Monthly Archives: December 2013

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?

My Future In Writing and Sports

typewriter

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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