The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

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.

Writing well online: a Mashable example

On occasion, I hear someone ask: What makes for a good news story in digital media? As I read this Mashable article on my smartphone over the weekend, I thought that this example helped answer that question.

The story is about Airbnb, a service that allows people to rent out their homes and apartments to visitors. That business model is under scrutiny in New York and other states.

I was faintly aware of Airbnb, but after reading this story, I felt much more knowledgeable on the topic. That’s because the story is written and edited in a way that anticipates the reader’s questions. It does so head-on, like so:

airbnb

The story is written in an inviting, conversational tone. Sentences are short and to the point. The story is free of typos and other errors, giving it greater credibility. Links are used as footnotes to allow the reader to click and learn more.

There’s still room for improvement, however. The captions for the photos state the obvious, and the use of stock art at the top of the story doesn’t contribute much to the story.

Despite those shortcomings, Mashable’s story communicates information and context quickly. It’s an example of effective writing and editing for digital and mobile media, and one I will likely use in class next semester.

Student guest post: Does anyone care about grammar anymore?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Maddison Wood is a junior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design with a minor in drama. She is an assistant on the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel, and she works in the properties department for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

I love grammar. I always have. People tend to be a little confused when I list my passions and include grammar in my top five. However, something has happened recently that has made me question everything I believe about grammar.

I became heavily involved in social media. I started to notice that almost nobody adheres to any sort of grammatical style in this setting. I even felt slightly out of place using proper capitalization, spelling and punctuation in posts on my blog. So what has happened? Where did all the “grammar Nazis” (I actually prefer the term “grammar hammer”) go? More importantly, is grammar becoming obsolete?

As for the last question: no. Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but from what I have personally experienced, there are times when grammar is thrown out the window, and there are times when grammar is vital.

For instance, people who are chatting online with one another do not have time or need for grammar. You can get your point across to your friends without writing perfectly, and abbreviations make life a whole lot easier. Furthermore, character restrictions (I’m talking to you, Twitter) have forced us to invent ways to shorten our thoughts by any means necessary.

Secondly, bad grammar can be used as a sarcastic joke or as an emphasis to what you’re conveying. I find that an excellent way to show excitement is to usE A MIX Of CAPS AND lowERCAsE AND;LKJ PRETENDA LIKE YOU’RE JUAST;KL LSAMMING THE K EYBOARD A;LKFJAF. (Or maybe I just come across as insane.) These methods of typing poorly to serve a purpose catch on and become popular trends on social media sites, but it is up to the person doing the typing to determine when poor grammar is appropriate and when it isn’t. The same people who run blogs on Tumblr with seemingly no grammatical skills whatsoever also write fan fiction that is judged harshly by readers if the grammar is poor. Therefore, it seems people on social media are expected to know grammar well enough to know when to adhere to all the rules and when not to.

That being said, it is becoming a common fear that grammar is “on the verge of extinction.” Students are beginning to use lingo and slang in essays despite teachers’ pleas for proper grammar. If generations to come lose the ability to distinguish between professional writing and Internet slang, how will they ever be taken seriously as adults?

For instance, an email to a potential employer could be a make-or-break first impression that you probably want to know the difference between “your” and “you’re” for before writing. In this social media-crazed society, not only does proper grammar need to be taught at a young age, but the circumstances in which proper grammar is important need also be taught.

I’m not going to lie: I use poor grammar and abbreviations sometimes. I think grammar trends on social media reflect a subculture of a generation that is just as connected to friends who live across the world as they are to friends at school. It is a language all on its own that is meant to be understood by people who have a good enough grasp on grammar to know when and how to break the rules.

Grammar is great. You should care about grammar. But the Internet culture of purposeful slang is not the place to pick your grammar battle.

Student guest post: ethics and photojournalism

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kathryn Trogdon is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is majoring in journalism and specializing in editing and graphic design. She is a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel, loves politics and hopes to go into communications for the NHL.

Where’s the truth in photo editing?

Less than a week after the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, old photos of the incident are resurfacing in newspapers and on television. While this horrible day should be remembered, it brings up an issue raised after the attack about the ethics of photo editing.

Within minutes of the attack, images were appearing on television and online. Many of these photos were shocking, showing missing limbs and a lot of blood. But some media outlets chose to shield their audience from these disturbing images by cropping or editing them.

For example, The New York Daily News ran an edited version of a gory photo to erase a victim’s leg wound. Many editors and photographers criticized this choice, including Orange County Register editor Charles Apple, who wrote in his blog: “Looks to me like somebody did a little doctoring of that photo to remove a bit of gore. If you can’t stomach the gore, don’t run the photo. Period.”

According to the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics, “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” While being sensitive to your audience and the victims of an attack should be a consideration, at what point do journalists and editors cross the line with photo editing?

On a less sensitive issue, since Barack Obama won the presidency, he has been a figure in several altered photos, including on the covers of The Economist and Time magazine.

The Economist’s cover was a photo of Obama after the BP oil spill in 2010. The cover was titled “The damage beyond the spill,” and some readers interpreted this to mean the damage to the president’s reputation.

In the image, Obama is standing on the beach looking at the ground unhappily and alone with an oil rig in the background. However, it was later revealed that the original photo included two advisers who had been cropped out. The story launched a media frenzy, but the magazine’s editors failed to comment at the time.

Emma Duncan, the deputy editor of The Economist, later said, “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes … it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes … it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”

Even if they didn’t intend to, did The Economist mislead its readers? And did it hurt their credibility?

So when is it acceptable to crop or edit photos? When it doesn’t change the meaning of a photo? When it is a graphic image? When it is clear to the audience the image has been edited? Or is editing a photo never acceptable?

While it is ultimately up to the editors of a news organization, I never want to look at a photo in a newspaper or magazine and have to wonder what part of the image is true.

“Being John Malkovich” then and now

malkovich-ad

Returning recently from a visit to Hong Kong, I had 15 hours on a plane to read, to sleep and to watch in-flight movies on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me.

One of the viewing options was “Being John Malkovich,” in which a sad-sack puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) discovers a mysterious portal into the head of the titular character. Craig teams up with his office crush, Maxine (Catherine Keener), to turn journeys into Malkovich’s mind into a business venture. But there are unexpected consequences.

Released in 1999, “Being John Malkovich” holds up very well as an examination of identity. But some scenes seemed outdated in the era of an increasingly digital media. Here are some parts of the movie that struck me as in need of an update:

  • Then: Craig and Maxine place an advertisement in a print newspaper, inviting people to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes for $200. Now: Craig and Maxine post the ad on Craigslist (natch).
  • Then: Craig calls his wife from a pay phone to say he will be late home from work. Now: Craig texts his wife to say he will be late home from work.
  • Then: Craig takes a surreptitious phone call in his bedroom from Maxine. Now: Craig texts Maxine while hiding in his bathroom.
  • Then: In the first scene in which we see the world through the eyes of Malkovich, he reads a print edition of The Wall Street Journal. Now: We first see Malkovich scrolling through his Facebook feed.
  • Then: Malkovich looks at a print catalog and orders towels over the phone, questioning the customer service representative about differences between products. Now: Malkovich orders towels on Amazon, reviewing customer feedback to guide his decision.
  • Then: People line up to be Malkovich, bringing in big money to Craig and Maxine. Now: People find ways around the Malkovich paywall, denying Craig and Maxine the profits that they expected. Their startup is a bust.

Student guest post: Writing headlines for smartphones

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Ashton Sommerville is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and women’s and gender studies. She plans to take a year off after graduation before pursuing a career in media law, excited to explore and follow the ever-changing mass media landscape. She enjoys coffee, reading and managing her wedding and pop culture blog kissingthecooke.wordpress.com.

Are smartphone-friendly headlines our next step? In the age of new media, many journalism students, like myself, face curriculums that focus less on traditional legacy media and more on how to grow as writers and editors who are producing creative content for an impatient and often fickle audience.

Media consumers in coming generations are proving to be less loyal to brands than generations past and more loyal to convenience, usability and brevity. The Internet has produced a level of media competition unlike any other platform in recent history. With so many options available to users, publications are challenged with being the best, the most interesting, and more importantly, the first.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, part of our copy-editing education involves practice with writing headlines for a number of mediums including print, Web and Twitter. But is that enough? Have we already fallen behind?

In January 2012, a Tumblr account popped up aptly titled Bad Headlines — a collection of publication blunders, the culprits ranging from BBC to The Associated Press. One thing many of the posts have in common is that they are screen shots from the bloggers’ smartphones, and the primary gaffe for each is a headline too long to be communicated via push notification.

Just as bumping headlines can cause confusion for print readers, headlines cut off in awkward places can make for very humorous and unintentional story twists. “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado socialite” becomes “Police make third arrest in murder of Colorado.” “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run for president” turns into “Romney praises Olympics security, says he won’t run.” The loss of just a few words completely changes the implications of the headline.

While it’s probably safe to say that most readers are wise enough to catch on, the situation remains that credible, revered media companies are being made the subject of a running online joke. So what can editors and educators do to combat this new social media challenge? I suggest two things:

  • Increase the educational focus on the five-second spot: Although the move to writing for an alert, involved Twitter audience is a challenge still being faced by media professionals, 140 characters is still a luxury when fighting for the public’s attention. Add smartphone-friendly headline creation into the curriculum, and encourage your students to prioritize clarity and succinctness when writing for online media that will be pushed to users on their cellphones.
  • Develop a character limit to act as a standard for the newsroom. Do some research and decide where the cutoff is that separates newsworthy from a good laugh. If there is a noun-verb construction in your headline that can’t afford to be separated, include it early to prevent an unfortunate misunderstanding. Create a procedure, and stick to it.

As the media landscape continues to morph and grow, it will be our job as creators and editors to do our best to keep up. Stay alert, stay brief and don’t forget who you’re writing for.

Q&A with Monica Monzingo of Macys.com

Monica Monzingo is a copy editor for Macys.com, a position she has held since 2012. She previously worked in the magazine industry as a freelancer. In this interview, conducted by email, Monzingo discusses her job and how editing for a department stores is different from editing for a news organization.

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

A. I copy edit a wide variety of creative assets for macys.com, including homepages, emails, gift guides, social media and navigation copy (the links on the top and left-hand side of the site). Also, most of the brands we sell create their own content for their landing pages on macys.com, so I’m responsible for proofreading those too. While copyediting and watching for consistency in style and brand voice, I’m also making sure the copy complies with our legal guidelines.

On a typical day, I might review the desktop and mobile versions of the new prom sitelet, read through the exclusions copy for an upcoming Super Saturday sale, and copyedit a buying guide about cutlery.

Q. You previously worked as a freelance editor for magazines such as US Weekly. How is editing for Macys.com different from your magazine editing?

A. At a magazine, you’re selling the journalism — the content is the commodity. But in retail, you’re selling the clothes, furniture, etc., so your relationship with the reader is slightly different. We want the reader to engage with our content, just like a magazine, but we also want to motivate them to go a step further and BUY what’s featured in the content.

We have a lot of the same conversations about truth and clarity that editors at a magazine have, but the response we want from our reader is a bit different so our approach to writing and editing is a bit different too. Have we given them all the information they need so that they’ll buy that new bathing suit, knowing it’s perfect for their body type? Are our financing terms clear enough that they’ll feel comfortable buying a big-ticket item like an engagement ring or a new sofa?

Q. You recently attended the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. What did you learn there, and what drew you to ACES?

A. I learned about Google’s new algorithm and how we can update our SEO strategy to align with its new priorities. I learned that editing is a left-brain activity while computer work is a right-brain activity, and that’s why it’s always good to review things on a printout instead of just on screen. And I went to a session about writing headlines and have tons of tips the writers here at macys.com can use when writing email subject lines.

ACES is a fantastic community of super-smart, super-friendly folks who share a passion for editing, and it was so inspiring to get to spend a few days nerding out about style guides and grammar. I was originally drawn to ACES as a learning resource, which it certainly is, but the most rewarding thing has been finding a community of like-minded editors.

Q. What advice do you have for students seeking jobs and internships in editing for a company like Macy’s?

A. I’d recommend learning about what’s going on in the industry. I’m a big fan of the National Retail Federation’s SmartBrief, a daily email digest of the industry’s top stories.

You can also learn a lot just by paying more attention to what’s going on when you’re shopping on your favorite website or in your favorite store. Develop an ear for brand voice and learn how to both describe and write in different voices. And as a copy editor, a huge thing to practice is how to give feedback in a clear but kind way.

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?

 

#FollowFriday for Carol Folt

UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Carol Folt, joined Twitter earlier this week. Here’s her first post there:

I’m glad that Folt is a part of the conversation on Twitter. Her profile there indicates that the account is intended as the voice of the Office of the Chancellor, so some Tweets will be written by staff members. Posts by Folt herself will  include a “–CLF” signature.

Fair enough. Folt certainly has plenty to do besides checking on Twitter and posting there frequently. I hope, though, that we will see “–CLF” frequently.

Now, allow me to offer some Twitter advice to my boss, the chancellor: Who you follow is a big part of Twitter. At the moment, your “follows” are dominated by institutional accounts at the departmental level and higher. You can certainly learn a lot about what is happening on campus by following the Twitter feeds of various units.

But individuals on Twitter are often more interesting and informative than “official” accounts. They can offer personality, insight and humor that can, at least at times, be lacking in those departmental Twitter feeds. For example, you are following the UNC Admissions Office. It uses Twitter smartly, but for a more personal look at how that office works, follow Melissa Kotacka too.

Here are some other UNC people to consider following, starting with the journalism school:

@susking
@smalljones
@johnrobinson
@joebobhester
@winstonccavin
@rtburg
@JoSciarrino
@steven_king
@vekstra
@designmah
@RLLillis
@johnclark
@brandingofme
@kreissdaniel
@Stephanie Willen Brown
@UNCJschoolProbs

Others on or near campus:

@sczerwas
@lisachensvold
@EricaPerel
@ayse
@dsardia
@zeynep
@AndrewJPerrin
@UNCMemes
@DaggumRoy

This is just a start, of course. An ebb and flow to your follows is natural. Follow people who inform and entertain, who speak to your interests. Unfollow those who don’t. Twitter is a place to learn, share and have fun. Enjoy!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers