The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: word choice

Top 10 names of rivalry games

It’s the time of year for college football rivalries. Some of these matchups have colorful and unusual nicknames.

Today, for example, Clemson and N.C. State will play in the Textile Bowl. Last week, Notre Dame defeated Boston College in the Holy War. Here are my other favorite names for rivalry games, listed countdown-style:

10. The Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State)

9. Backyard Brawl (West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh)

8. Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn)

7. The Border War (Kansas vs. Missouri)

6. Bayou Classic (Grambling vs. Southern)

5. Bedlam Series (Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State)

4. Battle for the Iron Skillet (Southern Methodist vs. Texas Christian)

3. Egg Bowl (Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State)

2.  The Big Game (Cal vs. Stanford)

1. World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Florida vs. Georgia)

For more about these games and an extensive list, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Charlotte still needs N.C. — for now

Creative Commons image of Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte, N.C., has an impressive skyline. But is the city known well enough nationwide to stand alone in datelines in news stories?

On occasion, I have shown students in my editing classes a collection of news stories that identify Chapel Hill, N.C., as the home of Duke University. The Wall Street Journal and are among those making this error, which UNC-Chapel Hill students find unfathomable and even offensive. (For the record, Duke is in nearby Durham, and the campus is known for Duke Chapel.)

I thought of that problem this week when I read that journalists and PR people in Charlotte, N.C., are asking the AP Stylebook to recommend that Charlotte stand alone in datelines and stories as big cities like Atlanta, Houston and Miami. They argue that Charlotte has hit the big time, especially with the Democratic National Convention coming to town this summer. The stylebook campaign has its own hashtag on Twitter. I’ve even seen at least one call for UNC-Charlotte to rename itself the University of Charlotte.

The AP Stylebook editors responded on Twitter that it periodically reviews its list of standalone cities but didn’t plan to make a change for Charlotte now. I think that’s the right call. Here’s why:

  • When I was in Los Angeles in 2008, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge there about North Carolina. There some awareness of where UNC was located, and most people knew that college basketball is a big deal here. But there were lots of questions: Where did the Carolina Panthers play? (Charlotte.) Where did the Carolina Hurricanes play? (Raleigh.) And are those places in North Carolina or South Carolina?
  • A friend who lives in Washington, D.C., posted a photo on Facebook from the Charlotte airport with the mildly snarky caption: “Greetings from layover country!” The image was of a sign with this motto: “Charlotte’s got a lot.”
  • Another friend who grew up in South Carolina and now lives in Denver told me that she is often asked which state Charlotte is in.
  • On a recent trip to Miami, I was asked by the hotel concierge where I was from. I told him North Carolina. His response: “I was in Charlotte this year for a few days for a conference. Nice city. What state is that in? Is that North Carolina?”

Indeed, there’s confusion out there, and that includes in the media and in advertising. Charlotte suffers for two reasons: People mix up North Carolina and South Carolina, and they mix up Charlotte and Charleston, S.C. (The existence of Charlottesville, Va., and Charleston, W.Va., doesn’t help matters.)

Charlotte is not alone in that regard. The New York Times and other media labeled Greensboro, N.C., as a S.C. city in coverage of the John Edwards trial. It probably doesn’t help that Greensboro sounds similar to Greenville — and North Carolina and South Carolina each have a Greenville.

This is where a stylebook comes in. A style recommendation should be about clarity for the reader. Does this word choice, abbreviation or spelling improve understanding of the news?

I  think keeping the “N.C.” after Charlotte adds detail and clarity. Helping readers is more important than boosting civic pride.

I suggest that people in Charlotte do the opposite: Rather than rejecting the “N.C.” abbreviation after the city’s name, embrace it. Own it. Make it clear that Charlotte is in North Carolina and that it’s not the place where the Civil War started or where Thomas Jefferson built Monticello.

Use the media hype surrounding the Democratic convention to play up your connections to the state, not play them down. Show the nation who you are and where you are. Afterward, we can revisit this stylebook discussion. What do you say, Charlotte?

UPDATE: In August 2012, the AP turned down Charlotte’s request, saying that “more detailed datelines help readers overseas and elsewhere grasp news locations.”

Share your style

Old stylebooks and updates from my days at The News & Observer. I recently donated these materials to a library at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Earlier this week, I stopped by the Park Library at UNC-Chapel Hill to borrow The Bluebook to assist me in a revision of a textbook chapter. The librarian, Stephanie Willen Brown, showed me a nice update to the library’s collection: freshly bound copies of stylebooks from newspapers.

The collection includes stylebooks from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle. News services such as Bloomberg, United Press International, the Catholic News Service and The Associated Press are also represented. The oldest item in the set is the 1943 edition of The New York Times stylebook.

Nearly all of the stylebooks are print only, but you can see them at the Park Library and other libraries on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. I’m hoping to spend part of my summer thinking of how these stylebooks could be used for research.

I have several stylebooks in my office, including three from my days at The News & Observer. I’ve donated those to the Park Library. Like many newspaper stylebooks, these are in three-punch folders, so Stephanie will look into getting them bound.

Do you have a stylebook from a newspaper, website, magazine or wire service that you’d like to share? Contact the staff at the Park Library. We can study, save and protect your stylebook, and we’d be grateful for your gift.

Student guest post: Is wordplay “Linning” or losing?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Kevin Minogue is a senior journalism and political science major from Reston, Va. He is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, as well as a former intern at The Fayetteville Observer.

Earlier this year, the success of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin brewed up a perfect storm for epic headline writers across the country. For those tasked with writing a paper’s front-page headline – better known in big cities as those snarky puns that persuade pedestrians to pony up two bucks for a copy of the day’s issue on their walk to work – Lin was the ideal subject of a clever play on words.

After all, how often does a Harvard-educated, couch-surfing, Asian point guard lead the New York Knicks to their most successful spell in recent memory? And how often does that hero’s name contain elements of a common preposition, prefix and suffix?

Not often, most New York headline writers concluded. The headlines during Lin’s roughly month-long reign ranged from the witty and original to the corny, the forced, the poorly contrived, the questionable and the … woops. After that last headline cost the ESPN employee who wrote it his job, the headline hubbub settled briefly.

But on Easter weekend, when a country bumpkin named Bubba used a pink driver to throttle golf balls more than 350 yards on his way to winning the world’s most storied golf tournament, the scribes of over-the-top headlines feasted once more.  Most of the former Lin-obsessed headline writers in New York focused on Sunday’s big Knicks win, but plenty of smaller papers and online editions posted Masters headlines with ill-fitting wordplay.

I suppose this British paper felt obliged to use the obvious Sherlock Holmes reference, but it doesn’t work when nothing about Watson’s one-stroke, playoff victory was elementary. In fact, if not for a hooking moonshot from the trees that defied the laws of basic physics, Watson would have gone home wearing only his buttoned-up polo.

Many other papers, including this Texas publication and this Utah paper, made obvious references to Watson’s bubblegum-colored attire. While I get the attempt at wordplay, the story is about his victory, not solely his clothes. It’s also poor form to poke fun at the man’s outfit when he wore it as a way to raise money for charity.

These headline hiccups didn’t flop quite as badly as the Lin headlines, but they would be better served sticking to the main premise of the story. Headline writers can still use clever wordplay, and I, for one, hope that they do. But here are a few of my rules for ensuring that your witticisms are appropriate:

1. Make sure the headline is not offensive to any particular group. Wordplay is funny, but not if it makes fun of you. Your readership is generally composed of a mix of ethnicities, religions and sexes, so try to avoid wordplay that hinges any of these items. Otherwise, you may offend and alienate a significant portion of your readership.

2. Be original. The point of wordplay is to be creative, and clichés are short on imagination. You won’t get your desired result from a “clever” headline if five other papers wrote the same thing that day.

3. Make it subject-appropriate. There’s no sense in thinking up clever headline wordplay if it has nothing to do with a story. The reader might initially be drawn to your front page, but he or she will quickly lose both interest and respect in your publication upon finding that the title is merely for show. The purpose of a headline is to give readers a sense of what they are about to read. Don’t lose sight of this.

4. Don’t force wordplay. If it’s not there, it’s not there. The headline should instantly jump out at you as you’re writing. If not, don’t try to convince yourself that it works and end up with a headline that isn’t apt. As is the case with a bad comedian, once you have lost your audience, you’ve lost them for good.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to post your own or offer examples of other bad headline wordplay in the comments below.

From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the Park Library for help researching this post.

Student guest post: Word choice and sexual orientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My favorite bowl names of the past

A ticket stub from the now-defunct Bluebonnet Bowl, played at the now-defunct Astrodome in Houston.

It’s bowl season in college football. Fans will get to enjoy more than 30 games in the next few weeks. Headline writers will be tempted to “go bowling,” in an attempt to “bowl over” readers.

Nowadays, names for most bowls contain corporate names for companies, industry groups and chain restaurants. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The bowl games of days past are filled with colorful names that reflect the aspirations, culture and history of the places where they took place. Here are my 10 favorites, listed in random order and accompanied by the cities that hosted them:

  • Cigar Bowl (Tampa)
  • All-American Bowl (Birmingham, Ala.)
  • Cosmopolitan Bowl (Alexandria, La.)
  • Gotham Bowl (New York City)
  • Garden State Bowl (East Rutherford, N.J.)
  • Freedom Bowl (Anaheim, Calif.)
  • Oyster Bowl (Norfolk, Va.)
  • Aviation Bowl (Dayton, Ohio)
  • Bluebonnet Bowl (Houston)
  • Aloha Bowl (Honolulu)

Defining Black Friday

Creative Commons photo by Steve Rhodes

Black Friday at a mall in San Francisco in 2009. (Creative Commons photo by Steve Rhodes)

The annual Black Friday stories are already in the news.

The News & Observer, for example, offered this preview on the Sunday front page. By the end of this week, Black Friday will almost certainly be the top story on TV news, with the inevitable footage of shoppers milling around in malls and beating down the doors of “big box” stores.

But where does the term  come from? Why is the day after Thanksgiving called Black Friday? This article in Time magazine offers two explanations:

  • Because it’s the day that many stores expect to make a profit, or out of the red and into the black, for the year.
  • Because newspapers in Philadelphia began calling it that to describe the flood of shoppers in the streets and in stores.

If we are going to cover this as big news, we should at least define our terms. This can be done in the stories themselves or, better yet, in a separate textbox.

Happy Thanksgiving!

UPDATE: Ben Zimmer at Visual Thesaurus explains the Philadelphia connection to the term, and Bill Walsh of The Washington Post offers his viewpoint.

I’m breaking my silence about speaking out

I’m breaking my silence and speaking out: It’s time for headline writers to rein in the use of those phrases. We can do better.

In these examples from The Huffington Post, why not say what Obama said about waterboarding? A more compelling headline would be “Obama calls waterboarding torture.” And it’s better for SEO.

And what obligation does Gloria Cain have to discuss the allegations of sexual harassment against her husband? None. The “breaks silence” headline indicates that she does and is feeling pressure to do so.

Google News shows us that headlines are filled with these phrases. Wendi Murdoch, for example, is breaking her silence over a pie-throwing incident earlier this year. And Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson’s death, is speaking out. And so on.

Sometimes the phrases are being used interchangeably. Depending on the news source, Sharon Bialek either “broke her silence” or “spoke out” when she alleged that Herman Cain acted inappropriately when she asked him for help getting a job.

I’m not advocating a ban on these phrases. But I would suggest using them with caution. They have become shopworn and often obscure the news rather than illuminating it.

Style should be an open book

A recent article on the Poynter Institute’s website took on the question of style, as in AP, Chicago, etc. I was interviewed for the story, and my viewpoint is that style depends on audience.

What surprised me most in the article was the anecdote in the lead. Apparently, somewhere out there, a journalism professor is requiring students to transcribe the AP Stylebook by hand. The intent of the assignment is to get students to memorize every entry in the stylebook.

The approach in my editing class is the opposite. Every assignment is open book — as in open stylebook, both AP and the stylebook of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. The objective is to get students accustomed to using stylebooks, figuring out how they are organized and applying the entries to news stories.

My students and I also spend time discussing how a stylebook is different from a dictionary and how some editors use stylebooks other than AP. We also do an exercise in which we resolve unsettled style questions.

My intent with these discussions and exercises is to help students see that style is often subjective. It changes with the times and with the audience.

Memorizing a stylebook seems like a pointless task. That’s particularly true with the AP Stylebook, which issues a new edition every year.

Besides, a newsroom is always open book. Why shouldn’t a classroom be? A managing editor never takes stylebooks away from the staff and demands that writers and editors work from memory.

The latest version of the AP Stylebook, by the way, includes 16 pages on food names and definitions, including “sashimi” and “ghee.” Rather than transcribing that section, perhaps students could eat their way through it. Yum!


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