The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: February, 2011

Qaddafi in the third person

When I was wire editor at The News & Observer, my colleague Kathleen Flynn and I would make note of people in the news who spoke of themselves in the third person. As I’ve discussed before on this blog, politicians and athletes seem to speak of themselves in this self-aggrandizing way more than everyday people do.

In reading about the horrifying events in Libya this week, I ran across this paragraph from the country’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, in a New York Times story:

He urged citizens to take to the streets and beat back the protesters, and he described himself in sweeping, megalomaniacal terms. “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution,” he declared.

I like that the NYT chose to include this third-person reference from Qaddafi’s speech because it is a perfect reflection of how delusional he is. I also appreciate how the writer and editors set up the quote, using a typically dry tone while including distinctive and apt adjectives.

When it comes to third-person references, it will be hard to top Qaddafi’s statement. Let’s hope no one does.

UPDATE: I’ve found the list that Kathleen and I compiled, and I’ve uploaded it here as a Word document.

Student guest post: The subtle bias of metaphors in the media

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Shannon Coffey is a junior journalism major with a focus in editing and graphic design. She enjoys going on kitchen adventures that sometimes turn into catastrophes, trying to keep up with her Twitter timeline and daydreaming about the future, when she will design textbooks for ESL students.

Editors approach their copy with a long list of things to check for, ranging from spelling and grammar to fact errors and potentially libelous content. And while bias is on the list of things to be edited out, it can often slip in unnoticed, thanks to the subtle opinions present in phrases and metaphors that are commonly used in our communication today. It is all too easy for mainstream media outlets to take sides on issues or become advocates simply by using phrases and metaphors that the general population is accustomed to and takes for granted as an accurate description of the way that things are.

Take for instance the term “illegal immigrant.” This term, though recommended by the AP Stylebook, has met outrage and criticism from immigration advocates because it criminalizes undocumented immigrants, creating an immediate bias toward them even if they have committed no crime. There are various arguments [https://www.spj.org/quill_issue.asp?ref=1775] as to the nuances of the phrases “illegal immigrant,” “undocumented worker” and “illegal alien,” but the fact remains that referring to a person or group of people as illegal introduces an element of bias to the news coverage.

There is also an often incorrect leap made by writers from “illegal immigrant” to “immigrant” or “Hispanics” as though they are all the same, as can be seen in this 2009 News & Observer article. The writer discusses how illegal immigrants are willing to do “lowly and dirty” jobs that Americans won’t, but then widens the discussion by saying that American workers “can’t compete against immigrants who are willing to work for low pay and under unreasonable conditions,” suggesting that any immigrant from anywhere in any circumstance is willing to do menial work that takes away from the opportunity of American citizens. Further, the writer only discusses Hispanic workers in the article, suggesting that her broad blanket terms “illegal immigrants” and “immigrants” apply to Hispanics exclusively, eliminating discussion of other immigrant populations.

Metaphors may also be used in ways that introduce bias to mainstream news, but often go unnoticed because they are so engrained in the way that we speak. Otto Santa Ana discusses the ways in which language used by the media can create and maintain negative images of groups of people in his book “Brown Tide Rising.”

“Public opinion,” he writes, “is no longer seen to be independent of mass media sway” (Santa Ana 49). The way in which writers discuss populations matter, and their metaphors about the growing Latino population as “an overwhelming flood” or a “foreign invasion” resonates with readers and builds an image of a looming threat that is certain to overcome them (Santa Ana 71-3).

The language of articles regarding growing Hispanic immigration, whether they adhere to AP style or not, must be closely monitored by editors to ensure that news contains as little bias as possible when presented to the public. Readers who use articles like the one in the N&O as their only source of news become susceptible to believing that all immigrants are illegal, Hispanic and taking jobs away from Americans.

It is important for editors to keep a tight rein on phrases such as these in order to ensure that entire groups of people are not described or categorized incorrectly. Avoiding blanket terms to describe these groups and staying away from metaphors that convey threatening behavior will help eliminate bias in the discussion about immigration.

Student guest post: News can lose clarity on Twitter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Amanda Davis is a senior editing and graphic design major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She hopes to edit for a newspaper or magazine after graduation. If she’s not jamming out to Spanish pop, she’s by the window trying to create a Van Gogh masterpiece of her own.

Writing headlines for social media, such as Twitter, is often a precarious matter. One must be concise, because of character limits on each Tweet, yet grab the readers’ attention so that they will be willing to click on it for further information.

More importantly, the headline needs to be understood without additional context, such as pictures. Too often than not, headlines are written that give across the wrong idea, use sensationalist tactics or don’t give enough information to understand to what they refer.

BBC Global News on Twitter is notorious for just that. On Feb. 16, 2010, BBC tweeted, “First day on the job,” followed by a link to its website. How are readers supposed to know if they are interested in knowing more about this if they don’t even know to whom BBC is referring?

News media post headlines on Twitter to get more activity on their main websites. This story would have received many more hits if BBC had used the headline it had on its homepage, “Jay Carney: The new face of the White House.” Jay Carney is the new White House press secretary, so it makes sense that he would be considered the “new face” of the White House. It’s a clever headline that is concise yet still provides enough detail so that the reader understands the point of the story.

Bad Headlines, a Twitter user, Retweets bad headlines that newspapers have published on Twitter. One of those headlines was “Crew laughed before fatal crash,” which was tweeted on Oct. 5, 2009. This was a story about three members of a flight crew that died when their helicopter crashed. The cockpit recording revealed that moments before the helicopter crashed, crew members were laughing and having a good time.

I don’t understand how this headline is sensitive to the deaths of these three men or how it gives any newsworthy information. The article goes on to talk about the lack of safety and possible qualification issues of those on board. These issues would have been more relevant to discuss in the headline. A more effective headline would read, “Fatal helicopter crash questions crew qualifications.”

If newspapers are going to use social media as a way to broaden their reader base and increase hits on their websites, they need to pay attention to how they word their posts. Just as the print headline might not work for their headline on their newspaper’s online version, the headline on their website might not work for Twitter where pictures, videos and slideshows don’t accompany the posts.

Headlines for social media should draw readers without being sensationalistic and understandable without further context. Although news of a crew laughing before a fatal crash probably received many hits to a website, it wasn’t fair to the subjects of the article and their grieving families. It was mere propaganda meant to benefit the BBC without regard to the actual news of the story.

What I learned in high school

I recently led a series of journalism workshops at Raleigh Charter High School. I was on the campus in downtown Raleigh, N.C., on the school’s “flex days,” in which students get a chance to dive deeply into various topics.

I have worked with high school journalists before, but never on their campus. And these groups included students who don’t necessarily want to be reporters or editors. My audience was the entire junior class, split over four meetings on two successive Fridays.

My presentation consisted of two parts: one about the rights and responsibilities of a free media, and another about how journalists report and edit the news. The number of students for each session ranged from 25 to more than 40.

As with my teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill, I learned at least as much in my visits as the students did. Here are some of my observations:

  • Nearly every student is on Facebook; only a few are on Twitter.
  • Facebook is a significant news source. Several students said that they used it on snowy mornings to see whether school would be closed.
  • Other news sources, in order of frequency mentioned: cable TV, websites, newspapers, local TV news, radio such as NPR, and magazines.
  • Their classmates are a news source in face-to-face situations. One student mentioned his friend Brandon: “He tells me everything that I need to know about what is going on.”
  • Most of them dislike celebrity news.
  • Their news judgment is different from that of newspaper editors. For example, the students thought that the recent news about the beef content of Taco Bell meals should have been on the front page. (It appeared in the business section of The News & Observer.)
  • They are aware of how word choice and news judgment can shape how the public perceives an event or issue.
  • They are bright, lively and engaged in their communities.

Overall, it was an enlightening experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about journalism with the students at Raleigh Charter High School. Special thanks to teachers Sera Arcaro and and Becky Schmitz for their hospitality.

For more about  journalism in grades K-12, check out the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association.

Student guest post: When headlines go too far

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Courtney Coats is a senior journalism and English double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in book publishing. Her favorite things include children and puppies, and she enjoys losing herself in a book.

It isn’t a secret that the newspaper industry is declining. In October 2010, The New York Times reported that, according to the Audit Bureau, weekday circulation of 535 newspapers over a six-month period was down about 5 percent compared with the same 6 months in 2009. As a result, many newspapers — especially smaller ones for local readers — have to compete with other papers just to survive.

Most copy editors recognize that good headlines are a great way to catch readers’ attention. Unfortunately, the art of writing a headline is not as simple as it would seem; to summarize the main point of the story in a clear and concise manner, often in just a few words, is difficult enough. However, headlines that simply summarize are often not enough to gain new readership or maintain old readership, and many copy editors will go above and beyond to try to liven up their headlines with interesting wording or clever puns.

But there are times when the attempt to gain readers through these over-the-top headlines is not only ineffective but also offensive. On Jan. 9, 2011, newspapers around the country had lead stories on the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Many of the headlines were about the same, or featured the same information: “Ariz. Rep. shot, 6 die in rampage.” While many headlines sounded similar, they relayed the important information to readers in clear, succinct way.

In contrast, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s lead headline read, “In Arizona, a morning of bullets and death.” While this headline does differentiate the paper from the others it is competing against, it does not necessarily do so in a good way.

It does not focus on the most important information in the story: There is no mention of the representative being shot, nor is there any reference to the six people who were killed.

Furthermore, the headline is insensitive and does not reflect the tone of the story. It reads more like a movie tagline or song lyrics than an admirable headline. For people affected by this tragedy, a less harsh account of the shooting would perhaps be more effective as well as more respectful.

It is true that copy editors must be able to go beyond just the facts to write headlines that grab readers’ attention and accurately portray the point of the story. However, there are certain times when simple, straightforward headlines may be a better option — a tragedy, such as the shooting in Arizona, is the perfect example of such an occasion.

Before writing a headline, a copy editor should not only think of the tone and point of the story, but also of those who will be reading the story and the way in which they will be affected by the information and how it is presented to them. When dealing with difficult news situations, copy editors should be careful not to alienate or offend readers even as they are trying to attract them.

Some possible Mubarak headlines

The big news on the front pages of newspapers and websites Friday is about Egypt. Just as it seemed that President Hosni Mubarak might step down, he surprised Egyptians (and perhaps the Obama administration) by taking a defiant tone and saying he would remain in office.

Here are some possible headlines for that turn of events, with a nod to some memorable ones.

  • People of Egypt, you have been punk’d (MTV News)
  • Psyche! Mummified Mubarak stays in office (New York Post)
  • Mubarak to democracy: drop dead (New York Daily News)
  • Bastard! (San Francisco Examiner)
  • Dewey defeats Mubarak (Chicago Tribune)

UPDATE: Stop the presses — Mubarak has resigned, for real. Suggested headline: PEACE OUT. See the actual headlines and front pages as collected by Charles Apple.

Student guest post: Accuracy, not technology, must be editor’s priority

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Ashlie Carlson is a senior undergraduate studying editing and graphic design, and she plans to enter the field of book editing after graduation. She has recently worked as a freelance copy editor with Technica Editorial Services in Carrboro, N.C. She enjoys rock music and concerts, and is an avid reader of fantasy and horror novels.

If I’m being honest, I probably read more fiction than news, but no matter where I stumble upon them, basic grammatical and spelling errors make me cringe. Especially when it comes to books, I have little to no sympathy for editors who apparently don’t notice the occasional missing letter, or in some cases, entire words.

When I run into more than one of these errors in a single piece of writing, it becomes irrelevant to me how much work the editors put into fine-tuning a manuscript. Editing is one field in which the “don’t sweat the small stuff” adage does not apply.  It’s the small stuff that your readers notice, and it’s the small stuff that calls competence into question.

According to Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for The Washington Post, readers of the paper started noticing an increase in the number of simple errors being printed in 2010. Although his comment on the trend was published a year ago, the points he brings up are still valid in today’s copy-editing world.

The problem, Alexander said, may have something to do with a decline in the number of copy editors on staff and an increase in occupational responsibilities. Copy editors today must be more versatile than ever — well-versed in not only editing, but also in design and Internet technology.

With every major newspaper now sustaining both online and print editions, copy editors must be mindful of the compatibility of the design with multiple platforms, the relative ease of locating articles online, and other factors that were never a concern previously. Taking on these facets of production may in fact be pulling the focus away from straightforward editing.

Take USA Today, for example. Its online archive lists just below 50 corrections from March to December in 2009, all of which were printed in the paper as well. Just the months of November and December in 2010 saw 54 corrections between them. Most of the corrections address incorrect dates and names and are not as trivial as the ones listed in Alexander’s assessment of The Washington Post.

The abundance of them is staggering nonetheless. Though this increase in errors may be coincidental and limited to a handful of papers — it is surprisingly difficult to track down a list of corrections on most sites — the possibility that it is a widespread pattern does raise some interesting questions about what an editor’s primary function should be.

The changes that the newspaper industry has undergone have undoubtedly made news easier to access, but content should not suffer because those involved are more concerned with keeping up with the rapid progression of technology than publishing accurate, polished stories.

The Enquirer and Edwards … and Palin?

The former editor of the National Enquirer, David Perel, recently wrote a first-person account of how his publication chased the story of John Edwards, the adulterous presidential candidate and former senator from North Carolina. It’s a curious tale that was, as Perel describes it, “the perfect meshing of technology and psychology.”

The technology involved satellite imagery and live video between reporters and the newsroom. The psychology involved a profile of Edwards from an unidentified “mental health professional” who described Edwards as a narcissist who would conceal his affair with his mistress, Rielle Hunter, at all costs.

Perel remains coy about some aspects of the Enquirer’s reporting. He won’t say whether the newspaper had a hidden camera in the hotel room where Edwards secretly met Hunter and their baby in 2008. Perel also never discloses whether the Enquirer paid any of its sources in its reporting on Edwards’ affair — a questionable practice that most newspapers do not indulge in. He also does not discuss the Enquirer’s frequent use of anonymous sources.

Perel takes credit for exposing the affair to the world and criticizes other media for downplaying the Enquirer’s initial reports on Edwards’ infidelity. Fair enough.

Although the Enquirer was ultimately vindicated in its pursuit of the Edwards story, it is still routinely ignored. The newspaper has recently reported, for example, that Edwards plans to marry Hunter. It also reported that Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, had an affair with a massage therapist who has been arrested on prostitution charges.

The Todd Palin story has yet to appear in my daily newspaper, The News & Observer of Raleigh. I only know about it because John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, mentioned it on his blog.

I ask the same question that Robinson poses: Would Perel and others now suggest that legitimate newspapers, especially those in Alaska, and other media chase the Palin story because it’s in the Enquirer?

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