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 For example, a blog post Kurtz wrote earlier this year about gay NBA player Jason Collins was retracted because of “several errors” and “a misleading characterization.”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.

Student guest blog post: Is news writing ready to graduate from junior high?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Andrew Murray is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. He loves hockey, English football (soccer to most of you), and as an ex-chef, food. He’s figuring out how to use his soon-to-be journalism degree in one of them.

Every Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, a handful of white vans descend upon the city to fill newspaper boxes and racks with warm bundles of The Stranger, an alternative weekly that dubs itself “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.” Usually within minutes, well over half of each allotment has been snapped up by passers-by and nearby business owners and employees.

By the way the public clamors for it, you would think it really was Seattle’s only newspaper. And there’s a reason for that.

The Stranger treats its readers like they’re part of a club. As if the business of media wasn’t actually a business at all, but was instead concerned with the sharing of information in a way that made people want to read it, maybe even have to read it.

Some of the way they accomplish this is by doing an outstanding job of creating coverage that feels like it was actually written by fellow residents of the great city. Their peers, people who know the city, not the cold soulless journalism machines that too many universities, editors and media organizations have pumped out or molded over the years.

Their coverage creates a mutual understanding of the internal machinations of the city on all levels, from politics to arts and entertainment to the police department, and so on. Contained within that great coverage is the ability to tell the story in a way that effectively gets the information across in an engaging, enjoyable and educational way. They don’t “cookie cut” the news, and they don’t dumb it down, which is often the case.

One of the first things we were told in in our News Writing classes was that the general rule was to assume we were writing stories for an audience with an eighth-grade education. That we as writers or editors must always account for the lowest common denominator and take care to not write over the reader’s head. That we are always trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, especially if writing for a print media that continues its dance with death.

And there is a part of me that can understand that. But there is also a big part of me that sees the role of media as a form of continuing education and the eighth-grade level we’ve settled for is far too low.

In most cases, the audience we write for has varying levels of education and intelligence. What writing at an eighth-grade level does is, intentionally or not, lump them all together into a mass of junior high school brains and is extremely patronizing. It also gives writers every chance to think of their audience as stupid, which can then lead to condescension and will ultimately torpedo readership.

One of my favorite things to do while reading is to learn new words. I love to be able to finish a book and have picked up 10 or more words that I wasn’t familiar with when I embarked on the journey, or to pick up one or two in a well-written article. I view new words as more ammo for my arsenal, and I don’t have a problem turning to my dictionary to learn something new.

When done appropriately in news writing, however, people should be able to infer the meaning from context — no condescending explanation required. This requires a little more work on the writer’s part but as journalists, our prose and command of the English language should certainly be a portion of what sets us apart from the average writer, especially now at a time when the barriers to entry in the news spreading business are as low as they’ve ever been.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that perfectly good “regular” words be replaced by unnecessarily complex words. I don’t need to see the word  “synecdoche” crammed into a sentence because the writer has some sort of inferiority complex. But I do believe the writer needs to be able to use the words they’re most comfortable with, lest the writing becomes a chore.

We’re told that in this “world of distractions,” we as writers/editors need to keep things simple to make sure readers can quickly and easily get the information they need and move on. And in some cases this is absolutely true. In a hard news story about a plane crash, simplicity and frankness should be your guide.

But I do believe there is room for a higher level of writing in most other forms of news writing, and it is in part because of this “world of distractions” that I believe this. I often want something a little meatier and complex to draw me away from those distractions, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes while I’m on the train to work. I like being pleasantly surprised by a nice piece of writing about economics or politics or sports. The goal should be to write the best story you can in both message and style.

Now, the example of an alternative weekly that I used is obviously a bit different. Weeklies definitely have more leeway to write as they see fit because the content and the target audience is usually much more narrow than your average major media outlet. They can cater to their readership much more and they are rarely if ever writing hard immediate news stories.

But I believe there are some lessons in style that can be learned by both print and online sources from the alternative format. I believe there is still some room for the human element in average news writing so that the word “average” and “news writing” can be separated for good.

Perhaps rather than writing for the lowest common denominator, we should be bringing them up to, say, the 12th-grade level? Because if you’re the print media, what exactly do you have to lose?

Student guest post: An education in editing and style

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Jordan Moses is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She recently returned from Australia and plans on writing and editing for a travel magazine.

“Oh, and by the way, leave the commas outside the quotation marks; the Jamaicans are using a British style.”

I admit, it wasn’t something I expected to hear that morning, but my internship has taught me to be prepared for anything. I recently undertook working with Technical Information Publishing Solutions, or TIPS, a small publishing company that I learned about through The Editor’s Desk.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a great deal about what it means to be a copy editor. As editors, there are a lot of forces that draw our attention. After all, we must choose who to serve and how.

The first rule I learned about editing is that a copy editor only exists through whatever stylebook they’re using; everything else is superfluous.

TIPS uses the Chicago Manual of Style since they primarily deal with e-books. However, many journalists favor the Associated Press Stylebook, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school.

Having to jump between my Advanced Editing class and my internship, I’ve stumbled across several inconsistencies. An apostrophe s at the end of duchess might have been welcomed in class, but it shouldn’t have existed at work. And I would have received an actual timeout had I put the dash in “time-out” during class.

However, from working with both styles I’ve come to appreciate the differences between the two handbooks, and more importantly that copy editors cannot be expected to edit if the rules that need to be conformed to are not established. In this instance, I had to know who my audience was and what style the writer wanted to use to best reach them.

So it was with no great peril that I seamlessly transitioned into inversing first authors’ names, but not second authors, rid references of serial commas and struck out Jamaica every time it appeared beside Kingston. Two hours later, when I would sit in front of an Apple computer in class, my brain would once again switch to AP mode.

Once a style is chosen, we then come to a thin line of distinction that rarely any copy editor gets right the first time. It is the line between editing for style use and maintaining the author’s voice. There are certain turns of phrase or colloquialisms that writers insist upon using without which their writing would cease to be their own (at least that’s what I’m told.) Striking through every “out of this world” when you know the writer is going to return a paper full of angry red STATs is probably not the best approach. An agreement has to be made between the author and editor to do what’s best for the reader.

Carol Saller, who works as a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, has an insightful book called “The Subversive Copy Editor” that can help you deal with those authors who just won’t budge. From what I’ve experienced, I think Saller is on to something.

The most important thing I’ve learned both in class and at my internship it is that the goal of any copy editor should be to know how to balance using a style manual and making compromises with the author to present the best package for the reader. The audience is who we should be serving.