SLAPPing around a grocery clerk: A prominent Georgia family decided to sue a service-industry worker for saying accurate things about them on social media

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bully.

Saying that, however, could have some pretty costly consequences if the Cagle family of Pickens County, Georgia has its way.

The Cagles have filed a suit against Rayven Goolsby, a grocery clerk, for criticizing them on social media for their presence at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and other statements they made on Facebook about various political and social concerns.

Goolsby’s remarks focused on Kathryn and Thelma Cagle for their alleged “central roles” in organizing busloads of attendees through the “Women for America First” tour; they also touched on William Cagle, husband of Thelma and father to Kathryn, calling him a homophobic “loser.”

Goolsby’s remarks, made in various community Facebook groups, were in reference to William Cagle musing on Facebook when the county was mulling separate bathrooms for transgender people that he did “not appreciate his tax dollars being spent on supporting indecency and a couple of FREAKS that can’t make up their mind where to take a leak.”

(Goolsby’s lawyer Andrew) Fleischman said the defamation suit against Goolsby is a way of making it expensive to criticize the Cagles — “even if the criticism is true.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid that criticizing an important person in our community could cost us thousands of dollars,” Fleischman told The Washington Post. He argued that Goolsby has truth and public interest on her side.

One of the primary things we emphasize in journalism is that if you present information that is factually accurate, you are safe from harm when it comes to libel suits and other claims of defamation. What we really mean is that you’re not going to lose a suit if you write that your governor stole $6 million from the state to build a replica of Graceland in his backyard, if you can prove that this actually happened.

That said, getting sued itself can be a painful process that will costs you time and money, while subjecting you to a great deal of anxiety and aggravation. The only real saving grace of being sued as a staff reporter is that you are working for an organization that has lawyers and managers who will take on the brunt of the costs and work with you.

As an individual operating on a social media platform, you take on the role of “publisher” without having all those helping hands and financial backstops to make life a little less terrible. That said, what we have here is pretty clearly a case of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or a SLAPP case, as anti-slapp.org explains:

These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits. SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend. To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.

We’ve talked about SLAPPs before on the blog, including the one that comedian John Oliver faced involving a coal magnate and a giant talking squirrel. To prevent this kind of thing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP laws, which can force plaintiffs to prove they’re not using the courts as a cudgel to shut people up.

According to anti-SLAPP.org, Georgia actually has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law on its books, which states that if a person is found to have engaged in a SLAPP suit, the case will be dismissed and that person is on the hook for legal fees and costs incurred by the person they “SLAPPed.”

In other words, if you have a great deal of money and plan to use it to sue someone into silence, it might end up costing you some additional cash in a way you hadn’t planned on.

Fun with FOIA! An assignment and walkthrough on open records, sunshine laws and more

A number of folks had been asking for some help with an open-records/Freedom-of-Information-Act assignment, so I thought this might be a good time to add it to the mix on the Corona Hotline help page.

What I’ve got here is the assignment my junior-level course is doing regarding open record requests. They’re required to FOIA something in a formal fashion, get the records and write something decent out of it.

(Yes, I know, “FOIA” refers to the federal government and its open records policies etc., while states have “sunshine laws” or “openness standards” or whatever else. I explain the difference, but you can’t turn “sunshine law” into a verb, which is why FOIA is much cooler…)

I’ve also uploaded some appendix work I did in advance of the second edition of the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” It lays out a basic letter and explains why it works the way it does.

(Yes, I know there are open-records templates and open-record-request generators online,  but I have them work off of something like this so they can not only get used to doing it, but to see how each piece works. It’s like the difference between buying a new carburetor and rebuilding your old one: If you take it apart and put it back together, you learn how and why it operates the way it does, which can be inordinately helpful in life.)

Students of mine have done some incredible work with this kind of thing, or just answered basic questions like “How much money does the parking department make off of expired-meter tickets?” and “How many people got busted for public urination during this year’s “Pub Crawl?” It’s less about breaking the next Watergate story and more about learning the process. In addition, it helps them figure out what kinds of things they can get and what those items can tell them.

Hope it helps!

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

Throwback Thursday: So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

This blog post from three years ago kept popping up as a “suggested read” for me on various other posts, so I think it’s the blogging gods’ way of saying it needs a rerun.

Not to get into an Academy Award speech or anything, but I have to say I’ve been really, really blessed and really, really lucky that folks seemed to take a liking to my books. I’m grateful to you all every day because, as we say in the first chapter of every book, if I don’t have an audience, nothing else matters.

The folks at SAGE sent along the cover for the upcoming third edition for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” text, which should be out this August or September, I believe. I’m finishing the copy edits now with my main man, Jim Kelly. (If anyone you know ever tells you that copy editors don’t matter, send them my way for a firm and thorough verbal beat down. Jim has saved my keester so many times, I lost track.)

In case you wanted a sneak peek, here you go:

So, without further ado (or book pimping), here’s a look at what happens when you don’t have a good marketing staff to do your research and you end up on the embarrassing end of an email exchange with someone. (Rest assured, the folks at SAGE are great at marketing, and I can pretty much already guess who’s going to email me with a reminder to “please stop using the phrase ‘book pimping’ on your blog.”)


 

So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

I understand this blog tends to skew more toward news than some folks might appreciate, given that my entire pitch for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” is that ALL disciplines of media (news, PR, Ad, marketing etc.) can get something of value out of it. The skew is due to trying to cover both the media-writing text and the news reporting and writing text in one spot. It also also comes from the idea that a lot of things people perceive as “news” things are actually valuable for all media, including skills like interviewing, research, inverted-pyramid writing and so forth. Finally, it seems that news folks tend to make more public mistakes than do some of the other disciplines, so I get more content there. (If you want me to hit on more topics in the PR/Ad/Marketing stuff, feel free to pitch me some thoughts. I’d love to do it.)

That said, occasionally there is a specific foul up in a specific part of the field that bears some analysis. Consider that when you look at this email I got the other day. I redacted the identifiers as best I could:

Dear Professor Filak,

​Greetings from (COMPANY NAME)! ​I hope this finds you well. In the coming months, (AUTHOR NAMES) will begin to revise the twelfth edition of their introductory journalism text, (REPORTING BOOK NAME). ​This text strives to give students the knowledge and skills they need to master the nuts and bolts of news stories, as well as guidance for landing a job in an evolving journalism industry.
Right now we are seeking instructors to review the twelfth edition of (REPORTING BOOK NAME) ​a​nd provide feedback. This input is invaluable to us, ​as it ​giv​es​ us a greater sense of how to best address both instructor and student needs. ​If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon, would you be interested in offering your feedback?
If you would like to review, please respond to this email and let me know if you will need a copy of the printed text. You should plan to submit your comments via TextReviews by 2/6/18. In return for your help, we would like to offer you (MONEY).
At your earliest convenience, kindly respond to this e-mail to let me know if you are available and interested in participating. ​Again, please let me know if you will need a copy of (REPORTING BOOK NAME)
I’m always happy to help people and I’m not averse to making a buck by pretending to know what I’m talking about, but this felt both awkward and ridiculous. One of the things both “Dynamics” books push a lot is the idea of making sure you know what you’re talking about before you ask a question. The books also push the idea of researching your audience members so you know how best to approach them. Either the person writing this email didn’t do that or just didn’t care.
Here’s how I know that: It’s called “Google.”
Had this person done even a basic search on me she would have learned several things:
  • I am teaching the courses they associate with this book. I teach nothing but these courses, as you can find on the UWO journalism department website. The line of “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” tells me I’m on a list somewhere and this is a form email at best.
  • I wrote several books, including one that is likely to be some form of competition for this book. (I’m not saying it will be as good or better or anything, but my title includes words like “news,” “reporting” and “writing,” so it’s a pretty safe bet we’re vying for the same students.) This was literally one of the top five items on the first page of my Google search. She also sent her message the same day I got this alert from Amazon:NumberOne
    (I have no idea how Amazon quantifies “#1 New Release in Journalism” but I’ll take it.)

    The point is, it wasn’t a secret, so it appeared that she didn’t look me up and was like the guy at the bar telling me, “Hey, see that babe over there? I’m totally going to score with her!” and I’m like, “Uh, dude, that’s my wife…”
    On the other hand, maybe she did look me up, found the book and asked anyway, which is like the even-worse guy at the bar who’s saying, “Hey man, your wife is pretty hot. Any chance you can give me some tips on how to score with her?”

Thinking about all of that for a moment, I did the polite thing and emailed back, explaining how I felt this would be a conflict of interest (it is), and that any advice I gave her would be likely be somewhat problematic as the author of a competing book (it is).  I also noted that I know the book she is pitching well (I do) and I know the authors well (I do), so this would also be a bit awkward for me (it really is). Here was her email back to me, which again made me think she wasn’t actually reading this:

Hi Professor Filak,

Thanks so much for letting me know. We will certainly keep you in mind for future projects!

So, again, the point of the blog isn’t to beat people up for doing things poorly but rather to offer advice on how to do things better. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Research first, then write: You don’t have to do an Ancestry.com profile on every person to whom you market or with whom you engage in outreach, but it’s not hard to Google someone. Most people put more social-media stalking effort into learning about the “new kid” at school than this person put into finding out about me. In marketing, you often have access to proprietary data as well, so you can find out if this person had any previous engagement with your organization. In my case, I used that book for more than a decade and still keep up with it, so that might have been something she could have found.
  • Personalize when possible: If you are sending out 100,000 requests for something like a survey and you are expecting a 10 percent response, you will not have the ability to personalize all of the information on everyone’s card or email. That makes sense. However, when you are microtargeting a group of people with a specific set of skills or interests and that group isn’t going to overwhelm a data center, work on personalizing your content. That line about “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” could have easily been tweaked to say something like, “I see you have taught writing and reporting courses at UW-Oshkosh…” and it wouldn’t have taken much. Making these minor tweaks shows that you have done your research. Engaging in some personalized communication shows your readers you care enough to see them as individuals as opposed to a wad of names on a spreadsheet.
  • Try not to screw up, but if you do, don’t ignore it: The one thing that stuck with me when I got that response email from her was that I didn’t think she figured out what she was actually asking me or why it was weird. I had that feeling that if I had written her back and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do this because I’ve just been placed in an intergalactic prison for the rest of my life for murdering a flock of Tribbles with a phaser I set to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun,’” I would have gotten the exact same email back. The whole exchange really reminded me of this scene:
 The thing that is important to realize is that you are going into a field that has two important and scary things going for it:
  1. It’s small enough that you’re really about two degrees of separation from everyone else, so people know other people.
  2. People in the field love to talk.

If you end up screwing up because you didn’t do the first two things suggested above, don’t compound the problem.

I have no idea if I’ll ever get approached by this publisher to review anything, but I know I will always carry with me the memory of this interaction. Had it been a great interaction, that would have been good for the publisher. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Hill He Chose to Die On: Ex-NY Times Reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. uses about 21,000 words to explain how one word cost him his job

My friend Allison and I spent much of the past 25 years talking each other out of doing pathologically dumb things. When it seemed one of us was on the precipice of jumping off Mount Stupid into Idiocy Lake, the other would ask a simple question:

“Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?”

It’s the question that kept us out of a lot of trouble because it asked us to open the aperture of our lens, pull way out on the shot and look at the totality of what we were doing. It essentially asked, “If everything goes wrong, nothing works out right and you get every bad outcome, are you OK with this choice you are about to make?”

In most cases, the answer was “no,” so we went back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. On rare occasion, the answer was “yes,” so we gave it everything we got and hoped for the best, or at least prayed to avoid the worst.

I thought about that today because Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times decided to make a stand amid increasing scrutiny regarding complaints about his use of language in front of high school students. He found out the hard way that, sometimes, when you say you’re willing to die on that hill, that’s exactly what happens.

The Daily Beast decided to run a piece on McNeil last month that focused on a trip he took to Peru with a group of high-school students in 2019. The students and their parents complained at the time about his activities there, according to the article, including his use of “wildly offensive and racists comments.” In that article, the authors cite at least two student complaints that he used the “N-word,” a charge McNeil didn’t deny.

The paper investigated the incident when it occurred and basically did very little in terms of punitive measures. McNeil received a letter of reprimand that stated he would not represent The Times on any more of trips of that kind and that if he screwed up again, he’d get punished and perhaps terminated.

When The Daily Beast came calling for a comment in February, the paper went into crisis mode and begged McNeil to basically apologize for everything anyone involved in that situation accused him of doing. McNeil declined to do so for a variety of reasons, which eventually led him to become an “ex-New York Times” writer as of March 1.

A situation involving a white person using a racist term and subsequently receiving life-altering punishment isn’t new or novel. What does make this situation different, however, is that McNeil decided to outline the entirety of the event and the subsequent fall out from it in a four-part essay on Medium.

McNeil took to Medium to outline his case for what happened on that fateful trip to Peru and why he decided to resign.

The series runs about 21,000 words and McNeil notes that it was vetted by two lawyers prior to publication. A kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this can be found in articles written for the New York Times and The Daily Beast.

McNeil relies on emails, notes and other artifacts from the 2019 situation, noting spots where his memory was used to fill in gaps or clarify situations. He also states that he built this based on fact, not opinion, although that’s clearly not always the case. When you are the lens through which you ask readers to view something, it’s tough to say the picture you create is perfectly representative of reality.

That said, I would recommend anyone to give this a read, along with the coverage of McNeil’s response. It’s a different experience to see something of this length discussing a topic of this type, especially in today’s 24/7, 280-character, InstaPot news cycle.

I read it at least twice from top to bottom and thought it probably could lose about 20% without missing much. McNeil gets repetitive in his statements, particularly in his efforts to explain how and why a sexagenarian found himself using the most disgusting racial pejorative in front of a group of high school students. It also gets a little too far into some “inside baseball” in regard to the NYT, its guild, personal conflicts and more.

Here are a few other takeaways:

IS WE LEARNING YET?: It can’t be said loudly enough, often enough, in enough venues and in enough situations, but we’ll try this once again for the white guys who might not have heard this the first 843,534,233,901 times someone has said this…

DON’T. USE. THAT. WORD. EVER.

I can’t state this with absolute certainty, but if I had to place a bet on this, I’d wager that if McNeil had done all the other things he copped to but NOT said that word, he’d probably still be working at the Times.

According to the essay, which is the only source for this particular aspect of the situation, a student on the trip used that word in a question to McNeil regarding some social media video that had landed some other kid in trouble. McNeil then repeated the term in asking for context about its usage for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

The degree to which this situation is right, fair or anything else, is completely up for debate among people much smarter and better than me. That said, once that word entered the picture, it was like so many other “third-rail topics” we’ve discussed here over the years.

McNeil noted in his writing that he didn’t see himself as a racist and that he’d been to more than 60 countries in his decades-long career at the Times. I’m sure both of those things are true, in that he doesn’t see himself that way and that he isn’t an uneducated, xenophobic rube who views anyone not born within six miles of their family homestead with suspicion.

What’s also true is that he damned well should have known better than to use that word.

THE NYT IS FULL OF COWARDLY WEASELS: I’ve read several “exposes” on the Times before, including “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin, which looks at the Jayson Blair scandal and the paper’s horrible history on the issue of race. The paper often takes a beating for some pretty good reasons in regard to not being as representative, forward-thinking or enlightened when it comes to this issue and several others of similar importance.

That said, it’s still the New York FRICKIN’ Times. It’s the big boy on the block, the 800-pound gorilla in the room and the standard bearer for the concept of free press and its value to our society. It wins Pulitzer Prizes by the boatload for the sheer dint of being the Times and for having the tenacity of a dog with a Frisbee when it comes to important journalistic endeavors. Its name is on some of the most important Supreme Court cases of our time and it is the go-to for people who still believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Yet, when a tripe-filled Dumpster fire like The Daily Beast decides to report a story two years after the event itself, utilizing the reportorial skill set of the former editor of the National Enquirer to do so, this bastion of First Amendment prowess decides to run around looking for a bed to hide under?

Gimme a break.

Gimme another one if the story that McNeil told about the run up to his ouster from the paper is in any way close to accurate. In outlining his meeting with the administrative big-wigs, McNeil states that the paper wasn’t going to fire him, but they encouraged him to “think about” resigning over this.

McNeil’s answer was right on the money: If I resign, I’m basically copping to all of this and agreeing that I am the a–hole this story says I am. (McNeil liberally refers to himself as an a–hole throughout his pieces, so I don’t think he’d mind me stealing from his act here.)

As quoted in the McNeil essays, executive editor Dean Baquet told McNeil he had “lost the newsroom” and that people wouldn’t work with him because of this situation. What followed was essentially the NYT brass saying, “Will you pleeeeeease think about MAYBE just resigning? Please?”

Look, if you really think this guy should no longer work for your paper because he did something so horrible that nobody will work with him, grab yourself some guts and fire this guy. Just step out and say, “I don’t care what the situation, circumstance or context is. If you say that word or commit offenses like these, you will not work here. That’s the long and short of it.” Don’t ask the guy to throw himself in front of a bus because you’re too scared to make a move.

If you DON’T think this is a fireable offense, and you think the newsroom is really about to break out the pitchforks and torches, have the guts to stand up and say, “I don’t like what he said or did, but I’m not going to let two twerps from a glorified blog push around an institution as venerable and storied as ours. Neither should you. If you really have a problem with this guy or this situation, stand up, tell him and hash it out. If you can’t do that, go LiveJournal it out of your head or send some ‘unnamed source’ comments to one of your friends at another publication, but that’s going to be the end of it. I’m standing up for the paper and I’d stand up for any one of you who suddenly saw your entire career flash before your eyes, so let’s get back to work.”

If your paper can take on the Nixon White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, it can weather this storm.

AWARE, NOT TERRIFIED, SHOULD BE THE PREFERRED STATE OF BEING: Stop for a moment and realize that every second you are alive could be your last one. Any one of a million or more things could kill you, both from the inside (cancer, heart disease, brain aneurysm) or the outside (car accident, fire). You are not guaranteed anything, nor will you likely know the moment at which you will cease to exist.

If you want to come to grips with that information, you can go one of two ways: Awareness or terror.

If you choose awareness, you can make smarter decisions about how you live life. You can quit smoking, eat better and work out with the hopes of driving down the risks associated with those potential internal killers. You can employ safety measures like buckling up each time you ride in a car, avoiding texting and driving and apply maintenance to your car that will make it safer to drive. Again, there are no guarantees, but it puts you in a better position to extend your life than NOT doing these things.

If you choose terror, you’re going to see potential death around every corner. You’ll obsess about every twitch in your body as the early warning sign of something that WebMD will confirm as cancer. You’ll lock yourself in a house like Miss Havisham and coat yourself in bubble wrap to avoid potentially fatal incidents. In short, you’ll basically stop living your life in hopes of prolonging it.

I thought a lot about this in reading the pieces McNeil wrote because I honestly worry that people are going to see what happened here and drop into terror mode when it comes to the complex issues that really need to be addressed in our society. If we are constantly afraid that anything we do could come back and bite us in the keester, we’re never going to go outside of our comfort zones. We’re going to cower in a corner and worry that every offense is a death penalty offense, so let’s just not go there.

Being aware of the needs of others, the pain people can cause each other and the perspectives of others means that we’re going to behave in a way that tries to create improvements in society. Being terrified that we’re going to get whacked in an instant, no matter how many positive marks we have on our side of the ledger, is going to lead to a lot more people who know a lot less about a lot of other people.

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR CHOOSING YOUR HILL: I don’t know how any of you feel about this situation or anything I’ve written about it. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to feel about a lot of it.

What I do know is that McNeil has a lot more courage than I do.

He could have done what was asked of him. He could have said how he was sorry and that he’s going to attend some training or something and that he never should have thought about that word or those things or anything and just promised that he’d do the right thing, whatever that was, the next time he faced this situation, the Good Lord willing.

Instead, he said, “This is my hill. Win or lose, I’m willing to die here.”

Say what you want to about the choice, but there is something to be said for having the courage to decide that this is where you want to make your stand.

So many of us are willing to acquiesce to whatever others want because we are fearful of what will happen if we rock the boat. We sell out at the first sign of danger. To quote George Carlin’s line about getting mugged, we essentially say, “Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone!”

McNeil went the other way and it cost him everything he’d spent decades building in a career he’d had since the term “copy boy” was an actual thing.

There’s something to be said for that, regardless of if you think he made the right choice.

The Junk Drawer: A Whole Lotta Awkward Edition

It just dawned on me that there are about six rolls of Scotch Tape in here…

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

OLIVIA MUNN, ASSAULT SUSPECT? We talk about misplaced modifiers all the time here on the site, ranging from the underwear thief who was apparently threatening underpants to politicians who “plan to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the Capitol.”  Here’s one that caught me at first and I really didn’t know which way was up:

The way this reads, it sounds like Olivia Munn jumped in and helped with a beat down, something we could totally understand, given her “Newsroom” character Sloan Sabbith’s bad-ass nature:

The truth is, Munn helped identify the guy who did the attacking, as this other media outlet’s story clearly shows.

If I were the folks at Now This, I’d fix this before she makes it to the rage phase.

Speaking of misconstruing things….

HAL HOLBROOK, PORN STAR?: The legendary actor Hal Holbrook died on Feb. 2 at the age of 95. He was well known for multiple roles he did, especially his portrayal of Mark Twain in his one-man show that ran for decades.

In looking at one publication’s announcement of his death, I had to do a double-take, though, wondering if he’d actually had a side hustle in the adult-film industry:

The reference here to him as a “Deep Throat actor” had me gagging (sorry, had to…) because of what it was saying: He was an actor in the film “Deep Throat.” (For those of you who don’t know, “Deep Throat” was a hardcore porn film, starring Linda Lovelace that became the most successful adult film in history. Research this on your own, as I’m not even THINKING about adding a link here… )

What ACTUALLY happened was that Holbrook was an actor in “All The President’s Men,” where he PLAYED the unnamed source that kept feeding Woodward and Bernstein information about the Watergate scandal. The source, who eventually was revealed to be W. Mark Felt of the FBI, was given the “code name” of “Deep Throat.”

Thus, there’s a big difference between an actor PORTRAYING Deep Throat and an actor PARTICIPATING in Deep Throat.

Speaking of things going wrong…

IF YOU THINK ZOOMBOMBING IS BAD: Students often have “Joe Jobs” that pay the rent (and the bar tab) at a variety of bars, restaurants, stores and more, thus giving them a keen eye for thing that are happening that the rest of us might miss. These moments of “REALLY?!?!” can lead to some great stories.

Case in point: We were talking about this kind of thing in my reporting class, when a student mentioned he worked at Walmart. I asked him if he noticed any trends in terms of people shopping differently, certain items going out of stock more recently or any other such thing. He replied, “No, but we’ve been having some situations with the TVs, now that people have figured out they’re all Bluetooth compatible.”

Turns out, people walking past the TVs notice that their mobile devices want to sync with the big screens, a great feature if you’re at home and you want to show your friends a phone video you shot of your class project or something.  When you’re at Walmart? With a wall full of screens that you can control and nobody can figure out who is doing it?

(If you don’t see where this is going yet, you might want to skip J-School and get going on that successful career in the “naturally oblivious” industry…)

“We’ve been seeing a lot of-” (I stopped him here and begged him to remember I was recording this for the online kids and that I really liked my job) “- ADULT WEBSITES on those screens,” he said.

Walmart has been trying to figure out how to deal with this (and the displeasure of parents who now have a lot of explaining to do to their  grade-schoolers) all to no avail. Could be worth a couple calls.

And, finally, speaking of dogged reporting…

AN UPDATE ON PAT SIMMS: Last week, I posted a piece about one of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet, Pat Simms, and her bout with cancer. Folks with a much longer history with Pat also shared their thoughts and stories about her, with a lot of them focusing on her toughness. (“My favorite Pat technique was ‘umbrage,'” a long-time colleague of hers told me. “She could, with a look, tell a politician that no, I don’t believe that for a minute.”)

Pat’s daughter, Sara, has set up a Caringbridge account for people who want updates on her situation or to share supportive and kind messages with her.

I made a point of emailing Sara the link to the piece I wrote, so she could share it with Pat. Sara told me she enjoyed it and that she mentioned it to her mom. The reaction was classic Pat:

I told her about it and she said it was so nice but ‘ I’m not dead yet ‘

 

 

Throwback Thursday: 4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

If you bet the one-month line and took the under for “When would my department get its first confirmed case of plagiarism,” please feel free to collect your winnings at the nearest cashier’s window. A student who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with searchlight and a posse apparently turned into Ernest Hemingway in a discussion post for one of my colleague’s classes.

It was so obvious, even other students noticed this and were contacting the prof about it. The even dumber thing was that this discussion was worth TWO POINTS toward the final class grade. So, essentially, the kid put his grade, his class standing and his future at the university in jeopardy over 1/50th of a course outcome.

What was he thinking? Clearly not much.

To keep your students from making the same mistakes as this kid, here’s a look back at a classic post on why cheating in journalism is stupid:

4 Self-Serving Reasons Not to Cheat in a Journalism Course

At the beginning of each semester, most professors I know give some version of the “Don’t Cheat” lecture. We explain the university policies about cheating and how we can make your life so miserable that you will wish you had never been born. We outline the logical reasoning behind avoiding unethical behavior and try to guilt you into acting right.

And right about now is where we start to notice that none of that really sunk in for some of our students.

Somewhere between midterms and finals week is where I tend to find whatever cheating I’m likely to notice over the span of a semester. It’s always the same: The student who couldn’t write a sentence with a subject and a verb is suddenly putting Bob Woodward to shame. The kid who spent the last two weeks in our “draft” sessions with nothing done suddenly produces a magnum opus in two days. The story I get from a student that seems shockingly familiar for some reason, mainly because his roommate turned in the same thing last semester.

It’s also the same when the students are confronted. They go through all five stages of grief in about three minutes: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It’s gotten so bad that I keep tissues hidden in my office for that exact moment when a student suddenly realizes there is no way out and tears begin flowing. (For the record, men cry as much or more than women do when the stuff hits the fan like this.)

Since journalism is always about telling people “What’s in it for me?”, consider these four self-serving reasons why you shouldn’t cheat, least of all in a journalism course:

  1. You have much worse odds of getting away with it: Students have come up with so many great ways of cheating on various tests, projects, quizzes and assignments, it gives me hope for the future in terms of innovation. There are the water bottle labels with the answers printed on them. There is the “phone/texting” thing that students have developed over the years. There are “cheat sheets” and “crib notes” written in places that defy logic.
    Many journalism classes, however, are performance based and skill structured, so it’s not about memorizing things and regurgitating them, so those tricks don’t always apply. Instead, students tend to plagiarize from published material, use stuff from sources that don’t exist or otherwise “improvise” their ways around their writing assignments and tests.
    Here’s the problem with that: Journalists and journalism professors (a.k.a. former journalists) are naturally suspicious, so they have a harder time believing that you managed to track down the governor for a sit-down interview on deadline. They are trained researchers, so they know how to fact check and verify stuff through a number of platforms beyond “TurnItIn.” They usually have connections with sources in the area, so it’s not a stretch to imagine them calling up a city council rep, a high school football coach or an administrator and asking, “Hey, did you have an interview with someone in my course and say XYZ?”
    The whole purpose of being a journalist is to dig past the BS veneer that people show us and get to the heart of the truth.
    We live for this. And trust me, our ability to dig is better than your ability to hide at this point in your career.
  2. You really piss us off and trust us, you don’t want that: When journalists dig into something, we are like a dog with a Frisbee: We just don’t let go. Most of the time, when someone lies to us, we are desperate to dig even deeper to determine how bad this is and what else that person might be lying about.
    We will be bound and determined to dig into EVERY, SINGLE, OTHER thing you have EVER written for us and see if there is ANYTHING you did that fits this pattern of plagiarism. We will talk to colleagues about you to see if you were in their classes and see if they had any inclination that you might not be producing work that is on the level. We will look to see what penalties are available and how far this can all go.
    The reason is that we operate in a field where trust is earned and all you have is your reputation. If you throw that all away over a crappy assignment in a single college course, what’s going to happen when you get out in the field? Even more, if you go out there with a degree from our institution and people know you had us as professors, how will that reflect on us when you do something this pathologically stupid on the job? Those kinds of thoughts keep a lot of us up at night, not out of fear but out of anger. We are not about to let our field slide into the Dumpster (or further into the Dumpster) because you cheated when you felt “overwhelmed” by your six extracurricular activities and the death of your goldfish. In most cases, professors will be far more forgiving if you essentially tell them everything up front when you can’t complete an assignment. If you cheat, we have a burning desire to make sure you don’t get away with it.
  3. Two degrees of separation: The concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” explains that we are all somehow connected to every other person on Earth through no more than six links. In the field of journalism, however, that linkage is a lot shorter.
    I have done no definitive work on this, but if I had to guess, I’d say those of us in journalism are probably operating within two or three degrees. Case in point happened this weekend at the college media convention I attended: I was reviewing a student newspaper from Florida when I mentioned that I had a number of former students working in the state. One of the students said that she was in frequent contact with an editor of a particular newspaper. I recognized the name immediately as one of my former students and did the old “humblebrag” thing about it. “Really?” the student asked, her eyes lighting up. “Could you tell her you met me and that I’m really interested in the paper?” She was a smart kid and I liked what I had read in her stories I was critiquing, so I said sure. I dashed off a simple email to my former student about this woman and moved on with life. Today, I got this message back: 

    Vince,

    Small world!

    We are considering her for a spring internship. Your recommendation just put her at the top of list.

    Hope you are doing well.

    I honestly don’t know if my email helped or if maybe the editor was trying to make me feel good about myself, but the underlying point remains: In the most random place and set of circumstances possible in journalism, I was linked to two people in the field like that. This kind of connection is invaluable in our field if the word on the street about you is good. If you plagiarize and get caught, the word on the street spreads as well and, simply put, everybody in this field seems to know everybody else somehow. The “A” you got on that plagiarized assignment better be worth knowing that you will never get a job because everywhere you go, someone will know someone who knows about it.

  4. You will never really recover: My dad was fond of telling me that if I ever planned to steal something, I shouldn’t steal a candy bar from a store. Instead, I should steal the whole store, as in when the owner came back the next day, all that was left would be a basement and some wires sticking out of the ground. The reason Dad had for this was simple: If you steal something, no matter how big or small, you’re a thief. If you’re going to steal and ruin your life, you might as well do it for something that matters.
    Obviously, his point wasn’t that I should go big or go home, but rather that if I took that path of thievery, I’d never be able to recover everything I lost because of the stupid choice I made. The same is true in plagiarism, cheating and more.
    The famous cases are always the ones your professors roll out for you during the semester: Stephen Glass, the wunderkind of the New Republic, who falsified dozens of stories before being forced out in disgrace. He is now a graduate of law school who still can’t practice law because of his prior transgressions. Jayson Blair, the rising star at the New York Times, who supposedly broke stories about the D.C. sniper case, turned out to be a serial liar. He now lives in Virginia and said he knows he could never go back to journalism because of the trust he broke. Janet Cooke, who wrote a compelling tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict name Jimmy, returned the Pulitzer Prize she won after it turned out she made him up. Today, as the story linked above notes, she lives in the U.S. and works in a field not associated with writing.
    Beyond those “big names” are the day-in, day-out foul ups that cost people everything. I was on an ethics panel last week when one of my fellow panelists told a story of a student who made things up or plagiarized content. His name was so clearly bad in the field, he ended up legally changing it.
    I still have the “ethical agreement” one of our writers signed at the student paper shortly before he made up an entire softball story. We only caught him because someone on the sports desk was roommates with a guy who was dating a softball player and she mentioned it in passing. I have no idea what ever happened to that guy after we fired him, but I do pull out that agreement from time to time and show students. His name is etched in their minds as a cautionary tale.

Interestingly for me, I find that this kind of stuff happens most with my upper-level classes. Freshmen and sophomores screw up occasionally by bumping into a problem when they don’t know any better. However, it’s the seniors who are getting ready to graduate that actively cheat. Why? My theories vary.
Look, we all get it. Everyone in journalism has felt the pressure at one point in time. Deadline is approaching, we get caught short and we figure, “If I can just cut this corner this one time, I’ll survive.” The truth is, it’s not worth it. If you screw up that assignment, the worst that happens to you is that you fail that one piece or that one test. If you cheat on that assignment, everything gets so much worse.

I love Pat Simms, and I’d like to ask all of you to love her, too

Trying to tell a story about Pat Simms is like trying to paint a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci: You are working in the master’s medium, the master is awe inspiring and you’ll never perform half as well as they would.

Here’s a screen capture of Craig Schreiner’s photo of Pat that ran when she retired a decade ago. I tried desperately to find a different image, but I hope my former colleagues at the State Journal won’t come after me for a copyright violation.

For 42 years, she broke barrier after barrier at the Wisconsin State Journal, as she put the fear of God in her sources and told her audience what they needed to know most. She was constantly ahead of the curve, becoming one of the first women in the newsroom and definitely the first one who got maternity leave. She was a coiled steel spring who would hold her own against the men who wondered why she was “allowed” in what had previously been an all-boys club. She could also bring the heat at sources who thought they could pat her on the head and send her on her way with a fluffy soundbite.

The legendary newsroom story about Pat is of her strapping on a gas mask to cover the Vietnam War protests at UW-Madison at the beginning her career at the paper. At the end of it, she was covering the Act 10 protests at the State Capitol. In between, she was a reader’s dream and a weaselly source’s nightmare.

This week, I got a message from a friend that almost stopped my heart:

“Pat Simms is in hospice with uterine cancer. We all thought she could beat it with chemo. It spread. I am sad beyond words.”

Her daughter reached out to her former colleagues at the paper with this message:

We would like you to inform fellow journalists about my mom’s condition at this time.
In January my mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer. We were optimistic that with chemotherapy it would be treatable. Unfortunately we have received some bad news.
New scans were done and the cancer has now spread to her lungs. We need to stop the chemo because her body can’t take it. And we can’t do radiation because you can’t radiate the whole lungs. So we are now focusing on quality of life. We are going to get a second opinion so we will see what they say. But for now we are preparing for living out her days at home with calm and as comfortable as possible.
They have given her about 6 months.

When I was at the State Journal in mid-1990s, the desk I shared with the day-shift GA reporter was right next to Pat’s. Our computers faced each other and consisted of old ugly hard drives and giant beige monitors that were so tall you couldn’t see the person across from you. Still, I could hear every conversation Pat had, as her phone was constantly ringing with tips, scoops and “guess-what-I-heard” insights.

At that time, she was writing her “Snoop” column, which served as a mix of Page Six style gossip and a floodlight of attention she shone on area hypocrisy. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the mug shot that ran with each column: She had her chin resting on her hand and her eyes sparkled with an “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” look.

The sheer volume of people who called her in a day would be enough to stop a speeding 18-wheeler in its tracks. People from all over the place called in to tip her about some shady deal, some hushed-up arrest or some bizarre tale. It was every day, all day that she took call after call and listened to these people, some of whom I’m absolutely certain were just bat-shit nuts.

Somehow, she was able to parse fact from crap, truth from political hatchetry and interesting content from inside baseball. How she was able to fact check all of those insane stories people shared with her was beyond me.

Whenever I thought I had gotten an exclusive tip on something and I was explaining it to an editor, the answer was almost always, “Oh, yeah. That ran in Snoop on (fill in the day).” It got to the point where I read Pat’s column first every day so I would stop looking like an idiot by pitching old news. On the extremely rare occasion where I did have something she hadn’t heard, her head would pop up like a Whack-A-Mole over the top of those computer monitors and she’d be asking questions of me, trying to figure out what I knew and how she hadn’t heard it first.

When I left the paper to head off to Mizzou, Pat congratulated me, but went out of her way to remind me that her alma mater, Northwestern, was the best J-school in the country. If it produced journalists like Pat, it was really hard to disagree.

The last time I saw Pat was a little more than two years ago. Out of the clear blue sky, I got an email from her that simply read: “I just decided to use your book as the textbook for my Fall Introduction to Journalism class. How about that?”

In her “retirement” she had taken on a job as a journalism professor at Edgewood College in Madison, where she had also started advising student media. She told me she’d been reading the blog and that’s why she picked my book. She asked if I was going to be at the state media convention and if we could talk about the book and her class.

When we met up, she grilled me like I was a source. It was all “How does this work?” and “So, why would I include this in the syllabus?” and “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Explain it again.”

It was incredible to me because I wanted to say, “You’re Pat FRICKIN’ Simms. The kids in your class are going to pick up about 50 IQ points by just being near you. The hell do you need me for?”

Still, there she was, seven years into retirement, 50 years into her journalism career, trying something new. She was bound and determined to learn how best to ply her trade.  She was going to make absolutely certain that she did it right and that she left no stone unturned in making that happen.

Pat’s daughter asked people to share stories about Pat to buoy her spirit. The stories I have pale in comparison to those of people who knew her longer and better, but in the few years I spent with my computer terminal butted against hers at the State Journal, she made a profound impact on me. Here are two memories that still stick with me:

“THEY’RE YOUR STORIES. GO DO THEM.”

I worked nights and weekends at the paper. During the nights, we had a consistent crew of me from 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., a specific swing-shift reporter from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and the night city editor from godknowswhen to godknowswhen. Weekends were a different story, in that I was always there on Sundays from 10 to 6, but the reporter and the editor were always changing, based on who got stuck taking a reporting turn that day.

One Sunday, I got a call from someone who complained that there were recruiting pamphlets for the Ku Klux Klan in a free newspaper rack outside of a local grocery store. I was ready to rush out there when I got another call from someone telling me that a tagger or group of taggers had basically destroyed the side of a Walgreens on campus with spray paint.

I went to the grocery store, got the last two copies of the Klan brochures and interviewed the store manager. I then stopped outside of the Walgreens to take some notes when a kid in a trench coat stopped and asked me, “Do you like that stuff?”

I told him I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other, but I wanted to know more about it. He then opened up his coat and showed me a couple cans of spray paint stuffed into his inside pockets.

I interviewed the tagger kid, who gave me some great stuff and I got back to the newsroom just in time to catch a call from the editor who was coming in later that day. He asked me if anything was going on and I told him all about the two stories I had.

“OK, Simms is coming in about an hour from now,” he told me. “Give her the pick of those two stories and you do the other one.”

My heart sank, as I was wondering which one she was going to pick. They were both REALLY good stories and I knew they would be byline-worthy. No matter which one she got, Pat’s story was going to be amazing and way better than what I could have done.

Pat showed up about a half hour later in a rush, as usual. She was unloading her purse and coat at her desk when I told her about the two stories and how she was supposed to pick one of them.

“You do them both,” she said. “Ralph Hanson died and I need to do an obit.”

Hanson was the former police chief at UW-Madison, who ran the department during the 1960s and 1970s. He was famously involved in the Dow protest in 1967 and the Black Student Strike of 1969.

Pat had gotten a tip (as she always did) and was pulling sources from her files to write his obituary. Still, Pat could have written that piece, my two pieces and probably another story during her shift and done it without breaking a sweat.

“But the editor said-” I began.

“They’re YOUR stories,” she told me. “Go do them. I’ll tell (the editor) when he gets here what’s going on.”

The KKK story made the top of the front page and led every newscast the next day. The tagging story was on the local section’s front cover. Both had my bylines. It was the greatest day I’d ever had as a professional writer.

One thing that I still treasure about that day was how Pat treated me as an equal. She was quite literally doing professional journalism before I was born, and yet in her way of thinking, we were just two reporters in a newsroom, banging out stories and waiting for an editor to show up. The way she saw it, I caught the story, I did the work and I should keep going on it.

The other thing, however, was that she had a sense as to how much this really mattered to me. I was 21, had less than a year in at the paper and barely got any bylines. Pat’s byline file was crammed with so much great stuff, that I doubt she would even remember either of these two stories. For me, it was the kind of thing that would have me buying a dozen extra copies of the paper to send to my parents and grandparents.

To not only give me ownership of those stories, but to “tell the editor” that they were my stories (a concept for me that, at the time, was like trying to set God straight about a few things) showed me something important: It was possible to be the big dog while not making someone else feel like the runt of the litter.

Ever since that day, I always looked for the opportunity to do that for someone else, which is probably why I ended up in education. I wanted to aid in those moments that made someone desperate to pick up a phone and call home to say, “The best thing just happened!”

 

“WE’RE GOING OUT.”

I had broken off my engagement with a city council rep, something that was awkward personally and professionally. Given that I had to tell my employers we were in a relationship, I now had to tell them we were no longer an item. It was a messy situation and I wasn’t handling things really well.

Around that time, Pat was going through some personal turmoil as well. We were bantering over our life misfortunes when she got out of her chair and poked her head over the top of our computer monitors.

“Are you on the desk Saturday night?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“We’re going out.”

She said she had four tickets for a comedy club opening and she’d given two of them to a couple of her friends. She wanted me to go with her because “you need a laugh.”

We got to this club and a few things became clear.

First, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew Pat. It was like going somewhere with the pope.

People were coming up to her from every direction to tell her something or ask her something. The club owner told her the club area wouldn’t open for a few more minutes, but she could wait in this little area to the side so she wouldn’t be bothered. Pat refused, staying right in the middle of the action and talking to anyone who came within shouting distance.

Second, she had some serious pull. We got escorted to this table that is up front and slightly left of center. A friend of mine later explained that this was the best table in a club, because they usually seated VIPs there. Comedians were told not to bother these people with their shtick. Thus, while some poor guy from Baraboo was being berated for living “in that city with the (expletive) clowns” and the bride in a bachelorette party got ripped on for using a “penis sipper cup,” we remained unscathed.

Also, when Pat’s “friends” arrived with the other two tickets, it turned out to be our congressman and his wife. Looking at that table, I felt like the answer to a game of “Which one of these is not like the other?”

At the end of the night, where I laughed until I hurt,  the congressman picked up the check for us. Pat and I walked out together, reliving some of the better bits from the comics as people were still trying to get a moment of her time. I got to feel like a big shot for a moment simply by being in Pat’s general vicinity.

Pat was probably the most perceptive reporter I’ve ever been near, but that night she made clear she also was an extremely perceptive human being with wide streak of humanity and empathy to match. She could have asked a hundred other people to take that ticket or just decided to give the pair away and stay home that night. Instead, she used it in a way that still resonates for me.

She saw I was broken and she took the opportunity to salve my soul.

Contrary to what you might believe based on the word count, I had trouble trying to write this. My memories and stories with Pat happened years or decades ago, but to refer to her in a past tense felt almost shameful to me.

Pat isn’t a “was.” She is an “is.” And no matter what happens going forward, she will continue to be one.

That’s what happens when you spend your life making things better for people through your work, your craft and your sheer force of will. The lives Pat continues to influence are like seeds planted in premium soil, growing strong because of her. I know that, because I like to think I’m one of them.

It’s never too late to tell people how much they matter, so that’s what I’ve tried to do here. I’ve flailed about a bit and probably overwritten in spots because Pat matters so much more than my skills can accurately explain.

As I said, it’s really hard working in the master’s craft.

But I hope Pat knows I love her dearly and will be thinking of her always.

Student Press Law Center’s Interviews With Top Student Newspaper Editors at HBCUs

As part of its coverage of both Student Press Freedom Day and Black History Month, the Student Press Law Center has interviewed the top editors of student newspapers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The first interview, conducted with Oyin Adedoyin, editor-in-chief of the Spokesman at Morgan State University, talks about how the paper has provided audience-centric content to readers with a strong interest in publications that cover Black news.

For the full interview, click here. Subsequent pieces are upcoming throughout the month.

Throwback Thursday: Thoughts and tips on how to write an obituary

Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk-show host who became one of the most polarizing figures in talk radio, died Wednesday at the age of 70.

That’s all I got. Honestly. It’s as close as I can get to a neutral lead for an obituary on this guy.

It’s also clearly enough to upset both his supporters and detractors, as he was either the second coming of Christ on the AM dial or a verbal defecation machine who never met anything center-left that he couldn’t insult.

Which leads us to the throwback post of the day: How do you write an obituary in general, but also how do you deal with controversy in the life of the decedent.

 

Obituary Writing: Telling truths, not tales, in a reverent recounting of a life

In a discussion among student media advisers, one person noted that obituaries are probably the second-hardest things journalists have to do frequently. (The hardest? Interviewing family members about dead kids.) When a person dies, media outlets often serve as both town criers and official record keepers. They tell us who this person was, what made him or her important and what kind of life this person led. This is a difficult proposition, especially given that people have many facets and the public face of an individual isn’t always how those who knew the person best see him or her. Couple these concerns with the shock and grief the person’s loved ones and friends have experienced in the wake of the death and this has all the makings of a rough journalistic experience.

The New York Times experienced this earlier in the week when it published an obituary on Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. The Times produced a news obituary that focused on multiple facets of Monson and his affect on the church. This included references to his work to expand the reach and the population of its missionary forces as well as his unwillingness to ordain women and acknowledge same-sex marriages. The obituary drew criticism from many inside the church, leading the obituary editor to defend the choices the paper made in how it covered Monson. (For a sense of comparison, here is the official obituary/notification of death that the church itself wrote for Monson.)

You will likely find yourself writing an obituary at some point in time if you go into a news-related field.  Some of my favorite stories have been obituaries, including one I did on a professor who was stricken by polio shortly after he was married in the 1950s. I interviewed his wife, who was so generous with her recollections that I was really upset when we had to cut the hell out of the piece to make it fit the space we had for it. Still, she loved it and sent me a card thanking me for my time.

Some of my most painful stories have also been obituaries. The one that comes to mind is one I wrote about a 4-year-old boy who died of complications from AIDS. His mother, his father and one of his siblings also had AIDS at a time in which the illness brought you an almost immediate death sentence and status as a societal pariah. I spoke to the mother on the phone multiple times that night, including once around my deadline when she called me sobbing.

Word about the 4-year-old’s death had become public knowledge and thus she was told that her older son, who did not have AIDS, would not be allowed to return to his daycare school. Other things, including some really bad choices by my editor, made for a truly horrific overall situation in which the woman called me up after the piece I co-wrote ran and told me what a miserable human being I was. She told me the boy’s father was so distraught by what we published that he would not leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me responsible for that. Like I said, these things can be painful.

No matter the situation, there are some things you need to keep in mind when you are writing obituaries:

  • Don’t dodge the tough stuff: Your job as a journalist is to provide an objective, fair and balanced recounting of a person’s life. The Times’ editor makes a good point in noting that the paper’s job is to recount the person’s life, not to pay tribute or to serve as a eulogist. This means that you have to tell the story, however pleasant or unpleasant that might be. One of my favorite moments of honesty came from hockey legend Gordie Howe who was recalling the tight-fisted, cheap-as-heck former owner of the Detroit Red Wings:

    “I was a pallbearer for Jack,” says Howe. “We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he’s … a dead, miserable sonofabitch.’”

    It’s not your fault if the person got arrested for something or treated people poorly. If these things are in the public record and they are a large part of how someone was known, you can’t just dodge them because you feel weird. Check out the Times’ obituary on Richard Nixon and you’ll notice that Watergate makes the headline and the lead. As much as that was likely unpleasant for the people who were closest to Nixon, it was a central point of his life and needed to be discussed. In short, don’t smooth off the rough edges because you are worried about how other people might feel. Tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

 

  • Avoid euphemisms: This goes back to the first point about being a journalist. You don’t want to soften the language or use euphemisms. People don’t “pass on” or “expire.” NFL quarterbacks pass and magazine subscriptions expire. People die. Also, unless you can prove it, don’t tell your readers that the person is “among the angels” or “resting in the arms of Jesus.” (Both of these euphemisms ended up in obituaries I edited at one point or another. They obviously didn’t make it to publication.) Say what you know for sure: The person died.

 

  • Double down on accuracy efforts: People who are reading obituaries about loved ones and friends are already on edge, so the last thing you want to do is tick them off by screwing up an obituary. I don’t know if this was just a matter of newspaper lore or if it was a real thing, but I was told more than once at a paper where I worked that there were only two things that would get us to “stop the presses:” 1) we printed the wrong lottery numbers and 2) we screwed up an obituary.
    True or not, the point was clear to me: Don’t screw up an obituary.
    Go back through your piece before you put it out for public consumption and check proper nouns for spelling and accuracy. Do the math yourself when it comes to the age (date of birth subtracted from date of death) and review each fact you possess to make sure you are sure about each one. If you need to make an extra call or something to verify information, do it. It’s better to be slightly annoying than wrong.

 

  • Accuracy cuts both ways: As much as you need to be accurate for the sake of the family, you also need to be accurate for the sake of the public record. This means verifying key information in the obituary before publishing it. The person who died might told family and friends about winning a medal during World War II or graduating at the top of her class at Harvard Law School. These could be accurate pieces of information or they could be tall tales meant to impress people. Before you publish things that could be factually inaccurate, you need to be sure you feel confident in your sourcing.
    Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be shaking the family down for evidence on certain things (“OK, you say she liked to knit. Now, how do we KNOW she REALLY liked knitting? Do you have some sort of support for that?”) but you should try to verify fact-based elements with as many people as possible or check the information against publicly available information. Don’t get snowed by legends and myths. Publish only what you know for sure.

 

  • Don’t take things personally: Calling family, friends and colleagues of someone who just died can be really awkward and difficult for you as a reporter. Interviews with these people can be hard on them as well as hard on you. I found that when I did obituaries, I got one of three responses from people that I contacted:
    1. The source told me, “I’m sorry, but I really just can’t talk about this right now.” At that point, I apologized for intruding upon the person’s grief and left that person alone.
    2. The source is a fount of information and wanted to tell me EVERYTHING about the dead person. I found that for some of them, it was cathartic to share and eulogize and commemorate. It was like I was a new person in their circle of grief and they wanted to make sure I knew exactly why the person who died was someone worth knowing.
    3. The source was like a wounded animal and I made the mistake of sticking my hand where it didn’t belong. I have been called a vulture, a scumbag and other words I’ve been asked to avoid posting on this blog. One person even told me, “Your mother didn’t raise you right” because I had the audacity to make this phone call. I apologized profusely and once I hung up, I needed a couple minutes to shake it off. I knew it wasn’t my fault but it wasn’t easy either.

Your goal in an obituary is always to be respectful and decent while still retaining your journalistic sensibilities. It’s a fine line to walk, but if you do an obituary well, you will tell an interesting story about someone who had an impact on the world in some way. I like to think a story about this person who died should be good enough to make people wish they’d known that person while he or she was alive.