The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: October, 2007

Radio clash

Call it masochism, but on occasion I listen to talk radio, both news and sports.

I’ve come to agree with Chuck Klosterman that much of sports talk creates a debate where none exists. (Today’s topic on “Mike & Mike in the Morning” was whether baseball players should have to wait a week after the World Series to declare for free agency, hardly one of the pressing issues of our time.) And the “news” talk programs are rife with conjecture and speculation, sometimes passed off under the guise of “it’s really just entertainment.”

Expecting such programs to check facts seems futile. Yet the hosts of talk radio (we won’t even bother with the callers) operate with what they purport to be the facts. Like newspaper columnists, these hosts attempt to establish facts and then use those facts to make an argument. Unfortunately, the “facts” are often dubious.

Here are two recent examples from the big AM station in my area and how their hosts’ reality doesn’t match mine:

HOST’S REALITY: A report on the increasing poverty among students in public schools is flawed because it is based on the number of children getting a reduced or free lunch. The school system actually wants more poor kids because it gets a kickback from the federal government based on the level of participation in the lunch program. School administrators, therefore, badger parents into enrolling even if they don’t need the assistance.

MY REALITY: The report does use enrollment in the lunch program to measure poverty among students, but the local school system (a frequent target of this particular host) doesn’t twist arms to get people to participate. Here’s how it works: During the first week of school, my second-grader brought home a pile of paperwork for us parents to deal with. One piece of this paperwork was an application for the lunch program. For the past two years, we didn’t fill it out or return it because we can afford to pay for his lunch, and the school system never said anything about it. There was no pressure to apply.

HOST’S REALITY: America is condoning the “pornification” of Halloween, with little girls encouraged to dress in sexy costumes. (Yes, it’s a trend!) Traditional costumes such as princess and Snow White are nowhere to be found, replaced by outfits such as the naughty nurse and the devil. This was big news, according to the host, because it was not only on Fox and CNN, but also the lead story in today’s Washington Post.

MY REALITY: My son and I went to several stores to look at Halloween costumes. (He’s going as a skeleton.) We saw plenty of traditional costumes for girls, including the ones the host mentioned as vanishing because of this (alleged) trend. Yes, there were sexy outfits at one party store, but these were clearly intended for adults. Also, the Post does not have this story in the lead position on the front page today, but it did have a story yesterday. I cannot find that page online to see whether it was the lead, but I strongly doubt that it was.

CONCLUSION: Talk radio doesn’t have copy desks, but it could sure use some. Be especially wary of any “facts” presented there. We can’t expect perfection in off-the-cuff remarks or in conversations between hosts and callers. But hosts should be expected to present factual information in their prepared remarks, just as columnists in print and online are required to have solid facts to back up their viewpoints.

A front page without stories — or headlines

A story in Editor & Publisher discusses how The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., has covered the fire that killed seven college students. That news has dominated the front page for the past two days, as well it should.

What’s unexpected about this front page is the lack of a traditional story and the lack of a dominant headline, or any real headlines at all. Cutlines and images make up the bulk of this presentation, with a chunk of text offering an overview of developments. Blurbs at the bottom of the page send readers inside the section for traditional stories.

Headlines that do not stick on the Web

Here’s how my employer’s news aggregator is presenting the local news today. As you can see, most of the headlines from The Chapel Hill News are more cryptic than informative. That’s because they’ve been stripped of their context: no photos, no dropheads, no labels saying what section of the paper these stories came from.

This isn’t the fault of the aggregator. It needs a human touch to help it live up to its potential. To do that, the paper should consider rewriting these headlines for the Web to make them more literal. Using proper nouns (think in terms of key words) would help. The stories would make more sense in this sort of presentation and also be more likely to pop up at the top of a Google search.

Writing different headlines for print and online isn’t necessary for every story. Yes, it creates more work for the headline writer, but that extra effort is often worth it. It all adds up to another example of how the skills of a copy editors are just important online as in print, if not more so.

More on Web headlines here and here. And NewsU offers a $20 Webinar” on the topic.

Interesting reads

Surf and turf

Thanks to the Web, I’ve learned a new word this week — or at least a new definition for word I already knew. The word is “Astroturf.”

Posts on blogs here and here use the term, and they define what they mean by it. “Astroturf” in this usage is a reference to grassroots efforts that aren’t. These campaigns look like an uprising by everyday people on some issue but are actually carefully orchestrated by consultants and interest groups who try to hide their roles. Consider the torch-wielding “Frankenstein” villagers on the march, only they’re secretly organized and paid by a foundation or think tank with some interest in the result.

It’s not a new practice, and the word has been used this way for a while, if this Wikipedia entry is to be trusted. The entry itself admits that Wikipedia is vulnerable to Astroturfing.

Thanks to these bloggers, I’ll be watching out for Astroturf — the word and the practice — from now on.

Passive voice preferred by some

Passive voice is scorned by those who say it removes the action from a sentence. It can obscure who’s doing what. “Mistakes were made,” someone once said. But who made them?

We’d likely agree that the active voice is more interesting and concise here:

  • The seventh game was won by the Red Sox.
  • The Red Sox won the seventh game.

But smart writers and editors know that passive voice is OK, even preferred, on occasion. Sometimes the person or thing being acted upon is more interesting than the person or thing doing the action. That’s often true in crime stories (“A man was arrested…”) or stories about local government (“A tax increase was approved…”).

But what about headlines, in particular those on the Web? The advice from usability expert Jakob Nielsen is to consider passive voice. Putting the key words at the start of a headline, Nielsen says, can be more important than making the headline active. Doing so helps people who scan the results of a Web search find what they are looking for. Nielsen suggests sometimes using the passive voice in blurbs, leads and lists as well.

Nielsen’s perspective is not new or unique to the Web. My colleague Bill Cloud says that during his work at The Miami Herald, he would sometimes write headlines and blurbs in the passive voice to allow the important words to come first. This was not Herald policy and didn’t have the eye-tracking research behind it that Nielsen has, but it was a widely accepted practice.

The game that never happened

This paragraph comes from this story, which is mostly about a speech by poet Nikki Giovanni. In addition to covering the speech, the reporter apparently had time to interview Giovanni, who is a faculty member at Virginia Tech.

That’s where things get weird in this story. Here’s why: Virginia Tech didn’t play Penn State on Saturday. In fact, the Hokies had the week off, and they will not play the Nittany Lions this year. Penn State did play, defeating Indiana. How could Giovanni be distracted by a “dramatic turn” in a game that didn’t happen?

Perhaps the copy editor who handled this story could have asked that question.

UPDATE: The reporter responded to an e-mail asking about this problem. “This error was introduced by an editor (!) who paraphrased something in the story incorrectly, without doing a simple check of which teams played which before he changed the story,” she says. The story then went to the copy desk, which didn’t detect the mistake.

The paper ran this correction today, but as of this writing, the online version of the story has not been corrected.

Interesting reads

  • Charles Strum of The New York Times on the newsroom at night, including discussion of pun headlines and the “oddballs of journalism.”

A little less conversation

Let’s converse about conservation, but don’t let those ideas get mixed up as they do here. It’s an especially unfortunate error because it appears in a direct quote in the lead story on the front page.

You make the call

Newspaper editors are using their blogs to get reader advice on issues of taste and ethics. Here are two examples:

  • John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., on whether to allow “scared shitless” in a direct quote from someone battling cancer.
  • Mark Schultz of The Chapel Hill News on whether to run a photograph of a cadaver with a story about first-year medical students.
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