Why I’m changing my Academic Integrity Policy

After three and a half years of teaching at the university level, I still haven’t become as jaded as some professors.  I still think college students are in college to learn in order to flourish in a professional field of their choice after graduation.  Maybe I think the majority of students are like me—people who worked hard, partied too much on occasion, put all their focus on major courses and sometimes let the electives slide, while doing it all honestly. Granted, I was in college in the ‘70s, when computers were mainframes available only to the computer science majors, and photocopies cost up to 25 cents each and smelled funny.  Cheating was never anything I considered, and I’m guessing plagiarism was hard to catch and prove in the days before Google, Turnitin and online plagiarism checkers. The most widespread cheating I heard of in my undergraduate days was selling tests to students in subsequent semesters of that class.

My grad school days in the ‘80s weren’t much different. I was one of the few students in my program with a home computer, built in a garage in Richardson, Texas and running on an 8086 processor, the gold standard of the time. DOS was my friend and Windows was a curiosity. 
The campus computer lab was a bank of terminals connected to a mainframe, used only by students in classes with data analysis requirements.
Our department was innovative because we had a small computer lab with fewer than 10 Apple IIc computers available for our use.

These computers, along with first generation MacIntosh computers on faculty desks, were bought by a visionary faculty member with his personal funds and donated to the school. (I fund a scholarship I named after him.)

By then the cost of a photocopy was down to 10 cents a page, but Internet access was not widely available. If you wanted to do an online search you scheduled time with a research librarian who worked with you on key words to do a CompuServe search. The annotated bibliography and abstracts were then printed for you, and you got a deal if you could wait until 2:00 a.m. when bandwidth was cheap.  I paid $35 for one search and was accused by other students of paying someone to do my research—it was only when the chairman of the department, who had given me the online assignment for our readings class—stepped in to defend me that the criticism died down.

But I digress.
Today, students in classrooms have any number of gadgets available to them with access to the Internet and social media via cell or wifi. While some faculty still insist students turn off everything but their cardiac pacemakers and insulin pumps while in class, I have abandoned that battle.

I know in the days of paper, pen and cassette tape recorders I could zone out, doodle in margins, work on other assignments and generally ignore a professor without a smartphone, computer, tablet or MP3 player to distract me. So instead of fighting it, I tell them “You have a choice about how much you get out of this class. All I ask is that you be considerate of me, your fellow students and guest speakers. I also retain the non-negotiable right to shut you down if I realize you are working on an assignment for another class, Facebooking, or shopping online.”

So far, I haven’t had a problem. In fact, topics come up in class discussion that are settled through someone Googling the answer to a question or tweeting the link to an article cited. (Yes, I allow, even encourage live tweeting of class lectures, especially when I have guest speakers.)
So what does all this have to do with academic integrity? I’m not sure. I just enjoyed reminiscing about my college years.
My academic integrity policy has always followed my university’s policy, which provides several options for punishment. In most cases I file the report so it goes into the kid’s permanent record, and allow them to re-write the work. This is because many students mistakenly feel it’s OK to copy from their client’s website. (My PR students all must find a nonprofit organization to work with for all their writing projects.) In professional practice using material from the client’s website may be acceptable, especially if you also wrote the website copy, and want to keep a unified tone to your messaging. But my PR classes are writingclasses, so I need to know students can write, not copy and paste.
In a few rare and extreme cases, the penalties have been much greater. In one case I repeatedly warned a student about non-attribution of sources before finally nailing him/her for quoting book reviews from Amazon.com without attribution, and without finding the original source. I gave the student a zero on the assignment, and explained the policy for appeal, but the student never appealed. I guess he/she knew he/she was guilty and figured it wasn’t worth it.
In another case I busted a student for dual submission, which is submitting a piece from one course to another course without permission from the second instructor. This student’s excuse was that the first submission wasn’t graded because it was off topic, so he/she figured it wouldn’t hurt to submit it to my class the next semester. That wonderful little tool Turnitin flagged it, and it took a visit to the Dean of Students office for the student to realize my offer to let him/her re-write the assignment was an exceptionally generous offer—most professors would have given an automatic F on the assignment, if not the class.
This semester, however, convinced me to toughen up my stance, despite the liberal options offered by the university’s Office of Academic Integrity.
The project in question is a final project representing a significant percentage of the final grade in a required course. It’s also a group project.
Grading one component of the project I noticed a sudden change in the writing style and quality—as if someone else had written it. It was too polished, compared to the rest of the work in the piece. It also sounded vaguely familiar. I went to the Turnitin submission box and found the upload was incomplete, with this section omitted, so I typed the passages in question into a Word document and uploaded it to Turnitin.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner—a direct download from a website without so much as a change in the font.
My heart sank. It always does in situations like this, which mercifully are rare. But when it happens I feel betrayed, I feel the client has been betrayed, and I feel sorry for the student who, for whatever reason, chose to cheat. The other students in the class who did their own work are also betrayed.
Fast forward past the paperwork, the documentation, the unpleasant meeting with the group in which one student finally took full responsibility and begged me to not punish the whole group, past the hostile tweets and lengthy emails begging me to reconsider and offering “proof” of innocence that actually incriminated the student even more. These emails eventually turned dark and accusatory, full of Bible verses and accusations of bullying, racism and favoritism. Threatening comments made in another class made their way back to me and the administration. An appeal to the department chair and dean changed nothing—the student in question received a letter grade lower than his/her group members on the final project, which I felt was fair.
What transpired next was, I’m sure, the polar opposite of what the student hoped for. Yes, I got a “talking to” by the dean. And as much as that student hoped I got into trouble for singling him/her out for cheating, the “trouble” I got into was for being too nice.
You see, everybody above my pay grade felt I should have, at the least, given a ZERO for the entire project, which would definitely have resulted in a failing grade for this student. Most felt I should have given an automatic F in the class for the cheating, even though it was a portion of a project
I explained that with all the talk about retention I’ve resisted failing students in the past. I pointed out that I liked to turn these cases into teachable moments for the students, to turn them into better professionals. But in this case, with a student who showed no remorse, I decided to agree with the department chair and dean and take no prisoners in the future.
You cheat in my class, you’re done. You flunk. University policy allows for sanctions for “deliberate or negligent” instances of cheating. From now on, the sanctions will be the toughest possible. If they’re overturned on appeal, fine, but you’ve got to prove you didn’t cheat, and I don’t accuse anyone of cheating unless I have incontrovertible proof.
Yes, I’ve been too nice for the past three years. The vast majority of the few students I’ve “busted” for plagiarism have been contrite, admitted their sins, and never repeated them. But all it took was for one student to refuse to take responsibility for his/her actions and appeal up the food chain for me to realize being nice to students like this is a disservice to the honest students who do their work and pass or fail honestly. It’s a disservice to all in academia, and retention pressures notwithstanding, I refuse to lower the standards and pass someone who doesn’t do their own work. Plagiarism is a firing offense in the field of journalism. I’m not preparing students for the profession if I let them get away with it in school.
It’s a shame that one student (with administrativeencouragement) pushed me to this extreme, but it’s the right thing to do. Honest, hardworking students who do their own work in good faith won’t feel like the value of their degree is diluted by those who are only trying to get by in order to get a degree they didn’t really earn.

If I were Manti Te’o’s publicist….

The Manti Te’o girlfriend story has more legs than a centipede. Every time I turn on a sportscast, check my Twitter feed or a sports page, the story has changed. It’s now more twisted than that pile of chargers, Ethernet cables and other electronic peripherals in the bottom drawer in the den, and is evolving faster than a mutated virus in a science fiction film. Based on the many news reports and blogs I’ve read about the fake girlfriend hoax, he’s definitely got a PR problem—one that could affect his career in the NFLbefore it even starts.

I almost missed this story. I was wrapped up in the first week of classes and consumed by the Lance Armstrong confessional, which will probably be a future blog post.  All of a sudden this guy from Notre Dame was consuming the sports world with the most bizarre story since the balloon boy.
Here are the undisputed facts: Manti Te’o is a big deal at Notre Dame. It was reported that his grandmother and girlfriend died within hours of each other, eliciting much sympathy in the press last fall. The South Bend Tribune, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and other media gushed about his bravery in the face of adversity.  He was on ESPN Gameday talking about the tragedy. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and we all know an inspirational story can influence voters for any award. He came in second, and Notre Dame went on to play Alabama in the National Championship game.
Fast forward to Wednesday, January 16, and Deadspinbreaks a shocking story: The girlfriend didn’t exist. This is where it starts to get weird.
I can’t possibly keep track of the twists and turns in this story. Apparently Notre Dame knew about it in December, but for reasons still unclear kept it from the public. Te’o’s denials of knowledge and involvement started to morph, and various family members had conflicting quotes. Did he meet her? Or was she just an online relationship? Not sure when we’ll know the truth, but the speculation in the press and online range from accusations of Te’o cooking up the scheme to gain Heisman votes to his creating the fake girlfriend to hide the fact that he’s gay. Since the admitted perpetrator of the hoax is apparently an acquaintanceof Te’o, it’s not preposterous to think the hoax was planned for reasons other than “catfishing” a prominent athlete.
Te’o did an off-camera interview with ESPNin which he admitted he embellished the story, and at this writing it has been announced that Te’o and family members will sit down with Katie Couric on Thursday, January 24th.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure—because the minute I post it, the story will take another turn and this blog post will be out of date.  But right now, Lance Armstrong has more credibility. Oh yes, there are writers who are saying Armstrong and Te’o are very similar, but I disagree.
Why would I say Armstrong, who finally admitted to doping throughout his cycling career, is more credible than Te’o? Because Armstrong has been completely consistentfrom Day 1. His story never varied. For more than a decade he has vehemently denied he used any performance enhancing substances. Whether he is a sociopath who believes his own lies, or was so arrogant he felt he would never get caught, at least the guy was consistent. Most liars get caught up sooner or later by conflicting stories or some slip-up that forces them to come clean. Not Armstrong. His ability to come up with a story and stick to it is admirable. Politicians could take a page from his playbook. But I digress….
If I were Manti Te’o’s publicist—and I’m not, his family has hired Matt Hiltzik as their publicist. He represents, among other folks, Alec Baldwin, Don Imus, Glenn Beck, Justin Bieber and…Katie Couric.
Manti Te’o could learn a thing or two from the disgraced Armstrong’s confession to Oprah. This blog on CNN points out a number of things that Armstrong did wrong.  As the article says, getting caught is just the beginning, and blaming yourself is not sufficient. Manti Te’o and those who follow him would do well to learn from the mistakes of arguably the most famous athlete of the past decade.
So if I were Manti Te’o’s publicist? I’d tell him “Come clean—NOW.” If you’re gay, say it. It’s darn time a major sport had an openly gay player, much less a star. I know being Mormon, and going to a Catholic school makes that admission more difficult, but go for it. Somebody will “out” you eventually. That’s news that should come from you, and nobody else.  If you were in on the hoax, say so, but tell us why. If you didn’t know about it, admit you’re gullible, but be believable when you do it because nobody believes anybody with a degree from a school like Notre Dame could be so naïve.
This will be a tough one for Manti Te’o and Notre Dame to overcome. The questions will linger for a long time. Unlike the Lance Armstrong fiasco, this scandal doesn’t threaten to demolish (or reform) an entire global sport. It does threaten to undermine the credibility of one fine university’s athletic department PR team as well as the entire sports journalism community, which fell for a hoax hook, line and sinker, and never once did the kind of fact checking taught in Journalism 101.

Great advice for students

Wow, has it been this long since I posted to this blog page? Well, it’s been too long. I’m back, to share a bit of wisdom from a fellow college prof. I can’t say it any better than Professor Janni Aragon can.

While grading student papers, I make comments (no names mentioned, unless it’s a shout-out about something fantastic) about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other fun stuff via Twitter.  I usually keep Tweetdeck running with several columns open, since my students often contact me via Twitter when they know I’m online.

If you’re not familiar with Twitter, there’s such a thing as a hashtag, which is simply a “#” (pound sign) put before a key word. People following that hashtag, but not necessarily you, will see that tweet. It’s a great way to make new friends on Twitter. Sports fans do it all the time during games (#Cowboys, #BigBlueNation, etc.) and commentary on breaking news often spawns hashtags (#Gaza is trending as I write this). Look for plenty of tweets with hashtags during awards shows, reality TV shows, major events and speeches by the President. I have a hashtag for each of my classes, to clue the kids in when I’m specifically addressing them as a group. They also use the hashtags to share links to articles with each other.

One of the hashtags I routinely follow is #grading.  Teachers all over the word commiserate, vent, or brag via this hashtag. They sometimes share weird things they read in student papers. It’s a little stress release, and is also frequently the source of useful information for teachers and students alike. Today was one such day.

I glanced up and saw this tweet from Sean Irwin, who is a PhD student in geography at the University of Victoria in BC.

 He was re-tweeting a link from Janni’s blog, and it caught my eye, because it addressed many students’ concerns when they get graded papers back.

I read it, commented on it, re-tweeted it and am now sharing it here for you because Janni is one wise woman.

I hope all students know it’s not about them, it’s about their work. Yes, I presume there is a teacher/professor/TA out there somewhere who hates a kid and makes it personal, but we’re all pretty honest, and try to be fair.  Remember that the next time you get a paper back that looks like someone bled colored ink all over it. It’s for your good.

And don’t be afraid to come talk to us, either. We might just like you even better.

What my high school band director taught me about teaching journalism–and life

Everybody can name one teacher who defined their youth in some way, affecting their life forever. Mine was Chuck Campbell, my high school band director, and I find myself thinking about him often these days.
I knew he had been sick, but upon my return from Guatemala the end of July I noticed the “I Miss Chuck Campbell” Facebook page had exploded with comments.  Mr. C had passed on, and so had a part of me.
It wasn’t until I got into a Facebook discussion some time ago with an old high school friend that I realized just how much of an impression Mr. C made on my personal and professional life. I grew up in Winchester, Kentucky, a town that is still small, 38 years after my graduation. It was, and still is, the only high school in a rural county tucked into the eastern Bluegrass region, on the edge of Appalachia. There were a couple of factories, lots of agriculture, and not much else but history in this beautiful area east of Lexington.
I now teach public relations to college juniors, seniors and graduate students at a university in north Texas. You wouldn’t think music lessons would apply to writing and strategic planning, but they definitely do. I realize that much of what formed me as a PR professional for 23 years, and what informs my teaching and mentoring today was learned in that crowded, un-air conditioned band hall (and on a hot marching field) decades ago.
Prior to Mr. C’s arrival in the fall of 1969 the band was not particularly noteworthy. They hadn’t won any major competitions and didn’t generate a great deal of school spirit. If you could play an instrument and show up, you were in. Chuck Campbell changed all that in a heartbeat.
My freshman year was his first year as band director, and he shook everything up.  Overnight we were unified, summer band camp was like Marine boot camp, and we developed as a team despite being a rag-tag group of kids with varying degrees of musical talent and marginal music education. We auditioned for our place in the band, and we knew we earned our position. He was tough but fair, and his tough love and winning smile kept us coming back for what some would call abuse, but what we knew was making us better musicians, students and people.
Many of us got more love and discipline in the George Rogers Clark High School band than we did at home.  Band was family.
The first Campbell quote that comes to mind is “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late.” What did that mean? When he stepped onto the podium to give the first downbeat, he expected everyone to be in their chair with their instrument warmed up and ready to play. For some of us, that meant arriving early, fussing with reeds, and putting an instrument together to warm up and tune. Others could walk in at the last minute, pick up drum sticks or plug in a mouthpiece and go. The lesson was that each of us was responsible for figuring out how much time we needed to prepare, and plan accordingly, because if we weren’t ready when he was, we were holding the group back.
That one phrase carried over into my professional life. In the news business, you live and die by deadlines. The evening news doesn’t start when you’re ready, you must be ready when it starts.  Newspapers go to press (or online) on a schedule. Deadlines mean everything in my business. No journalism teacher or professor ever instilled the value of meeting a deadline like Mr. C.
I tell my students that waiting until deadline to write is suicide. Writing is like playing a musical instrument—you have to drill the basics until they’re automatic before you ever play a song or write a paragraph. In writing, research and preparation is vital, and the re-writing process is even more crucial than writing that first draft—much as in music, where re-playing a passage until you get it correct is also crucial. Turning in a first draft is the journalism equivalent of sight-reading a concerto in front of an audience.  It just can’t be done. 
“The band is only as good as its worst player.”  
Mr. C nailed that one, too, and it’s true for band, choir, sports teams, a newspaper, engineering firm, law firm, or PR firm—any organization that requires a team effort. But instead of making that “worst player” feel like a loser, Mr. C inspired us to help each other improve and excel as individuals, which boosted the team.  Most of us took our study hall in the band room, where we practiced our music or helped each other out with homework. I encourage my students to work together and coach each other, and my office is always full of students looking for help or just to hang out. I deliberately select student groups with a mix of skill levels and the weak ones always rise to the level of the strongest team members.
Mr. C was never too busy for a student, and I try to follow that same example.  I’m sure if he was teaching today he’d be accessible by cell, text and maybe Twitter, to answer students’ questions and guide them through life’s obstacle course.  He’d be snarky when called for, but he’d be sincere in his concern for each student’s needs, musical or not.  And I’m sure social media would facilitate many of the goofy tricks we played on him (and each other) over the years. 
I call my students’ “Kiddo” all the time, and didn’t realize until I re-visited the “I Miss Chuck Campbell” Facebook group that I’d gotten that endearing term (which sometimes had a double meaning) from him.  I’m sure he loved us even when he was exasperated with us, and he tended to be harder on the ones from whom he expected the most. If you were an achiever you were pushed harder but also took a lot of grief from him because he knew you could always do better. If you were not blessed with talent but worked your butt off, you had his unending respect and encouragement. The casual onlooker could rarely tell the difference, because we were that good. 
Like Mr. C I find myself pushing my exceptional students to be even greater while seeking ways to help the less-talented and inspire them to keep at it. Like Mr. C I also become exasperated with the talented ones who are lazy and happy with the status quo. The talented slackers were whipped into shape by Mr. C and peer pressure, and their work ethic eventually caught up. It happens in my classes, too, especially with group projects where everyone has to pull their weight, and the peer pressure is strongest.
As tough as it was, very few people quit the band. We busted our butts, our parents and the band boosters busted their butts, and when we won our first major competition my freshman year everyone in the state was shocked. By the time I graduated 4 years later we had racked up an impressive trophy case of state, regional and national awards, all the result of the teamwork between teacher and students. Many of us had won solo and small ensemble awards, too.
Mr. C. was a part of our team, not just our leader.  He took our failings personally, not because we failed him, but because he felt in some way he had failed us. I remember after blowing one competition my freshman year (our performance was fine–we actually flunked the military inspection because of a couple of grubby haircuts and wrinkled uniforms) the field commander called a meeting—without Mr. C’s knowledge. We all sat sullenly in our chairs while she and the band captain took us to task and let us know how hurt Mr. C. was at our failure. As a group we discussed how to fix the situation, and I think a couple of the guys may have taken the offending slobs out back behind the Ag building for a “talking-to.”  Changes were made, we all watched after each other, and we never blew an inspection again. 
As a group we took ownership of that failure and turned it into a winning strategy for the future. I had to do that with a student group this past semester that made an egregious error in a project for a client. After a stern talking-to, they understood the problem, rectified the situation, apologized to the client, and put together a dynamite presentation at the end of the semester. Another group project was turned in late, and the responsible party came to me to proactively accept blame and ask that the rest of the group not be penalized.
I strive to impress on them the idea that in the professional world, owning your mistakes and failures makes you a better professional in the eyes of others. Taking responsibility for your actions is mature and professional. I got that from band, too.
I’m sure there were a few kids who couldn’t stand Mr. C, as I know there are a few who feel the same way about me.  I’m guessing Mr. C, like me, lost sleep and fretted about the unreachable student before moving on to focus on the success stories—the ones who work hard and honestly give their all.  They are the ones that give us the joy of teaching, and they’re the ones we’re delighted to see again as alumni.
You’re gone now, Mr. C, but not forgotten, and the lessons you taught us over the years are being passed on to legions of students being taught by those of us you pushed, shoved, mentored and loved into adulthood through our years in band.  Thank you.
Here are some videos of performances during my high school years, including contest programs from my sophomore year (70-71), my junior year (71-72) and my senior year (72-73) when I was the drum major. The beginning of the last one is cut off–if I can ever find a complete version I’ll re-post. 

Using social media for life

It’s almost a month since graduation. I’ve watched the kids walk across the stage, written letters of recommendation to employers and graduate schools, and tried to provide moral support and advice to job hunters while celebrating the relatively large number of recent grads (compared to last year) who are gainfully employed in their field.

The NBA playoffs are over and the Dallas Mavericks won, in a shade of blue very similar to my beloved UK blue—with a Kentucky alum on the coaching staff and another in the communications office.

I went to two funerals in two days—one for a beloved colleague who died too suddenly and too soon, the other for a dear former pastor who was one of the most amazing men of God I’ve ever known.

I’ve also re-landscaped half the back yard, dealt with foundation leveling at our house, continued the archeological dig through the “junk room” we inherited, and kept vigil on a wren’s nest (with 5 babies) directly above the front door, all while trying to get caught up on sleep, swimming, and summer office work. I’m trying to brush up on my Spanish, too, for a second mission trip to Patzun Guatemala. Sometime I’ll act on the paint samples taped to the walls inside and outside the house and start painting.

It’s been a busy month of summer vacation—but I can tell this summer vacation will be too short. I still have a zillion things on my personal “to do” list, a stack of books to read (paper and e-reader), projects to finish, and I try to spend a couple of hours a day monitoring new trends and technologies in social media and communications. The learning and preparation for the next semester never takes a break.

So why am I rambling on like this? Because as much as technology has evolved and made our lives “easier,” we still have to do stuff the old fashioned way. Flower beds needed to be re-built, holes dug, plants watered and mulched. Social media couldn’t do that for me, although it could help me find good deals on plants, tools and supplies, and is helping me figure out what varmint is chewing on my Turk’s Cap plants.

Social media helped spread the word about the two fine people who died, and connected all of us with memorials and funeral arrangements while sharing fond memories.

Foundation repair still involved men digging holes, installing piers and jacking up the house, although social media helped us find recommendations and reviews of potential contractors.

Social media didn’t help me pick out paint colors, and it won’t apply the paint but it did lead me to good instructions for painting over 1960s-vintage wood paneling. And when we found a number of interesting vintage articles in the junk room, social media and the internet helped me find out the history and value of those quirky items.

Social media is making it easier for me to keep up with trends and bookmark source material for my fall classes, which I’ll start planning in August when I return from Guatemala. Social media is also helping me locate donated school supplies to take to Guatemala, and to connect with those group members I don’t know yet. Coffee Break Spanish Podcasts are a big help in refreshing my bad Spanish.

Social media connected me with a local bird expert who reassured me the wrens wouldn’t abandon the nest as long as we minimized our time on the porch.

I could go on and on about how social media is useful in my everyday life. It’s not just for marketers, not just for sharing party pictures, and not just for sharing links to articles I want my students to read. In my life, at least, social media and the internet have become my “go to” sources for the mundane as well as the more exciting aspects of my life.

How are you using social media for your everyday life?

Blogs my students write

It’s no secret I love my students. Well, maybe to them it is, because I do have to use tough love to get some of them to reach their potential.  I hold them to the highest professional standards, and rarely cut them slack on their work. You see, the vast majority of my students are seniors, most in their last semester before launching their careers in the “real world.” I can’t baby them as I prepare to kick them out of the nest.  But I still love them and cry at graduation because I know that’s the last time I’ll see many of them.

At the end of the semester I ask them to write blog posts summarizing what they learned in their classes.  They’re always good, and they provide me valuable feedback I wouldn’t get on a standard student evaluation.  Some of them wax nostalgic, some are inspiring, but all show the students’ newfound maturity as they face graduation. 

Some blogs are particularly memorable, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share two with you.

Alisha Andrews (@alychele on twitter) has been in a bunch of my classes, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching her develop as a writer and strategist through two PR writing classes, an ethics class and a social media class.  Besides her good work, she’s got the most infectious smile, and no matter how bad my day has been, one glimpse at her grin makes the gray clouds part and the sun come out.  So it’s no surprise to me that her blog about Journalism 4460–a required PR Communication class that just about kills me along with the students–hit the nail on the head.  This could easily be the first page of the syllabus next semester.

Reading this blog post took me back a year to another post by former student Sarah Minton (@sarahalisa18 on twitter), in which she expounds on how one knows they’re a PR student at UNT. Enjoy! Sarah was in two of my classes–the infamous Journalism 4460 and my ethics class. Sarah was the Outstanding PR student for the 2009/2010 school year, and another student who was a joy to be around. An avid football fan, she’s famous for striking the Heisman Trophy pose as she walked across the stage at graduation last December.

I’m looking forward to following both of these bright young ladies’ careers, and hope they keep blogging–and making us laugh–for many years to come.

I confess–I like the idea of the iConfession app

I’m kind of getting a kick out of this whole iPhone confession app.  Not about the app itself—as a practicing Catholic, I think it’s a great idea. Most of us have a little wallet card or brochure with a list of bullet points to consider when examining our conscience before confession, and there are plenty of books out there about preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Making that checklist available electronically on a device that’s almost surgically attached makes sense to someone like me who can never find that little wallet card when it’s time to make nice with God. And the idea of making a list of transgressions on the gadget will replace the need (for me at least) to take a legal pad with a list of sins into the confessional.

What I’m getting a kick out of is the media—and public—reaction to it. A quick Google search of “iconfession” turns up 840 news articles at the moment I’m writing this.  My students have even blogged about it.

Starting with a snarky blog on Time Magazine’s site, the headline (and we all know most people only read the headline and lead these days) gives the impression that you can now phone in your confession.

I have no way of knowing if this is the article that started all the misinformation in the media and the blogosphere, but it does point out two problems with journalism today: Writers who don’t check their facts and writers who go for the sensational over facts.

This bnet blog would be offensive if it didn’t betray how ignorant the writer is. That’s another problem with the blogosphere—people who are too lazy or stupid to research a story write out of incompetence or misinformation—deliberate or accidental—and get Tweeted, Facebooked, Digged, Delicioused, Reddited and otherwise given credibility by readers as ignorant as the writer.

After several days of innuendo, misinformation and complete nonsense, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops finally blogged about it, and presented a pretty thorough assessment of the app and the crazy media case study it has become. Read that blog, and be sure to check out the links imbedded in it. It would be a great case study for students to follow.

To me, this whole thing is a perfect example of what happens when people read part of a story and rush to judgment—and writing, and tweeting—before getting all the facts straight. Journalists are taught to be skeptical and check facts multiple times before running with a story. Bloggers with no journalism education or scruples are only interested in massaging their egos and running with sensationalism because they know it will be forwarded and read by people who should know better.

As for me, if I had an iPhone, I’d have downloaded the app by now. I can never find the little brochure or card that reminds me of what I need to consider before confession, but I’m never far from my Blackberry. Hopefully by the time I upgrade to an Android the Android version of the app will be available.

Surviving that late night comedy show appearance

A couple of weeks ago, after endless promos touting stories about “the cheaper alternative to Botox” on the local 10 pm news, I switched in desperation to Comedy Central. This turned out to be the night Jon Stewart launched into his now-famous tirade against Rick Santelli and CNBC (http://tinyurl.com/aj5u9p) that culminated on March 12 with the mesmerizing smack down between Jon Stewart and CNBC Mad Money host Jim Cramer. I also caught Colbert interviewing a hapless NASA nerd about a satellite naming contest, and immediately became a Comedy Central late night fan.

All this got me to thinking—when did comedy replace “serious” news? And if you’re summoned to appear on one of these shows, how do you prepare? Traditional media training won’t suffice. But more on that later….

Why should public figures appear on late night comedy shows? For one thing, it’s a chance to speak directly to the American people. A study by George Mason University revealed that candidate George Bush actually had more talk time in one appearance on Letterman during the 2000 campaign than from an entire month of the CBS Evening News stories. In this age of targeted campaigning in battleground states, comedy shows are often the only way to reach a national audience. And a study presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association (http://tinyurl.com/cu75pr ) indicated that late night comedy appearances can actually enhance a candidate’s image in ways that defy conventional wisdom.

But are these viewers the people you want to reach?

A Pew Research Center study released in 2007 (http://tinyurl.com/6knn6k) first measured public knowledge on a variety of issues, from the Iraq war to the Supreme Court to the name of one’s governor. Pew categorized the respondents into three fairly evenly distributed groups it labeled “High Knowledge,” “Medium Knowledge,” and “Low Knowledge.”

Pew also studied knowledge levels by news source, and found that regular viewers of The Daily Show/The Colbert Report had the highest knowledge level at 54%. This tied with regular readers of major newspaper websites, and was slightly above that of viewers of Jim Lehrer, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Their knowledge levels were way ahead of daily newspaper readers and viewers of broadcast news and CNN.

In other words, viewers of late night comedy shows are not dolts.

I bring this up because while watching Cramer eat crow with Jon Stewart (after making pie with Martha Stewart earlier the same day) and feeling mighty bad for that unprepared NASA stiff, I realized that we need a new category of media training to prepare our clients for: The Late Night Comedy Show Interview.

In that vein, I offer my Twelve Things to consider before appearing on a late night comedy show. Feel free to add yours in the comments below.

1. Don’t think for one nanosecond that “This is only a comedian.” Good comedians are arguably better prepared, quicker thinking and more issue-savvy than many journalists—they have to be, because their audiences expect it. You can’t pull anything over on these folks—they have a whole staff of researchers and writers on their side, working to make them look good and get high ratings. And if the interviewer has recently targeted you for ridicule, he/she will be twice as well-prepared.

2. Show up. And above all, don’t say you’ll be there and then back out at the last minute. Do you want to get treated the way Letterman treated John McCain for weeks and then TO HIS FACE once he did show up? Do you then want the blogosphere and TV reviewers commenting on the comedian’s comments about you? Comedians have a long memory, and video recording methods even longer.

3. Study clips (or transcripts) of the interviewer’s previous mentions of you—monologues, skits, comments at the desk, whatever, to get a feel for what he/she finds odd, funny or controversial. If he/she refers to a particular news story, be sure to read it (or watch it) as well. It can help you anticipate questions and find ways of defending yourself without being confrontational.

4. Check out blogs and reviews of the comedian, especially if he/she has recently gone off on a tirade about you or your organization. Knowing what others are saying about this individual could give you a clue to questions and even provide you defensive ammunition. And while you’re at it, be sure you know what bloggers and the news media are saying about you.

5. Study appearances by other similar guests on that interviewer’s program. If you are a politician, watch clips of other politicians, especially if they are your opponents. If you are a controversial business figure or pundit, watch your peers. If you are an entertainer with “issues” then you better watch interviews with other entertainers in the same boat. Knowing how this interviewer treats people will help you anticipate questions without self-destructing.

6. Be aware of anything you may have said on tape that can be used against you, and don’t ever deny you said something. You could possibly get away with it in the days before tape and digital playback, but not now. You may have to sit there and watch yourself say what you just denied saying, just as Cramer did on Stewart’s show. (http://tinyurl.com/aa59b5 ) Be careful about the “that was out of context” defense too—it comes across as lame, and you may end up watching the tape of the full context.

7. Try also to avoid “I don’t recall saying that” even if you have total amnesia. We’ve seen too many people lie to Congress using that line, and late night audiences, like comedy show hosts, are cynical at best.

8. Be prepared for snappy comments about EVERYTHING. Your outfit. Your hair. Who’s waiting in the greenroom for you. On a comedy show, everything is fair game.

9. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Chances are, the situation that got you invited to be on this show isn’t funny in and of itself. It may even be outrageous or enraging. People can find humor in most anything (except the Holocaust, 9/11 and child molestation) but don’t push it too far. You also don’t want to look like you’re trying to be funnier than the interviewer. He/she is the one that’s getting paid to be funny, not you.

10. You can take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a good chance the interviewer actually finds something to like about you but is attacking the situation you’ve gotten into, or some boneheaded thing you did or said, not you as a person. Letterman had his way with Rod Blagojevich, and the former governor rolled with the punches. (http://tinyurl.com/cjrgjd)

11. Be gracious. Blagojevich was, and Letterman all but called him a liar to his face. Jon Stewart humiliated Cramer, but Cramer remained polite. Thank the host for having you on, even if your first impulse is to run off the set in tears. There will be somebody in the audience (besides your mother) who is actually pulling for you. Don’t tick them off too by being a jerk.

12. And afterwards, don’t have your publicist issue a statement about how you felt ambushed or treated unfairly. And don’t whine to your colleagues about it—Cramer reportedly told colleagues at CNBC he felt “blindsided” by Stewart’s “hostile approach.” (Oh yeah? Hey, Cramer, what made you think he was going to be friendly?)

Remember, the interviewer is a comedian who is usually funny because he/she makes a living pointing out the absurdities in life. They’ve heavily promoted your appearance on the show, are bonded with the audience which will already have an opinion about you and be anticipating some discomfort on your part. It’s become a national pastime to watch the powerful squirm. Don’t act surprised when this happens, and definitely don’t complain about it. That will only provide fodder for the next round of comic jabs and more reasons for bloggers and reviewers and other interviewers to pillory you until somebody else does something worse. And even then it might not stop.

(c) Samra Jones Bufkins 3/17/09.