The Louisiana floods have had me worried about friends in Louisiana since the story broke over the weekend, and like others I have been frustrated at the dearth of coverage. Skye Cooley’s article at Huffington Post makes some interesting and valid points. But I have a more structural explanation for why the news media aren’t showing us more of this flooding.

It goes back to 2012-2015, when Advance gutted most of the veteran reporters and photojournalists from the reporting staffs of the then-dominant news outlets closest to where the Louisiana flooding disaster continues to unfold today: the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Press-Register in Mobile, and distant though it may be, the Birmingham News.

These newspapers were the heart of a 24/7/365 information-gathering-and-disseminating ecosystem that fed news through the national food chain.

I remember the video that one of the Times-Picayune photojournalists shot of Hurricane Katrina survivors stranded with little food and water and deteriorating shelter downtown. “Help us, please!” the woman in the photo on the front page shouted, leading a chant of “help us, please!” That became the lead headline, in what must have been 180-point type, on the front page.

A dominant regional news outlet shouts like that, and the message carries far enough for the other regional media to pick it up (like the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News and Atlanta Journal Constitution back in the day), and Montgomery and Birmingham and Huntsville, all of which have senators and congresspeople who pay attention to the news back home every day and talk with each other about what they can do to help their neighboring states.

The pleas for help don’t carry very far very fast now because regional news media, like the birds in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” went quiet. Regardless of whether the story “fits the narrative,” there are fewer voices to lift up the cry for help.

And in a news media universe that is increasingly consolidated and profit-driven, crews must travel longer distances to cover disasters unless they occur in the major media centers of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Atlanta, where news crews are standing by.

In the old model, cable TV news would have ripped and read from the newspapers at the epicenter of the disaster until they could get their own operations in place. Now the chain of information that leads them to decide to send crews is disrupted.

I don’t mean to say what I’ve written here and the HuffPost article are the only explanations for the lack of coverage. Nor am I saying all news outlets fell down on the job. The Advocate in Baton Rouge is performing admirably and has done so since the story broke. What other explanations can you think of, and who else is doing good work covering the flooding and the start of recovery?

Journalists rely on interviews to get vital and original information, but not everything that sources say is clear, precise, grammatical or quotable enough to use the source’s exact words. I learned the advice that follows from some great journalism teachers I have known: Carole Rich, Paul Jess and Frank E. Fee Jr. Now I’m passing it along to you.

Human speech is full of pauses and stutters and repetition.

So we have two choices: either quote directly (using quotation marks, “said” and the name of the source) or paraphrase (summarize what the source meant but don’t use his or her words verbatim).

The simple rule is to paraphrase the ordinary and quote the extraordinary.

Base your decision on whether the speaker expressed himself or herself clearly and whether quoting directly would have more impact than merely paraphrasing.

Example: If a source told you purely factual information (let’s say a house fire that destroyed a home and the owner says “That house was worth $150,000,” that’s just fact. You should still use the information and say where you got it, but you don’t have to use the exact words.

But if the quote said, “That house was worth $150,000. It’s a total loss. My entire life’s savings was tied up in the place, and now it’s gone,” that tells something more than facts; it tells how much the loss hurts.

In that case, try using the paraphrase as a transition to the quote:

 Lee Mockbee, the owner, said the $150,000 house was a total loss.

“My entire life’s savings was tied up in that place, and now it’s gone,” he said.

That’s an example of paraphrasing the ordinary and quoting the extraordinary. (Note, by the way, that the quote is placed in its own paragraph. Do this in most situations).

What you’re doing there is stating a fact, then using the quote to drive home why that fact is significant. You can use a quote to show the frame of mind of the source, too, or to show what they made of a situation.

Here are eight tips for effectively handling quotes and attributions in news writing:

  1. Get to the point: Keep the attribution out of the way. In print and online writing, the attribution goes after the first sentence in a quote. In the attribution, “said” goes after the subject.

Incorrect: Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement, “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration.”

Incorrect: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” said Gov. Rick Snyder in a statement.

Correct: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement.

Incorrect: Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said, “I never said let’s bomb them back to the stone age.”

Incorrect: “I never said let’s bomb them back to the stone age,” Gen. Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said.

Correct: “I never said let’s back them back to the stone age,” said Gen. Curtis LeMay, a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff.

2. In print and online writing, attribute at the first natural break. Usually, this is at the end of the first quoted sentence, but attribution can come in midsentence if there’s a logical place. Attributions usually do not go before the quote in writing for the eye. This differs from the practice in broadcast writing, which typically puts the attribution immediately before the sound bite. 

Incorrect: “The 100-year flood level is,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said, “a figment of planners’ imaginations.”

Better: “The 100-year flood level,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said, “is a figment of planners’ imaginations.”

Better yet: “The 100-year flood level is a figment of planners’ imaginations,” State Engineer Dolores Bootz said.

3. In a quote with multiple sentences, the attribution goes after the first sentence.

Incorrect: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement.

Correct: “Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement. “But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents.”

4. Show when you change speakers. Help the reader. Who’s talking here?

Congress got an earful about campaign finance reform on its first day of hearings.

“I think the way they have been financing election campaigns is the crime of the century,” John Dash, a conservative, told Congress.

“Money is hard to come by, especially for politicians, and some allowances have to be made somewhere,” Marcia Greenwood told the panel.

(The reader only finds at the end of the third paragraph that the quote was not a continuation of John Dash’s comment. So, begin Greenwood’s quote with the attribution so it reads like this:

Marcia Greenwood told the panel, “Money is hard to come by, especially for politicians, and some allowances have to be made somewhere.”

BUT: In general, ONLY put the attribution at the start of a quote when it is necessary to make it clear that there is a new speaker.

5. Avoid fragment or orphan quotes. They don’t help — usually — although there are exceptions.

6. Use only the best quotes; paraphrase the rest.

7. Respect the quotation marks. Don’t put words in the speaker’s mouth, and don’t take them out indiscriminately. The AP’s rule is that a quote is a fact. You can’t change a fact and you can’t change a quote. If the quote is troubled, your options are: delete altogether or paraphrase.

8. Delete words or phrases within the quote to create a partial quote, or, if you are using the quote as a full sentence, replace the deleted material with ellipses to show readers something was deleted. You also can supply parenthetical explanatory material, but only with great care.

Posted without comment from the Daily Missouri Democrat (St. Louis), Saturday, December 22, 1860:

San Francisco Takes the Hat – The latest mention of the fertile Golden State is a plan to make white dogs useful. Your San Franciscan seizes up is white cur, and, with stencilplate and black ink, inscribes his business card on each side of the wretched pup, and sends him forth, a quadrupedal locomotive advertisement – a doggerotype of the fast people of a fast country in a fast age. It is reckoned that a lively dog will be worth at least five dollars a day, or equal to a quarter of a column in a newspaper.”

While doing research on journalism during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861, it occurred to me that in maintaining a continually updated list of South Carolina legislators’ stances on taking down the Confederate flag, the Post & Courier of Charleston is doing the same thing the Charleston Mercury did on the question of seceding.
Witness the following account, published as an exchange item in the Boston Journal on December 12, 1860:

“THE CHARLESTON ELECTION: There was evidently a screw loose in the election of the Charleston delegates to the State Convention of South Carolina. It was intended by the Rhett faction to be a completely one-sided affair, sending up a united delegation pledged to immediate secession. Accordingly, the Mercury had kept standing lists in its columns of the candidates known to be sound, from their explicit declarations, those who had not pledged themselves to instant secession, and those who had made no reply to interrogatories addressed to them.”

The piece went on to explain that a couple of uncommitted delegates were elected despite pressure from the Mercury. This should be a reminder that the press is powerful, but it is not all-powerful. The ultimate pressure comes from the people. Just as the battle then was not won by the Mercury, so the battle today is not won by the Post & Courier. Make your opinion known. Here’s mine: That flag has got to come down. That banner may be a symbol of heritage, but the deeper I get into the newspapers of the secession crisis, the more evidence piles up that the Civil War was about maintaining a system in which wealthy planters preserved their means of getting richer (cheap labor combined with a voracious appetite to expand the footprint of slavery) by co-opting poor Southern whites’ opinions via appeals to racial superiority. We are all equal regardless of color, creed, religion, ethnicity, national heritage, gender or sexual orientation.
So it’s nice to enjoy the irony of the press of today employing, for the purpose of removing an emblem of pride in racism, the same system that the press of yesteryear employed to put it up.

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