Thursday, June 17, 2010

Izzo vs. the media, Part II

Looks like Mitch Albom and I are on the same page.

He wrote today: "Tom Izzo and Michigan State should rise above the media swirl."

I especially agree with this statement:

You can't just use the media when they suit you.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are there lessons to be learned from the Izzo drama?

Anyone who paid attention to the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go Tom Izzo drama that ended last night with the famed coach's promise to stay at MSU for life knows that the story was, at times, nothing more than a swirling mass of speculation.

Which presented the media in charge of covering MSU sports with a modern-day, Twitter-induced Catch 22.

Cover the story on a daily basis and give fans what they wanted? Or ignore the story until Izzo made a decision?

As an MSU grad and basketball fan, I'm glad Izzo is staying. I think he made the right decision. I wanted to hug him just like his players did.

But as a journalist -- and the wife of a hardworking sports editor who has literally been awake for nights on end because of Izzo's indecision -- I gotta be honest. I was more than a little miffed by the tenor of the comments by MSU officials last night.

I even changed my Facebook status update at one point to say, "Are MSU officials done lecturing us yet?"

The past 10 days haven't exactly been a picnic for the media. It was actually a nightmare. A Twitter-chasing, cancel-plans-with-the-family, get-no-sleep, Blackberry-ringing-in-the-middle-of-the-night, some-idiot-just-claimed-online-to-know-the-answer-and-we-have-to-check-it-out nightmare.

Did the rumors get out of hand? Did the speculation drive you crazy? Yes, and yes.

But let's imagine the alternative, shall we?

One of the most famous and successful college basketball coaches in history is thinking about defecting to the NBA. An entire state is in an uproar over it, waiting on pins and needles. It's the only thing people can talk about at work, over lunch, on Twitter. Signs are cropping up along the freeways asking the coach to stay. People are gathering for candle-light-frickin'-vigils.

And…. The media does nothing. Cuz, you know, no decision has been made yet.

Come on! Want to see how fast readers/viewers burn down their media outlets in that situation? They would REVOLT and accuse the newspaper, radio station, TV station, etc. of ignoring something the community cared about.

Look, sometimes the STORY is simply the fact that everyone is talking about it -- rumor and all. The media had no choice but to cover it. The Izzo story was news. Period.

There are lessons to be learned from this, to be sure. I can't defend the rush to use unnamed sources who may or may not have known what the hell they were talking about. Nor can I defend anything said or done that was hurtful to Izzo's family. They're innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire of their husband/father's fame.

But there are lessons to be learned from the other side, too. (And after 15 years in journalism, it never ceases to amaze me that this lesson NEVER seems to be learned.)

It's really simple: In a major brewing story, when there is a lack of "official" information, people will make up their own.

Especially today, when tweeted speculation gets forwarded as fact.

I hope MSU officials will look at everything that happened and come up with a new communications plan that accommodates the new-social-media-world-order demand for public information. Some kind of plan that acknowledges the need for a daily comments on the rumors being tweeted and status-updated.

Trust me. Reporters and editors will be the first to thank them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Is plagiarism just an old-school concept?

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be a speaker at the national convention of Romance Writer's of America. Before my own session, I sat in on a workshop moderated by mega-New York Times bestseller Nora Roberts on the topic of plagiarism.

Roberts was notoriously the victim of plagiarism several years ago by another New York Times bestseller, Janet Dailey -- who admitted to copying huge chunks of Roberts' work and panning it off as her own.

Since then, Roberts has been a loud advocate in support of copyright protections for other writers. In her words, being the victim of plagiarism is like being "mind raped."

So I can't help but wonder how she would feel after reading this New York Times article about a 17-year-old German author who's bestselling debut novel has been shown to be full of stolen material.

Even worse than the plagiarism itself is the author's excuse. According to the Times, Helene Heggemann has defended herself by saying that she's part of a new generation who samples other artists' works freely to create something new.

"There's no such thing as originality, anyway," the Times' article quotes her as saying. "Just authenticity."

Maybe I'm just an old-schooler at the ripe age of 35, but let me state this very clearly for Hegemann and others of her "generation." What you call "sampling," I call "theft." And if you "sample" my work without permission, I will sue you.

How's that for authenticity?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Talk to a Reporter

It's unusual for a reporter to blog about a really great interview, but that's what I'm about to do. So often you read blogs about what not to do when dealing with the media. This time around, how about a good example of HOW TO TALK TO A REPORTER?

I recently cold-called a local home builder for an article about a refurbished historic home in our area. He was the contractor for the job. I called at 9:30 a.m., and he did everything right from that point on.

1. He took my call. He wasn't expecting me, but he took the call and gave me nearly 20 minutes. Compare that to a few months ago, when I called a local financial planner, seeking her expertise for an article. She took two days to call back. Needless to say, she missed my deadline and the boat.

2. He was honest. Want to know the fastest way to make a reporter roll her eyes? Pepper your interviews with lame, over-the-top positive quotes. Not this guy. He was honest. He said that when he first walked into the historic home to give an estimate for the job, he told the owners that they were making a mistake. It was too big of a job that had the potential to become a money pit. I would much rather do a story about a guy who can be honest like that, than I would about someone who gushes, "It was so awesome!" with every other breath. Repeat after me: Conflict is what makes every story worth telling.

3. He didn't try to oversell himself or his company. During the interview, he explained that his company specializes in historic refabs and reproductions. That was all I needed to know in the context of the article. He didn't try to sell me a thousand different angles that had nothing to do with the article I was working on.

The interview went so well that his own house and his company are going to be featured again in an upcoming issue of the magazine. Now THAT is a successful interview.

And THAT is how you talk to a reporter.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Objectivity: The gray area

I once got into a heated debate with a much-older colleague at one of the newspapers I used to work for. It was during a training session about new ethics standards that were being crafted by the parent corporation.

I can't recall exactly how the debate got started, but I do know that it centered about the concept of "objectivity."

Even non-journalists know this concept: That it is a journalist's job to be un-biased in our reporting and writing.

You might be asking, how could there be any debate over that issue?

Here's how: Objectivity is not absolute. Anyone who believes otherwise is naive.

Journalists are human beings. Human beings have experiences in life that shape their attitudes. Those experiences make it impossible for us to be purely objective about certain issues.

Which is why -- and this is where the debate came in when I was younger -- I believe that some stories are best told by someone who can relate to them.

It turns out, I'm not alone in believing that. Check out this online chat transcript by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. He's one of the country's premier feature writers, and he recently penned a weekend magazine article about the tragic trend of parents forgetting their babies in hot cars.

The article is horror-inducing, can't-put-down good. It's compelling and compassionate and -- most importantly -- addresses a question that most people are afraid to even consider. Could this happen to me?

Now, Weingarten is an amazing writer. I'm not sure I've ever read something of his that didn't leave a mark. But this one? This one goes farther. Within two paragraphs, I was sick to my stomach and I had tears in my eyes. I almost couldn't finish reading.

I discovered later, while reading his online chat about the story, why he was able to write this story with such emotion.

Weingarten once forgot his child in his car.

Yeah. Holy crap. Take a minute to absorb that, and then go back and read the story again.

Luckily, his story had a happy ending. His daughter made a noise as he was getting out, reminding him she was there. After nearly throwing up with horror, he got back in his car and drove her to daycare. He's haunted by it still today.

Read this passage from his chat:

When the news broke last summer about the death of Chase Harrison, I knew I had to write this story, whether I really wanted to or not. Like actors, writers know that genuine emotion is a valuable asset to draw on, not one that you lightly discard. If this article seemed to be presented with more restraint than some of my other magazine cover stories, it is probably because this was the end result of a writer fighting for a sense of control.

I did not tell my wife about that moment in the parking lot, not for years, not until half a year ago when I began working on this story and needed to explain why it was keeping me awake nights. And I didn't tell Molly about it until just a couple of months ago; oddly, I found that 25 years after the day no harm was done, I couldn't look her in the eye.


According to former colleague with whom I got into that heated debate, weingarten never should have been allowed to tackle that article. He couldn't possibly have been OBJECTIVE in his coverage of a man who was charged with a crime for leaving his son in a hot car, she would have argued. He couldn't possibly tell both sides of the story fairly because he would be too understanding of the parent who have done this awful thing.

In my opinion, his understanding is exactly why he was the best person to tackle this story.

As a society, we tend to take a black-and-white approach to things that scare us. Things are right or wrong. Guilty or innocent. And as more and more parents have done this -- forgotten a sleeping baby in a hot car -- our society and court systems have dealt with this horrible trend by deciding that parents who do this must be horrible, neglective. They should be charged and punished.

Because really.... how could any decent parent FORGET his child in a hot car, leaving him to die?

Weingarten knows how easy it could happen. And his own horror over that near-tragedy in his life allowed him to delve into this story in a way that the rest of us have been afraid to do.

Why are we afraid? Because deep down, maybe we know the answer; that maybe, just maybe, tragedies like this happen to really good parents.

We don't want to think that. We don't want to have to realize that maybe even WE could someday do this.

Here's the thing I've come to learn in my 15 years as a writer: Some subjects are so difficult, so horrifying, that objectivity becomes an excuse for avoiding questions that we don't really want to think about.

Sometimes, the only people who can ask those questions are the people who already know the answers.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A writer's restraint

UPDATE: Long time since my last post. A lot has happened. My novel has taken three first-places in three different contests. Let's hope I can publish it! I'm working on two long narrative journalism projects, too.

Music mood: The End of the World As We Know It, by R.E.M. (Did you see that show on the History Channel last night about 2012?)

So, OK...what topic does it take to bring me out of blog hybernation? I saw the movie DOUBT (based on the play by John Patrick Shanley) over the weekend, and I haven't really walked out of the theater yet. The movie is still with me, churning in my brain.

The acting was astounding. I expected no less from a cast that includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. But it's not the acting that still has me shaking my head in awe. It's the restraint shown by Shanley in his original story.

One of my favorite quotes about writing, credited to Mark Twain, is that writing is not the art of revealing information, but withholding it.

Shanley proves that quote to be true in DOUBT. The story is set in a New York Catholic parish in the mid-1960s, run by a young, progressive priest who butts heads with the strict, traditional Sister Aloysius, principal of the school. Aloysius accuses Father Flynn of having an inappropriate relationship with a young boy.

Here's where Shanley's restraint comes in: The nun's accusation stems from an incident that Shanley never shows to the readers (or even to Aloysisus, for that matter). We never truly know what happened in the rectory. We don't see it. Father Flynn doesn't reveal the details. And the boy is never questioned about it.

As the title suggests, we are all left with our own sense of certainty or doubt. You either believe Aloysius, or you believe Flynn.

Think about the restraint Shanley had to draw upon to make this possible. Many writers would not be satisfied to leave readers guessing. They would find a way to take us into that rectory to see for ourselves what happened. If Shanley had done so, I would have likely forgotten about the movie already.

Instead, I am still debating Flynn's guilt with myself and the people who saw the movie with me. We are still in doubt.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Are stories about Palin's clothes newsworthy or sexist?

I try to keep my mouth shut on political issues because journalists must remain objective. But I can't let this one go.

It was big news earlier this week that the Republican National Committee went on a $150,000 spending spree for VP candidate Sarah Palin's campaign wardrobe. Today, the news continued with reports that the highest-paid campaign staffer for the ticket is Palin's make-up artist.

The question I have to ask -- besides, holy crap, how I can get a gig like that -- is whether this is truly newsworthy or just one more example of the sexism that still exists in our country?

Admittedly, I am put off by the amount of money the RNC spent on her wardrobe. I think it could be a reflection of whether the McCain-Palin ticket is truly in touch with the issues facing average Americans today.

When I look at the foreclosure signs in my own neighborhood, I have to wonder how those families feel about a candidate who allowed her "handlers" to drop more money on her clothes that some Americans pay for their homes (at least in my part of the world).

However, as a woman, I'm pissed off at the attention this issue is getting. It stinks of double-standard and reminds me that no matter what a woman achieves in life, she will always be judged on her appearance. If she had walked out onto that convention stage in a Wal-Mart suit, she would have been judged for it. Instead, she walked out looking like a million bucks in a Saks Fifth Avenue suit that cost damn-near that much, and she was judged for it.

I'm sick of hearing legitimate political pundits discuss whether Sarah Palin is on the ticket only because she's hot. I don't hear anyone debating whether Barack Obama's super-rise to stardom is due to the fact that he's downright dreamy when he smiles. (Oh, um... not that I think that or anything. I mean, um, blushing here.)

The point is, there is more than enough about Sarah Palin to give us pause about her readiness to be the proverbial heartbeat away from the president. Can we please focus on that and forget about her clothes?