Q&A with Dylan Howlett, researcher for NBC Olympics

Dylan Howlett is a researcher for NBC Olympics, helping the network prepare for the summer games in Brazil. In this interview, conducted by email, Howlett talks about his job and his journalism education. He also gives us a preview of what we might see in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Q. Describe your job at NBC. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day, the Olympics department serves the mission of readying our broadcasters, producers, marketers and digital writers for the upcoming Olympic Games. How, exactly, we serve that mission differs greatly. The ultimate goal remains assembling “The Manual,” a veritable bible that provides all Olympic employees with everything they need to know — and don’t need to know — about the host country, the games and Olympic athletes.

We don’t do this out of bravado, but rather out of necessity, because the breadth of the Olympics is staggering: In Rio, more than 10,500 athletes from about 205 nations will compete in 35 sports.

I think the undertaking falls somewhere between Quixotic and delusional, but NBC has routinely proven itself up to the task. I just try my best to not screw up a pristine operation.

Because of the magnitude of the games, NBC’s team of five Olympic researchers divides among themselves the 35 sports. We then fan out across the country and globe, traveling to world championships and other internationally attended events to speak with athletes and learn about  their personal stories. These help lend substance to, or even identify subjects for, NBC’s renowned “Up Close and Personal” profile pieces — those weepy, uber-inspiring tales that induce eye moisture in the most stoic people you know.

They also bolster our preparation for specific events: It’s helpful on multiple fronts to know that an Egyptian fencer once used makeshift weaponry to help protect his Alexandria home from roving bandits during the Egyptian revolution AND that he faces stiff competition, namely from three Americans, as he vies to defend his 2012 London silver medal. That fusion of the compelling and pedantic ensures we can serve our whole Olympic audience, from those who are there purely for sport to those who want a compelling reason to root for someone.

My Rio portfolio includes handball, weightlifting, fencing, rugby and golf. I have the attention span of a goldfish, so I typically allot my time according to my upcoming travel schedule. With two international rugby events slated for early March, I’m now immersed in scrums and rucks and the Haka tribal dance.

Rugby presents an ideal example of what we try to do with every sport, mostly because its return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence means we’re starting from scratch. We produce entries in The Manual on Rules, Olympic Venues, Olympic Schedule, History of Sport, Olympic History and a Glossary for every sport, as well as brief biographies on as many athletes as possible.

With those main entries completed, I’ve turned my attention to reading articles on players from around the world to prepare for, I hope, insightful interviews on the ground at those tournaments in March. The catch, however, is this: All reporting and research is strictly internal. I don’t produce any external editorial content. Everything I gather at events gets dumped into a virtual notebook, and those facts, quotes and anecdotes will eventually be repurposed throughout The Manual. Though I do love the sound of my own voice, we don’t want to tip off any other outlets to our precious information.

The gratification comes during the Olympics when someone learns something about an athlete that makes their heart skip a beat. Be on the lookout, for instance, for an American athlete who as a teenager ate dog food while in foster care.

Each day brings something unexpected because we are, at least in theory, the keepers of Olympic knowledge and arcane statistics. That means we often get solicitations from NBC’s promo department, marketing department, graphics coordinators, producers and anyone with intellectual curiosities about Rio de Janeiro or the 1936 Olympic bid process or how Michael Phelps performed at an international swimming meet in 2005 (we are not to question the relevance of any of these queries). It’s simply another chance to masquerade as an expert.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying this: Most days, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. Thanks, Andy, for reminding me that I’ve left the Southern Part of Heaven for the prickly environs of the Real World.

My job proves emphatically a maxim that my newswriting professor, Keith King, and my good friend John Robinson both imparted to me early on at the j-school: Journalism is constant learning. You wade into something you either don’t understand or wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, you learn what you don’t know from those who know, and then you synthesize everything you’re learned into a clear, concise and correct piece of writing that creates this wonderful illusion of expertise.

That’s pretty much my whole job. I’m not a connoisseur of fencing or weightlifting by any means, but after spending time with athletes and coaches, I can at least speak of both pursuits without sounding like I’m having an aneurysm. And what’s not to love about learning?

For every bit of inconsequential minutiae (Albertson Van Zo Post won the United States’ last men’s fencing gold medal in 1904) there’s a bit of something fascinating, like how much money Qatar makes every year from its lucrative oil contracts (an unspeakable sum) and how much of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed (an area about 160 times the size of Manhattan). It’s hard to beat free, constant learning.

The other bit of j-school resonance in this job comes from the teachings of John and the inimitable Tim Crothers: Everyone — EVERYONE — has a story, and everyone whose story you think you know has an even better one.

I think it’s fair to say that most prospective sportswriters or broadcasters aspire to high-profile subjects: the Super Bowl, LeBron James, the Yankees beat. But deeply moving and largely unknown stories lie in everyone.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated’s tour-de-force football writer, once said that famed SI feature writer Gary Smith almost exclusively delved into “the marginalia of life” — a black high school basketball coach in Amish country, a young man with intellectual disabilities helping out a high school football team, a mediocre baseball player haunted by an accidental murder from his childhood.

Talking to fencers and weightlifters and handball players has reminded me that the human spirit is indefatigable, and it is not the exclusive domain of those athletes we know by heart. That is, perhaps, the most compelling part of this job: finding untold stories that are worth telling the world.

I also have other j-school reminders: a copy of the 2013 AP Stylebook, the conventions of reporting from J153 and J253 and an eye for editing from your News Editing course. As for new skills (besides finding out that I screw up prolifically, and sometimes publicly), I’ve harkened back to my J153 days and learned how to write simply, clearly and effectively. Most of the written material we produce is designed to be told over the air, and there’s little room for overwrought, flowery language.

I am a repeated perpetrator of said language. I’ve found it challenging at times to rein it in, but there’s certainly something to be said for writing copy like you would say it (hat tip to Dave Cupp). There is singular eloquence in simplicity. It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in sportswriting?

A. First, drown out all of the masochists who have been singing the dirge of journalism for God knows how long. Yes, Buzzfeed pisses me off too, but its sheer existence doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to some sort of hellscape where a Snapchatting Tupac hologram constitutes our only news source.

Second, there are so many opportunities in this business to contribute in a creative and writing capacity beyond traditional reporting roles. I had no idea my current job existed until my boss emailed me and asked whether I’d be interested in applying.

Sure, I miss writing stories on deadline and working on longer feature stories, but it’s a job in sports, and it’s a job in sports that allows me to, at the very least, afford the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. In other words, there are many ways to get to the same place.

Speaking directly to anyone who’s foolish enough to care about what I have to say: I know you’ve probably heard a lot of defeatist proclamations about journalism and the insane level of competition in broadcasting and all sorts of dire projections about your desired career path. To all of that apocalyptic noise I say this: Who made those people the arbiter of your dreams? If this is what you love, if this is what vaults you out of bed every morning, if this is what makes you happy, then who is anyone to tell you “no”? Go for it.

Q. So. Based on your research so far, what storylines and fun facts can we expect to hear about from Rio? And will you get to go?

A. A breeding pool of 30 baby alligators sits behind the 13th green on the Olympic golf course. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating that is 12 percentage points lower than Richard Nixon’s was the day he resigned from office (24 percent). The 1920 Brazilian water polo team featured a player known as Chocolate. If that doesn’t get you excited for Rio, I don’t know what will.

It’s impossible to discuss the Rio Olympics without addressing the negativity that has strangled the latest Olympic news cycle. The United States Olympic Committee denies it told its sports federations that they could give female athletes and staffers the option to skip the games if they didn’t want to risk the health of their future children by contracting the Zika virus (it’s been attributed to cases of microcephaly in newborns). There’s a severe shortage of available doctors in the city. The games are wildly over budget, and some venues have either been downsized or compromised. As part of its successful bid in 2009, Rio promised to sanitize 80 percent of its filthy Guanabara Bay. With 150,000 gallons of raw sewage still spilling into the bay every minute, organizers have now conceded their promise will go unfulfilled. They will instead have 20 “eco boats” patrolling the waters during sailing and swimming competitions to scoop up, say, floating sofas before they obstruct competitors.

This is all part of the six-month ritual that precedes the Olympics: Nothing is getting done, nothing will get done and the games will be an unremitting disaster. And then all of that magically disappears for 16 days in August (though I’m sure Brazilians will argue rather audibly that the nation’s issues, some of which the organizing committee vowed to ameliorate, will not disappear after August 2016).

Returning to competition, I’m looking forward to these three storylines:

  • Michael Phelps says he’s in the best shape of his life. Michael Phelps says he has never been more committed to swimming. Michael Phelps says he’s anxious to see what he can accomplish while giving swimming his unconditional all. Michael Phelps’s greatest was already pretty damn great. He might set a new threshold in Rio. And even if he doesn’t, it will likely be everyone’s last chance to watch one of the world’s most extraordinary athletes.
  • Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who already has four gold medals and two silver, will attempt something in Rio that only two other women have ever accomplished at the Olympics: winning the 200m and 400m, both of which are held on the same day. The other women were 24 and 28, respectively, when they pulled off “the double.” Felix is 30. It would be a remarkable, if not unprecedented, feat for a 30-year-old Olympian.
  • This is how much Brazilians care about soccer: Brazil lost on home soil to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. It is regarded as the nation’s greatest embarrassment, so much so that Brazilians consider the loss an equivalent tragedy to 9/11 and the bombing of Hiroshima. Then there was the 2014 World Cup, again on home soil, when they lost, 7-1, to Germany in the semifinals. A tabloid declared the defeat “Humiliation for Eternity.” Brazil has never won an Olympic gold medal in soccer. For the sake of its people’s psychological, emotional and physical well-being, it would be nice for Brazil to experience soccer bliss. They’re running out of morbid analogies, anyway.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be in Rio or working with a dedicated studio team at our NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Either way, I’ll be part of the production, which represents a serious lapse in judgment on the part of my supervisors. I won’t ask too many questions.

Ben Carson needed an editor

The rise of presidential candidate Ben Carson has led to increased scrutiny of his background. That’s a normal part of politics, though at times the news media fall short on asking relevant questions.

In the past week, news organizations have done stories on Carson’s claims of overcoming a violent childhood and being offered a full scholarship at West Point. Carson wrote about those experiences in his book “Gifted Hands.”

The Wall Street Journal looked into another segment from the book. Carson wrote about an unusual request from a Yale professor to retake an exam. Here’s how the Journal described it:

carson-wsjThis is where an editor could have helped Carson when he was writing “Gifted Hands.” If I had been working with his manuscript, here are two questions I would have asked him about this incident:

  • “Wow! What a remarkable story. And it was captured on film. Can we ask the Yale Daily News if we can include that photo in the book?”
  • “I’m not following the logic of the professor’s experiment. How does it demonstrate the honesty of the students? Maybe those who left were simply annoyed about having to retake the test. Can you revise this to make that clear?”

Perhaps if an editor had asked such questions then, Carson wouldn’t be facing them now.

Student guest post: Don’t forget to check facts online

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Jessica Castro-Rappl is a third-year editing and graphic design student from Raleigh, North Carolina. Her interests include travel, baking and procrastination.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it gives us the capacity to spread information instantly. This also doubles as one of the not-so-great things about the Internet.

The velocity of information on the Internet leads to a race to publish news, and news outlets might sacrifice quality in order to quickly deliver information to readers.

This isn’t a new concept — a rush to publish has affected our field for years. But when information can be spread to a virtually unlimited audience with a couple of clicks, it’s important that that information be accurate.

And it can be tricky to make sure that your story is accurate! When an event happens and there isn’t a plethora of reliable sources and you’re working on a deadline, maybe you don’t have all the information you need before going to print.

But your first duty is to your readers, and that means giving them the highest-quality information you can offer.

A couple of weeks ago, a California man sent an elementary school into lockdown when he was spotted carrying what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.

That’s not how the story was reported, though. Online article titles read “Suspect who waved sawed-off shotgun near Otay Elementary in custody” or “Man receiving psychological evaluation wielding a sawed-off shotgun near school.”

The problem? The man wasn’t wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Police reported him as “possibly carrying a sawed-off shotgun.” In reality, it was a replica firearm.

The worst part to me, though, is that some of the stories that reported the gun was a replica were the same ones that put “sawed-off shotgun” in the headline. It’s unclear if the headline writer even read the whole article.

Even if you’re rushing to write an eye-catching headline, even if you’ve got to publish the story online as soon as possible and even if you’re working with limited sources, there is no excuse for providing your readers with misinformation.

Before style or grammar, editors (and writers!) should focus on fact-checking and source verification.

Then, maybe, we can take true advantage of the instantaneousness of the Internet, using it to deliver accurate information to readers — without them having to wait for the morning newspaper.

This wasn’t the “Star Wars” trailer I was looking for

Editors care deeply about accuracy. Sites such as Emergent, Politifact and Snopes are helpful resources to make sure we get things right before publishing, posting and sharing.

In my editing courses, fact-checking and verification are important elements. And I always take care to be sure something is real before sharing it on social media.

Well, almost always. Earlier, this week, my fandom for “Star Wars” eclipsed my usual caution. I saw a link on Twitter to what was purported to be the trailer for the new movie in the series. After a quick look at the preview, I retweeted the link and posted it to Facebook with the message “stay on target.”

Several friends and my cousin pointed out within minutes that the trailer was made by fans and not the real preview of the movie. I edited my status update on Facebook and sent a followup tweet.

How did I fall for a fake and share it? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The person who tweeted the link is an editor with many years of experience. I trusted him and still do, but even reliable sources make mistakes.
  • I knew the official trailer was set to be released on Nov. 28, so a leaked version appearing on YouTube a couple of days beforehand seemed plausible.
  • The fan-generated trailer is pretty convincing. It even fooled Rolling Stone magazine.
  • I didn’t read the comments on the YouTube post that would have tipped me off. But I tend to ignore reader comments, especially on that site.
  • I am a big fan of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, and my excitement about a new movie let my defenses down. It was a trap.

I regret the error, and I apologize for sharing bad information. I will double my efforts.

A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:


I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.


As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Student guest post: CNN’s sensational coverage of Flight 370

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Jasmin Singh is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in reporting, focusing on medical and science writing and minors in biology and chemistry. She is a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and the health and science correspondent for Carolina Week. Besides pursuing a career in science journalism, she aspires to be a full-time physician in the Eastern North Carolina region.

As a reporter for the school’s paper, I was told to keep it simple and not to exaggerate. I came to love the simplicity of the newspaper and online news – I don’t have to dig around or read a huge anecdote before I get to the point of the story.

But when I was writing stories for a broadcast journalism course, I was in shock. I’m talking about sensationalism.

Sensationalizing the news isn’t new. We can think of yellow journalism used in the late 1800s, where reporters used misleading headlines, dramatic quotes and scary pictures to draw their readers in.

Nowadays, newspapers work away from this form, trying to present the most honest, factual stories possible. One of the few places in print that we still see this sensationalism is in tabloids. But there is another medium that uses it far too often.

TV news loves to sensationalize. But if we do so in print, our editors are quick to calm it down. Is this a double standard? Take for example CNN’s online coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner.

Flight 370 was a trending topic on CNN’s homepage since it first disappeared March 8. At first, CNN reported hard facts, or stories about the passengers, following what many other news organizations were doing at the time.

But as the search continued, CNN brought in analysts to talk about theories and potential flight paths  – even though the Malaysian government hadn’t released any new information at the time. And as CNN’s March 22 headline read, “When facts are few, imaginations run wild.”

And wild they were. Headlines changed every hour on CNN’s homepage, each one leading to a new theory, like those of terrorism, pilot suicide or hijacking. But no new information was being used for these stories – it was the same few facts being repeated, or twisted to create a new theory.

Is there a reason that CNN can do this while other news sources can’t? Is it because CNN is a large broadcast, 24/7-news network, or because it has the power and name to do so? I don’t know, but it could be a mix of the two. But when a smaller organization came out with their theory, CNN was quick to turn it down.

Wired magazine published an article (originally published on Google Plus) presenting a very simple and realistic theory that the plane tried to land at a nearby airport. The article was written by a former airline pilot with over 20 years of flight experience.

However, CNN’s analysts quickly turned down the pilot’s theory, saying it wasn’t possible – probably because CNN analysts had other theories: The pilots could be terrorists or the plane was hijacked.

On March 24, the Malaysian government released information stating the flight was officially lost in the Indian Ocean. The final transcript of the conversation between the pilots and flight control were released on April 1. And again, CNN continued to post updated stories by its analysts using this small amount of information. The latest headline as of 8:32 p.m. April 3, “Flight 370: Search to resume with high-tech help, hopes for breakthrough.”

So how can we avoid these sensationalized headlines and news stories? Beth Winegarner of The Poynter Institute wrote a list of five simple things we can do to make sure our stories are clean and still draw in readers.

Stick to facts: When we have a fact and it is confirmed, use it. News stories should be filled with facts. When we hear about breaking news, we need to make sure it is accurate and is supported by evidence. If we don’t have the evidence or the facts to support a claim, we shouldn’t publish it.

Be careful with identifications: This is important for a story regarding a crime. If we have information about a potential suspect, we must make sure that we identify the right person. Is it John A. Smith or John R. Smith? The middle name, age, height and even race can destroy your credibility if you misidentify a suspect.

Be a skeptic: This would be a useful tip for CNN. Winegarner said we should be skeptical of experts. Nobody knows everything, so we shouldn’t trust everything they say, especially if our credibility is on the line. Seek out counterarguments and other outside experts who have no affiliation to the story or the organization.

Give details. A lot of them: Our readers want to know everything that is going on, so if we have the details, use them. Details help develop the story and also create a mental picture of what is going on, which can help make the story easier to understand. Using details also strengthens your credibility because you are giving your readers every fact available, leaving no room for questions.

Write a good story: If you have all the facts, outside sources, use caution and include a lot of details, the story will write itself, with no need to sensationalize.

I think that’s what reporting is all about. Delivering the facts in the most basic, honest way possible. If we sensationalize it, do we really have a story to tell?