The power of greater expectations–including when the media lets you down

How do you respond when someone is unaccountable or otherwise fails to meet expectations?

Many years ago, a mentor offered me wise words on how to handle these situations. His counsel went something like this:

“If you want to yell at them, or give them a piece of your mind, or tell them how they failed in some way, then be prepared to get in a very long line—because that’s the typical reaction. When they mess up, that’s what they are hearing from everybody else. Instead, be the person who stands apart by responding differently—assume the best in them, and that they want to do better, but circumstances came up that prevented them from doing so.”

In short, the better response is to give the other party an expectation that they want to live up to. Implicit in this process is keeping your eye on the prize—what goal do you have in mind? What do you want to happen as a result of your communication?

To be sure, “getting something off your chest” in anger and frustration, while “natural,” does not constitute a worthy goal. Those outbursts are merely unhinged, undisciplined reactions unlikely to move you productively toward a worthwhile goal.

Instead, as my mentor pointed out, be part of a very short line as you demonstrate respect for and patience with the person who doesn’t seem to “deserve” those things.

This approach has application in every area of life. In the media relations sphere, it could come in the form of how you respond when a client is subjected to unfair, biased coverage. Being a strong advocate for your client and practicing restraint are not mutually exclusive.

Case in point: not long ago, a media outlet (which shall remain nameless, in the spirit of this entire post) produced a blatantly slanted story about a client. Unfairness, bias and lack of professionalism oozed through the entirety of the article, which was topped by a headline that exposed the outlet was more propaganda tool than legitimate news source. (Sadly, that is not a rarity in our free-for-all, media-splintered world where partisan views drive so much of what’s covered as well as what is not covered.

I reached out to the editor (who also wrote the story) and rather than travel the “You biased, unprofessional hack!” route, I respectfully and firmly issued a challenge containing a few key points:

  • From your headline’s word choices to your omission of any input from my client, you are revealing your bias.
  • Your audience and the community deserve better
  • You can do better.
  • We respectfully request that you update your coverage to include our input.

The result:

On the one hand, the editor deflected my corrections by pointing out, somewhat lamely, that my client wasn’t the focus of the story. (If not, then the client was a very close second place–and since when does that justify blatant and unfair bias?) But, then, to the editor’s credit, came implicit acknowledgment of the story’s skewed treatment. The editor promised to add, in an updated version, input from my client that I had provided.

That insertion came within hours, offering at least a semblance of balance to the story. Looking ahead, an even more important development had occurred: the publication has now been challenged to meet a much higher expectation for fairness and balance than they had previously exhibited. And, of course, that was my goal from the get-go.

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Epic math gaffe by Brian Williams & Mara Gay highlights great need for improved numeracy

When it comes to mindless journalistic blunders, there are brain cramps and then there are lobotomies.

Example of a brain cramp: the time in the late-1990s when, as a newspaper reporter, I referred to a high school student as “Dustin Hoffman.” He shared a first name with the famous actor, but not the last name, and my mind drifted into auto-celebrity actor mode as I tapped out my story.

The teen’s last name? I don’t remember, but I do recall his parents being peeved that I had interviewed the 17-year-old without their consent. (The story was about a teacher who had been accused of sexually assaulting another student during an overseas trip.)

To make my mistaken-attribution saga even stranger, those same parents’ upset was assuaged by what they saw as my intentional decision to shield his identity by concocting a false (and famous) last name. Apparently, they thought I was exercising some journalistic ethic in doing so. Nope, it was just a mindless blunder, of the brain-cramp variety.

Which brings me to that other type of journalistic blunder: the lobotomy.

A literal lobotomy, for those who are not familiar, is a brutal, discredited form of psychosurgery, “a neurosurgical treatment of a mental disorder that involves severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.” In layman’s terms, patients may be relieved of mental disorders, but there is a great risk that they will be left as docile, almost-vegetative souls.

A figurative lobotomy played out just last night, through a dialogue between MSNBC’s Brian Williams and Mara Gay, a New York Times editorial board member. The two astonishingly, staggeringly, mind-blowingly treated as truth a Twitter post that mangled math beyond measure—or, at least, by a roughly 650,000-to-1 ratio.

Here was the Tweet by freelance journalist Mekita Rivas:

Since deleted by the freelance journalist who posted it, here is the Tweet in all its mathematical ignominy.

In response, Williams declared, ““When I read it tonight on social media, it kind of all became clear…It’s an incredible way of putting it.” 

Incredible, indeed–as in “not to be believed.” His use of the word didn’t raise any red flags, however, as Gay echoed the word and chimed in: “It’s an incredible way of putting it. It’s true. It’s disturbing. It does suggest what we’re talking about here: there is too much money in politics.”

To quote the first words of New York Post’s Steven Nelson’s account of the debacle:  They’re a couple of on-the-airheads!

My bit of cleverness: MSNBC could stand for May Share Numbers Before Consideration.

The blame goes beyond Williams and Gay. It was not only their slip-up, but that of the entire crew, including producers and graphic design team. None of ’em recognized the abject absurdity of the tweet. (The actual amount would be about $1.53, or $999,998.47 less than was stated.)

As you may suspect, it wasn’t long before the cascade of corrections in the Twittersphere set the network straight and the instigator of the math mess deleted it, then updated her profile to state “I know, I’m bad at math.” Later, Williams’ show released this statement:

“Tonight on the air we quoted a tweet that relied on bad math. We corrected the error after the next commercial break and have removed it from later editions of tonight’s program. We apologize for the error.”

Mistakes happen, including math mistakes. But what was initially an innocent mishap by a single math-challenged individual should not have come anywhere close to being amplified by a major network like MSNBC. Theirs was a blunder of epic proportions, on an alarming level that rightfully would cause anyone to question the network’s judgment, discernment and intelligence on other stories.

The embarrassing episode underscores why there is such a desperate need for improved numeracy, or math literacy, for citizens. And it takes on exponential urgency when it comes to those stewards of story-telling in the journalism realm.

That is why I developed “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” nearly 20 years ago, with journalists as my primary audience for the first decade thereafter. Traveling throughout the United States to spread the Go Figure Gospel, I have felt a strong sense of public service with every math-challenged reporter, editor or other media professional I have trained. These are often folks who thought they were getting away from math when they got into journalism–only to realize that numbers are inextricably linked with just about any kind of story-telling.

In recent years, I have expanded the program to a diverse array of audiences, including the general public. In fact, around the same time Williams and Gay were fumbling through this epic math gaffe last night, I was at the Itasca Community Library leading a numeracy workshop. With a focus on the 2020 Election cycle, the program was called “Lies & More Lies, How it All Adds Up.”

Among the topics that I covered: the one-to-1,000 ratio between one thousand and one million (1,000 thousands) and the same one-to-1,000 relationship between one million and one billion (1,000 millions). For example—and it is one that I have used for over 20 years in my myriad writings on numeracy—one million seconds is a shade over 11 ½ days and one billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

Fittingly, I referred to the Mike Bloomberg campaign spending in the “Golympics” quiz that is a key feature of my session. Here’s the question:

Michael Bloomberg spent over $500 million in a three-month span before dropping out of the race on March 4th, the day after Super Tuesday. What proportion of his net worth does that amount to?

  1. 9%
  2. Less than 1%
  3. 2.7%

The answer is “b,” or less than 1 percent, because Bloomberg’s net worth is over $50 billion. You may want to look it up to be sure, but trust me, you can take that stat to the bank.

Want to learn more about my numeracy programs, including the Election 2020-themed “Lies, Damn Lies & Navigating the Presidential Campaign Trail” sessions, with over a dozen scheduled in the Chicago area through October? Visit

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Obituary writing: an honor—and a serious responsibility

In my journalism career, I wrote or edited hundreds of obituaries. Most were everyday people who were not in the headlines much, if at all, over their decades of life. Some were notable individuals, and I would draw upon prior stories to flesh out this news of their passing.

Whether someone was renowned or a household name only in their own household, the bottom line for me was the same: this was a major responsibility that I took extremely seriously. Certainly, I strove to be conscientious in all aspects of my job, whether it was covering criminal courts, reporting on city hall, or featuring the folksy neighbor down the block.

But obits are a breed apart, and the reason is simple: barring a few exceptional cases, this is the last comprehensive story that will be written about the person. To honor their life, and those who loved them, it is essential to get the details right, and to do it well, and you only get one crack at it.

That passion for telling something so precious and unique as a person’s life story is at the heart of “Your Front Page,” a writing service that I launched in 2005.

My YFP clients have typically been the spouse or children of a person about to reach a milestone—60 years of marriage or 80 years of life, for example. The end product, a two-page custom publication that includes headlines, sidebars and photographs, is a surprise gift. Unsurprisingly, and to my humbled delight, it becomes a gift that keeps giving: multiple clients have told me how much they appreciate having the piece to share, years later, at wakes and other services after their loved one passed away.

This affirms my instinct, years ago, to begin using the term “nobituaries” to describe “Your Front Page” pieces—these stories were like an obituary, only the individual or couple being featured was still alive. Thus: “no obituary,” or “nobituary.”

Dru Carlson, female film pioneer.

As for actual obituaries, they are a recurring part of what I call my occasional “random acts of journalism.” Eight years ago was one of those times when I wrote the obituary of my dear friends’ father, Don Carlson. A few weeks ago came another opportunity, when I had the honor of writing about his widow, Dru Carlson.

As with her late husband’s career and overall life, Dru’s 87 years were remarkable in their breadth and impact.

On a related note, every two years, The Society of Professional  Obituary Writers honors excellence in obituary writing with The Grimmys.

If you read nothing else today, I invite you to read the most recent award-winning Grimmy work.

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Blago, the offer stands: let me shave your head

I just saw the Chicago Tribune‘s evening edition front page (below). What a piece of work, this Blago.

Exiled? Freed political prisoner?

Ever the victim, ever the political prisoner. Time to re-up my offer: I’d be delighted to shave his mane for charity. Only, it would be a charity of my choice. Yeah, I changed the deal.

That’s fitting, no?

Blago: giving the world a knuckle sandwich. Right back at ya, Rod.

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On heels of outrageous outburst, local newspaper nails it: ‘Setting the bar higher’

Above two letters in today’s print edition of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Prk and River Forest was a most apt banner: “Setting the bar higher.”

One letter was written by Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, in which he apologized for Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla’s libelous public attack last week of a resident in the moments preceding his appointment to a volunteer citizen panel.

As the mayor wrote, she “would not apologize, so I will.”

“We reject… her labeling of any Village resident. Such labeling and name calling mimics the same behavior from the White House that many of us vehemently reject,” Abu-Taleb wrote, in part. “We must do better.”

The letter, in its entirety, serves as a sidebar to the online version of reporter Stacey Sheridan’s exhaustive, excellent story. You can also read it below, as it appears in print.

From page 19 of the Feb. 12, 2020 edition of the Wednesday Journal.

I wrote the other letter (above, right), offering my observations about this outrageous outburst. Headline writing is an art form, and having done it thousands of times in my career, I recognize how difficult it can be. Thankfully, via the headline they assigned my letter, the Wednesday Journal nailed a key point I made : “Labeling says more about the labeler.”

My letter appears online, and below in its entirety:

“Very well done, Stacey Sheridan, on your thorough and balanced reporting in the wake of the unfortunate episode at the February 3rd Oak Park Village Board meeting (Headline: Mayor apologizes for trustee’s name calling; Elected official calls appointee ‘racist’ and `misogynist’ at board meeting).

As with any institution, the Oak Park Police Department has room for improvement. The Citizen Police Oversight Committee would benefit from more racial diversity. Getting there won’t happen through petulant, irresponsible character assassination, but by respectful discourse and effective interpersonal communication.

I am grateful that we have a mayor who models the civil, reasoned leadership that any functional home, let alone community, should aspire to achieve. Over the course of my life, I have found that name-calling (or, as in this case, much worse) reveals far more about the individual flinging the labels than the person who is being labeled. This is especially true when it is not supported by facts.”

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