The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: January, 2011

Student guest post: The incessant rise of ‘-ize’

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Ali Amoroso is a senior journalism and global studies double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She chose these two majors to combine her interests in global health and copy editing. If she’s not reading Paul Farmer’s most recent book or editing a friend’s paper, she most likely has her nose buried in some type of historical fiction.

A noun serves as the subject of a sentence; a verb expresses the action of a sentence. So then why is the line between the two being blurred by transforming nouns into verbs by simply adding -ize at the end?

Words like these are becoming increasingly popular in the media, which leads to an increase in general usage. Following Brit Hume’s recommendation to Tiger Woods to convert from Buddhism to Christianity, “proselytize” made it onto Merriam-Webster’s Top Twenty list of the most looked-up words for a few days in January 2010.

The word “proselytize” comes from the noun “proselyte,” which means a new convert. It is just one of many in this new class of verbs that has been on the rise for centuries as nouns are transformed for action purposes.

Though the verb “proselytize” is now more commonly used than its original noun, it is even newer “ize” words that particularly irk me. Take “incentivize,” for example. In 1994, Merriam-Webster said that incentivize “is perhaps the most recent of the infamous verbs that end in –ize,” noting that the members of a usage panel in 1985 “rejected it almost unanimously with varying degrees of disgust and horror.”

“Incentivize” is a word I’ve barely been exposed to in everyday speech, yet reputable news media use it — even in their headlines as The New York Times does in “Incentivize Your Way to Good Health in 2011.” Though the article is pointing out the multitude of incentives offered by health care companies, the use of “incentivize” in the headline and throughout the content is inelegant and unnecessary.

As if parts of speech can be disregarded for the ease of writing, authors today commonly add “ize” in order to turn chosen nouns into verbs. Words like democratize, prioritize and finalize rear their ugly heads in news stories despite their newness, which does not occur with other new words that journalists tend to avoid at all costs.

Though the English language is constantly evolving — and is often applauded for this characteristic — these new verbs are creating a new form of jargon that should be avoided in journalistic writing. Keep the line between verbs and nouns distinct.

Why you should go to the ACES conference

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place March 17-19 at Arizona State University.

Editors from newspapers, magazines, academia, government and the corporate world are invited to attend. Everyone is welcome.

Here are some reasons you should be there:

  • If you’re old school, you can brush up on your skills on grammar and proofreading.
  • If you’re new school, you can learn about blogs, wikis, video and social media.
  • Either way, sessions will include hands-on training to help you be the best editor you can be.
  • Phoenix is a nice — and warm — place to visit to escape the winter doldrums of the East Coast and Midwest.
  • You’ll have access to free, reliable Wi-Fi on the ASU campus — no fees!
  • Registration rates are the same as last year and less expensive than many other journalism conferences.
  • You can bid on fun items like these at the silent auction, with proceeds going to scholarships for students interested in careers in editing.
  • Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, will be the keynote speaker at the Friday night banquet.
  • We’ll have plenty of fun and fellowship (and networking, if that is your thing), from the Thursday night kickoff through the Saturday night social.

Still not sure? Need more reasons? See for yourself why the ACES conference is a great event.

I hope to see you there.

Student guest post: Headline headaches — is anyone paying attention?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Settie Amini is a senior undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. When she is not wrangling with graphic design and multimedia projects, she spends her time as a fearless foodie and devoted reader of books. She is always looking for the next big (or little) adventure.

For the level of importance most journalists assign to writing proper headlines, mainstream news sources often publish headlines that are misleading and incomprehensible.

For example, one of the big stories on Jan. 20 featured Carlina White, a woman who found her parents 23 years after being kidnapped. Several news publications that covered the story made some questionable choices when writing the accompanying headlines.

The New York Daily News chose the baffling headline “Kidnap Miracle.” As a reader, I learn nothing from this headline. The publication included a descriptive deck, which is helpful for clarification. But that is no excuse for writing a main headline that insinuates there is some way to abduct miracles.

The Daily News is a tabloid that people evaluate using different journalistic standards than most newspapers, so one could argue that sensational and unconventional headlines appear on the cover frequently. Tabloids, however, are not alone in choosing questionable headlines; many reputable newspapers make the same mistake. For example, The New York Times published an article in 2009 entitled “South Africa Is Seen to Lag in H.I.V. Fight.”

The first two paragraphs of the story reveal that the headline is inaccurate and only vaguely associated with the story. The article covers the effectiveness of circumcision in slowing the spread of AIDS and states that South Africa is the only African country to have a circumcision clinic of its kind. The headline directly contradicts the information provided in the story, altering readers’ perceptions of South Africa’s campaign against the spread of HIV.

While human error is inevitable in any journalistic environment, mistakes and confusing word choice in headlines have a particularly harmful effect on a publication’s reputation. Many people only read headlines and skim the accompanying stories, so headline errors often have the greatest potential to misinform or deceive readers.

News publications need to be especially careful when writing headlines if they want to maintain their readers’ trust. On the bright side, many questionable headlines add some needed humor to the serious business of news writing.

The words I learned playing Dungeons & Dragons

In the early 1980s, I was one of those kids: a devoted player of Dungeons & Dragons. I was introduced to the role-playing game in the school cafeteria when I was in the 6th grade. My friends and I spent time exploring a tomb of horrors and taking an expedition to the barrier peaks, among other adventures.

Sure, D&D was geeky, and at a time when geeky wasn’t cool. It’s only been in recent years that it was OK to admit that you played it.

But I’ve realized how much I learned from D&D. A big part of that education came from the game’s fantastical lexicon. Here are some of those words, many of which I still use today:

Properties, places and attributes

  • Alignment
  • Dexterity
  • Charisma
  • Clairvoyance
  • Elemental
  • Encumbrance
  • Ethereal
  • Dimunition
  • Initiative
  • Melee
  • Milieu
  • Ochre
  • Valhalla

Characters and creatures

  • Alchemist
  • Asp
  • Bard
  • Brigand
  • Chimera
  • Cleric
  • Doppelganger
  • Druid
  • Familiar
  • Gargoyle
  • Henchmen
  • Imp
  • Lycanthrope
  • Paladin
  • Sage
  • Spectre
  • Succubus

Items

  • Amulet
  • Ballista
  • Censer
  • Gauntlets
  • Mead
  • Periapt
  • Quiver
  • Rune
  • Scimitar

Am I still carrying around a lot of trivial information from the game too? Of course. But even that has some use: I understand references to “rolling a natural 20” and the occasional LOL silliness.

So thanks, D&D. You made me a better writer and editor.

Q&A with Ryan Thornburg, journalism professor and author

Ryan Thornburg teaches in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he is the author of a new textbook, “Producing Online News: New Tools, Stronger Stories.” Before coming to UNC, Thornburg was managing editor of the website of U.S. News & World Report. He’s also worked for the online operations of Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Thornburg talks about his book and his views on editing in the digital medium.

Q. Journalism education has no shortage of textbooks. What makes this one stand out?

A. Actually, I think journalism education has a shortage of texts for “new media” topics. In fact, the idea for this book came about because I couldn’t really find the book I needed to teach a class about online news producing. I found some pretty interesting books about new media concepts and some very good tech tutorials, but nothing that really connects the skill that students need today with the concepts to which those skills are applied. I hope that’s the big gap this book fills for folks.

Students who go through all 12 chapters will be very well prepared to walk into most newsrooms today and get a job in online news production. And they’ll be thinking about news in a way that helps them look for and take advantage of future opportunities to tell stronger stories as the tools and techniques continue to change. It’s a book for people who want to be reporters, editors and storytellers generally rather than people who already know they are in love with just one particular method — say, writing or video or design or programming.

Q. A book on paper about online editing seems ironic. How can a textbook stay current when things are moving so quickly in our profession?

A. Ha! Yeah, I know. I like to think of it as “retro.”

So, the other thing that makes this textbook a bit different is that it’s not just a paperback book. It’s a hands-on experience and a community. The real value I think is going to be for the students and instructors who opt to use the online modules and who engage me and each other on social media.

If you go to cqpress.com, you’ll soon be able to buy individual digital chapters of the book. And I’ll be updating those chapters as often as the publisher will let me.

For each chapter in the book, there are also a series of online exercises to which students can subscribe. These online learning modules include objective quizzes based on that material covered in the chapter as well as hands-on training exercises in which students will use real news content — text, audio, video, pictures — to produce stories in a simulated CMS environment.

We’re initially building that environment in a customized version of WordPress that’s going to be hosted by CQPress, so students will be working with a user interface they’re almost certain to see in their professional careers. And — bonus — instructors don’t have to worry about any of the tech support. Students will also be using their WordPress blogs to revue and critique professional news sites following criteria they learn in the book.

Students will be able to publicly share those blog posts if they choose and take them with them after they leave the class. It’s going to be a great tool for building student portfolios and for connecting the classroom with the professional industry.

I’ll also be available on Twitter and Facebook and my blog to chat with students during the year, so they’ll be able to ask me what the heck I’m talking about on page 82, for example, and I’ll be able to tell them that I found a great new example for non-linear storytelling and they’ll be able to talk with each other about the future of news that they will be shaping together. So using the book and the associated online modules is going to make you a member in a community of young people who care deeply about the future of journalism, the tools that people are using to create it and the effect that both will have on our shared world for generations to come.

I mean, I don’t get excited about much other than Carolina basketball, and I’m really excited about this.

Q. What information in the book is applicable to copy editing?

A. The most obvious is the entire chapter about editing for searchers and scanners (as opposed to readers). I keep hearing that the role of copy editing is dying in newsrooms, but that role has really just evolved so much that it is becoming a new job that I’ve always called “producer.”

Now, “producer” has a certain meaning in a traditional broadcast newsroom, and I think that meaning does translate into online news for the most part. A lot of the job is about choosing the pieces you need to tell a story.

Copy editing text — fixing spelling and grammar and fact-checking — is one piece of that role. But it’s also about quality assurance generally — do the links work, is the video too dark, is the audio too hot, do the captions in the photo gallery work in a linear or non-linear fashion, is the JavaScript properly loading the interactive graphic, do the state abbreviations in the database match AP style …

To quote Phil Meyer, the ante has been raised on what it means to be a copy editor today.

Q. Copy editing seems to be at a crisis point, with many media companies laying off editors and consolidating editing functions. What do you see as the future of editing as a skill?

A. You know, I’ve never had “copy editor” on one of my business cards, so I’m probably less worried about the loss of copy editors as I am about the loss of quality that too often accompanies copy editing.

Just to pick up on one issue related to quality assurance, there are all these debates and hand-wringing about un-edited stuff that goes up online, and that’s because I think we’ve yet as a culture been able to think about text as a living medium.

For many of us, text is still something that’s carved in stone or printed on paper. And it still is. Text that is bound and printed, to me, has great authority and importance.

But we have to start thinking about text as dynamic media. And that gets us to think about copy editing as something that’s always happening — not just something that happens at one specific point in the editorial process.

So, for example, is it OK for me to publish a fact error — something totally opposite of true? Saying that the president has been shot when he
was not? Absolutely, no never.

But is it OK for me to write that “Barak Obama signed the bill which ends don’t ask don’t tell.” There are all sorts of problems with that sentence, but it is factually correct. Spelling, grammar and AP style need to be fixed, and they should be.

But each news organization is going to have to make decisions — based not on theory but on real economics — about how and when to correct that sentence. Some factors probably should be the role that timeliness plays in a particular news story, the hour of day that it is published, the number of people who will potentially see it, etc. This is triage.

Copy editors live in an ER that is always dealing with a plane crash amid a massive earthquake. More layers of editing — including, in some cases, editing by the audience or by machine —  mean higher quality. There is always a point of diminishing returns at which additional layers become economically unviable.

Editing isn’t merely a profession. It’s a mindset. It’s about looking for not just what is there, but what is missing. With the mass of information being tossed up online, on air and in print, the discerning and curious minds of editors will eventually become more valuable than ever.

We’re all still a bit like kids who get their first car or have their first drink. We freaking love our newfound freedom and pretty much love thumbing our noses at journalistic authority right now. And that’s not good. We’ll wreck the car. We’ll get hung over.

But the editing mindset — those of us in and outside of newsrooms who know that clarity, brevity and accuracy is the path to truth — has to eventually win out. I hope my book helps more young people understand that before we get messed up too badly.

For more, read Thornburg’s blog and follow him on Twitter.

Ten years gone

Ten years ago today, I began my second stint at The News & Observer, the daily newspaper serving the Triangle region of North Carolina.

I’d previously worked at the paper in the 1990s as a copy editor in news, in the sports department and in its Orange County bureau. I left in 1997 when my wife finished her Ph.D. and took a job at Louisiana State University.

In early 2001, I returned after a three-year hiatus to be Nation & World editor, in charge of the paper’s coverage from the wire services. My task was to organize the stories from The Associated Press and other services, plan the A section pages and offer important stories from the wires for the front page.

It’s a job I held until the summer of 2005, when I left to take a job at UNC-Chapel Hill. After nearly five years on the wires (framed by the disappearances of Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway), I was ready for a new challenge.

Yet my years at the N&O continue to influence my teaching. I will always consider myself an N&O person, thankful for my nearly 10 years there overall and the lifelong friends that I made during that time.

Many things have changed since that day in January 2001 when I restarted at the newspaper. Here’s a list of how some things were different then:

  • Social media didn’t exist; Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented.
  • The easiest way to get a coupon was in the Sunday paper; Groupon and Living Social didn’t exist.
  • Blogging was in its infancy.
  • The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times News Service was a viable competitor to The New York Times News Service and The Associated Press.
  • The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer were competitors — if not for readers, then between journalists at those publications.
  • The N&O website largely consisted of uploading the content of the morning newspaper and was rarely updated during the day.
  • McClatchy, the company that owns the N&O, was living up to its tradition of never laying off employees.
  • No one talked about search engine optimization.
  • Copy editing was seen as an important part of the credibility of a newspaper.

Indeed, 2001 was a different time. Where will we be 10 years from now?

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Natalee Holloway. Thanks to @lexalexander for noting the error.

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