A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:

handsup

I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.

carolinas-badmap

As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Student guest post: CNN’s sensational coverage of Flight 370

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Jasmin Singh is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in reporting, focusing on medical and science writing and minors in biology and chemistry. She is a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and the health and science correspondent for Carolina Week. Besides pursuing a career in science journalism, she aspires to be a full-time physician in the Eastern North Carolina region.

As a reporter for the school’s paper, I was told to keep it simple and not to exaggerate. I came to love the simplicity of the newspaper and online news – I don’t have to dig around or read a huge anecdote before I get to the point of the story.

But when I was writing stories for a broadcast journalism course, I was in shock. I’m talking about sensationalism.

Sensationalizing the news isn’t new. We can think of yellow journalism used in the late 1800s, where reporters used misleading headlines, dramatic quotes and scary pictures to draw their readers in.

Nowadays, newspapers work away from this form, trying to present the most honest, factual stories possible. One of the few places in print that we still see this sensationalism is in tabloids. But there is another medium that uses it far too often.

TV news loves to sensationalize. But if we do so in print, our editors are quick to calm it down. Is this a double standard? Take for example CNN’s online coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner.

Flight 370 was a trending topic on CNN’s homepage since it first disappeared March 8. At first, CNN reported hard facts, or stories about the passengers, following what many other news organizations were doing at the time.

But as the search continued, CNN brought in analysts to talk about theories and potential flight paths  – even though the Malaysian government hadn’t released any new information at the time. And as CNN’s March 22 headline read, “When facts are few, imaginations run wild.”

And wild they were. Headlines changed every hour on CNN’s homepage, each one leading to a new theory, like those of terrorism, pilot suicide or hijacking. But no new information was being used for these stories – it was the same few facts being repeated, or twisted to create a new theory.

Is there a reason that CNN can do this while other news sources can’t? Is it because CNN is a large broadcast, 24/7-news network, or because it has the power and name to do so? I don’t know, but it could be a mix of the two. But when a smaller organization came out with their theory, CNN was quick to turn it down.

Wired magazine published an article (originally published on Google Plus) presenting a very simple and realistic theory that the plane tried to land at a nearby airport. The article was written by a former airline pilot with over 20 years of flight experience.

However, CNN’s analysts quickly turned down the pilot’s theory, saying it wasn’t possible – probably because CNN analysts had other theories: The pilots could be terrorists or the plane was hijacked.

On March 24, the Malaysian government released information stating the flight was officially lost in the Indian Ocean. The final transcript of the conversation between the pilots and flight control were released on April 1. And again, CNN continued to post updated stories by its analysts using this small amount of information. The latest headline as of 8:32 p.m. April 3, “Flight 370: Search to resume with high-tech help, hopes for breakthrough.”

So how can we avoid these sensationalized headlines and news stories? Beth Winegarner of The Poynter Institute wrote a list of five simple things we can do to make sure our stories are clean and still draw in readers.

Stick to facts: When we have a fact and it is confirmed, use it. News stories should be filled with facts. When we hear about breaking news, we need to make sure it is accurate and is supported by evidence. If we don’t have the evidence or the facts to support a claim, we shouldn’t publish it.

Be careful with identifications: This is important for a story regarding a crime. If we have information about a potential suspect, we must make sure that we identify the right person. Is it John A. Smith or John R. Smith? The middle name, age, height and even race can destroy your credibility if you misidentify a suspect.

Be a skeptic: This would be a useful tip for CNN. Winegarner said we should be skeptical of experts. Nobody knows everything, so we shouldn’t trust everything they say, especially if our credibility is on the line. Seek out counterarguments and other outside experts who have no affiliation to the story or the organization.

Give details. A lot of them: Our readers want to know everything that is going on, so if we have the details, use them. Details help develop the story and also create a mental picture of what is going on, which can help make the story easier to understand. Using details also strengthens your credibility because you are giving your readers every fact available, leaving no room for questions.

Write a good story: If you have all the facts, outside sources, use caution and include a lot of details, the story will write itself, with no need to sensationalize.

I think that’s what reporting is all about. Delivering the facts in the most basic, honest way possible. If we sensationalize it, do we really have a story to tell?

 

Student guest post: The real media and the real fake media

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Michael Dickson is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill with majors in English and reporting. He edits and does opinion writing for the Daily Tar Heel, and he aspires to get paid for doing something similar at some point in the future.

The question of the day used to be, “Who gets to count as a real journalist?” But that doesn’t seem to cover it anymore. For some reason, the question just seems irrelevant and nitpicky.

Now there’s a better question: “What gets to count as a real news organization?” After all, that’s the first thing we see when sharing or finding information online. Any article I’m sharing is attributed first and foremost to a company or website and only secondarily to the individual.

Here are a few online news organizations you may or may not have heard of: Free Wood Post, The Daily Currant, Diversity Chronicle and Hayibo. All of them have had articles go viral at one point or another.

The catch? They’re all fake. They call themselves satire, which seems to legitimize what they do, but they are “satire” the same way TMZ or the Drudge Report could be called “news.”

So let’s amend our question once more: “What gets to count as a real fake news organization?”

Given how easy it is to confuse the real and the fake, we should consider it as a spectrum. At one end is The Onion, the big dog as far as media satire is concerned, and at the other end are the most reputable of the standard news agencies: The New York Times, CNN, BBC, etc.

Then we drift toward the middle, what we might generally refer to as the tabloid zone. The National Enquirer imitates real news organizations just like Diversity Chronicle imitates fake news organizations, but at that point in the spectrum they probably have more in common with each other than with either of our more reliable poles.

Although, of course, there are ambiguous points on each side. The Drudge Report and Hayibo might be closer to the edge, if not out of the tabloid zone entirely. (Hayibo is a South African satire site, now defunct.) But the worst satire is virtually indistinguishable from the worst news.

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: Bad news can spread misinformation and reduce people’s trust in the news, and bad satire is even worse.

The Onion is a fairly well-established organization, but their articles still occasionally get taken as real news. For the more tabloid-esque satire, however, one gets the feeling that they subsist almost entirely on readers that mistakenly think they’re reading actual journalism. And this isn’t only because the brands aren’t well-known and the disclaimers are tucked away in corners; the content is different too.

Polished satire from organizations like The Onion tends to have a political slant, but it’s obvious, and it approaches issues from a very particular sort of angle that shapes the way it’s read. They feature shareable headlines like “Al-Qaeda operative can’t believe how expensive Super Bowl tickets are,” or “Biden frantically hitting up Cabinet members for piss.” Readers might take these as real, but that only leads to confusion, hilarity and embarrassment.

And how does bad satire compare? Free Wood Post goes viral with headlines like “Mitt Romney: I can relate to black people, my ancestors once owned slaves,” and Daily Currant gets views with headlines like “Obamacare death panel orders first execution.” The contrast should be obvious. The worst of these articles are nothing more than hyperbolic political rants masquerading as journalism — and as a rule, they’re not even funny.

While satire ideally contributes to public discourse and offers novel perspectives in otherwise stagnant debates, sites like these reflect and perpetuate the political polarization that permeates our media. Uncritical readers who share the expressed partisan views take the satire as fact, while others simply disbelieve.

And if I haven’t made it clear so far, this problem isn’t adjacent to the modern media landscape and its own quirks and discrepancies, it’s fully a part of it. It’s an extension of the already polarized political media, and it’s only one of a number of ongoing factors that erode media credibility and contribute to the conflicting views of reality entrenched on each side of the political spectrum.

So it’s a problem. And it’s not clear what we can do about it.

The need to edit opinion pieces

Opinion pieces such as columns, op-eds and movie reviews need editing just as news stories do. Two incidents in the past week serve as a reminder of that.

First, The Wall Street Journal posted an op-ed by Suzanne Somers in which she criticized President Obama’s health-care law as a Ponzi scheme. To support her view of the Affordable Care Act as a power grab, the “Three’s Company” actress included these quotes from history:

  • “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.” — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
  • “Control your citizens’ health care and you control your citizens.” — Winston Churchill

Neither man, however, said those things, as numerous websites and bloggers pointed out. The Wall Street Journal updated the post to remove the erroneous quotes and appended a correction.

But why didn’t the Journal detect and delete the bad quotes before publication? The editor who oversees the series of posts that included Somers’ op-ed told The Poynter Institute that opinion writers get greater leeway. But that doesn’t excuse them from fact errors.

Second, Sen. Rand Paul has been confronted with charges of plagiarism in speeches, a book and an op-ed in The Washington Times. In the latter instance, BuzzFeed reported that Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, apparently lifted significant segments of an opinion piece about mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders.

Plagiarism can be more difficult to detect than a made-up quote, but it can be done. But in this instance, Paul included an anecdote about a Florida man who was convicted of illegally selling painkillers. A careful editor could have asked the senator: What is your source for that story? Can we attribute that information or link to a primary source?

In both situations, the publications were embarrassed by breakdowns in editing. These blunders were preventable. Here’s how:

  • Doublecheck quotes from books, movies and historical figures.
  • Ask columnists and op-ed writers for links to sources for facts, figures and anecdotes.
  • Be especially careful with guest submissions from politicians and celebrities who may not be familiar with the rigorous standards for fact-checking, verification and sourcing.

An effective opinion piece has a unique voice, solid research and original ideas. It’s up to writers and editors, working together, to make those viewpoints as persuasive as possible.

For more on editing opinion pieces, here are interviews with editors who have worked with that kind of writing:

Q&A with Deborah Strange, Dow Jones News Fund intern

Deborah Strange is a student in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In summer 2013, she had a Dow Jones News Fund internship at the Regional Editing Center of The New York Times in Gainesville, Fla. She has also been an intern at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Strange talks about her New York Times internship and what she hopes to do next.

Q. Describe your internship experience. What was your typical workday like?

A. I worked on the news service side of the Editing Center, so I read stories formatted for The New York Times print and Web editions, and edited them for our newspaper and magazine clients. This involved editing headers so clients would know how to budget our stories and editing copy for AP style, since the stories came over in New York Times style.

My day would start at 3 p.m. with editing the more feature-style stories, which would usually be ready while other news stories were developing. We would have a small mix of hard news stories early in the day, particularly foreign stories because of the time difference. I would also proofread the Times Digest early in the day, and that did usually take New York Times style.

We would receive the stories that were running on The Times’ front page by around 7:30 or 8, and it was then a race to get those stories on the wire by 9 p.m. Glances, or 100-word briefs of national, foreign and business stories, had a 9:30 deadline.

Throughout the workday I would trim longer stories to 300- to 400-word versions and check stories for new material or corrections. Sometimes updating a story would be an easy “adds new graf here,” and sometimes so much had changed that it was essentially a new story.

Things would slow down by 11:30, and I would do one last check for updates before leaving at midnight.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of the internship, and what was the greatest reward?

A. Working at a news service is different from working at a newspaper or in a classroom. There are so many steps in the editing process to make sure everything makes sense to clients.

Our story headers would have slugs, headlines, bylines, attention lines, contributor notes, art notes, trim notes, update notes, embargo notes. When editing the copy itself, taking out courtesy titles and periods in abbreviations became second nature. There are more obscure differences between Times style and AP, though, like the spelling of Russian and Arabic names.

It’s a lot to keep track of when preparing a story for the wire, and it definitely felt overwhelming at first.

It was very, very surreal to work for The New York Times Co. The internship was filled with opportunities; I learned from some of the best editors in the industry every day, and I got the chance to write a column for the International Weekly publication.

But there was nothing like finding and fixing a fact error before it went on the wire. It was even more rewarding to find a fact error before The Times’ print deadline, saving a correction both on the wire and in the print edition.

Q. What advice would you give to students considering applying for a Dow Jones News Fund internship?

A. Do apply for an internship, even if you might not want to go into copy editing. No matter your background — reporting, design, multimedia — there are skills you can bring to editing, and there are skills you can gain from it.

If you do apply, be confident and know your strengths. I had only reporting experience when I was applying, not including half a semester of a news editing course at UNC. But reporting and editing go hand in hand, and that’s what I wrote about in my essay.

Know your weaknesses and study them — and do study for the editing test. I’ve always felt solid in grammar and word usage, but I was more horrible at geography than I’d like to admit. I spent the weeks before the test studying maps and, not just events from the summer, but where those events had happened on a map.

And finally, know that there are real people grading your test and reading your essays. There are no Scantrons, and the organization isn’t looking for black-and-white applications.

Write down thoughtful questions when you’re editing stories during the test. If you know the answer to one part of a two-part question, write it down, and answer the other part to the best of your ability.

Show what you know. The graders don’t expect you to know everything.

Q. You are planning to graduate in December. What’s next for you?

A. I love both editing and reporting, so I’m looking for those jobs at daily newspapers now. This semester, I’m freelance reporting for The Chapel Hill News and tutoring elementary school students in writing, so I have fun ways to do both.

I’m also trying to develop as many new skills as possible, like HTML coding and economics reporting, as well as making more connections in the industry.

UPDATE: Deborah has accepted a full-time job with the editing center in Gainesville. Congratulations!

Take a look at Strange’s portfolio and follow her on Twitter.

Q&A with Ashley Leath, copy editor at Southern Living

Ashley Leath is a copy editor at Southern Living magazine. She has also worked as a freelance editor on the topics of food and travel. In this interview, conducted by email, Leath talks about her job at Southern Living, including editing recipes, and the magazine’s outlook in the digital era.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. A typical day involves a combination of Travel and Food stories. I began my career in Southern Living’s Food department as a recipe editor, so a lot of my experience involves recipe-related copy editing. When I moved to the Copy Desk in 2011, I took over the Travel department’s copy editing as well. This means that my day is spent balancing the needs of both departments’ copy.

For my Travel stories, I’ll begin the day by making fact-checking calls, which means that I reach out to contacts as varied as park rangers, interior designers and PR reps. We make a concerted effort to maintain the factual accuracy of our stories, so this is an important step in the editorial process, and the bulk of this responsibility falls on the Copy Desk.

In addition to fact-checking stories, I’ll edit the text and input any changes into the copy on the network (we use InCopy to manage our stories). It’s a simple process — but multiply it by 15 stories per issue with anywhere from 1 to 50 sources to check per story, and you’ve got a lot to balance while maintaining accuracy.

Food stories are an entirely different animal. Our recipes are developed in-house by our Test Kitchen, and each one goes through a complicated testing phase before it reaches my desk. When a story is ready for copy editing, a manila folder will find its way to me, and that means that the recipes inside it have passed the Food department’s review and are ready for my read.

We have a strict food style that is outlined in a 200-page stylebook, and I use this as my guide when I edit the recipes. I begin by doing a top read of all the recipes in a story (on average, four to six of various lengths). Then I examine the testing notes for each recipe. This means I read handwritten notes from each stage of testing (a minimum of two to three). I’m looking for discrepancies: Did the amount of flour stay the same from one test to the next? The lemon zest was increased in test two but not updated on the latest version of the recipe. Should it have been?

These are easy questions in and of themselves, but recipes are complicated endeavors with important things at stake. One wrong word, and you’ve ruined Christmas dinner (or worse, burned down a kitchen). If I find a discrepancy, I work with the Test Kitchen to get it resolved. At the end of this process, I once again enter my edits into the story copy on the network.

In between all of this reading and editing, I have the luck of attending a taste testing each day with the Food department. A lunchtime break for my eyes is very welcomed, and the food isn’t too shabby either.

Q. What are some challenges of editing for the magazine? Rewards?

A. Time is a copy editor’s worst enemy (perhaps right next to a spell-checker). We are not a weekly publication, but when we head into production, stories can move through the pipeline swiftly.

You may need a full day to get a story into perfect shape, but because of that looming deadline, you’ll only have a few hours. You have to learn to be smart with your time, balance multiple deadlines, and still produce the top-notch work that is expected of you.

As for rewards, there are many. First, my co-workers. You spend more time with the people you work with than you do with your family (especially during production), so you need to really like your co-workers. Southern Living has a great staff, if I do say so myself.

Also, for someone who loves to eat, you can’t beat a slice of fresh-from-the-oven apple-carrot cake (destined to grace the magazine’s cover) on a random Tuesday afternoon. I leave work every day with a very happy stomach (and sometimes snag leftovers for my husband too).

Q. Southern Living has an internship program for copy editors. What does the magazine look for when selecting interns?

A. First, an error-free resume and cover letter. This is your first chance to introduce yourself to us, so make sure each of these items is without error.

Next, enthusiasm! We want you to be excited about working with us and helping with our work. Copy editing is meticulous, but rewarding. It will be much more fun for all involved if you enjoy it as much as we do.

Lastly, experience. This doesn’t have to be another internship necessarily, but we do look for what you’ve been involved in that has exposed you to the type of work you’d do for us: fact-checking, copy editing, researching.

Be involved on campus with organizations that will give you exposure to this (The Daily Tar Heel, Blue & White, etc.), and you’ll be able to tout these skills on your resume. It will also help you find and nurture references, which we check with before hiring anyone.

Q. Much of the news media, including magazines, are going digital. What do you see as Southern Living’s place in the changing landscape of news?

A. This is a complicated time for magazines. We’re trying to find our niche in this new digital landscape, and it’s a quickly moving beast.

Southern Living has made huge strides in this arena in the past few years. We’ve carved out market share on our website and in social media. Did you know you can follow us on Instagram and get behind-the-scenes pictures of our taste testings?

We’ve done this by harnessing our relationship with our readers. They feel an ownership of the magazine that is unique to SL.

We have to carry that bond to all platforms that the brand explores — web, video, tablet and more — and be able to maintain our core message successfully. We have to keep our readers’ trust and give them what they expect from us where they expect it, and that means providing content on more than just paper.

We’re striving to continue what we’ve done best all these years — represent Southern culture and tout the wonderful people of our region — on digital platforms that can reach a wider audience than ever before.