And Swafford sayeth: Let the sun shine



Thanks for your attention during this morning’s lecture on the Sunshine Law. This is a reminder that you’ve been assigned to draft a Sunshine request seeking public records from a city, county, school district or state agency. These should be emailed to your assigning editor no later than 5 p.m. Friday, March 1. You can use the template on the Missouri attorney general’s website as a guide. I’ve also attached below the Richard Webner request for airline negotiation records that we talked about in class.

We don’t want to swamp the world with 60 Sunshine requests all at once, but if your editor likes your idea, we might actually run with some of these. Good luck.


Sunshine request-Webner

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The tricky business of estimating crowd size

No matter what beat you’re on this semester, you’re likely to be asked this question by an editor after you’ve covered an event: How many people were there? It’s important information because it tells the reader something about how many people were interested in an event.

If you don’t have an answer, you’ll have to make phone calls and rely on other people’s estimates. That’s not an ideal situation because organizers sometimes exaggerate how many people attended an event because it makes a cause or festival or sport look more popular than it actually is. The National Park Service used to do crowd estimates until their estimates because so controversial, they got sued.

Here’s how to do a crowd estimate at an event where there’s seating:

  1. Arrive early enough to count the numbers of rows, and the number of seats in a row, in the auditorium or room.
  2. Ask organizers how many tickets have been sold, if the event required a ticket (often, organizers won’t tell you because — see above).
  3. If the room/auditorium isn’t full, do the best you can to count the seated people and then scan the space for people who are standing in the back of the room.
  4. If the room/auditorium is full, multiply the rows by the columns + scan for standing people, others seated in the aisles (sometimes happens).
  5. If there are no seats in the venue, say on the dance floor at the Blue Note, get a higher vantage point (a balcony is good) and turn the area where people are crowded into a visual grid. That is, attempt to divide the space below you as if you were looking at squares of graph paper. Count the people in one imaginary square and then multiply it by the number of squares you are able to see. Then count the other spaces and estimate the total.

The word ESTIMATE is crucial here because when that’s all you can do, you should be transparent with the reader.

The Washington Post offered this great piece on the history and science of crowd estimates that I hope you’ll read for more guidance.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome, spring semester reporters!

Take a second to really internalize this: You just joined the staff of the Columbia Missourian as a reporter. From today until the second week of May, you are the community’s eyes and ears and news “translator” — someone who can help others understand what’s happening. When news breaks, we hope you’ll see it, record it with your smart phone and a notebook, and share it. When you think you’re onto a deeper, more complex story, we hope you’ll get to work on it (and ask for all the help you need because that’s what we’re here for).

If you don’t know anything about this place you live, better fix that. If you’re not a consumer of other local news sources, better add that to your to-do list.

Here’s what most reporting students say about the experience of working for the Missourian: It’s difficult, but it’s fun. You will learn so much, it might blow your mind.

But there are three ways it can go wrong — three things you might be tempted to do that will make it hard for you to succeed:

  • Make the mistake of thinking that because there are no grades for much of what you must do this semester, you don’t have to do them. You might think, there are no tests in lecture so you don’t have to listen (bad idea — lecture is where we unpack what you’re learning and work on specific skills). You might think you don’t have to complete all those tasks on the reporter’s checklist. But you do. And you should.
  • Make the mistake of thinking you don’t have to show up in the newsroom, which scares you, that you can just show up for your GA shifts and beat meetings. Doesn’t work that way. The students who do the best throw themselves into the experience and spend time in the newsroom, getting to know people, how things work and picking up stories that need a reporter. They come to the daily 11 a.m. meeting and participate. Totally engaged students don’t just do better, they have more fun.
  • Make the mistake of thinking you can spend the first two or three weeks of the semester “working up the nerve” to do reporting. This may be the very worst of all the possible errors you might be tempted to make because it will instantly set you back and add stress to your life by forcing you to play catch up later in the semester, when you realize you really do care about doing well and learning as much as you can.

Keep up a steady effort from the start, ask questions, volunteer for assignments and this reporting thing will be totally manageable. Also, get enough sleep, stop bingeing on Netflix, get exercise, eat right… all those things will help, too.

Be like these guys. Note their steady and happy effort.


That could be you on the left and your new, best reporting buddy on your right.

Good luck. Let’s have a blast.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A little good reading for tomorrow

If you’re reading announcements in Canvas, you’ve already learned that Leonard Pitts had to cancel and won’t be coming to class tomorrow.

I had scheduled magazine faculty member Ron Stodghill to come on Thursday, and he has graciously agreed to come tomorrow, instead.

Good sport that he is, Ron is going to sit in the hot seat as you interview him — you, as in, the entire class (hive mind-style) — but you need to read three short things BEFORE tomorrow’s class. It won’t take long.

Please read 1) this column that Ron wrote in the fall of 2015 about growing up in Detroit and 2) this one about his personal experience of racism as a student at MU.

Be prepared to ask Ron questions about his career. Read what the J-School’s website says about him as you prepare for tomorrow’s interviewing exercise.

It’s the first of the rules of interviewing: PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE! (Read the clips, Google widely, explore social media and gather background on your subject.)

OTHERS (some are mine, others are from Poynter):

  1. Be sure your interview subject understands who you are, what you’re doing and has a pretty good sense of the story you’re doing. (Don’t assume all people understand what journalism is/what journalists do.) It’s about transparency.
  2. Even if you record the interview, back it up with note-taking. You never know when technology will fail you.
  3. Create a list of questions in the general order you want to ask them. It usually works better to save the tougher questions until the end.
  4. During the interview, do not be tied to your list of questions. LISTEN WITH EVERY FIBER OF YOUR BEING. LISTEN ‘TIL YOU SWEAT.  Make eye contact, nod your head, lean forward and take notes (but not necessarily on what the person is saying; sometimes you can appear to be taking notes on your subject when you’re taking the opportunity to catch up, or write down an observation).


  5. Ask the interview subject to slow down or say something again, if necessary.

    As soon as you can after the interview, look at your notes while your memory is fresh. Fill in with what else you remember.


    Mark your notes with stars or arrows or instructions like, “possible ending.”


    Use all of your sense. Remember to use your phone as a notebook.


    Be polite and respectful, even when people are difficult or say mean things. But don’t be a doormat. People have no right to be inappropriate or verbally abusive.


    Arrive early to check out the scene; stay late when you can.


    Use the accuracy check (AC) to ask follow-up questions, clarify and double-check names, titles and ages.

    A few other tips:

    Don’t ask multi-part questions; people can’t remember all the parts and will usually just answer one (and it might not be the most important one, but that’s on you.)

    Know when to ask an open-ended question and when you need a simple yes or no answer.

    Let silence happen because it sometimes gives people time to think about what they really want to say. In situations that might benefit from making the interview subject a little uneasy, the silence might prompt an answer.

AND REMEMBER: The most important and useful question is often “Can you think of an example of that?” Or you might just say, “Tell me more about that.” This is where anecdotes come from, and where you have anecdotes, you have scenes. They bring news “articles” to life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Get ready for Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I’m really looking forward to meeting our guest Tuesday morning in class, and you’re going to be stoked, too, when you do a little homework on Leonard Pitts, Jr.

He’s in town to accept a Missouri Honor Medal. Here’s what it says about him on the J-school’s website:

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Leonard Pitts Jr. has been a columnist, a college professor, a radio producer and a lecturer. But he defines himself in one word: writer. Pitts won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and was a 1993 finalist in the Criticism category.

Pitts writes a twice-weekly column for The Miami Herald that is read by millions around the world. His inaugural article, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment,” was launched after the 9/11 attacks and has since been set to music, reprinted in poster form, read on television and quoted by others. Pitts is also the author of a series of critically-acclaimed books, including Freeman (Agate Bolden, 2012).

Numerous organizations have recognized Pitts for his literary excellence. Among them are the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Atlantic City Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper EditorsEditor and Publisher magazine, the National Society of Newspaper Columnistsand GLAAD Media. Pitts received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Old Dominion University.

Pitts is in demand as a lecturer and has also been invited to teach at a number of prestigious institutions of higher learning. He was awarded a degree in English from the University of Southern California at the age of 19, having entered college at 15 on a special honors program.

Recently, he’s written about Jemele Hill with ESPN’s “Sports Center.” This is the column I would like you to read (at a minimum) in preparation for this impressive writer’s visit to class.

See you Tuesday!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stop scrambling for ‘why,’ and stop calling them ‘shooters’

Another week, another mass shooting in America. In addition to being heartsick, angry and frustrated, I am, as usual, distressed by the way mass shootings are reported in the breaking news cycle. I think of the survivors and the loved ones of victims of Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, The Pulse and all the others, knowing in addition to the pain they’re feeling as they’re forced to relive their own personal horror, they’re watching journalists make the same mistakes over and over.

First, there is something desperately wrong with the scramble to answer the question “why” by reporting random facts about the killer in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. If ever there were a case for “slow journalism,” it is right after some maniac opens fire and kills a bunch of people. It produces some of the most useless, speculative and perhaps even reckless reporting news organizations do….

Read the rest at the Center for Journalism Ethics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Everything you need to know is right here (almost)

Some of these you have surely heard before.

Some of these may be new.

All of these are worth remembering.

Thanks to Poynter for putting them together and sharing them at ONA ’17 and with all of us.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fun with framing (and fracking)

Scott gave you two stories to read last week about the fracking boom. One, ” Y’all Smell That? That’s the Smell of Money,” was published in Texas Monthly in October 2014. The other, “Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents,”   was published by Inside Climate News in February 2014.

Here’s what he asked you to do: Look at both these stories and respond in the comments below this post with your observations about the different frames these two stories adopt. Scott says: “The difference between the primary frames — fracking is good vs. fracking is bad — is pretty obvious. But there also nuances within those primary frames that can be analyzed and discussed. What sources do each of the authors use, and how are they treated? Who does the author believe are the stakeholders that have a place in the story, and how prominent are each of those stakeholders? How are the pros and the cons of fracking discussed, if at all? How do the photographs contribute to the frames? In the Texas Monthly example, you might even notice that advertising contributes to the frame.”


Posted in Uncategorized | 26 Comments

Reporting on free (and sometimes hateful) speech

Let’s pretend for a second that there’s a “church” whose primary mission is disseminating hatred.

For example, this “church” believes that the bad things that happen in the United States are God’s just punishment on a depraved country. That God hates homosexuals. That God hates Catholics, Jews, people in the military — all “proud sinners.”

When members of this group show up at military funerals, or at other events where they think a demonstration of hatred is justified, should reporters and photographers show up to report what they chant and take pictures of the sentiments they express on signs?

It’s a question we’ve discussed in the past in the Missourian newsroom. We talked about it, too, when a group of neo-Nazis decided to march in Columbia.

The basic, first question goes something like this: By covering the activities of white supremacist and other kinds of hate groups, do we help their cause? It’s a question that is often applied to covering terrorist groups, too. Are we in the news media actually feeding a problem by providing a platform?

The march in Charlottesville recently by torch-carrying white supremacists and a counter-protest ended in the death of a young woman and multiple injuries, so there was no question of whether or not to cover the events there.

But how to cover these events is a little more complicated because the language and images we choose can have a big impact on how the public perceives the reality of what occurred. We have to be careful and thoughtful in our decision-making.

Thursday in class, we’re going to talk about how to cover demonstrations of hatred and hate groups. Have a look at what the Poynter Institute had to say about it in this recent piece. Be ready to discuss.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Missourian (you’re a reporter, now)!

You’re about to take the plunge into a completely different kind of class. Come to think of it, “class” might not be the best way to describe the experience you’re about to have. You’re about to become a reporter, with lots of help from lots of people. If you’ve done a little reporting before, that’s great. If you haven’t, do not despair; you’re not alone. We’ll help you every step of the way.


Unless you don’t meet us halfway.

What do I mean by that? As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”

Showing up, in the context of the reporting class, means doing more than just occupying a seat in the newsroom or in class or on assignment. It means really being present, paying attention, and thinking, thinking, thinking. It means: asking for help when you need it, after you’ve done as much as you can on your own:

  • (very carefully) reading (not “skimming”) the previous reporting on the topic you’re covering and taking notes on it
  • making a list of the people you need to talk to and research you need to read
  • making another list of all the questions you need to ask and checking them off, one by one.

Showing up — being present and prepared — will allow us to help you do really well in reporting and walk away with the kind of experience (and clips) you came here to get.

This is the Missouri Method. It’s not just marketing. It really works. If you don’t believe me, I can give you the phone numbers of about 20 people you can talk to — former students —  and some of them have already won Pulitzer Prizes. Ask them if this whole thing works.

You might want to know what not showing up looks like:

  • Not showing up. I mean, like, physically, because you’re afraid of this whole reporting thing. Understandable, but self-destructive
  • Not paying attention in class or in our morning meeting
  • Not volunteering for stories
  • Not taking advice from editors
  • Not making to-do lists
  • Not writing down what people tell you
  • Not using social media to share your work, others’ work, thoughts and ideas
  • Not coming into the newsroom with ideas
  • Not thinking like a reporter (“Hey, that might be a story!”).

Good luck. It’s going to be waaaay more fun than you think.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment