The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: word choice

Q&A with Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston, co-directors of The Irina Project

Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston are faculty members at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are also co-directors of The Irina Project, which examines media coverage of sex trafficking. In this interview, conducted by email, Friedman and Johnston discuss the project and offer guidance to reporters and editors covering this issue.

Q. What is The Irina Project? What do you two hope to achieve?

A. The Irina Project, or TIP, combines scholarly research with community engagement.

The purpose of our work is to first, better understand the ways that sex trafficking is covered in news media and second, to illuminate and comment on news routines and lapses that may result in audience misunderstanding or apathy toward the crime of sex trafficking.

Our aim is to bring together with journalists a range of groups most knowledgeable about trafficking: survivors, health-care workers, social workers, law enforcement, for example, as a way to widen the range of sources and stories and otherwise improve the norms of coverage. We’re working now on a Web-based resource that will include access to experts (database of experts, multimedia clips/interviews), resources (news, legal information, statistics, legislation, publications, organizations); reporting tip sheets; and social networking (blog, Twitter, wiki). It will bring together journalists, data, and knowledgeable sources in an effort to increase awareness of and promote the responsible reporting of sex trafficking.

Q. What are some of the common problems you see in media coverage of sex trafficking? How can journalists better cover this topic?

A. In our 2008 study — the first systematic analysis of news coverage of sex trafficking — we found that trafficking was typically reported as breaking (crime) news with little or no context, and rarely included the voices of the trafficked. In subsequent studies, we found these same patterns in coverage. These patterns of coverage, we argue, lead to victim-blaming, misdirected resources and poor policy decisions that hurt individuals who are trafficked.

Trafficking is a complex topic, so it’s no surprise when journalists find it challenging. Some suggestions are to approach the story from a wider range of angles, such as public health and human rights; and to draw upon a bigger pool of sources, including those most closely involved with and profoundly affected by the issue.

Further complicating things is that statistical information on trafficking is often suspect given competing agendas, the limitations of data collection and the fact that sexual exploitation is historically an underreported crime.

Journalists must keep up with a mass of data generated by an increasing number of governmental and non-governmental sources, and they must find ways to mine the data in their communities to identify the stories and accurately report on this topic in a way that informs community-based conversations and policy decisions. To do this, they need knowledge of data sources, subject experts and contacts, as well as proficiency with the approaches and tools useful for identifying and analyzing trends and presenting clearly, without sensationalism, potentially complex data in trafficking stories.

Q. What guidelines on word choice would you offer for editors who are writing headlines, captions and tweets about this topic?

A. As is true when covering other forms of violence, editors working on stories about trafficking must be especially careful with language. To do otherwise not only risks misrepresenting the issue, but may jeopardize the safety and recovery of trafficking survivors. Here are just a few suggestions:

    • Never use the term “child prostitute.” The term implies that a child has made the choice to become involved in prostitution.
    • Take care not to conflate the terms “prostitution,” “trafficking,” and “sex work.” These are contested terms among distinct communities. If unsure of the differences, see the laws in your state and municipality, and consult expert sources.
    • Rather than “pimp,” which has been normalized and trivialized in popular culture, use “trafficker” to communicate the seriousness of the offense.
    • If a trafficking survivor is included in the story, follow his/her lead, e.g., whether he/she wants to be identified by name or photograph.
    • Avoid cliché images like women in chains, as it perpetuates stereotypes about trafficking.
    • Avoid picturing and identifying individuals arrested for prostitution.

Q. You two were recently selected for the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars program at UNC. What are your plans for that program and for the project overall?

A. We’re thrilled to be part of the FES program, having admired so much of the work that’s come out of it already. Our research of trafficking will continue, but we want to find more ways to translate our research findings into practical applications for reporters.

We recognize the need to connect with a much wider range of communities—communities with which we are less familiar (in comparison to news organizations), which may be wary of the media (such as survivors), and/or whose aims might appear to be at odds with journalism. Our goal is to bring these communities together, united under a shared goal to raise awareness about sex trafficking and its consequences and to propose solutions.

And of course, as faculty at UNC become more dependent on external funding, we want to be more effective at identifying funding sources and writing successful applications. The FES will bring us together with experienced scholars who have struggled with similar concerns and developed strategies to address them.

I remember Calif.

The Associated Press recently announced a significant change in its style on abbreviations for U.S. states. The change takes effect today (May 1).

For decades, the AP Stylebook called for editors and writers to abbreviate state names when they accompanied the names of towns and cities. Example: “She drove from Macon, Ga., to Roanoke, Va., in seven hours.”

There were exceptions, of course. Some cities were deemed significant enough to stand alone. Some state names were so short that they were never abbreviated.

The new style recommends spelling out all state names in story text and, when possible, in headlines. So we’d edit the earlier example like this: “She drove from Macon, Georgia, to Roanoke, Virginia, in seven hours.” But the abbreviations will remain in datelines, captions and lists.

Not everyone is on board with the change, which AP says reflects a more global view of editing. The McClatchy-Tribune wire service said it would ignore the new style, as did McClatchy’s Washington bureau. Gerri Berendzen, a copy editor at the Herald-Whig in Illinois, said on Twitter that newspaper would also keep the old style.

As the writer and editor for this blog, I use AP style, so I will go along with this change. Of course, you are free to do otherwise, and I will respect your choice. After all, stylebooks are made up of suggestions, not commandments.

So no more Mo. A fond farewell to Fla. I’ll remember you, Calif. We’ll see less of each other from now on.

Student guest post: Competing with evolving language

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Stephanie Zimmerman is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in music and journalism.

It is an editor’s job to make writing accessible to readers. The writing must be clear, factually accurate and stylistically and grammatically consistent. But how much emphasis should editors really place on grammatical and stylistic consistency in the age of the Internet?

Look on any social media site, and you’ll probably find an abundance of grammatical errors. Some errors, of course, cannot be overlooked because they obscure the meaning of a sentence. However, there are many common mistakes people make that do little to obscure meaning.

For example, an error that people often make unknowingly is the distinction between quantities: number vs. amount, less vs. fewer and over vs. more than. People using “number” and “amount” interchangeably is one of my peeves, but the distinction really doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence to make it unrecognizable (which is probably why people so often confuse the use of those words).

“Number” is used to describe a definitive quantity that could, theoretically, be counted: “The number of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.” But if you were to replace the word “number” with “amount” in that sentence, it would make just as much sense to the reader: “The amount of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.”

Why do we continue to make the distinction in our writing? Well, that’s the rule, obviously. But isn’t our goal as editors to make things understandable for the reader? If the reader can understand the sentence just as easily, why bother changing it?

Part of the reason is consistency. It is important to have a style to follow so as not to confuse or turn off readers. For example, some stylebooks allow the serial comma, while others forbid it unless the clarity of the sentence is at stake. Each is acceptable practice, but using the serial comma inconsistently seems unprofessional to readers and looks like an editorial mistake.

From a linguistics standpoint, people often argue that all forms of the English language are appropriate if they make sense to the reader. They also cite language change as a reason to not worry so much about distinctions that people often ignore. Michaela Neeley, a linguistics student at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that since language is constantly evolving, sticking to outdated rules that most people overlook causes writers and editors to be behind the rest of the population with language rules and practices.

It is true that stylebooks and even dictionaries sometimes take a while to catch up with the rest of society. The online Merriam Webster dictionary still uses a hyphen in the word “e-mail,” but language has changed so that it is more common to see the word without the hyphen today.

So where do editors stand on the issue? Where should the line be drawn between outdated, old-fashioned grammar rules and incorrect usage that is becoming incorporated into the mainstream English vocabulary? Is it OK to be grammatically incorrect as long as it doesn’t affect readers’ ability to understand what you are saying?

Grammatical distinctions exist for a reason. Even if readers understand what you’re saying, inconsistency looks unprofessional, and even if they know what you’re trying to say, some readers may be put off when you use what they were taught was the incorrect use of words such as “number” and “amount.”

However, stylebooks are beginning to eliminate some of the distinctions I mentioned earlier. In the newest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, it is now acceptable to use the word “over” when referring to quantity.

As far as when style and grammar changes should occur, I think it is better to proceed with caution. It would help publications to know their audiences in order to better gauge when to make stylistic changes, but being behind the times stylistically is usually better than being hasty to jump on language changes that may not yet be accepted by the majority of readers.

Student guest post: You’ve got style, BuzzFeed

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Marisa DiNovis is a junior English and editing & graphic design major at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a native New Yorker. She is copy desk co-editor at The Daily Tar Heel and an editorial intern at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. A life spent reading? That’s the dream.

In my daily life, I am frequently reminded that my existence is veiled with a lens of grammatical correctness and style obsession — like last week when JOMC 457 class was canceled, and the note on the classroom door said: Today’s class is cancelled.

So this week, I’d like to take a moment to thank BuzzFeed for making public its company style guide as well as for perpetuating my “sorry, but it’s actually…” tendency.

The BuzzFeed style guide covers the company’s stylistic choices on the colloquialisms of everything from pop culture to profanity — all topics editors at The Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style undoubtedly have opinions on, but that their professional print style guides lack.

As an editor hopeful, I can’t help but have an opinion on BuzzFeed’s guide. Here goes.

Disseminating the style guide was strategic for BuzzFeed on two counts — the content is precisely reflective of the site’s aesthetic and having shared its set of guidelines bolsters its consistency. And, for all of the skeptics on BuzzFeed’s credibility, the guide also includes more serious sections, such as the company’s corrections policy and guidelines for LGBT, transgender, abortion, immigration and rape and sexual assault terms.

For the latter, I give a round of applause. As it happens, BuzzFeed’s instructions for reporting and writing in an inclusive and unoffending way about the LGBT community and transgender issues far surpass the search results offered in the online AP Stylebook.

And not only does the AP lack a distinct section on these terms, but the print stylebook does not even list an entry for LGBT. Now in writing and editing intelligibly on LGBT issues, I wouldn’t discount deferring to BuzzFeed for the advising I might typically seek from the AP.

For the former — namely, style choices that fit BuzzFeed’s tone — my feelings vary entry to entry.

  • Auto-Tune? What am I supposed to do with that when I need it as a verb!? Sorry — ?! is what I meant to say.
  • CBGB? I had to Google it, and I still don’t know to what it refers.
  • On hyphenating ‘e’ products, BuzzFeed (and the AP, too), I stand with ‘email.’ The look of ‘e-book’ just doesn’t appeal to me.

Disclaimer: The problems I see with these style issues probably started when my parents gave me a less popular spelling of the name Marissa.

But I do digress. I’ve offered my opinion, but I don’t challenge BuzzFeed to change anything — I doubt the intention for this style guide, when it was made public, was that it be a universal set of guidelines. It’s simply how the company governs the style appropriate for its tone.

And when I — or any copy editor — need to make decisions on hippie versus hippy, whether to hyphenate supervillain, or how to discuss disembarking the “struggle bus,” it’s helpful to know BuzzFeed and the writers of its viral articles have weighed in.

So, BuzzFeed: Thanks, I (mostly) like your style.

Don’t name that winter storm just yet

Snow covered the field at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January 2014. Was that work of winter storm Leon?

Snow covered the field at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January 2014. Was that the work of winter storm Leon?

Longtime readers of this blog may recall an exercise from my editing class in which students discuss unsettled or debatable style questions. Previous versions of the assignment have included “first-year student” vs. “freshman” and the now-retired “mike vs. mic.”

This semester, I added this question: Should our mythical publication, The Triangle Tattler, use the naming convention that The Weather Channel has come up with for winter storms?

Most students said no. These students said that winter storms are different from hurricanes and that the Weather Channel’s scheme seemed gimmicky and unnecessary. So Tattler style will be to delete names like Falco or Maximus should they appear in news stories that students edit this semester.

There was some dissent, however, with one student arguing strongly for raising awareness of winter weather and making individual storms more easy to identify now and for posterity. Another suggested a sentence like this in news stories: “The storm, sometimes known as Leon…” to help readers connect what they had seen on TV with what they were reading in print or online.

So what are some Triangle news organizations doing? UNC’s student newspaper has used the name of a winter storm in a headline and story, but The News & Observer and WRAL have not.

On Twitter, weather forecaster Nate Johnson points out that the National Weather Service does not recognize the Weather Channel’s names. You can read more about Johnson’s thoughts on the matter on his blog. His arguments are persuasive.

As an editor, I am unwilling to go along with this idea until the NWS endorses it. As a person, I prefer to blame all of the cold, snow and ice on a single villain. His name? Old Man Winter.

Winter break

Screen shot 2013-12-12 at 9.54.55 AMThis blog is on a break. I hope that your holiday season is free of the clichés of Christmas.

Thanks for reading, and see you in 2014.

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.

Student guest post: How do we deal with profanity in the news?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Zach Potter is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He likes chocolate ice cream and long walks on the beach just after sunset. Note: This post contains adult language.

Editors and reporters have a variety of decisions to make when it comes to what goes on a page. Is it true? Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Is it interesting?

We are tasked with more than just reporting the news. We give it context. We try to capture a moment in time with as much accuracy as possible.

With this in mind, there is one topic that has always interested me when it comes to editing: profanity. I have had many professors who shudder at the idea of a curse word making its way into an article. I have been on both sides of the coin, as a reporter and an editor, and there are certainly arguments both for and against the inclusion of swear words.

During an editing class at UNC, my professor described the timelessness of print journalism. If a TV anchor says, “damn it,” on the air, it is gone as quickly as it is said. With the written word, that obscenity will live forever, inked on the page.  People can go back again and again and read over it. That alone is enough to argue that editors need use caution when dealing with profanity. But does it mean that it should be abhorred in all instances? Not necessarily.

Now, I would never argue that one should include obscenity for obscenity’s sake. Nor should we drop f-bombs. Certainly, some words are bad enough to warrant their immediate deletion if they are ever found on a news page.

But sometimes curse words can add flavor, passion and context to a story or quote. For example, I was once in a feature-writing class and was doing a story on a convenience store owner who had been in the area for a long time. He told me some of the crazier stories he had witnessed in his day and ended with, “I’ve seen some shit in my lifetime.”

First of all, it was a direct quote, so there would be no way to change the language there. Second, why would you even want to?

“Seen some shit,” is a great way to phrase that thought.  It is succinct, to the point and easy to understand. Plus, that is how people talk when they are relating crazy, off-the-wall stories about rowdy customers, cop chases outside their stores, etc.

Few people would say, “Yes, I have seen some rather interesting events unfold around this area.” That comes off as bland to me. Yet, when I received my graded story back, the quote was circled in thick red ink with “NEVER EVER!” right next to it.

In his blog, Martin T. Ingham, a science fiction and fantasy writer, claims that just because a story is written for an adult audience does not mean that it need contain adult language.

I see his point, and in some cases, I would agree. Children can pick up newspapers (though it happens less and less) and we don’t want to corrupt the youth, right?

Well, I rode the bus in elementary school, and by the 6th grade, I probably knew more swears than both my parents combined. When we tell children that something is taboo and not to be said, it makes the urge to say it even stronger.

Mary Norris of The New Yorker wrote an article about the use of the f-word in print. At one time, there was an informal contest at the magazine to see who could slip in the most f-bombs without getting edited. This goes back to the “obscenity for obscenity’s sake,” argument, but she has a point.

My favorite line in the article comes when she decries tiptoeing around language as if we are walking on egg shells with readers: “We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be ‘f’-word, f word, f-word, ‘F’ word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. Fuck euphemisms. Get on the goddam fucking bus.”

Now, I don’t believe that is appropriate for everyday news articles, but I appreciate the sentiment. When we censor ourselves, we disrespect the reader. To be sure, there are some who dislike profanity and there is certainly a limit on what is an is not acceptable. The f-word, the c-word, the n-word can be edited and left out in almost every single instance with no regret. But shit, damn and hell all have their place.

When a coach watches his team give up a 30-point lead to lose in the final seconds of a game, it’s not just a shame. It’s a damn shame! When an activist is preparing to march on a government building, she won’t give them an earful. She’ll give’em hell!

The conclusion, then, is balance and forethought. If a word does not serve to add emotion, context or flavor to an article, then there is no need for it. If there is a decent chance someone will take offense at the use of the word, then there is no need for it.

But sometimes, a harsh word is the only one that really works. Curse words, like all other words in our language, are tools with specific uses. They can be used for good or evil and it is up to the editor to decide when to censor the word out and when to say: “Fuck it, go right ahead!”

Saving daylight, Google style

The good people at Copyediting.com posted a reminder today about daylight saving time. That’s right: no S and no hyphen.

As Copyediting points out, the legislation that prompts us to spring forward and fall back is inconsistent on this, but most stylebooks recommend “daylight saving time.” The lack of a hyphen bothers me, but I’ll play along.

But look at what Google suggests as you type in those words.

daylight-savingIts “style” prefers “savings” over “saving,” presumably because that’s what most people say in conversation and therefore type into search engines.

That makes me wonder whether some news organizations, in the quest for clicks, will disregard their stylebooks when telling readers about the time change this weekend. Some sites have already written headlines for the Academy Awards to accommodate search-engine optimization. Why wouldn’t they do the same for this event?

I also wonder whether Google will publish a stylebook at some point. Yahoo has one.

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