Friday, November 20, 2015

This media student's answer to a question about "burglary, robbery, and theft" gives a whole new meaning to the word "misappropriate"

What is the difference between ‘burglary’, ‘robbery’, and ‘theft’?

(a) Burglary means forcible entry with intent to commit a crime.

(b) Robbery means stealing with force or threat of force.

(c) Theft means stealing without force or threat of force.

And then there is this:

Obviously, these are testing times for students... and teachers.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Even journalists seem to have trouble figuring out when to use "I" and when to use "me"

The other night, while reading the latest edition of the always interesting Mint Lounge, I came across this jarring sentence in the otherwise well-written column by Shoba Narayan:

My father walks down every day to visit my brother and I. 

Clearly, if the author's father was visiting only her, then she would not have written, "My father walks down every day to visit I."

It stands to reason therefore that the sentence should have read, "My father walks down every day to visit my brother and me."

I'm surprised no sub at Mint Lounge caught it.

Or, perhaps, I should not be surprised because I have heard this incorrect construction quite a few times when watching a TV show or a film, and even when listening to music. For example, there's a Cliff Richard song, whose title I can't remember now, that has a line ending with "you and I" when it should end with "you and me". It is possible, therefore, that this is a universal problem.

So, here, for the benefit of the confused souls out there, is a blog post from Merriam-Webster that explains, with examples, when to use "I" and when to use "me". Click here.

PS: I have another issue with this particular column. The strapline below the headline reads, "Why do we like poetry? And how do they get into our lives?" Surely that should read, "Why do we like poetry? And how does it get into our lives?"

Listen in as Rukmini Callimachi, the remarkable journalist who is tracking ISIS, talks about possibly the most difficult of media assignments

How on earth does she do it? Rukmini Callimachi, who began her freelance career in New Delhi with Time magazine and who now covers ISIS for The New York Times, has written some striking stories in the past year or so. Here are just a few:

ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape

From Amateur to Ruthless Jihadist in France

The Horror Before the Beheadings

Before she joined The New York Times, Callimachi was working as the Senegal-based West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. Her AP stories were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the international reporting category last year. Check out those stories here.

Earlier this year, Callimachi was interviewed by Aaron Lammer on the Longform Podcast. I have been listening with fascination to the first part of this two-part interview, which has become especially relevant in the aftermath of last week's Paris attacks. From figuring out how to deal with sources to pondering the journalist-terrorist relationship, from asking the tough questions to taking on the trolls on Twitter  Callimachi discusses the many issues that journalists have to grapple with when reporting on one of the biggest stories of this era.

Listen to the interview here:
A word of advice: To better appreciate and understand what Aaron Lammer and Rukmini Callimachi are talking about, it helps to be well-informed and well-read. Here are a couple of the topics that you may like to bone up on before putting on those headphones:

The conflict in Mali

The strife in Libya

And, of course, you should also read Callimachi's stories, at least the three I have highlighted above.

PS: Rukmini Callimachi, according to Wikipedia, left Romania with her mother and grandmother when the country was being run by a communist regime. Her name "Rukmini" is derived from her family's closeness to Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra in Chennai.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"The last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way"

Some years ago, I read an eyeopener of a book titled Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl. I found it to be so inspirational I bought two copies for the Commits library. Today, while rearranging the books on the shelf in my cabin, I happened to pick it up again.

I remember being struck by one particular passage and I went hunting for it again:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way.

And here, in an excerpt from the preface, is Frankl's take on success and happiness:

And so it is both strange and remarkable to me that — among some dozens of books I have authored — precisely this one, which I had intended to be published anonymously so that it could never build up any reputation on the part of the author, did become a success. Again and again I therefore admonish my students:

"Don't aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it."

Here you can read the New York Times obituary of Viktor Frankl to learn more about the remarkable man and his little book that, at the time of his death in 1997, had been reprinted 73 times, translated into 24 languages, sold more than 10 million copies and was still being used as a text in high schools and universities: Psychiatrist of the Search for Meaning, Dies at 92.

Friday, November 13, 2015

How to use chat to initiate a refund from Amazon for an undelivered item


Message From Customer Service


Here's a copy of the chat transcript you requested:

Initial Question: Re: My Amazon order #402-2752557-1749161

I was informed six days ago that this item had been returned to the fulfillment centre by Aramex. I have two issues here:

1. When will I get my refund?

2. Aramex is unreliable. If I remember right, this is the second or third time that the Aramex courier has said my address "cannot be located". Every other courier company has delivered to this address for many years now without any problems.


03:45 PM IST Sangeetha(Amazon): Hello, my name is Sangeetha. I'll certainly try to help regarding your concern.

03:45 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Thank you, Sangeetha.

03:46 PM IST Sangeetha: Thank you for providing the order details.
Let me check the details for you.

03:46 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Sure. Thanks.

03:47 PM IST Sangeetha: Thank you for being on hold.

03:48 PM IST Sangeetha: I'm sorry that your order is not delivered to you.
I've forwarded your complaint about the third party couriers to our shipping department--I know they'll want to hear about your experience. I'll also be sure to pass your message on to the appropriate people in our company

03:49 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Thank you.

03:49 PM IST Sangeetha: As your order is returning to seller I'll refund the amount to you right away.
Please be on hold let me process the refund for you.

03:49 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Okay.

03:51 PM IST Sangeetha: Thank you for being on hold.
You can see your refund requests here - [redacted]

03:53 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Right. I checked my bank account yesterday -- the refund had not been processed.

03:53 PM IST Sangeetha: I've processed the refund for you now.

03:54 PM IST Sangeetha: This is the confirmation that I've processed the refund for you now and it will be credited to your account in 2-4 business days.

03:54 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Oh okay. Thank you.

03:54 PM IST Sangeetha: As I've initiated the refund and your bank takes 2-4 business days to credit to your account.

03:55 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: But shouldn't the refund process have been processed automatically without my having to contact Amazon?

03:56 PM IST Sangeetha: Generally the refund will be processed automatically once the order reaches the our fulfillment centre and as you are the valid customer I've initiated the refund as your order is not delivered.

03:57 PM IST Sangeetha: Please do not worry I've forwarded your query to the concern department and make sure this may not happen in future again.

03:57 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: Okay. Thank you. You have been very helpful. I have to leave now, so goodbye.

03:58 PM IST Sangeetha: It's my pleasure to assist a valuable customer like you.

You're welcome. Is there anything else I may help you with today?

03:58 PM IST Ramesh Prabhu: No, nothing else. Have a nice day!

03:58 PM IST Sangeetha: ​T​hank you for contacting Amazon. We hope to see you again soon.
Have a great day ahead!

Please click on the “End chat” button at the upper right corner of this window.

Thank you.

This email was sent from a notification-only address that cannot accept incoming email. Please do not reply to this message.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Jonathan Bach wants to be a journalist, come what may

Here is a relevant excerpt from a recent op-ed feature in The New York Times:

"...the best journalists connect with readers, viewers and listeners by being open-minded and compassionate. That’s one reason so many people remain in the profession..."

The piece, written by H├ęctor Tobar, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, focuses on the importance of journalism while highlighting the journalism ambitions of one of his students, Jonathan Bach.

Read the thought-provoking article in its entirety here: Who'd be a journalist?

Surely "etc." has no place in a news report?

Here is a portion of a badly written press release (something I made up for a news-writing exercise at Commits):

The ten categories at the Ibda'a awards (Ibda'a means 'creativity in the Arabic language) were print journalism, print advertising, radio feature, television documentary, television advertising, animation, graphic design, analogue photography, digital photography and film feature, and students from many countries sent entries, including the US, Egypt, the UAE, South Africa, the UK, etc.

There are many things wrong with it, not the least of which is that abbreviation at the end. Journalists would not use "etc" in a news story because that could imply that they do not have all the necessary information at hand. And surely no reader likes to think that their newspaper has published an incomplete report.

But a case could be made for using "etc." for emphasis, for effect. As in this excerpt from a New York Times book review:

Sometimes reading the book feels like being trapped in a particularly dull town hall meeting — as on the ­pages that ­bullet-point Hillary’s accomplishments as secretary of state or the achievements of the Clinton Foundation: “More than 33,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced annually,” etc., etc. Sometimes it reads like a generic ad designed to introduce a political newbie: Hillary is “a woman with a steadfast commitment to public service, a clear political vision and a deep well of personal integrity.” Or the version that might fit on a bumper sticker: “America is so ready for Hillary,” because “she is so ready to lead.”

In the paragraph reproduced above, "etc." has been used (twice in succession) to convey to the reader that "this is all so much fluff". It works here, but I can't see it working in a regular news story. Can you?

Now, here, in the same vein, is an excerpt from the footnotes to a profile of Roger Federer by David Foster Wallace in Play magazine, which used to be published by The New York Times (this piece dates from August 20, 2006):

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.

As for that badly written press release right at the beginning, here's an acceptable version:

Entries for the Ibda’a Awards, named after the Arabic word for creativity, were submitted by students from many countries, including the US, the UK, South Africa, Egypt and the UAE. The 10 categories this year were print journalism, print advertising, radio feature, television documentary, television advertising, animation, graphic design, analogue photography, digital photography and film feature.

Not an "etc." in sight.

Give me full names (at first reference), please

It is important to give full names (at first reference) in a news story. Or isn't it?

I have some difficulty in persuading a few of my students that journalistic pieces should contain the full names of people mentioned in the report. So here, for these students and for those who are interested in such matters (if you want to be a journalist, you should be interested), are examples of news reports with full names and examples of stories that have used only one name for valid reasons:

1. A New York Times report from Kabul uses full names at first reference throughout, except in the 23rd paragraph when it uses a quote from a particular university lecturer — see below:
“The main problem is that some people in our city are Taliban and some are local police,” said Sighbatullah, 25, an agronomy lecturer at Kunduz University, who like many Afghans uses just one name.

2. And here's an illustration from a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek:

3. In this story in Mint, the reporter gives us only one name for a source, but we get an explanation for this in parentheses. Take a look:

4. Now here's another example from The New York Times, this one a news feature about how San Francisco is changing the nature of AIDS treatment:

It wasn’t his first broken condom, so Rafael didn’t worry. But three weeks later, the man he’d met in a bar called to say that he had “probably been exposed” to H.I.V.

Rafael, a muscular, affable 43-year-old, went to a clinic and within 45 minutes learned he was infected. Although it was already closing time, a counselor saw him immediately and offered him a doctor’s appointment the next day.

At Ward 86, the famous H.I.V. unit at San Francisco General Hospital, the doctor handed him pills for five days and a prescription for more. Because he was between jobs, she introduced him to a counselor who helped him file for public health insurance covering his $30,000-a-year treatment.

“They were very reassuring and very helpful,” said Rafael, who, like several other men interviewed for this article, spoke on condition that only his first name be used to protect his privacy. “They gave me the beautiful opportunity to just concentrate on my health.”

In the intro, we get only one name. And why we get one name we are told only in the fourth paragraph. That makes sense, if you think about it. The structure and the flow of the story would be badly affected if the intro was written to include that explanation:

It wasn’t his first broken condom, so Rafael, who, like several other men interviewed for this article, spoke on condition that only his first name be used to protect his privacy, didn’t worry. But three weeks later, the man he’d met in a bar called to say that he had “probably been exposed” to H.I.V.

See what I mean?

So, give me full names (at first reference), please.

Why ad guru Piyush Pandey cried, along with his clients

An excerpt from a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening book I finished reading in just a few hours on Tuesday:

It was in the early 2000s that Ogilvy's Thought Leader, Madhukar Sabnavis, and his team, along with the Asian Paints marketing team, came to me with a new insight. They said that the focus of the consumer is on pride in their house, and paint is only an expression of that. This ground reality gave me the licence to fly when I wrote, 'Har ghar kuch kehta hai' (Every home has something to say).

I still remember having written that emotional piece on my pad — one shot, no change of word or punctuation. I read it to myself and cried.

I called up the clients, K.B.S. Anand and Amit Singhal, and said, 'Drop everything you're doing and come straight to my office.'

They arrived within an hour. I read out that piece. And this time all three of us cried. We knew we were about to take a flight together.

There are a couple of other instances in the book when Piyush Pandey talks about tearing up over ad copy. And there are many, many examples he gives us of the terrrific concepts he has come up with over the years for ads that continue to be fresh in our memories. What a great learning experience this book is for anyone interested in media! Get hold of Pandeymonium now. Commitscions: A copy has been placed in the Commits library.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

You can learn so much from listening to these fascinating podcasts

If you're an aspiring media student or a young journalist or a writer-in-the making, there are few better ways of learning the craft of non-fiction than by hearing from the experts how they did what they did. In this respect, the Longoform podcasts are an invaluable tool.

Here, just for starters, are 10 podcasts I have  listened to (some more than once) and enjoyed thoroughly:

1. Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of The New York Times

2. Alexis Okeowo, a foreign correspondent, has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Businessweek. Recently wrote about Boko Haram

3. Rukmini Callimachi, covers ISIS for The New York Times

4. Tim Ferriss, productivity expert and author of The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body

5. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, which was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, and Tiny Beautiful Things

6. S.L. Price, senior editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written in his book, A Far Field, about his experience of covering the India-Pakistan cricket series

7. Carol Loomis, who retired last summer after covering business for 60 years at Fortune magazine. She continues to edit Warren Buffett's annual report

8. Ian Urbina, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, who recently published "The Outlaw Ocean," a four-part series on crime in international waters

9. Stephen J. Dubner is the co-author, with Steven D. Levitt, of Freakonomics. Their latest book, When to Rob a Bank, came out in May

10. Ashlee Vance covers technology for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future 

What can we learn from listening to these podcasts?

  • What it means to be a journalist/writer/reporter/editor/author
  • How to deal with the issues that come up in the course of work
  • How to conduct interviews
  • How to ask probing questions, to listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions
  • How to articulate your thoughts
  • What you have to do to succeed in your chosen field
As of the time of writing, there were 164 podcasts in the Longform archive. So after you are done listening to the 10 listed above, go ahead and wade right in.

UPDATE (November 5, 2015): To understand better the craft of journalistic interviewing, listen to this podcast with the New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, whose expose of worker exploitation in New York's nail salons was one of the newspaper's biggest stories in recent times. Maslin Nir worked for 13 months over her story, which was then published in two parts earlier this year. You can read the stories here:

And you can listen to the podcast interview with Maslin Nir here: #142.

UPDATE (November 6, 2015): I have just finished listening to an eye-opening interview with Anand Gopal, who gave up a planned career in physics to go to Afghanistan to write about the situation there. Why Gopal did it and, perhaps more compelling for aspiring journalists, how he did it composes the bulk of his conversation with Aaron Lammer of Longform Podcasts. Listen to the podcast here: #125.

PS: I have aready ordered the book Anand Gopal wrote about his experiences in Afghanistan: No Good Men among the Living.
  • Here you can read an interview with Aaron Lammer and learn how he and his partner Max Linsky went about building the highly popular site: The Art of Podcasting.