THROWBACK THURSDAY: The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

A colleague posted a venting missive about a student’s grade-grubbing attempt at extra credit that caught my eye:

No I won’t negotiate your grade. No you can’t have “extra credit” considering you failed to do all of the 15 extra credit assignments during the semester. No, you’re not “ridiculously close” to an A with an 88.11%.
I promise you a news director when you graduate will not Grade your stories on a curve either you did it or you didn’t.
Also, I still don’t have obituaries from the two students who had grandmothers die and they couldn’t take the final, which was open for 50 hours.
The missive clearly hit a nerve, as many of us decided to chime in with our own, “OK, I can top that…” versions of student chutzpah.
In honor of the end of the semester and the myriad insane things professors are dealing with, I decided to bring back this classic that covers a lot of weirdness with some mirth and a few tips.
Enjoy.

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:

 

CONVERSATION 1: SO WE NEEDED THE BOOK?

Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.

CONVERSATION 2: I LOOKED EVERYWHERE!

The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
(Silence)
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”

 

CONVERSATION 3: I KNOW YOU SAID X, BUT…

Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”

CONVERSATION 4: HEY, DID I MISS ANYTHING?

Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.

CONVERSATION 5:

Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.

Helpful tips for student media outlets that want to cover the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade situation

A draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked late Monday night on the Politico website. The 98-page document, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would reverse the nearly 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutionally protected right to abortions in the United States, if it remains unchanged when the court formally renders its opinion.

I have a hard time imagining that many student media outlets wouldn’t have a vested interest in covering this situation as it unfolds. With that in mind, this post does not aim to direct the opinion of those students, nor to take a stand on the issue itself. The point of this post is to provide student journalists with some help in navigating some truly risky waters when choosing what, when and how to present information to their readers on this topic.

First, let’s start off with a few key things you need to be aware of before you even start thinking about publishing something here:

  1. You will not change most readers’ minds about anything on this topic. Most of what people think and believe about this issue will have been codified in their minds, hearts and souls long before you showed up. A good friend, who was perhaps prescient, posted this explanation from The Oatmeal of why it’s hard to change minds or get people to listen on certain issues the other day and it bears a look. Trying to move the needle on this issue among readers is going to be as successful as bailing out a sinking boat with a pasta strainer.
  2. There aren’t two sides to this. There are many facets. Certain topics tend to bring out the extremes when it comes to public opinion. Yes, there are probably people out there who believe that life begins when a man unhooks a woman’s bra. Conversely, there are probably people out there who believe there should be free abortion punch cards available at Starbucks. Those people do not represent the majority of people who have an interest in this issue. If you want to dig into this issue, you need to look beyond the loudest voices screaming threadbare talking points. It’ll take work.
  3. This is not law yet. This is a leaked first draft of a document that the public wasn’t supposed to see, at least not based on tradition and protocol. The information, including how many justices voted to make this a majority opinion, who they are, how tied to this they are, how much they support the language and more, is not codified through official channels or publicly declared by the court itself. A lot can happen in multiple aspects of this case, including what the final opinion looks like, if Congress will make moves to solidify abortion rights and other things nobody has thought about yet. When covering this issue, it’s crucial to keep that in mind when making declarative statements, asking questions of sources and writing content (particularly headlines where space limits can lead to fact errors).
  4. You are running out of semester. TV shows can be great when they use the “cliffhanger” approach at the end of a season. News doesn’t benefit from that kind of situation, so be aware of how much time you have left to cover this topic, how many issues you have yet to publish and how those things should factor into your approach here. A half-baked “get-er-done” story that runs in your last issue can likely lead to more harm than good when you lack the ability to correct any errors, follow up on any developments or otherwise continue telling the story. You might have one shot at this, so make sure it does what it needs to do.

With those things in mind, here are some tips and hints on how to approach this topic:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: If it sounds like I harp on this every time I write something, it’s only because that’s exactly what I’m doing. This isn’t the time or the issue where you should assume everyone is “exactly like me” or guess about how much of your readership feels a certain way about the topic. Even within the newsroom itself, people probably hold differing views on if this is the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen in this country. It’s also likely that many of those views will come as a surprise to folks once they are vocalized.

One key thing to do is to really assess who reads your paper and what matters most to them. In a case like this, it’s a little too late to do a readers survey, but you can look for some breadcrumbs that might be out there for the finding. Some private, religious schools might clearly lean more pro-life, but look around for pockets of dissent. Some liberal, public schools might lean more pro-choice, but look around for pockets of dissent.

Look for groups on campus that have voiced their opinions on topics before and see how large, engaged, involved and representative they are of the larger whole. Look for previous coverage in your publication of this issue to see who is out there and what they had to say. Talk to people in the newsroom and the classroom about this with the idea of finding out not just what they think, but also what their roommates, friends, teammates and peers think.

Get a handle on what kind of room you will be playing to when you publish your work.

RESEARCH LIKE HELL: You are looking at the possible reversal of a court decision that likely is older than some of your professors. In the nearly five decades since the court handed down its ruling in this case, a lot of stuff has happened. Your going to want to be the smartest person in the room on this topic before you start interviewing people and writing stories.

Learn as much as you can about the original case, the ruling and what changed because of it. Look at the other challenges to it over the years, including the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, to see what has transpired over the past 50 years or so. Look into the history of abortions within the United States to figure out what happened during times when the procedure was legal and illegal. You’ll likely need to spend some serious time digging into this, but the last thing you want to do interview someone without having a full view of the facts. This is one topic in which the stakes are too high to risk getting snowed by a source with a bias.

Here are some tips and hints for potential stories:

LOCAL IMPACT: The court ruling, if it becomes final in its current form, would essentially kick the decision of whether abortions should be legal back to the states. States have had widely varying laws regarding this procedure, as you can see from the series of maps from the Washington Post. Figuring out what will happen to your readers will matter a great deal in how you approach this topic. Some states have laws that go into effect the minute the Court reverses Roe. Others have laws that remain on the books from decades ago that simply stop getting overridden by the Feds. Others are looking for laws that will remove or improve access to abortions once all of this gets sorted out.

Everyone else will be talking at the federal/macro level on this. You should explain it at the local/micro level. This could entail everything from what your student health center is allowed to provide to if any private businesses in the area provide this service and will no longer be allowed to do so.

Your job is not to tell people the sky is falling or the world is finally going to be right. Your job is to factually outline what it is that has happened, will happen and could happen if this draft becomes final.

UNPACKING “UNPRECEDENTED” AGAIN: If COVID taught me anything, it was to hate the word “unprecedented.” However, this situation has rolled out more cases in which that word will likely apply. Start looking at them:

  • Talk to local legal scholars about the leak. Folks are initially saying this “has never happened in modern history.” That’s a dodge within a couch of an argument, given “modern history” could be anywhere from post-Civil War era to since last Tuesday. Find out from people who study this stuff how rare this actually is, what the value/problem with such a leak can be and the likely impact the leak will have on the final draft.
  • Talk to local experts in history and law regarding an overturn of this nature. How often does the court fail to apply precedent in a situation like this? What issues have seen this kind of shift before? What results usually occur in a situation when the Court zigs like this, both in terms of the decision at hand as well as other cases that could follow?
  • Talk to local political experts to see what kinds of steps the executive and/or legislative branches might take in response to this judicial decision. There is already a rumbling about getting rid of the filibuster and trying to crank through something in the House and Senate that would counterbalance the court decision. Pro-choice advocates have noted President Joe Biden’s relative silence on the issue, as well as his history voting on the topic. Will he look to define his presidency with a move on this topic? I don’t know, but I’d surely ask someone smarter than me about it.

HISTORY TRIP: Generations of people have existed in a world in which this topic was hotly debated, but also clearly codified into law. Generations of people also lived through a time before Roe v. Wade, so it would be valuable to find out what things were like back then.

Most of what I have heard falls into oft-repeated phrases like “back-alley procedures,” “under-cover-of-night travel,” “unscrupulous and dangerous” and more. What that actually means in terms of true history is beyond me in many cases, so finding people who can better provide context, truth and history will be helpful. (The 19th did a piece on this topic not too long ago that followed women’s memories through their experiences in the pre-Roe era, if you are interested.) Professors at your school who study history, women’s studies and other scholastic areas that traverse this topic could be helpful, as could sources who were involved in either side of the struggle back then.

It would also be interesting to look at both current and historical data regarding the number of overall procedures that occurred in your coverage area, if that is available. The thing most people forget in talking about overturning Roe v. Wade is that it won’t eliminate abortions. It will just make them illegal and harder to come by. The numbers might tell a story both “back when” and “right now.”

PERSONAL STORIES: This is one of those that really has a strong risk/reward element to it. It is highly probable that you have students at your school who, in some way, connect strongly to this topic. How they connect, what they are willing to share and to what degree the reporter can work with these sources will determine the overall value of something like this. If you are unsure as to how to proceed with this, I strongly recommend you talk to your adviser, smart professors who have experience in the field and other journalism folk who can help guide you.

FINAL NOTE: The one last important thing to keep in mind on something like this is that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. You might do an inordinate amount of work, only to find a weak or wobbly story that might not do the job you had hoped it would. There is no rule in journalism that dictates you publish it and take your chances. In many cases, caution is the better part of valor. This is probably one of those cases if you feel the story isn’t where it needs to be.

That said, don’t let fear of public reaction dissuade you from running a quality story. This is one of those topics where you will inevitably upset someone, so disabuse yourself of the notion that a well-reported, well-researched, factually based story will garner universal applause. If it’s good, run it.

Potential solutions for grade debates between students and professors

As the end of the semester draws near, grades tend to become a topic of consternation among students and professors. Students tend to worry about the outcome of their course work as it relates to their ability to graduate, move on or keep that ever-important GPA on the up-slope.

Professors, on the other hand, find themselves buried in grading, often wondering why we didn’t just show movies and mark attendance for 15 weeks. As we slog through the work we brought upon ourselves, students are questioning, begging and cajoling, all in desperate hopes of nudging grades just a little (or in some cases, a lot) higher.

I can’t solve every problem (or most of them) on the blog , but here are a few random ideas I have for making life a bit easier on all of us in regard to the grade debate.

Take them as seriously as they seem…

The “Peace with Honor” grade: I’m sure most students have failed to put in an appropriate amount of time on an assignment at some point in time. I’ve noticed this usually happens on essays or longer-form writing pieces, where the student figures if they pour enough BS into a Word document, the professor will decide to give them at least a few points.

The problem is that professors are often stuck when it comes to grading these papers, even with a quality rubric. We don’t know if you were having difficulty with the assignment, so we need to point out the errors in detail to help you for the next one, or if you just didn’t give a crap, so we’re wasting time telling you things you knew, but just didn’t do.

Thus, I propose a “Peace with Honor” grade approach.

When a student knows they are behind the 8-ball on an assignment, instead of BSing us to high heaven and having us wade through your BS, a student can write something simple like, “I know I should have dealt with this assignment better, but I’m not wasting your time trying to fake it.”

The professor, in gratitude, will fail the student with a specific amount of points (I’m a fan of 40-50%), with the idea that not having to comment on every stupid thing the student could have written will save time and defer carpal tunnel surgery.

 

The “I’m Better Than This” cease fire: In journalism, we care what you can do, not what your grades are once you graduate. To that end, many professors will encourage students to participate in student media to sharpen their skills and gain experience.

In more than a few cases, this is like encouraging someone to “just try” some cocaine so they can get a bunch of stuff done quickly. The students quickly become addicted to the newsroom and their GPA heads downhill like a stock market graph of the Great Depression.

Professors often start getting weaker work from those students because they’re running the paper or the radio station or the TV station. Suddenly, classes have become something of an fifth or eighth priority in their lives.

For some professors, this can become irritating because we KNOW you can do better at this work. For some students, this can also become irritating because they KNOW they are better than what the grades they get keep reflecting.

A potential solution is this cease-fire approach: I’ve told more than a few students, “Look, I get it. I once skipped six weeks of classes because I was dedicated to the student newspaper. I know why you’re disappearing like a kid running after a red balloon in a Stephen King novel. I also understand I’m not a top priority, so let’s try to make peace with this.

“I will promise not to ride you mercilessly about how crappy your work is in here, if you promise not to piss and moan about your lousy grades. We’ll get you through this alive, and once you end up running a professional newsroom, just make sure you keep your alma mater in mind for potential internship candidates. And don’t make GPA a requirement for successful applications when you’re running the show.”

 

The “One-Point, Death-Grade, Elevator-Pitch Shimmy” Approach: At the end of a semester in which we grade hundreds of papers across multiple sections and various courses, the computer will eventually spit out a number that correlates to your grade. In more than a few cases, that number will be riding juuuuuuuusssst on the line of a potentially life-altering edge.

For example, if 75 is the demarcation line between a C and a C-, and you need a C or better to continue in your program, you might find yourself sitting at 74.89. The difference between having to start all over with a course or be able to take what you’ve likely scheduled for next semester hangs in the balance of a professor’s attitude regarding rounding, grade-grubbing and the degree to which they want to tolerate you again.

Here’s the best I got for what I would consider “death grades,” the line between pass/fail, advance/retake or B-/C+ (It’s hard to sleep at night knowing you were THAT close to a B of any kind and came up short.): If you’re within a point or two of that death grade, we professors promise to tell you before we file. You have 24 hours to make up a 30-second elevator pitch that would convince us to buy your argument for a better grade.

If you use the words “deserve,” “worked hard,” “need this to graduate,” or any other whiny bull-pucky, you’re done. Gimme at least one or two concrete reasons that I told you were relatively important to this class that you learned or did that make you worthy of me shimmying  up your grade a tad.

My discretion in the end, but I gave you a chance.

And finally…

 

The “But I Tried Really Hard In This Class” Resolution: When your grade is somewhere in the vicinity of the Mendoza Line and you missed so many classes that I almost called in an Amber Alert on you , it’s kind of ballsy to make the claim of effort.

That said, numerous students do this every year, so here’s the best solution:

Good luck with finals and we’ll see you next time!

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The journalism films you should watch if you want to be a journalist (Part I)

Today in my reporting class, we’re watching the first film on this list, “Judging Jewell,” so I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at what I had here.

I’m still pretty locked in for my first, third and fourth picks. Given the more recent films I’ve seen and the suggestions of the hivemind, I might slip “The Post” in there for either two or five. I still like them both, but I did broaden my horizons.

I might also slip in one of the Fyre Fest documentaries, in that although they aren’t “journalism” films in the purest sense, they do demonstrate the importance of social media as a driver for social interests. Plus, it touches on how little reporting can go on with some stories, like those that made Billy McFarland an wunderkind. Or, to quote someone from one of the films, “I guess it doesn’t take much to fool a reporter these days.”

Still, read on and enjoy.

 

The journalism films you should watch if you want to be a journalist (Part I)

Journalism films are all over the place lately, as are documentaries about journalists. It seems like if a film can include a typewriter, somebody smoking indoors and a sense of “taking on The Man,” it’s on a screen these days. Seth Meyers did a fantastic send up of this on his late-night show:

 

In the 1970s, “All The President’s Men” became the “must-watch movie” for journalism students. When I was in college, we gravitated to “The Paper,” as we all seemed to know random guys like Randy Quaid’s character who bordered on insane. (One of my newsroom friends started calling me “Hackett” after Michael Keaton’s Coke-guzzling, workaholic character.) Now? It could be one of a dozen or more fictional, documentary or “based on a true story” films, so I dug back through IMDB and put out the question to the Hivemind on what was “required” watching for budding journalists.

Below are my “Top Five” films in no particular order with some rationale behind my picks. I tended to consider three things in each pick I made:

  1. Did I watch it more than once because I liked something about it?
  2. Does it give viewers something important in it, regardless of the genre or format?
  3. Do I think students would actually watch this if they weren’t forced to and actually enjoy it?

Those considerations knocked out a couple films for me that others picked up on. I’m also quite certain it will have people screaming at me that I’m wrong.

In any case, here we go:

1) Judging Jewell (2014, ESPN: 30 for 30) – At shade under 22 minutes, this story packs a lot of lessons into a short space. In 1996, a bomb shattered the peace of the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killing 2 people and injuring more than 100 others. This could have been much worse had it not been for the heroic actions of Richard Jewell, a security guard who was working at the Games for AT&T. Jewell spotted the package and began moving people away from that area before the bomb detonated.

Jewell was originally considered a hero, but the media turned on him when public sentiment held that Jewell was likely the bomber. What followed was an 88-day “trial by media” that demonstrates what can happen when the race to get the story becomes all-consuming. (My favorite lesson comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ran a line about how Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber,” and why attribution matters so much in news writing.) Jewell was eventually exonerated, as terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was captured and confessed to the bombing. However, Jewell never really recovered. This is a sad story and yet a good cautionary tale for journalists.

2) Spotlight (2015) Critics have compared this film to the classic “All The President’s Men,” in that it shows how reporting can bring down a powerful institution. It also has similarities in the ways in which the journalists had to engage in real “shoe leather” reporting to make this happen. The critical nature of sources, fact checking, working around problems and other things journalists pride themselves on are on full display here. One of the more interesting things is the early resistance from within the paper when it comes to “going after” the church. Although, like most “based on a true story” movies, we know how it will end, the tension that comes from the fear of being wrong makes this both a tale of aspiration and one of caution.

 

3) Shattered Glass (2003) – In between his stints as a young Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen portrayed another character drawn to the dark side. Stephen Glass was a young, well-liked journalist at The New Republic when he engaged in a series of fraudulent behaviors that shook the magazine to its core in the late 1990s. Glass started by faking a few quotes here and there before eventually writing pure fiction and passing it off as fact. The epilogue of the film notes that 27 of the 41 pieces he published during his time at the magazine were partially or completely made up, not to mention fabrications he freelanced to a number of other publications.

Some aspects of the film, which is now 15 years old and based on an incident that happened two decades ago, don’t age well for younger viewers. The idea of having to use “every search engine on the web” to get information seems quaint, as does the discussion of the fear associated with an “internet publication going after a giant.” That said, the lessons are fantastic.

At some point in life, almost everyone has wanted to be “the cool kid.” Glass fell into that trap, as you can see in the “60 Minutes” interview below. He loved the attention and would do anything to get it, including wandering down a path of self-destruction.

I would also wager, most people also have found themselves in a jam at some point and thought, “If I just cut a corner here, I could get out of this alive.” Some do it and convince themselves they’ll “only do it this once.” Like most other things that are horrible for you, it’s never just once. If you take the Red Pill, you never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole. Even today, Glass is still dealing with his past.

4) The Paper (1994) – It’s fiction, it’s ridiculous in spots and yet it is one of the few films that captures the complete randomness of life in a newsroom. From the A/C that breaks to the guy who swears he has “Watergate” on every story, this is a funny story with a great cast. If nothing else, this scene just nailed it for me:

“Who the hell took my stapler?”

If I had a dollar for every time something in a newsroom made me laugh, I’d be able to fund all the newspapers in the world forever. This movie reminds me of that every time I watch it. Probably a biased pick, but give it a look and tell me I’m wrong.

5) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – A wrestler, a sex tape and sleazy internet publication are at the central junction point of this film and perhaps the most important free-press case in decades. The movie looks at the trial of Bollea v. Gawker, which pits wrestling star Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) against an internet gossip magazine. Gawker was a publication that a lot of people hated for being mean-spirited and snotty, but it also went after “true things about bad people” to quote a former worker. However, at the heart of this case and this film are several crucial questions including, if a sex tape is news, who gets to decide that and what forces are at play behind all of this.

The film goes beyond the “guess who saw the naughty stuff” issue and digs into who was funding Hogan’s legal team, what other multi-millionaires are out there potentially undercutting press freedoms and what this means going forward.

 

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about everything, if you so choose.

(2022 NOTE: Here’s the link to part II if you are interested.)

 

In God We Trust. Everybody Else Gets Recorded

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has found himself playing a lot of defense this week, as recordings of his calls in and around Jan. 6 hit the media. The recordings appear to directly contradict McCarthy’s frequent statements that he did not and would not tell President Trump to resign in the wake of the Capitol Riots:

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) – Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, came under fire from some of his fellow party members, after an audio recording showed him saying that then-President Donald Trump should resign over the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot.

The comments, which McCarthy had denied hours before the recording emerged, could undermine his widely known ambition to become House speaker next year if Republicans take control of the chamber in November’s midterm elections, as expected.

We could spend an entire post with clips of politicians of every stripe saying they never said something, followed by audio or video evidence that shows they said that EXACT THING. It’s why this joke rings so true:

Q: How can you tell when politicians are lying?
A: Their lips are moving.

Instead, let’s talk about the importance of recording everything you can shake a stick at when you interview sources. Here are a few things to keep in mind while doing that:

Rules for recordings

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that federal law allows you to record calls and other similar communication with just one party to the call knowing that the recording is happening.  In addition, 38 states have adopted similar “one-party consent” rules, which allows you to record someone without their consent. The other 12 states require that all parties involved in a phone call or other similar discussion consent to the recording. In almost no circumstance can you record a call to which you are not a party, a concept often referred to as wiretapping.

You can find a full listing of the states and their laws on recording on here on the committee’s website.

What you “can” do doesn’t include what you “should” do, in that trust and credibility play a pretty big role in what we do. Thus, ethically, it’s better to just ask people right up front if you can record the call or record them in person when you’re conducting the interview in most cases. If you’re trying to catch someone in a lie, that might not work, but if you’re interviewing the Queen of Corn Elise Jones about her exciting duties that go with the title, I doubt you’ll need to be surreptitious.

Also, for all the grumping journalism traditionalists do over email interviews (and I include myself among the grumps), the use of email does provide you with a written transcript of what the person said, so it’s a lot harder for them to cry foul when the stuff hits the fan over their comments.

What if a source says no?

One of the risks of behaving ethically is that someone might tell you not to record the interview. In that case, you have a few options.

Explain why you want to record them (to provide the most complete record, to back up your notes in case you misunderstand something, to allow you to be more conversational because you aren’t burying your head in your notes), in hopes that this will soften their stance.

If that doesn’t work, make the case that this is good for both of you because it protects both of you from having mistakes get into the public sphere. It’s also good to have that record for future examination, in case something needs to be looked back upon.

If none of that works, you’re kind of stuck between doing the interview without the recorder or not doing the interview. It’s a choice, but be ready to make that choice either way.

How best to record

Before you do any recording, you should have tested out your recorder in a few different environments. See what kind of range you get, the overall sound quality the device provides and if anything you would normally encounter in an interview would limit the device’s effectiveness. (If the source is playing with a pencil on the desk where your recorder sits, will you hear nothing but a series of TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP sounds?)

People can get jittery when they’re being recorded. Interviews themselves can freak people out, so the idea that every word they say is being preserved for all time can make things a little more anxiety-provoking. (A broadcast student of mine referred to interviews that go to hell because of a recorder fear as the source having “red light syndrome.”)

That little red light on a recorder can be a powerful tool, so it’s best to keep it away from them. If you have a recorder that can pick up sound from a bit of a distance, you can keep the recorder in your hand and flip over a piece of your reporter’s notebook to cover the thing. Eventually the source will forget it’s there and relax, I would hope.

If that won’t work, I try to at least obscure the red light or place it in an unobtrusive space. The goal is for it to blend into the background. If your recorder is so weak that you almost have to lodge the thing into the source’s nasal cavity to get a decent recording, buy something better.

 

Best Practices for Recording

It makes a lot of sense to purchase a separate recording device if you have the ability and funds to do so. Depending on if you need broadcast quality audio or just something you can hear and understand, costs can range between $20 or so to upwards of a couple hundred.

It is possible to use your phone to record in a pinch, but a lot can go wrong, including an app that only records a few minutes because it’s a “free” edition (and they never told you that) or an app that gets knocked off any time you get a text or alert. Also, battery issues are pretty prominent when it comes to most of my students’ phones, as they’re usually on their hands and knees in the classroom before class, searching for a power outlet.

For recording phone conversations, that mini-recorder plus your phone on speaker works well for low-grade audio. If you have a landline, which most of you probably don’t unless you work in an office that has these dinosaurs, you can get a phone coupler for a couple bucks online that allows you to jack your recorder right into the phone itself. (In days before this technology, reporters would drill holes in their phones and wire in recording devices. It looked cool, but the tech was risky.)

In any case, here are some basic tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure your recorder is functional and ready for recording. Do a test recording, check the batteries, bring extra batteries and generally make sure this thing will do the job.
  2. Test the recorder in the environment you’ll be recording, when possible. If you have some annoying background noise, see if you can move the interview elsewhere or tell your roommate to turn down the Cardi B. for 20 minutes.
  3. Start the recorder before the interview and ask the person if they would allow you to interview. This seems counterintuitive, but the goal is to capture the person’s answer on the recording. If they say yes, the thing is already going and they didn’t see you turn it on or place it somewhere so they aren’t freaking out as much. Plus you have the confirmation on “tape.” (or whatever term we’re using for digital stick recorders)
  4. If the source says no and won’t change their mind, pick up the device and shut it off in front of them to clearly show you’re abiding by their wishes. It’ll help with trust and credibility. Then, be prepared for hand cramps.
  5. Keep the recorder going all the way until you are out of the presence of the interview subject. Even after you agree you’re “done,” things can come up or other questions can happen. You want those recorded.
  6. Immediately check your recorder after  you are outside of the interview to make sure it worked. If it didn’t, you can pour some additional work into fleshing out your notes while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you figure out what went wrong and now the recorder works, you might be able to run back in for a quick follow up question or two before the source is involved in something else.

Hope this helps. Any other suggestions or thoughts on this are always appreciated.

Vince

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

Action Snark: The $43 billion cost of a “platform for free speech around the globe”

Billionaire Elon Musk will spend $43 billion to acquire Twitter, the first step in taking the company private, according to multiple media reports released Monday morning.

What this means is in the eye of the beholder.

Business Today’s take, in part:

Musk wants to maintain this “free speech” status for Twitter so that he can, for all practical purposes, continue s%$t posting on the platform without consequences. If he owns the platform, he also does not need to listen to governments’ grievances. For example, what would Musk do if the Indian government demanded (again) that certain tweets be deleted and accounts blocked?

The New Yorker looked at this in a similar way, but with more of an “old boys’ club” vibe:

His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

The once-and-future-king question for Donald Trump’s return to Twitter was the focal point of this Bloomberg look:

Musk has said he prefers to stay out of politics, but there are good reasons to suspect a Musk-owned Twitter would reactivate President Trump’s account. Beyond saying at TED that he wants to be “very cautious with permanent bans,” Musk applauded the former president two years ago when Trump supported Tesla’s plans to reopen a California car factory during the Covid-19 lockdown. And in a few recent tweets, Musk appears to embrace the right-wing, Fox News-bingeing perspective on various cultural flashpoints. (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” Musk tweeted last week.)

Time magazine might be rethinking the 2021 Person of the Year award they tossed at the tech billionaire, if this is their take on the problems with this supposed “free speech” move:

But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.

What is lost in all of this, at least for the moment, is the full understanding of what free speech is, how it works and why our traditional checks against some of the worst abuses will be lost in this move.

First, and we’ve only said this 10,242 times on this site, free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want, however you want and without consequence. From at least the U.S. perspective, it’s the ability to express yourself without fear of government interference. Private definitions of “free speech” vary widely based on who is making the definition and how speech is policed, censored or punished. I’m sure if you asked a citizen living under a dictatorial regime right now about free speech, that person would say, “Oh we totally have free speech here. We just have to watch what we say about XYZ.” Thus, the problem with this blanket term.

Second, people feeling like they’re given unfettered speech freedom are unlikely to think before they use it. This reminds me of the documentary I saw on the old “Action Park,” where the owners basically built a bunch of insanely dangerous rides and activities and told people, “You’re in control. Go for it.”

Thus, all sorts of things that Twitter’s guardrails used to prevent will now be unleashed in the name of free speech, leading to a ridiculous number of harmful things that none of us can stop, but most of us can foresee. When someone disagrees with someone else about anything from the political prowess of Joe Biden to the length of the foul lines at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, we’re going to see the rage machine start to redline the engine. Suddenly, we’re all wondering how six people got stabbed to death in real life because nobody wanted to say, “Look, it was 315 down the line and stop calling that guy a lib-tard.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have Musk in a position where his wealth overrides the free-speech system as it was intended to operate. In most cases, free speech carries with it responsibilities and consequences: We need to act responsibly in what we say about people, for fear of suffering legal consequences.

Thus, if some kid writes on Twitter that I’m taking money for grades, and this really gains traction and I get in trouble, I can sue that kid. If I prove the kid was negligent in his speech (or in some cases he knowingly lied), I can recoup financial losses and a court can assign punitive financial penalties to that kid. In short, free speech, when done poorly, can cost you.

Now, look at Musk. First, he’s probably got a function argument that he’s protected under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which tends to hold platforms blameless for user content.

Second, let’s say he screws that up and encourages bad action on the platform, what’s the penalty? If you sue him, he’s got enough money to legally bury in motions and documents you before you get anywhere near a courtroom.

If you manage to survive all that and win, a ridiculously high bar to clear, then what? He buries you in appeals until you go broke. IF you manage to get through all of that and still win an financial award from him, it’s not really a consequence for him.

This guy has what people who report on rich folks call “F— You Money.” It’s the level of wealth that essentially allows you to tell everyone around you “F— you” and not care. He literally had enough money to send himself to space because Earth is so last century… You think he’s going to worry what you’ll do to him if Twitter lead to the end of modern civilization? Gimme a break.

It’ll be interesting to see what all this leads to, much in the same way it’s interesting when you find that you left a Tupperware container full of noodle salad in your backpack in the back of your closet since freshman year. God alone knows what we’re dealing with, but it’s probably not something we’re all going to be thrilled with.

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

A friend who monitors all sorts of internet activity hit me with a message a day or so ago with the question: “What did you do to your students?” Apparently, he found this fun nugget on one of his favorite sites:

 

I honestly don’t care about the post, but I wished the kid had talked to me about whatever it was that was bugging them. I think in a lot of way that’s much more productive than stewing in silence.

With that in mind for today’s Throwback Thursday, I bring you the post that tries to cut off the student insanity at the pass:

 

Four things journalism professors wish we could get students to understand as soon as humanly possible

Kermit Freaking Out GIF - Kermit FreakingOut Crazy GIFs

(“Professor… I’m kind of freaking out just a little bit right now…”)

Around this time of year, I’m getting four distinct types of panicked contact from students, and it usually breaks down along the “year in school” divides:

  • SENIORS: “I’m sorry I’m bothering you…” followed by concerns about everything from graduation to a class assignment to how to find a job.
  • JUNIORS: “I don’t know what I’m doing with (ASSIGNMENT) and I don’t know why I have to do this… I’m going into (FILL IN FIELD WHERE THEY WILL TOTALLY NEED THIS BUT THEY DON’T KNOW IT YET).”
  • SOPHOMORES: “I’ve always been told I’m a great writer, but I’m not doing really well in your class and I’m worried I’m going into the wrong field.”
  • FRESHMEN: “I’m really worried about my grade in this class…”

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, these questions show up with predictable levels of certainty each year about now. It would be so much easier if we could just answer all of them, all at once, right up front and let the students get the message clearly.

With that in mind, here are the four things that could answer all of those questions, in advance, and make all of our lives easier:

YOU ARE NEVER A BOTHER WHEN YOU ARE ASKING FOR HELP: I wish I had a dollar for every email, phone call, D2L message or personal interaction I had with a student that began with them saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”

I’d buy the Cleveland baseball team and stock the thing with every decent player in the league.

I think that students worry about bothering us because they’re trained to think that we’re really important or that whatever we’re doing is more important than they are. The truth is, for most of us, anyway, we really enjoy working with them to make their work better. We also enjoy helping them get to that “light bulb comes on” moment where they figure out whatever had been a struggle for so long. We also enjoy getting to know them as more than a name on a grade sheet.

And, if they don’t believe all of that, here’s one that’s kind of self-serving: The more we help you up front, the better your piece will be in the end and the less time we will spend grading the thing.

In terms of helping you with “life stuff?” Heck, that’s what we LIVE for. It feels great to know that whatever we did in our interactions with you made you feel comfortable enough to ask us for help in some of those big life decisions. Plus, we probably have gone through this stuff before, or at least helped other students go through it, so we know how to succeed at it.

So, show up at office hours. Email us. Just randomly stick your head in the door when you see it’s open.

Trust me. You’re never a bother.

WE HAVE A GOOD REASON FOR WHATEVER WE’RE DOING, SO TRUST US AND PLAY ALONG: At the beginning of each semester, my students tend to think that I’m old, cranky and addled and to be fair, I actually deserve this.

When I was 19, I took a class with a guy who thought he was “hip” even though he was “middle-aged” and he kept referencing his glory days in college days. Finally, I’d kind of had it, so when he said, “Back in (YEAR) when I was a sophomore at Iowa State…” I cut him off with, “Yeah, Steve, back in (YEAR) when I was in third grade…”

That wasn’t very bright, and God’s been punishing me ever since.

How else can you explain my reference to One Direction being met with, “Oh, Dr. Filak! You like the oldies too?”

So, I get it. We’re old, cranky, addled and we probably think that newspapers are going to last forever. We have nothing to teach you and those stupid grammar exercises aren’t going to help, let alone that story about covering the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or whatever story it was we were telling the other day…

Guess what? Most of us still actually know stuff and can help you get where you want to go if you’ll just give it a shot. The key in this field is that there are several bedrock principles that really haven’t changed over time: Be accurate, get to the point, tell people what they need to know and be clear. There are ways to make that happen that you don’t know because you aren’t as old as dirt and haven’t done it so many times you could practically write an armed robbery brief in your sleep.

We have these tools and we know these things because we’ve been around a lot and we’ve done them an awful lot. We’re not trying to torture you with pointless activities because we receive 30 free steaks for every student we piss off. We’re not trying to fill your head with an ideology so we can create an army of drones who will do as we see fit in the world of media. (Hell, I can’t even make the DOG do what I want, and I have access to all the Pupperonis in the world…)

The next time you think we’re being unreasonable, take one of two approaches:

  1. Treat us like you treat your grandfather at Thanksgiving and play along like this is all new and you are totally interested. “No, Grandpa, you didn’t tell me about the time you struck out Babe Ruth in a minor-league game… What was that like?” Then, actually listen and see if there’s something there you might have dismissed the 148 other times you heard the story.
  2. Ask why you have to do this, but do it in a way where you actually want to know the answer, as opposed to the long drawn out “WHHHHHHYYYYYY?!?!” that is usually followed by that “ugghhh” noise you make to show displeasure. If your professor is worth their salt, they’ll have an answer that will help you make sense of this. If not, well… OK… Let’s hope that doesn’t happen…

In most cases, we’ve built the class with a purpose in mind: To make our students better at stuff. Everything builds toward that, whether you see it or not.

YOU WILL NOT BE PERFECT AT THIS, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN LIFE, RIGHT AWAY: The first writing assignment my media-writing class does is one sentence long: A lead rewrite. When I introduce it to them, I tell them, “This is going to take three class periods to complete and you’re probably still going to struggle with it.”

I then get the stares that say, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are? What kind of student takes three class periods to write one frickin’ sentence?”

The answer: All of them.

I watch as they try to wrangle nouns and verbs like they’re grabbing a fistful of Jell-O. I see them write a sentence only to delete the thing one character at a time, stabbing the “delete” button like they’re firing bullets into the screen. I smile when the “I’m a natural writer” kid tells me, “Nailed it” and then realizes when we read it over that it’s missing at least three W’s and the H.

When they finally do get the lead to vaguely function, they often tell me, “This is way harder than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a journalist.”

Every professor in this profession knows the response to that statement: “It gets easier the more you do it. You just need to practice. You also have to understand it’ll never be perfect.”

I don’t know why students expect to be perfect at things on the first pass. I’m sure I could devolve into some old-guy, get-off-my-lawn, damned-kids-and-their-hippity-hoppity-music tirade if I felt up to it, but it really wouldn’t be accurate. What I do know is that nothing I’ve ever written has been perfect, no matter how much time I poured into it or how long other people have looked at it.

I have the best editorial pit crew in the business at SAGE and we go over everything at least a dozen times and we STILL aren’t perfect. Every edition, I’m rewriting things with the “What the hell is this crap?” thought rolling through my head. Every proof that comes through, we find another “Good grief, that could have been really bad!” mistake.

And we do this for a living.

If there’s one thing I want my students to understand before they leave here, it’s that nothing they ever write will be perfect. Also, nothing they ever do in life will be perfect. It’s admirable to pursue perfection, with the goal of making something as good as it can be for the betterment of society. However, if you let perfection get in the way of the possible or relatively decent, you’re wasting your time and your talent frozen in fear.

Do the best you can each time. It’ll keep getting better.

NO ONE IN THIS FIELD CARES ABOUT YOUR GPA, SO STOP OBSESSING ABOUT IT: Journalism is a “What can you do for me?” field, not a “My college rank was X” field or a “Do you know who my father is?” field. The skills you build and hone, the talents you develop and apply and the general ability to get the job done is what people who hire you will care about.

In almost 25 years of teaching, I have heard of exactly two cases in which a student went to a job interview and someone asked about their GPA. (In one case, I knew the editor and when I called to ask about this, he said, “Yeah, that was stupid. I kind of blanked on what I wanted to ask, so I went there.” The other was from a reporter at a paper who must have been all of 22.5 years old and asked it in the tone of, “Yeah? So what do you bench, bro?”)

The best students I’ve taught and sent into the field were not always the “A” students. In fact, a lot of “C” kids did really well for themselves for a number of reasons:

  1. They got C’s because they were never in class because they were pouring their lives into student media.
  2. They got their butts kicked by an assignment or three and used that to motivate themselves to figure out what went wrong.
  3. They weren’t “test” people, but rather “make it work” people. If you needed a story done in five minutes, those folks could do it. If you wanted a ScanTron test completed, it was like Kryptonite to Superman.

I’m not saying grades aren’t important, nor am I saying that getting an A makes you some kind of Pointdexter. What I am saying is that if you’re sitting outside of my office every day, noting that you’ve calculated your grade in the class down to the .00001 place and if I were to just round it a little, it could get you that A- you need to keep close to a 3.8… Well… You’re obsessing about the bark that’s on a tree and ignoring the fact you’re in a forest.

The one who shall not be named: An effort to keep the focus off mass shooters in media coverage and three reasons why it might not matter

An interesting article published this week in The Fourth Estate looks at the issue of how law enforcement and media have sought to keep mass shooters’ names out of the public eye:

Supporters of not naming perpetrators make the case that the less written, spoken or known about the perpetrators, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous from such horrific acts. Whether this trend of reducing the naming of mass shooters helps reduce mass shootings or perhaps makes them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Lax gun laws in the U.S. and the lack of mental health services are two of the most discussed reasons. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet clear how much notoriety is a factor for potential shooters. But we do know that the news media is heeding the call to limit naming perpetrators in mass shootings.

Thomas J. Hrach,  an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis explained this as part of a larger review of his research into the naming of shooters in these cases. While his research has several caveats, he does point out that the media’s naming people who have committed these acts has decreased significantly over the years.

Organizations like “Don’t Name Them” and “No Notoriety” have long pushed for media outlets to limit the name usage associated with mass killers. These and other groups have stated that the naming of these shooters leads to copycat crimes, increased intentions to act among potential shooters and the diminished attention that should be paid to victims.

Research has indicated a “contagion effect” can occur in incidents like these, although Hrach’s study noted that naming the shooter or the volume of coverage has yet to be directly linked to increased incidents. In other words, we don’t entirely know what drives people to do this, but we at least examining to what degree media coverage impacts these situations.

In working through my mass-shooting series a few years back, I’d read a lot of various opinions on these issues and found no real consensus on how best to cover something like this. I also came up with three confounding variables that might make all of this “to name or not to name” discussion moot:

TRENDS OF MASS SHOOTINGS: Trying to come up with a standard for what counts as a “mass shooting” or a “shooting spree” or a “mass killer” makes data almost useless in some cases. That said, whenever an organization applies some base-level look at shooting deaths that occur in bunches to a series of incidents, one thing is clear: we’ve trended up over the past 40-some years.

Mother Jones did one that lists the mass shootings from 1982 to present and we can see that we are getting more mass shootings in the more recent end of the spectrum than we have in the beginning end of the spectrum. What is strange is the degree to which each case gained notoriety, leaving open the possibility of media coverage being a contributing factor.

For example, the Columbine shooting is often part of the larger discussion because it involved two high school students killing their classmates. However, the Mother Jones database lists a similar high school shooting in Springfield, Oregon less than a year earlier. The Sandy Hook shooter’s name and face are burned into the fabric of society while the two shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas lack that level of fame.

For me, the strange thing is that the increase of shootings has almost made it impossible for me to remember names and incidents, an admission of which I am quite ashamed. I do remember certain names because they involved incidents that hit so close to home: The Sikh temple in my home state, the Virginia Tech situation, the Northern Illinois situation and the Columbine shooting, in part due to a friend’s connection to the area. The others have become nameless.

If Hrach’s research is on the right track, this might be because the media isn’t beating us over the heads with the names as much anymore. Or, it just might be that it’s harder to keep track of every one of these incidents, as they’ve become disturbingly more common than they used to be.

NOT EVERY MEDIA OUTLET PLAYS BY THE SAME RULES: The famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about Babe Ruth bears repeating here. On a train to an away game, a group of reporters is playing cards when a naked Babe Ruth comes running through the train car being chased by a semi-nude woman with a knife. The senior scribe pauses before saying, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we didn’t just see what we saw.” The story went unreported in the papers and didn’t emerge until years later.

The point is that we don’t have such a limited set of “gates” on information anymore that are ruled by a few gatekeepers. Pretty much any ham-head with a phone and social media account can publish anything at any point. Sure, it’s great if the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN enter into that “gentlemen’s agreement” not to name a shooter, or to limit the identification of that person to X number of times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

Websites, online broadcasters and social media operations can decide to run or not run whatever they want, with many not having the same level of journalistic training and education as some of the more traditional or established outlets. In many cases, fringe outlets delight in publishing things that these storied legacy media don’t or wouldn’t put out there. And, really, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

PEOPLE ARE NOSY: Humans have an innate curiosity about things that happen around them. When given limited information on a topic, there is a high probability that people will go nose around to find out what they’re missing.

It can be on simple things like when someone says, “I need to tell you three things…” and then only talks about two of them. In my own mind, I’m usually ignoring whatever the heck the second thing is if the conversation about it gets too long because I’m thinking, “OK, what’s the third thing?” It drives me bonkers when a sports announcer says something like, “Jose Ramirez has just become the fourth player in Cleveland history to (DO SOMETHING),” and the announcer doesn’t tell me who were the other three.

It’s also why game shows like “Let’s Make a Deal” were so successful: People were torn between what they knew they had in their hand and whatever mystery was behind Door Number Two.

When it comes to terrible situations like mass shootings, those curiosities emerge as well. I was watching a documentary about a 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre, an event I’d never heard of before. Throughout the documentary, the participants never named the shooter. About half way through, the documentarian noted that he refused to name this person because he wanted to focus on the victims. As much as every element of this film was spellbinding, once it was over, I found myself Googling this event to find out who this guy was and what his problem was.

Withholding information can lead to more interest in a situation than simply laying out everything for the audience. It’s why we preach transparency in public relations as, to quote Ivy Lee, it’s better to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

I’m sure there’s a balance between pounding the audience over the head with the names of these people and making sure not to tempt the curious. I’m also sure I don’t know where that is, so it might be a while before we figure it out.

 

How to write cover letters for journalism jobs in the age of digital media

As students have been plugging away at internship packets and job applications, one of the hardest things they’ve had to face is how best to write a cover letter. Of the many requests I get each year, “How do I write a cover letter?” is among the top three when it comes to trying to get hired.

Andrew Seaman of LinkedIn (who was also nice enough to pony up some thoughts for the reporting book) recently published a piece for a more general audience that asked the question, “Should you include a cover letter?” He makes some great points, including the one that people seeking a job need to tattoo to a body part they look at a lot: If someone asks for something in a job ad, GIVE IT TO THEM.

(I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the hiring end of a situation in which we asked for something simple three references, and instead I get somewhere between 0-2 or 4-383 references. And these are people with doctorates who want to teach the next generation of critical thinkers and investigative journalists… Good grief.)

I’ve often told students I never met anyone who got a job solely on the merit of their cover letter, but I have met plenty of folks who have been tossed aside because of a lousy one. Even in today’s day and age of digital media, while a cover letter might seem as quaint as a horse and buggy ride to you, it might be a big deal the people you hope will hire you.

To that end, let’s walk through what I consider to be a pretty decent approach that has done at least some good to the students who swear by this process:

OPEN WITH A CONNECTION:

In advertising we talk about engaging an audience to get their attention. In opinion writing, we talk about the need to stimulate interest to hold on to a browsing reader. In all forms of media, we talk about the importance of connecting with the audience. That’s what we want to do right off the blocks with the opening paragraph: Grab the reader by the eyeballs and make a connection.

There are three good ways to connect with people in a situation like this:

  1. Direct connection
  2. Indirect connection
  3. Tangential connection

A direct connection is the best of the bunch and is part of why we all consider networking to be valuable. If you went to a journalism conference and met a recruiter for the Johnson Journal, she might say, “Hey, we have an internship this summer that you might want to consider.” That connection can be helpful in pulling you to the top of the stack, if she remembers you. That’s why you want to start with something like, “It was great to meet you this fall at the ABC Media conference, where we talked about potential internship opportunities. Given what you told me there, I was excited to see you had this internship available and I couldn’t wait to apply.”

An indirect connection tends to be the most common ones we have and usually the ones we tend not to exploit well enough. I’m guessing that any professor in your field gets a goodly number of emails or messages from former students who are now looking to hire an intern or a starting-level employee. The former student trusts the professor and if the professor trusts you, that’s a great “in” you need to tap: “Professor Smith said you were looking for a hard worker to fill your internship position this summer, and he recommended that I send you my résumé.”

A tangential connection is the weakest, but it’s at least showing some level of effort. If you lack any specific “in” with a potential employer, consider telling the employer where you found their advertisement and why you felt compelled to apply for the opening. You could also look for a way to tie your interests to their needs. In doing this you could mention how you covered specific things such as crime or sports and that is what drew you to the company’s open position for a crime reporter or a sports reporter. Look for a way to reach out and explain to the person reviewing résumés, “Hey, I’m interested in you for a good reason!”

PAIR YOUR “HAVES” WITH THEIR “WANTS”

In college, I found myself getting screwed a lot on essay tests because I would “fail to answer the entire question” in my answer. What I realized after getting that scrawled across more than a few blue book tests was that I’d get really into the weeds on one or two parts of the test and manage to skip some mundane element that cost me points.

To prevent this from happening again, I would bring a highlighter into the test and literally go through and highlight every verb and subsequent clause on the test question. When I would answer each one, I’d check it off in pen. It seemed somewhat reductive and maybe even childlike, but then again, so were some of my gen ed courses.

The technique ended up serving me well in developing cover letters over the years because I realized that everyone was writing the same cover letter, in which they just repeated their resume in essay format for every job opening out there. I had accidentally used this method to stumble on the idea that Tim Stephens would explain to me years later: “I don’t care what you have done. I care what you can do for me.”

To make the letters work better for me, I would print out a copy of the job description and start highlighting those verbs again, looking at what these people “wanted” and picking out the ones that I wanted to cover in my letter:

  • Work under deadline pressure
  • Write clean copy
  • Demonstrate proficiency in social media

Then I’d start working on paragraphs that didn’t repeat my resume, but connected my experiences to their requirements in the form of neat little pairs:

“You noted in your position description that you need someone who works well under deadline pressure. As a news reporter at the Campus Crier, I often found myself working on tight deadlines including one case where I got a tip about the university’s president resigning. In less than two hours, I managed to get the story confirmed and written. Even better, I scooped the local paper.”

Not every need will attach itself to one of your great adventures in media, but you should look for those opportunities to show people what you did and how it can be of benefit to them.

At this point, I usually have a student ask, “Wait, you mean I need to write a different cover letter for each job I want? That’s a lot of work!”

True, but consider the following things:

TWEAKING, NOT REBUILDING: You are likely going to be applying for more than one job at a time, but I’m guessing that you’ll be applying in generally the same area, so there will be some kinds of overlap among the job requirements. It’s not like one thing you’ll be looking for will require experience covering criminal justice and the other will require six months as a certified fry cook. It’s more tweaking than rewriting from scratch.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY: Exactly how many job applications are you sending out at one point in time that would make this an arduous task? If you’re literally just throwing a resume at everything that pops up on LinkedIn one day, you might really want to reconsider your application strategy. Also, I’m not sure that your patented “I’m a hard worker line” is going to resonate in a letter that you were literally too lazy to change in order to make it unique to a particular job.

THAT SPECIAL FEELING: You should actually WANT the job you’re going to apply for, which means you’ll want to take the time to make these people feel like you WANT the job. Treating each one of these things like it’s at least a little special will go a long way and show that you actually aren’t just machine-gunning applications out there like Rambo trying to take out an entire platoon.

Think about it this way: Did you ever get or give a “prom-posal?” I had never heard of these things before I had a kid who was in high school and got one. The idea is to make some sort of public showing of your interest in a significant other in hopes of getting that person to go with you to a school dance or other event. (I know. I make it sound so hot…)

If you’re old like me and don’t know what this is, here’s a compilation of ones that apparently worked:

(I prefer these when things went wrong, but hey, I covered the crime beat most of my life. I’m a huge fan of entropy…)

In the ones that worked, it was pitched to one person, with a clear connection to that person, in a very personal way. (The baseball player and the “strike out” theme was nice, as was the dog thing, I must say…)

Now imagine instead if it was just some random dude in school running up to every girl he saw in the hall with a sign that just said, “PROM? yes or no!” Exactly how far do you think that “prom-posal” was going to get? At best, he’s going alone to prom. At worst, he’s now on a registry of some kind.

The point is, you want the letter to work. Doing it faster just to get it done, showing no sense that you value the places to which you are applying and not caring about the results will likely land you in the reject pile.

THE MONEY PARAGRAPH:

After you outline your skills and traits but before you thank the person for considering your application sits the most important couple of sentences in your letter: the money paragraph. At this point, you should have made a good impression and have the person on the other end of the letter thinking that you might be a good fit. It is right here that you want to seal the deal and give the employer something to remember.

Each of us has that “one thing” that we think we’re better at that most of the rest of the people in our field. We pride ourselves on our ability to work through problems, to constantly look for positives in every situation or to smooth over personnel concerns. Whatever that “one thing” is for you, hit it here with some emphasis. The goal is to say to an employer that if she is looking through your application and Candidate X’s application and everything is completely equal to this point, here’s the big reason why you should get the job over that other person:

“Above all else, I constantly look for new ways to reach the audience. I was one of the first reporters on our staff to integrate digital tools like TikTok and Instagram into my work. I knew this was how most people in our audience got the news and now everyone else at our publication uses these tools as well. I will always look for the next best way to connect with the readers and viewers and I think this approach could really boost readership for your organization.”

CLOSING TIME

Finish the letter with a standard closing paragraph, thanking them for their consideration, providing contact information once again (hey, if they’re interested, let’s not waste any time) and signing off.

A nice personal touch is to build a signature into the file. Take a piece of paper and practice your signature until you’re happy with it. Then, get a big blue Sharpie and sign it on a clean sheet of paper. Scan it in (or shoot it if you have the skills) and save it as an image file. You can always embed that into the end of the file in the place of a hand-written signature for digital applications, without losing that nice touch a personal signature provides.

Check it over one more time for spelling and grammar errors. (Always check the name of the person to whom you are sending it, because nothing says, “I’m your best candidate” like misspelling a name right off the bat.) Then, send it off and hope for the best.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: 4 helpful thoughts on finding your way through life

I think I set a record this week for “number of students breaking into tears in my office for reasons that have nothing to do with their grades.” The sheer volume of terrible things befalling my students would stun a team of oxen in its tracks and has me wondering if I’m somehow radioactive.

The one kid that really got to me was the best of the bunch: She’s six weeks from graduation, has worked in student media for quite some time, has a great resume and would be a great hire anywhere she chooses. Her problem is that the places that are hiring for things she’s good at are either just out of her educational or experiential range in many cases. In other cases, they’re not getting back to her or hiring other people.

The frustration for her was palpable, even as she started to cry, because she told me, “I swore to myself I wasn’t going to cry in your office. Dammit…” Once we got past that, it turned out she was not only facing all of these pressures, but also the pressure that comes with being the first in her family to go into this educational level and field. Her parents are in the “You got a job yet?” mode, which only makes sense if you’ve never gotten a job in this field at a point like this.

For her and all the other people who are dealing with anxiety, self-doubt and possibly antsy relatives, here’s a throwback post that I hope provides some solace.

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Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: 4 helpful thoughts on finding your way through life

Scott Cunning, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University, recently laid out his life path and his feelings regarding jumping into grad school right after college as part of a Twitter thread.  He makes a number of points that are good, including the idea that grad school shouldn’t be about inertia or self-doubt, but rather when you know what you want (and that you want grad school). He talks about job choices and the benefits to getting one as well here, and I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read.

The nexus of his thesis is something students should keep in mind: You won’t know what you want to do until you end up running into it. That can make for some pretty high levels of anxiety for students and parents, as well as some really awkward family gatherings where random relatives feel it is their duty in life to say, “So you STILL don’t know what you’re doing yet?” instead of “Nice to see you. Pass the potatoes.”

In hopes of helping you defend your psyche from the chaotic panic and shutting down the naysayers who keep blaming your generation’s downfall on “FaceSpace and those iText things,” here are four things to keep in mind:

 

Everyone in college is lost and that’s just fine: At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students in each of my classes what they want to do with themselves once they get out of school. Some of them have a vague notion, half of an idea or a general sense, and that is about the BEST it gets. Only once in all my time teaching did I ever really have a kid tell me something straight-up honest and it was last semester:

Me: So what do you want to do with your IWM (Interactive Web Management) degree?
Him: Make a ton of money.
Me: How will that work?
Him: I don’t know. I’m gonna figure that out when I graduate.

For the rest of the people in my class, it’s like this: “I want to graduate, get a job, not move into my parents’ basement and not have to answer stupid questions like this one from every relative who runs a business selling wiener dogs out of a mobile home and somehow thinks they’re better than me.” Spoiler alert: That’s the American dream of this generation.

Cunning is right, though, in that you won’t know what you want to do until you do it, which is why they force you to take a boatload of general education requirements in college: They figure you don’t know what you want, so they give you a taste of a bunch of stuff.

Instead of taking those classes with only the edict of “Please, God, not another 8 a.m. on Fridays,” look at classes that might interest you and see where they take you. That’s how you bump into things you might like to do for the rest of your life and find some direction. In the mean time, it’s not a problem to not know.

 

Being good at something doesn’t mean you should do it: The longest-running argument in my life is between my mom and me about what I should have done right out of college. She still believes that I would have made a great speechwriter for politicians, based on my various skill sets. I liked to write and had the ability to turn a phrase fairly easily. I did well in public speaking courses and extracurricular activities, such as debate and forensics. I worked well under pressure and could logically process information quickly. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.

Here’s the counterargument I had for mom: I hate politics.

I spent a lot of time with political figures during college, ranging from student government folks on up through the city and county leaders and found I disliked the majority of them and their attitudes. I never understood the wrangling and the gamesmanship they used to carve up their little portion of the world just a little bit finer. I also hated the arrogance and ego associated with the jobs. Why on Earth would I want to write things for people like this so they could snow under a whole bunch of voters in hopes of furthering their own petty agendas?

The point is, Mom and I were both right in some way. She was right that I had the talent and skill set to do this as a job, and I was right that I’d rather gargle with raw sewage than subject myself to that career path. Thus, the maxim outlined above.

You might have a talent, a skill or some general proclivities that push you into a realm of study or onto a career path, but keep in mind that just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should. If you don’t like something, don’t put yourself in a position where you dedicate your life to it.

In this regard, Dad had the better take on this topic: Find something you like doing and you’ll never work a day in your life.

 

You are not a fraud, even though you will feel like one: During my doctoral program, we had a class in which every faculty member in the school could come in and discuss his or her research or offer us advice. Of all the advice I got at that point, a couple stuck with me, including this one from Dr. Stephanie Craft:

A few years into your career, you are going to look around and panic because you think that you are a fraud. You will worry that you aren’t good enough or smart enough or whatever and you figure that it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures this out, too. You then start counting the days until the entire illusion you’ve built will shatter and you won’t know what to do.

Don’t worry. It’s not true. You are not a fraud. You will be able to push past this.

A few years ago, I read about this concept called “imposter syndrome” that essentially captures this whole notion perfectly. It happens to a lot of people and it’s not something you can necessarily dodge in advance of its arrival. When it hit me, it didn’t matter how much work I had done, how well I had done at that work or what everyone else thought about how awesome I was. All that mattered was that I figured I’d eventually get caught short and revealed as something between a carnival huckster and a guy selling snake oil out of the back of a covered wagon.

The one thing that made the difference was remembering what Dr. Craft told me and realizing her prescience on this fraud fear arriving also made it likely that she was right that I could beat it.

 

Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: If your parents tell you that they knew everything when they were your age or that they had a job or that they knew their destiny, I’ve got two words for you: “Reality Bites.” This movie came out 25 years ago, or roughly around the time many of your parents were finishing up their college careers and looking around for whatever that next stage of life would provide. This movie really captured the post-collegiate zeitgeist better than almost anything else at the time, and it provides you with the perfect time capsule to look at what your parents dealt with.

You have Lelaina, Winona Ryder’s character, who was working as a young assistant producer for a cheesy morning show where the host (John Mahoney) treated her like crap.  When she got fired for perhaps the best on-air prank possible, she tried to find a job in her field, only to realize that she couldn’t get hired anywhere. Her father thought her generation had no work ethic. She craps all over her friend Vickie for offering her a job at The Gap, and falls into the bell jar of trying to find meaning in life via a “psychic partner” phone line. It only gets weirder from there (although the final love connection she makes is really too Hollywood for its own good).

If you strip away that last part, you realize that this generation didn’t know anything either, and I say that as PART OF IT. Sure, she fell in love at the end, which is pretty much what the film industry was selling at that point, but she didn’t have a job, was dead broke, had to use her father’s gas card to pay bills and there was no sense she was figuring it out. (And yes, that’s why reality really does bite.) Still, that generation eventually dug in, figured something out and managed to build a life that produced you.

Whatever they tell you about their origin story, view it through the prism of “Reality Bites” and you’ll probably be closer to reality.