Following up on The Sunflower situation at WSU (or what happens when things get messy)

As information continues to emerge in Wichita regarding the student government’s decision to slash The Sunflower’s budget and the issue of how “open” the meetings should be, it makes more sense to clarify these things in new post than to try to rework the old one.

(If you haven’t read the whole backstory on WSU’s student government, The Sunflower (the student newspaper) and the general weirdness that has led to a lot of student media folks keeping an eye on this situation, you can do so here. Short version: The paper submitted its budget, asking for a return to the $158,000 it received prior to a massive cut a few years back. The SGA met in closed session, despite protestations of the paper and other journalists, and decided to slash the budget it had almost in half. It then defended its right to do all of this without providing much rationale.)

Here are a couple updates/housecleaning items:

  • The budget cut that was proposed reduced the paper’s allocation from $105,000 to $55,000. The numbers in the previous post ($100K and $50K) came from notes I took during a discussion with EIC Chance Swaim. I’m sure it’s my fault, not his. Either way, it’s basically cutting the money for the paper in half. The original amount the paper requested was $158,000, which would have restored funding to an amount the paper had received for years prior to a major cut about three or four years ago, depending on how you measure the time span. I did find in my notes, however, that Swaim explained that the paper has records going back to the early 1990s and the paper had NEVER operated in that time span with as little SGA funding as had been proposed during the closed-door meeting.


  • The Student Senate at WSU tabled the discussion of student fees and sent the matter back to committee for further discussion. This happened after Teri Hall, the vice president for student affairs, read a statement from the university’s president, calling for the fee committee to meet in open session to discuss these issues. This means The Sunflower’s budget is still up in the air, but it also means that deliberations will likely take place sometime in the next week at an open meeting of the fee committee. The president, John Bardo, did not issue any statement regarding the previous decisions the committee made, so it’s unclear where he stands on the funding issue.


  • Media folks are taking a stand on behalf of The Sunflower. An editorial in the Wichita Eagle supported the paper while listing a number of quality pieces of journalism The Sunflower has produced over the past year or so. In many of those cases, the paper questioned administrative actions that looked a bit “off” or situations that had the appearance of a conflict of interest. An article from the staff of the Student Press Law Center dug into the issue of “censorship via funding cuts” and also outlined a variety of reasons why the paper might be on the hot seat. One item cited in the report was an article the paper published last year about current WSU SGA President Paige Hungate’s parents. The article outlines a criminal investigation “for battery and anti-black, hate “fighting words” following an altercation at a student government banquet.”  Her parents have been accused of using racial slurs against Student Body President Emeritus Joseph Shepard when he stated in his farewell speech that Hungate was not his “first choice” for president. Paige Hungate has stated repeatedly that the funding cut “has nothing to with content or coverage” produced in The Sunflower.


  • According to the SPLC article, Hungate stated the reason the SGA is not required to hold open meetings in this situation is based on a 1977 attorney general’s opinion. The opinion was issued in response to a question pertaining to the Student Senate at Kansas State University and its use of secret ballots to determine the election of its officers. The opinion notes:

    [T]he decisions of the Student Senate themselves do not carry the official authority of those officers and employees entrusted by law with the supervision, management and administration of the University. Thus, I cannot but conclude that the Senate does not exercise the administrative authority of the State of Kansas, of the Board of Regents, or of the president of Kansas State University, and thus does not fall within the compass of the Kansas open meeting law.


With all of that in mind, this leads to two questions worth asking and one thought worth knowing:

Should the meeting in which the fees were debated have been open? The SPLC quotes legal scholar Frank LoMonte as saying “Kansas law, like most state laws, says that if you have any role in the decision making process for allocating public money, then you are a public body. A student fee committee must open its meetings.” However the attorney general’s opinion does provide a legal basis for the SGA to close the meeting. I went back to my legal expert with the document and asked for a general sense of what this all means:

I wouldn’t put a ton of weight into an AG letter opinion from 40 years ago...It does give them cover for now, with no court opinion altering it – but if they were sued today, a court would probably reconsider the question entirely. Old AG opinion (is) persuasive but not binding.

He also noted that it would be difficult for The Sunflower to recoup any legal fees if the staff sued because the SGA could claim it operated in good faith, given the opinion.

Two things are clear here, though: First, the optics are bad. Nobody ever closes themselves in a room and demands total privacy for something they’re sure is completely fine and that they’re totally proud of. This is why openness is a good idea and why Bardo’s request and the Senate’s subsequent actions make sense. If you’re willing to do this, do it where people can see it.

Second, if this four-page memo that was released a day after the original “Star Wars” opened is the only thing keeping the SGA from being forced to open all its meetings, somebody needs to take a legal whack at this thing. I don’t know exactly what life was like at K-State in 1977, but a lot has changed over the past 40 years. You can no longer smoke on airplanes, cars now come standard with airbags and we’re finally pretty sure that Elvis is dead. Also, here’s a picture of my dad from a 1977 family gathering:


Can we agree that a lot of things that probably made sense in 1977 now look really, really bad in retrospect? This single AG opinion looks nearly as god-awful as Dad’s homage to polyester. Hope the SPLC will get on it. (The case, not the outfit.)


Is this a case of “financial censorship” against The Sunflower? Hall and Hungate have said repeatedly that this isn’t a case of using the budget to slap around the paper because they didn’t like the coverage. However, the paper HAS covered the administration aggressively and has shined a light in some pretty sketchy corners of WSU. It also publicized a situation in which Hungate’s parents were painted in a criminal and racist light. When you couple those facts with the size of the cut and the lengths at which the committee went to keep things private, it’s hard to believe nobody had any ill will toward the paper. This is why an open and fair process is necessary to let people know whatever reasons the committee had for this cut. In addition, given the way in which the media is now watching WSU’s actions, the ideas of openness and transparency are essential.


The big take away? WSU knows people are watching and that matters. The Post’s line about “Democracy Dies in Darkness” applies here. If nobody outside of WSU had heard about this issue, it is likely the cuts would have rolled on through without a second thought. However, people ARE watching. They ARE commenting on the paper’s articles. They ARE sharing stories about this mess. The legal and media attention here makes a difference, not just in regard to the administration but also in regard to the staff members of The Sunflower. Knowing that they have some support makes a huge difference. So does the interest of state and national media outlets as well as the SPLC.

My experience being on the wrong end of a student government’s sense of purpose wasn’t all that great, but I remember hearing from a reporter who covered the meeting where the OSA proposed my ouster. SPLC had taken up my cause and pushed against this, leading one of the people who was leading the charge to express concern about “some special interest group out of Virginia” that brought several legal issues to light. According to the reporter, who told me this about a year after this happened, “he looked totally freaked out” when SPLC spoke up.

I know it’s a weekend, but keep looking at The Sunflower and the Eagle and follow these stories. The previous post has contact info for all the people involved so you can make your voice heard if you want.

If it can happen to The Sunflower, it can happen to any of us in the media.

Sunshine laws, The Sunflower and the student government at WSU’s attempt to smack the student newspaper around.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is long and complicated, but worth it. If you disagree but still dislike the idea of student government officials randomly closing meetings, student newspapers getting financially bludgeoned and other similar things, hop to the bottom and contact the people involved to have your voice heard.)

A student asked me this question during our advising appointment this week:

“Why do I have to take media law?” she wanted to know.

“Because you need to know if someone out there is trying to screw you,” I explained.

I wish I could remember who asked that, because the situation involving Wichita State University and its newspaper, The Sunflower, is a perfect example of how government, law and media can become a jumbled mess.

The student government decided to cut the paper’s funding in half, from $105,000 this year to $55,000 for next year. This is on top of the cut the paper took two years before that of $58,000. (In case you’re a journalist and math-averse, that means the paper went from $158,000 to an expectation of $55,000 to start next year. That’s almost a 68 percent decrease over that time span.)

“We are the line-item that got cut the most,” EIC Chance Swaim said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “In fact, many of the fixed items got an increase in funds.”

The Sunflower receives approximately 50 percent of its operating revenue from the student fees, with the rest coming from advertising. The student government retains the right to set amount of fee money the twice-weekly paper gets, which can create a problematic situation. News organizations serve as the “fourth estate” and will often have to call government officials to account for their actions. It is exactly this kind of coverage that has The Sunflower staff thinking the funding cut is retaliatory.

“We have not had the most favorable coverage of the student body president this year, but it hasn’t been overly aggressive,” Swaim said Wednesday. “We just cover SGA meetings. We had a lot of controversy last spring, but it’s been kind of a private year overall. The administration is where we’ve had a lot of big stories and they’ve given us a lot of push back on that.”

The administration’s take?

Paige Hungate, WSU’s student body president, said the proposed cut “has nothing to do with coverage, nothing to do with content.”


Teri Hall, vice president for student affairs at WSU, said the proposed budget cut “has nothing to do with punishing people for what they write.”


Neither of Hall nor Hungate said exactly what IS behind this draconian financial measure. At least, nobody said it in public, which leads to the second most egregious thing they did this week:

The Student Fees Committee closed the door to its meeting room in the Rhatigan Student Center Friday afternoon to deliberate about how to allocate between $9.53 and $9.82 million in student fees — claiming SGA is not a state agency, student fees are not state funds and, therefore, the meeting could be held behind closed doors.

Let’s unpack this quickly: The fee committee is part of the student government of Wichita State University, a public institution. In its own governing documents, the SGA notes the following:

The authority granted to the Association in this section is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Board of Regents and the President of the University.
The authority granted to student organizations, through a grant of official recognition, is derived from and shall be subject to the authority of the Association and its representative bodies.
According to the board’s website, the Kansas Board of Regents members are appointed by the governor (a public official) and:
The nine-member Kansas Board of Regents is the governing board of the state’s six universities and the statewide coordinating board for the state’s 32 public higher education institutions (six state universities, one municipal university, nineteen community colleges, and six technical colleges).
So EVERY entity in this chain of command is directly attached to a public institution, including the student government, making the claim that SGA doesn’t have to operate under Kansas Open Meetings Act self-serving and ridiculous.
I did some digging into the KOMA and couldn’t find a single instance in which the rules would allow for this meeting to take place in private. Given that my legal expertise starts and ends with binge-watching “Law & Order” reruns, I contacted a lawyer and a First Amendment expert for a ruling. His take:
Most places make student orgs like this subject to the law… 75-4318 sure makes it look like this is a government body subject to the act. It’s a board/council/authority supported by government funds and expending them, and it doesn’t fall under an exception.
The president of WSU, John Bardo, issued a statement to Hall after all of this, asking that future funding meetings be held in the open “so that the campus and the community know we are committed to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech required in a first-class university.” That’s great, but Bardo also noted that he did not believe KOMA applied or that the SGA violated the law, a statement that appears to be lacking in fact. It also doesn’t remedy what’s happened already.
The rule of law for the disbursal of student fees to organizations states that the money must be doled out in a “viewpoint neutral” way, lest the SGA violate the First Amendment. For example, an SGA can’t fund the Campus Democrats for X dollars and A, B and C activities and then turn around and deny the Campus Republicans X dollars for those same activities, simply because it doesn’t like what the Republicans have to say.
The way in which the public can figure out if this is what’s being done is to have these deliberations and decisions made in an open meeting. This prevents people from doing weaselly things in private and then polishing up their rationale for the public.
Even more, if, for some completely legal and yet unimaginable reason, the SGA COULD close that meeting for deliberations, there are rules that you have to follow to actually do so. The agenda for the meeting must note an intention to go into closed session and that agenda must be posted prior to the meeting in accordance with the state’s open meetings law. Then, the group must formally go into closed session. According to the state’s attorney general:

How does a public body properly go into an executive session?

First the public body must be in an open session, before going into an executive session.

Then, a motion must be made, and seconded.

The motion must contain statement of Justification for closure; Subject(s) to be discussed; and (3) Time and place open meeting will resume.

Example: “Madam Chairman, I move we recess into executive session to discuss disciplinary action against a student in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved.  We will reconvene the open meeting in the conference room at 8:30 p.m.”

Swaim said Wednesday no intention to close was posted, no motion was made and nothing else like this happened in the open, public part of the meeting (if one even existed).

“We tried to go in and Hall said, ‘This is a closed meeting,’ and closed the door on us,” he said. “Then she sent out the students who were on the committee to to see the attorney and they came back and told us ‘The meeting is closed.'”

In its reporting on the matter, The Sunflower found itself similarly rebuffed by vague answers and a lack of due process.

Hall said the students went to speak with the general counsel, “because the bylaws say, it’s a student government decision. That’s why they went over to do it.”

About 20 minutes after leaving the RSC, the students, led by (SGA President Paige) Hungate, returned. Hungate approached reporters and said the meeting would be closed “according to discussions with people.”

Asked to elaborate, she said she and the other students had consulted with “the general counsel’s office” who advised her it was “a student government decision.”

Hungate said she was advised “student fees aren’t public funds, and that SGA is not a state agency.”

The Sunflower basically finds itself fighting a war on multiple fronts: It is trying to figure out how to survive if it loses half of its already diminished funding, it is trying to find out WHY the funding cuts happened and it’s trying to fight for transparency in its government. It’s also trying to put out a twice-weekly paper and a daily online product.

“It doesn’t feel great,” Swaim said Wednesday. “I think, though, it’s a good opportunity for a lot of clarification. If we can get this cleaned up to where we don’t have to fight this every year, to where it’s clear where we stand on campus… I think it’s valuable to go through this. It’s something that will be an ugly fight, but it will benefit everyone and I think before it’s all said and done, someone in the administration is going to need to step up and say, ‘Enough. This is how we’re going to handle this.'”

With that in mind, here are three takeaways/action items associated with all this:

  • Know your rights and fight for them: People, especially people who don’t like you, will always try to weasel their way around the rules to benefit themselves and screw you over. This is why you have to know the law backward and forward so you can force the hand of people like the SGA folk. Most, if not all, state open records and open meetings laws put the presumption of openness first, which means you don’t have to prove why something should be public. The other side has to prove why it should be held private. That means actually citing a real law, not “tradition” or “our bylaws.” If the SGA rewrote its bylaws to dictate that before holding a meeting, the SGA president had to murder a freshman in front of everyone, would that make it legal to do so? Obviously not.
    If you know your rights, you can stop people from randomly violating the law and you can serve as a true watchdog for your audience.
    Don’t let people snow you under.


  • The media matters: The reason we all know about this is because media outlets (The Sunflower, The Wichita Eagle etc.) are on the case. The Washington Post adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and there couldn’t be a better example of this than what we’re seeing here. When any public body can operate without the oversight of the public itself (or its surrogate, namely the media), it can do a lot of things that will benefit it or harm its “enemies.”
    Truth be told, I HATED covering meetings when I was a reporter because they felt pedestrian, incremental and pointless. However, once I got into the editing side and could see more of the big picture, I started to realize how important it was to dig in on a lot of political issues, particularly those involving money.
    We have fewer and fewer media outlets out there and most of them are in a state of atrophy, due to budget cuts and staff reductions. Those that remain at the publications are expected to do more with less. This can’t lead to the erosion of democracy and public accountability.
    Support your local media in any way you can. Buy a subscription. Read it and talk it up. Connect with the staffers to let them know you value what they do.
    “We are the voice of the students on campus,” Swaim said Wednesday. We provide a forum for discussion of campus things. We bring the campus into the public sphere. We let people know what’s going on and we provide a historical document for our campus. We matter.”


  • It can happen to anyone, anywhere, so speak up: The story of The Sunflower is a sad one, but it’s not unique. The Student Press Law Center has a running list of stories that outline some of the egregious ways in which student governments or college administrations have yanked funding, threatened reporters, violated the law and other fun things. I know many student newspaper advisers and those of us who have been in the game long enough know that at any point, this could happen at our school.
    I had the benefit of working at Ball State University, which had its journalism department founded by Louis Ingelhart. Louie, as he was affectionately known, was a champion for and an expert on the First Amendment. His passion for student media imbued everyone in that department and flowed throughout the university. When we got a new president in the early 2000s, Louie showed up for the press conference. He was in his 80s at that point, but he found the student reporter and told him, “You go tell (the president) that nobody at this university has ever censored the student newspaper and nobody is ever gonna.”
    I also had the darkness that comes with student government people who feel way too self-important. After telling The Advance-Titan for years that we should “forget about the debt” we were accruing and that OSA (student government) would handle it, one group decided to use the debt as a cudgel to get rid of me. (It still bugs me to no end that if you google me, one of the top returns is the article where they told the city paper I needed to be fired if I didn’t resign.) Fortunately for me, I had a good chancellor and some good support, but there were also people unhappy that the paper and I escaped.
    The point is, that it can happen to anyone, or as Swaim told me,  “It’s really important for all of us (student journalists/media outlets) to be in this together because we are all in this together. An attack on one college newsroom is an attack on all college newsrooms.
    With that in mind, I’d ask that you let the people at WSU know what you think of this situation.JPEG ImageThis is Teri Hall, WSU’s vice president of student affairs, who was the administrator in the meeting where the funding was cut and the person who aided in the closing of the funding meeting. Click here for her email address and let her know how you feel about the issue of open meetings and their importance, or whatever else you have to say about The Sunflower situation.  Or call her at: 316-978-3021 and have your voice heard.

    Paige Hungate
    This is Paige Hungate, WSU’s SGA president, who said, “I’m not trying to have a discussion about this right now. I’m just trying to tell you what our decision has been made by student government association” as a legal rationale for closing a meeting in violation of KOMA. She based this decision  “according to discussions with people.” You can email her office here and express any concerns you have about this situation as well or call her office at 316-978-7060.

    You can also contact anyone at the WSA SGA from this page and express yourself, explain how open meetings work or generally let them know what you think about these actions.

    John Bardo
    This is John Bardo, WSU president, who wrote to Hall that the meetings should be kept open. You can email him here to thank him for a commitment to the First Amendment as well as state law. You can also let him know that you are paying attention to all this now, in case he decides to waffle after nobody’s looking. His office number is 316-978-3001 in case you’d like to chat with him.

    Finally, this is the website for The Sunflower, Chance Swaim’s office email address and the paper’s Twitter handle. Feel free to hit these folks up on any one of these platforms to let them know you support them. When the OSA was kicking my ass all over the place, the one thing that kept me sane was knowing people out there cared. It meant more than anything. I’m sure The Sunflower staff will appreciate it as well.



EXERCISE TIME: AP Style Spring Training Edition!

Baseball is perhaps my favorite sport and leads to my favorite time of the year. The sounds of Bob Uecker calling Brewers games on the radio that Dad kept in the garage was the soundtrack of summer for me. Now, I listen to him or Tom Hamilton calling Cleveland games on my MLB app.

In celebration of the opening weeks of spring training, here is an AP-style quiz that focuses on those picky rules that surround America’s pastime. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to play.


Geriatric Dr. Evil v. Mr. Nutterbutter (or defamation involves more than someone being mean to you, Bob.)

During the publication of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” I frequently told the people at SAGE to avoid using color, images or whatever else because, “It’s not worth it to waste money on me.”

The only time I begged them to waste money was for a photo of a giant talking squirrel that was insulting a coal baron.

Comedian John Oliver spent part of a “Last Week Tonight” episode talking about the coal industry. During much of that, he mocked coal magnate Bob Murray, saying he looked like “a geriatric Dr. Evil” and stated that Murray placed his miners in unsafe conditions. He also made fun of Murray for once supposedly saying a talking squirrel once told him he should start owning coal mines. The episode concluded with a costumed staffer called Mr. Nutterbutter the Squirrel presenting Murray with a novelty check for three acorns and 18 cents.

While doing all of this, Oliver even called out Murray’s litigious nature, explaining that he knew Murray was likely to sue him, but he stood behind everything he said. Murray, who has sued numerous media outlets before for unflattering coverage, took the bait and sued Oliver for defamation, false light and more.

The minute this happened, I desperately wanted to include an image of Mr. Nutterbutter in the book, because a) I’m clearly crazy and b) it was the perfect example for the law chapter of how there is a distinct difference between defamation and just saying things people dislike. (I ended up with more of a stock image of Oliver, but hey, I’ll take it.) The court made that distinction clear this week saying that none of this was defamation and it would be dismissing the case against Oliver. Murray has already stated he plans to appeal the court’s decision.

(Perhaps the greatest filing in the history of our legal system came in the form of an amicus brief from the West Virginia ACLU, which includes the amazing heading of “Anyone Can Legally Say, ‘Eat Shit, Bob!'” Feel free to read about it here.)

This is not the first time someone has tried to bully a media professional through the use of the court system. Washington football owner Dan Snyder sued the Washington City Paper after it published “The Cranky Redskins Fans Guide to Dan Snyder” in 2010. Snyder’s legal team first approached the paper’s parent company with what amounted to a “cease and desist” letter. In it, the attorney made such “legally compelling” statements as these:

Can you imagine how you would react if your wife was battling breast cancer and her public role as the National Football League’s national spokesperson on breast cancer awareness was demeaned as a mere public relations ploy to “sell” the “transformation” of her husband’s public image?

Your paper’ s latest diatribe comes on the heels of more individual columns concerning Mr. Snyder than any other news outlet in the city has written about any single businessman in Washington, perhaps ever.

Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation and defend himself and his wife against your paper’s concerted attempt at character assassination. We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.

In case you need a rough translation here, the letter basically says, “You are being really mean, you do it a lot and we have a lot of money we can use to sue you.”

The paper didn’t back off, so Snyder sued. He eventually dropped his $2 million suit, saying he wanted to “focus on the coming football season and the business at hand.” In other words, “We had no hope of winning so we backed off our bluff.

The point of explaining all of this, other than to highlight two pieces of content that irritated extremely rich people who tried to sue the media into silence, is to outline the key legal aspects of what it actually takes to libel or defame someone. Also, it is an opportunity to explain how to deal with people who get angry and scream, “I’m going to sue you!” lists a series of potential defenses against defamation, two of which got Oliver off the hook: Truth and opinion. A third defense, hyperbole/parody, is also solid defense, as the 1988 Supreme Court case involving Hustler Magazine and the Rev. Jerry Falwell demonstrated.

Whether you are reporting on a serious matter or using a 7-foot-tall talking squirrel to take on a coal mine owner, here are some tips as to how best to deal with people who threaten to sue you:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: A threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources. (In the case of Bob Murray, it was less about factual inaccuracies and more about “OMG MEEEEN!!!” As the courts have repeatedly demonstrated, that’s not enough to win a suit, especially when the plaintiff is a public figure.)
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the Web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to them as needed.
  • Provide resolution: Either you or your editor should provide the person with some form of resolution to the issue. During this process, you need to explain what you found, what you decided to do and how you will proceed. If the person is still upset, you should have options for him or her to pursue the issue further. At that point, it might even be a lawsuit, but you have done your best to resolve the issue.

Lead writing: Finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

Some stories contain a lot of twists and turns, thus making a lead extremely difficult to write. An assignment I give to my introductory media writing class is to rewrite a lead on a story that has all sorts of problems. Here it is:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — including rape and murder — but that his religious beliefs pre­vented him from following through.

The problems include:

  • The lead is 47 words long.
  • It includes a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he’s threatening underpants.
  • We have no idea why we’re reading about this now (turns out, he was in court that day, which we don’t find out about until the second-to-last paragraph).
  • The thoughts he had or his self-confidence in his predatory-like nature isn’t as weird as what he actually did (which we find out more about later).
  • No real impact noted here, but if he was convicted, he would face more than 60 years in prison on five charges.

A more recent case of all sorts of potential elements clamoring for a spot in the lead occurred late last week when  Alec Cook, a former UW-Madison student, pleaded guilty to several charges related to sexual misconduct. Cook’s case was an odd and sprawling one, involving multiple victims and varying degrees of criminal activity.

According to one complaint, he choked and raped a woman after dinner and studying with her. Another complainant said he had drugged her before having non-consensual sex with her. Other complaints include allegations of stalking, inappropriate touching during class and strangulation attempts. In all, 11 women came forward and 23 charges were filed against Cook.

Trying to explain the magnitude of this while still avoiding the pitfalls of doing too much with the lead can be difficult. Below are the leads from several publications, with links to the stories.

Here is the lead from the Wisconsin State Journal, the daily newspaper located in Madison:

Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty Wednesday to five felonies, including three counts of third-degree sexual assault, nearly bringing to a close a sprawling case that had been set for seven trials involving 11 alleged victims that were to have happened over the next several months.


Here is how The Capital Times, another daily news source located in Madison, wrote its opening:

Expelled student Alec Cook, who was scheduled to go on trial on Feb. 26 in the first of seven trials on 23 charges involving 11 female UW-Madison students, pled guilty Wednesday to five felony charges involving five accusers.


The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper, wrote this version:

An expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison business student accused of sexually preying on 11 women pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges involving five of them, closing the book on a high-profile case that shook the state’s flagship campus and drew national attention in fall 2016.


Here is the Associated Press lead, as published on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

A former student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has pleaded guilty to five felonies stemming from a string of alleged assaults around campus.

(UW-Madison also has two independent student newspapers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. Both the Cardinal and the Herald covered the event and you can find their leads here. As I’ve said before, I don’t pick on student work in public whenever possible because a) students are learning and b) I don’t want to chill anyone’s desire to go to a student media organization to learn for fear of knocked around by an uppity Doctor of Paper. You can apply whatever lessons you learned here to them.)

You can see how various publications tried to encapsulate this case and the pros and cons of each. The State Journal and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel both went big, which led to leads of 47 and 43 words, respectively. They significantly exceed what you normally shoot for with a standard news lead (25-35 words), but they do focus strongly on the “Oddity” interest element.

The Capital Times and the AP both go shorter, although the Cap Times still goes beyond the 35-word limit (38). However, they both skip out on the thing things that make this case well known and also extremely disturbing. The AP lead almost makes it sound like a) the assaults didn’t actually occur (“alleged” gives me hives) and b) this could have been a guy punching out bouncers or something instead of raping women.

You will also notice that the two Madison papers used a “name-recognition lead” (Alec Cook) while the other publications used an “interesting-action lead,” which focuses on the What more than the specific Who. The name, in this case, gets delayed to the second paragraph.

There is no such thing as a perfect lead, so you have to figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s worth cutting. This is why you have to think critically while writing your lead. Each lead has key benefits and drawbacks, based on the approach the writer saw fit to use and the audience each writer was attempting to reach.

EXERCISE SUGGESTION: Look through the four publications cited here and build a lead that fits the parameters outlined in both books for lead writing: 25-35 words, applies FOCII elements, contains key 5Ws/1H elements and will draw in your readers while remaining factually accurate and non-opinionated.

The “Tragic Trib” and learning how to compete in an old two-newspaper town

In every phase of my news career, I was lucky enough (relatively speaking) to work in two-newspaper environments. As much as we didn’t like the idea that TV would occasionally beat us to the punch, we always feared what the afternoon edition of our competing paper would bring. It has been years since I had to worry about getting scooped, but I could easily recall that fear this week when a story began popping up in my social media. Several former students from the Columbia Missourian shared this story about the “tragic” gutting of the paper’s competitor, the Columbia Daily Tribune.

When I took an editing job at the Missourian, the city’s a.m. paper, we’d send someone running down the street around 2 p.m. to a newspaper box that contained still-moist editions of the Tribune. When the reporter would return with the paper, we’d tear the thing into sections, looking for stories that we had that were absent from the paper or something “they” got that “we” didn’t.

When the internet became more prevalent, the Tribune would post all of its stories online just before we had our news budget meeting. Our newsroom would be filled with reporters at computers, clicking the “refresh” button on their web browsers, trying to get the first look at what the Trib had. More often than not, we were on the short end of the stick and we had to scramble to catch up.

Working for the Missourian presented a unique challenge. The University of Missouri owned the paper and staffed it with professional-practice faculty as editors and students at the J-school as reporters, photographers and other staffers. The Tribune, on the other hand, was a professional, family-owned publication.

Reporters there had years of experience under their belts, along with an extensive set of relationships with sources throughout the area. Our staffers had trouble figuring out how to transfer a phone call.

Making things worse, sources on certain beats actively undermined some of our student reporters. It was infuriating to have a reporter catch a rare tip, work on it for days and then get a “no comment” or some other denial from a source, only to have the source turn around and give the story to a Tribune staffer. It was a sick feeling to read “your story” on the front page of the Trib with the writer slathering “told the Columbia Daily Tribune” attributions all over it.

As much as I really, really hated getting our butts handed to us on a semi-regular basis, it really helped me drive the reporters working for me on the crime beat to hustle like crazy. Living with the Tribune was like being a little brother: Your older sibling kicked your keester over and over and over again at EVERYTHING you both did. But, when you managed to pull off a win, it was like a Christmas miracle, a first kiss and hitting a game-winning home run all at once.

I know that the media environment is much more diverse these days when it comes to social media, citizen journalists and news-driven websites. Turf battles over a city or town by two monolithic traditional news operations doesn’t happen anymore and there’s something good to be said about a more diverse set of niche voices gaining volume.

However, the competition that existed between the two papers in that town helped shape and grow some of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. The Missourian reporters knew nothing would be easy, nothing would be handed to them and they had to hustle just to tie that damned Tribune every, single day.

I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate that kind of environment any more and I think in many ways, news consumers are the worse for it.


News versus PR: “Who tells the story?”

When I started working on the “Dynamics of Media Writing” book, my goal was to outline the key tools valuable to ALL media practitioners and then explain how each discipline could use them as part of daily work routines to reach valued audiences.

Along the way, I found that professionals who agreed to be part of this book had woven in and out of those various disciplines and that the core tools remained valuable to them. Some moved from news to PR while others went from PR to news. Some started in radio or TV before flipping to print or web-based publications. A few had visited almost every discipline I covered in the text. They all agreed that the tools mattered, as did the desire to reach an audience of interest while behaving ethically.

How that all works out is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

The Student Press Law Center ran an interesting article about the push and pull between student news reporters and university public relations operations. The writing here clearly comes from a point of view, one that sides with the student news publications, so it can be a bit difficult to read for anyone interested in PR. That said, it’s worth a read.

My experiences with public relations practitioners has been similar to my experiences with news reporters: There are good ones and bad ones and you can find plenty of each without having to look too hard. I had the head of PR at one university lie right to a reporter’s face. When I found out and confronted her about this, she told me, “I didn’t feel it was appropriate to share that information with her.” I have also had reporters who have falsified interviews and lied to sources. When confronted, they, too, tried to worm out of taking responsibility for their actions.

Conversely, some of my best friends sit on opposite sides of the supposed news/PR divide. Marketing communication folks at various universities provided me with an immense amount of support and help, even when it didn’t benefit them to do so. News reporters have shared a lot of their work with me and my students, again, when they didn’t have to do so.

To be honest, I often feel like Winona Ryder in this dinner scene when trying to explain this to people I work with or former students who are overly zealous about the PR/News divide:


Long story short: The relationship between news and public relations professionals can be complicated and you can always find an example of how “they” screwed “us” over when you want to. That said, there’s no reason you can’t behave in the most decent and ethical way possible, regardless of your area of the field, to serve as a good example of how things ought to be.

Profile Writing: You can observe a lot by watching

I spent the weekend talking about a variety of topics at the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Minneapolis, but my favorite presentation was on how to write personality profiles. I often find these stories are the staple crop of college newspapers’ feature sections and yet they often lack the kind of depth and richness that draw readers in.

One of the biggest things that makes the difference between a good profile and a weak one is the quality of the observation the reporter conducts and the way in which those observations are used in writing the profile. Too often, profiles don’t paint a picture in the mind’s eye of the readers and that usually comes from a lack of quality observation. This leads to the cliche openings of “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore…” To make the profile better, you need to see what your source does, who your source is and how your source behaves.

Or, as Yogi Berra once noted, you can observe a lot by watching

Consider this opening in the piece Jeff Pearlman did for Sports Illustrated on pitcher John Rocker:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

This is a simple (OK, maybe not “simple” for most people) car ride that becomes a window into the mind and life of this guy. In a few paragraphs, you can understand who he is, what he thinks and how he feels about things. The author sets the table perfectly for the readers and gives them what they need to know.

However, for my money, the best profile in terms of the painstaking description is Nancy Jo Sales’ piece on reality star Kate Gosselin. The introduction breaks one of the most basic rules I usually adhere to: No quote leads. However, the author knows the rules and when to break them, so we get this:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu.

She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

The first time I read this opening, I was hooked. I got the vibe of a pouty toddler/entitled teen in that opening quote to the point I could almost imagine her stomping her foot on the ground in a demanding way. Later in the piece, the author describes a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, an upscale toy store:

As the S.U.V. pulls up to F.A.O. Schwarz, the paparazzi arrive in a crush at the car door. Chick-chick-chick-chick-chick. Kate climbs out, assisted by Neild, who escorts her into the store, warning the paparazzi not to follow her.

“That’s the mother that had eight kids!” a shopper squeals. It’s a weekday, and the store is filled with tourists, men in khaki shorts and women with scrunchies. Suddenly everyone is pulling out a digital camera. “It’s Kate Gosselin!”

Neild asks a security guard to call for backup.

Everyone wants to take a picture with Kate. She stops obligingly, here and there, posing with the same elated smile for every picture—it’s the same smile she’ll wear in her People cover next week: “Kate Strikes Back!”

A personal shopper, an older lady in a floral-print dress, is summoned to help Kate select toys for her brood. Kate sails along beside her, ignoring all the gawkers. The personal shopper shows her some hacky sacks: “Boys like these.” “I’ll take your word for it,” Kate sniffs, moving past them. The personal shopper shows her some action figures: “This is the hottest stuff for boys.” “I’d rather die,” says Kate. “Moving right along!”

“You look fabulous, Kate!” a woman shouts. “Kate, we love you. Stay strong!” says another.

Kate accidentally steps on a little boy’s foot with her three-inch heels; he yelps. “Oooooh, sorry about that,” she says, moving right along.

Everything from word selection (“her brood” and “Kate sniffs”) to the specificity of her shoes (three-inch heels) provides the reader with a rich sense who this person is and what she really values. If you read through the whole profile, you will find only one mention of her children by name and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t from Gosselin herself.

The way you get this kind of description is through observation. Nancy Jo Sales took the time to look for every tiny moment and every scrap of detail, using what helped advance her storytelling and discarding the elements that didn’t. The profile thus becomes a window into the life of the subject and a chance for the readers to watch the story emerge.

The next time you have a profile assignment, consider spending a day with your subject for the sole purpose of gathering detail and description. It may seem like a large investment, but it will be worth it.

More proof that you need to verify your facts: Mass-shooting edition.

As we pointed out in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, people will often spread incorrect information in the wake of a chaotic breaking news event. In some cases, errors come from journalists misinterpreting something or sources who provide accidentally erroneous information. In other cases, the work of trolls who have nothing better to do with their lives.

The guy who was “desperately searching for his father” after the Las Vegas attack turned out to be lying on purpose.  Why did he do it? “For the retweets.” Nice.

Regardless of the reasons why bad intel gets tossed around, it’s our job as journalists to separate fact from fiction, clarify instead of confuse and give the readers the best version of reality that we can.

After the school shooting in Florida in which a 19-year-old man killed 17 people, two threads of information emerged that led to the spread of a large amount of misinformation: That this was one of 18 school shootings already in 2018 and that the shooter was attached to/motivated by a white supremacist group.

In the first case, headlines noting the “18 school shootings” appeared on various mainstream media outlets, including ABC news, Politico and CNBC. The source of this information isn’t noted in the headline, but later in some pieces, the authors cite “Everytown for Gun Safety,” a gun-control advocacy group that has tracked gun-related incidents since 2013.

The fact this information comes from a gun-control advocacy group should not automatically make it suspect, but it should be something a journalist notes as early as possible. This is the point of attributions: Let people know where the information originated so they can apply their own level of scrutiny to it.

What makes the situation more concerning is the operationalization of the term “school shooting,” especially when it is put forth in the wake of the incident at Stoneman Douglas. A look at the list includes ALL incidents in which a gun discharged on ANY school grounds. Authors who dug into this, both in mainstream and politically charged media outlets, outlined the ways in which this approach inflates the number in a way that would likely confuse readers. The Washington Post dissects the claim in perhaps the most thorough way here, noting that suicides at school and an accidental discharge of a firearm were included as “school shootings.”

Although the people at Everytown defend their decision to use this term and count these incidents as such, calling these incidents “school shootings” would likely undercut your credibility if you included this info in a story on the Florida incident.

This is the difference between factually stated information and accurately framed information. I could factually say that “thousands of lives end every day at schools across the country,” if I wanted to include class pets that go belly-up, bugs caught on no-pest strips and mice that get caught in traps before they could reach the cafeteria. However, if I posted it after the Florida shooting over a picture of grieving family members, it lacks accuracy and is framed in a misleading way.

Big tip: Know where your information comes from before citing it and make sure you are saying what you think you are saying before you say it.

The second thread, which noted the shooter’s ties to white supremacy, falls into the category of people who enjoy jerking the media’s chain. What makes these people feel compelled to do this is beyond me, but it’s something we need to keep in mind on big stories.

A story in the New York Times provided the following information about the shooter’s supposed attachment to a supremacist group:

On Thursday, Jordan Jereb, a leader of a white supremacist group based in North Florida, told The Associated Press that Mr. Cruz had joined the group, but later Mr. Jereb said that he did not know whether that was true. Sheriff Israel said he could not confirm any ties Mr. Cruz might have had to white nationalists.

A CNN story cites an Anti-Defamation League blog post that noted similar ties. Other sources also published this information, tying the shooter to a Florida-based racist organization.

With all of these top-tier organizations seemingly confirming this tie between the shooter and the group, it would appear to be as close to true as one could expect. The problem? It was pretty much the work of trolls and a general disinformation campaign, as Politico explained while unpacking the whole incident. Since then, many sources, including the Anti-Defamation League, have updated their stories to explain how they were tricked. However, a search of “Florida school shooting white supremacist” returns hundreds of headlines that seem to confirm that this connection is valid and proven.

One of the biggest problems came from the journalists’ relying on a single source of information, which turned out to be the work of trolls. As one of them cited in the Politico story noted online, “All it takes is a single article, and everyone else picks up the story.”

This is why the concept of independent verification is crucial in journalism. If everyone is citing the same source and no journalists work to confirm this through other sources, the whole thing is a house of cards. I watched this happen firsthand when a paper I was working at erroneously published information that a motorcyclist who had been critically injured in a crash had died.

Our competing paper had made a habit of cribbing information from us without citing us, instead relying on vague “sources said” attributions, and they ran the story of the guy’s death. The morning radio news outlets had been in a habit of “rip and read” where they pulled copy from the newspapers and read it as fact without citing the paper from which it came. Thus, you had two papers and a handful of radio stations saying the guy was dead, so everyone assumed it was true.

The man’s wife had been getting calls from people offering condolences and when she said he was alive, the people were telling her that, no, he was dead. They heard it on the radio or saw it in the paper. She was furious that the hospital and police officials would tell the media her husband was dead before they told her. No matter the protestations of the officials that the man was still alive, she didn’t believe it until she got to the hospital. Chaos ensued and every media outlet had to correct the story as everyone involved tried to figure out where the error came from. In the end, no one was fired, but it was ugly.

And that was a story based on an unintended error. When people are going to the lengths of these trolls to present information as truthful, we have to double our efforts.

Big tip: Get the information from sources you trust and then independently verify it before you publish.

And if you say, “But what happens if everyone else is publishing and I can’t get it? I don’t want to be late on the story!” realize that it’s better to be late than wrong.


5 cool things about open records I learned from an #ACPBOM session

The Associated Collegiate Press hosted its annual “Best of the Midwest” convention in Minneapolis this weekend, where hundreds of students from around the area got the chance to learn all sorts of great information about journalism. I usually find myself running from presentation to presentation or conducting newspaper critiques all day, thus leaving no time to catch other presentations. However, I caught a lucky couple gaps in my schedule Friday and got to see two sessions on open records and interviewing from some student journalists at UW-Milwaukee and their instructor, Jessica McBride.

The UWM folk, who produce content for as part of their coursework recently published an extremely detailed story on sexual misconduct accusations on their campus that appeared to be swept under the rug. Based on their experiences here and in other work in hard-nosed reporting, these journalists provided some great information on how to go after the tough stuff. Here are five cool things about these issues that I learned from their presentations:

  • Content matters more than format when it comes to records: McBride noted that although states vary on how public record laws work, in her home state of Wisconsin, the law dictates that it is the content of a record, not the format of a record that determines if it is open or not. “I once got a stack of pink messages slips a secretary took notes on,” she said during her speech. She also explained that in some cases, text messages, emails and handwritten musings can count as open records, so don’t limit yourself when you request. (One of the student presenters noted that she had inadvertently limited her request to “formal complaints,” which yielded no results. A second pass at the request with the word “formal” eliminated got her a document or two.


  • Give yourself room to negotiate: I had never conceptualized of open-records request being like the way I approach buying stuff at a rummage sale, but this session gave me some food for thought. McBride said she often starts with a wider request, as in a larger swath of documents she asks for or a longer period of years than she might normally want. If the record keepers provide her with resistance because the request is too broad or request a large amount of money to meet the request, she often then narrows the focus to what she really wants. This prevents her from losing out on documents that she really wants but demonstrates a willingness to “meet people half way.”


  • Go as a person. Be polite, respectful and firm: Nyesha Stone mentioned this during the panel she presented with fellow students Jennifer Rick and Talis Shelbourne. Stone mentioned that she used to feel awkward in asking for interviews or documents, but once she started thinking about the importance of the information she was seeking, she started feeling less anxious in some cases. (One of the students, I can’t remember who, mentioned that although repeatedly asking for documents or interviews helped diminish anxiety, they imagined that even veterans of this stuff never fully get over nervousness. She’s right, at least from where I’m sitting.) What helped her was to go talk to people as a person, she said. You want to be polite and respectful but also firm in your purpose. It opened a lot of doors, she said, and made her feel like she was getting somewhere.


  • “The cheapest possible option:” As we’ve noted in the book and throughout the course of the blog, people who hold records and don’t want to give them to you will put up roadblocks in a variety of ways. One of the biggest ways is by trying to overcharge you for records and “research time.” McBride recommended that you ask for more recent documents first, as those are the least likely to be stored away somewhere that will require a lot of “research” to find them. She also mentioned something important: The people who hold the records have to lay out how much they think this will cost and how they came to that conclusion. In a lot of cases, research is based on X hours times whatever the hourly rate it costs for the person who does the digging. When this happens, she said, the people need to find the cheapest possible person eligible to find the records to do the digging. In other words, they can’t figure out what your chancellor’s salary is per hour and use that as a financial benchmark for the research costs. In addition, she noted that in Wisconsin, you receive the first $50 worth of location time for free.


  • “Write about it. You’ll get the records:” The other way in which people will try to block your access to the records is by trying to wait you out and make it feel pointless to access the records. They try to out-wait you because they know you are likely to have a limited time to fight or that students will eventually graduate, so the requests will just die off. One of the key “helpers” you have when it comes to trying to crack that nut is the Student Press Law Center, which we’ve discussed here earlier. They can provide some legal guidance and legal muscle as needed to prevent record keepers from taking advantage of students. McBride also noted that writing about the process and the reticence of the organizations to produce public records can help draw attention to the situation and shame organizations into doing the right thing.


For more help on your specific state laws or suggestions on how to get records, check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website.