‘Enemy of the People’ reveals building blocks for ‘fake news’ story on cataract surgery

Cataract surgery #2 is in the rear-view mirror. I have decided to use the opportunity to don my journalist/ “Enemy of the People” hat and pull back the curtain on how trained reporters go about preparing for and conducting interviews in order to bring readers useful information.

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This is the hairstyle of a print journalist, but I am actually sharing this post-op picture so you can see my very dilated right eye.

Why am I qualified to do this? The obvious reason might seem to be those two recent cataract surgeries. The actual reason is my history as a professional journalist.

Before the “Social Work by the Seat of my Pants in a Snake Pit” years and my current gig as “The Happiest Public Librarian in North America,” I worked as a reporter and editor at two newspapers and one magazine. I continue to write freelance pieces for a couple of outlets.

Some reporters go to journalism school. My sister falls into that category. Some just write and write, starting at a tiny little publication – maybe their high school or college paper or a local alternative weekly – and work their way up the food chain. That’s how I did it. All my training was on-the-job, with some second-hand wisdom from the good professors in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire courtesy of the newsroom at the Marshfield News-Herald, full of reporters who’d all attended there and regularly quoted their professors in conversation.

By the time I got to Marshfield, I’d already developed my own writing hierarchy, to which I continue to adhere.

  1. Accuracy – If the facts aren’t right and it’s not coming out exactly the way you’re trying to express what it is you’re trying to express, keep trying.
  2. Accessibility – If you have to use big words and long sentences to be accurate, so be it. But if you can say it with small words and short sentences, that’s better.
  3. Cleverness – If you can do those two things above and be entertaining and witty and clever, more power to you!

The pay was terrible, but being a reporter was a great job. News reporters go where things are happening and gather information on it. The major questions in newsgathering are Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?

Let’s say the “happening” is a house fire. Here’s what a reporter sent to the scene of a fire needs to put together a story:

Whose house? Where is it? Was anyone inside? How did the fire start/how was it contained/how did people get out? When did it start/when was it contained? How many firefighters/battalions responded? If there were people in the house, did they get out? Was anyone injured? Killed? Were there smoke detectors? Who reported the fire? When does the fire department expect to issue a final report? What is the cost of the damage? Was there insurance? How much? (The Public Affairs Journalism prof at Eau Claire told his students to “follow the money.”)

The reporter gathers the available information and writes it in a way that anyone reading it can easily follow. Here’s what it might look like:

“Three people, including a firefighter, were injured in a house fire at 123 Broad Street on Wednesday. Captain Edward Schnauzer of the Mayfield Fire Department said the cause is unknown at this time, as is whether or not there were working smoke detectors.

A passerby noticed smoke coming from an upper window and called the fire department shortly after midnight. Two occupants of the house, a 39-year-old woman and an eight-year-old boy, were taken to St. Bernard hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson. Three other occupants of the home escaped without injury.

Four battalions responded to the fire, which took two hours to get under control. No nearby houses were damaged.”

That’s news reporting. You go to the event, you find an authority who knows what’s going on, you cite that authority in your story (eg: the fire captain), any other authority who you end up needing to talk to as a result of talking to the first authority (eg: the hospital spokesperson). You might also get a quote from a neighbor watching, one of the people living in the house or, if the house was rented out, its owner, depending on their availability and the time between your reporting and your news outlet’s deadline.

This same principle applies to municipal meetings, political gatherings and basically any event in which there is a beginning, middle and end. If deadline precludes you from reporting on the middle/end, you report as much as you can on the beginning and then follow up to write the rest if the event warrants doing that. (Maybe the fire turns out to be arson for insurance purposes, children playing with matches, or faulty electrical wiring. Depending on the cause, the story you write will either be a small thing or something you follow through to a trial and sentencing. You never know, which is part of the adrenaline rush of being a news reporter.)

But today, I am going to be a feature reporter doing a feature on cataract surgery.

That “who, what, when, where why and how” of newsgathering is also going to come into play.

Who gets cataract surgery? Why? How? What happens? Is it covered by insurance? Are there complications? What are they? Those are the questions I’m going to look to answer.

Because it’s a feature story, I’m going to want to talk to (preferably local) people who’ve undergone the procedure. I will look for someone who is happy with the results, and someone who isn’t. I’ll want to interview a doctor who performs the procedure to get his or her take on what happens, what prospective patients should know going into it and about aftercare and followup.

I can’t do those interviews, though, until I’m educated enough to ask the right questions.

I’ve had cataract surgery. But this isn’t just a first-person story, even though I’m going to let readers know I’ve had the procedure.  So I will set my experience aside for the moment.

When it comes to background research, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, as long as you treat them as starting points and not final authorities.

Entering “Cataract Surgery” into a Google search box turns up 11,600,000 results in .54 seconds.

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The top of Page 2 looks just like the top of Page 1, minus the Froedtert ad.

The top result is an ad, which I know because of the “ad” box to the left of the URL.

Someone has paid money to have their listing come up first, a big ol’ red flag to anyone in the news or library business. Librarians and reputable journalists share a reverence for reliable, unbiased information. Our goal is for end-users to be able to make an informed decision about whatever it is they’re looking to figure out. The best way to help make that happen is by providing high-quality, objective source material.

Which is why Google is only a first step. I make a point of going several pages in – usually seven to 10 – to get a sense of what’s out there and what people are looking at and for. (Paid ads aside, Google tends to rank its results, so more popular results show up on the initial pages.)

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This is on Page 1
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I’d definitely check out the National Library of Medicine’s information. (Note that those paid ads are still up on the top of Page 3.)

I gravitate toward sites with .org, .edu and .gov as extensions. I don’t rule out commercial sites (.com), but if a site’s main objective is sales, there’s an obvious bias. I can probably do better with a different type of site.

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This is on Page 7. Good for seeing how doctors think.

In addition to my Google search, I’m going to hit up my local public or university library (assuming I have access to a university library) and check out their books and databases.

The difference between a search engine and library database is like the difference between your grandmother’s attic and her spice rack (if your grandmother is a great and adventurous cook). The former is full of random stuff that’s been piling up there for years; the latter is orderly, relevant and everything on it is fresh. In other words, it’s highly curated. Library databases contain information that’s been pre-selected by subject experts for reliability and quality.

I select my source material, I read it, I get literate about my topic. Some of that will come into my story, with citations from those articles ( e.g.: “According to a 2018 study by…. ). Other information will come from interviews. I’d want to talk to at least one person who had the surgery before I talk to the doctor, which would inform some of the questions I asked the professional.

The finished story will emerge from these elements.

With all my information gathered and in one place, I look at it as a whole, searching for a starting point. (I call this part “finding my way in.”) If I get it right, my final product will be accurate, accessible and entertaining.

Here’s a completely true sentence that could serve as the lede (journalist-speak for the first sentence) of how I’d start this first-person story:

“If I had run over my glasses three weeks earlier, it would have been a disaster. But cataract surgery rendered it a non-issue.”

One display, one playlist, one eighth-grade groper & one heart-to-heart across voting lines: a 2016 presidential election word buffet

Fifty days ago, I made an election display at the library. There’s so much crazy flying around and libraries are supposed to be safe havens. I wanted my display to do two things:

  1. Provide a way to give people access to digestible and genuine information about the candidates.
  2. Remind us all that at least this phase of the crazy would come to an end.

 

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The first day. Those are tweets beneath their pictures. Each day I added a tweet and tore off a calendar sheet.
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This is eight days out. Mom never threw anything away, so she gets all the credit for that postage stamp, which I enlarged for this display.

 

So every day since I built it, I’ve been pulling a sheet off the countdown calendar and adding a one thing a day from each candidate’s Twitter feed. It’s been pretty satisfying to see people reading them. (One day a man actually took one home! I just printed a new one and put it up in the old one’s place.)

I wish I was more enthusiastic about this election, but at this point I am secretly wishing for one last presidential debate. In a dog park, with both candidates dressed in gender-appropriate versions of Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

The election has at least given me a chance to put together my first blog post for the library. It’s a playlist menu for election night parties. (Click here to read it, and special thanks to Amelia for editing/formatting.) Every song has some tie to a presidential candidate or election, and I am especially pleased to have included Patrick Sky and Timbuk 3, a couple of brilliant and un/underappreciated acts.

The good, the bad and the groping

The display and playlist were two high points of my election season. The low point was the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. Had it been Donald Trump, reality star, gleefully explaining how unwanted sexual contact with women was part of the standard “Fame Privilege” package, you wouldn’t be reading what I am about to write. But Donald Trump, a man who could potentially be representing me to the rest of the world?

So here I am, speaking up about the eighth grade classmate who, when our English teacher sent the two of us and six other boys to the auditorium to check on something connected to the class play, took advantage of an opportunity to come up behind as we stood on the stage, pin me against him and grab my breasts to settle the question of whether what was under my shirt was actual breast tissue or the paper kind. (Being a well-endowed middle school kid is no picnic.) I never told anyone then. I was too ashamed, thinking it was somehow my fault.

I’ve seen him at three reunions, most recently last summer. It made me kind of sick to watch him talk and laugh with female classmates as if he hadn’t a care in the world. It also made me kind of mad at myself for not being comfortable enough to confront him. He can’t change his past any more than I can mine, but it would be nice to hear him express some genuine remorse.

That said, I’m a realist, so unless I do grow a pair and confront him, it’s probably not gonna happen.

I’m with her, he’s with him, we’re good

Speaking of reality, that tape didn’t bother a lot of the people voting for Donald J. I don’t get it. I didn’t get it before that either, but after, I really didn’t. So I phoned a friend I’ll call Dave (because that’s his name). His social media feed is filled with anti-Obama and pro-Trump memes.

We went from kindergarten through sixth grade together. He was one of the cutest and nicest boys in school, and he’s still adorable and kind. He and his wife have two married sons, a crop of grandchildren and three rescued dogs. On one of my recent trips home, we hung out with Grandkid 1 at their house; I’m looking forward to our next get-together.

I wanted to have a conversation with a Trump supporter that wouldn’t turn into some sort of horrible bashing session on either side, so I asked Dave if he’d be okay with us talking about it and me writing some of what he said. Which he was.

So here, for people voting for Hillary Clinton and befuddled as to why someone would vote for Donald Trump, are some reasons.

  1. Bush/Gore was a turning point. He was a registered Democrat until then. Now, he’s Independent.
  2. He hasn’t seen his life improve significantly over the past eight years. “I can call myself middle class but what I do know is that I’m paying twice the health care I used to pay. I have it through work, but what I used to pay pre-Obama care and what I’m paying now, it’s doubled.”
  3. He knows someone who worked in close proximity to Bill and Hillary Clinton during Bill’s presidency, and was not impressed by what he heard regarding her personal conduct.
  4. Memes aside, Dave isn’t thrilled with Donald Trump either. “He’s an arrogant asshole, there’s no doubt about it, but if I have to pick between the two I’ll pick him.”
  5. We both wondered, and agreed about whether we can look to our leaders anymore for the kind of character, honesty and assurance we expect of someone hoping to become president.

Whatever your politics, if you can vote in this election, make a considered decision. Then get yourself to the polls (if you haven’t voted already), and strap yourself in. The next four years are going to be an interesting ride.

Love, loss, hope and backup plans: Making now count

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So, it’s been a few months. I could make up a whole raft of reasons for the radio silence, but the truth is job-related.

Last July, I was laid off from the job I loved, and not long after my last post in February, there were signs of a happy ending/soft landing. In a fit of holding off until I could share good news, I put off posting.

But I’ve waited long enough, and now I’m at that place where you just say “Now matters. Live here!”

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An expert at living in the now

So here’s a little story about the job I loved and lost. It wasn’t performance-related (the exact words of the HR official who hand-delivered my layoff letter). I was really good at what I did. But it was funded by “soft money.”  Which is code for “grants.”

The particular grant I worked on for 10 years was funded through the Wisconsin State Legislature. The program was almost 40 years old, and provided a whole lot of bang for the $895,000 it cost state taxpayers. I could venture guesses as to why it was de-funded. But those would just be guesses.

My program was one of 16 around the state. We worked with adults – mostly women but some men, too – who had not been the main breadwinner in their households, but for any number of reasons found themselves in a position where they had to become the main breadwinner. My participants were divorced or separated from partners or spouses, married or partnered with someone who’d become disabled and unable to work, or who’d lost a job. In a couple of cases I worked with people who’d given up good jobs out of state to come home and see an elderly parent through his or her last illness. Those people had been supported by the parent’s pension or social security. One of them was paid through an agency that provided elder care to be their parent’s caregiver. All that ended with their parents’ deaths, and they needed to rejoin the workforce.

For 10 years, I got paid to listen to these people tell me who they were, then help them figure out how to reimagine their lives. Most days I went home feeling like the luckiest, most blessed individual on Planet Earth because, having already gone through my own version of the horrible realities my participants were living, I could serve as living proof that it was possible to come out on the other side.

It was something I would definitely have appreciated when I was where they were. Most were also completely inspiring – making courageous choice after courageous choice to make their lives better. (I’ve stayed friends with many of them, and that’s helping me now. As I said, luckiest & most blessed.)

I had a sneak preview this might be coming down the pike in 2007, when a state legislator (Jeff Fitzgerald was his name) decided to cut the program because, according to one of my then-colleagues, he figured that if it wasn’t at all the technical colleges, it didn’t need to be at any. (There was a 100-day standoff about the budget that year, and the 16 program coordinators from around the state took advantage of the time. We spent it informing our representatives about what we did. When budget was passed, we were in it).

“Your backup plans need backup plans.”

One of my mantras is “Your backup plans need backup plans.” My backup plans since the ’90s  have been freelance writing, back-of-the-house for catering and anything else someone would be willing to pay me for.

It turned out, though, that I like having a steady gig with benefits and co-workers. When I looked at it through my Program Coordinator lens, the reality of my patchwork resume – a bachelor’s degree in music followed by journalism and project management experience – meant the average HR department would probably toss it for being too scattered. And there was the reality of my age – ie: not 30.

I needed something bigger.

 

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A rhino is pretty big, even on a Scrabble board.

 

I couldn’t do anything about my age (and didn’t really want to). But I could address the resume. So I started looking at graduate programs. I wanted something that would pull everything I’d done together and take it all to a different level. I also wanted something that would make me as fire-proof as possible for a 50-something woman whose work experience and college degree were at least as well matched as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.

Which is the reason I went to library school. It’s a terrific degree – really versatile. People with library degrees work in all kinds of settings – IT, corporate, legal, financial, academic – the list is pretty long. And maybe it hasn’t gotten me a job yet, but the skills I’ve added to my existing toolbox have given me a level of confidence in riding out this layoff that I never would have had without it.

So, while I wait for my Prince Charming job to come along (I’m straight, which is why it’s not a Princess Charming job), my library degree is working for me. It’s also working for others. I volunteer two mornings a week at a university library, in one of their digital units. I’ve added book indexing and dissertation editing to the freelance journalism, marketing and technical writing/editing/content development I’ve always done.

And then there’s this blog, which started as a gift to myself. Thank you for reading it, and especially thanks for reading this post, which is mostly a ramble/meditation to get myself back into my once-a-week posting routine. A whole lot has happened in the past few months, not the least of which was finishing my first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

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My first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

Coming attractions ,with illustrations

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It’s all gluten-free all the time at the Kinnikinnick Bakery in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

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The Humane Society said Matey was a “three-month-old Shepherd mix.” She’s not.

 

 

American Library Association declares war on former food stamp recipient, plus a mini rant and a throwback post featuring Israel, Palestine and feral cats

Seven years ago, I decided to go to graduate school, because I don’t ever want to qualify for food stamps again. I want them to be there for people who need them, and I am all good with my tax dollars going to do that.

In fact, I’m pretty good with my tax dollars going to all kinds of things that make other people jump up and down and throw big fat tantrums. Things like public education – from pre-kindergarten through college – and health care and green space and road repair and publicly funded transit and art and music. I even like having my tax dollars go toward police and fire and prisons.

I’m not crazy for prisons, but there are nasty people out there who need time – sometimes a lifetime – to cool off and think about what they have done. I also think there should be education and constructive things for people in prison to do. Even someone behind bars can contribute good things to the world. Years ago, I reviewed a book called Cruciverbalism: a crossword fanatic’s guide to life in the grid by Stanley Newman. In it, he reported that because crossword puzzle design is a painstaking and time-consuming endeavor, a lot of puzzles are designed by prison inmates. (The book is a really fun read, and I highly recommend it.)

And speaking of cross words, I got an e-mail yesterday from my friend Saundra. Her son is my very favorite son-in-law. Saundra also has a master’s degree in library science, but she got hers at a more sensible point in her life. So she’s been a librarian for something like 30 years, and has deep connections in that world. I am a baby librarian, and still very idealistic. Or was, until Saundra’s e-mail asking whether I’d heard that the Council of the American Library Association, of which I am a member and which is meeting in Chicago this weekend, is taking up a resolution to boycott three American companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola) for doing business with Israel – specifically the IDF, its armed forces.

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My two youngest offspring in Israel with Shelli Beham. Shelli’s humans Danny & Arlene were my adopted parents when I spent a year living at Ma’ale HaChamisha, a pre-1948 kibbutz 22 kilometers outside of Jerusalem.

I am having a big problem with this. For starters, the Council is doing this on a Saturday afternoon, which is the Jewish Sabbath. I know, I know – this is about Israel, not Jews. But…hmmmmm….Israel? Jewish state? Anyone see any sort of connection? I had a whole bloody comprehensive exam question on cultural warrant and its importance in librarianship. I have a problem with the resolution all on its own already. Now I have the extra problem of feeling like the ALA Council is a great big sneaky baby with its fingers in the cookie jar because it knows Mom is on the phone. Which I would not have had if it had scheduled this voting session on, say Sunday afternoon.

Then there’s the whole idea of the ALA Council voting on this. (I’m not going to even get in to the question of whether this is an appropriate issue for this particular governing body to address.) Really, ALA Council? I get the whole “commitment to social justice and fairness” thing. I even agree with it.

Which is why I just keep thinking “Aren’t we better than this?”

Here’s my problem: If the ALA wants to put to a vote a decision divesting itself of any investments in American companies doing business with Israel’s military, then it needs to do the same with American companies doing similar business in Sudan, Iraq, Syria, China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Liberia, Congo, Angola, Russia and others. I could go on with my list of countries engaging in naughty behavior, but I won’t.

I also won’t get into how I feel about a group that prides itself on scholarship and accuracy of information taking on a really complicated issue in a manner that is reductive and simplistic. Not going to go there.

I have no clue as to what will happen on Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t planning on going, but if any of you library types think I should show up, maybe I will.

I’m going to end this little rant with a throwback post I wrote some five years ago.  I was just playing with bloggy formats between grad school assignments, and I think I let about seven people see what I was posting.

A throwback post

Ugly and frightening pretty much sums up the latest chapter in Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world.

It’s hard for me to talk about Israel in general, because I love it so much and want it to thrive and be safe; and I also want to hear the Palestinian National Symphony and see the Palestinian National Dance Company perform before I die, because that will mean that there is a Palestine that’s taking care of itself and its people.

My views on the situation aren’t popular with anyone. My conservative friends think I’m a sellout for not marching to the beat of “Everything Israel Does is Right.”

My liberal friends think I’m a fascist for thinking that Israel has a right to exist at all.

The truth is that Israel needs to exist, and Palestine needs to exist. There needs to be two states – side-by-side and the Palestinian state needs to be contiguous. Both sides need to respect the borders and safety of each other and live like decent neighbors.

And Jerusalem, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims? Sorry, dudes. You need to share it. And I get the whole not wanting to share things. I am an oldest child. I don’t want to share anything. But I am practical. Plus, I have a younger sister. So, bad news, Israel and Palestine. You each have your own country, but you still have to learn to share. You are not only children. You are siblings. Get over it

My latest scheme to institute Peace in the Middle East involves feral cats. I have no idea how, but it seems that trying to solve the feral cat problem has caused as much anguish for some people as the Middle East situation has for others. And there are other similarities. Feral cats are stubborn and difficult to deal with. Dealing with them requires a great deal of finesse and patience. And there are no guarantees that you’ll get the results you’re looking for – trust, affection and a chance to get them neutered or spayed and the chance to love them the way they deserve to be loved.