Final Reflection: 16 Things I Learned in J202

My semester-long battle with J202 is coming to a close. At this point, in the midst of a final project in which I am responsible for overseeing and editing every bit of content that will appear on our project website, I am not nostalgic at all (in fact, I may feel some elation mixed with a just touch of stress). However, I know that by this time next week, I’ll be feeling a bit blue about the end of J202.

So in my final reflection on this beast of a class, I’d like to highlight 16 things I learned throughout the 16 weeks of this semester in J202.

1. Check your facts: No, seriously, CHECK EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOUR FACTS. I don’t care how sure you are that 14 train cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia in the Stoughton crash. Double- and triple-check numbers, name spellings, locations, ages and anything you are sending to the presses. Fact checking: Just do it.

2. Banish the Oxford comma from your work: Breaking up is hard to do. As a dual journalism and English major, this was the hardest severance I ever had to experience in the world of writing. I’m still reeling from the agony I experienced when leaving behind my beloved Oxford comma, but in the end, my grade in the six-credit J202 (and my general future as a journalist) had to come first.

3. Live and breathe AP Style: Even if you hate having to call Wisconsin “Wis.” in print (I do), you must obey the AP Stylebook. It is your Bible, your Quran, your Holy Book. Always keep it handy in case of copy editing emergencies.

4. Pay attention to deadlines: I may say this as I write this blog post the day before it’s due, but I really do mean it. Deadlines are everything in the professional world of journalism. Get things in on time, even when it feels impossible. It’ll feel much better to see your byline the next day and know that you did a job well done.

5. There are Chihuahuas and Great Danes: My mom always used to tell me this whenever I would compare my appearance to that of another girl. The same goes for talents, skills and specialties. Some people have a killer eye for design (not me) while others are better suited for writing (me). Embrace what you’re good at and do the best you can do in your weaker areas.

6. Be gracious and kind to interview subjects: The people we write about are doing us a huge favor by giving us a story to tell. Be sure to let them know how much you value their time and thank them endlessly. If they’d like to see the piece they’re featured in once it’s complete, send it to them! Most people love getting things written about them. It makes them feel special.

7. Writer’s block happens: And it happens more often than we’d like it to. Sometimes the only thing we can do to get our ideas flowing is to step away from our work or turn to something else for a few minutes. This is okay and necessary.

8. Pictures are important: Hundreds of words written by the best writer in the world will not portray as much as a single photograph. As hard as that is to acknowledge for a wordy person like myself, pictures are a powerful medium for storytelling. Stories are usually made better by photographs, so don’t be afraid to include both words and pictures.

9. …But that doesn’t mean you can write poorly: Audiences expect journalists to be good writers, and they should. After all, this is what we’re trained to do. Ask a mentor or a friend to read your work and offer you suggestions to improve your writing. Everyone has something they can work on.

10. Ask good questions and follow-ups: This was a hard one for me to learn. But if you aren’t getting the kind of responses you need for your story, why are you conducting an interview? It is so, so important that your questions elicit good responses. To do this, the questions you ask must be clear, concise and well-worded. If you don’t get a good answer on the first try, go in for the follow-up (basically, rephrase your original question, it usually works wonders).

11. Cover topics that interest you: I know this isn’t always an option in the real world, but if you can, follow and cover stories that interest you so that work doesn’t feel so much like work. Journalism is such a broad field that there is something for everyone, whether it be sports, fashion or mindless celebrity gossip.

12. Share your work: After you’ve finished a piece you slaved over, you will probably want to get some positive feedback on it. Posting links to your stories online gives you instant access to compliments, even if they are only from your mom and your best friend. Beware: Posting links to your stories could potentially lead to an onslaught of trolls and haters. It’s something you have to get used to, because that’s just part of the online business.

13. Use a thesaurus: You probably reuse the same words and phrases over and over without even realizing it. Thesauruses are a huge help in breaking this habit.

14. Structure your story in a way that makes sense: I understood the general structure of straight news stories and feature pieces before taking J202, but I learned that there are many more ways to arrange a story that might go against tradition. Infographics are one of my favorite new story types, and I’m really glad I learned how to make them.

15. Learn the ropes of basic software: iMove, InDesign and Audacity may seem confusing at first, but they (and programs like them) are essential to the journalism industry. Having these programs in your toolkit will be extremely helpful when you enter the real world.

16. Be proud of your profession: How many times has someone come up to you and asked you what career path you plan to follow in the “dying field” of journalism? Too many, I bet. Don’t shrink away from questions like that. Instead, be proud of what you’ve chosen to do in life. While some people are stuck in cubicles, working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and waiting for their next vacation, you are out in the world capturing life as it happens and telling people’s stories. What job could possibly be more awesome than that?

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My Future In Writing and Sports

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As an avid sports fan and beat writer for the men’s hockey team here at UW, I find that my Twitter is almost entirely dedicated to sports. College football, college hockey, NHL hockey, MLB baseball… if it’s a sport I love, I’ll have an opinion on it, and I will want to talk about it with people to start conversation.

A few days ago, when I was home for Thanksgiving break, my parents suggested something to me that I first thought was odd: I could start my own sports Twitter account and corresponding sports blog.

I was hesitant about the idea for a few reasons. First, I was afraid of looking stupid. People my age aren’t taking such professional career initiatives to brand themselves just yet—they’re tweeting things to be funny and get retweets and favorites. Second, I was afraid of getting no traffic. Often, the older people I follow on Twitter start up career-related websites that I never pay attention to because I’m just not that interested.

And third, I’m a little afraid of tying myself down to something so early in my career.

As much as I love sports, there are a lot of other topics I’m interested in exploring in the world of journalism. Before the Daisy Coleman story broke, I was not at all interested in investigative journalism. Now, I think it’d be an interesting, challenging and rewarding career. The thought of journalism ethics never crossed my mind until a couple of my classmates gave a presentation about photojournalism in the Boston Marathon bombing. I was never interested in PR, but now I think I could be good at it someday. And I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel—always.

The truth is that it’s hard to lock yourself into one thing when you’re so young. The image you create for yourself today may be an image you want to destroy a year from now. People and their interests are constantly changing and evolving. Boxing yourself in will only cause problems later on in life—just look at Miley Cyrus.

So before I create a brand for myself and confine myself to a certain set of interests and rules, I need time to explore. There are so many different paths I could take. At this point, all I know for sure is that I love to write. For now, that’s what I will focus on. I want to be recognized as a strong communicator before I become associated with another group or field. My writing is what is most important to me.

And though I love sports, writing will come first.

My Experience With a Newsworthy Car Accident

On the day of my grandma’s funeral, it began to snow.

I had taken time off from school to travel all the way up to Grand Rapids, Minn., to be there for my family and to say goodbye to the wonderful lady who had touched all of our lives. The day of the funeral, I had an eight-hour trip back to Madison ahead of me, and needless to say, I was not excited about the prospect of my mom and I having to drive through flurries the whole way to the Megabus stop.

As we drove away from the church, the roads got progressively worse. Traffic slowed, and my mom’s convertible slid a little as the pavement was slicked with snow. I typed our destination into my phone’s GPS and it took us along a few back roads before leading us to Highway 2. Soon enough, we began to notice police cars, marked and unmarked, flashing their lights and passing us as quickly as they could in the dangerous conditions. Once we were brought to a complete standstill on the road, we figured out why.

Up ahead, a small, grey car rested in a ditch. My view of the road was obscured by the line of cars that had been stopped leading up to the accident scene. Firemen, EMTs, state patrol officers and paramedics were racing to the scene one-by-one in pickup trucks, ambulances, firetrucks and even four-wheelers. Before long, the cars ahead of us were instructed to turn around, and we followed them shortly after.

As we turned, I got my first full view of the scene and I immediately felt my breath catch. The second car involved in the crash was torn to pieces in the middle of the road. Firefighters were using Jaws of Life to rescue the driver of the vehicle in the ditch, and debris littered the scene.

Once we turned around and took a detour, the snow stopped, and I made it to the Megabus stop safely and departed for Madison. Still, I could not shake the image of the torn-up car from my mind. I pondered the fate of the drivers and passengers. Had anyone been killed? I kept Googling things that I thought might bring up information about the crash: Highway 2 accident, Grand Rapids car accident, car accident reports… anything.

A few hours later, I found my answer. I remembered something mentioned in lecture that I could use as a resource: public records. I went to the Minnesota State Patrol site and searched for the most recent incident reports. Sure enough, the second crash that popped up was the one my mom and I had driven into.

The torn-up vehicle in the middle of the road was the one to cause the accident. The driver of that car, 61-year-old Alice Lemcke, swerved across the median and hit the other car head-on. That car ended up careening into the snowy ditch nearby. I was horror-struck when I found out that the driver – the man they were using the Jaws of Life to remove – had died. He was 38 years old. He had two passengers in his car: his 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. And the ultimate twist? The man who died in the accident was from my hometown, three hours southeast of the accident.

A day or so later, stories began to appear on the accident when I Googled the man’s name. Most simply summarized the Minnesota State Patrol’s report and offered no further details on the crash. That upset me. The crash has haunted me ever since, and I have been looking for follow-up stories about the accident to no avail.

Unfortunately, things like fatal car accidents are too common to warrant extensive news coverage. Though I was deeply affected by what I saw on the highway that day, it was one of hundreds of fatal car accidents that occurred in 2013. According to Minnesotans for Safe Driving, there were 395 deaths and 29,314 injuries resulting from crashes and traffic accidents in 2012 alone. Imagine how much ink would spill from the presses if each fatality included just one follow-up news story.

Though it’s been almost a month since the sparsely-covered crash, I still find myself thinking about the car that sat obliterated in the middle of the road. I think about how heartbroken I was to hear that a father left behind two kids when he died. I think about how sterile and emotionless the Minnesota State Patrol report and the resulting news stories covering the crash turned out to be.

Sometimes, journalism doesn’t satisfy our desire to feel.

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Inspiring Communicator: Mike Russo of the Star Tribune

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While I’ve always had the sort of vague, intuitive notion that my future career would involve writing, I was never pushed towards a particular career or field. Of course, this was before I started watching hockey.

When I was a freshman in high school, I became obsessed with the Minnesota Wild. I’m not using the term “obsessed” lightly here, either. No, I was watching games, buying jerseys and shirts, begging my parents to let me go to 8:00 games on school nights, watching too many YouTube videos of the team online, that sort of thing. Think of the insanity of Justin Bieber fans… and then apply it to hockey. That was me.

Through my Wild obsession, I discovered the genius of a writer that covers the team for the Trib (the Minnesotan name for its local paper, the Star Tribune). His name is Mike Russo, and I someday hope to have even a fraction of his awesomeness.

Russo began his “pro” career covering the NHL’s Florida Panthers before coming to Minnesota to cover the Wild. His style is smart, witty and sharp. His articles are easy to read and to the point, but they are still incredibly well-written and interesting. He’s won a slew of writing awards, and he even covered the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

There are two things that I especially admire about Russo. One is that he has a powerful social media presence. It’s like social media was made for his kind of style. On Twitter, he rarely uses all 140 characters when tweeting about games, yet he still manages to say a lot. He interacts with his audience and frequently answers fan questions through Twitter Q&As and online chats.

Another element of Russo’s writing style that I find impressive is his honesty and frankness. Though he covers the Minnesota Wild, he does not feel the need to promote them or hold back his opinion when the team is playing poorly. He will openly call out players when they are having bad games, but he is respectful with interviews in the locker room after a tough loss. He somehow finds a way to balance criticism with praise to maintain an unbiased view of the team. Most importantly, he doesn’t act like a fan, even though covering a team for as long as he has covered the Wild would convert anyone.

Russo has inspired me to follow the path of sports journalism. In my senior year of high school during my mentorship with Kevin Gorg, a reporter for Fox Sports North, I was lucky enough to shadow Russo for a night. His job is totally frantic and fast-paced, and it looks just like what I want my future job to be. Now, in college, I’ve started covering the Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team for The Daily Cardinal in hopes that someday I will land a job like Russo’s.

And none of it would’ve happened had I not developed an obsession.

Justice for Daisy: The Story That Turned Into a Movement

Last week, while I was making my daily rounds of my favorite news sites, I stumbled across a Buzzfeed article about 15-year-old Daisy Coleman of Albany, Mo. Daisy’s story struck me immediately. A few paragraphs in, I found a link to a longer feature piece in the Kansas City Star by Dugan Arnett on what soon became known as the Maryville rape case.

Arnett’s story begins with a smoldering house in Maryville, Mo., the house that was once occupied by Melinda Coleman and her four children. Melinda moved her family to Maryville from Albany three years ago to leave behind the painful memories of her husband’s death and to give her three sons, Charlie, Logan, and Tristan, and daughter, Daisy, a clean slate. Arnett reported that the Colemans had an easy adjustment to Maryville. Daisy in particular had joined her high school’s cheerleading squad and a local dance team. Everything was going well until one bitingly cold night in January 2012.

According to allegations made by Daisy, who was 14 at the time, on the night of January 7, she and her friend Paige Parkhurst, then 13, were having a sleepover at the Colemans and drinking from a stash in Daisy’s closet. Daisy had been texting senior football player Matthew Barnett, grandson of former Missouri Rep. Rex Barnett, for a few months, and that night in particular, he asked the girls to come to his house for a party. Daisy and Paige snuck out of Daisy’s room and into Barnett’s car. He drove the teens to his house and brought them into his basement. From there, a teenage boy took Paige into a basement bedroom and Daisy says she was given a large glass of clear liquid – and that’s the last thing she can remember.

The next morning, Melinda Coleman heard scratching on her front door. Figuring the dogs had gotten out, she opened it up to find her daughter in sweatpants and a T-shirt. Her hair was frozen. Temperatures in Maryville the night before had dipped into the low 20s. When she brought her inside and put her in a warm bath, she noticed marks on her daughter’s body consistent with sexual assault. She asked Daisy what happened to her. Daisy started to cry.

Arnett details the results of the horrific incident: how Daisy and Paige filed charges against their attackers that were later dropped, how the town of Maryville bullied and shamed the girls in an ugly instance of victim blaming, how Melinda Coleman was fired from her job in the months following the incident, and finally, how the bullying got so bad that Melinda was forced to move her family back to Albany. Daisy attempted suicide twice after she was allegedly raped.

For over a year, the case was forgotten to all but its victims. But last week, the Kansas City Star’s seven-month investigation was released, and it ignited an Internet firestorm calling for justice. The self-proclaimed “Hactivist” group, Anonymous, began a crusade against the town of Maryville and the alleged rapists in Daisy and Paige’s case. Using the Twitter hashtag #Justice4Daisy, the organization raised awareness about Daisy’s case and sparked outrage about how it was handled by the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office.

Many notable media outlets, including CNN, picked up the story as it gained attention nationwide. On October 15, Anonymous reported that Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder had called for a grand jury in Daisy’s case. The case is making headway following an incredible outpouring of support for Daisy and Paige from several Internet communities.

This story has captivated me for many reasons. First, the Kansas City Star article by Arnett was tremendously well-written, researched, and detailed. If the article had been half as good, I believe the case would’ve gotten about half as much coverage. Because Arnett’s telling of the events read like a finely-crafted novel, the sense of injustice and grief surrounding the case built as the story went on. Once I was finished reading, I sent the article to the people closest to me because it affected me that much. As I said in a tweet on the day I read it, I can only hope to one day write a story that affects people like Arnett’s affected me. In my opinion, one of the best things about journalism is that it has the power to drive people to action and to justice.

Second, these tragic events have become far too common in small communities across the country. People deny the existence of rape culture, yet it is perpetuated daily without the knowledge of its supporters. In the Maryville case, Daisy was called brutal names and constantly told that she “deserved it.” In Steubenville, a group of teenage boys made a video laughing hysterically about the girl they saw raped, commenting that she was “deader than Trayvon.” How can these things still be happening in 2013?

Third, Daisy’s story itself just breaks my heart. In a case where a young girl was allegedly raped – brutally – while she was completely intoxicated and then left to die in the cold, I cannot fathom that no one was brought to justice. Rape is one of the most serious crimes an individual can commit against another, yet it is leniently punished in many states across the country. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 54 percent – that’s over half – of sexual assaults go unreported and 97 percent of rapists will not spend a single day in jail. It’s statistics like these that the public needs to be aware of. This is why Daisy’s case is so important. As much as I want justice for Daisy, I want justice for every other victim of sexual assault whose story may not be spread nationally. For every victim afraid to speak out. For every victim who, like Daisy, was shamed into believing that what happened to her was somehow her fault.

I want justice for victims. All victims. But for now, Daisy Coleman is a good place to start.

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The Big Day On a Budget

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Six months ago, I started dating a boy in the Naval ROTC program here on campus. Before that, I was mostly clueless about military customs and traditions. Imagine my excitement when he asked me to my first military ball. I couldn’t wait to pick out my shoes, my jewelry, and most importantly, my dress. Now, six months later, this boy is my boyfriend. Although I’m still looking forward to the Navy balls to come, I have started to think about how much all of them are going to cost. How convenient would it be to have a website dedicated to dress exchanges?

Then I thought about all the dresses sitting in my closet. I have two homecoming dresses from my freshman and junior year of high school. I have one very expensive prom dress. And now, after the upcoming Navy ball, I will have two dresses that I can’t wear to future Navy balls. What a waste! Formal dresses are exorbitantly expensive, and we rarely wear them twice. It would be nice to get old dresses off of your hands and pay less for new ones.

If I had the resources, I would make a formal dress exchange website.

It would be called The Big Day, and it would primarily host dress exchanges. Anyone who registers with their PayPal account could buy, sell, or exchange dresses. The website would be split into sections by event: Wedding (with wedding dresses and bridesmaids dresses), Prom, Homecoming, Military, and Work Formal. There would be a separate section for accessories: Jewelry, Shoes, and Purses. The site would function much like Etsy.com, where members can classify their items and “display” them in their own shop. Members would be able to buy and sell with confidence and know exactly what they are getting.

And the best part? Since the dresses would be used, the costs would be lessened.

A website like this would have appeal across a variety of age groups. This site would appeal to high school girls searching for the perfect prom dress, brides trying to save for their honeymoons, and professionals looking for a dress for a formal work event. Because of its wide appeal, it could probably generate a decent amount of advertising revenue. The site could even offer coupons for participating salons for hair styling, makeup, and mani/pedis. The more that I think about this idea, the more it strikes me as both a thrifty website and a revenue generator.

Maybe someday my dream will come to fruition. Until then, I’ll keep it in mind as I drive from dress shop to dress shop, looking for my next Navy ball dress.

And That’s the Way It Was

The days of Walter Cronkite and by-the-books journalism are long gone. Replacing them are outlets filling a 24-hour news hole with opinions and heresay, a growing sensationalism among even the most reputable sources, and rapidly evolving technology that is changing the way the news is delivered. Additionally, the job market in journalism has become dismal, which worries poor journalism majors like me. What’s wrong with the news is that even amidst so many changes that could potentially better journalism, readership and viewership have declined. It is much simpler to scroll through a Twitter feed to get the news than to consciously seek out information.

As a reader and viewer, I wish the news contained equal amounts of both domestic and foreign stories while still putting the most important news events first. American news coverage is notably different from coverage around the world in that it focuses heavily on domestic events and lets foreign news fall to the wayside. In a perfect world, American news organizations like ABC, NBC, and CNN would resemble the BBC. The BBC covers important domestic and worldwide events and holds itself to high ethical standards, which cuts down on mistakes and bias. In addition to being more balanced, I wish the news was simply happier. Almost everyone I know complains about how turning the news on at night is depressing because of how many sad stories lead broadcasts. If the news could somehow deliver a mix of happy and sad stories, I would be more willing to watch it.

If I ran a news organization, I would have my journalists and employees continually revisit the organization’s code of ethics so that the work produced would reflect our high standards. I would invest heavily in our multimedia and social media departments because the biggest growth in news and in revenue would come from those areas. In my news organization, I would try to balance revenue generation with good journalism. However, if I ever had to choose between making a profit and creating quality news, I would definitely choose the latter.

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