The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: June, 2007

Wish you were here

This blog will likely be quiet the rest of the week as I will be in St. Petersburg, Fla., on business.

An ethical donation

Are you a journalist tempted to give money to your favorite candidate? Why not avoid the hassle of being called on it by MSNBC and make that donation to the ACES Education Fund instead?

Your gift helps pay for scholarships for promising students who want to go into copy editing. For my money, that’s a more worthy cause than most political campaigns.

Find out more here.

TMZ-rific

TMZ, the site that regularly uses adjectives such as “Fergalicious” and “asstastic” in its coverage of celebrities, is also having fun with headlines. Here’s an example:

Hannah Still a Fannah of Lohan-nah

The New York Times has the inside story on TMZ, which calls itself The Associated Press of the world of celebrity gossip. It’s a fascinating and troubling look at what draws readers and how that affects news judgment of other media.

Misc.

  • Salon asks why there seem to be more al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq than there used to be. At least that’s how they are described by the White House and news stories.
  • An assistant managing editor at the paper in Birmingham, Ala., has turned an old newsrack into something new. It just takes a some imagination and a Mac mini.

Alternative profiles in courage

Can a personality profile be done in alternative story form? Of course.

This example from The News & Observer features section shows how. Here’s the recipe:

  • Remix liberally.
  • Add bold lede-ins.
  • Sprinkle with carefully selected information from the Web.
  • Enjoy!

Should every profile be done this way? Of course not. But this packs a lot of information into a small space, and it’s easy to scan. It comes in bite sizes but is still nutritious. Stories about speeches can be done the same way. (Thanks to N&O copy editor Chuck Small for the “before and after” insight on this regular feature.)

For all the talk here lately about alternative story forms, I’d like to point to two well-done stories written as old-fashioned narratives, both from the N&O:

  • Assistant managing editor Dan Barkin on getting a tattoo with his son, George.

No recipe needed. Just enjoy!

Editing with Atari

Who needs Quark CopyDesk or the latest version of InCopy when you have an Atari? Watch Alan Alda and and friend edit some historic copy in this 1984 commercial.

The handling and packaging of news stories

An alternative story form at the bottom of the front page of The News & Observer fulfills its mission. It’s sort of an executive summary of a report on how climate change will affect the state economically. A full story — necessary in this case to elaborate on the findings — appears elsewhere in the paper.

It’s where that story appears that makes little sense. It’s on 10A, sandwiched between a page with two short wire stories about Iraq and Afghanistan and the editorial page. But the news about the climate report is a state story, and the N&O has a City & State section. Why not put the full story in City & State, where it belongs, rather than in the back of the A section?

Just because the ASF is on the front page doesn’t mean the story it refers to should be in the same section.

Contributing editors

The Drudge Report, in its typically histrionic style, is trumpeting this MSNBC story that reports on political contributions by members of the media. As Drudge puts it:

THE GREAT DIVIDE: REPORTERS GIVE DEMS MONEY OVER REPUBLICANS 9 TO 1!

But that headline is imprecise. A look at the full list shows that the contributors are not all reporters. Photographers, critics and copy editors are on it.

The MSNBC story also has this useful list of newsroom policies on this issue.

UPDATE: A Boston University professor has questions about the story’s method and conclusions.

Seeking story forms

I’m heading for St. Petersburg, Fla., next week to work on a module for Poynter Institute’s NewsU project. The module’s topic is alternative story forms.

In preparation, I’m looking to add to my collection of these forms. They go by various names:

If you have an example of an alternative story that you thought was effective, send it along in whatever format you have. We might incorporate it into the module. Thanks!

Book review: "The Ethics of the Story"

A skim through the table of contents of “The Ethics of the Story” could lead the casual reader to perceive this book as a typical textbook on reporting or editing. The chapter titles sound familiar enough: Description and Attribution; Quotes and Paraphrasing; Word Choice, Labeling and Bias.

But a closer look reveals that the treatment of these topics is anything but perfunctory. “The Ethics of the Story” is an illuminative discussion of the intersections of journalistic practices and philosophies. It is an important work that addresses audiences both in the classroom and in the newsroom.

The author, David Craig, has gone straight to the source of what is happening in newsrooms across the country, interviewing 60 journalists about the ethical choices they make in their jobs. A former copy editor who now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, Craig has spoken with reporters, copy editors and assignment editors at The Oregonian, the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times. The depth and candor of their comments show that Craig is an effective interviewer in his own right; the clarity with which he presents his findings demonstrates his prowess as a writer.

The methodology of “in the newsroom” interviewing serves as a perfect vehicle in the drive to find answers to the questions that Craig poses:

  • How are journalists reflecting reality in their writing and editing?
  • How does the simple act of deciding which direct quote to use from an interview affect the value of truth?
  • How does a choice of wording by an editor alter the tenor of a story?
  • What are the ethical values that form the foundation of these choices?

The questions may seem obvious, but they have often gone unasked even in the face of high-profile violations of ethical responsibilities in journalism. Craig mentions the fabrications perpetrated by reporters Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, and the devastation they brought on the entire profession.

However, Craig is not especially interested in this scandalous side of the profession. Instead, he focuses on the behavior of honest journalists. These are hard-working, straightforward people attempting to present readers with the reality around them with the tools of reporting, writing and editing.

In trying to accurately depict that reality, the journalists Craig studies must constantly make decisions — about sources, about story forms and about word choices — while under deadline pressure. As Craig writes: “The day-to-day, paragraph-by-paragraph choices are important ethical matters because they go together to influence the picture of the world that the audience takes from news stories, features, analyses and commentaries.”

Focusing on this narrow segment of the ethical spectrum makes “The Ethics of the Story” a thought-provoking portrayal of the everyday workings of the newspaper newsroom. Most journalists, after all, are not like Blair or Kelley. They are the ones interviewed here: They want to do the right thing, and they adhere to the principles of truth and compassion, which Craig asserts are core ethical concerns.

None of these journalists would argue that the actions of Blair are ethical. But they may disagree, for example, about whether an anecdotal lead inadvertently skews a story in an unethical direction. And they may disagree about terminology on issues such as abortion. These are the daily debates among journalists (and, ideally, among students in journalism schools) that are finally getting the academic study that they deserve.

For much of the book, Craig allows the journalists to speak for themselves, and their comments open a window on the newsroom that will fascinate academics and professionals alike. “It’s not my job to insert my voice into the story,” says one copy editor about respecting the work of reporters. “But it is my job to make sure that his voice is as clear as possible.” At the end of each chapter, Craig also offers his recommendations on these decisions, and he provides well-reasoned advice on attribution, anecdotal leads and other topics.

If “The Ethics of the Story” has any shortcomings, it is its exclusivity to print journalism. The author acknowledges the rapid changes in the newspaper industry but doesn’t bring in the views of those working in other media, particularly online. How are these new journalists confronting the issues faced by their print counterparts? Their views would be a worthy addition to the next edition of this book.

This book review also appears in the latest issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

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