Don’t fret over this headline

A letter to the editor to The News & Observer takes the Raleigh newspaper to task for this headline in its print edition: “Teachers fret over budget plans.”

The problem? The verb.

The letter writer, who is the head of the education department at Meredith College, perceives it as an insult: “The headline demeans the teaching profession. Teachers are not fretting; teachers have serious concerns and questions about major changes in N.C.’s spending on education.”

As a parent of a student in the Wake County schools and a resident of North Carolina, I share the reader’s concerns about the General Assembly’s cuts to public education. But I disagree that “fret” is pejorative.

Typical definitions of “fret” go like this: “to become vexed or worried” or “to be visibly anxious.” The educators quoted in this story reflect those feelings.

It helps headline writers that “fret” is a commonly used word that consists of just four letters. That’s probably why it appeared in that headline. It’s a suitable word choice and not a slight to teachers. There’s no need, therefore, to fret about this headline.

His is no disgrace

Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.
Former Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz is leaving CNN for Fox News.

Howard Kurtz, a longtime observer and critic of the media, himself made news this week, leaving CNN for Fox News and trading “Reliable Sources” for “Fox News Watch.”

In reporting this move, many publications took the opportunity to point out Kurtz’s own shortcomings as a journalist. For example, a blog post Kurtz wrote earlier this year about gay NBA player Jason Collins was retracted because of “several errors” and “a misleading characterization.”

That’s certainly a relevant and timely detail. But a few publications took that a step further in their headlines, labeling Kurtz as “disgraced.” It’s probably predictable that The Huffington Post, known for its overheated headlines, was one of them. But it’s surprising that Bloomberg News also used that word to describe Kurtz. It revised the headline and omitted the word, but “disgraced” lives on in the URL for that story.

“Disgraced” indicates actions that are dishonorable or dishonest. I’ve used that adjective on this blog to describe John Edwards, the former senator whose political career and personal reputation imploded because of an extramarital affair. In journalism, I would be comfortable using “disgraced” to describe plagiarists and fabricators like Jayson Blair.

Kurtz has made mistakes, just as any person has, but they appear to be honest ones made from haste, not deception. And he has expressed remorse.

Those errors are, of course, especially embarrassing for someone who has made a career of analyzing the news media. But to my mind, “disgraced” does not match the level of the offenses.

Editing and public relations

For the most part, editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach, are populated with students with a news focus. It’s rare that a student in public relations, advertising or broadcast enrolls in my classes.

That’s not to say, however, that editing isn’t relevant to public relations. It is. Indeed, PR requires writers and editors to do what their counterparts in news do: Put the right words in the right order.*

Here are two recent examples of where editing and public relations intersected:

  • Last month, I led a workshop on headline writing at the Raleigh offices of Gibbs & Soell, a business communications company. Besides the usual challenges of writing headlines for print and digital media, PR people also have to navigate the demands of their clients, some of whom want particular wording.
  • This week, the News & Observer reported that UNC spent more than $500,000 on PR consulting as the university dealt with an academic scandal. One of the PR tasks: revise a letter to the editor written by an athletics department spokesman.

In each instance, editing played a key role in getting the job done. It is, as John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun wrote recently, a portable skill. As lines blur between news and public relations and more people move between the disciplines, it’s important to understand that editing encompasses them both.

* Hat tip to Henry Fuhrmann of the Los Angeles Times for this summary of what we do. I quote him often.

Carol Folt: a new chancellor in the headlines

UNC-Chapel Hill has selected a new chancellor. As first reported by The News & Observer, Carol Folt of Dartmouth University will succeed Holden Thorp as the leader of the state’s flagship public university.

As a faculty member, I like the selection of Folt for a couple of reasons: She’s from outside the UNC system, and she will be the first woman to lead the Chapel Hill campus. After a period of academic and athletic scandals, it’s time for a fresh start and new perspectives.

As an editor, I like Folt’s selection for a couple of other reasons: “Folt” is a short word for headlines in print and online. And “Carol Folt” is an unusual name that is more helpful for search engine optimization than, say, “Becky Jones” would be. Both of those aspects of her name will help headline writers do their jobs well.

Best wishes, Carol, on your move to Chapel Hill. I look forward to seeing your name in the headlines — and for all the right reasons.

Student guest post: When are warnings in headlines enough?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Sarah Sessoms is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double-majoring in journalism and sports administration. A former world champion equestrian, she grew up on a horse farm in Hillsborough, N.C. She is an intern for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team and hopes to embark on a career in the athletic administration after graduation in May.

During the NCAA Tournament this year, there was one storyline that you could barely miss hearing about: Kevin Ware’s injury. (In case you did miss it, the Louisville basketball player broke his leg in a horrific way during the game again Duke in the Elite Eight).

CBS showed the injury during its live coverage, then again on replay before deciding not to air the injury again. If you were watching it live like me, you were probably OK never to see it again. But the video of Ware breaking his leg blew up on YouTube, and now, over two weeks later, it has almost 5 million hits.

CBS started the discussion with what they thought was the best decision for everyone: don’t replay the injury and keep the coverage to the basics. No warnings, no graphic images. Many followed CBS’s lead.

But other media outlets didn’t choose to do it this way. One such example is Deadspin’s headline (I won’t link to it, because it takes you to the video of the injury itself). The headline to its article and accompanying media reads: “Kevin Ware Suffered Maybe The Most Gruesome Injury In The History Of Televised Sports [WARNING: VERY GROSS]”.

But when you write a story, is the headline with a warning enough? Is it too much? Should an editor warn the audience that the article, or any corresponding media, is graphic? Should readers be prepared for the content?

The answer is that it depends. Warnings for graphic content are common, but they need to be used sparingly.

What to focus on here is “Warning: Very gross.” True, the break is extremely gross. You could even call it disturbing.  They’re right about needing a warning on some level, but it shouldn’t be in the headline. And there has to be a better, more professional way to put it. In this piece Deadspin goes beyond reporting the injury, they sensationalize it.

But is this enough of a warning for the violent leg break? Is this even enough warning for the giant video that graces the front of this article? Did the editors who wrote the headline think that a warning would be enough? Or is this sensationalism for the sake of getting more hits on the website? There’s no clear answer, but I have a feeling that the more gruesome the headline, the more people would want to click on it.

Let’s compare with some other headlines from the incident. “Louisville’s Ware leaves with right leg injury” or “Horrific injury: Louisville’s Kevin Ware breaks leg vs. Duke in Elite Eight.” These headlines are far better for the privacy of the student-athlete, his family and his team.

Warnings are a really good tool to make sure that readers are aware of the disturbing content. In fact, one of the articles gives its own warning when linking to pictures of the injury. But the fact that it is in the body of the text makes it a much better option than sticking it in a headline. By putting a colloquial warning in their headline, Deadspin took away from the news value of the incident and placed it squarely as a spectacle.

When writing a headline for something this shocking, it’s good to remember all of the parties involved. Yes, it’s good to get readers’ attention, but it’s better to inform them of what happened.

The latter headlines are better for search engines and give many more details to readers in a rush. The headline with the warning only makes a bigger deal out of the injury, with little respect for Ware. In this situation, some media outlets forgot that the injured athlete is still a person, even if his leg break was “very gross.”

All in all, readers needed to be aware that the content of the Ware injury could cause some discomfort. In this case, the warning was definitely warranted, had it been phrased correctly. Where the warning goes wrong is focusing on the gruesomeness of the injury and by doing so taking away from the humanity of the situation.

Guest post: A heart-stopping headline

Dane Huffman is executive Web producer at NBC-17 in the Triangle region of North Carolina. He previously worked at WRAL.com and, for 24 years, in the sports department of The News & Observer as a reporter and editor. In this guest post, first published on Facebook, Huffman looks back at how a headline captured the essence of the 1983 N.C. State basketball team.

I loved watching the ESPN special “Survive And Advance” on N.C. State’s miracle run to a national championship in 1983. One small part I played in that was coming up with the “Cardiac Pack” name. I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, and I was working at The N&O when State beat UNLV on a Sunday.

Of course, at that point they’d had a miracle run through the ACC Tournament and had beaten Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After that UNLV game, I was working at The N&O on Sunday evening and said we needed to come up with a nickname.

We were throwing out ideas, and I remembered the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL had been the “Cardiac Cards” in the 1970s. So I suggested “Cardiac Pack,” and we put that in the headline Monday morning.

cardiacpack

Needless to say, the name took off — The N&O was really powerful then — and you soon saw it on bumper stickers and T-shirts and even on commemorative Coke bottles.

What was interesting back then is how people around the Triangle were pulling for State. Even UNC students were caught up in it at the time, and lots of Carolina students came to Raleigh (including me) for the night of the championship game.

Thanks to N&O news researcher Brooke Cain for providing the image of this newspaper page.

Q&A with Ariel Zirulnick, Middle East editor at the Christian Science Monitor

Ariel Zirulnick is Middle East editor at The Christian Science Monitor. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job, the editing process at the Monitor and how to land a job in international journalism.

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

A. I work from our Boston headquarters, editing copy from a slew of staff writers and freelancers living in North Africa and the Middle East, and occasionally reporting and writing myself.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 a.m. and immediately check my work email to see if any of my reporters, who are anywhere from 6 to 8 hours ahead of us, have emerging stories or other time-sensitive things on which they need a response. Since they’re already halfway through their day at that point, it’s critical to get them an answer ASAP.

The international desk editors get in to the office at 7:30 a.m. and spend the first couple hours of the day assigning and editing stories, planning coverage, tracking news in our regions, etc. The afternoon, when our reporters are done for the day and heading for bed, is typically the time to catch up on more long-term work, whether it’s magazine stories, non-time sensitive stories for the Web, or just organizational and administrative things, like handling our reporters’ reimbursements for work-related trips.

We spend a lot of time tracking what is rising and falling on Google and Yahoo! news. It isn’t the only thing that dictates our coverage, but it does influence our decisions and it certainly influences the way we write our headlines.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the Monitor?

A. Every story for CSMonitor.com receives two edits.

The first is almost always done by the relevant regional editor, who will edit not only for spelling and grammar, but also for content – ideas, analysis, etc. The first edit is sent back to the reporter for him to answer any questions that came up and to read over the editor’s changes to ensure nothing was changed in such a way that it became incorrect.

Then they send back a fresh file incorporating all the editor’s changes and questions. That version then gets a read from another editor on the international desk – this time mostly for grammar, style, readability, etc. – before being published to the website. Stories for our weekly magazine go through one additional layer of editing with a designated copy editor.

The international desk editors write the headlines for stories on CSMonitor.com. Typically it’s the editor doing the first edit who writes a headline, making sure to incorporate the so-called “key phrases” that Google News clusters are built around in order to get the story into that cluster and get traffic. We run our suggested headline by either the international editor or the deputy international editor, who gives the final stamp of approval.

Q. Readers often see bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you handle such criticism?

A. I receive more complaints on this than anything else in my region by a landslide. The fact is, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be impossible to satisfy critics – sometimes their objection is not grounded in fact and they will read whatever bias they want to into the piece.

It’s not rare to get two e-mails bashing the same story, one for being too sympathetic to Israelis, one for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. The only thing that’s different is the lens through which each reader is reading the piece. That’s what makes it so hard to satisfy everyone, or even most readers.

We do try to respond to all complaints because we want to make sure readers know we’re paying attention to their comments. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of pointing out to the reader the different voices in the piece to show that the reporter did her due diligence by using sources from across the political spectrum.

If the criticism seems valid – perhaps we forgot to include some background about a source’s political affiliation, or cast something in a certain light that seemed misleading – we will typically write to the person and ask them to provide us with their own sources to back up their claims. Sometimes we find that they can’t, sometimes they can and we file either a correction or, if it doesn’t warrant that, assure them that we will take that into account in future stories on the topic. Often readers are just happy to get an acknowledgement of their complaint, whether or not it prompts any action.

We get complaints the most often when we do a piece on only Israel or only Palestinians, mostly from readers angry that we “ignored” one half of the conflict. In that case, I’ll point them to previous stories that focused exclusively on the other “side.” Even if one piece is not straight down the middle, I can say with confidence that our cumulative work is.

Q. You are a 2010 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for students there to get a job like yours?

A. A second major, preferably something with an international slant, is very important if you want to work in international affairs journalism (I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a Middle East focus).

While outlets like CSM are happy when someone has journalism training, we care less about that and more about the reporter’s ability to thing deeply about the topic at hand, synthesize complex information, and see events in their broader context. Knowledge of the region, including its history, is essential for that, and that comes from studying the region, likely in an academic setting. It can be learned in the field, of course, but it’s unlikely an outlet like CSM will take something from a freelancer if they just arrived in the country and have no prior experience or study there.

Studying abroad, and even getting an internship abroad, will also give you a huge leg-up. Getting an international internship overseas is not as unattainable a goal as it sounds – most countries have an English language publication or a bureau for a major US publication, and it’s often much easier to get an internship there than at a news outlet in the United States.

The catch is that they’ll often be unpaid, since they don’t want to go through the hassle of obtaining a work visa for you, but the j-school has many scholarships specifically for covering students’ expenses while doing unpaid internships. That’s how I funded a summer internship at the Jerusalem Post, which I did on the heels of a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which I also mostly funded with scholarships, in that case from the Global Ed program).

Also, work for the Daily Tar Heel! My work for them is what I used when I applied to my Jerusalem Post internship, and editors there were amazed at the quality of the student-run publication. UNC journalism students are fortunate enough to have a top-notch news outlet around that takes teaching peers very seriously.

Take advantage of it. No journalism school class can simulate the deadline pressures and real-life experiences that you get from writing for the DTH.

If a student wants first and foremost to be reporting overseas, his best bet is to take the leap and set up shop as a freelancer overseas. Do some research into what countries are undercovered (a tip-off is a dateline from a country other than the one the story is about) and move there! You’ll have to pitch like crazy to a number if outlets before you get a bite, but it’s really the best way to go if being overseas is your first priority.

But if, like me, you aren’t comfortable taking that financial risk (student loans!) or care more about being a part of a team than in getting overseas straightaway and having to work solo, you can look into internships with the international sections of newspapers based in the United States.

I got my foot in the door with CSM by taking a semester-long paid internship with the Monitor after graduating from college. You’ll probably spend most of your time editing, not reporting, but you’ll still have your head in international news all day long, and you’ll learn a ton about a lot of places, which will better prepare for a move overseas in the future and maybe even get you in line for a staff position.

I was fortunate to be interning with CSM when a staff position opened up. A year later the Middle East editor position opened up, and now I’m spending my day reading, writing and editing on the region that has enthralled me for years. I even got to take a reporting trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year, which was incredibly exciting.

The Monitor international desk hires an intern each semester and for the summer. If you are interested, or just want to know more, please be in touch! I need people to watch Carolina basketball with up here.

Follow Ariel Zirulnick on Twitter at @azirulnick.