The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2010

Guest post: The importance of being accurate

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jennifer Kessinger is a junior journalism major. She serves as the copy desk editor of The Daily Tar Heel and is also a reporter and sports anchor for Carolina Connection, a student-produced radio newscast.

A newspaper is a trusted source of information to its dedicated readership. Readers expect, and deserve, timely information about the news that matters to them. They want their news to be accurate, too. And it is — most of the time.

As someone who’s worked at The Daily Tar Heel copy desk for two years, I’ve stopped many fact errors from making their way into the printed paper. From incorrect dates for events to misspelled names, I’ve caught countless errors. But somehow inaccuracies end up in the paper. A recent front-page article headlined “Colleges closer to policy change” featured a source who was misquoted, and a correction ran on the front page the next day.

So why do we care about errors? For most errors, all we have to do as a publication is run a correction. As long as we didn’t libel someone and have to pay damages, there’s no harm done, right?

Wrong. Even with no tangible consequences, the DTH and other publications feel the sting of inaccuracies. At a recent Carolina Connection meeting, one of my colleagues suggested covering a story for the radio that had already been covered by the DTH. I then cringed in my seat when I heard someone else respond with, “Well, you can’t trust everything you read in the DTH. Have you seen how many corrections they’ve had?”

As a news source, we’re not just in the business of publishing a daily paper. We’re in the business of goodwill with our readership, and that goodwill comes in the form of credibility. Without credibility, the DTH or any other newspaper would be reduced to piles of paper and ink.

Errors can originate anywhere in the newsgathering, writing and editing process. Sources can be difficult to understand, a reporter might misread his or her notes and even the most diligent copy editor can inadvertently introduce an error into a story. So I urge all journalists, from reporters to copy and assignment editors, to be constantly looking to prevent errors.

Before I was hired as copy desk editor, I wasn’t tested on my knowledge of AP style or given a spelling and grammar quiz. I was asked how I would help combat the issue of fact errors being printed in the paper, which shows the importance of fact-checking and reading with a critical eye.

Copy editors, don’t assume any fact is common knowledge, and don’t be afraid to call a reporter to ask for clarification. Also, don’t be afraid to ask yourself a few questions: Do these facts make sense? Could they have happened in conjunction with one another? Have I checked all the names and facts in this story? Copy editors are the last line of defense in catching errors, so make sure you’re armed with the knowledge and techniques to prevent them.

This must be the place

Over the weekend, my friend and former colleague Brian Russell asked this on Twitter: Which do you prefer to describe our region? RDU, RTP, RDCH, Triangle?

I’ve run across this question in my travels over the years. Just what do we call the multi-county area in North Carolina that includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill?

Many people have heard of Research Triangle Park and think that it’s the same as the region. It isn’t; it’s just part of it.

RDU is the code for the airport. I’ve never seen RDCH used.

The stylebook of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill likes “Research Triangle.” I vote for a simple “the Triangle,” and apparently so did most of the people who responded to Brian’s question.

Please, no “Raleigh-Durham” — that’s the sure sign of an outsider. “Tobacco Road” is a cliche. And don’t forget that the Triangle is not the same as the Triad.

Guest post: Journalists should embrace gender-neutral language

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Leah Josephson is a junior journalism and French major, and women’s studies minor. She serves as managing editor for The Siren magazine, UNC-Chapel Hill’s student-run feminist publication.

A coalition of 11 UNC-Chapel Hill student groups and university departments hosted “Inclusive Reporting: Bringing the DTH into the 21st Century” on Thursday, March 18. The event was a teach-in examining the serious societal consequences of gendered language as well as related concerns for journalists in particular. It was meant to pressure The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, to adopt the University’s gender-neutral language policy.

Participating groups collected 434 signatures from supportive students, faculty and administrators in the week preceding the teach-in. More than 100 people attended the event in Bingham 103, which was followed by a letter-writing campaign. Participants then delivered handwritten letters and the petition to Editor-in-chief Andrew Dunn at The Daily Tar Heel offices.

Dunn did not attend the teach-in, which featured a lively discussion about gendered language and its significance. He refused to adopt the university’s gender-neutral policy, opting to continue to use gendered terms such as “freshman,” “chairman,” and “chairwoman.”

However, the adoption of inclusive terms has many benefits for journalists. These were described by teach-in speaker Carolyn Edy, Roy H. Park fellow and Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Because a common goal for journalists is to be concise, going beyond precise language to add unnecessary details to a story (i.e. the gender of the subject) is irrelevant and unimportant. Providing the gender of the chair of a committee does not add important information to the story.

As queer movements gain momentum in this country, activists and people with more ambiguous gender identities will be featured more prominently in the news media. Journalists working under gendered style guides will be forced to determine whether the subjects of their articles are “chairmen” or “chairwomen,” often with unclear answers.

At UNC-CH, student journalists would benefit from a style guide that is cohesive with the university’s policy. The university has deliberately chosen to use neutral language, and The Daily Tar Heel is inaccurately altering its official policy and documents, along with those of student organizations that choose to have gender-neutral officer titles. The Daily Tar Heel never even included coverage of the university’s significant policy change in the newspaper.

While gender neutrality seems like an unimportant cause, it’s important to consider it in the context of a societal system that has allowed pornographic images to become mainstream, commodifies women’s bodies in advertisements, normalizes and accepts homophobia (“That’s so gay!”) and is constantly plagued with men’s violence against women. All of these sexist attitudes and behaviors combine to create the roots of an unsafe, oppressive environment for women and LGBT-identified individuals.

The Daily Tar Heel should be mindful of the needs of its progressive campus community. It can do its part to help eliminate rape culture by using inclusive language. Each simple change in favor of equality helps to move us closer to an egalitarian society.

For a fantastic, satirical comparison of racist and gendered language, see “A Person Paper on Purity of Language” by Douglas Hofstadter.

UPDATE: Daily Tar Heel editor Andrew Dunn responds.

Is Rielle Hunter a home wrecker?

Rielle Hunter, the woman who had an affair with presidential candidate John Edwards, is in the news this week thanks to GQ magazine, which published an oddball interview and bizarre slideshow with the mistress of the former senator from North Carolina.

In the Q&A, Hunter denies breaking up Edwards’ marriage to his wife, Elizabeth:

Well, first of all, infidelity doesn’t happen in healthy marriages. The break in the marriage happens before the infidelity. And that break happened, you know, two and a half decades before I got there. So the home was wrecked already. I was not the Home Wrecker.

Besides the curious style choice by GQ to capitalize “home wrecker,” this leads to a question of definition: Was Hunter a home wrecker or not?

People may not agree on the meaning of the term, but North Carolina’s “alienation of affections” legal standard is one way to gauge whether the other woman (or man) has wrecked a home. Here’s what juries look at in those lawsuits in which a jilted spouse sues:

  • The marriage had some measure of love and affection between the spouses.
  • The interloper’s malicious conduct contributed to or caused the loss of affection.
  • The love was alienated and destroyed.

It’s difficult to know how much John and Elizabeth Edwards loved each other at the time that Hunter entered the picture. Certainly, it’s become apparent that their marriage wasn’t perfect, but even the tell-all books and articles indicate that they still shared some love at that time.

Hunter’s actions in her pursuit of Edwards certainly damaged his marriage to his wife. A sex tape and pregnancy are evidence enough of that. John and Elizabeth recently separated, so it’s safe to say that what remained of their love was destroyed thanks to Hunter’s actions.

Perhaps the Edwards home existed on a shaky foundation, but Hunter helped tear it down. So by this standard, Rielle, you are a home wrecker.

Creative Commons image by Western Dave

Guest post: The power of a marriage of print, online media

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of these posts. Sara Harris is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, finishing a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism this spring. She likes to find time for pleasure reading, yoga and ballet.

The focus of today’s media is to bring the news to the reader through various forms of online media. However, I don’t believe that we as news providers should be so eager to overlook and leave behind the print media.

The case for a hard push to digital media has already been made, and we, as reporters and editors, have heard it time and time again. The public is unwilling to pay for news that can be readily accessed for free on the Internet; the print media is old-fashioned or wasteful. Honestly, the list goes on and on. These have been enumerated in strategy + business on numerous occasions, citing that these weaknesses have caused profitability of the print media to drastically fall. The same arguments have been made not only against newspapers, but have extended to magazines, books and other print media.

The arguments have merit, but I did not idly stumble into a career in editing and journalism. I believe in the power of a printed word. There is strength of type on a page in your hand that I think resonates more strongly than if only seen through a screen. The interaction the reader has with the newspaper, the feel of the page, the scent of the paper and other sensations are irreplaceable by online media.

The problem, therefore, is not the form of print media but the marketing and the way current news organizations use it solely as a parallel for online forms. I believe that the saving grace for the print media is to have a symbiotic relationship with online media.

References to the opposite media form, exclusive offerings and across the board excellence are different ways to ensure the development of this bond in the readers’ mind. By having these two powerhouses of news support one another, neither will have to perish while the other survives.

Q&A with Rachel Sterne of GroundReport

Rachel Sterne is founder and CEO of GroundReport.com, a citizen journalism site with an international perspective. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Sterne talks about how the site works, how it uses social media and how its content is edited.

Q. What is GroundReport, and who makes up your audience?

A. GroundReport is an global news platform that allows anyone to submit articles, videos and photos for publication. The best work is published online to an international audience and syndicated to Google News, Huffington Post and other outlets.

Our mission is to democratize the media, but we’ve found that adding vetting and reward systems helps to ensure that our news reporting has some of the highest standards in the participatory journalism space. Founded in 2006, today GroundReport has over 7,000 contributors around the world, and our exclusive reports have been cited by The New York Times and AFP.

Our audience is mostly American, English, Canadian and Indian places where there are large, English-speaking, technologically connected populations. Our contributors are mostly foreign journalists, freelance writers, journalism students, bloggers and nonprofits.

Q. How does your site use social media to promote its content?

GroundReport is a purely digital news offering, so from day one, social media has been integral to our success. As a couple examples, we use Twitter to recruit journalists and publish stories to the world, and Facebook Connect to create a social environment for responding to stories and engaging with authors. We also publish video via YouTube Direct and share all videos on that platform as well as on our site.

Beyond that, GroundReport itself is social media, a full-fledged news platform completely supported by digital contributors.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at GroundReport?

GroundReport’s editing system is based on the reputation of the author. An author is classified in one of two ways: Verified or Unverified.

If the reporter is on our Verified list, her work is instantly published live upon submission. If the author is unverified, all submissions enter a hidden queue where our Editors and Super-Users can review and approve or delete all content. We reward great contributors by making them Editors and give them extra privileges that allow them to edit any content on the site as if it were a Wikipedia page. Most of our Editors, not surprisingly, are journalism students, eager for a way to apply their skill set and get real-world digital journalism experience.

Headline writing is first submitted by users, and most are published as is. If the story is of mainstream relevance, we look to optimize the title for search using tools like Google Trends and Twitter Trends to research how people are searching for the stories.

Q. With much of the U.S. media increasingly turning to local news, what do you see as the future of international reporting?

A. I feel strongly that the two are deeply intertwined. When you investigate deeply enough, every story is local.

We feel that by presenting international news from the local perspective, we bring more engagement and emotional connection. Just as there is local U.S. news, there is local news for everywhere else in the world, and unfortunately, we almost never get to discover those unique local perspectives on foreign events.

Until now, many American news outlets have only presented foreign news stories researched and reported by an American. We think that there is a huge opportunity to support both national and foreign journalists in doing local reposting. And in this way, GroundReport supports both local and international coverage in one go.

Follow Rachel Sterne on Twitter and read her stories on the GroundReport site.

UPDATE: In January 2011, Sterne accepted the position of chief digital officer of New York City.

Eyetracking a 9-year-old boy

My 9-year-old son, Ross, is a faithful reader of the News & Observer’s sports section. He feels lost without it at the breakfast table each morning.

Today, I observed the way Ross reads the section. With apologies to my Eyetrack friends at The Poynter Institute, here’s some anecdotal “research” on the reading patterns of my son.

Ross quickly scanned the front page and noticed the centerpiece on Maryland’s win over Duke in a big ACC basketball game. Then he turned to the back of the section and began poring over the agate page.

There, Ross noticed that the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team had made several trades the day before. He rattled off the list of players swapped.

What makes this interesting is that a bylined story on the top left of the section’s front page was about the Carolina trades. The story had a headline, a small photo and body text. But Ross had missed it altogether in favor of the tiny type in the back of the section.

For my son, the agate page is where the news is. It’s pure data and trivia, and for him, the most important page in the section. He’s probably not alone among sports fans.

Guest post: Barrage of information hinders quality

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of these posts. Nathaniel Haines is a senior journalism major from St. Louis, Mo. He is in the news editing sequence and is a member of The Daily Tar Heel editorial board.

Quality, thoughtful journalism is being swallowed whole by the demand for quantity and constant updates.

It started with the 24-hour cable news networks. Now, we’ve descended to new depths with micro-blogging. We journalists are now reveling in out-of-context 140-character snippets of information that we can push to audiences from our phones.

On Jan. 25, 2010, Ken Auletta wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Non-Stop News.” The article examined how 24-hour news cycle — scratch that; the hour-long news cycle — is affecting the White House press corps.

Auletta paints a bleak picture of harassed reporters who are responsible for pushing out content 5 minutes ago. Auletta follows an NBC White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. In the course of one day, Todd writes three to five blog posts and eight to 10 Tweets; he also appears on multiple TV shows.

But there’s a question that looms behind Auletta’s description of the non-stop news cycle: Where are the editors?

It’s a startling issue of the non-stop news cycle. In order to cut the time between when a reporter writes a story and when a reader reads it, editors have been removed — or at least, they come in at a later points. Their job as gatekeeper between the reporter and the reader is being redefined.

But should it?

Should reporters be pushing news to their readers constantly? Is BlackBerry reporting actual reporting? Is there anyone in the process who digests the information and asks himself, “Should we publish this?”

Presumably, reporters are supposed to police their own news and information. But objective questions can’t be answered by someone immersed in a situation. A reporter doesn’t have perspective on the information he works hard to push out everyday.

At one point in his piece, Auletta quotes Anita Dunn: “When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.”

That’s a problem. It might seem like the rush is just part of entering an era in which information is instant. But the rush should really be seen as a new role for editors. Perhaps, instead of being gatekeepers for readers, editors should start acting as gatekeepers for reporters. It might be time for editors to tell the public that good news takes time and effort and that minute-to-minute updates are more like gossip than journalism.

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