Writing 220: The President and the Press

My final project considers the topic of misinformation in terms of the clash between the Presidency and the press over control of the truth. The concept sprouted directly from the verbal clash between President Trump and CNN Reporter Jim Acosta at the White House in November, as claims that President Trump’s behavior is unprecedented emerged. These claims and the clear despise President Trump has for the media made me wonder about past presidents’ relationships with the press corps that covered them. What I found both erases the notion that President Trump’s behavior is unprecedented while also revealing there is something different about President Trump which makes him more dangerous to the freedom of the press. The entire experience of researching, analyzing, and reflecting on this topic, which took me all the way through the history of the United States, has been the most challenging, thought-provoking, and rewarding piece of writing I have taken on.

I have grown substantially as a writer this semester. The focus Writing 220 places on the process of writing was its greatest gift to me. My largest challenge as a writer has always been getting the ideas in my mind onto the page. Writing 220 forced me to dissect the way I went about writing something, breaking up each experiment into sections. Reflection was also another aspect of this class which allowed me to grow as a writer. Reflecting became synonymous with learning in this class for me. Each experiment pushed me in unique ways and reflecting on each one made me more prepared for the next one. I will carry this habit of reflecting in my future writing.

As you go about reading my final project I ask you to consider the driving question behind it: who determines the truth and what forces impact our understanding of it? As I dissect, that question has only become more muddled over time, but it’s worth struggling over. The relationship between the president and the press has had concrete consequences on the lives of Americans for centuries, and it will continue to impact us and adapt with changing technologies in our lifetimes. I hope you reflect on and struggle with the concepts I flesh out as much as I did. Enjoy.

Topics in Writing Podcast: Linda Adler-Kassner

I was busy Tuesday night with another mandatory presenter as part of my BA 200 class. From the class discussion it appeared everyone enjoyed Heather Ann Thompson. I alternatively listened to an episode of the “Topics in Writing Podcast,” choosing Linda Adler-Kassner, a Dean and Professor of Writing at the University of California – Santa Barbara. The discussion revolved mostly around students’ experience in writing classes and the challenging, educational process which is learning to write. Here’s some takeaways:

  • Good writing isn’t one thing.

Adler-Kassner spoke towards the idea that students often search for a definition of what good writing is, when, in reality, that definition is malleable, shifting across cultures. Different ideologies, expectations, and audiences all influence how a piece of writing is received and analyzed. This gets back to a major part of this course which has been our discussion regarding the importance of understanding audience. A piece of writing can be incredible in the writer’s eyes but if the audience doesn’t connect with the writing in the same way, it will be negatively-received.

  • learning writing is about building a framework that is transferrable across topics, courses, and situations.

The process of learning how to write was also discussed heavily. The skills a student learns in a writing class should be applicable to the other subject matters they decide to take. In this way, learning how to write is more about building a framework, and understanding of the skills and structures employed in strong writing and applying them across different academic situations.  In this light, more connections need to be made across disciplines both between instructors and in content to solidify student’s understanding of what is expected of them.

  • Writing is a subject not an activity.

Students often see writing as an activity, something they do in the process of learning other subjects. Writing students, however, understand that writing is a skill that can be learned just like any other subject they are studying. Successful learning in writing is measured through the application of skills learned continually through writing. In other words doing it. Another part of learning writing is realizing progress—understanding growth in writing—because it helps build a better understanding of good writing.

  • Reflection is crucial. in understanding your learning and writing, accepting struggle, the more you know the harder it becomes

Reflection is a crucial part in understanding your relationship with writing. A common misconception students have is this belief that you can grow as a writer to the point where it is no longer challenging. Linda Adler-Kassner dispels that notion explaining how it actually gets more difficult as you become an expert. The more you know, the more techniques, skills, and knowledge you can employ, the more complex the process becomes. This is important to recognize because it will change students’ understanding of the craft as a whole.

Moth Radio Hour

While I spent my Tuesday night listening to an informative, yet noticeably long, two hour speech on risk management throughout a business career, a weekly edition of mandatory sessions for all Ross BBA Sophomores, I’m sure my peers were enjoying the interesting stories being told at The Moth Story Slam at Zingerman’s Greyline. I had to opt to listening to The Moth Radio Hour podcast. I listened to the episode “Something Borrowed, Something New” which consisted of four stories, each revealing personal hardships faced by an individual, which appears as a common theme for this medium.

Nacho Challenge by Omar Qureshi

Omar shares his story of growing up as a Muslim in Missouri, and the complex relationship that formed between himself and his home, dealing with both good and racist people. He speaks towards the difficult situation his father was placed in, as his main priority was to keep his family safe, and in certain restaurants or barbershops the animosity was apparent. Omar faced racism himself while attempting the Nacho Challenge at his favorite restaurant, as the waiter doubted his ability to eat 8 lbs of nachos since he was “an Arab.” This fueled Omar to accomplish this challenge. Omar then dives into the growth of the Muslim community during his time in Missouri, and how they even built a mosque for the community. When that mosque then was burned down, Omar fears for his family, who he knew were worshipping there the prior evening. They were okay but he doubted if the Muslim community as whole was safe in his town anymore. This doubt was relieved when he got a letter from a stranger mentioning how the Muslim community was there for the rest of the town after a tornado hit, yet the town wasn’t there for them after the mosque was burned down.

Love You Like a Hurricane Etsy Wedding by Kari Adams

Kari shares the story of her disaster wedding in which everything that could go wrong practically did. She planned so much and cared about every little detail, but then a hurricane came and destroyed those plans. Still, they ended up making the most of the wedding, and she realized the little things aren’t as important as the people there. Her story then counters unexpectedly as she reveals a divorce followed, and her distraction with the wedding probably kept her from realizing her ex-husband and her were not ready for marriage.

Tantric Body Paint by Donna Otter

Donna’s story also involves divorce, this time after 21 years of marriage. To try to put herself back out there she accepted an invitation to a naked body paint party with complete strangers. When she got there, however, her ex-husband was also in attendance. She describes the awkward, yet spiritual experience of being forced to connect with her ex-husband for the first time intimately. In a series of exercises before the party began, each woman had to connect individually with each man. When she was forced to come across her ex-husband the moderator asked the couple to pretend they had a complex past and embrace each other to move towards the future. It was fitting, and emotional, and she gained a sense of closure to move on.

Pregnant Man by Trystan Reese

Trystan shares the story of his journey of giving birth as a transgender man. It’s a story of great difficulty, as after his story went viral, his facebook messages and twitter feeds were filled with hateful attacks from strangers. Still, Trystan overcomes the doubt and fear he felt throughout his pregnancy to successfully give birth to a baby boy.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these stories as they were heartfelt, personal and surprising. It’s easy to forget how everyone we encounter, every stranger we walk by, has their own story and has gone through their own challenges in life. From listening to these four stories I realized some common elements of a powerful moth story. First, all of them are very therapeutic, as the storyteller is opening up to complete strangers. It’s an opportunity to vent to a group that won’t judge and is eager to listen. This aspect of the moth story-telling format makes story-tellers more comfortable and raw. Another common theme is the use of humor. All four of these stories were about hardships and emotional challenges that took a toll on the story-teller, but, like any human, the authors often times resorted to humor to poke fun at a certain situation or person. This relieved the audience during some difficult topics, and again, made all the stories feel more real and raw. Finally, these stories all shared a similar ending in which the story-teller reaches a lesson to be learned, or a takeaway they now carry with them. For Omar it was the need to continually make an effort to understand others and for them to understand you; for Kari it was that the details aren’t as important as the people, and people’s actions matter greatly; for Donna it was about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and moving past pain; and for Trystan it was about facing your own fears and maintaining focus on what you believe in.

I’m glad for this introduction to Moth stories and I plan on listening to more.

A PSA about PSAs

The idea of a public service announcement is an interesting concept, made possible through mediums of communication like the radio and television. They originated as ways to spread propaganda and promote a national message to support a war-effort. More recently, they tackle social issues our society is struggling with in order to motivate people to support a cause or organization. They have the ability to reach a huge amount of people and change the way that population thinks about a certain issue. As a result of the impact the PSA can have, it needs to be truthful and well thought out.

As I started the process of creating my own PSA I had a general idea of how to make a PSA. The structure, the music, the message. Still, as I actually experienced the process I realized an effective PSA reaches further to connect with each individual viewer; something very difficult for a video that is hoped to be seen by millions. Here’s what I gathered from the very difficult yet rewarding process of making a public service announcement:

  • Emotional Connection is everything: In every PSA I came across during my research, the use of pathos was the main method of transmitting a message to the viewer. In “Clean Water PSA (public service announcement): Why is this swimming pool bone dry?” that emotional connection is established between the audience and a young boy, committed to becoming a great swimmer. We see him go through his preparation in the locker room—stretching, listening to a race, putting his goggles on—and within seconds we immediately want him to succeed. We can all relate to having a goal and chasing it tirelessly no matter how difficult it may be. This feeling of hope and joy is quickly replaced with sorrow and sympathy once we see the swimming pool he is about to dive into his completely empty. We don’t know this boy but we wish he had the opportunity to tackle his dreams, and because of this relationship we’ve established with him, we’re then more likely to donate to the organization Lien AID, who helps address the water scarcity in developing regions. By putting a human face on the issue, it becomes more real for the viewer. “Wishes – A Public Service Announcement” also establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the characters in the video. “Wishes” is about accomplishing the dreams you have as a children and being able to look back at the end of your life and be satisfied with your journey. It’s a concept everyone can relate to and understand, and without presenting it, the viewer may be less inclined to following a path of math or science which is the ending message.

  • The reveal should be surprising but make sense: A PSA usually walks the reader down one path and then reveals a message that is surprising, but related to the story of the PSA. Water scarcity usually isn’t talking about the water in a swimming pool but when it is revealed the boy can’t swim because there’s no water the audience immediately understands the message. This build up to the reveal is also crucial to keeping the audience engaged. To keep their attention the PSA needs to be entertaining and suspenseful, clearly building to something. When the audience thinks favorably of the characters of the PSA and even cares about them, and the ultimate message is about those characters, they will most likely accept it.

 

  • Music should help set the tone: Music is a crucial element of any movie or video, having the capability of contributing to the story as much as the visuals. The music in PSA’s usually is somewhat dramatic as the creator wants the audience to believe the issue demand immediate attention. The music also mirrors the emotional connection being established and the ultimate reveal. In the PSA “Sandy Hook Promise: Gun violence warning signs” the music is meant to distract the viewer, mirroring the ultimate goal of the PSA, to demonstrate how we are distracted and often times miss obvious warning signs of people thinking about committing violence. This PSA, as good as any other, reveals the power music has in shaping the audience’s experience. It’s a tool that needs to be utilized strategically.

Reflecting back on my PSA, I think I was somewhat effective at each of these but definitely still have room for improvement. I depended on the nostalgia a viewer would have watching these old news reports to build the emotional connection between the news and the viewer. It’s a connection I think already exists but needs to be reestablished as the media has lost trust recently. I don’t think my reveal is that surprising but I do think it matches the tone I set throughout the video. I think the music I used matches the nostalgic tone but could have lacked a build-up that pushes the idea of urgency.

Lying to the Reader

My second experiment did not take the form of any clear genre at its beginning, instead changing throughout, shifting into different forms. I set out to create a “fake debate” with issues being argued by the right and left. As I struggled with writing the script, balancing the dozens of opinions I came across during my research, and locating examples of misinformation relevant to each possible side, I knew I had to pivot and present my message in a different way. Instead of a fake script, I gathered real political commentaries and found common examples of misinformation with regard to the sample issue—gun violence. I then added these common examples of misinformation into the real commentaries as smoothly as possible, expecting the reader to believe the lies when surrounded by strong writing and relevant points. After these commentaries were presented I then revealed to the reader the purpose of the essay—to demonstrate our susceptibility to misinformation online, especially when it confirms our prior beliefs of an issue.

I struggled with defining this genre, eventually deciding on calling it a “misdirect essay,” getting at the idea that the writer leads the reader down one argument before revealing the purpose of the essay is an entirely different argument. Since this genre is completely undefined, here’s some takeaways for successful misdirection gathered from a variety of different types of genres:

  • Present the initial “misdirect” topic with as much passion and care as the actual topic; this means research and evidence.

Entering into reading an article the reader has no reason to believe the writer is trying to trick them. Still, the power of the misdirect is built on the surprise the reader will feel when it is revealed of the actual purpose of the essay. This surprise stems from the initial topic being treated as seriously and with as much attention as the actual topic. This meant the misdirect topic needs to be relevant and demanding enough to warrant an educated argument. In my case, I decided “political polarization,” which is incredibly relevant to today, was an appropriate way to lead my reader down a certain path. The respect given towards the initial topic makes the essay easier to write and will keep the reader reading long enough to get to the reveal. To build the topic of political polarization I used statistics from “Confirmation Bias And the Power of Disconfirming Evidence” and “Political Polarization in the American Public.” If the presentation of the misdirect topic doesn’t promise any conclusions or new insights the reader may see the essay as not worth their time, so the misdirect topic cannot just go through the motions of common knowledge.

www.fs.blog/2017/05/confirmation-bias/

www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

  • When incorporating different views be as neutral as possible.

This point was more specific to my own experiment, as I was looking to gather different political commentaries that I could incorporate lies within. I wanted to present the commentaries I ended up choosing in an unbiased manner trying to leave any assumptions, beliefs, opinions up to the reader’s prior beliefs. An article I found helpful in guiding this pattern was “Right and Left React to the Deepening Divide Over Gun Control” which was published in the New York Times and written by Anna Dubenko. The essay left any political conclusions to the reader and presented different opinions, no matter how far right or left, fairly. I applied this to my misdirect essay because a major point I was trying to make was the inevitable bias of the reader. If I was able to incorporate these opinions on an equal playing field, any differences in opinions by the reader would stem from their prior beliefs. This was crucial in keeping their attention towards the misdirect topic for as long as possible. 

www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/us/politics/right-left-react-gun-control.html.

  • Explain why the initial “misdirect” topic is related to the actual topic

This may be the most crucial part of the misdirect essay. How a reader would even stumble upon your misdirect essay in the first place is by searching for articles about the misdirect topic, as the titles of these essays have to be about that topic. This means, in order for the reader not to get mad when realizing they’ve been tricked and exiting out to find another article about the topic they were looking for, the actual topic needs to be related to the misdirect topic in some manner. Any slight relationship between the two could be enough to keep the reader there. In my case, both political polarization and misinformation are relevant to the political sphere, and I spend a decent amount of time arguing for misinformation’s role in political polarization. The article “The CNN Town Hall on Gun Control Was a Failure. And That’s Good for Our Democracy” helped me draw some conclusions, getting at the idea that finding or explaining a relationship between the two topics may take further research. If successful in revealing their connection, the reader could actually be rewarded with a new insight with regard to the misdirect topic they were originally interested in.

www.theweek.com/articles/756291/cnn-town-hall-gun-control-failure-thats-good-democracy.

  • There has to be a specific reason for the misdirection

If there is no clear reason for the misdirection, the reader will feel they’ve had their time wasted. If you feel you need to explicitly explain why you were lying to the reader about the purpose of the essay, you probably shouldn’t do it. “Misdirect essays” work as a social experiment and consequently the topic of interest usually comes before picking this genre. In my case, I literally wanted to get the reader to believe something false and presenting the lies in a believable manner made the essay work.

Pushing Past the Traditional Timeline

Timelines have a relatively negative connotation compared to other, more multimodal forms of genres. They usually simply present information to the audience with informational purposes and a broad audience in mind, boring the students tasked with memorizing and analyzing them. But timelines are misunderstood. There is a story of humans being told behind all of those dates and events that every human can relate to. Having such a powerful idea at its core, means timelines deserve a more exciting, purposeful structure.

As I went about crafting my own timeline of the history of misinformation and fake news I constantly reflected to see if a story was being told. While the issue of fake news has gained more attention in light of recent events these past few years, I wanted to present larger themes about misinformation that have been constants over the course of centuries, showing how foundational this issue really is. As I went about studying the methods other timelines use to present information, comparing effective and boring timelines, my outlook on what a timeline could be changed. Here’s what I gathered:

  • Explain the meaning more than the events: Where a timeline has the opportunity to push past what is expected of it and become something offering a larger message is in the analysis of the events it has put in chronological order. A brief explanation of what occurred on the date is necessary to give educated and uneducated readers an even playing field, but the majority of the text on the page should be about offering insights into what these dates mean, and how they connect. Fleshing out larger themes of humanity is how we can make timelines relevant to the challenges we face today. When there is little to no analysis of the dates listed the timeline loses a major opportunity, instead becoming a backdrop for other more specific sources. Two of the articles I examined, both of which I would consider timelines, offered completely different academic experiences because of differing levels of analysis. “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News” didn’t have the traditional appearance of a timeline, instead taking article form, but delivered an incredible recount by jumping through the centuries, stopping to connect past and future dates. This allowed the author to make an argument about the sequence of events instead of just sharing what has happened with the reader. “American History Timeline” acts as a more traditional timeline, covering events over the past millennium. What the reader wants to walk away from it with is constrained by the page and their prior knowledge.

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/12/fake-news-history-long-violent-214535

http://www.datesandevents.org/events-timelines/14-american-history-timeline.htm

  • Separate the dates and events from any analysis: It’s worth noting that sometimes the reader is not looking for a sizable analysis of the dates or events given and instead opens up a timeline to just find a specific date. Consequently, a visually appealing and viewer-friendly timeline makes the dates/events the backbone of the text. The reader’s eyes should bounce from date to date, only diving into the subsequent analysis accompanying each date if they care to. In this way “American History timeline” outperforms “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News” as the latter makes it difficult for the reader to find the events/dates being highlighted. This also makes transitions easier to follow as when dates are separated by literal space on the page and not hiding within paragraphs, the reader can follow the story and make those crucial connections.

 

  • Make it multimodal: A large complaint of timelines, especially from young students, is that they are boring and hard to read. Adding images and videos can enhance the timeline experience. It not only adds color and structure to a bland, simple design, but it offers a visual for the story being told. The audience, who may have a difficult time picturing what a certain historical figure looked like or what a location looked like hundreds of years ago now has an image to build their imagined story off of. The interactive “United States History” timeline from World Digital Library exemplifies the power of adding images. The site gives users the ability to move back and forth between events, moving out of the traditional line format. In this way the user is moving through time, following patterns, mentally picturing history unfold.

https://www.wdl.org/en/sets/us-history/timeline/#2

All of these realizations about how to make an effective, unique timeline come back to the idea that a timeline is a story. Luckily we love hearing stories s0 there is no reason why a timeline should fail at gaining and maintaining the attention of a reader. Timeline creators just need to push past the traditional expectation of a long, straight line with a sequence of dates branching off to be successful. Timelines need to be dynamic because we utilize them for dynamic reasons. We open them up to tell the story of how we got here, find connections across centuries, and gather conclusions about ourselves. Since there is literally a history of everything, there can be a timeline for everything. It’s up to the creators of these timelines to continue to challenge the status quo on what a timeline should look like and tell a story which connects the larger recurring themes, moving forward and backward through time. In this way, as I found with the history of misinformation, it’s a circle more than a line.

 

    VS. Image result for bad timeline VS. 

source: https://venngage.com/blog/timeline-template/

source: https://www.fastcompany.com/1673264/an-epic-timeline-of-breaking-bads-wardrobe-colors

source: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/flint-michigan-water-crisis-timeline-how-all-started

Maps and Flyers

Most students’ experience in english and writing courses is constrained to one form of assignment: the essay. Yet, as so eloquently put in the first chapter, “What are Multimodal Projects?” of Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects, the forms of argument and writing we encounter on a daily basis extend far past purely text. The chapter highlights the five main modes of communication – linguistic (written or spoken text), visual (images), aural (sounds), gestural (movement), and spatial (the physical arrangement), and opens the perspective of the reader into understanding how common combinations of these modes are, and the consequent effects certain combinations have on transferring meaning to an audience. We were tasked to search for examples of these multimodal texts as we went about our daily routines. In short, the task came naturally.

 

Currently all around campus clubs have posted flyers attempting to create interest and expand membership. These flyers obviously make use of the linguistic mode with the name of the club and short description often included, but it’s the visual and spatial modes which are most crucial in making a successful flyer. The spatial mode is arguably what makes students walking by actually stop and give the flyer a genuine read. If it is arranged in an appealing, clear way, students are more likely to want to look at it more closely. This goes the same for the visual mode. Bright colors and interesting, relevant images lead to success. The two flyers below diverge in this area. While the Michigan Affordability & Advocacy Coalition uses no color or images creating a bland look, the Ski & Snowboard team bursts with color corresponding with the energy of the club.

Another multimodal project I came across that also relies on the linguistic, visual, and spatial modes is the map of the United States on the wall of my apartment. The linguistic mode is crucial in defining the detail of any project, and that is evident in this map, as it includes hundreds of cities and regions which would be left blank without text. Without the linguistic mode, it would just be a geographic region hopefully the audience is familiar with. The visual mode helps separate the states from each other and the surrounding countries, making it clear the map is about the United States. It also makes the map easier to read. The spatial mode, the way the map is arranged, is the main determinant of what the audience should focus on. Students see hundreds of maps during the school year so they begin to identify certain arrangement characteristics with certain types of maps. It’s interesting that despite presenting completely different topics, flyers and maps both depend on the linguistic, visual, and spatial modes, perhaps, because those modes, when combined, are most effective at presenting information to an audience.

The last multimodal project I came across that was worthy of further dissection was a powerpoint presentation in my earth science class. This powerpoint included all five modes of communication. The linguistic mode was probably the most important in presenting students new, detailed information about a difficult subject matter. The visual mode, which included fun images, made the powerpoint more appealing to an audience who may think the subject matter is boring. Also in the visual mode were graphs and charts which put the information into a real world context. The aural mode was captured in a video that played to start the presentation, along with the tone of voice of the teacher reading each slide. The gestural mode was seen in the way the professor moved around the classroom, using hand gestures to build ideas. Finally, the spatial mode was seen in the arrangement of the presentation, again, highlighting the idea that the way the presentation looked affected the way the students received the information. A powerpoint may be the most common multimodal project students come across. I think the fact that the most common method of teaching includes all five modes of communication demonstrates the power and possibilities that come with communicating in a variety of ways.

 

https://umich.instructure.com/courses/234150/files/folder/Lecture%20slides?preview=8350093

(Link to Powerpoint)

 

The multimodal projects noted above were things I encountered throughout my daily routine but previously never had stopped to examine the many modes in which they present an idea. These examples were not the only I came across (magazines, youtube videos, newspapers, pictures, textbooks) but I think they adequately serve in pushing the narrative that we experience all five modes of communication everyday and through mediums we often overlook. Recognizing the combinations of these modes and what certain combinations accomplish is a formative step in learning to employ them to our own benefit as writers. It’s clear now that successful writers use more than just words to write.