The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: February, 2009

Interesting reading

  • Eric Ulken, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, on the troubled state of newspapers in Britain.
  • Dan Barkin of The News & Observer, on checking the facts behind President Barack Obama’s recent speech to Congress.
  • Jennifer Balderama of The New York Times, on a new book called “The Subversive Copy Editor.”

Of doctors and doctorates

Should someone who has a Ph.D. in history, engineering or political science be addressed as a doctor? Or should that title be reserved for those with medical degrees?

Popular culture seems to have no problem with “doctors” with non-medical doctorates. Consider Dr. Indiana Jones, Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Octopus and Dr. Strangelove. (OK, the educational background of the latter character is a bit mysterious, but he doesn’t appear to be a physician.)

The title, medical or otherwise, also works well for real people in music and the arts: Dr. John, Dr. Demento, Dr. Dre and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, just to name a few.

The label of doctor gets more serious — and contentious — in the news world. Journalism demands precision and accuracy, and not everyone agrees on the best way to reach those goals. So it goes with doctors, as reflected in these two recent examples:

  • John McIntyre, writing at You Don’t Say, addressed a reader’s complaint about an obituary that gave the deceased the title of “Dr.”
  • Media Matters, a watchdog organization, criticized a Los Angeles Times story that pointed out that Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, prefers to be called “Dr. Biden.”

Here is another view from someone who is a doctor and an academic. Tom Linden teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has an extensive background in journalism, especially in broadcast news. He also has a medical degree.

In an exchange of e-mail, I asked Linden what he thought of the doctor debate. Here’s his response, published in full:

I think anyone should be free to use whatever title they want, and that includes “Dr. J.”

For media purposes, I’ve always followed the AP Stylebook, which restricts the use of “Dr.” in first reference to those individuals who hold degrees as doctor of medicine, doctor of dental surgery, doctor of osteopathy or doctor of podiatric medicine. On second reference I drop the “Dr.” but explain what type of doctor the individual is.

Personally, I would prefer to use the suffixes “M.D.” and “Ph.D.” and “D.O.” and “D.D.S.” and dispense with the doctor title entirely.

For television supers, I’ve always used the suffix but not the prefix. I then identify the type of doctor in the second line. For example, Joe Smith, M.D./UNC Cancer Specialist or Jane Doe, D.D.S./Duke Oral Surgeon. In the television story itself, I would refer to the medical and dental doctors as “Dr. Joe Smith” on first reference and just “Smith” on second and following references.

For academics in television stories, I would use the “Ph.D.” as the suffix in supers (e.g., George Jones, Ph.D./UNC Geology Professor or Barbara Smith, M.A./Duke Psychology Professor). In the television story itself I would refer to the academics as Professor Jones or Professor Smith on first reference and then just “Jones” or “Smith” on following references.

Personally, you can just call me “Tom” no matter who you are.

Thanks for your insight, Tom. Perhaps now we can move on to the discussion of nurses as doctors.

Cover letters need editing

A recent Q&A on cover letters stayed near the top of the “most popular” list at the New York Times site for nearly a week. It’s certainly a timely article, with many people (including journalists) on the job market. And yes, those letters still matter in the age of the e-mailed résumé.

The last question in the Q&A is an important one. It’s about common mistakes in cover letters. Here’s part of the answer:

A cover letter with typos, misspellings and poor sentence structure may take you out of the running for a job. If you cannot afford to pay someone to review your cover letter and résumé, enlist a friend or a family member with good language skills to do it instead.

It’s true. Those things can take you out of the running for a job. I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms and in academia. If you are on the job market or want to go to graduate school, make sure those letters are clear and clean.

Q&A: Copy editing and business journalism

Eileen Cukier is the associate editor at the South Florida Business Journal, based in Fort Lauderdale. She has been at the publication for eight years and the full-time copy editor for six years. This Q&A, conducted by e-mail, takes a look at Cukier’s job and the task of editing business news.

Q. Describe your job. What’s it like to be an editor specializing in business journalism?

A. I’m responsible for copy-editing every story for our weekly print edition and every bit of breaking news for our Web site. For print, I’m usually the second read. For the Web, I may be the only read. I also write headlines and cutlines for the print edition, write chatter for and double-check charts and maps, cut stories to fit their assigned layouts and do some page layout from scratch. (When the design editor is out, I do all of the page layout.)

SFBJ is one of American City Business Journals’ 40 local business newspapers nationwide. As such, we feature people who are leaders in the local business community. We report on local, state and national issues that impact our readers’ businesses and help them grow their companies.

In other words: We’re a niche publication and don’t cover many of the things a daily paper does. We don’t write for the general consumer, so our coverage rarely overlaps that of the three dailies in our market.

Editing for a business publication is exciting for me because we tend to cover topics that touch large groups of people and have far-reaching consequences.

Q. How is editing business stories different from editing general news? What about similarities?

A. I need to be on top of everything a businessperson would be interested in reading about, from banking and real estate to legal issues and technology — topics that I would not usually have any interest in. I need to have a good understanding of these topics so I can ask informed questions of the reporters. I need to make sure the stories are written in such a way that doesn’t talk down to our readers, but isn’t full of jargon. In other words: I want that banker to feel we’ve don’t a good job covering his sector, but I also want a lawyer to be able to get something out of the story.

I also need to have the general knowledge about my market that any good editor has: names of places, names of people in high places and any major changes to said people and places. Of course, attention to detail, the ability to know when spell-check is wrong and a working knowledge of the AP Stylebook are musts.

Q. People are talking about the performance of the media in reporting on the economic crisis. What is your opinion of how business journalism has covered this news?

A. I think business journalism has done a good job of covering the crisis. At the SFBJ, we have mostly covered it as it relates to local business (with layoffs and such), banking (subprime mortgage crisis) and real estate (lots of foreclosures).

Q. What advice do you have for someone looking to move into business journalism?

A. Know your audience. Keep up with the major trends. Be ready to read a lot of depressing news. (Hopefully, that’s only temporary.)

Guest post: Too much sensationalism in online headline writing?

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the fifth of these guest posts. Nathaniel Jordan, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Winston-Salem who is majoring in journalism, plans to switch gears and study accounting at the graduate level. He has an intense love for college and professional sports, and enjoys writing, playing golf and spending time with friends.

When I go online to read the news, I try to look at a variety of outlets. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News are a few of the many different online publications I regularly read. And while the former two have a definite hard news, by-the-book feel to them, the latter two seem to be enamored with using news more for entertainment value than for reporting information to the public.

This significant difference in reporting style is most evident in the news value judgments and resulting story headlines coming out of each of the aforementioned news sources. A quick glance at the most read stories on CNN.com and Foxnews.com gives a clear idea of each outlet’s goal: shock the reader with a bold and often insensitive headline in order to gain readership. In other words, these two outlets (and others, no doubt) seem to prey on readers’ sensitivities by feeding them sensational headlines that could easily have been written to fit the hard news mold as opposed to the attention-grabbing, feature-like form.

For example, CNN.com ran a story Feb. 18 about a 5-year-old boy who was eaten by a crocodile in Australia. While the headline (“Remains of five-year-old boy found in crocodile’s stomach”) is definitely informative, I think it’s a little too vivid. Certainly there are times when descriptive headlines work to a publication’s advantage, but in this case I believe specifying the way a young child died a grisly death could have been saved for the body of the story. After all, what is the real hope of running a headline like this? To report the news or to shock readers and hope they will want to find out more?

Another story from the same day featured an equally graphic headline. In this headline, a woman who was brutally murdered is referred to as a “beheaded woman.” Though that is a quick and easy identifier, it seems slightly disrespectful and insensitive. A word like “slain” would have been a better replacement for “beheaded.” Again, I think it’s crucial to ask about the motivation for running this type of headline.

I was not surprised to find that for most of Feb. 18, these two stories were the most read on CNN.com. Surely, the headline of each story was the main reason why so many read these articles. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I find it hard to believe that a boy’s death in Australia and a woman’s beheading were the most prominent and significant stories of the day.

This brings me to an important question that I believe needs to be asked as it relates to online news: Is there too much freedom in headline writing for online news publications? In print, headlines follow a pretty standard, albeit predictable form. And though print headlines can walk the fine line between being clever and being insensitive, I believe this trend is far more prevalent in online news headlines.

I want to point out that I am not advocating a ban on clever journalism. I love creative headlines that attract the reader’s attention. After all, something has to draw the potential reader to the story. But when attention is sought using seemingly desperate means which often translate to a lack of respect for the subject of the story in a headline, standards need to be reviewed and altered.

Gearing up for ACES in Minneapolis

A first draft of the agenda for the 2009 national conference of the American Copy Editors Society is now available. The program includes some classics such as “The Rules That Aren’t” along with some new sessions on blogging and Twitter.

The conference will take place April 30 to May 2 in Minneapolis. Early registration ends Feb. 28. (UPDATE: This has been extended to March 14.)

With budgets for training and travel at zero at most newspapers and magazines, many people will have to pay their own way to the confernence this year. Luckily, air fares to Minneapolis are pretty cheap, and the conference fee itself compares favorably with the annual meetings of similar organizations. In other words, it will be worth it.

Find out more about the conference at the ACES site. I hope to see you in Minneapolis.

N&O public editor to leave

ted_vadenTed Vaden, the public editor at The News & Observer, will leave the Raleigh newspaper for a communications job with the state Department of Transportation. The paper’s publisher isn’t saying whether he will name a successor.

Vaden has been public editor (also known as an ombudsman) at the N&O since 2004. In that role, he addressed the complaints, questions and, on occasion, compliments from readers. In 2008, the position became a part-time job as part of the paper’s efforts to save money.

Vaden wrote a Sunday column and maintained a blog, though he hasn’t posted as much there lately. On occasion, he addressed editing issues (such as headlines and the copy desk) in his columns, which are collected here.

Best of luck to Ted in his new job.

I will follow

About a week ago, my first Twitter message (or “Tweet”) read as follows: “I’ve caved and joined Twitter.”

I had been reluctant to join Twitter, a service that allows you to broadcast short messages to your circle of friends and to “follow” them. I’m already spending time with this blog and Facebook, not to mention old-fashioned e-mail.

But I figure Twitter is here, so why not use it? So far, I like its simplicity and brevity, characteristics epitomized in its the 140-character limit for each message. And I haven’t been bombarded with “25 things” requests that have consumed Facebook lately.

As a way to deliver news, Twitter reminds me of my days on the wire desk when The Associated Press would send news alerts. These would just be a sentence or two about breaking news, with a full story to follow later. Twitter messages from people and organizations that I follow are like that, with a mix of personal updates along with what journalists would describe as news.

I’m not so sure of Twitter’s usefulness as a way to follow a complicated event for a longer period. During the attacks in Mumbai, people in the city posted updates to Twitter. Reading that feed would be like listening to a police scanner: somewhat informative, but fragmentary. It takes a writer and editor to put all of those fragments into a coherent story.

A recent Webinar at NewsU offered some guidance for journalists who use Twitter. Perhaps I will try the replay of that session as I explore Twitter’s possibilities. In the meantime, you are welcome to follow me.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that Twitter messages have a 140-word limit. The limit is 140 characters. I regret the error.

Guest post: Can you find victory in a cutline?

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the fourth of these guest posts. Amanda Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism and French, possesses an unusual love for proper grammar, romance languages and competitive sports. As an Atlanta native, she still dreams about Chipper Jones and the ’95 Atlanta Braves.

After the Tar Heels’ most recent victory over the Blue Devils in Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, I eagerly awaited the next morning’s news stories, photos and videos. I wanted to relive every moment of the basketball game (especially Bobby Frasor’s three 3-pointers). After all, shouldn’t one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time result in the greatest sports journalism of all time?

There were some moments of copy editing greatness, such as the headline in The Charlotte Observer that read, “Once again, Tar Heels are kings of Cameron.” However, in my opinion, copy editors often fell short of greatness when it came to writing cutlines.

First, I found the inaccurate cutline. In her ESPN.com column, Dana O’Neil wrote about UNC-Chapel Hill player Tyler Hansbrough and his dominance at Duke’s basketball court. An accompanying picture carried the caption: “Tyler Hansbrough finished his career 4-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.” While this statement is completely accurate, its relationship to the picture bothered me. In the image, Hansbrough appears to be jumping over a Duke player to score a basket. However, those of us who have every play of the game engrained in our memories remember that Hansbrough did not score in the picture. Instead, he was called for a charge, which means that he actually hurt his team’s chances of winning the game in that moment. Ouch.

Next, I found the boring cutline. The Daily Tar Heel chronicled the mid-game and post-game revelry in Chapel Hill with a slideshow. Although the pictures expressed a sense of excitement, the cutlines did not. For example, one cutline said, “A crowd of students watches the basketball game in the Union lobby Wednesday night.” I can tell that from the photo. Cutlines are supposed to provide us with more information. How many students were there? How early did those in front arrive at the Union to claim their seats? How loud did the crowd get? Tell me more!

Finally, I found the absent cutline. A slideshow on the Sports Illustrated Web site documented the game with some fantastic pictures of both UNC-CH and Duke players handling the basketball like only the best players can. The pictures were clear and sharp, but they lacked cutlines. And to me, this was the least offensive of the cutline errors. Because the slideshow was clearly connected to the recap of the basketball game, cutlines seemed unnecessary and, perhaps, would have been redundant. The pictures were so expressive that they probably deserved to be left alone. However, I would welcome the challenge of supplementing the photos with a few words of my own.

So now, I conclude my tale of cutline woes by asking my fellow copy editors to be great. Be great like Tyler Hansbrough at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Make cutlines great or leave them out.

Checking the facts behind an opinion

The Wall Street Journal made a mistake this week in an editorial about President Barack Obama’s recent news conference. The WSJ board questioned Obama’s use of a list of reporters to call on, suggesting that a more spontaneous session would be more in line with the new president’s pledge of openness and transparency. Here’s where the WSJ goofed:

We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors.

Indeed, as documented by Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Bush used a similar list, with some reporters exiled to “Siberia,” never to be called on. It’s a practice that Bush “got away with” for eight years.

The Journal usually takes care in its word choices and phrasing. Could this mistake have been prevented? Of course. That’s where editing comes in.

Romenesko made a connection between this error and the Journal’s recent decision to close its news library. Perhaps that unfortunate move will lead to more fact errors in the paper’s news stories and editorials. But the Bush error could have been caught by a copy editor. Opinion pieces need editing too — and not just for style, punctuation and grammar. Copy editors can check facts and ask questions, just as any journalist would.

More on the editing of the editorial and op-ed pages in this interview with Burgetta Wheeler of The News & Observer.

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