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!).
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!
It was an experiment, and I think it was profoundly successful.
In January, I covered my office door in Magnetic Poetry. These are the little word magnets you’ve seen many times online and never bought. I received a few for Christmas – “Coffee,” “Book Lover,” “Photographer” and “Nasty Woman.” One of my fellow grad students said it looked like a shotgun blast of words.
And then I left them there.
My office door is on the lower level of the building, which houses mass communications, music and theater students. Many of them walk past my door to leave the building, especially those escaping the music practice rooms and the radio station.
All semester, random poems would appear on my door. The students (and teachers and staff, most likely) would rearrange the words on my door to create the most interesting, bizarre and unusual conglomerations of language.
I was warned it would backfire, that immature idiots would put up dirty limericks and someone would make me take it down. I put my faith in the kids, and for the most part, I was right. (I did remove a couple of words from the “Nasty Woman” set to avoid temptation.)
Each week, I collected the best samples and shared them with my Patreon. (See, I keep telling you the best stuff is on the Patreon. You should subscribe!) But here are a few highlights from this semester, as we move into the quiet of summer.
It was the highlight of my day each time I came to my office and saw a new poem left for me by the Door Poets. I intend to keep adding to my word-shotgun and exploring what else they might have for me.
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.
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 am happy to report that the annual edition of the River Bluff Review has been published, which includes one of my photographs.
My photography has been sold many times to individual people, won minor awards, licensed as book covers, and provides the context of essays and travelogues for my Patreon. But this is the first time it’s been chosen for publication by a literary journal. The program is managed by students at SIUE, and is very selective; the short story I submitted was not selected, even though my photograph was.
The photo they chose is titled “Silent Cell,” and I shot it while visiting the Missouri State Penitentiary in Missouri. Somehow I seem to have forgotten to write up this visit, and I could have sworn I did so, but cannot find a sign of it in any of my various blogs. It was an interesting experience, full of history and more than a little darkness – the penitentiary was one of the few places where executions were carried out, and the gas chamber is part of the tour. It is also the place where James Earl Ray was incarcerated before he escaped, and while on the lam, he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King.
I took a great number of photos, trying to compensate for very difficult lighting. This is the one River Bluff Review chose:
I am honored to be in fine company, and hope the annual edition does well. The River Bluff Review is not available online as far as I know, but I think it can be purchased through the English Department of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
One of the most popular bits of silliness I ever wrote was a series of blog posts called “Conversations with the Muse.” The Muse is the creative, cantankerous voice in my head who yells at me and keeps the writing on track.
For the first ten years or so of my fiction writing career, the Muse (and assorted other voices) worked out plot twists and ways to torment characters, while my saner mind managed the tasks of being a single mom and a reporter. Sort of. My conversations with the Muse were frequent, profane, sometimes more than a little frustrated, and always snarky. They were posted in a private blog accessible only to close friends, now long defunct.
Many, many times I have been asked to compile the Muse posts into a book. Apparently, she’s a popular lady, though she would probably put her fist through the face of anyone who said that.
As I approach my birthday (39 plus tax, and I’ll have words with anyone who says different), I’d just like to tell you that if you ever thought about buying me a present (or even if you haven’t), the best thing you could possibly do would be tosubscribe to my Patreon.
All my best material is going on the Patreon these days: short stories, novel snippets, travelogues, photo essays, blog musings, even the Door Project, which has been delightfully fun all semester. The Patreon is an important part of my family’s income, but it has also been mentally and creatively stimulating in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
So I’m taking advantage of a new Patreon feature and offering an ebook as a special bonus to anyone who subscribes between now and March 25. It’s “Conversations With The Muse,” ranging from the arguments over my first novel back in 2003 up to her most recent appearance last month, as well as two short stories in which the Muse led me on a visit down the rabbit hole to visit my characters.
Already a subscriber? Don’t worry, you’re getting the ebook too! Along with my thanks for your kind support and diligently hanging in there while I worked out the kinks in the Patreon system. And if you increase your pledge by at least one level during the birthday week, you’ll get a secret extra bonus!
Sure, you can think of it as a birthday present if you want. But I’m hoping you’ll like what you see, enough to stay and keep reading what I’m putting out there each month. I try to sing for my supper, and I hope what I’m singing is pleasing to your ears.
Excerpt: Feb. 24, 2005
I’m stuck on a part of A More Perfect Union, namely the falling-in-love part. I thought maybe I’d go for a nice walk in the woods along the bike trail near the apartment, and see if I can remember how people fall in love.
ME: So, how do you fall in love? MUSE: Never did. ME: Sure you did. MUSE: Nope. ME: I made you up. I wrote you. You fell in love once. MUSE: No, that was Crawford, in Sanctuary. She’s the one who fell in love. I’m the part of you that steers clear of all that. ME: Oh great. I hope nobody notices I’m walking here talking to myself. MUSE: Nobody’s here. It’s fucking February. You’re the only one nuts enough to walk on a trail the day after a goddamn snowstorm. ME: Wuss. (pass underpass construction site) ME: I think it’s nice that the bike path doesn’t have to make way for the new road, and the new road doesn’t stop for the bike path. They get to coexist. MUSE: Very philosophical. Note the graffiti. ME: Ugh. Little bastards. Is that a tiger? MUSE: I think it’s supposed to be Satan. ME: Those aren’t horns. MUSE: No, but the 666 all around him is kind of a tipoff. ME: Idiot little gangsta wannabes. Any of them saw anything really bad they’d wet their pants. MUSE: Is this what we’re out here for? ME: Fuck you. I need to think sappy thoughts. When was the last time I fell in love? MUSE: You do not want to go there. ME: Good point. I can’t remember how people fall in love. (stops) (stares) ME: What the fuck is that? MUSE: A stick. ME: It’s got fur. MUSE: Dead animal. (stares) ME: That’s the severed leg of a deer. MUSE: Yup, it is. ME: Deer are my favorite animal. MUSE: Uh huh. ME: Is there any WORSE fucking karma than this? It’s you, isn’t it? This is what happens when I’m talking to you! MUSE: We should report this to someone. ME: There’s no road anywhere near here! The road is like 200 feet away and 20 feet up with guardrails! MUSE: Don’t smell anything, either. ME: Idiot. It snowed. Nothing’s going to rot until the thaw. MUSE: Ew. ME: YOU’RE saying ew? You? MUSE: I’ve got a thing about amputation. ME: Which of us is the tough bitch? I forgot. MUSE: That’s the severed leg of a deer. I’m all out of romantic thoughts. ME: Now there’s no way that scene gets written today. MUSE: I think we should go home and report this. ME: Severed leg of a deer. Next to quasi-satanic graffiti. This shit only happens to me.
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 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.
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.
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!
Note: I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial while I was in town. A narration and photo array will be pending on the Patreon.
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.
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.