The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: February, 2012

Student guest post: Fatalities in news gathering

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Francesca Crutchfield is senior from Burlington, N.C., majoring in journalism with a reporting focus.

With the recent deaths of two well-known Western journalists in Syria, the question of journalism and its consequences comes to mind. War correspondents have been sent into dangerous zones to report for years, but when does one draw the line between investigative reporting and a death wish?

And then there are the ethical and how-to-edit questions: Should a publication publish details of a journalist’s death, or should the story of the dangerous conditions they were surrounded by be enough of a story itself? Should the information be published at all?

The world is a scary place, especially with all the uprisings in the Middle East. I don’t think I would have the courage and audacity to go against foreign governments and militia in order to report and write a story. However, one can certainly applaud the efforts of those literally risking their lives to find the facts.

Perhaps the most memorable war reporting was that of CNN’s John Holliman, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw during the Persian Gulf War. Their live broadcast reporting straight from Baghdad was the epitome of bravery; that broadcast was rife with bombings right outside of their hotel window.

While U.S. journalists were not killed during the Gulf War, after the war ended, a lot of changes were made by the Pentagon on just how invasive journalists could be. Sparing the issue of censorship within investigative reporting, it is safe to say that the public greatly benefits from knowing first-hand what is happening on the other side of the world.

But when the safety of journalists becomes front page news instead of the stories they were covering, that scares me. The New York Times article about the deaths of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik shed light on the issues in Syria, while also paying a sort of homage to their deaths. A multimedia package containing video of the protests and bombings in Syria and a link to a YouTube video are also included in the story.

All of these elements help the reader understand the context of the journalists’ deaths, but perhaps the most gripping line of the article is, “A longtime war correspondent, she [Colvin] lost an eye covering the Sri Lankan civil war and wore a distinctive black eye patch.” Colvin had already lost an eye covering a news story, and her most recent news coverage had fatal consequences.

So what is a news publication to do in terms of editing and covering the deaths of journalists? One could argue that covering the death of any journalist says enough about the dangerous conditions in which they were immersed. A news story that features background information on any journalistic death and links to video clips or multimedia presentations seems to be a sufficient way to sum up the tragedy, however gruesome it may have been. For moral purposes, I believe it’s also safe to edit any multimedia that contains overly graphic content, such as mutilated bodies, if there are individuals involved.

Overall, discretion of what to publish or edit is at the hands of the publication, but maintaining the privacy of an individual should be a rule of thumb, if not an act of respect for the deceased. In terms of whether  war reporting is worth it, I could never do it. I value my life more than covering a story, no matter how compelling or newsworthy it may be.

From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is famous (infamous, some students would say) for its spelling and grammar test.

Since 1975, the journalism school has required students to pass the 100-question test with a grade of 70 or better. Few do so on the first attempt, but it’s offered numerous times each semester. Those who cannot pass may not graduate with a journalism degree.

According to the book “Making News” by Tom Bowers, the test made national news at the time of its introduction. It was mentioned in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, and NBC News came to campus to do a story about it.

The test is still a true rite of passage, even though nowadays it’s given online and not on paper. It’s also still a topic of conversation and a part of the school’s identity. Everyday people in North Carolina sometimes ask alumni and faculty of the school: Do they still have that test that you have to pass or else?

The answer is yes, but its format is changing. Spelling will no longer be part of the exam.

The content of the test came up last fall when several faculty members were talking about the introductory News Writing course, which is where many students first take the exam. In those conversations, I suggested that memorizing a spelling list wasn’t the best measure of competence in our craft. Why not use a set of questions about word choice instead? Other faculty members agreed to the idea.

Spelling, of course, still matters. Students who misspell words on assignments will still be penalized. As journalism students at UNC will tell you, misspelling the name of a source is a bad idea. That error means an automatic F on that assignment. But the spelling and grammar test will become the usage and grammar test.

So starting this fall, students will be tested on grammar, punctuation and word usage. The usage section will draw from this list (PDF) and include sentences like this:

Its/It’s too late to add a class this semester. (The correct answer is It’s.)

The goal of the revised exam is to better test the students’ knowledge of journalistic writing and editing. In addition, the new test will also better reflect what some employers use in making decisions on jobs and internships.

Congratulations to those students who passed the old test. And good luck to those who will take the new one. I hope you pass!

Thanks to the Park Library for help researching this post.

Mitt Romney, headline writer

The upcoming Michigan primary has put Mitt Romney in an awkward position. Conventional wisdom says that the GOP candidate for president should do well in his home state, but he trails Rick Santorum in the polls there.

Part of the reason for Romney’s struggles in Michigan could be traced to this column that he wrote for The New York Times in November 2008. The topic was the auto industry’s struggles. In the op-ed piece, Romney argued against a federal bailout for Chrysler, GM and Ford, proposing a “managed bankruptcy” instead.

The headline on the column read: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” The accompanying illustration showed a recycling bin containing the logos of the automakers. Romney, of course, didn’t write the headline or create the artwork. Journalists at the Times did.

Mitt Romney, GOP candidate for president

The column’s headline evokes another memorable one from the tabloid press of the 1970s: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Each headline implies a lack of sympathy, if not outright callousness.

In addition, “Detroit” is journalistic and political shorthand for the U.S. auto industry, but the casual reader could interpret the New York Times headline to mean that Romney is referring to the entire city.

So now, more than three years later and with the auto industry on the rebound, Romney is being questioned about his opposition to the bailout. And it’s the headline, not the column’s content, that shapes the discussion.

Romney probably wishes that the copy editor who wrote that headline had chosen different words. Indeed, earlier this week, Romney told the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press that he would have recast the headline this way: “How To Save Detroit.”

It’s interesting to see a presidential candidate talk about headline writing and even suggest rewrites. If Romney’s run for the White House doesn’t work out, perhaps he could seek work as a slot editor at a newspaper.

Matt Groening, journalism and “Life In Hell”

Today is the 58th birthday of Matt Groening, who is probably best known as the creator of “The Simpsons.” Indeed, Groening was recently honored for his TV work with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Although I enjoy “The Simpsons,” I often think first of Groening’s work as a newspaper cartoonist when his name is in the news. His “Life In Hell” comic strip in the 1980s was edgy and snarky at a time when those things were far less common in the media.

As noted in this 1987 profile, Groening began his career as journalist, working as a music critic and editor at the Reader, an alternative weekly in Los Angeles. It was then that he began the “Life In Hell” strip, which on occasion took on journalistic topics and even found humor in the passive voice.

Those comments on the media have continued in Groening’s influence on “The Simpsons.” From the fatuous anchor Kent Brockman to the absurd headlines of the Springfield Shopper, the show has served as a check on journalistic conventions and excesses.

So happy birthday, Matt Groening. Thanks for the laughs. Let’s hope that they continue for years to come — and even afterward.

Student guest post: Getting into freelance editing

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Rebecca Collins is a senior from Winston-Salem majoring in editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is editor-in-chief of the student arts magazine Uncharted.

For me, and other second-semester seniors, the real world is quickly approaching.

I’m not planning on going to graduate school (at least not at this point). So, for me, the real world means trying to start a career — preferably one related to the degree I’ll be paying off student loans for.

But as we’ve been told again and again, full-time jobs can be hard to come by. The advice we’re given is to freelance to gain experience and build our resumes until a position opens up. But that’s usually where the advice ends.

And when I recently started looking into freelancing, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know. Although my classes have taught me skills such as the intricacies of AP style, how to write SEO headlines and the difference between compose and comprise, they’ve taught me little about marketing myself as a freelancer (which, as a note to whoever is in charge of things like this, would make a great topic for senior seminar course).

But luckily for any UNC-Chapel Hill undergrads who read this post, I’ve done some research and found some answers to my questions about freelancing, and I’ve compiled them here. I focused on freelance editing, because I found that it’s slightly different than freelance writing. Freelance writers can just write a piece ahead of time and then submit it for publication. Editors, on the other hand, can’t edit something they haven’t been given yet.

Where do I find freelancing jobs?

This is the most basic, and probably most important, thing to know about freelancing. You can’t get a freelancing job if you don’t know where to look for it.

The short answer to finding any job, be it freelance or full-time, is networking. I learned this through my involvement with the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors, which invites professional journalists to come to meetings and share their wisdom. Every guest speaker says that networking and getting your name out there is the best way to get hired. And to start networking, you pretty much just have to introduce yourself to the people that could hire you, which usually entails sending unsolicited emails – but tactful unsolicited emails.

The journalism school’s career services office just happens to have an online directory of networking contacts called J-link. I’m not going to go into details about networking techniques, but if you have questions, Jay Eubank, the journalism school’s career counselor, would be happy to tell you more.

Another way to find jobs are on job posting websites like Elance, Freelance Switch and Mediabistro, to just name a few. There are drawbacks to trying to find work on these websites, however.

Both Elance and Freelance Switch are free, but that means that hundreds, if not thousands, of other freelancers are competing with you for the same job. And the jobs posted on those websites aren’t always that great in the first place. Also, Elance requires that you receive payment for any job you find on Elance through its payment service. Many high quality publications and websites use Mediabistro to list job openings, but if you want to search or apply for freelance jobs, you have to pay a fee. These are all things to consider when using these websites.

OK, now that I’ve found some jobs I’m interested in, how do I get my foot in the door and stand out against the competition?

The first step is to have a good resume. Most employers specifically ask for freelancers with some experience.

Writing and editing for campus publications or interning will help you build your resume and portfolio of writing samples. Getting back to the difference between freelance writers and editors, it’s important for both to have strong writing samples. Show employers your skills by making sure your own work is well-edited.

The next step is to have your own website. It’s easier for employers to look at your resume and samples if all they have to do is click a link you’ve emailed to them with your cover letter. And by making the process easier and less time consuming, you’re making it more likely that an employer will look at your resume.

Of course, just having a website is not enough. You need to make sure it’s professional, easy to navigate and easy to remember. This should seem obvious, but make sure that your entire website is well edited, not just your writing samples. It just takes one misspelled word for you to look like a bad editor.

As portfolio websites become the norm, you need to make sure yours stands out, in a good way. Making a clean and simple website is fairly easy with a content editor like WordPress. But if you don’t want to try to figure it out on your own, you can take the introduction to multimedia class, in which making a portfolio website is one of the projects.

How much do I charge?

This is the question I had the most trouble figuring out. There are some jobs that are advertised at a certain rate, but there are others that ask for a cost estimate in your proposal for the job.

I found this handy list of editorial price rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association. But as the introduction to the list states, it’s only a guideline.

In general, when figuring out how much to charge, you need to consider three things: how much you want to make, how much your competition is charging and how much the employer is willing to pay. A good thing to remember is that by setting low rates when you’re starting out, you’re more likely to get hired and get your foot in the door, ideally leading to more jobs. And later you can raise your rates according to your experience.

Freelance Switch also has a free billing calculator to help you determine your pricing based on your costs and the work required for the project. Because while you may want to set low rates to get hired, you want to make sure that you cover your costs (and don’t starve).

How do I make sure I get paid?

I haven’t had any experience with this problem first-hand, but I’ve heard enough stories to know that getting payment for freelance services isn’t always easy. This article provided some helpful tips. You can read the full article for details, but it basically says to always enter into a written contract that clearly states the terms of the agreement, including pricing, with anyone you freelance for, send the person or company an official invoice for your services and don’t give up.

If it gets to the point that legal action is the only way to get payment, then you just have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. It’s unfair that there are some people who get away with not paying, but that’s one of the risks of freelancing.

These tips are the product of just a few hours of online research, and, as evidenced by the large number of websites devoted to issues related to freelancing, there’s a lot more to consider if you want to become a serious freelancer. But I hope that this can help get you started.

Q&A with Nicholas Graham of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center

Newspapers like these are part of the online collection of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.

Nicholas Graham is program coordinator at the N.C. Digital Heritage Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses the center’s efforts to digitize and publish historical documents, including newspapers, that reflect the history of North Carolina.

Q. What is the mission of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center, particularly regarding newspapers?

A. The N.C. Digital Heritage Center is a fairly new (we started work in 2009) organization dedicated to working with cultural heritage organizations around the state to digitize selected materials from their collections and share them online via our website. We’ve worked with 80 different institutions to date. We’re supported by the State Library of North Carolina and the UNC University Library.

We work with lots of different kinds of materials — photos, scrapbooks, documents, maps, books — but newspapers are by far the biggest project we’re working on and the toughest. We work with our partners to select materials that will help their users who are interested primarily in state and local history and genealogy, and newspapers are an unparalleled source of information.

In keeping with our mission, we work to provide the best possible digital images and present them in a way that is easy to use, freely available to all, and sustainable. The newspapers are available online at http://digitalnc.org/collections/newspapers.

Q. How are newspapers selected for scanning and posting?

A. We asked public libraries around the state to nominate newspapers that they would like to see digitized. We received a great response, and we will be working this year to digitize papers from all over North Carolina, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

We digitize from microfilm because it is much faster and cheaper, and in many instances original copies of the old papers don’t exist anymore. When we finish the current batch of papers, we’ll look again to our partners to suggest more titles.

It’s important to us to have a range of titles that reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of North Carolina. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that now.

On our site you can find a pretty broad selection, from the Fayetteville Observer in the 1850s and 1860s, when it was a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, to the Carolina Times from Durham in the mid 20th century, an important African American newspaper that was a prominent voice for the Civil Rights movement.

Our biggest frustration is that we can’t get the work done nearly fast enough to cover the demand. We’re on pace to digitize around a hundred reels a year, which is just a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s out there (the North Carolina Collection at UNC, for example, holds over 40,000 reels of North Carolina papers on microfilm).

Q. What are some common characteristics of the newspapers that you’ve posted so far? Any surprises?

A. Because of the wide variety of papers we’ve worked on — both in terms of geography and time period — there aren’t too many common characteristics that reach across all of the papers.

One of the things that continues to surprise me is the amount of seemingly mundane news that was included. Nearly all of the old papers had a social column where they reported on the comings and goings of the people in the town. This was far more than just births and deaths — they would report if somebody was going to be out of town for the weekend or if they had a dinner party.They provide a fascinating look at the life of a community.

I’m also surprised by how much we can learn about the day-to-day life of North Carolinians through the ads and announcements in the old papers. If we look at the early 19th century papers, we see things like notes about turpentine manufacture, horse-drawn carriages, food sold by the barrel, and runaway slave ads — it’s a detailed and often stark look at a very different way of life. Looking at the early 20th century papers, we can already see the modern world emerging in ads for movie theaters and department stores, and the much wider variety of goods available due to the increasing reach of the railroad.

Q. The center uses Facebook and Twitter to promote its work. Do you see a day where we’ll be archiving tweets and status updates?

A. We have a couple of features on our Facebook page that have been fun — we post a “Yearbook Photo of the Week” from one of the old yearbooks we’ve digitized and also have an album of interesting ads from old newspapers. We’ve been tweeting at @ncnewspapers for just a couple of months. We post a headline each day from an old paper published on that day in history. It’s been a great way to connect with users and provide a preview of the materials we’re working on.

Libraries and archives are already working on policies and strategies to archive social media and other “born digital” content. The Library of Congress has announced an effort to archive every tweet — it’s a daunting job, even for an organization as big as LC.

Librarians and archivists in Wilson Library are focused on preserving and providing access to the myriad ways in which North Carolinians express themselves today. There are a ton of technical and administrative challenges. It was certainly a lot easier to buy a copy of a book or newspaper (or even a letter or diary), which had all of the content in a fixed format. This is a big focus of the whole profession now, and the School of Information and Library Science at UNC is one of the leaders in digital preservation research and education.

It’s definitely where our field is heading in the future, and I’m confident we’ll rise to the challenge. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on the old newspapers.

Student guest post: Word choice and sexual orientation

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Rachel Coleman is a senior from Greenville, N.C. She is pursuing her degree in the reporting track at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Compared with generations of the past, I’m happy to say that adults in the current generation are experiencing much more freedom in regard to sexual orientation. The world has made significant progress in its acceptance of all people, whether they identify as gay, straight, bisexual or transgender.

But while the general public may recognize and accept your sexual orientation, are the media doing enough to stay unbiased when reporting about people who identify as LGBTQ?

The Associated Press Stylebook says to mention sexual orientation only when necessary, and it makes a point of saying reporters should identify transgender people according to the gender they identify with.

But a story picked up by The Associated Press in 2010 got in trouble for its headline, “Transgender Men Go Topless at Delaware Beach.” The story went on to say, “Police say passers-by complained after the men removed their tops and revealed their surgically enhanced breasts.”

People wondered how a man could get in trouble for being topless—shouldn’t it have said “transgender women?” Many news outlets recognized the mistake and corrected it.

I found a column from Feministing about the same issue. Some reporters seem to have no clue about how to identify someone like Chaz Bono, who is transgender and was in the news recently for his run on Dancing with the Stars. Many had no idea whether he should be referred to as “he” or “she.”

Luckily, GLADD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) provides a Media Reference Guide for journalists who have this problem. They say Chaz Bono should be described as either a man or a transgender man.

After doing a little research, I found a writer who had another great point — that using the term “transgendered” is more biased than “transgender.” In Joanne Herman’s blog on The Huffington Post, she said the extra “–ed” in the word makes the same difference as saying “colored people” versus “people of color.”

I once interviewed a drag queen who said she liked being referred to as “she” more than “he” because being a drag queen was her full-time job. While it always depends on the individual, the media and law enforcers who write reports that identify someone’s gender should take care to ask before they assume what someone wants to be called. If the media make small steps to ensure consistency in their writing, the public will accept these people for who they are, too.

 

Checking in with Foursquare

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to join Foursquare, the online service that allows you to “check in” wherever you are. (Among my other resolutions: to try absinthe and to be described as “cheeky.” And yes, to exercise more and eat well, with the possible exception of the absinthe.)

On Foursquare, you can earn “points” and “badges,” and you even become the “mayor” of locations that you frequent often. You can share all of this beyond Foursquare itself via Facebook and Twitter.

I have several friends on Foursquare who post their check-ins to Twitter and Facebook, and I was curious about how and why they used it. I wondered why they would feel the need to let the world know that they were at the grocery store, a gas station or the office.

I asked friends and colleagues about Foursquare. What was I missing? Is it worth joining? Here’s how Margret Anne Hutaff, program coordinator for e-learning at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, described how she uses Foursquare:

“I try to check in at unique places and events. I’m not one to check in at my apartment (privacy issues) or Starbucks every morning or the j-school every day. That can get annoying for your friends/followers. And I don’t always publish it to Twitter. Usually I say something or post a photo when I post to Twitter.”

That journalistic approach makes sense: Check in when you are doing something you consider newsworthy to friends and followers. They may not care that you are at the grocery store, but they may be interested to know that you are at a workshop on campus, out of state for a conference, or somewhere that’s simply interesting.

Hutaff also made this suggestion: “Sometimes I use the app to find places to eat or explore, especially when I travel. I sometimes leave tips about places, and it’s helpful to see tips from others, too.”

Again, I see the value in gathering and sharing information, regardless of the medium or method. That’s what publications like Rough Guides and Zagat have been doing for decades, after all.

I’ve been on Foursquare for about a month. So far, I am enjoying it. Yes, it’s a bit of goofy fun to get “points” for checking in somewhere. I’ve earned a couple of badges and even become a mayor of my gym, at least for the moment.

When I share check-ins on Twitter, I aim to offer something of value to my followers. A check-in by itself is a bit like a robo-Tweet. It needs context and a human touch. So I include a comment about what I am doing at that place, and I sometimes add a photo.

The idea is to “contribute to the story,” as this Atlantic article about Twitter suggests, and “to be informative or funny — or, ideally, informative and funny.”

On the latter quality, perhaps I’ll check in when I get around to following through on that absinthe resolution. Or maybe not.

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