‘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.

Cataract2_20180830.jpg
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.

Cataract_Page2Ads.jpeg
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.)

MayoClinicCataract.jpeg
This is on Page 1
Page3PubMedCataract.jpeg
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.

CourseraCataractSurgeryClass.jpeg
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.

 

electiondisplay61daysoutresized
The first day. Those are tweets beneath their pictures. Each day I added a tweet and tore off a calendar sheet.
electiondisplay8daysout_resized
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.

Taking on race and class in a small space: The wee tale of a library display

Last Saturday afternoon, a 23-year-old black man died after being shot by a 24-year-old police officer during a foot chase. This being Milwaukee, (it later came out that)  not only was the police officer also black, but they’d known each other in high school.  Nonetheless, this “black man shot and killed by cop” incident turned out to be the “one too many” for a critical mass of local residents.

Sunday, Sweetheart and I woke up to the news that overnight several businesses had been burned by angry mobs. Along with a lot of other people, I showed up to do a little cleaning on Sunday (see previous post).

Monday, I realized I could put my librarian superpowers to work. I’d been planning on taking down my genocide display, anyway. I would put up a display that would possibly help provide some information and context about what had led to Sunday.

LIbrary_Display_3_20160716_resized.jpg
The genocide display

Which I did. The rest of this post features that display, and how it changed during the four days I photographed it. (I was off today, and work tomorrow, so may add a photo if there are any more changes.)

Day 1:

Uprising_DisplayResized.jpg

I used Twitter, because people who post there are doing so publicly. I was trying to find local tweets, but I love Charles Blow’s writing and he referenced Dr. King, so I made him an honorary local for display purposes. (He’s the top left.)

Eugene Kane spent years as a Milwaukee Journal, then Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist. Now that he’s retired, he writes a weekly column at Urban Milwaukee, a really good place to find out what’s really going on in the city. I put him the center because he’s a respected community voice, and was just lucky that his font settings were slightly larger and centered. “Every Black person in Milwaukee on my Twitter feed is upset and disappointed at violence in Milwaukee today. It’s everybody’s problem.”

Before heading to Twitter, I’d already hit up the shelves for material to stock my display. I’m still learning what I do and don’t have in my collection, and was kind of appalled to see that there’s only one copy of Carter Woodson’s “The Miseducation of the Negro” in the entire system. Of course it wasn’t at my branch. I found some worthwhile material, though, and hoped someone would take some of it home.

Monday night I posted a picture of the display on my Facebook feed. Barbara, one of my writing buddies, suggested I swap out the tweets as the week went on – another way of providing access to information.

I thought it was brilliant and did it, but only once. It’s interesting to see how things die off in a news cycle. There really wasn’t much to change out after Tuesday. I did, though, get to replace a hole in the display because someone borrowed something! (Note the DVD on the extreme right in the Day 1 picture.)

Day 2:

Library_Display_MKEUnrestDay2Resized.jpg

As to the tweet swapout, the longer passages are from the comments section of the New York Times. Both commenters grew up in Milwaukee and had stories about what it had been like for them. The center tweet recommended two books, one was the Ta-Nehisi Coates. I put it in the display. The other title had already been borrowed.

Uprising_Display_Day4_Beginning_Resized.jpg

The next day, someone borrowed “Between the World and Me,” and one of the other DVDs, and I had to put some things in their place. Even though our amazing outreach librarian scheduled it months before, this program (at different branch) next Saturday could not be happening at more appropriate moment. (Note: We have a great program on how to grow garlic at the same time. No pressure…)

Day 3:

Program_CloseupBlogPostResized.jpg

Just before we closed on Thursday, I looked at the display and found that someone had borrowed another DVD. So I ran over to the DVDs and found another one to place in the display. (It’s the video on the top left in the pictures above.)

Day 4:

Uprising_Display_Day4End_Resized.jpg

Then, I snapped this picture and went home.