Tag Archives: digital media

Journos: Stop the flaky questions

The same week I gave the “Art of Intverviewing” lecture to the first quarter graduate students here at The Medill School at Northwestern University, a few working journalists conducted some bad interviews.

The attempt by the Australian journalist to tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke fell flatter than the pizza with everything. Which brings me back to my lecture on interviewing: Be professional. Be respectful. It’s your reputation and your byline.

I don’t imagine interviewing the Pope with “The pope, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar…”

Which brings me to Chris Wallace on Fox News asking Michele Bachman if she is a flake.

Let me be clear, I am not a Fox fan or a Michele Bachman fan. But as a journalist doing the interview, your bias should not be so transparent. It was arrogant of Wallace to put her down and make her defensive. My instinct is there is gender bias at play here; I do not recall anyone asking Jesse Ventura during a running for office interview if he was a flake. Or the same for H.Ross Perot. Ventura could have body slammed the interviewer. Perot could have bought him to death.

Which brings me back to the interviewing lecture. Sources beget sources. Show a sincere wish to get it right.

Under the heading, “Don’t fall in love with your subject,” I also advise students to remain objective. The flip side is also true. “Don’t be a hater.”

I have interviewed people who make me uncomfortable, I have interviewed people I disagree with personally, but I still hold to the adage: “It matters how you ask and what you ask.”

I tell students to consider how you phrase the question. Consider the order of the question. Consider the sensivity. Consider the tone and the way you speak. Consider your body language.

Toward the end of the lecture, I ask them to above all respect the source and the information. You need the information. You need the story. You need to be accurate. The reader needs to trust you will get it right every time.

I remind students there is no such thing as a dumb question. I say that because it is worse to have a correction in a publication or broadcast than to risk the subject thinking you are a little dense. Be sure you understand before you walk away. Make sure you understand your notes. Underline difficult concepts for follow-up questions. Believe that a good question yields a good answer.

After seeing these two professional interviewing failures, I will revise the prespcription that there is no such as a dumb question. Yes, there is. You can tell the Dalai Lama a Dalai Lama joke. And you can call a candidate for president a flake.

I am cutting this post short. I have an interview in a half-hour, a profile for a new book I am writing. And I need to follow my own first rule of interviewing: Be prepared.

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To Medill Grads: “Greatness is not a byproduct of timidity”

MSJ grads Jordan Turgeon and Kelsey Bjelland (me in center)

It was the best, most positive convocation I can recall in the past 15 years as a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Medill School. More than 150 undergrads and close to 100 masters graduates met in Cahn Auditorium to face the future. And they were well-prepared. Their first words during launch were well-considered, well-crafted and welcome. It was a morning filled with “real hope and real optimism.”

Commencement speaker and 1988 Medill MSJ grad Evan Smith charmed and informed the faculty, parents and students with his take on the future. The ceo and editor-in-chief of the newly launched The Texas Tribune told the crowd “greatness is not a byproduct of timidity” at this vibrant time of “news entrepreneurship.”

He urged the students he called iGrads as the “first generation of digital natives” to understand that this is “a great and exciting time to be looking for a job in journalism and its related fields.”

Recognizing that “the state of the media business– by this I mean the sad, sorry, unsettled, listing, sagging state of the media business– creates unprecendented opportunities for smart people” to create and launch innovative ideas.

It is a time when students are “able to be not just an intimate witness, but an active participant” in the revolution that is changing media forever, Smith said.

Smith offered three pieces of advice similar to what I often give my students in Reporting & Writing as well as Multimedia Storytelling.

1. “Build and burnish your personal brand.”
2. “Embrace risk.”
3. “No ingraved invitations.”

This year at Medill we have started teaching students how to begin to build a professional brand as a journalist, an idea that was unheard of just five years ago. We teach students to use social media to create a professional identity that will set them apart from so many others as hungry as they are for a position in the evolving media landscape.

A few weeks ago I told the students in my last spring class of Multimedia Storytelling that the single most important thing they can do at Medill and in life is to try. Enter into a challenge not with trepidation but with the eagerness to learn something completely new. Approach a challenge not with dread but with excitement. You cannot learn unless you try and you just might fail.

Try. Fail. Try. Succeed. Repeat.

I often tell students that no bad grade, no good source and no graceful sentence will land on them when they open a window. You must seek it all out. You earn a poor grade, just as you earn a good one. You find the sources and the evidence you need to back up your story. None of it lands on you like inspiration from some fictitious muse. You must create the opportunity.

Saturday was an uplifting morning. I met the parents of students who have been in my classes and have been my advisees for years. I have written several hundred recommendations for the members of this class of 2011.

I won’t call anyone out by name, so as not to slight anyone, but I told several parents that they can be proud of their son or daughter. The student was respectful, enterprising, bright, engaged, eager and diligent.

It was a day to celebrate. Just as I did for my son Weldon at his graduation last month from University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was celebrating for the students who have sat in my lectures or panicked in my office over classes to register for the next year. Some of them hated me for the current events quizzes and the AP Style tests, but I know they all learned a great deal. They learned how to report and to write. They learned to meet a deadline. And hopefully they learned that anything they dare to create is possible.

Try, I keep saying to students. The secret to succeeding in the real world? The same as it is in a class on Monday and Wednesday 9 a.m to noon.

Try. All you have to do is try.

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Moms, don’t blame your kids for your own shortcomings

My sons did not make me a liar.

The dog ate my homework. My kids made me lie in my newspaper review. Both are wrong.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist and reporter Paige Wiser apparently was none the, when she submitted a fabricated review of a “Glee Live” concert last week and was fired for it.

Not that she was covering the war in Afghanistan or anything, but she lied in her column. In a newspaper. She lied. We cover that in the first course at Medill, “Reporting & Writing.”

She blamed her kids. When all she can really do is blame herself. She should have gotten fired. Sorry to be harsh. But this is why. It slashes the credibility of working mothers everywhere, and not just working mother journalists.

I know it sounds odd coming from a single working mother of three who is sole support. I realize I should nod my head and say I understand, send her a reassuring comment on her Twitter account. But I believe excusing her unethical behavior because she is a working mother is like excusing Anthony Weiner for exposing himself to young women online because his pregnant wife travels a lot. No, the two are not the same. They just give me the same reaction: incensed.

You cannot blame someone else for your behavior.

While a lot of women journalists, pundits and bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon to say the real problem is it is hard for working mothers to juggle everything, I cannot disagree more with that as an excuse.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all as a working mother. Working single fathers too. But millions of us don’t take the shortcuts, do what we know is wrong professionally and ethically. Don’t lump us all together and say women cannot perform at peak because we have given birth. Or adopted. Or stepped in as a step. Or take care of an elderly parent.

Yes, it is hard to juggle it all, just as it is for men who do the same thing as single parents, like my brother Paul, a widower raising three kids and running a manufacturing company, attending every volleyball game, concert, meeting and even serving as Team Mom. Or my brother, Bill, raising five children as a widower.

When we start to trade in our kids as an excuse, we undermine all women who have been trying like hell for the last 100 years to reach parity in the workplace. To me it feels as gruesome and impossibly unlikely as saying you can’t expect a woman to attend a meeting because she may have PMS. I am offended.

Yes, I empathize. In 15 years of paying for childcare for three kids in five years without a husband in the house, I broke out in hives, panicking to the core if the phone rang at 6 a.m. Because if a sitter cancelled, I had to completely rearrange my life, get three boys to separate schools, or drop off a toddler at a friend’s so I could make it to my class at Northwestern University. Where I could not act as if any of my homelife was a problem. Continue the lecture. Teach the three-hour undergrad or seven-hour grad class.

Once I had to bring Colin and Brendan to the lecture hall with me, where they ran in and out, banging on the locked doors to get back in. It was not pretty. I have had to write newspaper and magazine columns at 3 a.m. because that was all the time I had. I have met book deadlines without any sleep because I would not tell an editor that the laundry and the wrestling tournaments took up too much of my time. I have given speeches with a few hours of sleep. But I would just do it.

I am free of that worry now. Weldon, Brendan and Colin are 22,20 and 17. They drive. They are mostly independent. My oldest graduated from college last month. I have not had to pay for childcare– except for someone to stay overnight when I travel for work and the older two are away at school– in five years.

Raising these three sons alone and working since they were 6, 4 and 1 makes me a lot of things, but it does not make me a liar. It does not make me fabricate, plagiarize or say I saw something I did not. It doesn’t make me type something I don’t know for sure and pretend something that is not true is true.

I am not saying I am a perfect parent. Or beyond reproach professionally. I have probably trimmed a lot off my performance as a mother, professor and journalist just because it is hard to excel in all arenas all the time. But I have not compromised my code of ethics.

I am in the same business as Ms. Wiser. I am a journalist. I am an author. And I teach and model for the next generation of journalists how to behave professionally. I show young women that yes, you can do it all. You don’t have to pick truth over lies. You can be successful, even with pictures of your kids all over your office.

There was another way out. This is what I would have advised Ms. Wiser: Call your editor. Say your kid is sick and you had to leave. Stuff happens. I understand completely; I am still traumatized by the memory of the itchy six weeks of chicken pox in our house the winter of 1996. And the flu the boys passed around that kept me sleepless for three days.

When something happens as it did with the Glee concert, you are transparent. After calling your editor, you are apologetic. You suggest to your editor that you find who tweeted about the end of the concert. You contact the blogger. You quote the person. You write about how you had to leave, you write your opinion based on the 75 percent of the concert you saw, and you fill in with the attributed info. And you end with the line: “Note to self: Never again.”

You keep your integrity. You keep your job. And you keep all the other working mothers in the world from rolling their eyes and muttering under our breaths that you just gave our bosses a reason to mistrust our integrity, while we silently pray that the babysitter won’t cancel so we can go to work the next day.

Having kids doesn’t give you a handicap. It makes everything a little more complicated. Not impossible. And it sure doesn’t give you a free card to do the wrong thing.

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Guts is not the problem, but training is the solution


I have guts. A lot of guts. Guts is not the issue.

Recently Poynter.org’s Mallory Jean Tenore wrote that Minnesota Public Radio’s Eric Ringham claimed women and all others who felt left out of the public discourse in opinion pages of mainstream media needed to “summon up some guts to dive in.”

Women journalists have more guts than most anybody I know. For the Journalism & Women Symposium annual camp held in Texas last year, the t-shirt read, “Don’t Mess With a Woman Journalist.” We are not generally a timid bunch.

Many, many men and women journalists have been protesting for years about the inequity of gender –and color– refelcted in bylines and guest shots on opinion pages, broadcasts  and Internet sites for years. For YEARS. I did a chapter on it in my 2008 book, Everyman News: “Diversity of Thought Changes Content.”

Every once in a while, a gender-balanced or predominatly female byline count of a opinion or home page will feel fresh and victorious. And then it’s back to the same old same old.

Which is why founder and director of The Op-Ed Project Katie Orenstein is bringing the show to Chicago June 11 for a day-long core seminar with journalist, author and broadcaster Katherine Lanpher as workshop leader.

In bringing the Op/Ed Project to Chicago, partnering with Women of the World and Northwestern University’s Medill School, where I am an assistant journalsim professor, the goal is for thought leaders in the area to feel compelled to show up and spend a day learning how to be seen and heard. Diversify the conversation.

Because it isn’t about guts and it isn’t about surveys, updates and byline counts. It’s about having your voice listened to amid the noise. It’s about making a difference. Being the change. And not just screaming at the wind.

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No More Front Page Pineapple Boy!

Chicago Tribune front page ad May 14, 2011

 Last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune made me crazy. OK, it was before I had coffee, but after I retrieved it from my doorstep the old-fashioned way, instead of my from my laptop, I looked forward to reading the feature about a local kid who had a pineapple growing out of his head. Nooooooooooooooo. This was not a feature photo. This was an ad.

     Inside was the real front page. With an enormous girl on the left with an orange in her mouth. Ick. Another ad.

   First reaction: I was so glad I had written the book in 2008 about the changing front pages of American newspapers. Because then, I seriously had no idea that the next step past anecdotal leads, citizen journalism and non-news (the point of the book, Everyman News) was a big ol’ ad of a kid with a pineapple growing out of his noggin on the front page. Honestly, it upset me all week.  

Really, I am teaching students at the Medill School of Journalism to strive to be on the front page, the home page, the mobile screen with their excellent journalism. Do I have to say, well, maybe your hard work and enterprising journalism will now take a back seat to Pineapple Boy?    

    Today I trepidatiously approached the rolled Chicago Tribune on my doorstep. Phew. Two feature stories, a huge photo of Derrick Rose, a banner with an Oprah Winfrey photo and a vertical column teasing into four stories inside. All of it defensible for newsworthiness.

 Oh, yes, and a little sticker from Brown’s Chicken giving me six free corn fritters and a teeny ad (compared to Pineapple Boy) on the bottom from Target announcing sales on Doritos, corn, Pepsi and ground beef. I guess the editors are back from vacation and the ad department backed down.  

   I know the Trib is in bankruptcy proceedings. But really. If you don’t want to give me hard news, (and we know print is not about that anymore, just go and read the book, ok?) then give me fluff. Give me enterprise stories, give me photos, give me illustrations, weather or analysis.

Just, please dear God, never, ever, ever again give me Pineapple Boy.

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Oprah, don’t let the liar get you down

 

Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.

It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale,  but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks. 

I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah  in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.

So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.

So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.

What a bunch of baloney.

In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse. 

I have read and heard this morning about how tricky it is to tell and vet the truth in a memoir. Just ask Greg Mortenson about Three Cups of Tea.

But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.

My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.

Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.

And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.

Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.

It is not that I  dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.  

I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions. 

I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.

In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.

Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story. 

I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.

So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.    

But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.

It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.

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Profs Gone Wild! Sex Toys! Stolen Idols! Fake Names!

 

Mostly college professors seem as exciting and controversial as toll booth collectors or museum curators. Save the occasional outrageous act of Holocaust denial or live sex acts in the classroom, my colleagues at Northwestern University (where I am an assistant professor in journalism at the Medill School) are not people anyone would call a ribald or morally repulsive bunch.

They are on the whole intelligent, creative, respectful, mature professionals who behave with integrity. We write books and research archives for giggles. Discuss documentaries for a good time.  

But this week we are all lumped together as deviants, at least you would think so by reading the press. All because a full tenured professor in the psychology department, John Michael Bailey, decided that after his Human Sexuality class ended last week, the extra credit hour would be filled with the bonus of two women and one man performing a battery-enhanced act of sexual pleasure. I am not making this up.  

He defended his choice pretty much as academic freedom. It is, after all, his area of expertise. So I took a few minutes from my three-hour journalism class in Multimedia Storytelling yesterday– one that I prepared several hours for– to discuss it with my students, who were talking about the campus media stories and the fact that this is how and when our university is in the news.  

This is what I said: I believe this degrades all of the faculty. Never mind it degraded the woman who opted to be held down by another woman and to have an appliance inserted inside her unclothed body by a man, all on a stage in front of strangers.

I don’t know, but isn’t this performing a sex act in public? When is that not public indecency?  If you can get arrested for urinating in public, isn’t this just a tad more obscene? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, I do after all, get grossed out by people who pick their noses in cars.

Still, I think the academic freedom defense is thin.  I feel this was disrespectful to students, faculty, Northwestern community, and also to the parents who are spending and/or borrowing significant money for their children to attend this great institution, my alma mater. 

 As a parent paying tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also Ohio State University for two sons, I would be mad as hell if this happened in Madison or Columbus. 

Thank goodness during the NU demo we didn’t have any campus tours of high school juniors and seniors stopping in hoping to catch a glimpse of a college class.

Today NU President Morton Schapiro went on the record to pretty much agree it was a dumb thing to do: 

I  have recently learned of the after-class activity associated with Prof. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class, and I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred.

Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member. I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.

Northwestern faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial. That is the nature of a university. However, in this instance, I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

Many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.

Amen. Finally, some common sense. Someone defending a code of conduct that most all of us adhere to. We are not all deviants and idiots. We internalize the notion of responsibility to the students and are hardworking role models. I feel when I stand up to lecture, the students in my class are not just looking to me for the content that will be on the quiz or the assignment. They are looking to me to see how I behave.

Which brings me to the other news of a local Bad Boy Prof; this one at Loyola University Chicago. It seems Daniel Amick pleaded guilty last week to stealing archaleogical artifacts. Gee whiz.

And then in the news is another Columbia College journalism prof, Dan Sinker, who is all over the place for his fake Rahm Emanuel profanity-laced Twitter account.

OK, what did I miss? When is it OK for  a journalism professor to fabricate content pretending to be a prminent news source, hiding his identity and promoting a scam? I followed the fake Emanuel twitter feed for about two days, then stopped. I knew it was junk. I just had no idea it was a journalism prof.  

The really amazing thing is this Profs Gone Wild trend is not limited to Chicago area male colleagues. Huffington Post a month ago posted a slideshow of everything from incest to phone sex in 11 recent professor scandals. Now they need an update.

One thing is certain Bailey will not be asked to fill any vacant faculty slots at Brigham Young University, where news hit today that student and star basketball player Brandon Davies was suspended for admitting to having premarital sex, a violation of the BYU honor code.

Back to campus, where the news trucks are circling.

I spent the rest of my day creating a lecture I will deliver next week in a lecture hall on campus, thankfully not the same stage as the sex demo. Like hundreds of my colleagues, the most exciting apparatus we offer our students is  original insight, fresh useful information and concrete instruction.

And if we are really daring? Perhaps a short video clip inserted in the Power Point.

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