July linkspam, new outlets and more!

It’s been a crazy busy month, though one of the weirdnesses of freelance magazine writing in particular is that you’ll do a pile of work in July, but it doesn’t appear until September or November. Still, by my standards, July was a bear of a month.

This month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of full-time freelancing, and we haven’t been evicted yet! I go into greater detail in “One Year Later” as listed below, but suffice to say it’s been an interesting, rewarding and ultimately positive experience, and I have a lot more to learn.

Also, this month I launched on Medium, which allows me to share essays and get paid by the click. I’m still figuring out exactly how it works, but a lot of good writers seem to be making money there, and what I’ve read so far is good quality. Please feel free to check out my page, and if you are so moved to click and “clap” for my work, it is deeply appreciated.

Here’s what went public this month:

Endgame checkmate (CultureGeek)

Today we celebrate our Independence Day (CultureGeek)

Behind the lens: Work featured in photography exhibit (Donald Media)

9-year-old serves as ‘mayor for the day’ (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland to upgrade water plant (Highland News-Leader)

I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like (Patreon)

Roundtable: Spider-man: Far From Home (CultureGeek)

Highland Street Art Festival goes forward despite city opposition (Highland News-Leader)

Another roar at Pride Rock (CultureGeek)

Highland votes in favor of fewer construction inspections – with a twist (Highland News-Leader)

Cyberattack causes major outages on campus (The Alestle)

The National Aquarium (Patreon)

Here comes the sun: Sgt. Pepper’s is a big hit (The Alestle – my first restaurant review!)

Highland High School graduate gets perfect ACT score (Highland News-Leader)

One year later (Donald Media)

“Alleged victim” (Medium, a rewrite of a previous essay.)

“What do you like to read?” (Medium, see above)

In addition, you may have heard about a recent incident in which a high-ranking political operative admitted impersonating a student journalist in order to get into a conference call with a candidate from the opposing party and lob accusations at her. As president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, I wrote a statement condemning the action that was endorsed by a majority of the St. Louis SPJ board, and our statement has since been picked up by other news outlets, including the Telegraph and the Intelligencer.

Here’s the statement.

As it discloses, I am personally affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, having served on its board for years and worked with the students this summer in an editing and advisory capacity; and my SPJ vice president is the Alestle program director. However, I believe this gives our opinions greater weight, not lesser: we know for a fact that this “student journalist” does not exist, and our responsibility to call out unethical behavior per the SPJ Code of Ethics is not lessened by our connections to the student newspaper.

Finally… I didn’t write this one. But the local newsmagazine, Edge of the Weekend, featured my family in an in-depth profile for their back-to-school edition. The weirdness of three family members all going to college together finally made print. The photos used are mine, because my menfolk are my favorite photographic subject. Many thanks to Jill Moon, magazine editor for Hearst Illinois, for thinking of us.

We’ve gotten a lot of attention on this story, and it’s been really sweet to see how many people are cheering us on and supporting us as we enter our second year of family-wide higher education and abject poverty. Six jobs, three tuition bills, two impending graduations and one car. It’s been… interesting.

And in three weeks…. here comes the fall semester!

One year later

It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.

One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.

It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.

It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing. 

There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.

Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?

I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that. 

But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations. 

I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”

And I love teaching.

I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end. 

It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.

The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work. 

The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them. 

All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.

The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.

Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.

And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.

It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.

Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door. 

It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake. 

It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)

There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.

We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.

* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong. 

June bylines

Colleges help students with autism reach higher education (Diversity IS Magazine) – this actually published in May, but I missed it for last month’s roundup.

Inspection debate in Highland still simmering (Highland News-Leader)

Highland Council mulls over allowing food trucks (Highland News-Leader)

The Spindler Building: If Walls Could Talk (Patreon)

Dark Phoenix rises, and it’s not so bad after all (CultureGeek)

“Alleged victim” (Donald Media)

The Alestle asks: What’s your favorite MRF memory? (The Alestle, just compiling quotes this time with photography in the gallery)

The historical marker sits close to the road, while the site itself is somewhere back in the trees. The land that once housed the Mississippi River Festival’s music acts has since been used as a radio-controlled airplane field, an outdoor astronomy lab and the current

Highland city leaders decide against granting funds for Chamber’s art festival (Highland News-Leader)

Highland weighs number of inspections required for new housing (Highland News-Leader)

Fiction: Prologue to Yellow Roses (Patreon)

Note: I have finally remembered to update my Contently site with more samples of my work. I try to keep it at no more than 100 clips, a sampling of my various nonfiction works. Click the link to see more.

“Alleged victim”

There are so many things wrong with the phrase above, and we see it constantly in coverage of sexual assault cases… but only sexual assault cases.

It’s been one of my pet peeves for many years, but it came to mind today because of a Boston Globe piece about the ongoing Kevin Spacey investigation. The latest story digs into court filings on Spacey’s indecent assault charges, alleging he fondled a then-18-year-old busboy against his will.

The piece was already questionable, since it detailed every. single. text. sent by this teenage boy to his girlfriend during the incident. The context of the texts will likely be debated in court, but I’m not sure that we needed the entire conversation as a recounting of every move during the incident. The Spacey case is important because the actor is a public figure and because the allegations against him blew up the #metoo discussion and highlighted the fact that sexual harassment and assault isn’t just something that men do to women.

The writer has gone to great lengths to avoid naming the young man – as is appropriate – and then listed family connections that ostensibly identify him anyway. That essentially defeats the purpose of shielding victims, as recommended in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

A tweet circulating this morning alleged that one of the young man’s texts was actually published as a dancing GIF. I do not see that in the current version, and if it was created by the newspaper, that would be wholly inappropriate.

But my real issue is with the phrase “alleged victim,” which is constantly used by all branches of the news business and needs to die. The initial filing of this story included the phrase multiple times, and in the time it took me to write this blog entry, it has now been edited to change the phrasing to “accuser.” We’re still going to talk about it.

First: “alleged” is a coverall term we slap onto anything we think might get us sued. It’s useful, to be sure, but why is it that only sexual assault victims are “alleged victims”? No one is an alleged burglary victim, for example. The presumption is that the crime occurred for every other personal crime except sexual assault, where the burden of proof inexplicably falls on the victim.

In our effort to create a phrase that shields the victim’s identity while not presuming guilt, we have created a phrase that does exactly the opposite.

I’m hardly the first to say this. The late great Steve Buttry wrote about it in 2012, and his essay is now linked to this issue on the SPJ Code of Ethics as he details far better than I the linguistic issues with “alleged victim” as a “blame the victim” term that needed to go away. He made the excellent point that it’s lawyers telling us to say “alleged victim” out of terror of lawsuits if the trial ends with a not guilty. But there are other ways to cover our collective rear ends without casting doubt on the allegations before they even take the stand.

The word “victim” is problematic as well. In interviewing many people who have been subject to sexual violence, “victim” is generally an unpopular word that removes their agency. I have generally found that they prefer the term survivor, which is appropriate for a piece written after verdict. But then there’s that pesky presumption of innocence. I’m not overly fond of “the accuser,” although it is technically accurate and Buttry prefers it; it carries a presumption of vindictiveness on the part of the subject, and of skepticism on the part of the writer.

What’s the solution? Quit being lazy and rewrite your story. Restructure the sentence, kick out the words “alleged” and “victim” both. “The young man told the court that the phone has been misplaced,” beats the hell out of “The alleged victim said he lost the phone.” See how the latter changes the entire meaning of the sentence to sound as though he’s lying?

These are tricky issues and difficult stories to write, and I’m sorry to spotlight one story by the Boston Globe when this particular sin is so widespread. In fact, for this specific story, it appears in the headlines of the Chicago Tribune, ABC and Vanity Fair. CNN, Fox News and USA Today went with “accuser.”

Buttry made the best point of all: “Don’t start whining ‘political correctness’ about this. That’s a name-calling phrase people use in an attempt to shut down discussion and skew arguments in their favor. This is about accuracy and if you don’t care about accuracy, I don’t care what you have to say.”

As I have told my students many times and will continue to shout until they haul me away: more than any other profession, journalists must recognize the immense power of words. Language is the most powerful tool we have, and we must never use it lightly. The words we use form the public’s impression of the issue we cover and the people whose lives hang in the balance, and that is a responsibility we cannot shirk, no matter how tight the deadline.

May bylines

One of the weird things about being a freelancer is that you never quite know when your work will run, and when it does, you aren’t always able to snag a link. However, as you know, I’m working for a lot of local, regional and national publications as a reporter, editor and photographer (and available for more!).

Here are some of my recent bylines:

Philadelphia college aims to address lack of rural healthcare in southern Georgia (INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine)

Highland buys land to move public safety building project forward (Highland News-Leader)

Historic Spindler building enters final days (Belleville News-Democrat)

Highland council rejects all bids for new public safety building (Highland News-Leader)

CultureGeek: Summer Movie Round-up!

The Troy Times-Tribune has recently moved into the wild, woolly world of the internet, so I’m not sure any of my stories are live there yet, but I do hope you’ll bop by and support them. I’ve been covering the Madison County board for them since fall.

On the Patreon: a photo essay on the Sauer Castle in Kansas City, which I shot several months ago; and a short essay titled “Full Circle” about returning to student journalism after 22 years as a pro. Subscribe!

In the news, again

We’re getting all kinds of famous here at Donald-Smith-Gillentine Inc.

Author fair and book sale highlights local authors

SIUE’s Gillentine wins Degree Completion Award

And the previously announced Illinois Press Association Award got some ink this week.

In general, it’s been a good week for the DSG crew. The semester is winding to a close, and since I won’t be teaching over the summer, I’ll have plenty of time to write my fingers off.

At least, that’s the working plan.

And now, a word from our sponsor…

There’s a wry variation on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem circulating: “First they came for the journalists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a journalist. We don’t know what happened after that.”

It’s not a fair analogy, of course. But it underscores the point: the only reason anyone knows what really happened today is because someone covered it. Without acts of journalism, you have only to rely on government press releases to know what’s happening and why. That goes for big things like “going to war,” and little things like, “my water rates are going up.”

If you’re reading this, I hope I don’t have to convince you of the importance of journalism. If, however, you still have doubts, I hope you will look just at the list of Pulitzer finalists released earlier this week, and click the links through to see some of the amazing and powerful work being done by journalists today.

So today is the SPJ Day of Giving, and I have personally donated. Usually I direct my donation to the Terry Harper Scholarship Fund, which funded my attendance at the 2010 Excellence in Journalism Conference. By the end of that conference, I had been nominated to the national Ethics Committee, and I continue to serve today. It is one of the greatest privileges of my career to serve the committee and SPJ, and it would not have been possible without the Harper Fellowship.

Today, however, I directed my donation to be used for whatever the Society’s most crucial need might be. The folks working at national are coping with staggering issues in our profession, from vast changes in infrastructure and methods that continually create new challenges for working journalists, to mass layoffs that erode confidence among the survivors and a shrinking membership, to an increasingly hostile public that seems to believe we are its enemy. I can’t imagine which of its many missions is most in need of support right now, so I hope they use my meager donation for the best cause.

Things that make me #SPJProud:

  • The sheer number of scholarships, fellowships, internships and other financial support offered to students and members.
  • The Legal Defense Fund provides direct assistance to small news organizations, freelancers and others in their efforts to fight government encroachment on the First Amendment and for open records and transparency.
  • The training and webinars provide much-needed skills development and reinforcement for members who are increasingly being left without training by their newsrooms.
  • The support, practical and otherwise, for journalists who have been laid off and must now find work and/or retraining.
  • The advocacy in Washington and elsewhere to defend the profession against increasingly virulent threats, whether that is in discourse, in the courtroom, or in danger of physical harm.
  • The accountability for our own profession, for advocating diversity in the newsroom and combating sexual harassment and unethical behavior, even when pointing out those transgressions could damage the rest of us.

And so, so much more. SPJ has given me so many opportunities for my career, far beyond that which I could have achieved alone. I have met some of the finest journalists in the country through SPJ, and I am proud to call them colleagues. I am proud to serve as president of St. Louis Pro, and to help my local colleagues through all the crises they face covering our fine city and region. I am proud to be a journalist, and to stand up for what it represents: voice to the voiceless, a challenge to the powerful.

I hope that if you are a journalist, you will consider joining SPJ, if you have not already done so. Give us a year to figure out if our resources are of use to you, and tell us what we aren’t offering so we can address it.

And I hope that if you support the First Amendment and want to see independent news informing you of what’s happening in your community and the nation and the world, you will consider donating to SPJ, either for the defense fund or the SDX advocacy funds such as Legal Defense.

Note: This column was cross-posted to STLSPJ.org.

Community service journalism

It’s awards season in journalism-land, and I’m delighted to announce that one of the last major pieces I wrote at the Belleville News-Democrat has won a significant award.

Co-written with Alexis Cortes, the story was a year-long examination of mental health and suicide prevention among teenagers. It actually began life as a rumor that teen suicide had skyrocketed at a local school district, and after close examination, it turned out that wasn’t statistically true. But it sparked our interest in a subject often swept under the rug because of the massive misconceptions and stigma attached to mental illness, particularly among young people.

Around that time the TV series 13 Reasons Why came out, with a great deal of controversy about how the subject was handled. As we spoke to experts, it seems the people creating that series asked mental health professionals and advocates how to carefully and sensibly handle the issue of teen suicide… and basically did exactly the opposite of what psychologists recommend.

So we decided to look at the issue itself, and do it right, though I don’t think we realized it would take until the second season’s premiere to publish.

I think it’s fair to say that Alexis and I spent nearly as much time figuring out how to report this subject as we did actually reporting it. We interviewed survivors, family members, teachers, psychologists, social workers, school officials… and at the end of every interview, we asked them, “How do you recommend we cover this subject without causing harm?” We studied the language choices recommended by psychologists to be respectful and responsible without engaging in hyperbole or romanticizing the subject.

Suicide contagion is a real thing, and both Alexis and I were committed that we would rather not cover the story at all than do it wrong and tip someone over the edge.

We wrote a main story that began with a survivor’s narrative, focusing on her recovery and a look insider her mind. This was a deliberate choice after talking with psychologists: focus on survivors rather than the grieving, distraught families of those who died by suicide. The former approach helps those in crisis see that there is a way back; the latter tends to push them off the edge.

We covered national and local stats, efforts by schools to help teens in crisis, the controversy around the show, social stigmas, treatment options, what makes depression different in teens and young people, warning signs for parents and educators, and more.

We also did a sidebar listing all the mental health options in our coverage counties, from counseling clinics to inpatient facilities; a list of myths debunked and symptoms for which to watch; and a narrative of a day-long seminar in addressing mental illness in the classroom for area educators. I sat with them all day, taking the same training they took.

During that time there was a reorganization at the newspaper, and I was shifted to a new beat. This was part of the long delay in publishing, as well as the general crazy of daily news that tends to shove major projects to the back burner. However, I was permitted to stay on the project, for which I remain exceedingly grateful.

We also created an internal plan for how to handle the release, which we developed in concert with the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the SPJ Ethics Committee members and ReportingOnSuicide.org, a cooperative effort of nine journalism organizations to maintain and improve best practices in reporting and writing about mental illness.

Every story included paragraphs reminding readers that help was available and offering the national suicide prevention hotline. As per the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the first comment on each part of the package was another post of the hotline, and the staff was instructed to carefully monitor the comments in case someone in crisis was posting.

I can’t speak for Alexis, but I think I was never so nervous about any story I’ve reported than this one, including physically-dangerous situations or controversial investigations. It’s not often that the words you choose and the approach you take could literally kill someone. We both poured over every word before we even sent it over to the editors, who also treated it with great caution. It needed to be done right, or not at all.

It was a difficult but rewarding experience, and I remain exceedingly proud of the final product. I was doing mostly crime and spot news by that point, so unless my memory fails me, it was the last major story I wrote at the BND. It ran in May 2018; I left in July.

So it was with no small delight that I received a message from my former partner last week informing me that we had won first place for community service journalism from the Illinois Press Association. In fact, the News-Democrat swept that category, winning all four awards.

Nobody does the job for awards – or, if you do, it’s time to hang it up, because you have forgotten that we are first and foremost servants of the public. And, to be honest, I was more often a toiler in the vineyard, shoveling fuel into the furnace of daily news and not often on those extensive, major projects that tend to catch the eye of the major awards.

But the real value in awards attention is to encourage this kind of in-depth reporting that is too easy to hand-wave in the era of clicks. There are ways to feed the daily beast and also do serious, intensive work, but it takes the dedication of capable staff and the commitment of responsible editors, with an eye to ethics and experts. It’s what we should be doing, and if it wins an award, maybe it will encourage others to give that kind of coverage a try.

I’m especially proud to share the award with Alexis Cortes, who is a fine journalist and great writer with a keen mind. She was a terrific partner, and has just been named one of Editor & Publisher’s 25 Under 35 for this year. Her latest project: an in-depth look at gun violence killing kids as part of the Since Parkland series.

We should all be glad to work for her one day.

Oooooooklahoma and AEJMC

I am happy to report that my sort-of first academic conference went well, in that I completed my presentation and no one threw anything at me or shouted “Heretic!” and tried to chase me from the building. My barometer for “went well” might be a little low, but remember, I work in the news business.

Technically my first academic conference was the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity, where I spoke about the 2014 project to rewrite and update the SPJ Code of Ethics a couple of years ago. I was a bundle of nerves there as well, but I was not presenting original research; merely reporting on a process in which I was part, and with extensive assistance from then-chairman Andrew Seaman and former chairman Kevin Smith. 

The conference took place the first weekend of March at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., which is just south of Oklahoma City. I flew down on Feb. 28 and took the afternoon to look around Oklahoma City before settling in to be all academic and stuff.

This is me landing in Oklahoma. Another state checked off the life to-do list.

This is the first academic conference where I was presenting my own research, and as my friends and colleagues know, my research last semester was wrought with blood and tears, so I was more than a little uneasy about the presentation.

But no moreso than my traveling companions, both of whom are my fellow first-year masters students and at least twenty years younger than I, the younglings.

Meet Rahul Menon and Jonathan Johnson, two of my fellow grad students and Power Rangers. They call me GradMom. This picture lives in proof that Jonathan can exist without his Alienware baseball cap.

I’m glad to report that AEJMC is a fairly low-key and welcoming conference, with three or four presentations per hour in small rooms with receptive audiences. Following the presentations, there is a respondent (who apparently was tasked with reading all the papers) who gives initial feedback, then questions and comments from the audience.

The respondent for my session could not make it, which was both a disappointment and a relief – I hope for real feedback, but I’d be just as happy not to get it in front of a live studio audience. I’m shy. 

I attended many other sessions as well, and got a sense of what kind of research is taking place on the academic side of the field. This is different than the usual trade conferences I attend (and certainly different than the pop culture cons). 

The trade conferences tend to be focused on practical applications, career advice, recounting of methods and approaches, and other how-to’s for performing and promoting journalism.

At the pop culture cons, there’s usually people in costume. This was not present at AEJMC.

The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at OU was amazing. I wanted to steal their building and bring it back home. Their newsroom was bigger than some newspapers I’ve worked, I’m just saying.

Here are some of the research projects I heard presented:

• A game-based intervention on adults for media literacy did not yield the expected results, but showed promise for refinement in helping to promote the ability to discern fact from fiction in news content. 

Note: The more education one has, the more one interacts with text and the more time you spend on content, the more likely you are to be able to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation. Yet another nail in the coffin of “not everyone needs an education,” in my opinion. 

As one person in the audience suggested, it is high time universities considered mothballing the old-fashioned “speech” class requirement in favor of intro to media or media literacy for all undergrads. Not every professional adult is going to give speeches in their work life, but everyone will need media literacy going forward. Food for thought. 

• Along that line of thought, West Texas A&M University developed a service learning model for media literacy. Freshman students went through a five-week training course in media literacy, then went into the area high schools and taught the principles of media literacy to high-schoolers. The high schools want to incorporate it into their curriculum, but are swamped with mandates and limited on time and resources. 

The program emphasized the importance of balance and fairness, evaluating sources, internet censorship, citizen journalism around the world, the impact of social media, and more. Then by teaching it to younger kids, the students learn better themselves.

Note: The program focused on finding a middle ground between championing journalism’s goals and successes, and dwelling endlessly on our errors and doom-and-gloom challenges. Teaching young people that all media is suspect, that journalism is dead and everyone online is awful does not help foster the next generation’s ability to navigate the media landscape or build a better one.

Or, as one speaker put it, a critical look at mass media should not turn into a conspiracy-theory cynicism that serves only to further tear down the profession and the industry.

• An examination of automated journalism in China. There have been previous studies of this, but focused only on such news in English. What is automated journalism? Apparently, news stories that are aggregated by algorithm, with no humans involved.

This is a beast heretofore unknown to me. The creation of aggregate stories alone was a bit of a shock to me a few years ago, when it tore down the age-old prohibitions on citing and linking our competitors’ work by compiling “stories” with links and citations to other news organizations. But at least those stories still have a living, trained journalist doing the compiling and evaluating the sources’ veracity. This is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to replacing journalists with robots. 

It’s safe to say I’m not a fan.

Fortunately, the study found that readability and expertise rated higher for human-written news than automated, although for some reason readers rated credibility marginally lower for humans than machines. If you want to read more about Robby the Robot Journalist, Emerj did a piece on news by A.I. in January. 

• Research on health podcasts found that doctors and people who have been personally diagnosed with an illness carried much higher credibility with podcast listeners than hearing the same information from a podcast host who did not have medical credentials. It also had a higher impact on health behaviors, and a higher interest in downloading and following the podcast in the future.

Another podcast study focused on commercials: the average is 5.1 commercials per podcast in the top 100 iTunes-distributed podcasts, up from 2.4 a decade ago. About 31 percent were sponsorships, and 87 percent directly or indirectly related to the subject of the podcast. 

• This one will not please my teenage son: While 71 percent of Americans age 18-24 are habitual Instagram users, as much as 25 percent would qualify as “problematic users.” Social media addiction is a real, trackable thing, folks. 

The addictive gratifications of compulsive Instagram use rival those obtained by food, sleep and sex, though they do not have a classification as a mental disorder (yet). They defined it as a state of unconscious activity, of compulsive use with multiple gratifications. I am probably mangling this definition, but it was an interesting study. 

• In popular culture, there were examinations of Mad Men as a paradoxical feminist text, the portrayal of bisexuality on CW shows, the representation of Asian Indians in American film over the last 10 years, and the Kardashians’ impact on awareness of the Armenian genocide.

Don’t laugh. I didn’t know either, but they’re an Armenian episode and have apparently made a significant impact in advocacy for genocide victims and awareness of Armenian culture in exile. Who knew?

Also, the average CW viewer watches eight hours of TV a day. When do they work or sleep? 

My colleague Rahul Menon did the Indian film study, and found an increasing number of positive portrayals of Asian Indians as hardworking, funny and helpful, though still fewer than half are actually portrayed by Indian actors. 

Finally, there was a study on the impact that popular culture can have on people’s perceptions of mental illness. Specifically, they studied Batman and Beyonce, focusing on an article about Beyonce’s struggle with depression and Batman knocking the hell out of someone who said bad things about someone with mental illness. I’m paraphrasing, because this is already a long blog post, but it was an interesting study from the University of Missouri. 

The answer is: yes, it makes a difference – but the study itself didn’t quite bear that out. Popular culture changes opinions, which sounds like a DUH, but in academia you need research and statistics to back up the things that should seem obvious, because sometimes it’s not. The “parasocial relationship,” which is academic-speak for our ability to identify with a fictional character, is key to whether the popular culture icon can shift personal opinion in real life. In short, mental health stigma can be reduced if it is responsibly discussed in media, but the message and the media matter.

Also: More than 80 percent of the audience was familiar with Beyonce. Only 69 percent were familiar with Batman. What?

This is a quick-and-dirty rundown on two days of research discussion, and apologies if I have mangled anyone’s research. I was honored to be there with my little study on journalists’ portrayal in film, and gained some ideas and feedback for my continuing research as I proceed into … wait for it … my thesis. But more on that next year!

We did find time to hit the local bar. We’re college students, after all.

Note: I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial while I was in town. A narration and photo array will be pending on the Patreon.

The People Have a Right to Know

I’m happy and terrified to announce that last semester’s research project has been selected for presentation at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s midwinter conference.

That’s a lot of edu-speak to say that I wrote some stuff people liked, and now I’m flying to Oklahoma City to talk about it.

Last semester’s primary project was a research paper titled “The People Have a Right to Know: Journalism and Ethics in Film.” In part it was a test run for my thesis, which will expand greatly from the initial sample to examine several tropes that affect journalists’ representation in the movies. It focused primarily on ten films featuring journalists from the last five years, but also extended into several films from previous eras that highlight some of the most common depictions of journalists.

My research poster. Not sure how I’m getting that on the plane.

I analyzed the films through the lens of the SPJ Code of Ethics. If you know me at all, you know that I am passionate about the Code. We denizens of the SPJ Ethics Committee spend a great deal of time year-round advocating ethical behavior, promoting awareness and use of the Code and assisting journalists with ethical dilemmas. My primary soapbox for all these years has been that journalism ethics is not some dry academic theoretical discussion, but a living necessity that should be part of every newsroom’s daily discussion and the only part of your J-school education guaranteed to be relevant throughout your entire career.

Many papers and research projects have focused on the representation of the news media in film, but I am not aware of any others that have used the SPJ Code of Ethics to analyze the fictional journalists’ behavior. Apparently this caught the eye of the committee at AEJMC, and I have been invited to present my research to them.

Thus the terror. I have only presented once before at an academic conference: in 2016, I spoke at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity about the 2014 project to rewrite the Code for the 21st century. All my other speaking engagements have been much less formal: trade conferences, universities, pop-culture conventions, book groups.

However, since my ultimate goal is to continue teaching, this is an enormous opportunity, and quite an honor.

Oklahoma, here I come…