Breaking Dak: The ethics of broadcasting injuries in sports

TRIGGER WARNING: There are some graphic videos here of traumatic injuries. I will only embed one, which I’m guessing a lot of people have already seen. The rest will be via link. Watch at your own discretion. -VFF

The outcome of the Dallas Cowboys/New York Giants game Sunday was completely overshadowed by an injury to quarterback Dak Prescott, who sustained a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.

Prescott was scrambling for a first down when his body went one way and a sizeable portion of his lower leg went the other way:

(If you don’t want to watch this, I don’t blame you. My wife, Amy, a nurse who loves to talk about brain surgery over dinner and is an avid watcher of “Doctor Pimple Popper,” was really disturbed when she saw this.)

Tony Romo, who was in the booth doing color commentary for CBS, immediately realized something was horrible, proclaiming, “Oh no… Oh NO!” As a former QB, Romo has been on the turf for Dallas a few times with severe injuries. However, he seemed to almost want to magically wish this one away by saying, “You almost gotta hope it’s a cramp right there…” After about three replays, he knew that wasn’t the case.

As fascinating as this was, much like other things that are odd, chaotic and disturbing, I found myself watching it a few times and yet hating that I could see what had happened.

When it comes to gruesome sports injuries, the question for journalists is, “What is enough coverage?” The answer seems to vary from situation to situation and announcer to announcer.

Take the case of Clint Malarchuk, a goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, who caught a skate to the neck in a 1989 game against the St. Louis Blues. The gash sliced open his jugular vein and slashed through his carotid artery. If not for the presence of Sabres’ athletic trainer Jim Pizzutelli, a former US Army combat medic who served in the Vietnam War, Malarchuk would have likely died that night. 

As blood began hitting the ice, the announcers immediately implored the camera operator to stop showing the injury. Malarchuk actually skated off the ice after he received assistance from Pizzutelli and that was the only other shot of him. No replays, no slow-motion blood gushing. After that, the camera stayed in a distance shot of the ice until everything was cleaned up and play was ready to resume.

Contrast that with the case of former Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum, who sustained a career-ending knee injury on Monday Night Football at the start of the 1994 season. Ken Norton of the San Francisco 49ers hit McCallum low when he crashed into the pile, but McCallum’s cleat stuck in the turf, forcing his knee to buckle backwards at an almost completely right angle.

I remember watching this game on TV and the announcers kept showing it over and over and over again, going in slow motion to show each frame worth of knee distortion. Each time they did it, it was accompanied by an announcer saying, “Oh… You hate to see that” or “You might not want to watch this…” And yet, they kept showing it.

Perhaps the most famous Monday Night Football injury involved Washington Football quarterback Joe Theismann, who saw his career end on the field. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who made a career out of having no regard for his own body or that of quarterbacks, snapped Theismann’s leg in half. Immediately, Taylor popped up and started waving for the trainer as he held his head in his hands in disbelief.

As the officials tried to figure out what to do about this mangled man, ABC kept looking for the best possible angle to figure out what had happened, finally finding a reverse angle that will never leave your head if you see it once. To its credit, once ABC got there, the station didn’t show it again.

So, the question remains, “How much is too much?”

There might be an official code that outlines this, but I’m having difficulty finding one. Thus, what you see below is kind of a patchwork of various codes that could provide some guidance:

The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), which deals primarily with broadcast journalism, has a section in its ethical code about accountability  that touches somewhat on this:

Journalism provides enormous benefits to self-governing societies. In the process,it can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision.

(A similar approach came in this voluntary code of digital broadcasters, which seems to have come from the National Association of Broadcasters.)

The Football Writers Association of America, which deals more with college sports coverage,  lists of elements within its code of ethics to deal with issues happening on the field. Under “Minimize Harm,” it notes the following elements:

  • Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity with children or inexperienced sources or subjects.
  • Be sensitive when seeking or using photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

(For reasons past my understanding, I can’t find the code of ethics for the pro version of these folks. Maybe it’s buried in the “members only” section.)

In contrast, the Society of Professional Journalists, digs into the ethics of the field at length in its code. Along with the minimize harm stuff that was in the other codes, here was an interesting add:

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

Obviously “pandering” and “lurid” are in the eye of the beholder, but it does provide the “If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you?” line of logic on this one.
I always go back to the line I remember hearing at the State Journal, where we employed “The Breakfast Test.” If someone were picking up our paper and reading it over breakfast, would the images (or in some cases EXTREMELY vivid writing) make that person puke in their Cheerios?
 

And, yet, again, this is variable in a lot of ways. Papers up by us have no problem running photos of people who have “cleaned” deer and pose next to the gutted, skinned carcasses hanging from trees. The hunting community is used to that. For a lot of other folks, that’s going to be a breakfast showstopper.

In any case, the unfortunate answer to the question, “How much is too much?” when it comes this kind of coverage is like most ethical or “taste” situations: It depends.

The audience you serve, the expectations they have, the previous things you’ve shown them with or without problem and more come into this. However, even if you don’t have a concrete answer, it helps to discuss this to find ways to understand what to do when you find yourself in a situation like this. The more you can gain collective knowledge in advance, the better prepared you will be to make your choice.

Fake News 101: What can we do to fight fake news?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last part of a three-part series. If you missed Part I and Part II, you can find them through the links. -VFF

The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.

If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:

  • Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
  • Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
  • What can we do to stop its spread or at least its impact?

This is the last part of a three-part series discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post looks at how we can out-think a situation in which fake news is likely to mess with us:

Fake news has become a prevalent part of people’s daily media consumption and it shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. The ability for people to make money from splashy, fraudulent headlines and slanted, fake stories ensure that journalists will continue to face an uphill battle as we try to inform people and keep them from being snowed.

The New York Times walked through one such situation in which an Austin, Texas, businessman with a handful of Twitter followers sparked a viral fervor in about 48 hours.

The day after the 2016 presidential election, Eric Tucker posted several photos of buses gathered near a hotel and stated that, “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the busses (sic) they came in.”

Tucker turned out to be wrong, as the buses were connected to a software company that held a conference in town that week. However, the tweet was shared more than 16,000 times, leading to coverage on multiple blogs and websites. Even the president-elect tweeted about how “unfair” the busing in of protesters was

Local news outlets began poking at the story to find out what was going on. Coach USA, the company that owned the buses, had to put out a statement that its fleet had no connection to any anti-Trump protests. Tableau, the software company that hired the buses, also made a statement to local media outlets to claim credit for the buses. Snopes, an internet fact-checking site, stated the busing of protesters was untrue. However, the tweet continued to generate a massive amount of attention. Tucker eventually found out he was wrong and labeled his work as such, but the spread of the falsehood far exceeded anything a correction could hope to refute.

In the middle of this mess, Tucker received multiple inquiries about how he knew the buses carried anti-Trump protesters and how he verified his information. In the Times article, he was quoted as saying, “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.” (emphasis added for the sake of pointing out the line that made me slam my head into my desk repeatedly)

As journalists, our job is to both avoid getting duped but also to help other people see the importance of being right before they share information.

The first issue to address is our ability to spot the fake news. We’ve talked about this before on the blog, even offering folks a free copy of this poster if they wanted a big one for a classroom or newsroom:

Beyond those basics, we need to look at how we think about news overall. As part of her work with the Power Shift Project for the Freedom Forum Institute, critical-thinking expert Jill Geissler has developed a list of things that critical thinkers do. Here are a few of those items that will help you avoid the snares of fake news and help teach others how to keep themselves out of trouble:

  • Check for biases, including your own: We talked about this in the previous post when we discussed the idea of self-confirming biases and how they can lead people to believe things that aren’t accurate. It is this predisposition to being biased in favor of something (or against something else) that leads us to want to find things that support our own way of thinking. To avoid adding to the chorus of inaccuracy, stop and think about how bias may play a role in your likelihood to believe in something.
  • Dig beyond the surface: This is where journalists tend to separate themselves from private citizens in terms of critical thought. The motto of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” perfectly captures our desire to find the root of all information and the accuracy of it. Digging into something can be as simple as finding the key source of a statement like Tucker’s, or it can be as complex as building data sets to refute a politician’s statement about who donated to his campaign. The goal in digging is to make sure that when you do decide to share information or publish articles (or even retweet something), you feel as confident as you can that the information is accurate.
  • Identify stakeholders: Journalists have a long tradition of figuring out what Side A thinks and why and what Side B thinks and why. To identify stakeholders in today’s era of fake news, it goes beyond that and requires deeper digging. As mentioned we discussed in the first post of the series, the stakeholders of fake-news farms have a simple reason for creating false news: money. The people who share and reshare the content on certain websites can also be driven by financial desires, but in some cases, it’s about gaining popularity, promoting an ideological agenda or just being a dink.
    When you dig into a topic, you want to identify a wide variety of potential stakeholders, including people who are directly involved with making something happen. That said, always keep an eye on those folks who have a way of benefiting or losing from the actions of others.
  • Consider alternatives: One of the questions someone asked Tucker after his anti-Trump-protest tweet went viral was whether there could be another explanation for the buses being in Austin. His response was that he considered that briefly but discarded it quickly.
    As journalists, we want to do more than skip past plausible explanations for things that don’t support our presuppositions. The goal each time we ply our trade is to tell the audience an accurate story, so in many cases, we need to pick through plausible alternatives to what we are telling them and figure out to what degree they could be accurate. Seeing the buses, a critical thinker would wonder why they were there. It was plausible they hauled protesters from out of state, but it could be equally plausible that they brought people in for a multi-level-marketing company rally or a Coach USA convention where everyone brought their own bus. A quick call to the bus company or the hotels nearby would have helped cut this guesswork off at the pass.

In terms of “fixing” others who find themselves enamored by fake news, this can be both problematic and infuriating, especially for journalists who make this their living. It would be like us walking into their place of work and telling them, “See how you’re running this machine? It’s totally wrong. I read this thing on the internet and you’re just lying and faking stuff. Now, let me turn some knobs and buttons because I know better than you do…”

Here are some things experts have found that can be helpful to keep in mind when trying to deal with people who don’t want to hear what we have to say in regard to fake news. Not all of these will work perfectly or even well, but they are more successful than our tradition of trying to bludgeon people to death with information from Snopes:

Nobody reacts well to being told “You’re Wrong.” The instinct we have as people is to address peace with peace and war with war. It’s a lizard-brain thing, but when someone says with absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza joint, we want to respond with absolute certainty that the speaker has a two-digit IQ. Immediately both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

One techniques psychologists have found helpful in breaking people of their beliefs in inaccurate or dangerous things is to engage the person with questions about the material, the source and the information in a way that is non-threatening. So instead of saying, “What a bunch of crap that is” try, “I hadn’t seen that on any of my regular news sites. Where did you see that?” It starts a dialogue that allows the person to operate without heightened defenses and starts to allow the person to unwrap the situation on his or her own terms. Continued questions will move that person away from the certainty, allowing for potential self-correction later.

Fights like this are emotional, not rational. When we say, “You’re wrong,” to someone invested enough in a topic to discuss it in a public or semi-public setting, what we are trying to say is, “As a journalist, I work in this area and there are a number of things that trouble me enough about this to doubt it’s accurate. I just want to help you see what I see.” What the person hears is, “You, not just this information, but you personally and your position on whatever topic you’re trying to support with this nonsense are wrong.”

In explaining how to talk to people about fake news, Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, explained it this way:

“We’re human and driven by emotion,” says Wardle. When you reject someone’s views on contentious political issues such as gun violence or abortion, you’re challenging their identity.

To prevent this from happening, a good way to reach out is through perspective-taking actions. It shows that you understand their core beliefs, which you acknowledge they are entitled to, but that this information they are using to support those beliefs needs to be better.

It could be something like, “Grandpa, I know you don’t like Hillary Clinton, and you’ve said that a number of times over the past 30 years. I don’t agree with you on her, but I understand that’s how you feel about her.”

Then, provide grandpa with the information that will show why it is that this story about her colonizing Mars with stem-cell embryos to build a colony of liberals on welfare who will plant trees in every coal mine in America isn’t the best way to help other people see why he hates HRC.

Understand that certain people are targets. People who are older and less technologically savvy are the targets for the fake-news farms we talked about throughout the series. The reasons are pretty obvious, once you stop and think about it:

  • Older people tend to have more money, more civic engagement, more free time, and less experience with technology.
  • Older people are often more at risk for certain things, such as the pandemic noted in the article linked above. This means they’re more likely to search out information to protect themselves, but again, are less likely to know where to go.
  • People who are less technologically savvy tend to have lower education or socio-economic status, which puts them into a position of limited nuance. Research on everything from color choices to informational outcomes dictates they prefer thing that are simple, common and familiar. Absolutism in black and white fits that bill.

Above all else, many people who are older tend to trust the media because they spent much of their lives with media they could trust. Newspapers and Walter Cronkite gave them the straight story.

The story that will always resonate for me was the time I came home from college and stopped over to see my grandmother for our family’s traditional Friday night gathering. She was upset and confused because she read in the Cudahy Reminder (the local newspaper) that there was going to be a fish fry at the Kelly Senior Center that night at 5 p.m.

When she went there, there was no fish fry.

The more I tried to explain to her that it might be a mistake or that the paper might have screwed up, the worse it got. In her mind, if the Cudahy Reminder said there was going to be a fish fry at the Kelly Center on Friday at 5 p.m., well, then, dammit, there was GOING TO BE a fish fry at the Kelly Center at 5 p.m.

On the flip side, people with less education or lower socio-economic status, regardless of age, are less likely to trust the media. Therefore, whenever they get a story that tells them everyone out there at NBC and CBS with their fancy suits and their big studios have been lying to them, they’ll buy into whatever “inside scoop” the fake news folks will tell them.

And, again, nobody, lest of all people who feel like they are marginalized or like they’re starting to lose their grip on reality, want to hear from people they know, “You’re wrong.”

To help folks in this position, organizations like the New York Times are working to develop programs meant to inoculate certain groups against fake news. They not only provide information in a way that speaks to them at their level of understanding (whatever it may be), but it comes to them based on their choice to engage. In short, it allows them to decide how and when to challenge their own assumptions.

 

PICK THE HILL YOU’RE WILLING TO DIE ON: As we’ve discussed before, there are certain things that really matter and we’re willing to give it all to that discussion. We’ll fight it out, regardless of the odds or the enemy, because it really matters a great deal. In other words, we have decided this is a hill we’re willing to die on.

When it comes to trying to disabuse people we know about the facts associated with fake news, it can feel like we’re ready to die on every hill, every day and in every conversation. Facts are our stock and trade, so to abuse them in this fashion can feel an awful lot like someone just told us we have the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen.

However, experts agree that, despite our best efforts, we’re not going to change hearts and minds in most cases. Too many people are too far down the rabbit hole to pull them back out. If that’s the case, consider how much energy you want to put into this. If the answer is, “This is annoying, but its not the hill I’m willing to die on,” then the best answer is to diffuse the situation with a statement that shows you’re unwilling to engage:

“Uncle Jim, I understand you think Joe Biden is on a super cocktail of Ritalin, PCP and Bang energy drink to keep him alive during the debates, but I don’t, and nothing either of us is going to say is going to matter much here, so I really don’t want to talk about it.”

Fake News 101: Why do we believe this stuff?

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you missed part 1 of the series on the basics of fake news, you can read it here. -VFF

The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.

If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:

  • Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
  • Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
  • What can we do to stop its spread or at least its impact?

This is part two of a three-part series discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post looks at why fake news works and why we get suckered.

It’s hard to think of much that makes you feel dumber than falling for a news hoax, especially if you shared the content and then get called out for it. The reason we fall for these fake stories range from having more access to a wider array of outlandish activity to seeing information that confirms our preconceived notions. Consider these reasons why fake news can feel pretty real sometimes:

 

MORE WEIRDNESS, MORE CHANCES FOR ERRORS

I’m not entirely sure if we are more weird than we were at previous points in time, or if we just know more about it because we have access to a wider array of news sources. It used to be, we had a few local weirdos and that was it. Now, we have access to a world of weird, and there are some real hot pockets of weird out there.

If you type the phrase “Florida man” into a Google search, you will find an amazing array of odd and criminal behavior.

Not only is “Florida Man” a meme now, but a baseball team hosted a “Florida Man Night” in which a law was broken each inning. And keep in mind, this is just one state and one set of weirdness. Out here, a radio station used to have a daily “Weird-Ass Sheboygan County Story Of The Day” named after a county in which it seemed we couldn’t keep the most ignorant among us out of the news.

When you think about all these stories, is it any wonder that we’ve become kind of used to hearing strange behavior, odd crimes or other insanity and think, “Yeah, that tracks…”

Consider the following posts that appeared on various sites online:

Unlawful Raccoon

 

Florida Dog Sex

 

Florida Shitter

 

 

Salsa Testicles

These all seem in one sense completely unrealistic while at the same time totally plausible. Two of them are true stories while the other two are completely made up and I’d make it a 6-5 bet that you couldn’t accurately distinguish the true from the false without looking on the internet. (If you want to know if “salsa guy,” “traffic pooper,” “animal sex guy” or “raccoon man” are legit stories, click on each link.)

 

CONFIRMATION BIAS

The second reason we fall for this comes down to the idea of stereotyping and the concept of confirmation bias. With so many of us finding ways to sit in our news bubbles and not look elsewhere for content that might not align with our point of view, it becomes easy to create stereotypes and look for things that confirm them.

If you think President Donald Trump is a great guy and you read nothing but news about how great he is, it stands to reason that you might get sucked in on a fake news story that says he was endorsed by the pope. Or one that says he rescued a kitten from a tree. On the other hand, if you think the president is a racist, a liar and a cheat (to quote Michael Cohen’s testimony), you could easily find yourself believing a far-less-than-truthful story that said he plans to bring back the word “Negro” as a descriptor for African-Americans.

In 2017, Scott Pelley investigated the fake news phenomenon for “60 Minutes” and found a frightening world of news scams bent on pitting people against each other for sport and profit. One website garnered an audience of more than 150 million viewers publishing headlines like “Hillary Clinton Has Parkinson’s Disease, Physician Confirms.” (The story was based on the claims of a doctor who never met Clinton and was later denied by Clinton’s own doctor and officials from the National Parkinson Foundation.) The people who published this site tended to lean toward political hackery because they found that more people were willing to click on stories like the Clinton one. A large part of this was because people disliked the politicians who were the subjects of these stories and thus they were willing to read anything that painted the pols in a negative light.

FAKERS ARE GETTING BETTER AND WE ARE GETTING WORSE

Con artists, scammers and other peddlers of hoaxes are nothing new in this world. People swore they had seen the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. Others claimed they could sell you a medicine to cure your ills or a controlling stake in the Brooklyn Bridge. What makes today’s cons more problematic for us is the volume of lies purporting to be truths and the speed at which they spread throughout society. Even more, the fraudsters are getting much better at their frauds and we are getting much worse at defending ourselves.

With so much money at stake, due to these clickbait farming operations, the con artists are rewarded for coming up with the best possible cons available. They invest in making sure the URL for their work looks legitimate, as opposed to a .blog.weblog.blogging.users.com link of some kind. They use the same types of software to manipulate photos and videos that professional filmmakers and journalists use to improve and enhance images. They add links to other stories that also look official to beef up their sense of credibility with willing readers and viewers.

Even more, they have access to reputable news sites from around the world, thus allowing them to study what these folks do and mimic it down to the tiniest of details. The differences here are astounding in getting people to buy into their messages. It’s the difference between going to a jewelry store at the mall where someone cons you into buying a fake Rolex  and buying one from the guy on the street who has a dozen of them linked to the inside of his coat.

We, unfortunately, have gotten worse at detecting this stuff and defending ourselves against it.

Part of it isn’t our fault: If someone has gone to such great lengths to put on the perfect con, it’s not like we necessarily should have seen it coming. Between Enron, Tyco and the guy who almost bought the New York Islanders, a lot of smart people have gotten really suckered by people who managed to outsmart them.

It also doesn’t help that we’re no longer getting a steady stream of information like we once did: We’re getting drilled from every angle with a fire hose of content. When that happens, no matter how good you are at ducking and dodging, you’re gonna get soaked.

Still, technology has provided us with such easy options to get content from anywhere and share it with anyone without giving it much thought. As the human mind is a cognitive miser, it pretty much tells us to take the path of least resistance and just move stuff along. With a simple click of the mouse, it’s done.

(Hey, there’s a reason why PayPal, Amazon, eBay and hundreds of other folks are more than happy to make online shopping as simple as possible. If you had to stop at a site, get your credit card, fill out a form, email it in, wait for confirmation and then finalize a purchase, you might think twice about needed another windbreaker jacket in a slightly less maroon than the other three you already own. Thinking cuts into profits.)

In many ways, being accurate, researching the information and feeling informed before deciding to buy into the content and show it to other people is no longer important to people, by and large. If it sounds right, looks right and says what I believe to be true, it’s fine, right? If I turn out to be wrong, well, it’s not like I’m going to admit it, and I’m sure I can find another article that will support my position.

In short, we lack a penalty for not doing what we should do to make sure we aren’t getting fooled. The risk/reward balance is out of whack, so people don’t really need to worry about what happens when they share fake news.

For those of us who do worry, there are ways to fend off the fake stuff.

Tomorrow: What can we do to fend off fake news?

Fake News 101: Who publishes fake stories and why do they do it?

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been working on this set of posts for a while, and with the election rolling out in about a month, it seems like a good time to kick out at least a couple pieces on this topic.  A lot of what you’ll see here got developed and shaped into an updated version of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing.” Consider this a freebie preview during a time in which we’re all likely looking over our shoulders, trying to determine who’s trying to trick us and why. — VFF

 

The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.

If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:

  • Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
  • Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
  • What can we do to stop its spread or at least mitigate its impact?

This is the start of a short series of posts discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post starts with the people who make the news that fakes out the world.

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of your life asking the question, “What the heck is wrong with people?”

In most cases, I shake off my bewilderment and move on, but the one time I tend to ask that question with the most righteous indignation is when it comes to fake news. Sure, there are bigger problems in the world, but this is the one that really bugs me the most.

It’s like the story about two kinds of problems: The first kind is the guy who gets naked, rolls around in the snow and barks at the moon every night. The second kind is the same guy, doing the same thing, but he’s doing it on your lawn. The first type is bothersome, but the second type you really gotta deal with.

Fake news undercuts people’s belief in what it is that I do for a living.

The people who post this kind of content vary from people who have strong ideological positions they hope to propagandize to people who have no stake in what the readers believe or learn. Let’s look at who posts this stuff and why they do:

 

IDEOLOGUES WHO WANT TO ADVANCE AN IDEOLOGY

People who have a strong interest in a position on a given topic have an interest in “gaining ground” both in terms of having that position seen as more acceptable and having more people side with them. We tend to think of this as a political issue, mainly because of how the term “fake news” rattles around in the world of politics and the accusations of hacking and lying to shift a major U.S. election.

The truth, however, is that ideologies can be anything from a position on faith, science, health or anything else. When people want to have “their side” seen as right, they will often push the edge of the envelope to get other people to see things “their way.” That includes creating or sharing fake content.

In many cases, the fake news elements attach themselves to political parties or ideologies. The most famous argument currently under discussion (and likely will remain under discussion for decades to follow) is the degree to which Russian hackers (and other folks) spread misinformation to tilt the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Researchers found that people who were hyper-partisans on both end of the political spectrum tended to hit these fake stories more frequently than less-engaged people.

The people who read this stuff also often find the need to add to it, share it or in other ways create those fake news pieces. When unscrupulous people really believe in something and they want other people to believe it, there is little they won’t do to force the issue. Thus, we get some false stories that emphasize what people perceive to be “larger truths.”

 

PEOPLE LIKE MONEY

Dollar

Many people who create fake news, especially the highly partisan content, do so with no real interest in our political system. A number of journalists and scholars investigated the people responsible for many of the fake news stories do it because those stories drive traffic to their sites and all those clicks add up to serious cash. CNN found that a town in Macedonia builds websites with the intent of inflaming U.S. partisans for cash. The ethical and ideological standards for their content producers start and stop with the almighty dollar:

The stories are political — and often wrong on the facts. But that doesn’t concern Mikhail.

“I don’t care, because the people are reading,” he said. “At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever learn in his entire life.”

A Washington Post writer tracked down two guys closer to home who were basically doing the same thing for the same reason. The owners of Liberty Writers News essentially build fake content because it makes them rich:

 

At a time of continuing discussion over the role that hyperpartisan websites, fake news and social media play in the divided America of 2016, LibertyWritersNews illustrates how websites can use Facebook to tap into a surging ideology, quickly go from nothing to influencing millions of people and make big profits in the process.

Six months ago, Wade and his business partner, Ben Goldman, were unemployed restaurant workers. Now they’re at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don’t want people to start asking for loans.

For some writers of fake news, it starts as part of a rationalization and then just becomes a way of life. This story on the “Confessions of a Fake News Writer” provides some sense of the “cash before accuracy” movement in the world of fake news farms:

There are very obvious reasons why sites propagate fake news, including political gain or to further a hateful agenda. But a major motivator is also advertising, which is pervasive, powerful, and controls a large amount of the media content that populates our news feeds. Clickbait sites want as many eyeballs as possible, because they get paid for each display ad on the page next to the story. But commercial sponsors and advertisers can distort editorial in much more pernicious ways — and this has been going on for as long as we have had a public media.

Whether it was the snake-oil salesmen of the Old West or the Ponzi scheme hustlers of the financial world, people often see dupes around every corner and an opportunity to profit from them. As the line erroneously attributed to P.T. Barnum states, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And there is always someone looking to take advantage of them.

 

PEOPLE SUCK

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but some people just like being jerks. If they can be a jerk and get a lot of attention for it, all the better.

After the attack in Las Vegas, in which more a gunman killed more than 50 people and injured several hundred others, A social media post emerged in which a young man said he was desperately seeking information on his missing father:

JackSins

As we outlined here at the time, the whole thing was a hoax. What was the reason the twerp who started this decided to use a national tragedy for his own amusement?

“I think you know why,” he replied. “For the retweets :)”

 

TOMORROW: Why do we believe this stuff?

Just because someone said it, you don’t have to quote it: The President Gets COVID-19 Edition

People woke up on Friday to the news that President Trump (among others in the White House traveling crew) had tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump himself tweeted the news out around 1 a.m., thus sending the news world into a frenzy:

I get that everyone was scrambling for sources at 2 a.m. after the president decided to drop this bombshell, but throughout the day, this quote was still being passed around in major stories on the coronavirus revelation:

Former White House doctor Ronny Jackson told Fox News early Friday morning that Trump was asymptomatic and predicted the president would “weather this storm.”

“I will bet you that he does not develop symptoms, that he moves on and this does not become a big deal,” Jackson said.

I have no idea how Jackson came to be a source or why. He hasn’t been attached to the president’s medical staff (or the White House) since 2019. He’s currently running for congress, so I’m sure showing up on TV for any reason he can would be helpful to him, but this paraphrase and quote bugged me for a couple reasons:

  • He’s not currently the guy’s doctor. This is about a half-step better or worse than when a guy is found to be a serial killer and some reporters interview whatever neighbor on his block happened to be watering the lawn that day. Those quotes always start out with, “Well, I didn’t know him real well, but…” and then speculate that the guy had been torturing stuffed animals since he was 3.
  • We don’t know how he knows the president “was asymptomatic.” Trump was tested after Hope Hicks showed symptoms and was found to be positive, so it’s possible. However, Jackson making that statement like he just came from Trump’s bedside seems problematic.
  • The quote. What do you mean “I bet?” Maybe I’m being picky but I don’t want a doctor talking about the potential outcome of a deadly virus the way Troy Aikman talks about the Broncos trying to sign some wide receiver help in the next couple weeks. Also, what gives you the crystal ball that lets you see how this pans out? Trump might be fine. He might be sort of sick. He might be really sick. He might drop dead of this thing after several horrible weeks on a ventilator. Those seem to be the options the all of the folks who become infected deal with. Nobody really knows for sure what’s going to happen. That said, if Doctor Ronny has some special X-Men power that lets him see COVID outcomes, let’s get him on a tour of the hospitals around the country: “Thanks for stopping by, Doc! See you next week!” “No… No… you won’t…”

(UPDATE: Turns out both parts of that paraphrase-quote pairing were wrong, as the president is now at Walter Reed, expected to be hospitalized for several days.)

Just because someone says something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s something you want to quote. If the standard you want to set for quoting people is, “Well, we needed a quote and he was there…” then let me help you out.

Here are quotes you should feel free to use that have the same level of value as the one Dr. Ronny Jackson put forth. To make this easier on you, I’ve even written the paraphrase ahead of the quote, so you can just copy and paste.

Here you go:

Dr. Vincent Filak, who, like Dr. Ronny Jackson, is not treating the president’s illness, said Trump’s condition is likely to worsen before it gets better.

“I bet he saw this coming and planned for it,” Filak said. “I bet he’s going to get really sick in the next two weeks, probably on purpose, so that he can get put on a portable ventilator suit that will bond to him like Doctor Octopus’ exoskeleton thing. He’s probably going to be our first cyborg president.”

 

Vincent Filak, a professor who once got an A in a botany class, said President Trump understands the value of “herd mentality” when it comes to the virus.

“I bet the president saw Hope Hicks’ illness as an opportunity to get this whole thing over with,” Filak said. “I bet he was on Air Force One telling everyone to lick Hope’s hands. Since Mike Pence would have a problem with that, I’ll bet she did him a solid and just spit in his food.”

 

If you aren’t covering the president’s coronavirus crisis, but you still need quotes for a story, and you don’t want to bother trying to find a source that has value, here’s a special deal for you as a reader of this blog:

Please feel free to use the contact function and request a paraphrase/quote pairing on anything you’re writing and I will gladly put something ill-conceived and ill-informed together for you right away. I don’t have to know anything about the topic to write my quote.

In fact, the less you tell me, the better the quote is likely to be.

Don’t worry if you are concerned that your readers will think less of you for quoting me, as I’ll make sure to include some true and impressive-sounding background information in the paraphrase. It likely won’t have any bearing on the topic I’m talking about, but then again, neither will the quote.

Here are a few I’ve done recently:

“What do you think has been the secret to Coach Pulizzano’s success?”

Vincent Filak, who watches a lot of sports on TV, said the secret to the coach’s success comes down to hard work.

“I think the coach knows that they have to play them one game at a time,” Filak said. “I bet Coach Pulizzano knows that each player on that team is just happy to be there and hopeful they can help the club.”

 

Middle school is set up for both hybrid and in school classes. Why are only half the classes camera-ready?

Dr. Vincent Filak, who has extensively written research papers on educational topics, said the presence of cameras in only half of the classes has a logical explanation to it.

“In this unprecedented time of crisis, it is important to think more about what is, than what is not,” Filak said. “You could always look at a glass as being half empty, but I bet more people than not would view it as half full. That is both the genius and the wonder that is the American spirit.”

 

What impact does the recent rash of thefts of plants and decorations have on neighborhood residents’ morale?

Concerned citizen Vincent Filak said such egregious crimes violate the very spirit of communal living.

“Acts like these have no place in our city, as they only serve to reinforce the outside view that we live in a blighted, urban hellscape,” Filak said. “I bet these are the acts of unsupervised youths, intent on wreaking havoc on the good people of this city. Our only solace might be that when they get home and smoke our spider plants and day lilies, only then will they realize they didn’t steal marijuana.”

 

My university is implementing guaranteed $10k in FA for HS students who live in the county or graduate from a school in the county. How does cutting tuition for incoming local students benefit currently enrolled local students?

Vincent Filak, an award-winning professor who has taught at multiple universities throughout the Midwest in a career that spans more than 20 years in higher education,  said detractors of the financial aid approach fail to see the bigger picture.

“We have to start somewhere,” Filak said. “As a parent of a child who is not yet in college, I know there are things she could get under this kind of approach, but also things she missed out on because she didn’t start college sooner. Still, we can’t constantly look for places to place blame in a situation like this. It has to start somewhere, and this is where we have drawn our line in the sand and begun the fight for common-sense educational funding.”

 

Did you really go to that fundraiser knowing you had tested positive for coronavirus?

Dr. Vincent Filak, who is not that kind of doctor nor an official presidential spokesperson, said he understands the concerns people have about the president’s condition and his movements prior to announcing his positive COVID-19 test.

“I bet that the president would have been equally criticized for not going to the fundraiser,” Filak said. “He is constantly in a position of ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ in every situation. Had he called off the fundraiser, it’s possible the media would be saying, ‘You’re such a quitter.’ Plus, it is unfair to assume what the president knew or didn’t know at any point, given that nobody knows what he knows or doesn’t know, y’know?”

Feel free to join the long list of satisfied journalists who can get stuff done without having to actually work at it!

Operators are standing by to take your request! Act now!

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Cops set nude man on fire, see paragraph 11 (or why you should use the inverted pyramid better)

We’ve been working on the inverted pyramid this week in class, so as a treat for those of you who might have missed this a few years back, I dug up one of my favorite examples of why the inverted pyramid works well in storytelling.

—-

Cops set nude man on fire, see paragraph 11 (or why you should use the inverted pyramid better)

Oddity is one of the five interest elements we discuss at length in the “Dynamics” series. If people can say, “Did you READ THAT? WOW!” you have a winner. In short, embrace the weird. Consider this lead:

MANITOWOC – Police officers arrested a 32-year-old Manitowoc man Sunday evening for standing in the street without any clothes on.

Public nudity isn’t normal, but it isn’t that odd, either. Here are links to several “public nudity arrest” stories run over the past month or two. Also, the lead here in noun-verb-object order is “Police arrest man.” Not exactly compelling… but keep reading…

Second Paragraph:

Officers found Travis L. Tingler in the 1100 block of South 25th Street near Hamilton Street, where he was shouting toward a home at the intersection that he had a knife and was going to gut people in the house.

Getting there…

Eighth Paragraph:

Police talked to a girl, who was holding a baby, in the home. She said Tingler was dating her mother and they had lived in the home for about two years. She said he started drinking alcohol three hours earlier and started to act weird, making comments such as “Stay in the light and never come into the dark.”

Getting weirder… Hang in there…

Paragraphs 11 and 12:

Police reported Tingler somehow picked up a lighter during the struggle, and when the stun gun probe hit the lighter, a combination of lighter fluid and electricity from the stun gun caused Tingler’s beard and chest hair to catch fire. (Emphasis added)

An officer tried to pat the fire off his body, and Tingler continued to fight even after the fire was put out. He then punched an officer in the face. An officer used a stun gun on him from about 6 feet away, and he then fell and hit his head hard on the pavement.

As the person who forwarded this to me put it: “They set him on fire and you don’t find out for 11 grafs. 11!!!”

If you read the whole story, you find that the headline does mention this, but headlines aren’t there to bail out bad writing. You also find out that the reason this story has this problem is the reporter wrote it chronologically instead of relying on the inverted pyramid.

Very rarely will I say this, but sometimes being arrested naked isn’t the biggest part of the story.

h/t Alex Nemec

UPDATE: Apparently, the paper got the date wrong, so during the “rewrite” of this to fix that problem, they updated the lead:

MANITOWOC – Police officers arrested a 32-year-old Manitowoc man Friday evening for standing in the street without any clothes on. In the process, they accidentally set him on fire.

Not great, but at least they got there…

Why Editing Counts: Oops Edition

Editing is like catching sand in a pasta strainer: No matter how good you are, you’re never catching everything. Even if you have dozens of shots at something and myriad folks editing the hell out of something, you’ll still miss something at some point.

Case in point: I got the final proofs for the second edition of the reporting book this week. This is literally the very last look we get at the content before it shows up on Amazon and in your school bookstore. It has been reviewed at least a dozen times by no fewer than eight people, all of them with the goal of keeping anything stupid from hitting the page.

On the second to last chapter, in a caption involving Elon Musk, I just had a weird feeling so I Googled the name of someone else involved in the photo. Turns out, we had the wrong first name on that other person.

Twelve edits, eight people, thousands of hours into this thing, it’s a brain twitch at the last minute that catches something like that. And I’m sure I missed at least a few things anyway.

That’s why it often feels like a rigged game when you’re working in journalism, under pressure, with limited resources, an understaffed editorial crew and such to try to get things right. Still, we do better than most at least half the time. Besides, you can’t beat the hours…

Here are a couple moments of “oh boy” that could have been avoided with an edit (or maybe not):

Even if he didn’t, that’s still an impressive buck:

I found this among my Facebook memories, with one of my friends having sent it to me saying, “I thought you should see this one!” I still don’t know how I feel about being the “go-to guy” for entropy, but I’m grateful for the support:

With an 8-point rack on that deer, I really hope he didn’t do what the paper says he did. Hemorrhoids are no laughing matter…

 

It’s either a great headline or a horrible headline, depending on if you meant to do it:

I have no love for the New England Patriots, so I found it somewhat amusing when the team owner, Robert Kraft, had been accused of soliciting prostitution at a “spa” in South Florida. Earlier this month, prosecutors decided to drop the charges against him.

One news source reported this in a truly spectacular way:

I love the New York Post some days…

From the “There’s My Flair” Department

I caught this one while reading up on my beloved Cleveland baseball team:

Um… No, they haven’t. They’ve had a “flair for the dramatic,” which means they’ve got a talent or an innate ability to produce something of exciting and engaging proportions.

A “flare for the dramatic” would be more like this scene: (Trigger Warning: Don’t watch if you don’t like scary movies or foul language.)

 

 

Data, observation and reality: How to examine each as a journalist

Between politics and the pandemic, it has been difficult to determine what to believe these days. A recent data analysis from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site has former Vice President Joe Biden winning this election in a walk:

Joe Biden’s chances of winning the Electoral College rose to 76.7%, according to the latest run of poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight’s election forecasting model, from 76.6% on Sept. 24. He is predicted to win 352 of 538 electoral votes.

A piece in one of our local papers ran this headline, which is problematic on several levels: “With an abundance of polls favoring Joe Biden, is Wisconsin still up for grabs?

  1. Question headlines are essentially worthless in terms of informing people. I’ve seen so many of them lately, I keep thinking they’re an unreported symptom of COVID-19.
  2. Well, polls don’t vote. People do. Thus, what the polls favor and what people are willing to do in the voting booth are two different things. It’s the same reason that nobody ever admitted to watching “The Dukes of Hazzard” and yet it was in the top 10 every week when the ratings came out.
  3. Polls, including Nate Silver’s, got a lot of stuff wrong back in 2016, something we’ll get back to later…

These are the data folks talking, and I’m a huge fan of data. However, I have some observations that seem to run contrary to this sense that the former VP is going to be capping off a cheesehead victory on election night.

First, everywhere I go (and I mean everywhere I drive), I see dozens and dozens of Trump-Pence signs. Not only are they simple lawn signs, but they’re these giant monstrosities of cardboard and vinyl. This is in the larger cities (not counting Madison, which is both our liberal bastion of the state and our second-largest city) and along the rural roads I drive to get between home and school. Just as polls don’t vote, signs don’t vote and I’m sure I could make some crack about “size doesn’t matter” when it comes to these signs, I can’t remember seeing this many of these things for ANY presidential candidate, including Obama in ’08.

Second, Wisconsin is always a wiggler. If you look at our statewide elections, we tend to go either/or. If you look at our legislature, it looks like we’re as red as Indiana, based on seats. Trump won the state in 2016 over Hillary Clinton by 22, 748 votes. That’s less than either Jill Stein pulled in, and she placed fifth. Put another way, that gap is smaller than the average attendance of a Milwaukee Brewers home game last year. When I lived in Indiana, I knew my vote didn’t matter either way. If I voted Republican, I was throwing votes on the overwhelming stack. If I voted Democrat, it was the Charge of the Light Brigade at best. Wisconsin? I matter and not just in a metaphoric sense.

Third, the noise. I stand in a lot of lines for groceries, to pay for gas, to pick up take-out and to wait for my kid to get out of school. I listen to other people’s conversations and I’ve not heard once anyone saying that the plague, the economy, the riots, the racism or anything else is in anyway related to anything the president is doing or not doing. Instead, I see the MAGA hats, I hear “Boy, we’d be in REAL trouble if we didn’t have Trump” comments and more. Again, each of these people has one vote and I’m not living in the San Francisco of the Midwest out here, but it just… sounds… like the data about “the forest” is somehow overlooking “the trees.”

The same thing is true with the coronavirus pandemic. According to news articles, Wisconsin is racking up cases like we’re playing COVID-19 Pokemon. (Gotta catch ’em all!) Our cases are spiking out of control, universities elsewhere in the state are going on lock downs and our flagship campus has even cancelled spring break as a preventative measure for next term.

Here at UWO, I lost four of six kids in one section in my blogging class in less than 24 hours. I’ve been teaching classes of two students (instead of 15) due to kids dropping like flies to this or being forced to quarantine. My colleagues in the department are also reporting similar concerns, with tiny classes, sick students and more.

However, according to our COVID-19 dashboard, we’re in great shape:

The data points reported here suggest that we’re seeing fewer cases  each day. The positive percentage is dropping precipitously and our aggregate numbers are declining as well. Even as I’m seeing more cases (as is the state, the county and other UW campuses), UWO is defying the odds and beating the virus, this data says.

On the day in which I had four students test positive, we only had 14  positive tests on campus. Is it possible that I know roughly 30% of all the positive cases on that one day? Sure. Is it possible that as our department (and at least one of my friends’ departments) are seeing kids disappearing like they’re in the opening scene of “The Leftovers?” Absolutely. Is there a chance that what UWO is reporting and what I’m seeing are not being measured the same way? Could be.

Do I doubt the data? Um. Yeah.

And that bothers me quite a bit as someone who understands data and knows that “what my neighbor Dan says” isn’t the best representation of reality.

In putting the final touches on the second edition of the reporting book last week, I found myself reviewing a comment from one of the professional journalists who contributed to the text. Jaimi Dowdell is an award-winning reporter, former IRE educator and Spotlight Fellow at the Boston Globe. A long-time data journalist, Dowdell offered this observation about observations:

“Get away from anecdotes. Verify information,” Dowdell said. “Stop relying on what people say. If the police chief says crime has decreased, get the data and prove it yourself. If the mayor says your community took a financial hit because of lost tax revenue, get the revenue data to see if that is true. By verifying facts and not relying on anecdotes we can inform issues in the community.”

Jaimi is totally right. If you want the perfect example of how “size doesn’t matter” in an election when it comes to the number of signs or plots of land, check out Illinois. The Chicagoland area (Chicago and its immediate suburbs) contains 9.5 million of the state’s 12.67 million people. It’s basically a Democrat stronghold, so no matter how many Trump signs you would see driving from Edwardsville through Springfield, up past Bloomington-Normal, and around to DeKalb, that state isn’t going red. Interview every farmer you meet in Wayne County who would vote for a potato if it were on the Republican ticket and you’re STILL not seeing reality as the data will bear out.

Jaimi’s also right when I stop and think about the coronavirus testing. The numbers I’m looking at are a day behind the tests (Monday’s testing is released Tuesday etc.) and they’re ONLY for the ones that are done on campus. We have various other places where students go for testing, based on their insurance, their workplace connections and so forth. My wife has been to the Sunnyview Expo center for testing so often, she practically has her own parking place over there. Those folks don’t go into the mix as positive tests in these figures.

As we have discovered in many corners of life, reality usually sits somewhere between what the data tell us and what we can see with our own eyes. It’s not so much that one is better than the other in all cases, but more about what we need to keep in mind as journalists who are working on stories in which various sides want us to see certain things in specific ways. For example, the data told us that it wasn’t going to rain while we were out at the Adams County Flea Market. Cloudy, but no rain. We could see some dark clouds building in west and we heard a crack of thunder. (One optimistic vendor yelled, “That’s over there! We’re fine over here!”)

Suddenly, the skies opened up as people scrambled to cover and protect their wares, all the while muttering variations on, “They said it wasn’t supposed to rain today!”

So how is it that we know which is the best way to look at ongoing and developing situations that matter to our audiences? Here are a few thoughts and suggestions:

Understand the type of data you are examining: Jaimi’s point about going to get data to examine the veracity of an anecdote works well in her example because of the type of data she wants. In this case, it’s data that is already collected for a specific purpose about an event that already occurred. That stuff will almost always be rock-solid, presupposing the people who collected it didn’t screw up or aren’t hiding something.

When you’re talking about things like polling data, you’re trying to predict something that hasn’t happened yet based on what people tell you they plan to do. That data is more variable and less reliable than hard numbers based on finished outcomes.

The difference between these two would be akin to looking at the attendance of a county fair versus a poll regarding people’s intentions to go to the county fair. The first one, you have actual numbers that already have been collected based on actions people took: attending the fair. The second one, you have people telling you what they plan to do, but those plans can change. Something better might come along. They might get sick. Or, and this is likely, it might rain that day and nobody wants to be stuck at a county fair ground during a rainstorm. (Trust me on that one…)

Understand the poll and how it works: If you’re playing with polling data, a lot of things factor into it. In fact, the National Council on Public Polls has a list of 20 questions journalist should ask about polls and their data. These questions cover everything from how questions were asked, when they were asked and who asked them.

A lot of what went wrong (if you read the post-game analysis above on Nate Silver) comes down to some glitches in the answers to the 20 questions. It also doesn’t help when the polls have been consistently RIGHT for years and years, leading people to a false sense of security about these things, even as the ground is shifting under their feet.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t see Trump winning in 2016 for the same reasons a lot of people didn’t see it. We looked at the polls and we looked at our own sense of reality: Rich people with limited experience in politics (Ross Perot), people who had been accused of… let’s call it “extra-marital sex stuff” (Gary Hart, John Edwards), people with racism issues (George Wallace) and “political outsiders” (Basically every third-party candidate out there) got smoked in presidential elections. Al Gore had to apologize for “being rude” when he sighed during a presidential debate and George H.W. Bush got grief for looking at his watch during the 1992 run.

Every time I saw Trump on TV in the news in the 15 months leading up to the election, it was either a poll saying he had no shot or him checking off one of the “is this the death knell for his campaign?” issues listed above (and more). What I didn’t do, and should have done, was start looking around me and noticing the signs, the rallies and the groundswell and think, “Maybe this guy does have a shot…”

Understand the biases in your own observations: Observation is based on individuals looking at things through their own eyes and making judgments on what they see. The problem with that is people often overvalue their own sense of reality when they decide what is or isn’t happening.

Case in point: the COVID numbers at UWO. I’m seeing students dropping like flies all around me. I’m seeing colleagues have the same situations. I’m seeing a line a block long outside Albee Hall for testing every day. My sense of observation tells me we’re about six days away from the zombie apocalypse.

However, the numbers are telling me something else, which is that our overall cases are going down. This doesn’t jibe with what I’m seeing, which gives me some serious cognitive dissonance.

The bias I’m dealing with is that I’m working with only one group of students (journalism students) and so are most of my colleagues. These folks tend to work and play together in class and through student organizations (student media etc.). Thus, if one of them gets sick, it’s probable more of them will as well. (Our student newsrooms used to be like petri dishes for illness. One kid coughed and suddenly we’re down to three staffers.)

In addition, I understand that I have a bias against simply trusting what I’m told. In journalism, we say “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out.” Also, I’ve been burned a few times, so I find myself constantly in that “non-denominational skeptic” role, trusting almost nothing until I can feel as sure as possible about something.

Where you are looking (rural vs. urban is always a thing in election data) and when you are looking (how many “I’m with Bernie” bumper stickers are still floating around now as opposed to eight months ago) can have a huge impact on your own observations.

Learn to look behind both data and your observations: One of the things the NCPP discusses in its list of 20 poll questions is the issue of who’s doing the poll and what it’s trying to show. This kind of question can be easily applied to both data and observations as well.

When I worked with student media, we used to study the data we got each year as part of the Clery Report. This report, which is required due to the Jeanne Clery Act, provides data on crime and safety issues on each college campus that participates in federal financial aid programs. The idea behind the act and the report is that people have a right to know how safe (or unsafe) their campus environment truly is.

When we would look at the data in some years on some campuses, we were a bit disturbed. It wasn’t because our campus was so violent or scary, but rather that we knew we had reported on incidents involving students that should have made the numbers look scarier. In other words, we might have reported on six or seven assaults in a given year, but the data told us that zero had occurred.

What we started to realize was that the institutions were able to set some parameters and report some data in ways that excluded some places around campus where bad stuff happened. (On one particular campus, Frat Row was basically turned into a Mad Max movie every weekend, but fortunately for the bean counters, it was just far enough away to not be considered “on campus” if they didn’t want it to be.) It wasn’t that they were lying, but rather reporting the data in a way that was most advantageous to the position they wanted to demonstrate. Knowing this meant we had to look beyond that data before writing a story that told our readers, “This place is totally safe and you can be secure in everything you do!”

The same thing is true of observations: Looking beyond what you’re seeing can help a great deal. It’s not always “citizens” who are putting up large signs for candidates or putting up billboards that profess a position on something. In many cases, larger organizations do the heavy lifting for them. My grandmother lived on the main drag of her city for decades, and politicians were always asking if they could put a sign up in her yard. Unless she REALLY hated someone, she was pretty OK with it. That didn’t mean she would necessarily vote for that guy or gal, let alone make a strong case for him or her. However, the optics were that she was a proud supporter, saying it loud and proud.

In driving between small towns a few weeks back, we ended up essentially following a truck that had giant signs for one candidate. The truck stopped every so often and pounded one of these things in the ground (I’m assuming this was done with owners’ permission or whatever; I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble here.) before moving on. Maybe the other candidate would be rolling through later to get some signs up. Maybe not. Maybe everyone in that area loved that candidate. Maybe not.

Maybe it was just two dudes in a truck with a bunch of signs trying to make us think that the entire stretch of our state was in favor of this one candidate. Who knows?

The point is, going beyond what you can see with a quick glance or an assumed position of accuracy will do you a lot of good when examining data and observational points.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over: Yogi Berra always had a way of making sense of things by not making sense at all. (I worked for about five minutes trying to weave his line “You can observe a lot by watching” into my spiel on observations. I failed.) This favorite Yogi-ism really does hit the nail on the head when it comes to data and observation.

You need to keep reporting a story until it is complete. Assuming you have the story when the pieces are “almost” in place will set you up for failure. Figuring that what you saw last week is probably the same as what you would see this week, is likely to get you into trouble.

Regardless of what you can see, hear and sense at any point in time, stick with the story until it’s over. It ain’t over until then.

Throwback Thursday: The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

For me, this week has been like falling down a never-ending flight of stairs: It’s painful, random and you want it to stop. At a certain point, it’s like, “Either get me to the bottom or just knock me unconscious so I don’t have to deal with this…”

My students have been disappearing like crazy, thanks in large part to testing positive for COVID-19 or being around someone who has. Yesterday alone, I answered five emails for one of my 13-student classes, explaining how online-only instruction works because the sender was going to have to sit this one out until the test came back. My kid’s cheer team had three kids test positive, so we had to get her tested and isolate her. Her dance coach tested positive. At least three high schools around us have gone online only. Every time I turn around, something else has blown up or thrown up and I have no idea what’s coming next.

And when we thought it couldn’t get worse, yesterday, my kid’s rabbit died. So there I am, digging a hole under an aspen tree near the back of our property to give Clover a proper send off.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who could use a little humor, so I dug this post up for the sake of a laugh. I hope it helps:

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.