as their personal “BS detectors” to separate fact and rumor.

Third, people often have agendas, personal interests and other angles on what has happened, thus making them suspicious of coverage or unwilling to suspend their own beliefs to examine the situation the way journalists hope they will. In short, the goal for good news reporting has always been: We put the facts out there, you read them and judge for yourself. Unfortunately, with the blurred line between credible news and whatever else is out there, we don’t always have that simple step-by-step approach to stories like this one.

We’ve covered at length stories of disasters, violence, chaos and more here, so to avoid beating a dead horse (something we also actually touched on sort of), here are three simple thoughts to help you avoid the partisan pitfalls and maybe reach a broader audience in a situation like this:

1) Memes aren’t news: If you want to really convince me of something, a pretty good way not to do that is to use a meme in your argument. Memes can be funny or cute or contain a major “zinger” but they have the same news value as your average bumper sticker. Here are a few that landed in my Facebook feed:


There might be information in here worth something, but it’s probably half-true and it’s probably not helpful to you. (Also, when you misspell a name, like the first meme did, you pretty much lose the high ground in a fact fight.) Whether you’re trying to assemble a web story, a social media post or anything else, do your best to avoid the rantings of the “LOLCATS” crowd.


2) Specialty topics require specialized sources: One of the main reasons journalists look for expert sources when covering a topic is to make sure they are accurate and clear on expert-level details. People who get to know a topic extremely well will often reject information that gets base-level details wrong, especially if that content comes from people they view as interlopers.

Ben Hallman of The Trace, a journalism site that focuses on gun-based issues and topics, wrote about how journalists often fail when cover guns because they lack knowledge about them. In generalizing or misrepresenting basic facts about guns (Hallman recalls a CNN story about “bump stocks” after the Las Vegas shooting that showed a gun with a grenade launcher, but no actual “bump stock.”), it allows people who are experts to tune out or disregard other important information within the story.

Hallman notes that people have often mischaracterized certain weapons as “assault rifles” when they were actually “semi-automatic weapons.” Other similar errors occurred in explaining Kelley’s status with the military. Early reports noted he had been “dishonorably discharged,” which wasn’t accurate either. He actually was court-martialed in 2012 and received a bad conduct discharge, which indicates he was specifically punished for some sort of egregious activity.

These things sound similar to people like me who don’t know much about either topic, but to experts, it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. People who are really into their fields can really dig in on stuff like this. If you don’t believe me, look at the analysis archery enthusiasts applied to the techniques Jennifer Lawrence displayed in “The Hunger Games” series and the approach to archery Jeremy Renner had in “The Avengers” movies.

When you have a topic that needs expert-level clarity, consult an expert before moving forward.

3) Attribute everything: One of the dumbest arguments I’ve ever had about attributions came from a student in a newsroom. It went something like this:

Me: “You need to attribute that information to the source.”

Reporter: “I don’t know… It’s kind of a shitty source and it might make me look bad if people know where the information came from.”

Me: (Head hits desk repeatedly) “Then why would you include that information from that source?”

Reporter: “Well, I don’t want to miss out on anything on this story.”

At the end of the day, attributions are like insurance policies:  You probably don’t think much about them until a disaster strikes and then you are desperately clinging to them as your only hope of salvation. This plays a bit into both of the previous two items, in that if you have an expert on fire arms calling the person’s weapon an “assault rifle,” it carries more weight than when you quote some random schmoe who just saw the guy running by carrying a long gun. If you can attribute information to a police source, you have sturdier ground upon which to stand than if you are relying on witnesses who might be scared, confused or hurt. In either case, telling people WHERE you got the information is almost more important than the information itself.

I hope this will be the last post on how to cover things like this for a while. Either way, if you have questions or thoughts, post below or contact me via the contact page.



Guest Blogging: 5 tips on getting your freelance career rolling

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 Erik Petersen, the editor of Fort Lauderdale Magazine. As an editor, Petersen often receives offers from freelancers to cover things that might be of interest to his magazine. These queries vary wildly in terms of tone, content and approach, so today Petersen is talking about what makes for a good pitch for a story, giving us an insider’s look at how best to get published. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

As an editor of a city monthly magazine, I get lots of letters from freelance writers. They’re an interesting mixture. Some are one sentence long, others read like James Joyce after a few espresso shots. Some are clearly cut-and-paste jobs, some take a sort of free jazz approach to punctuation – and some make me want to learn more about this writer and what she or he might be able to do for our magazine.

Freelancing is a crowded, competitive field that includes many people who’ve built up relationships with editors over the years. But there are ways in – and a few things you can do to help yourself.

1) Get the basics right.

For example, I’ve got a great freelancer weed-out test built into my name. “Erik” and “Petersen” are not uncommon names, but my particular spellings of them typically get butchered anywhere outside of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Nordic countries. If I get an email addressed to “Eric,” “Mr. Peterson” or (this has happened) “Peter Ericson,” the emailer has just been helpful enough to inform me that he will probably screw up something in a story, too. Delete.

Incidentally, if that advice sounds painfully obvious to you, that’s great. It should. It also means you’ve already got an advantage over a good chunk of the competition.

2) Make your email compelling but concise.

This might sound like another one that falls in the category “simple common sense” but again, not everybody does it. An introductory email/pitch letter should read like the journalism that will hopefully follow it – sharp, well-written and nailing a word count. Four solid paragraphs should tell me enough while making me want to know more.

3) Pitch stories – but know it’s not really about that.

When I hear from a potential freelancer, I want to know three main things: that she can write, that she has ideas and that she’s thought a bit about what my specific publication might need. One great way to do that is to pitch one or two good stories.

Stories that she most likely won’t write for me. At least not right away.

Publications vary, but here’s how it works at the one I edit. We’re a monthly, and we plan months in advance. Anything four months out has already been assigned; anything three months out is already being worked on. There are issues nearly a year away that we’ve got ideas about. Point being, there’s an excellent chance the issue you’re pitching for is already planned.

This isn’t always the case. If, for example, you’ve worked hard to get access to someone for a profile that’s relevant to the publication, that profile’s an impressive thing to pitch. (“Wow, Ol’ Jed the Reclusive Woodcarver never gives interviews.”)

But for the most part, with writers I haven’t worked with very much, I tend to assign. So by all means, pitch. But be ready to write something else.

Something else here also needs to be addressed. Are there unscrupulous editors who will take your good idea and give it to somebody else? Yes. In my experience it’s not overly common, but it can happen. Unfortunately, it’s just a risk you have to take. It’s one of the reasons, however, that I wouldn’t recommend writing a piece first and then shopping it around. Again, most editors won’t take a piece, give it to somebody else and say “Rewrite this.” But if one does, you don’t have much recourse.

4) Get face-to-face.

Editors get lots of email. Too much email. All the email. Seriously, I was just going to make a point about how much email we get by telling you how much is in my inbox, but I checked and it’s too embarrassing.

You want to make an impression, and that’s hard to do as one little subject line in a flooded inbox. In the email, or the follow-up email or phone call (don’t do too many, but a bit of persistence is good), ask to meet. Suggest coffee. Say you’d also appreciate career advice/a chat about the industry. (That last one’s good because A) useful career advice actually is helpful and, B) like most people, editors like to be flattered. And being treated like some Journalism Yoda who can help a young Jedi is flattering.) All those things you’ve perfected – a solid story pitch, knowledge of the editor’s publication – will be even more memorable in person.

5) Once you’re up the ladder, make sure you extend it down for somebody else.

Not long ago, a writer got in touch. He wrote concisely, pitched well, suggested coffee, got an assignment and became a regular. Then he emailed asking if I’d mind being put in touch with a former colleague who was also looking for freelance work. Somebody whose work comes recommended from a writer I like? Absolutely.

In a business that happens so much over the phone and email, personal recommendations go a long way. If you know somebody and respect their work, you can help them by getting them in front of an editor with whom you’ve established a relationship.

Just make sure they’ll do the same for you.


“Exposing the truth is what mattered most.” Alex Crowe’s reflections on the Mayville police chief debacle

Mayville, Wisconsin’s interim Police Chief Ryan Vossekuil will have the “interim” tag removed and be sworn into the job full time on Thursday. This blip on the radar of small-town life was the result of many things, not the least of which was a radio journalist who had been in town only six months.

Alex Crowe’s work on the story of how leaked documents and shady deals brought to light the issue of what happens when a reporter digs into a story and won’t let go. We outlined the process and details of how he did it in yesterday’s post. Today, I asked him to reflect on why this matters and what he wanted to let student journalists know about this whole ordeal.

Q: How did it feel when you broke the news?

A: “It was kind of frightening to have someone in City Hall that consumed with me and my reporting, but I kept my bosses in the loop the entire time and continued to do my job. I had the documents, I knew my reporting was accurate, and figured it was common for someone backed into a corner to lash out.

If I want to be a reporter on a bigger scale in a bigger city, I know people of power will continue to attack the reporter and their reporting. He stopped short of calling it “Fake News,” but it was the same attack we see in the national media. Facts are facts, and as long as I had those documents to back up my work, I knew I would be fine…

I felt kind of awkward walking into the Public Safety and Information meeting, because I was new to town and had stirred up such a controversy within my first six months as a reporter there. But shortly thereafter, the Council voted to rescind its motion accepting Voeeskuil’s rejection, and agreed to re-open negotiations with him.”

Q: I have a lot of students who believe that “important” and “impactful” journalism can only happen at really big places in big cities, but this story really did change something important in Mayville. What would you want to tell students when it comes to taking a job or doing a job in an area like yours? How can they make a difference?

A: “You never know where or when important stories are going to come up. Never. I took a job doing news at a classic rock station in Mayville, hoping to use it as a springboard to a better job right away. But what I quickly found out was that you can’t always control what happens.

I had a station in Milwaukee pass me over for a job, and took a real shot to my pride when that happened. But this story kept me going, and made me want to not only prove that station wrong, but prove that good journalism and reporting can make a difference wherever you are. With small-town papers and TV stations being bought out by giant corporations and closed down, small-town government has gotten a free pass to do whatever they want behind closed doors, in my opinion.

I think every single journalism student should know that public servants work for the community and constituents that elected them, no matter how big or small the area. Nobody should get a free pass to do whatever they want just because they think no one is watching.”

Q: If you could tell students anything about anything associated with this story, journalism in general or anything else, what would it be?

A: “Wherever there is a person in power, no matter how big or small, there’s a potential for abuse and corruption. Always. And there should always be someone there keeping that person in power in check. This story started in the Mayville Police Department, then moved to City Hall. But I never would have been able to do this story without talking to people first, then getting hard documents to back it up.

Every journalism prof at UWO hammers home this point, and it couldn’t be more true. Each and every interview gave me more insight and information than the last. I took notes, highlighted and color coded important information, then used that information to convince someone to leak the documents to me.

It was really hard coming to a new town, calling and meeting with people I had never met before in my life, and accusing them of doing things that were shady and could threaten their seat on whatever council or committee they sat on. But in the end, exposing the truth is what mattered most, and it’s what made this whole thing right.”

“I saw what real journalism could do.” Alex Crowe, a small-town scandal and the power of the pen (Part I)

The goal of most good reporters is to “move the needle” a little bit when they produce a story or a column. The idea behind this phrase is that you want your work to yield some sort of tangible outcome for the people who read, hear or see it. The work might lead to something as complex as the downfall of a president or as simple as having people donate “coats for kids.” Either way, the journalism should do something for somebody.

Alex Crowe, the news and social media director for WMDC in Mayville, Wisconsin, spent the last six months weaving himself in and out of a local story that galvanized the area, had the mayor threatening him and led to an interim police chief getting a full-time job.

Crowe arrived in Mayville in March after spending two years doing radio in Sisseton, South Dakota, a town of 2,000 people. Just before he came to Wisconsin, Mayville’s police chief, Christopher MacNeill was placed on administrative leave before abruptly signing shortly after that. A Wisconsin Department of Justice criminal complaint later surfaced that charged MacNeill with misconduct in office and obstruction in connection with the falsification of a police report. (That report pertained to the son of another police officer in Mayville, who also left department around that time to take a job in the Cudahy Police Department.)

“I thought the big story was there, so I did a lot of investigative research, but the Cudahy chief had his attorney threaten me and my station, and since we don’t have the funds to do battle in court, I was forced to drop the investigation,” Crowe said.

In an interview shortly after MacNeill resigned, Mayville Mayor Rob Boelk told Crowe he hoped the Police and Fire Commission would “Do the right thing and hire the next Chief from outside the department.” This didn’t sit well with the interim chief, Ryan Vossekuil, who released a statement to Crowe saying he planned to serve as interim chief until the PFC told him not to. It seemed all very pedestrian until Crowe said he heard from a source that things were getting weird.

“I was eventually contacted by someone in the know, who told me the mayor had placed a gag-order on the entire Mayville PD, stating that they could no longer talk to the media, and mentioned me specifically by name,” Crowe said. “The department took exception to this, because they felt all discipline should be handed out by the PFC, as outlined in Wisconsin State Statute. The tensions between the mayor and interim chief continued to fester.”

The whole thing seemed likely to end when the PFC interviewed about a dozen candidates and picked Vossekuil for the full-time chief. When Crowe called Vossekuil for a simple congratulations and follow up story, he found out Vossekuil was rejecting the offer. He showed Crowe a swath of documents that included the gag order, the contract and some email chains between him and the mayor, but to fully understand them Crowe needed copies of the documents.

“I filed an open records request with the city, but they told me no, and once again with no legal funds we were at a dead end,” he said. “Then, that person in the know who had contacted me earlier about the gag-order, asked why I had not reported on the matter yet. I said I couldn’t report without documents and solid evidence in my possession to back up my reporting. Lo and behold, the documents were leaked to me, and I began writing.”

Crowe found a contract that was filled with terms he described as “unbelievable.” It required Vossekuil to agree to a 12-month probation period, during which he could be fired any time and for any reason. He would have to waive his ability to avail himself of Wisconsin’s “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” which meant he couldn’t appeal his firing and he would lose any benefits he built up over his 15 years on the job. After he fully understood what it was the interim chief faced in this contract, Crowe said he went to work on the rest of the story.

“The main thing I did was talk to people,” he said. “Once I talked to one council member with details of the offer, they would offer me more information. All chats were off the record, but I took notes and then called the next council member with what I knew, and so on. Eventually I had an entire notebook full of names, details and information. By the time I wrote my first rough draft, I had talked with multiple members of the common council, Police and Fire Commission, the chief himself and others in law enforcement and City Hall. The only one who refused to meet was the mayor. I finally sent him a long email, telling him that I had the documents and information, and the story was going live no matter what, and that I truly wanted and needed his side before publishing. We met, and after that I thought I finally had enough information to publish my story.”

Once the story hit the air and the web, it went viral.

“It was read by over 20,000 people, more than twice the population of Mayville,” Crowe said. “The citizens mobilized, and organized a group called “Voices for Vossekuil.” They gathered at a Public Safety and Information meeting, and one citizen after another hounded the council and mayor. Finally, after an hour and a half, the mayor took the podium to speak. He trashed me and my reporting, and said it was full on inaccuracies and ‘misinformation.’ He later called my boss’ boss at Radio Plus Inc, and asked them to retract the story. After he refused, the mayor showed up at my station, unannounced to ‘apologize.’ He asked me and my boss three times to reveal my source. I did not. He called me a week later and asked me to retract my story, which I again did not. It was kind of frightening to have someone in City Hall that consumed with me and my reporting, but I kept my bosses in the loop the entire time and continued to do my job.”

After the story broke, the city council agreed to reopen negotiations with the Vossekuil on a reworked contract that didn’t contain the probationary period and added several benefits. Vossekuil accepted the new contract and is slated to be sworn in later this month.

“I felt a lot of pride, but not because I got a chief a job, but I felt pride because for the first time, I saw what real journalism could do,” Crowe said. “I saw that by investigating and reporting and continuing to simply do my job, I was able to get the truth out there and let the process work itself out. The attacks on journalism and reporting are so prevalent in our society today, and I really can’t describe the feeling of knowing I had made a difference in this community simply by reporting facts, staying opinionated and doing my job. It’s something that I’ll never forget, and something that makes me want to do this every single day for the rest of my life.”