Fake News Watch

Note: I’m giving this a shot. I will continue it as my time permits, and how long I continue with it will be directly tied to how much hell it gets me. Snopes and Politifact (as well as other sites) already do a spectacular job at this, but I still seem to spend a lot of time debunking stuff on the internet. So here goes.

FAKE NEWS WATCH

• Sorry, fans, Back to the Future IV is not a thing. An unverified account pretending to be Michael J. Fox posted a pic of the actor with Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd, announcing that they started shooting last summer. Despite the gleeful squees across the internet, multiple sources confirm it was a hoax, including Snopes.

• I understand that Anthony Bourdain’s suicide is a terrible blow to many. But the conspiracy theories are out of control. He was about to expose a pedophile ring! He was murdered by operatives of Hillary Clinton! Assassinated by Mossad! He was a #MeToo sympathizer and his girlfriend had accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her, so he was silenced to stop him from speaking out against sexual abuse! I’ve seen several say “I just don’t believe it was suicide,” but there is no legitimate source yet giving any evidence to doubt the preliminary conclusion of French authorities. Ordinarily I am not a fan of dwelling on details due to the risk of suicide contagion, but here they are, almost tastefully for the NY Post.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. Their line is available 24 hours, every day.

• No, Mitt Romney did not state that President Trump has “very serious emotional problems” and must resign. The news piece circulating that he said this on Anderson Cooper 360 is fiction, since it’s been years since Romney appeared on the show. The quote is cobbled together from various statements by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, including a December 2017 appearance on Anderson Cooper 360, according to Politifact.

• You’ve seen the picture of the crying toddler in a cage. The photo is real, but the boy is not in an ICE holding cell. He’s part of a protest against the practice of separating children from their parents at the border and keeping them in cages. He saw his mother and couldn’t figure out how to immediately get to her, and started to cry. So the photo is real, but miscaptioned, as Snopes points out.

Who’s NOT Dead: No one was pronounced Dead By Social Media this week! As far as I know, anyway.

Untimely Death: The obits for Ruby Lee and Malcolm Young are making the rounds; they died in 2014 and 2017, respectively.

Note: This feature does not take a stance on political issues. It is solely in favor of fact over fiction, at least in the public discourse.

One small step for me.

This has proven much more difficult to write than I anticipated, probably because this is the hardest decision I have ever had to make. 

Harder than the decision to leave Memphis and my career in the arts in order to pursue a career in journalism. Harder than the decision to divorce my first husband. And I’m not one to take a leap without considering all the options, so you’d best believe that I have discussed this with Jim, with my parents, with close friends, with mentors. Probably until they were tired of talking about it with me.

I have dithered and stalled, because once I post this, it’s final. It’s real.

I’m leaving the newspaper.

With that decision ends 21 years in daily journalism.

Wow, that was hard to type. And I haven’t even done it yet.

If you know me at all, you know how much my work means to me. I’ve dedicated my entire adult life to journalism, ever since I made that decision to quit my artistic career and pursue a different kind of storytelling, the kind that can change the world. I always knew I wanted to tell stories and be in public service, and in journalism I found a way I could do both. 

I believed it then and I believe it now, and the only difference between my passion for news in 1997 and my passion now is the amount of grey in my hair. For 18 of those 21 years, I’ve reported for the Belleville News-Democrat. I was and am proud to part of this team. The people I work with are some of the finest journalists I have ever known, with a dedication and steadfast perseverance that would stun the readers if they could only glimpse behind the scenes. 

And I have been proud to serve the people of Madison County for 17 of those years, through good times and bad. It has been my privilege to chronicle the life of my adopted home.

I’ve said often in my speeches that this is the best time in history to be a journalist, and I meant it. Still do. Ask me about it sometime, and buckle in for an essay.

Now I have a wonderful new opportunity.

Beginning in August, I will be a teaching assistant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I’ll be teaching newswriting, and the assistantship will allow me to pursue my masters degree. I was actually accepted last November to begin in January, but it took a while for the financing to come through, and they were kind enough to allow me to defer my acceptance to fall.

For those keeping score, my whole family will be in college together. It’s like a sitcom, only we provide our own laugh track.

With a masters, I can pursue a full-time teaching position. I can pass on to beginning journalists all that I learned in 21 years of shoveling coal into the furnace, along with the things they won’t find in their textbooks. I can focus their attention on the Code of Ethics and the ongoing debates that too often get shoved into ivory-tower hypotheticals. I can be useful to my profession, and continue my career in a new phase.

I’m really excited about this. I always intended to move into teaching when I was finished reporting, a second career in the sunset of the first. This is a little earlier than I planned, but you know what they say – life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

However.

There’s one to two years of grad school ahead of me. A teaching assistantship does not equal the salary of a full-time reporter (low bar, but still). I am blessed that Jim has a good solid job with health insurance. But we were largely reliant on my income for our family, and that means I don’t get to sit around and wax philosophical in coffeehouses while I’m in school. (What? I was in college once upon a time.)

The development of The Plan has taken up much of the winter, and if this blog has been quieter than usual, that’s why. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

• Freelance writing. I’ll be knocking on a hell of a lot of doors, and I hope my esteemed colleagues in other publications will remember me when they need someone who can turn around a story quickly and well. In part, I’ll be doing this because rent is a thing, and in part it’s because I cannot bear to give up journalism entirely. It’s been my daily life for half of the time I’ve been breathing, and I find it hard to even say my name without adding my newspaper onto the end of it, as though it is another last name. I love the work, and I intend to keep doing it as long as I am able.

• Fiction. I’m still working out how my fiction work will change. To be frank, the novels have never paid off as much as I had hoped financially. While I would dearly love to write the next Nocturnal Urges book and finish the Blackfire zombie trilogy and a half-dozen other books sitting around on their outlines, it may be that novellas and shorts will be my necessary focus in the next two years. It really depends what the market will bear: just like in journalism, you get more of whatever you click. If I see more interest in my fiction, I’ll create more fiction.

• Photography. I’ve already expanded the photography site with its own online shop, and am pursuing more local art and craft shows with an eye to moving into higher-end art shows when I can afford the fees. I’ve also opened a shop on FineArtAmerica, so if you ever wanted my creepy angels on a tote bag or greeting card, now’s your chance.

• Editing. I’ve been doing side-gig work as an editor and writing coach for many years, working with new writers and small press publishers to help them shape and grow their work. I will be taking on more clients, and hopefully with a faster turnaround now that it will be part of my “day job.”

• Patreon. Yes, I’m joining the marching legions. Frankly, this is going to be the most important part of our survival. And I’ll sing for my supper: essays, short stories, musings on grad school, on journalism and the news of the day, photography, live chats, and much more are layered in the rewards for those kind enough to support me in this new venture. 

If you’ve ever wondered, “How can I help?” – this is how.

Please subscribe to my Patreon, and share it around with others.

 

What’s not changing: Literary Underworld will continue to operate. The store remains open. The newsletter, the website and the author features will continue. 

What may change: Cons. It will basically come down to hard cash: a con may cost us $300-500 to attend, and people aren’t buying books at cons like they once were. Jim and I are always there for a con willing to pay our way, but that isn’t common anymore. So we may have some hard choices to make, and we hope our friends on the circuit will understand if we have to regretfully decline.

What’s not changing: My volunteer work. I will not have to step down as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists or give up my seat on the Ethics Committee, because I’ll still be earning the bulk of my living from journalism. I will also continue to run Relay for Life, because cancer doesn’t take a vacation while I go back to school. 

What may change: Little things. Donations. Birthday gifts. Dinners out. Our trips to Memphis. I think it’ll basically depend on how many gigs I get each month, and our standard of living will have to adjust. 

A more flexible schedule may mean I’m free to do things I was never able to do before, like a cup of coffee on a weekday afternoon with a friend in the city, or a daytime photo shoot before the garden closes at dusk. I’m rather looking forward to remaking my life.

But this is scary. I’ve been mugged three times and won each fight, and I wasn’t as scared then as I am now. I’ve had two heart surgeries and an emergency c-section and wasn’t as scared as I am now. When I divorced my first husband, it was terrifying to think about being on my own again with a four-year-old hostage to fortune, but I wasn’t as scared as I am now.

I’m not afraid of the work load or the hustle of a freelancer. I’m not afraid of being back in the classroom after more than two decades. I’m nervous but not afraid of teaching, a whole new profession for which I am prepared only on the sense of knowing the subject matter thoroughly, and having guest lectured many times for various colleges. I imagine there’s a learning curve in front of me, but that’s exciting, too.

No, I’m afraid of the money, of not being able to support my family. I spent a long time as a working single mother. I did the poverty rounds of choosing whether to stiff the electric bill or the water bill (electric, they can’t shut you off in winter); of eating peanut butter so Ian could have a good meal; of finding non-exterminator ways to fight roaches in the apartment; of begging friends to watch my son when I had to work a Saturday shift because I couldn’t afford ten hours of babysitting.

I know poor, and I don’t want to be there again, not when Jim and I have worked our tails off to reach a point where all the bills are paid and up to date and we have a little in savings and almost no debt besides the student loan I’ll never escape. Do we really want to go back to peanut butter and cutting the milk with water to make it last longer?

I’ve had multiple panics where I call Jim and tell him I’ve lost my mind, we’re going to starve and be homeless. He always talks me down out of my tree, and tells me that he believes in me and in my ability, and we are going to be okay. Ian and Jim are both my biggest supporters, and we are all in this together as a team.

It’s not an easy thing to change your life, but who’s going to do it for you?

 

There will be a live chat TONIGHT at 8 p.m. CST in the Literary Underworld Tavern chatroom. Join me!

 

Award! (Well, me and some other folks…)

The Illinois Associated Press Media Editors gave a second-place award to “The day a Belleville man shot a congressman,” part of the day-one package our team put together in response to James Hodgkinson’s shootout with police at the Congressional baseball practice last year.

I was proud to be part of that team, working primarily on the background story about Hodgkinson’s political activism in our region. It was an incredibly difficult and fast-paced story, and nearly everyone in the newsroom was working on some aspect of it. We later joked that if you weren’t on the Hodgkinson case, you must have been out of town. (This was not as much of a joke as you might think.)

I have to say, I really couldn’t imagine any breaking story that could possibly have beaten it, and not just because it was our team on the ground. It went to the Arlington Daily Herald for “Hours of Torture,” which told of a young man with mental problems who was brought to Chicago and tortured for hours in an apartment. Twenty-eight minutes of that was shared live on Facebook. 

There was much fine work celebrated, including several more for the News-Democrat. Check out the full list here.

May Roundup

I spent most of May finishing a project a year in the making: a package on teen suicide prevention co-written with Alexis Cortes at the News-Democrat. Alexis and I started working on this story before I was transferred to a different team, so it didn’t really have to take a year, but it kept getting postponed during the reorganization.

It was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on, and one that made me quite nervous. I’ve written about sensitive subjects many times – a series on domestic violence, an in-depth look at shaken baby syndrome, unlicensed day care centers, LGBT rights pre-Obergefell, racist harassment, etc. All of these subjects required careful, deft handling of both sources and subject matter.

But none of  them had the blatant warning sign: If you do this wrong, people will die.

Suicide contagion is a real thing and we shouldn’t scoff at it, particularly in the news business. Several reliable studies show that completed suicides rose by 10 percent in the weeks following Robin Williams’ suicide, which was widely covered in the press. Talking about suicide doesn’t make a mentally healthy person commit suicide. But something about reading about suicide or watching depictions of suicide in entertainment has a tendency to tip a person on the edge over into an attempt.

I told Alexis several times during our efforts to report on teen suicide that I’d rather we did it in a boring way or not at all than do it wrong and have suicide attempts on our hands. Both of us took extreme care in the reporting of the piece, and we were backed up all the way by our editing and audiovisual team.

Our first instinct, of course, was to focus on a family that had lost a teen to suicide and the impact it had on them. But I made a habit of asking every expert we interviewed one question at the end: “Do you have any suggestions for how we can approach this subject without doing more harm than good?”

And they all said, “Please don’t focus on a grieving family, or the memorials, the damage they leave behind.” Apparently that is one of the things that tends to kick off suicide contagion – along with graphic depictions of suicide methods, or words like “unsuccessful suicide attempt” as if suicide itself is a success. Or, as they told us, everything that 13 Reasons Why did in both seasons.

The show was part of the reason we looked at the issue, tracking the number of completed suicides in our region compared with state and national rates. With the guidance of counselors and experts, we focused instead on a young woman who survived, on ways schools are trying to cope with teen mental health, and on paths to heal and get better.

I’m proud of the work we did, and just as happy that we managed to do it ethically and responsibly. Would it have been a more compelling piece with a grieving family weeping into the camera and sad pictures of a grave? Perhaps. But it would not have been a responsible piece, and that’s more important than the hit count.

There are signs your teen may think about suicide. Here’s how you can get them help.

Teachers on the front line for teen mental health concerns

Parent Guide: Know the symptoms, and find them help

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

 

Also published in May:

SIU board will not support campus split

Swastika vandalism suspect refuses to speak in court (Yes, that’s in reference to this incident.)

Scarlet Letters: Memorial Day, or look out, it’s another food post!

 

Watch this space Monday for a major announcement.

Swastikas in Our Town

It was my day off, but I went anyway. The vandalism at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Edwardsville, Ill. – Our Town – made national news from CNN to CBS. Someone painted swastikas on more than 200 graves, plus a few houses and cars. I had been called for the assignment but got the text too late; they sent the on-duty reporter instead. But I went, because I needed to see it for myself.

(Yes, it’s been pointed out that he got the swastikas backwards, so he may have unknowingly painted an Indian or Buddhist blessing of good luck on all those graves.)

A suspect is in custody, and I may end up writing about it, so I will reserve further statements until later. You can see it for yourself in these images, taken the morning they were discovered, as family members rushed to see if their families’ graves had been desecrated.

 

March-April link roundup

It’s been a busy couple of months, with some neat changes pending I can’t talk about yet, and my appearances at Midsouthcon, the SPJ Region 7 Conference, and a couple of fun photo shoots I’m looking forward to sharing with you.

I particularly enjoyed my jaunt to Ames, Iowa, with side trips to the original Field of Dreams and the world’s largest (concrete) garden gnome. Of course, the highlight of the trip was the opportunity to talk ethics with some terrific journalism students, and I am very grateful to SPJ Regional Director Kari Williams for allowing me to speak.

Photos are in the processing queue, and I hope to have a new batch up on the photo site in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, enjoy some of these articles and a handful of blog reviews!

News/Features

Hospice patient had one wish, and a Fairmount horse made it come true.

Police investigate Wanda Cemetery for allegedly double-selling plots

Two dead, more than 50 hospitalized due to contaminated cannabis

Police believe they have solved the mystery behind local woman’s 2010 disappearance – murder.

Major Case Squad disbands without filing charges in murder of track star

 

Blogs

CultureGeek: Linkspam Hears the Verdict

CultureGeek: Linkspam defies Hollywood physics!

CultureGeek: Barnes and Noble’s ‘Red Wedding’

January-February Linkspam Roundup

We fell a little behind here at Donald Media, so here’s some of the work from the last two months. Cheerio!

News

‘Myth-maker’ of Collinsville High leaves legacy of storytelling

Flu outbreak has killed 16 children in the past week

Mabel the Pilot found after disappearing from local park

Here’s how to avoid scammers this tax season

Toddler was alone with mother’s body after murder, police say

Maull’s BBQ sauce may be sticking around after all

Don’t feed the swans, neighborhood says

Blogs

CarZeus and the Female Surcharge

To dust we shall return

My valentine

Walking with the dinosaurs: Vic Milan

Reason 42 why some animals eat their young

Voices in the dark

MovieGeek: Winchester

Superb Owl 2018

 

Linkspam roundup

Here’s some of the work I’ve had out lately:

• News: “Racist message found on blackboard at SIUE,” and its follow-up.

• News: “‘A 1940s news aggregator’: Family donates World War II scrapbooks to SIUE.”

• News: “Study: Historically black colleges boost local economy, grads’ earnings.”

• CultureGeek: “You can see Justice League with a clear conscience.”

• CultureGeek: “RIP: Robert Guillaume, a voice from another era.”

• Blog: “Giving thanks,” of loss at Thanksgiving.

• Blog: “A literal sucker punch,” a tale of bereavement and getting punched in the head.

• Blog: “A man with no statue,” a personal obituary of Rudy Wilson.

As always, you can find extensive samples of my work at Contently.

Don’t call it a gig economy

If the latest research is to be believed, freelancers will be the majority of the workplace within a decade.

The study showing this trend was co-sponsored by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, so we might take the results with the proverbial grain of salt. But it’s backed up by much of the buzz I’ve heard, from students and younger workers and new moms – if they’re right, 47 percent of millennials are freelancing, and they’re the ones rising up in the workplace.

Freelancing in America” projects freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027, and the freelance workforce grew three times faster than the overall workforce since 2014.

The top concern among freelancers is income predictability, which is (ironically) predictable considering the variable nature of a freelancer’s work. More than 60 percent of full-time freelancers dip into savings on a regular basis, compared to 20 percent of non-freelancers.

Take note, politicians: 72 percent of freelancers would cross political party lines if a candidate supported their interests.

What are those interests?

Health insurance is key. The Affordable Care Act arguably spurred a large number of people to launch into freelancing who could not manage it before, and it is largely supported by freelancers. Like non-freelancers, they are concerned about paying off debt, including student loans, and saving for retirement. They are entrepreneurs, and have many of the same concerns as those creating brick-and-mortar businesses. But they’re more concerned about income predictability and health care than taxes.

And they need ongoing education. More than half the U.S. workforce is not confident the work they do today will exist in 20 years. But freelancers are far more likely to be prepared for automation or technology to take over their jobs; more than half of the freelancers had undergone re-skilling training in the last six months, compared to less than one-third of non-freelancers.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel said freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize in the future, calling it the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

From what I’ve seen among the students I’ve met so far? They aren’t necessarily looking for That First Job anymore. They want to work for themselves. They want to make a living and support their families, but they are increasingly unwilling to give up their autonomy for it.

In journalism, it’s a tough sell to get them interested in applying for a newspaper. There’s one small-town paper I know that is paying $10 an hour. Another pays $12 – to its long-term veterans. Try selling that to an upcoming grad with $30,000 in student loans. They literally cannot take these jobs. If the workforce doesn’t keep up with the needs of the workers, the workers will go out on their own.

A few other statistics:

• Freelancers contribute $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy per year – a staggering 30 percent increase over last year.

• Freelancers average 4.5 clients per month, and 63 percent believe a diverse portfolio of clients is preferable to one employer – a 10-point increase since last year.

• To the shock of no one, most work is found online – 71 percent.

• More and more of them are going full-time, with dropping rates of part-time and “moonlight” freelancers as the numbers of full-timers grow.

• Two-thirds of freelancers began freelancing by choice, not by a necessity such as being laid off.

And that bit about calling it a “gig economy”? I remember when I first began working by remote for a newspaper, and this was a brand new idea: a reporter who operated in the field! No newsroom, just laptop and cell phone! They called us “backpack journalists,” which I really hated. It felt infantilizing, like we were kids play-acting at being journalists. I haven’t carried a backpack since college. I used the term “remote reporter,” which wasn’t great, but was a better description than “backpack.” Words matter, names matter, and we who make our living with words should know that better than anyone.

Freelancers prefer the phrase “freelance economy” five times over those who didn’t mind “gig economy.” Gigs are for garage bands. Freelancers are at work.

The full results deck is available here.