Saturday, December 03, 2005

What were they thinking?

Remember the big stink when it came out that the Bush administration had been paying supposedly independent news commentators like Armstrong Williams to talk nice about their education plan? (Need a refresher? See these articles in USA Today, Washington Post and Fox News.)

And remember how the shit hit the fan when it came out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was putting out VNRs that looked like real news to promote one of his reform programs? (See related article in SF Chronicle and discussion on KPBS.)

Well, apparently the U.S. military has not been paying attention. Otherwise, they would have anticipated the blowback they're now getting about the fake news stories they've been planting in the Iraqi news media.

It seems this "secret" operation, conducted by the military's "information operations task force" with the help of a DC-based consulting firm known as the Lincoln Group, has been going on since early this year. (See the LA Times article that broke this story, and a follow-up by Reuters.)

Many are not pleased. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, quoted in the Washington Post, had this to say:
"I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy," said the committee's chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., adding that he has no information to confirm or deny the reports. "A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media."

Is Warner right to be worried? Judge for yourself. Check out the coverage this story is getting worldwide in news outlets such as Arab News, KurdMedia, News24 (South Africa), and the New Zealand Herald.

Of course, not everyone thinks it's a problem. Take a look at this alternative view by
a retired Air Force brigadier general and professor of defense studies, which appeared as an editorial in the LA Times.

Then check out this angry response on Richard Edelman's blog. (Yes, that Edelman...the
president and CEO of the big public relations firm.)
This is utterly unacceptable behavior. In no way does this describe public relations. It is pay for play and a PR firm based in the US is doing it. Advertising and public relations are not the same thing. We don't do storyboards. We don't buy space. We don't pay journalists to be on our side. We don't fake out media by pretending that we don't know much about our client, working under cover of night. We don't say that there is only one side to a story. If a free media is a central aspect of a democratic society, then we cannot allow our PR industry to impede its development. It is a perversion of our business, an intentional blurring of a clear demarcation between paid and earned media. We should advise our clients, private sector and governmental, that trust is earned through transparency, continuous communication and dialogue.

You might also want to read Falling for Fake News, a good Poynter Online article about the "fake news" trend.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fun with headlines

I always like it when incongruous headlines show up together. Here are some that tickled me today:
Bush's theme on Iraq: victory, not pullout
U.S. military secretly placing favorable stories in Iraq papers
Think one has anything to do with the other? Well then, how about:
Traumatic stress is taking root along Gulf Coast
House budget-cut bill exempts drug makers
(okay, so you need to read the fine print on this one: turns out the exemptions are for mental health drugs, keeping their prices high)
Then, my favorite headline of the day:
Sharp objects might be allowed on planes again

You can play this game too. The only rules are: the headlines have to appear in the same issue of a publication (preferably on the same or facing pages), otherwise the entertaining irony factor is lost. Post your finds here!

P.S. When I read these headlines to my husband: 1) he didn't see the irony, and 2) he didn't think they were at all funny. Maybe you had to be there (in my warped brain, perhaps?) If you agree with Tom, you can tell me that too.

A call to action

If you're worried about the future of newspapers and journalism -- or the future of our democracy without them -- you might want to click over to a recent commentary and call to action by John McManus of

In his commentary, McManus writes about the recent threat to San Jose and 32 other cities across America posed by a wealthy Knight Ridder investor's move to force the newspaper chain's sale to increase profits.

Double digit returns apparently aren't good enough for Bruce S. Sherman, CEO and chief investment officer of Private Capital Management (PCM), who stands to reap a personal payout of up to $300 million by selling out the Merc and other papers in the Knight Ridder chain. And since, as McManus notes, PCM is also the largest shareholder in six other U.S. newspaper companies...well, you can see the writing on the wall if this goes through.

Does it make you angry that one greedy profiteer is in a position to ruin the daily news for newspaper readers nationwide? (And that's not counting the audiences of the radio/ TV/cable broadcasters who rip 'n read, or base their stories on what appears in print.)

Wish you could do something about it? Well, here's a letter of protest (and a promise of boycott), drafted by McManus, that you can send to Mr. Sherman. Or, in case you'd rather e-mail him, his address is

You might also consider sending a letter to the editor at the Mercury News...while you still can.

All things pod

Sometimes, I'm a little slow.

For example, I'd had my iPod for over a year before I finally realized that if I just bought a dock I could plug in some speakers and play all my music without the aid of a CD player (or those cute little white earbud headphones that really don't fit in my ears all that well).

Like I said, sometimes I'm a little slow.

Now, walk past my office and you're likely to catch a waft of music seeping out my door (or blowing out, depending on my mood and whether or not the classroom across the hall is in session).

Mostly I just let it shuffle, so you could hear anything...from John Mayer or Martha's Richard Thompson or Youssou N' oldies like Patsy Cline (one of my Mom's favorites; I used to sing along when I was a kid)...or even a bit of choral music from Chanticleer.

But some folks are really cooking. The other day I read how some club DJs are leaving their CDs and such at home and just taking their iPods. (I guess they also figured out about the dock and speakers.) And some people are podcasting -- creating their own digital audio shows and posting them on the web for others to download. What's more, some of them are even making money at it!

I don't know if you saw Podcasting Riches, an article by reporter Michael Bazeley in the Tech Monday section of the Mercury News, but it had a great article about people who are making money off podcasting. He quotes two Midwesterners whose podcast radio show is attracting enough advertisers that least one of them could quit his day job, and two women whose "mommycast" has attracted a $100,000 one-year sponsorship deal from Dixie Paper Products. Amazing!

Which gets me thinking...that maybe the Borg-like Clear Channel will finally meet its match...not in another media behemoth, but in a growing army of colorful and idiosyncratic podcasters. And maybe they'll replace this homogenized, automated, targeted-to-death crap that most radio has become and bring back the real thing...real music, real people, combined in ways that can still surprise and delight.

It really is a brave, new world out there. And for all our worries about radio and newspapers, and the future viability of careers in either, there are also some interesting opportunities cropping up.

So keep your eyes and ears open...and if an opportunity comes along to try something new, grab it! You never know how it might turn out.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Is evangelism the new PR?

Thanks to Prof. Steve Greene for sending me a link to "Spreading the Word," an article on corporate evangelism in the current issue of U.S. News online. They're talking about a new approach to marketing by establishing personal relationships with customers...especially those early adopters who influence others. Evangelism isn't your old-fashioned, one-way, top-down marketing. According to the article:
"It's not about creating a better megaphone," says Bill Hamilton, CEO of TechSmith, a software developer with 100 employees in Okemos, Mich. "To be successful, companies need better conversations with their customers."
The article notes that some companies, like Vespa and Microsoft (see my earlier post on Robert Scoble), are already using bloggers as company evangelists. They see evangelism as "a way of actively creating word-of-mouth advertising or marketing, turning your passionate, influential customers into a volunteer sales force."

Asked what advice he would give to a company like Wal-Mart that has a PR problem, Consultant Ben McConnell, coauthor of Creating Customer Evangelists, offered the following advice:
  • Find customer evangelists through online searches and store surveys.
  • Start blogs and podcasts to humanize the people behind the company's too-opaque walls.
  • Talk openly and frankly about controversial issues like employee health benefits, the company's impact on state Medicare programs, outsourcing, and the hiring of illegal immigrants.
He offered one caveat: PR spinmeisters should be forbidden from being involved.

However, I think that's bogus. As an old PR dog who's learning some new tricks, I don't see why PR folks can't make good evangelists (as long as you remember that there's a difference between PR and "spinning"). Most PR practioners are good at establishing and maintaining relationships, and that's really what we're talking about here.

So, what do you think?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Spirals & Tipping Points

It's rare to see a full-blown spiral of silence come undone. But that's exactly what happened this week.

After years of being squelched, opponents of the Iraq war found their voice in Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., an ex-Marine and a Vietnam veteran who proved to be unsmearable. His blunt critique of the Iraq war, and his call for a quick pull-out, provided the tipping point, making it safer for others to wade into the treacherous waters of open criticism of the war.

Thus, the tightly wound spiral of silence on Iraq, which has held public criticism of the war at bay for three years, started to come undone.

So, what's all this about a spiral?

The Spiral of Silence is a theory of media and public opinion developed by in the 1980s by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. In essence, it says that most people would rather keep their opinions to themselves than risk being perceived as being out of step with the mainstream, or risk being ostracized for their views. And the fewer contrary views are heard, the more people perceive themselves to be in the minority…and the fewer of them are willing to speak up. Thus, the spiral of silence tightens.

Of course, spirals of silence don't just happen. They usually have some help. In this case, the Bush administration did a masterful job of suggesting -- sometimes subtly, sometimes with all the subtlety of a sledge hammer -- that it was unpatriotic to question the Iraq war or its conduct.

For the most part, it worked. After all, who wants to be accused of hurting troop morale or of aiding and abetting the enemy? So most criticisms of the war were muted or silenced. People with opposing views mostly squelched themselves. And the Bush administration was able to shrug off the criticisms of lonely liberals and people like Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville woman who lost a son in the war, as being partisan attacks or hysterical outbursts.

Then Murtha spoke out. His comments proved to be the tipping point…and the spiral came tumbling down.

You could watch the administration's desperate attempts to restore the spiral of silence: the initially harsh response from the president, the now-predictable accusations of disloyalty from the vice president, and even name-calling from a junior congresswoman who tried to imply that Murtha was a coward.

This time, though, it didn't work. They'd overplayed their hand. No one bought the image of Murtha as a traitor or a coward. The congresswoman, Rep. Jean Schmidt, apologized; the president, speaking in China, tempered his tone…he respects Murtha, of course, and his right to say what he thinks, he just doesn't agree with him.

Suddenly, it was safe to go in the waters again…and critics of the Iraq war began speaking their minds…and the U.S. Congress began discussing how best to get out of Iraq.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

New JMC Blog

I think I'm getting carried away with this blogging thing...I just started a new JMC blog, The JMC Journal, to take the place of the old "What's New" JMC web page online. It's faster and easier for me to add news on the blog, and that should make it easier to keep everyone up to date. Check it out!

Here are directions on how to subscribe (per JMC grad student Ryan Sholin -- thanks!): just copy this link,, and paste it into the “Add a feed” box in your in your favorite feed reader software. If you’re using Firefox or Safari, just click on the orange or blue icon that pops up in the URL bar when you’re on the page, and add it to your Bookmarks/Favorites.

Well-Known Blogger Visits JMC

When JMC alum Bob Scoble talked with JMC faculty this week, he didn't pull any punches. The first thing he did was predict that his 11-year-old son would never read a newspaper; instead, he said, he'll get all his news online.

The well-known Microsoft blogger (a.k.a. Scobleizer) talked about the changes he sees coming in the media industry, and how he thinks JMC should change its curriculum to better prepare students for this new media world.

Scoble recommended integrating print design and production with broadcast journalism, and suggested we build a partnership with the computer science department. He also advised us to teach students how to use RSS feeds, news aggregators and other online tools, as well as new advertising technologies.

"The new world is…find some way to build a brand and build traffic," Scoble said. "The business model is changing completely."

So what will J-school students need to know? You'll still need to know how to write and tell stories, and how to take photos or shoot video, Scoble said. But that's no longer enough. The old media already have plenty of experienced hands who have those skills…and they're laying them off.

What new grads will need, Scoble said, are basic computer display skills. You don't have to be a computer programmer or know how to build it, but you do have to understand how things work, where to find it and how to combine it.

"You still need all the same skills to gather news, but you have more tools now. There's a new way to do journalism," he said.

The next generation of journalists (and PR and marketing professionals) are going to need to be able to explain in an animated, graphic way how something happened or how something works. And, Scoble added, the news media is going to need people "who know how to blog and have a conversation" with the public.

If you'd like to read more about Scoble's visit to JMC, check out blog postings by JMC alum Steve Sloan (who also provides an audio link) and JMC grad student Ryan Sholin. And here's a direct link to what Scoble wrote in his blog about his JMC visit.

So, what changes do you think are needed in JMC's curriculum?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Focus Structure

There's a good example of focus structure in today's Mercury News. Check out the opening paragraphs of Juggling child care providers to see how reporter Michelle Quinn used one mother's experience to personalize and localize a U.S. Census report on the difficulties of arranging child care.

Bad Week for the Mercury News

As I read today's Mercury News, I saw the notice -- the natural consequence of declining advertising revenues and recent layoffs. The MN is stopping publication of The Guide, its Wednesday supplement focusing on neighborhood news. The notice read:
This decision is a reflection of difficult economic challenges faced by the Mercury News and the newspaper industry in general.

Of course, the MN promises to continue to carry many of the local stories that used to appear in The Guide in its daily sections, but it's going to be tough to do with falling ad revenues, fewer pages and fewer reporters.

A premonition of the cutback appeared in Tuesday's business section: an AP article, Newspaper circulation falls 2.6%.
The an acceleration of a years-long trend of falling circulation at daily newspapers as more people, especially young adults, turn to the Internet for news and as newspapers cut back on less-profitable circulation.

Today's MN business section had more bad news: a recent patent application indicates that Google's next target may be classified advertising.

Google's next gobble: classifed ads? suggests this will put Google in direct competition with eBay and craigslist...but the biggest loser in this scenario would be the daily newspapers, which have been losing classified ad revenues to online companies for some time.

Not exactly a fun time to be in the newspaper industry.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trends & Transitions

The front page of today's Mercury News has a good example of a trend/issue story, Floating an Idea for Energy Needs (if you want to view it online, just be sure to this week or else you'll need to pay to access it). It's about proposals to build new liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals off the California coast.

The story opens with an extended scene-setting lead. Notice the descriptive "telling details" in the first two paragraphs, and how the first four graphs use long, mostly complex sentences. Then comes a change of pace. The writer uses a transition word, "but," and a short sentence to get the reader's attention:
But LNG generates as much emotion as energy.

In this one short sentence, the reporter, Paul Rogers, not only gives readers a "heads up" that he's changing gears, he also introduces them to the conflict that drives this story: the state's need for more sources of energy vs. a local community's protests against these proposals.

Good technique, good story.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Your Favorite News Sources?

So, where do you go for news? What online news sources do you have bookmarked or selected for your ISP home page? What do you read? What news programs do you regularly listen to or watch?

Has the "grade the news" assignment changed your news habits in any way, or made you more critical of or appreciative of your favorite news sources?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Password Protection Overload

My desire for news is duking it out with my dislike of passwords...and the New York Times is losing.

It happened again tonight. I saw a NYT editorial I wanted to read, clicked on the link, and here's what I got:
Time for the Vice President to Explain Himself
Published: October 30, 2005

It's time for Dick Cheney to give the nation "a stiff dose of truth."

To continue reading this article, you must be a subscriber to TimesSelect. Log in now.

Apparently I missed the telltale [TS] beside the title which indicates it's password-protected "TimesSelect" content. Maybe "TS" stands for "tough shit."

I'm tired of having to enter an e-mail address and password to read something online. I now have four email addresses and use multiple passwords (I know, my fault...I've changed ISPs without closing down the old one), so trying to remember which e-mail address and password I used to register for a NYT account can be kind of frustrating. Frankly, I've given up.

I was glad to see I'm not the only one who's sick of this. In a recent blog posting, JMC grad student Ryan Sholin wrote:
As many folks have pointed out, a stable of New York Times columnists have been locked behind a paywall online.

I agree with everyone who thinks this is a load of crap.

Hiding content behind a cash register serves only to further remove the NYT from public discourse. But that’s a given.

Sholin points out that students and faculty can access NYT articles and editorials for free through the Lexis-Nexis database, and directs you to a source that explains how.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Entertainment Blues

A recent story by Kim Masters on NPR's Morning Edition explored how increased corporate influence may be hurting the entertainment industry.

As her sources explained how corporate pressure to keep up stock prices and revenues is undermining the creativity and risk-taking of TV and movie studios, I couldn't help but think how the same forces are undermining our news media.

Of course, that's because the entertainment industry has bought up so much of the news media.

Miller's Misplaced Loyalties

Geneva Overholser put her finger on it.

Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism (UMC) and a former member of the editorial board at the New York Times, spoke yesterday on The News Hour (PBS) about the NYT's now-public rebuke of reporter Judith Miller. One of the most unsettling aspects of the situation, she said, was that Miller appeared to be giving sources like Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, power over what she reported.

"She would have been willing to mislead readers, I think," Overholser said.

That's my impression too. Miller's loyalities seem to lie with the people she's covering, not with the public.

That's not journalism, that's PR. And bad PR at that.

Some Encouraging Words

I came face to face with my own biases the other day.

I had a guest speaker in the classroom -- John McManus, director of He was asking students in my newswriting class what they thought of the current direction of the mainstream media, particularly the trend toward more entertainment and 'feel-good' stories, and less actual news.

Honestly, even though this is a journalism class, I thought a lot of my students wouldn't see it as that big of an issue...that only the over-50 crowd like me worries about this kind of thing. But you know what? I was wrong.

Here's what some of them had to say:
"How many times do you need to find out about Brad Pitt," said Gabriel Velez. "The whole celebrity thing...we have so much of it. How much more can you take before it just gets boring?"

"I'd prefer that the news media would give me the news that I need to know...what's going on with our government...avian flu," said Victoria Gothot.

The PR majors were concerned too.
"If it affects the quality of news, PR is affected," said Kao Saechao. "If the news media isn't reaching the public, PR loses a venue."

You know, sometimes it's nice to be wrong.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Let's call a spade a spade

Note: If you're an ardent Bush supporter, or you think the Iraq War is a truly righteous endeavor, you may want to skip this posting.

When I got an e-mail this week from a colleague touting New York Times reporter Judith Miller's appearance at a recent journalism confab (including a photo of said colleague with Miller), my first reaction was probably not the one he expected. You see, I cringed.

That's because, from the get-go, I've had reservations about the media's adulation of Miller's decision to go to jail to protect her sources. I've had this sneaking suspicion that her decision was, at least in part, a CYA move.

Maybe that's because we now know that much of the "evidence" Miller reported about the threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion (remember those WMDs?) was misleading. Wait, let's call a spade a spade: it was a pack of lies.

To my mind, that leaves two choices: either Miller was a gullible sap (and a bad reporter) who got conned by the Bush administration into reporting those lies and exaggerations...or she was a willing participant who happily pushed propaganda. Either way, she doesn't look much like a media hero to me.

Watching all the recent hoopla about Miller, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And now it has. Well, maybe not the whole shoe, maybe just the insole. But whatever it was, it's hit the floor with a thud.

In what an AP story termed a "dramatic e-mail" to NYT staff, Executive Editor Bill Keller said that Miller "appeared to have misled" the newspaper about her dealings with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, on these issues, and on her knowledge of Libby's possible role in the "outing" of CIA operative Valerie Plame (the subject of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation, as discussed in this AP article).

However, I think Keller's missing the real point: Miller didn't just mislead the paper and her colleagues; she helped scam the entire nation. If something's printed in the Times, people tend to take it seriously.

I agree with Jack Shafer of Slate. Asserting that "journalistic standards were betrayed at the Times," he wrote:
"…Miller continues to haunt the New York Times two and a half years after her Iraq work was widely discredited, because the paper has yet to document how she botched the story of the decade and catalog the role she played in the current White House imbroglio.

"…The Times won't break free of Miller's malevolent spirit until the paper commissions an exorcism in print, akin to the ones it conducted following the Blair and Lee possessions."

Let the exorcism begin.

This Unfunded Mandate Could Hit You

In response to the growing popularity of VOIP, the federal government is requiring hundreds of universities and libraries to overhaul their Internet computer networks by 2007 to make it easier for law enforcement authorities to monitor e-mail and other online communications to help catch terrorists and other criminals.

One university advocate called it "the mother of all unfunded mandates."

As reported in the New York Times, this FCC order extends the provisions of a 1994 wiretap law that requires telephone carriers to engineer their switching systems at their own cost so that federal agents can easily access them for surveillance purposes.

Universities are protesting that it will cost them at least $7 billion to comply. And that's just for the equipment -- that doesn't count the installation costs or the ongoing costs of hiring and training staff to oversee those systems 24 hours a day, as the law requires.

Even the lowest cost estimates suggest this law will increase annual tuitions at most American universities by some $450.

Students, prepare to write your legislators...or prepare to open your checkbooks!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Death Knell for Newspapers?

In his blog, former Mercury News reporter/columnist Dan Gillmor comments on the "slow implosion" of the newspaper industry, after the annoucement of major layoffs by The New York Times Company and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

It's not encouraging news for people who hope for a career in journalism. Gillmor writes:
"It's painful to watch a business I care so much about commit slow suicide this way. But the financial writing is increasingly on the wall for an industry that simply can't figure out how to handle its challenges.

"There will be a serious loss to society if daily newspapers -- or at least the community watchdog function they still fulfill, despite their well-chronicled flaws -- were to disappear or be disrupted while a new business model emerges. I don't know if we need newspapers (though I still read them avidly). We damn well need what newspapers do."

So what do you think? Do we really need newspapers? Does the newspaper industry have a role to play in the digital age? Or is it a dinosaur lumbering toward extinction?

And what's the impact on democracy if newspapers die?"

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Killer Product Placement

As I was watching the medical drama House on Fox tonight, I saw one of the slickest examples of product placement I've seen in a while. In this episode, the cranky Dr. House uses his iPod to help diagnose a young patient's heart problem.

Picture House and his associates gathered 'round a table upon which lies his trusty white iPod, hooked up to a speaker. House touches the click wheel to play the heart sounds he's recorded, and keeps replaying them until one of his associates "hears" the problem. Then, while they hustle off to deal with the patient, House goes back to listening to classical music. Quite the advertisement of the iPod's multitasking abilities.

Oh yeah, and with the iPod's help, they managed to solve this episode's medical mystery.

As the show ends, we get another glimpse of the good doctor sporting those signature white earphones as he contemplates riding a motorcycle off into the sunset.

Oh yeah, that's what I'd call killer product placement.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Nickel and Dimed

Since most of you missed the on-campus discussion groups of Nickel and Dimed, let's try a blog discussion of the book instead.

Here are some discussion questions pulled from the reader's guide at the back of the book, along with one or two of my own. Pick a couple questions you relate to and post your comments. Feel free to add your own questions or respond to previous comments.

* Have you ever held down two jobs to make ends meet? What is the lowest paying job you ever held, and what kind of help -- if any -- did you need to improve your situation?

* Have your perceptions of poverty and prosperity been changed by reading this book? How about your treatment of low-wage workers, such as waiters, maids and salespeople?

* Housing costs pose the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers, especially in places like the Bay Area. How have you dealt with the high cost of housing? Do you believe there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?

* Ehrenreich is white and middle class. She thinks her experience would have been different if she'd been a woman of color or a single parent. Do you? In what way?

* The workers in Nickel and Dimed receive almost no benefits. Is this fair? Do you think an increase in wages (say, to a so-called "living wage") would help make up for the lack of benefits...or is this a completely different problem?

* Nickel and Dimed takes place in 1998-2000, a time when the economy was booming. Do you think Ehrenreich's experience would be different in today's economy? How so?

* After reading Nickel and Dimed, do you think that the lower-income people who were recently evacuated from News Orleans and other damaged coastal cities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina will be able to afford to return?

If you'd like more information on Nickel and Dimed...or if you'd like you'd like to hear Barbara Ehrenreich talk about the book or read what others have said about it...or if you'd just like the "Cliff Notes" version of the book, here are some links to check out:
* The Nickel and Dimed web site, maintained by the Institute for Policy Studies, has links to a number of articles, interviews and resources related to the book
* Barbara Ehrenreich interview on Weekend Edition (NPR) interview, May 19, 2001 -- audio file

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Mark of the Purple Pen

In case you missed it, Sunday's SF Chronicle had a good commentary on what it takes to teach writing...which usually includes a lot of time spent reading, correcting and commenting on student papers (that's the purple pen part...I've decided purple pen marks are nicer and a tad less strident than red ones).

The commentary, "The Goal is Garbage In, Writers Out," also contains some seriously entertaining examples of mistakes you don't want to make. See how quickly you can spot the errors.

While I agree with the author's approach to grading papers, I wouldn't call most student papers "garbage." Actually, most are pretty good, and some are really good. And all it takes is one or two really good ones to make my day.

So, please...make my day!

Friday, September 02, 2005

It's a nightmare alright

One of my former students, Charles Harrington, emailed me some interesting comments and questions about the handling of the New Orleans hurricane disaster...and the resulting PR disaster for some government officials. Here's what he had to say:
I'm e-mailing you because I am trying to make sense of the Katrina story from a PR standpoint, and you were the #1 professor as far as finding the PR side of current events. (Gee, thanks!)

For me, the entire thing seems to be the Gov't's worst PR nightmare, with people in key places saying EXACTLY THE WRONG THINGS. But maybe I'm missing something here. Things I found particularly surprising were:

The head of Federal Emergency Management Agency saying people who didn't get out are partially responsible for their own problems:
"Unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," Brown told CNN.
"I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans."
Now...I can't imagine that he doesn't know that most of the people who are still in the city were the poor, transportationless, or sick/infirm/hospitalized. What is he thinking?
(Good question! I wondered the same thing myself. FEMA seems clueless. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Brown really didn't know that most of those who stayed did so because they had no way means/money/place to go. Partly, it's because most channels of communication were shut down by the storm, but it also looks like he was simply out of touch. I mean, why couldn't he watch CNN or go online and read like the rest of us?)
Also, when the Governor spoke about troops entering the city to deal with looters, she said:
"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said of 300 National Guard troops who landed in New Orleans fresh from duty in Iraq. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."'s craziness over there. I understand that...and I think she's doing the right thing. But she's also saying she expects the military to come in and kill a lot of her constituents. At least that's how I read it.... Would a statement about military personnel bringing peace and order have been too mild?
I'd say the "locked and loaded" rhetoric is over the top. Personally, I'd have thought it sufficient for the governor to say she's bringing in the National Guard to restore order and they'll use whatever force is necessary to do that.
I also saw a report where a staff member for the attorney general claimed that looters were part of the city's "existing criminal element" who were "taking advantage of the storm." Huh? Is she kidding? Are people stealing food and clothes taking advantage of a situation?

I am reminded of that assignment you gave us about the rise of STDs in colleges where the health dept. person (essentially) calls the students sluts. It seems like a lot of people (under stress) are saying the most astonishing things about people who are A) citizens, B) in a serious crisis, and C) not getting the help we would probably expect the gov't. to provide. (Note: in the assignment, 100W students had to write a news story and a news release, and decide whether or not to use some colorful quotes, one of which was clearly inappropriate for a news release...once you thought about it.)

Am I being too harsh? Also, what would you recommend the officials do in this situation? I'd love to hear what you think.
And I'd love to hear what you think! Is this turning into a public relations disaster as well as a natural disaster?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Just Say No

Finally, a broadcaster with the guts to turn down a high profile but totally exploitive assignment!

When the Larry King program he was scheduled to guest host turned out to be another mauldin go-round on the Alabama teen who disappeared in Aruba, Bob Costas "just said no" to CNN. (Be sure to read Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s take on Bob Costas' refusal, which ran in today's Mercury News.)

Hey, I'm sure we all feel really bad for her family, but how many times do we need to hear this story? Especially when there is nothing new (that is, no actual news) to report.

So...when does news coverage of a family tragedy cross the line from being being exploitative ratings fodder? I know it can be hard to give a black-and-white answer to that question...but I'd say the lack of any "new" news is a telltale sign. And in this case, I'd say that line was crossed quite a while ago.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

BlogHer: Just Clone Me!

It was the first breakout session of the day, and already I wanted to be in three places at once. Clone me! (I'm a's not that big a a stretch.)

BlogHer '05, held July 30 in Santa Clara, Calif., was envisioned as "a network for women bloggers to draw on for exposure, education, and community." Lots of women (and some men), lots of ideas and energy, lots of options.

So, which "Birds of a Feather" interest group should I pick? The Citizen Journalism group, the "What's Wrong with Traditional Media" group, or the Education group. What's it gonna be?

Since I'm planning to use my blog in support of my newswriting class at SJSU, I went with the Education group. I got to talk with Melissa Wall, a journalism prof at Cal State Northridge; Staci Wolfe, multimedia coordinator for the KU school of journalism; Ellen Spertus, who teaches computer science at Mills College (and who happens to be related to one of my colleagues, Grace Provenzano); a middle school teacher who blogs anonymously about teaching; a student teacher who, like me, is interested in using blogs in the classroom; and a couple of local high school students who can already blog circles around me. Much fun, many ideas.

Some good ideas I took away from this group:
  • For students, blogging brings education into their territory...most of them are already on line.
  • Use open posting on class-related blogs and ask students to proofread/copyedit each other's postings (as well as comment on topic/content)
  • Ask journalism students to use an online style guide (as well as AP style) for their blog postings (I may send my students to KU's online style guide)
Much food for thought...more BlogHer notes to come.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Wretched Excess

If you'd like a taste of wretched writing, check out SJSU's Buler-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges aspiring writers to compose an opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The 2005 winner, just announced, opens by comparing a woman's "ample bosom" to an old auto carburetor. What more do you need to know!

Personally, I think a little wretched excess can be a good thing. In my writing classes at SJSU, I sometimes read some bad similes and metaphors to my students to get them to lighten up and feel more confident about crafting their own ("hey, my simile can't be any worse than that..."). Bad examples -- combined with some good ones too, of course -- can help students "get" the basic concept. Besides, reading the bad ones out loud makes me laugh...and that's always a good thing.

A good source of really bad similes is Oakland high school science teacher Anthony Cody's collection of the "worst analogies ever written in a high school essay." Enjoy!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Words Count

Words really do make a difference. They influence how we perceive issues and events; they color our worldviews.

That's why careful writers pay attention to the words they choose.

A recent San Jose Mercury News story ("52-year-old pleads not guilty to having sex with minor," July 20, 2005, p. 7A) needed a bit more attention to word choice. The news brief reported on the arraignment of an HIV-positive Redwood City man who'd been accused of molesting his 8-year-old stepdaughter. The article went on to say "...he's believed to have carried on a sexual relationship with the girl from April through late June."

That wording set off alarm bells in my head. Let's get real. How does an 8-year-old "carry on a sexual relationship"?

What we're talking about here is rape, not "a relationship." Pedophiles may prefer to think of it a "sexual relationship," but the rest of us don't need to use pretty euphemisms for such an ugly act. I say, let's call a spade a spade.

Most likely, MN reporter Jessie Seyfer was just trying to vary her wording and avoid repetition in this short article... and, hey, she'd already used "molesting" in the lead and "having sex" at the start of the second graph. But I'd rather see some repetition than the use of mealy-mouth wording that leaves the impression that children have any say in the matter when a trusted adult molests them.

I wrote to Seyfer, expressing my concerns. Here's the response I got from Seyfer and her editor, Peter Delevett:

"Thanks very much for your comments on how we referred to an alleged 8-year-old victim of sexual assault by her 52-year-old stepfather. The concerns you raise are important and certainly valid, and in retrospect, we might have handled the wording differently. Sex involving an 8-year-old is most definitely rape, and it's never our intention to gloss over the realities of child abuse.
"Again, we appreciate your close attention to wording."

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I'm Getting Started

Welcome to my new blog. I'm a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, and I think blogs have great potential to extend our classroom discussions and exchange ideas and information outside of class.