Sylvia Spotlights: Writing, Women, and the Big "What-ifs"

The Power of the Written Word at Work

Archive for the tag “Journalism”

Life’s Twisting Paths to Purpose

Celebrating leaps of faith and life’s twisting paths to purpose. When I earned my Journalism degree from USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism back in 1982, all I wanted to do was write. So I did. Freelancing all the way.

In 2012, I decided to go back to school and earned my Master’s in Digital Journalism under the direction of great professors like Dr. Sara-Ellen Amster, Danielle Cervantes Stephens & Alan Abbey. Never saw myself as a professor, but soon, began teaching Journalism & Media Studies classes. Challenging but exciting. Every day, I learn from my students and when I see their potential–it is inspiring.

And I continue to write, as well.

Then, surprise! At UCSD Extension, one campus where I teach, I was thrilled and honored during Women’s History Month this year to be featured as one of “50 Voices of the Future.”

Celebrating its 50th Anniversary, UCSD Extension selected 50 professors who are thought leaders in their fields to give their perspectives on “the next 50 years.” I was interviewed for the field of Journalism. What? How did that happen?

The interview is found here: 50 Voices of the Future: The New Era of Citizen Journalism with Sylvia Mendoza

It’s been quite the journey. What I believe to be true is this: I truly believe in the power of the written word. The platform or means for delivering the news and media content will change but what remains constant is the Journalism Code of Ethics. It’s what guided me as a young student at USC; it’s what should be core 50 years from now. Each individual journalist should be able to stand unwavering in this fast/first competitive mentality. Our integrity and respect have to be constant and the foundation for quality work.

What’s next on this twisting path to purpose?

There are more books to write, more people to interview, more classes to teach–and from them all–so much more to learn. How blessed am I? Onward!



Aiming for the Heart: Online Publishing with a Punch

Aiming for the Heart: Online Publishing with a Punch
By Sylvia Mendoza
(Master’s Program/Digital Journalism/#620 Online Publishing)

Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins

“Write, Shoot, Report & Produce for TV and Multimedia”

Online publishing puts news at a consumer’s fingertips in an instant. For any journalist trained in only print, radio or television, online publishing is a new world.  Think multi-media. Think “billboard” for posting headlines and text. Think interactive.

In the book, Aim for the Heart: Write, Shoot, Report and Produce for TV and Multimedia, journalist author Al Tompkins lays out the facts of an ever-changing terrain—journalism as we’ve known it, and how a journalist must adapt to online publishing. Tompkins, who is also senior faculty for the Poynter Institute, points out how there must be a great shift in thinking, training, ethics, and coverage techniques in order to be most effective and offer readers multiple ways to consume the news. 

Poynter Institute faculty member Al Tompkins teaches how to produce effective content for multimedia journalism.

Online publishing is about engaging audience.

Online publishing should not be the same as what we put on TV. It is not TV. It is about letting the viewers, listeners and readers decide how they want to consume the news—even on that particular day, for that particular kind of news story. Visuals include maps, graphs, video, still photo galleries, raw footage, text, and links (but make sure they are legitimate, reputable and add to the story, since readers are taken away from the news site). There are “comments” sections after stories and with blogs, various ways to post on Twitter, and easy-to-follow directions to allow readers to post videos or stills on sites.

Cover a story from different angles, beyond the initial story focus. Tompkins suggests, for example, shooting half-time entertainment at high school football games to reach a different audience from the same location—band members, cheerleaders and their families. Make it personal. Localize it.

Interactive maps are another way to engage audiences. They can pinpoint where they are during a natural disaster, for example, and write a recap of what is happening in their neighborhoods.

Online, All the Time
Most users log in either midmorning or in midafternoon. There is constant updating to an online news story; however, a journalist must post with very specific, focused language. Nowadays, when audiences go online to search for a story, do research or expand their knowledge on a topic, they use search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN. The words they key in to “search” for their topic can lead them to a news agency’s site—if that site is using those words in the stories and headlines.

Therefore, using key words thoughtfully and strategically can garner more “readership.” This process is called search engine optimization. Tompkins pointed out how the Sacramento Bee changed its “Real Estate” section to “Homes.” He said, “People who are looking for a house do not search the words “real estate.”

Other ways to draw readership include having compelling video and photo shots that are close up rather than wide angled. Enlarge fonts and practice selective word choice.

An interesting fact from Poynter Eyetrack showed that “online users tend to read more of an article than print readers do…” so to get them to read a story, a journalist has to offer the key words they searched for. Journalists also need to write tight—no more than 800 words—and 15 words or less per sentence. In other words, the story has to be enticing, engaging, interactive, and informative.

The Journalist’s Responsibility
One is no longer “just” a print media journalist. A “backpack” journalist must sharpen her skills so that she can file her own stories, become computer savvy, involve social media tools, know basics of Photoshop, video editing and audio editing, and understand “netiquette.” At all times a journalist must think in multi-media layers. Assessing readership is crucial. Why did they come to your website? What were they expecting? How can you present information? Visitor presence is measured through page views, visitors, unique visitors and the time they all spend on the site and all these factors must be taken into account as a reporter covers stories.   

Editor, Professor, Chair of RTDNA, Stacey Woelfel. Photo credit:

Most importantly, a journalist’s code of ethics must remain steady even as online publishing changes continuously. In 2010, Tompkins, along with news director Kevin Benz, Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) chair Stacey Woelfel, attorneys and other media representatives, produced  guidelines for the ethical use of social media. These social media guidelines for journalists include truth and fairness, accountability and transparency, and image and reputation. Journalists are expected to uphold these.

Sources must always be verified. Truth must be exposed. Awareness of the casualness of social media like Twitter should not be an excuse for inaccuracy and unfairness. Personal opinions and “friending” should not cross professional lines. With an intuitive guideline, a journalist must still “aim for the heart” in order to connect with readers on an emotional, interactive level.

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Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July, everyone!  After taking an International Reporting class for my Digital Journalism master’s program, today especially, I’m terribly proud and eternally grateful to live in America.  Despite problems and shortcomings, in comparison to many other countries, we have so many opportunities and blessings. I thank my dad, brother, uncles and cousins who have served in our Armed Forces. And for the thousands who serve today, thank you! Though your transition home may take time, I hope you know that your sacrifices for our freedom have not gone unnoticed.

Today I will celebrate, I will cry when I truly listen to the words of our patriotic songs, and I will believe in better days ahead. Please enjoy some of my favorite versions of God Bless America (Martina McBride), our National Anthem–The Star Spangled Banner (Kelly Clarkson) and America the Beautiful (Ray Charles).

When Story Impacts Journalist: The Makings of a Pulitzer Prize Winning Feature Story

By Sylvia Mendoza

Eli Sanders of The Stranger, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing (Photo by Kelly O)

 Jennifer Hopper sat in a courtroom recounting the horrific details—so very many of them—that shattered her life as much as the quiet stillness of that warm summer night in 2009 in her South Park neighborhood in Seattle. Hopper’s sole purpose: to see justice served—to prosecute and put Isaiah Kalebu away for what he did to her and her partner, Teresa Butz. Deep in slumber that night, Butz and Hopper were startled awake by the intruder—standing naked over them brandishing a knife. Over the course of the next ninety minutes, Kalebu would brutally, violently and sadistically torture and rape both women, stab and cut them repeatedly, and eventually kill Butz.  

As Hopper took the witness stand—pushing aside her fear, honoring the woman she loved, and recreating incomprehensible actions—Eli Sanders, a reporter for The Stranger, a Seattle-based alternative weekly, became profoundly moved by her testimony and honesty. Sanders was caught up in it. Every word. And he began to write her story.

“The experience compelled the piece, really,” Sanders says. “She was brave beyond anything I could imagine. The force of what I experienced in that courtroom pushed this out of me.”

“This” is “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” a 5,200 word emotionally charged, fact-filled article that earned Sanders the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.

The Unfolding of a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Story

There are stories that need to be told. Need to. And when this need is coupled with a feature writer who has the skill to recreate a “scene” with precision and perseverance, description and details, compassion and sensitivity, the resulting story can change lives. It can give a voice to the underdog. It can elevate the human consciousness. It can be the vehicle to present truth and justice. It can, very simply, be a story written so compellingly that thousands of readers can relate to it, whether or not they can stomach the unfolding story itself.

Sanders brought all those elements to light in “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning story was not Sanders first about the brutal crime.  When Sanders first heard of the rapes and murder in 2009, he wanted to get to the reason it happened in the first place. “My first thought was that perhaps this was a hate crime, an anti-gay bashing with severe outcomes,” he says. The details were sketchy, so there was an extra level of inquiry. I had to know what started that story. What were Isaiah’s motivations?”

That need to get to the root of the crime, the motivation, started Sanders on a journey that he never expected. “It became clear that these two women had a unique and strong relationship with each other and with their neighborhood. They had loved and been a part of that community.”

What he uncovered as he went along was the importance of giving a glimpse of life in that community. “While South Park Slept” was the result. Another story was “The Mind of Kalebu,” a profile on Isaiah Kalebu, which showed in disturbing detail how he slipped through the mental health and criminal justice systems after being diagnosed as bi-polar and harming others in criminal acts.  He seemed to become more unstable with each incident, and became unleashed with Butz and Hopper. Yet another story, “What the Trial of Isaiah Kalebu Looked Like From the Jury Box” offered more in-depth insight of the crime.

So for two years before Hopper even got on the witness stand, Sanders had collected information, interviewed others, did research, and wrote related stories that eventually would lead him to Hopper. During this time, Kalebu was bound and arrested, says Sanders. Kalebu had fled when Butz tried to escape. She didn’t make it far before falling, and lay unmoving in the street. Hopper, naked and bloody, ran for help, screaming until neighbors came racing to their aid. It was too late to save Butz. But Hopper, with a rising hysteria, did not know that until much later.

Because of DNA samples secured by officials at the victims’ home, Kalebu was tracked down and arrested within days. “The events and the consequences were familiar to the readers of The Stranger. They knew the history before The Bravest Woman was published. The long arc of the story didn’t come just at the trial.”     

He was able to meet Hopper only once in the two years—and it was at her request. According to her own story (that appeared much later in The Stranger), “I am Still Here: The Survivor of the South Park Attacks, in Her Own Words”, she had been impressed with Sanders’s coverage of the crime, as well as his style and honesty in the related stories. She felt she could trust him. “I met with Jennifer Hopper and had an off-the-record conversation,” Sanders explained. “She couldn’t risk being interviewed before being cross examined. She didn’t want to talk really. It wasn’t what I call a normal interviewer/interviewee relationship, but it was one I had to respect.”

They didn’t see each other again until the trial. Still, somehow, that seemed to be enough. She requested he not use her name in the trial story, which was understandable to Sanders.

It worked. He sat through hours upon endless hours in the courtroom listening and recording her story in detail. He listened to other people’s accounts. He relentlessly researched background information. And yet, he decided not to use every gruesome detail in his story, even though he did use some profanity and did get descriptive. Some would say he “crossed the line.”

“I knew about the crime, the law and the two women, but there was lots I didn’t know,” he admits. “Everything that happened in the courtroom was new to me. During the court proceedings, the power of her testimony compelled me to write the story the way I did. I was incredibly awed at her testimony, at her clarity and poise, at her composure and her honesty. I can’t imagine what she was going through. I can’t imagine myself being as composed if it were me. I really don’t think I’d be able to do that. To do what she does takes incredible courage.”

She testified on a Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders wrote the story over the weekend and it was published the following week. “It was her story. In a vivid and honest way, I wanted to write her story in the way she told it. I alluded quickly to what had been written previously. My responsibility was my word to Jennifer, especially because she wanted to remain anonymous.”


Honored that he was selected the Pulitzer winner, Sanders is overwhelmed by the response and accolades. “I’m amazed the story has resonated with so many people at this level,” he says.

That comes from a journalist who attended Columbia University in 1999, but did not major in journalism. After college, Sanders moved home to Seattle, wanting to write. Armed with a degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, he started working at the Seattle Times. “You don’t need to go to college to be a journalist,” Sanders says.

He knew that the fundamentals of journalism—telling stories, getting those interviews, relaying the truth—were basics he could pick up.  In an interview with the American Journalism Review he says, however, that “A wider understanding of the world is not something you can pick up.”

He has that understanding. As time went on, he honed journalistic skills as a stringer for The Boston Globe, a freelancer for The Stranger, and writing for the New York Times’ Seattle bureau. He’s also written for the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. His writing has appeared in three books: The Contenders (Seven Stories Press), The Best Sex Writing 2006 (Cleis Press), and What to Read in the Rain (826 Seattle). He might have developed writing techniques along the way but the unique writing style and natural storytelling ability were apparent.

These skills were apparent in “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” It had flow, depth and delivered a storyline that was mesmerizing, allowing a reader to “read between the lines” and/or imagine himself “there;” there, in this case, was at the scene of the crime.

The way Sanders chose to open his story was an intriguing choice. It was with the element of normalcy that he set up the atrocity that was about to come. He focused on the prosecuting attorney’s questions about window coverings and windows, what could be seen from them, what could be seen through them. What the reader was about to learn was that one of these windows almost offered Butz an escape from unspeakable violence and unnecessary death.

Sanders may not think of writing techniques as his stories unfold, but in this story, his use of repetition provoked reaction, adding an almost-poetic flow to the piece.  The word “maybe,” for example, gave possible scenarios of how the rapist chose to attack these two particular women: “Maybe he stalked them. Maybe he’d noticed the women around the neighborhood. Maybe he also saw their love for each other. Maybe he saw that…they were one. Maybe …the numbers were on his side.” 

Repetition also worked to show how those in the courtroom reacted to the horrors inflicted on Butz and Hopper. Sanders wrote… “what happened next made the court reporter’s eyes well up, made the bailiff cry, had the whole room in tears…The family and friends in the courtroom cried. The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried. The camerawoman…cried.”

Lastly, the use of repetition provided a kind of platform, which was important to see things through Hopper’s eyes: “This happened to me. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did…You must listen.”

Another technique Sanders used is transition. Effective ones seamlessly link paragraphs, main points and incidents. The best transition Sanders used was connecting the victim’s home (scene of the crime) with the courtroom. He wrote: “And I watched him walk by the dresser near the window, and he just, one by one, shut all three windows…In the courtroom, it felt like windows were closing…”

With an incredible job of balancing narrative with dialogue, paraphrasing with direct quotes, facts with emotion, humor with horror—through it all—Hopper’s voice was heard loud and clear. Her conviction and bravery took root in the courtroom and were relayed in Sanders’s writing.

No one could doubt that her testimony affected Sanders as a person. He just happened to be a good enough journalist to distance himself to write her account, get to the heart of the story, baring her pain so she could see justice served at the end.


The Pulitzer honor has overwhelmed Sanders, even as he becomes more comfortable with his role as journalist. He speaks of his writing, and what he knows of himself by now as a journalist, and simply presents information the best way he can. “You have to write every story with passion, but I’m not there to influence a reader to think one way or another. I can’t tell them what to take away.”

Yet Jennifer Hopper saw the power of Sanders’s writing. The way the story was told brought her out of her safe cocoon of anonymity. Her acknowledgement of Sanders’s writing—as honest, compassionate and accurate—speaks of Sanders’s professionalism and innate journalistic integrity.  Hopper chose to write an article in The Stranger to reveal her identity and tell her version of what happened because of Sanders’s work. In “I am Still Here: The Survivor of the South Park Attacks, in Her Own Words” she says his work had “created a three-dimensional picture not only of the recent trial, but of the psychology of the crime itself. His writing brought humanity to my personal horror, and I will always be grateful to have been interpreted by his honest voice.”

Sanders said he would love to write more of these types of stories. Although he can’t think of his future beyond current deadlines and commitments, he sees the beauty of working for a publication like The Stranger.  “I love working here. It is a rare and exceptional place that allows you to do work of this length and this depth,” he says. “The world can be very complicated and you can’t write certain stories in short format. You need longer pieces.”

The experience of writing “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” was both humbling and exhilarating for Sanders. Kalebu was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole and given two 47-year sentences for the rapes.  Hopper is still healing and trying to deal with daily life. Sanders has been forever impacted by her bravery on the stand. He does not apologize and makes no excuses for his own emotional reaction to the story and his immersion in it.  In fact, he believes writing this way makes him a better, more insightful journalist.

“I wrote that in June 2011, and feel I’m still too close to it even now,” Sanders says. “There’s no way not to be emotionally impacted or involved in a story like that. No person could get through this unaffected. I was deeply impacted. How could you not be? To be the best writer you can be, every story you get involved with—every story—should have an impact on you. ”


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The New News–at What Price?

I’m enrolled in a Digital Journalism Master’s program at National University and our first real class started this week. “The New News” is already amazing, intimidating and enlightening–especially to an old school journalist like myself.

As a freelancer I write mainly profiles and feature stories; in this class we are covering hard news stories this week. We are also examining how powerful blogging can be and how dangerous in the hands of extremists who practice freedom of speech without worry of ethical journalistic standards, guidelines or at the very least, the practice of responsible journalism. Professor Amster’s piece in the Huffington Post about conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart ( was enlightening, disheartening, shake-your-head unbelievable.

Breitbart’s untimely death will bring his followers and advocates out of the woodwork, and place him in more of the media spotlight he seemed to crave. His voice was heard loud and strong. Obviously sensationalism and controversy still sells the news, and “yellow journalism” now taints blogs written by those who think they are journalists with colorful commentary, no matter who they plow down in the process.  

Sometimes the news isn’t always pretty, even for someone who writes features and profiles. For this USC “print” journalism major (1982!), freelancer and a newbie to blogging, social media and digital journalism–I still hope to always embrace the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) that Dr. Amster mentioned in part in her piece:  

Seek the truth and report it.

Minimize harm.

Act Independently.

And last, be accountable.


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