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Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark

Writing and reporting advice from 4 of The Washington Post’s best

Last Saturday I had the honor of teaching at a public writing conference at The Washington Post.  After I finished my part of the program, I spent the day listening carefully to four of the Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters:  David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.

I took copious notes, wrote down anything that struck me as wise or useful, and want to share with you what I learned from them.  Please don’t take these as direct quotations, but as handwritten paraphrases containing the gist of their advice.  Particularly notable were the shared values of craft and sense of mission and purpose in a gang of four that ranged from the 70-year-old Woodward, still cranking out books, to the young phenom Ezra Klein, who is trying to re-invent how to make policy stories interesting and relevant.

I’ll take them in the order of their presentations:

David Finkel, author of reports and books on soldiers returning from war, talking about how to report for story:

  • My intent was to answer a question that needs answering for the reader:  What was it like for a soldier to be there in Iraq.
  • The fact that I stayed in the war zone made all the difference.  I was a continuing presence, not someone who parachuted in and out.
  • Go to a place where other reporters aren’t.  Go to the hidden place, the unseen place.
  • If the tractor with bread and water is headed to feed the refugees in the field, take a flying leap onto the back of that tractor.
  • Assume nothing, ask everything.
  • If a refugee is wiping his face with a handkerchief, ask about the handkerchief (turned out to be a gift, a “love letter” from his illiterate wife).
  • You reach the point where you are “living with people” who become characters in your stories.
  • Hardest decision was to use this sentence in his book:  “That’s a toe,” he said. After a soldier was blown up.  It’s transporting. It’s intimate.  But would it hurt those who knew and loved him?  Operate on the principle that our first obligation is to the story.
  • Be ready for those moments that you can’t plan for.

Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, one of the most influential reporters and authors of the last 40 years, sharing advice on why people talk:

Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark
Woodward and the author (Photo by Gerald Martineau)
  • Goal is still to provide readers with the “best obtainable version of the truth.”
  • The best time to knock on the door of a four-star general who will not answer your calls is 8:17 pm — on a Tuesday.
  • When the general opened his door and saw Woodward he asked him, “Are you still doing this shit?”  And then waved him in.
  • He “deplores email reporting.”  His most powerful method is showing up.
  • He gets people to talk to him by proving to them, from his preparation, that he is genuinely interested in who they are and what they care about.
  • To get access to President George W. Bush, he sent to him a 22-page memo, detailing his reporting goals and interests.
  • He is after evidence:  meetings, decision points, memories, diaries, and loves people who take notes at meetings.
  • While he takes notes during interviews, “there’s an evidential purity to a tape recorder.”  For key interviews he uses two tape recorders.
  • He keeps two filing systems.  One is about people.  The other is about chronology.  In most cases, the chronology will provide the blueprint, the narrative line he needs for a book, but it’s not “an engineer’s drawing.”
  • He and Carl Bernstein sold their Watergate papers to the University of Texas for five million dollars, which is why “you should save everything.”
  • (In answer to RPC’s first question, he grudgingly admitted that he had seen the movie “Deep Throat.”)

DeNeen Brown is a veteran feature writer who shared dozens of tips of how to turn articles into stories.

  • We all crave stories.  Her kid asked her, “Tell me the story of it.”
  • Tries to infuse journalism with what she learned about literature in English 101:  irony, theme, tone, voice, rhythm, rising action, falling action, plot.
  • An editor, unsatisfied with her draft told her, “Evoke the soul of the story and send it back to me.”
  • Reading your story should be an experience.  Write like a narrator, who has a voice, and who is taking the reader on a journey.
  • Think about story, what readers need to know. It’s thinking about the story that is the essential act.
  • Figure out the meaning of the story, what it says about life.
  • Look for metaphors, practice similes, even though her son argues that “newspapers are no place for metaphors.”
  • Gather specific, non-stereotypical details.
  • Use a camera to capture the details of setting.
  • Primary values are accuracy, integrity, credibility.
  • The reading of literature remains the primary source of education for a writer.  Recently picked up an old literary anthology from college and began re-reading it.  Her son:  “What are you reading?” Mom: “An old book from college.” Son: “Haven’t you finished that yet?”
  • “Persist until you succeed.”

Ezra Klein, a versatile journalist who works in print, television, blogs and social media, discussed what it takes to make hard policy facts easy reading.

  • If you can’t make an important story interesting, you have done something wrong as a journalist.
  • Hates the phrase, “we need to give them their vegetables (or spinach.”
  • Believes that if you do it well, readers will line up in the cold to get it.”
  • This is important:  Try to give readers the “feeling of a key turning in a lock.”  Important, secret knowledge will be revealed.
  • He appreciates the approach of columnists Krugman and Brooks in the NYTimes, who, in spite of their ideological differences, share the ability to get you to see something important in a new frame.
  • Also appreciates Stewart and Colbert as policy journalists who gain audience by “covering it with sugar.”
  • First task is to understand it yourself.  Read the academic journals and research reports.
  • Take readers on the same journey that you took, just take out the parts that didn’t lead anywhere.
  • The “reverse pyramid” is not your friend.  Prefer the list.
  • Time to blow up the form, to innovate from paragraphs of undifferentiated text.
  • Lift the heavy cargo out of the text with charts and graphs.  Learn to do the math.
  • Q and A — all the way.
  • The editorial meeting is just death.  To write for your editor is the worst thing you can do for your reader.
  • Tom Friedman is a stylistic genius, even if he mixes his metaphors.  His best metaphor will change how you think:  the world is flat.
  • Repeat what is important, rather than what is less significant but new.
  • Reduce the “cognitive anxiety” of the reader.  A technique:  “This is everything you need to know in two minutes about X….”
  • Think hard about the lead.  Don’t be afraid to begin with your best fact.
  • Don’t be afraid of hard stories.  This is the best moment ever to cover complicated topics.  We are in a lucky moment as journalists.

My thanks to all of these great journalists for sharing their experiences and their knowledge. Read more

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

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What writers see in life, language and literature

At the end of this essay, I will be asking for your help in writing a proposal for a new book: “What Writers See: In Life, Language, and Literature.”

What do I mean when I ask the question “What do writers see?”

I once heard of a clever writing prompt given to school children: “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” Writers, I would argue, already have a third eye. They use it to see life, language and literature in special ways.

This third eye has a number of different names. It’s called vision (and then revision), curiosity, inspiration, imagination, visitation of the muse. When an ordinary person says “I see,” she usually means “I understand.” If she’s a writer, she means that and much more. For the writer, seeing is a synecdochic and synesthetic gerund. It stands for all the senses, all the ways of knowing.

Even blind and partially blind writers — from Homer to Milton to Joyce to Huxley — see. Like Tiresias, they are seers.

By definition, good writers don’t keep their visions to themselves. They stand in for us, helping us to see what they see.

My first analogy: Many years ago now, I went with my brother Vincent, who has an artificial eye, to a baseball game in Baltimore at Camden Yards. It was around the time he was getting surgeries on his eyes and could barely see. The Red Sox played the Orioles. It turned out to be one of the most exciting games ever, with pitcher Hideo Nomo twirling a no-hitter against the Birds. Nomo threw a No-No.

Vinny could make out the green of the outfield, but all the details were left to his imagination and my narration, which I delivered pitch by pitch into his right ear. What I saw, he saw. The story I told him became his way of seeing.

Joseph Conrad put it better, “My task…is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.”

How do writers see? They see the way dogs smell, with special cognitive equipment and that dogged enthusiasm. Ever try to move an alert pup off an enticing scent?

And what do writers see? They see experience, and they see it through the lenses of life, language and literature.

I am thinking of writing a book titled “What Writers See” that will try to shine a light on the pupil of that third eye so that you can examine the optic nerves of writers to see what they see. It will not be just about famous writers or dead writers. It will also be about you. Think of the pages of this future book as an inexhaustible bunch of carrots.  Eat them. They will improve your vision.

Here’s another analogy. When I was about 10 years old, I almost ordered from an ad in a comic book a pair of “X-ray glasses.” Over the years, I’ve borrowed the power of those glasses as a metaphor. I wear them when I’m sitting in an airport lounge, watching a couple arguing over their crying baby. I wear them when I am looking around for just the right word. I wear them when I am trying to decipher the imagery in a particularly powerful poem.

This book begins, as do most of mine, with a brainstorming list — an almost random compilation of potential elements and chapter titles as they occur to me. I am going to ask you to build upon them.

Here are some of the things I think writers see in life, language and literature:

1. They see the world as a storehouse of story ideas.
2. They see moral ambiguity — even in a doorknob.
3. They see — that is know — with all their senses.
4. They see themselves and others as characters in a narrative called life.
5. They see endings, even before they write a beginning.
6. They see their own work as a serial narrative, one long work with countless chapters.
7. They see stories as worlds into which they, and the readers, can escape.
8. They see texts as experiments in which they can swim.
9. They see all surfaces, and all media platforms, as potential canvasses for their work.
10. They see their own voice and the voices of other writers.
11. They see every complication as a potential resolution, and every resolution as a potential complication.
12. They see visions — and revisions.
13. They see the English language as their playground.
14.  They see themselves as members of a tribe.
15.  They see themselves as kings — and impostors.
16.  They see themselves as possessing X-ray vision.
17. They see themselves as addicted to narrative — in all its forms.
18. They see themselves as God’s privileged giver of names.
19. They have a third-eye for detail — of both place and character.
20. They see themselves as members of a larger community of readers and writers.
21. They see their eccentricities as essential to their craft.
22.  They see themselves as time travelers.
23. They see readers as imaginary friends.
24. They see life — yours and theirs — as a story with chapters.
25. They see themselves as struggling — even when they are not — for a noble purpose.
26. They see themselves as musicians.
27. They see movies — everywhere.
28. They see themselves as members of a special species, homo narrans, the creatures who tells stories.
29. They see beyond the horizon of their talent and experience.
30. They see reading and writing as profoundly dangerous.
31. They see the walls talking to them.
32. They see the narrow alternate route, the back streets and detours.
33. They see their work in print: days, months, years before it happens.
34. They see dreams of stories yet unwritten.
35. They see the poetry in common speech.
36. They see a universe of choices in a semicolon.
37. They see the big in the small, and the small in the big.
38. They see the empty in the full, and the full in the empty.
39. They see the secret meaning in the casual gesture.
40. They see the language flaw in their text message.
41. They see coffee.
42. They see the story that smells bad.
43. They see sex.
44. They see violence.
45. They see archetypes.
46. They see the insides of myths.
47. They see dead people.
48. They see the water, the land, the sky.
49. They see the rocks in your head — and theirs.
50. They see the Beatles at their reunion concert.

Think of each of these elements as a potential chapter title in “What Writers See.” Some of you will recognize the structural parallels with my four previous books published by Little, Brown. But I also want to emphasize the differences. We are moving up the ladder of abstraction from “how writers work” to “what writers see.” It’s more about the life of the writer, the profound ways of knowing that develop over time with the acquisition and exercise of craft.

To say it will be more abstract does not mean that it will not be practical or fun to read; you can count on me for the fun part. But I will be reaching for something more here, an aspiration for a higher calling as a writer.

Now it’s your turn to help. You’ve seen my early thoughts and my list of potential chapters. Please riff on these, or suggest ways of seeing that I have overlooked.  Friends and followers on social networks have offered their help. Now I’m asking you to complete the following sentence (with as many examples as you would like): “Writers see…….”

You can share your thoughts in the comments section of this story. Read more

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Booksandwriting3

How some narratives can benefit from more translucence, less transparency

Transparency, transparency, transparency. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

Transparency is the new pillar of responsible practice, inside and outside of journalism — including at Poynter. When it comes to reporting and writing, we are told (and I’ve said it myself, [an example of transparency!]) that readers not only want to know what we know, they also want to know how we’ve come to know it, and the practical limits of our knowledge.

Transparency plus humility.

“We want to be transparent about this,” reports the hypothetical anchor. “We have reporters in the field trying to get to the bottom of this, how the explosion happened, the number of dead and injured, whether there was foul play — but it is very early in the game, and we know how easy it is to get things wrong.”

When straight reporting turns to storytelling, the ethic of transparency becomes more complicated. As unusual as this might sound, some narratives are hurt by excessive transparency. Some narratives, as I’ll argue in this essay, would benefit from more translucence and less transparency.

Consider, as an analogy, that form of narrative known as the magic trick. At the high end, the magician is referred to as an illusionist. The illusion he creates, most people know, is the product of sophisticated engineering: wires, mirrors, tanks of water, hoses, lights, trap doors. Over the course of say, five minutes, that beautiful lady will disappear and be replaced by a tiger. “How did he do that?” we wonder aloud. But since the purpose is mere entertainment, we succumb to the illusion and return to our ordinary lives.

Succumbing to an illusion is, I would argue, a requirement of the successful experience of narrative. In 1817, Samuel Coleridge gave us a name for this. He called it “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” Even fables and fairy tales could be experienced in authentic ways, he argued, if the author lent them “a human interest and a semblance of truth.”

When we read a novel, watch a movie, see a play, if things go well, we don’t just watch an imitation of life — we enter into it. The author, like the magician, has created an illusion.  The lights dim, the curtain opens, images flash on the screen and we are transported, most often to another place and another time.

By now, most of us understand the engineering of this effect. It comes from scenic construction, from character details, from dialogue, from the variation of points of view, from time in motion, all the strategies of fiction that Tom Wolfe argued could be borrowed by the responsible reporter.

In his book “On the Origin of Stories,” New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd writes that our capacity for fiction is one of the greatest gifts of evolution — both a sign and a cause of our survival as a species. We are not just homo sapiens. We are “homo narrans,” creatures who tell stories. The ability to invent stories — as if they were real — enriches our experience, helping us sort out in real life the good from the bad, the heroes from the villains.

This exaltation of fiction above nonfiction is misguided, says my Poynter colleague Tom French. It is a harder craft, he argues, to take the raw material of everyday life — a kidnapping in Boston, an explosion of a chemical factory in Texas — and to reassemble it so that it can be experienced more widely, an experience that leads readers to empathy.

Re-enter transparency. In one sense transparency is the enemy of narrative — as it is of magic. The more we interrupt the story with attribution, the basic tool of transparency, the more we distract the reader from the vicarious experience of the story. Everyone knows this. Reporters know it. Editors know it. Ethicists know this. Prize jurors know this.

We can stipulate that for the nonfiction writer, especially the journalist, that aesthetic considerations can never take precedence over practical truth telling. But that does not mean that these two must stand in conflict. I can think of many ways they can be reconciled.

Let’s take the nonfiction book as an example. “The Looming Tower,” a book about the rise of radical Islam, won a Pulitzer Prize for its author Lawrence Wright in 2007. Here is a brief paragraph, chosen at random.

“In a few minutes, Zawahiri appeared, identifying himself as Dr. Abdul Mu’iz. He apologized for the ungracious welcome and invited the men inside for tea and bread. That night Deraz slept on the floor of the cave, next to Zawahiri, who was there to oversee the building of a hospital in one of the tunnels.”

In context, this is gripping stuff, an inside look at men responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But where did it come from? How does Wright know this to be true?In such a book, an answer can be found in the footnotes.

There are three sources listed for page 128, where this paragraph appeared: testimony on a legal document, interviews with two named sources, and a 1999 document titled “Bin-Laden Associate Interrogated.”

I confess to this truth, that I almost never read the footnotes of such a book. (And neither, I would guess, do most of you.) But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Those footnotes are the cornerstones of credibility, authority, verification and transparency. They reside, in spite of their name, at the back of books, where they do not interrupt the flow of the narrative, or awaken the reader from her trance.

The opposite of transparency is opacity. I just picked up a collection of magazine narratives written by John Hersey, one of the most important nonfiction writers of the 20th century, author of “Hiroshima.” One piece from Life magazine (1944), titled “Joe is Home Now,” begins:

The boy with one arm stood in the Rochester station and looked around.He was on his way to Onteoga, New York, and he was full of going home.

He glanced up at the iron clock – five fifteen, it said.Above the clock he saw the service flag showing that the railroad had sent 25,602 men to the wars.  Jeepers, the boy thought, more than a division.

This is gripping and intimate stuff: a damaged boy home from the war; the exact number on the wall; even young Joe thinking in contemporary slang. The author lifts me from my office chair and transports me back to another time and place. As if by magic.

But how does Hersey know this? I feel a tension between my trance and my need for transparency. There are no footnotes to guide me here. No attribution in the text. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, except….

Except I already know that this story is a fictionalized version of events and that our boy Joe Souczak is a composite character. Hersey admitted as much. In his book “The Gang that Wouldn’t Write Straight,” Marc Weingarten writes that Hersey built his composite upon interviews with 43 veterans. With his omniscient authorial voice and lack of attribution, Hersey preferred the opacity of fiction to the transparency of fact.

Many of us have settled on a compromise, which I would describe as an Aristotelian middle ground between opacity and transparency. If a name will help you remember it, call it translucence.

When something is translucent, you can see light shining through it, without having to take into account all the nitty gritty details. Done right, the nonfiction writer can shine a light through the material, revealing enough of the governing intelligence behind the narrative to satisfy the general curiosity and subdue the skepticism of average readers — without dispelling the experience.

We do it all the time. We do it with generalized attribution: “police and witnesses gave this account of rescue.” With an editor or author’s note, before or after the narrative. With additional information and attribution on a website. With hybrid stories that combine both narrative and straight news elements. And who says newspapers and magazines can’t use the occasional footnote?

I want to be clear about this distinction. While necessary for narrative, translucence may be insufficient for either straight news report or investigative work. For those pieces, more attribution and greater transparency may be the building blocks of credibility.

But if it’s a story you want, I, for one, don’t need to see that man behind the curtain, although I’m glad to know that someone’s there.

I end this essay with Soupy Sales, the irreverent kid show host of the 1960s, who liked to slip adult material into the mix.“ People in glass houses,” Soupy once wrote on his chalkboard, “should not invite Sophia Loren over for the weekend.” There it is again — the limits of transparency! Read more

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

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How to include narrative elements in a hard news story

During this week’s writing chat, we talked with Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz about his story that describes the experience of a young man who was carjacked by the Boston bombing suspects.

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark praised Moskowitz earlier this week for the way he wrote and structured the piece. During the live chat, Clark talked with Moskowitz about the challenges he encountered while reporting the story, what he learned from reporting and writing it, how he decided to structure it, how editing factored into the piece, and more. Moskowitz also offered general advice about how to include scene, dialogue, character details in a hard news story.

You can replay the chat here:

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Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013

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Boston Globe reporter shows how news writing can unfold ‘like a story in a book’

A story from the Boston Globe has been getting a lot of buzz, and rightly so. It was written by Eric Moskowitz, and describes the harrowing experience of a young Chinese man carjacked by the two Boston Marathon bombers.

The man is called “Danny” in the story (more about that later), and his capture, dangerous odyssey, and eventual escape has the feel of a “Tarantino movie” (more about that later, too).

When a story rings a bell — for both the public and professionals — my inclination is to read it several times, study it, talk with others about it and then engage in a process of X-ray reading. The goal is to reverse-engineer the work, describing for other writers and editors not just why it works, but how it works.

If you haven’t yet read the story, I would suggest you do so now. I quote from it several times in my analysis, but it might help you to experience it uninterrupted from start to finish. Or, if you prefer, read my commentary as a guide to experiencing the piece at a deeper level. You’re the boss.

Let’s stipulate certain recurring practical truths about news writing that certainly apply to this story. The first is that great news writing occurs at the intersection of accident and craft — something significant happens and, given the chance, the reporter does something special with it. It also occurs at the intersection of reporting and writing — the dogged gathering of facts, expressed in graceful and efficient prose.

On the reporting side, access becomes crucial. The fact the Globe gained “exclusive” (a word I’ve come to hate) access to the “golden source” makes everything that follows possible. (Without such access, other news organizations, such as NPR, resorted to interviews with the reporter, which is a good thing to do.)

Here, then, are my dozen reasons why this story works:

1. It begins, like the ancient epics, in medias res – in the middle of things. There is no background information on where Danny was when the bombing took place. What we get instead is action, followed by more action:

“The 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb on Brighton Avenue to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming on the brakes. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. last Thursday.” (I can’t help feel a digital-age irony here, that Danny drives into mortal danger by doing the right thing — pulling over to text.)

2. It is almost impossible to construct a news story out of pure narrative, but this one comes close. It may help to remember a distinction between reports and stories. A report may point you in a direction, but a story puts you there. A report is about information, but a story is about experience, a form of transportation that places us on the scene to experience events as if we were there. Using a rough calculation, this work is about 75 percent narrative, the rest devoted to set-up, background, and sourcing.

3. The construction of narrative journalism depends upon certain strategies associated traditionally with fiction, and we get all of them here: scene, dialogue, character details, point of view. The fact that the events tick-tock in a block of time (about 90 minutes) and inside the confines of an automobile, create what classical critics might call a unity of time, place and action that intensifies the experience of the reader.

4. By now, most news writers and editors understand the value of the nut paragraph, and this story supplies it and then some. I’ve argued that we should no longer call this tool a “nut graph” because it could just as well be tightened to a nut word, a nut phrase, a nut clause — or, expanded into what Chip Scanlan calls a “nut zone.”

That is what we get here: not one but three consecutive paragraphs of orientation. (Paragraphs six, seven, and eight, to be exact.) The nut begins with the declaration that Danny’s account “filled in some of the last missing pieces in the time line” between the murder of the police officer and the arrest of the second bomber.

The next paragraph summarizes the events, including a catalog of subjects the young men talked about: girls, music and technology. The final paragraph in the nut zone offers evidence of what the bombers might have been thinking and planning, including references to New York City.

5. This story should remind us of how rarely dialogue appears in breaking news, with reporters depending more often on quotes gathered after the fact. Even though he is using a single source (the bombers being unavailable, one dead, one arrested), the writer chooses to re-create the dialogue in the car based on Danny’s recollection. I count at least 12 paragraphs containing dialogue such as: “Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted at one point. “Do you remember my face?” / “No, no, I don’t remember anything,” [Danny] said.

6. This story flirts with another taboo, rendering the thoughts of the protagonist. Without access to the bombers, there can be no sense of what they were thinking, except through words and actions described by the source. But in Danny’s case, he is carrying on an internal monologue, which he shares with the reporter, who renders it as a series of credible quotations: “Death is so close to me,” Danny recalled thinking. Or “I don’t want to die. I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

7. I see something unusual in the structure of this story, but I don’t have a name for it. We can say what it is not. It is not a pure linear narrative. It is not a pyramid of information. It is not a broken line of narrative and explanation. It is not anecdote/nut graph/analysis. It is not what I described years ago as an hourglass, which has a news top and a narrative bottom. So what is it?

The best description I can give you is two overlapping tiles of narrative, grouted together with background and context. Think, if you will, of a style of home decoration called the “subway tile.” You don’t just stack the tiles end to end in parallel lines. Instead, they overlap. The tile on the bottom begins about halfway to the right of the one above it. In our case, the top tile of narrative begins with Danny pulling his car over and ends about 13 paragraphs later with his escape.

What follows is the grout, information about how his quick thinking led to the end for the bombers. Three paragraphs step outside the narrative to describe the circumstances of the interview and Danny as a reluctant hero. But hold on. Here comes the next line of narrative: a return to the action, a retelling of what we already know in outline, but with more detail, more dialogue, and fewer interruptions of the narrative.

8. There is always a tension in news writing between narrative and attribution. We live and write in an age of growing transparency, where we say that readers want to know not only what we know, but also how we know it. Yet we still refrain from clotting news stories with footnotes.

I’ll argue here, perhaps controversially, that nonfiction narratives, like magic tricks, are hurt by excessive transparency. The suspension of disbelief required of the experience of all literature requires a degree of trust by readers, which can be achieved, I’ll argue, with neither opacity nor transparency, but with translucence.

For example, we do not know who Danny is. That is a nickname (not made up, I assume, by the reporter). He is reluctant to use his Chinese name. What grounds the story in reality is a fabric of other details: his school, for example, and the name of a trusted professor present at the interview, the cop who gives him a bagel and a cup of coffee.

9. I’m reading a book titled “Hit Lit,” a cagey analysis by James W. Hall of a dozen famous American blockbuster novels and what makes them tick. One of the many common features is an intense personal drama against the backdrop of sweeping historical events and movements. Think of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Think of Scarlett O’Hara and her search for love and happiness against the backdrop of the Civil War.

Now think of a young man named Danny. He pulls his car over to receive a text message. There is a knock on his window, a classic example of Robert McKee’s “inciting incident,” and suddenly he becomes a character in the continuing saga of American security in the age of international terrorism, a story that spreads from Boston and Manhattan all the way to Russia and China and beyond.

10. There is a literary theory called “intertexuality.” It means that the stories we tell not only reflect the world, but also refer to other stories. When we watch “The Sopranos” it reminds us of “The Godfather.”

So it interested me that the writer uses this line as a summary of what happened to Danny: “The story of that night unfolds like a Tarantino movie, bursts of harrowing action laced with dark humor and dialogue absurd for its ordinariness, reminders of just how young the men in the car were.”

When I first read that comparison, I thought of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” where the two hit men inadvertently shoot an associate sitting in the back seat of their car. While the pop culture reference worked for me, it was deleted in the version that appeared in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times.

Dumping the nod to Tarantino, my local version proceeds: “The story of that night unfolds with….” While I find that deletion unnecessary, I understand it. The action can advance without metaphor or analogy. There is so much great “showing” in this story that “telling” us how to think about it may turn out to be counterproductive. Different strokes.

11. One important literary effect is embodied in the ending or “kicker,” which seems to have delighted many readers. Think of it as a payoff for both Danny and the reader: “When news of the capture broke, Danny’s roommate called out to him from in front of the living room television. Danny was on the phone at the time, talking to the girl in New York.”

Tragedy ends classically with the death of the hero. Comedy ends with his marriage, the fulfillment of love, with the promise of procreation. In tragedy, death is the conqueror. In comedy, love conquers death. Surely there is some of that here with our reluctant hero escaping from the vise of death to reach out to the girl he dreamed of when he was facing his darkest hour.

12. I’ll leave the last comment to the writer and reporter, Eric Moskowitz, who sent me this email message:

“I thought you might be interested in this – my brother (a sociology grad student who studies China and is fluent in Mandarin) has been checking out Weibo and other Chinese-language sites to see what people are saying about the Marathon bombing coverage, the Globe, and the story about Danny in particular. One of the cool things is that some people have apparently remarked on the style of the story – that it unfolds like a story in a book, with dialogue, a tick-tock narrative, even a subplot about a crush on a girl. According to my brother at least, Chinese-language dailies in China pretty much stick to inverted pyramid – though there is apparently a growing tabloid-style niche – and don’t do narrative.”

Maybe now they will.

Join us for a free live chat with Moskowitz this Thursday, May 2, at 3 p.m. ET. You can visit this page Thursday morning for more details. Read more

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Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013

Chat

From ancient Greece to modern Boston, how stories help us survive

The events of recent days — from the bombing of the Boston marathon to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in Texas — should remind us of the power of stories. In a daily sense and over the course of human evolution, stories help us survive. But how?

We discussed this during our most recent writing chat. Our conversation was informed by the work of Brian Boyd, a scholar from New Zealand, and the author of an important book: “On the Origin of Stories.” The title evokes Darwin and evolutionary theory. It works this way: Our brains evolved to give us language; and that language gave us the ability to tell stories, even fictional ones.

We would not have that capacity, if stories did not help the species survive in these ways:

1. Stories enrich our experience. If experience is a teacher, consider how much more we learn, from inspiring and cautionary tales, about the nature of the human condition, its triumphs and tragedies.

2. Stories point us to dangers. Think of the way that citizens were informed — or misinformed — by the coverage of events in Boston last week. Despite the misinformation journalists spread, the purpose of their reports was clear in most cases: there was a danger to the public safety, and that danger had to be identified and neutralized.

3. Stories teach us how to collaborate. To fight against the dark side, people of good will almost always need to find ways to work together, and stories offer examples of how that can be done.

You can replay the chat here:

  Read more

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Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013

Vague descriptions in Boston bombings hurt more than they help

My colleague Al Tompkins reminds journalists to remember the case of Richard Jewell as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Jewell was the security guard wrongly accused of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

But there is another cautionary tale to be told, and this one comes out of Massachusetts itself. It is not the Salem witch trials, but it can stand in that tradition of paranoia and scapegoating. It involves racial identifiers in stories about suspects.

In 1989, a young Boston man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife after childbirth classes, shot himself as a cover, and then told police that his family had been mugged by a black man. After a wide and aggressive dragnet by police in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, an arrest was made and Stuart identified a black man as the killer of his wife and unborn child.

But then Stuart’s brother informed police of the plot. Before he could be arrested and charged with the murder, Stuart killed himself by jumping off the Tobin Bridge into Boston Harbor.

Stuart wasn’t the first white man in America to blame his crimes on a person of color. In a city like Boston, with a long history of racial discord and violence, it was easy enough for a calculating white-collar murderer to spark a police investigation that targeted hundreds of young men who were merely guilty of being black.

In the aftermath of the Stuart case, those of us teaching journalism ethics at Poynter began to look much more closely at the routine practice of signifying the race or ethnicity of criminal suspects. What we discovered is that news descriptions of race and ethnicity rarely resulted in bringing a criminal to justice and often wound up dragging many innocent young men into the spotlight.

I was reminded of the Stuart case while following the news of the Boston Marathon bombings. As I watched coverage by CNN, which has proven to be disappointingly unreliable, the “crawl” on the bottom of the screen indicated that police had interest in a person who was black or dark-skinned, was wearing a hoodie, and spoke with a foreign accent. I am not sure if this was meant to describe a single individual or more than one. It should be obvious that in a college town like Boston there are countless young men who might fit such a vague description.

When I first heard the news of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I had an image in my mind of the perpetrator. He was male, he was young, he had dark skin, he wore a hoodie, and he spoke with a foreign accent. I had to face my own xenophobia with the arrest of the oh-so-white and American Timothy McVeigh.

I have been following Reddit critiques of the decision of the New York Post to publish page one photos of two young men photographed near the site of the Boston bombings. In case you couldn’t spot these “suspicious” characters, the Post added circles around their faces, a visual metaphor that they were targets, and that we all should be looking for them.

They both have what I would describe — compared to me — as dark skin. So who are they and where are they from and what does that say about them? Are they Arabic or Egyptian or Palestinian or Saudi? Are they African-America or Puerto Rican or Greek or Italian? Are they foreign or domestic?

The Stuart case of 1989 taught us to be cautious with and skeptical of generic physical descriptors, especially in stories that involve criminal violence. Whatever vague evidence those descriptors provide to terrorized communities, their value is outweighed by the harm visited on thousands of innocent people who just happen to fit the description. Read more

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Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.

I wrote more than two dozen stories and profiles about the making of the movie, and Ebert must have been paying attention because he recommended me to the Detroit Free Press for a job there.

Quite content in paradise, I never made it to Motown but I retained a warm spot in my heart for Ebert for identifying me back then as a writer with promise. That affection remained even after he savaged me on Twitter, but more on that later.

To honor his contribution to journalism, I am going to try to answer this question:  What made Ebert a good writer?  Notice I am not using the word “great” because good is good enough, especially if you’ve been good for more than forty years.

In looking for examples, I made a strategic decision.  Rather than look for his “best” or “prize-winning” work, I decided to examine the first three examples of his work I could find online.

Specifically, they are the first three reviews from the book Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews 1967 – 2007.  The movies appear in alphabetical order beginning with the 1986 film About Last Night. Here’s the lead:

If one of the pleasures of moviegoing is seeing strange new things on the screen, another pleasure, and probably a deeper one, is experiencing moments of recognition – times when we can say, yes, that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the way it would have happened.  About Last Night is a movie filled with moments like that.  It has an eye and an ear for the way we live now, and it has a heart, too, and a sense of humor.

According to traditional standards of newspaper writing, this lead should be a disaster.  It is 79 words long, most of them in that first rambling sentence.  It begins not with the news but with a subordinate clause.  There are no concrete nouns.  No strong active verbs.  Why, then, do I think it works so well?

In a word, it has voice.

On the page, voice is an illusion.  I cannot hear Ebert’s speaking voice, but in a way I can.  There is the illusion here that a smart person is speaking directly to me off the page.

Read that first sentence aloud.  Doesn’t it sound like someone thinking out loud at an intimate table in a crowded restaurant?

Any experienced writer can master the short snappy sentence.  It takes a good writer to master the long sentence, the one that takes the reader on a journey of discovery, the one that leads you to a special place you could not have imagined when you stepped on board the bus.

Here is Ebert’s lead on the 1988 movie The Accidental Tourist:

“Yes, that is my son,” the man says, identifying the body in the intensive care unit.  Grief threatens to break his face into pieces, and then something closes shut inside of him.  He has always had a very controlled nature, fearful of emotion and revelation, but now a true ice age begins, and after a year, his wife tells him she wants a divorce. It is because he cannot seem to feel anything.

I see more rule-breaking here.  Who begins a newspaper story with a bit of dialogue? And who begins a review of a film by immersing the reader in the narrative, that crucial scene Robert McKee describes as the “inciting incident” of a story?

If I had read this in the Chicago Sun Times instead of an anthology of four-star reviews, I would know immediately what Ebert thinks about the movie. It manages to be both discursive and immediate. He doesn’t tell us yet that it excels, but he shows us in his careful decanting of that powerful screen moment back onto the page.

Almost 20 years later he offered this lead for a review of Across the Universe (2007):

Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques, heartwarming performances, 1960s history, and the Beatles songbook. Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday.

This may be Ebert at his best, reversing the cliché about walking out of the theater humming the music then giving that lead its own exquisite kicker, an homage to one of Paul McCartney’s most memorable and cherished lyrics.

As a dabbler in the craft of film criticism, I found it much harder to write a positive review of a really good movie than to hammer a lemon into greasy pulp.  The flaws of a truly bad movie are transparent.  A catalog of those flaws turns out to be pretty easy – and lots of fun for the writer and the reader.

What, on the other hand, makes a good movie work?  Ebert could take a stand on behalf of the reader — and deliver.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve to be rewarded with an example of how Ebert could slice up a bad movie. He preferred the scalpel to the scimitar. Here is his lead from the 2002 remake of Swept Away, starring Madonna, which appears in Ebert’s book Your Movie Sucks:

Swept Away is a deserted island movie during which I desperately wished the characters had chosen a movie to take along if they were stranded on a deserted island, and were showing it to us instead of this one.

That one delivers like an atomic bomb test on Bikini Atoll. (Sorry, Roger, I’ll do better next time.)

Which brings me to my own personal Thumbs Down from Mr. Ebert.  It arrived, via Twitter, after I wrote of my discomfort with guys of a certain age trying to look all hip and modern by using emoticons and acronyms in tweets and text messages.  To which he responded:

OK, he wasn’t just good, he was damn good.

More on Ebert: Neil Steinberg’s obituary in Ebert’s paper, the Chicago Sun-Times | The Wall Street Journal’s “social obituary” for Ebert | Ebert: “I do not fear death” (Salon) | Dan Zak on how Ebert taught him to write (The Washington Post) | Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As ‘A Triumph’ (The Onion) Read more

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Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January.  (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

AP dumps ‘illegal immigrant’ but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP’s decision to dump “illegal immigrant” as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let’s begin with the language wars. Read more

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Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013

Copy - Paste

Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism

Editor’s note: This essay represents the personal and professional opinions of Roy Peter Clark and should not be used to characterize the opinions of Poynter or the standards and practices of Poynter.org.

It is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.

There has been too much loose talk about plagiarism since I first wrote about the topic in 1983. I’ll share some of the blame. The result is that serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.

A classic case of overcharging occurred in 2007 when journalism teachers at the University of Missouri condemned a colleague of plagiarism after he used quotes from a student newspaper in an opinion piece without attribution. I argued then that while the practice may have been sloppy, to call it plagiarism was like “shooting a fly with a bazooka.”

I raise these issues again in advance of the April 5 plagiarism summit on the eve of the annual meeting of ACES in St. Louis. That venue seems right. Copy editors are — in both theory and practice — the standard bearers of the craft.

That said, I smell a whiff of panic in the air. My colleague Craig Silverman dubbed the summer of 2012 — for its several literary transgressions — as the “Summer of Sin.” He cites “a cavalcade of plagiarism, fabrication and unethical recycling.”

But he might just as well have written about 1981 when the “Jimmy’s World” scandal at the Washington Post rocked the journalism world. He might have time-traveled to 1934 and listened to city editor Stanley Walker complain about how many young reporters were “faking” their stories.

I see no persuasive evidence that literary abuse is more common today than in yesteryear. In the cut and paste culture of digital technology, plagiarism may be easier to commit, but it is also easier to detect. Standards may appear in decline when, in fact, media crime fighters such as Silverman are simply more assertive and armed with better Geiger counters.

Too scrupulous an ethic on plagiarism will lead, I fear, to witch hunts. Plagiarism — along with its cousin fabrication — should be policed. The punishments for wrongdoers should be harsh.  But the word plagiarism should be confined to clear-cut cases of literary and journalistic fraud.

To build my case, I am borrowing from four books and recommend them to anyone grappling with these issues, either in academic or professional contexts:

  • The Little Book of Plagiarism,” by Richard A. Posner, a federal judge, a law school lecturer, and a prolific author, who writes persuasively on issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement.
  • The Anxiety of Influence,” by Harold Bloom, a legendary scholar and critic from Yale, who considers the patterns of influence that govern how one author learns from another.
  • Stolen Words,” by Thomas Mallon, a novelist and practical scholar who delves into a long history of literary theft, practiced by some of the most honored authors in the canon of English and American literature.
  • City Editor,” by Stanley Walker. An influential New York City editor in the 1930s, Walker includes a chapter on the questionable literary and journalistic standards of his day.

Judge Posner defines plagiarism as “a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims…is original with him and the claim causes the copier’s audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth.”

Let’s unpack that language with an example. Say that I am writing a new book titled “Read, Write, Talk,” and in a panic to meet a deadline I copy a chapter from “Read to Write,” an old book written by my mentor Donald Murray.

I give no credit to Don, who will not rat me out because he died in 2006. It should be clear that I am committing an act of fraud by creating the impression that my chapter is original.  In that way, I attract buyers to my book, who might not have purchased it if they knew the truth. I deceive my readers. I deprive the estate of Donald Murray potential income. When Chip Scanlan, another devotee of Murray’s, discovers the fraud and announces it to the world, I deserve the sanctions that will follow.

Let’s turn Posner’s definition into a checklist. An act of plagiarism requires 1) the substantial copying without credit of one person’s language by another; 2) that this copying is done fraudulently, that is, to fool the reader into thinking that the work is original; 3) that the plagiarist acts with the clear intention to trick the reader; 4) that the act has potential negative consequences for the reader and the original author.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would find those standards controversial. Here are the conclusions I’ve derived from these standards:

1. The so-called act of “self-plagiarism” is not plagiarism.

Posner hits the target on this one: “The temptation to lump distinct practices in with plagiarism should be resisted for the sake of clarity; ‘self-plagiarism,’ for example, should be recognized as a distinct practice and rarely an objectionable one.” All successful writers “re-purpose” their work for profit and influence, but they should always be forthright with potential publishers on whether the work is brand new or recycled.

2. So called “patch writing” — as long as it credits sources — is not plagiarism.

I’m no expert on patch writing, but apparently college students are. Using cut and paste technologies, writers can take material from several online sources, patch it together, add some original language, and hand it in to fulfill assignments. I would not teach this practice as a strategy for honest, original, and memorable writing, but, as long as the sources are named and are accompanied online with the appropriate links, I would not equate it with plagiarism.

3. Inadequate paraphrasing of a credited source is not plagiarism.

A stormy controversy involving The Poynter Institute and its ace blogger Jim Romenesko was sparked when someone complained that the language in Jim’s expanded summaries wasn’t properly attributed. I protested inside and outside of Poynter against attempts to characterize this as plagiarism — which was the effect of the criticism against him. With direct links to the original sources, there was no fraud or deception involved, and no harm, real or potential to the audience or sources cited.

4. Use of a clever or apt phrase — up to the level of the sentence — is not plagiarism as long as you thought of it independently, even if you find that others have used it before.

I remember a college tract on plagiarism (I cannot cite the original source) that warned students against stealing an “apt phrase” without attribution.

I was thinking of this subtitle for my next book “How to Write Short”: “140 Characters in Search of an Author,” a dazzling mashup of Twitter requirements and the Pirandello play.  My editor was less impressed. And then, sure enough, it showed up as the title of an essay in the New York Times Book Review. Here is my rule of thumb: If you thought of it independently, use it. It’s not plagiarism. It’s what Posner describes as “simultaneous discovery.”

5. Literary allusions — even a mosaic of esoteric ones — are NOT plagiarism.

When my friend Howell Raines wrote an influential profile of the ambitious son of another Florida politician, he began: “Will the son also rise?” Some alert readers recognized that phrase as an allusion to a book by Ernest Hemingway. Another set of readers, familiar with their Bibles, recognized that Papa had borrowed his title from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Raines got the benefit of both sources, using a phrase that was clear on its face for readers who recognized neither.

Allusion differs from plagiarism in that it begs for detection. Delight is caused by a recognition of the borrowing.

6. Boilerplate descriptions of news, history, or background are not plagiarism.

I once interviewed an editor of The Wall Street Journal who described for me a “recipe book” that writers could use to give readers clear, accurate, and concise descriptions of economic terms like “gross domestic product” and “the money supply.”

When Pope Benedict resigned, I consulted encyclopedias, histories and other general sources to find out the last time something like this happened. If the borrowed language is straightforward and informational (as opposed to, say, metaphorical), I see no need for elaborate and time-consuming efforts to re-write it.

How many ways can you say: “Roy Peter Clark graduated from Providence College in 1970 with a degree in English”?

7. Ghost writing is not plagiarism.

Some celebrities and politicians have it easy. They deliver or publish the wonderful words of gifted writers who are satisfied with a good payday, and, if they are lucky, a bit of recognition in the acknowledgments. Since everyone is in on the scam — including most readers — and no one is injured, it remains an acceptable practice.

8.  Writing for genres — such as the legal brief or the sermon — in which there is a long tradition of borrowing without attribution is not plagiarism.

There are books of sermons from which preachers are encouraged to borrow. Judicial decisions are often written by law clerks. Every teacher I know will speak words during a writing workshop that have been uttered or written by others. Credit to the source should be given when it really matters, but there is no need to gum up a good lesson with needless attribution.

9. Copying from other writers in what are considered collaborative ventures –newsrooms, wire services, press releases, textbook authorship — is not plagiarism.

You are writing about drought conditions in Florida. You consult what we used to call the clips. You find that a colleague, Joe Blow, reported on the issue five years ago. A paragraph in that story describes the situation back then perfectly. With approval of your editor, you drop that graph into your story as background. No problem.

Writing in most cases is a social activity. Editors re-write leads or insert paragraphs. Basic information is borrowed from the AP or a press release. These are not short cuts taken by cheaters. They are essential moves of the craft that should not be criminalized.

10. Copying from or borrowing the general ideas and issues that are emerging as part of the zeitgeist is not plagiarism.

Here, one last time, is Posner: “The most important distinction between plagiarism of verbal passages…and plagiarism of ideas… — a distinction that suggests that much copying of ideas isn’t plagiarism at all – is that old ideas are constantly being rediscovered by people unaware that the ideas had been discovered already….A rediscoverer or independent discoverer is not a copier, hence not a plagiarist.”

My decriminalizing these activities does not mean that I approve of them. It means I can consider them, act on them, even criticize them in a different frame than the stigmatizing one that the word plagiarism requires. I can use a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

In making my case for decriminalization, I disassociate myself from writers and teachers such as Kenneth Goldsmith, author of the book “Uncreative Writing,” who, in a recent On the Media interview, described the ways in which he encouraged students to borrow generously and creatively from the work of other writers. Goldsmith argues that we live in a culture that rewards and requires such borrowing, using the sampling of original music as an analogy. It seems as if Goldsmith would eliminate plagiarism as a category — and expand fair use to infinity — which is NOT where I want my argument to lead.

I have made this case before, and I make it again: You do not prevent the bank teller from stealing from the till by sending Sallie or Sam to an ethics seminar. If you are the bank manager, you point to the video camera that is focused tightly on the work station.

Nor will a seminar or summit prevent wholesale acts of plagiarism or fabrication. To prevent the former you inform your writers that their work will be routinely and randomly filtered through plagiarism detection software, which is getting better and more common.

To prevent the latter, you tell the writer that they should be ready to provide an editor with contact information about any source mentioned in a story, and that editors reserve the right to contact any source at any time to verify that they exist and to check on the performance of the reporter. Such watchdog efforts require labor and money at a time when news organizations are lacking both.

In the meantime, let’s not overburden the journalists who are left with impossible and impractical standards that have never matched the daily practice of the craft. Then, if they are caught stealing, out the door they go — right on their asses.

What’s your take? Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section.

Related News University Webinar: Preventing Plagiarism and Fabrication in News Publishing Read more

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