Away for the holidays

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As I grade final exams and wrap up the fall semester, I am taking a break from this blog for the month.

I hope that you enjoy the holiday season and that you avoid the clichés that come with it. Thanks, as always, for reading. See you in 2018.

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Giving thanks and giving back

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The Thanksgiving edition of U.S. newspapers is the thickest of the year. The bulk of that consists of advertising inserts from stores promoting Black Friday.

But my favorite part of the Thanksgiving edition of The News & Observer is about giving, not buying. The annual Triangle Gives section looks at the remarkable work that nonprofit organizations do in this region of North Carolina. It also offers advice on donating to these groups.

Today, on Black Friday, I will select a few organizations to help. As an editor, I am partial toward ones that promote literacy. But all of the groups in the Triangle Gives section deserve support.

If you missed the print edition or live outside the N&O’s circulation area, you can read about Triangle Gives on the newspaper’s website. I encourage you to take some time reading the profiles there and considering donating to the organizations of your choice.

 

Washington Post story on Roy Moore is real news

Last week, The Washington Post published a blockbuster story on Roy Moore, a Republican running to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate. In the story, four women say that Moore pursued relationships with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.

The story’s focus is Leigh Corfman. She told the Post that in 1979, Moore approached her at a courthouse when her mother was there for a custody hearing. At the time, Corfman was 14, and Moore was 32. She alleges that Moore, an assistant district attorney at the time, took her to his house, disrobed and touched her.

After the Post’s story broke, Moore called it “the very definition of fake news.” He said the Post had committed “intentional defamation.”

Let’s take a look at each of Moore’s accusations.

“Fake news” is propaganda. It’s false information that is designed to mislead, confuse and demoralize. The Post story is real news. It’s reported, edited and written to provide readers with the background and character of a person seeking an important office.

“Intentional defamation” indicates that Moore is considering legal action against the Post. To win a libel case, a public figure like Moore must show, among other things, that a news organization acted with “actual malice.” That means that he must show that the Post knowingly published false information or exercised reckless disregard for the truth.

A thorough reading of the Post story shows that it was meticulously reported, with two journalists interviewing more than 30 sources over a three-week period. For example, the Post looked into whether the accusers were supporters of Moore’s opponents in the Senate race:moore-politics

The Post also looked into whether the custody hearing that Corfman described had taken place that day. It did:moore-courthouseThis attention to detail shows that the Post’s reporters and editors did their homework. I will be surprised if Moore files a libel suit against the newspaper and even more surprised if he prevails.

 

Quoted and tweeted out of context

One of the topics in my editing course is about the ethical use of quotes in news stories. Editors should ensure that reporters quote sources completely and accurately.

On occasion, a celebrity or politician will accuse a news organization of taking a quote out of context. Typically, this is an attempt to deflect criticism for an outrageous statement.

But sometimes, a news organization does use a person’s quote out of context, warping its meaning. Here is an example that I have used in class for several years.

A news story quoted Brad Pitt about his early days in Hollywood. Before getting into acting, he drove strippers to parties. One of the women recommended an acting coach who proved instrumental in Pitt’s rise to stardom.

The interviewer asked: “So a stripper changed the course of your career?” Pitt’s response facetiously: “Strippers changed my life.”

The resulting headline from The Huffington Post takes this quote out of context:

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It’s misleading and unethical. It’s clickbait. It’s a good example of what not to do.

My example is stale, however. I’ve been looking for a new one. And this week, Fox News provided me with a fresh example of a quote taken out of context.

Jake Tapper of CNN said this on the air as his cable network covered a terrorist attack in New York City: “The Arabic chant ‘allahu akbar’ — ‘God is great’ — sometimes said under the most beautiful of circumstances, and too often we hear of it being said in moments like this.”

Here’s how Fox News reported Tapper’s remark via Twitter:

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The tweet warps Tapper’s statement, implying that he approved of the violence in New York. Tapper responded on Twitter:

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Fox deleted the tweet, but a story about it stayed on its website. Fox host Sean Hannity repeated it on the air.

I feel bad for Tapper. No one likes to be misquoted or have their words distorted for any reason, including political attacks.

But I want to thank Fox News for this tweet. It’s a beautiful example of what not to do.

Q&A with Courtney Mabeus, military reporter for The Virginian-Pilot

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Courtney Mabeus is a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Her beat is the military. She previously worked at newspapers in Frederick, Maryland, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. Mabeus has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. In this interview, conducted by email, Mabeus discusses the military beat and her recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she reported on recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I cover the military, which likes to report to work early, an idea that seems to be anathema to most of us in the journalism world. Seriously though, my days are generally pretty close to 9-5 as they can get, with some variations.

We’ve got every branch of the services here in Hampton Roads, but the Navy takes up the biggest chunk of my time because of Norfolk Naval Station. The naval station is the largest in the world, but in the post-9/11 world you can’t just drive on, so a lot of my in-office time is spent working the phones, coordinating interviews, talking with NGOs, think-tanks, etc.

I also cover veterans, and Virginia has one of the largest populations of former service members. I read of lot of national and other local coverage, to try to distill things down to the local level or just have a better idea of the bigger issues.

I’m also in a market that’s competitive with smaller, local papers, military-related trade publications and television, so sometimes, you’ve got to hustle. As an example, it’s 10 p.m. and I just got home from filing a 35-inch story that resulted from a 400+ page waste, fraud and abuse investigation that I got through FOIA. It arrived in my inbox at 3 p.m.

Q. What makes the military beat different from others?

A. The military speaks its own language and has its own culture, but, that said, the services are a microcosm of our larger society. Each service is different, too, and has its own traditions.

As I mentioned earlier, you can’t just drive on a base to talk to those you need. You’ve got to source harder, dig deeper and FOIA a lot. Few people these days serve, too, which means fewer people understand the important role our military performs at home and internationally.

Also, you don’t get to get underway on aircraft carriers or ride on Army Black Hawks when you’re covering a city council (no offense to those reporters, as I know several who thrive from covering politics and do a darn good job of it).

Q. You recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, covering the recovery efforts after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria. What was that experience like?

A. Virginian-Pilot photographer Stephen Katz and I flew in commercial to San Juan on Oct. 2, so we arrived a little less than two weeks after the storm. The airport was sweltering and full of people trying to leave, so that’s what we walked in to: chaos. It pretty much remained that way for the entire time.

Some places relied on generators, but most were without electricity. Communication was nearly non-existent in places outside San Juan and, all across the island, you’d see people pulled over along highways where they could get cell signals. We saw people lined up for ice, for ATMs, etc.

We were on the island for about a week and crisscrossed it while covering our local Marines and sailors. You really get a sense of the devastation while flying above Puerto Rico and in the central mountain region, where we went to cover Seabees (sailors that work construction) and Marines who were clearing roads. All across the island now, you see trees that Hurricane Maria stripped, leaving them twisted, broken and brown. It looked like winter, even though it was 90+ degrees most days.

We had a rough idea of the stories we wanted to cover before we landed in Puerto Rico based on conversations we had with Navy public affairs officers in Norfolk who were in contact with those already on Puerto Rico. In a disaster area, things are going to be in constant flux so we learned to roll with story changes and communications and travel challenges, which were constant.

We were also on a budget and had to juggle that when figuring out our own day-to-day planning. We spent a few nights sleeping on cots and on the USS Kearsarge, a Norfolk-based Navy ship, and rented a car once, only because we needed to get from Ponce, in the south central part of the island, back to San Juan, in the northeast. Even when we did stay in hotels, those were difficult to find; most were only renting rooms to first responders.

Puerto Rico was a huge logistical challenge. It’s going to remain that way for residents for a long time. We didn’t bring a satellite phone, which would have made communications with our newsroom and filing stories and photos easy. Instead, I brought two phones with me, one Verizon and one AT&T. Near San Juan, texting was easy, but getting email or making a phone call was hit or miss.

You truly realize how dependent we are on technology for so many facets of life when you have to scramble to find an internet connection to file your stories and photos. It was nothing short of a miracle that we were able to get each and every one of our daily stories filed, and that was because we were at the mercy of connections provided by military.

For all the challenges, going to Puerto Rico was rewarding. There are a lot of stories there and will be for a long time. Stephen and I didn’t get to every story we wanted before it was time to leave. The Marines and sailors we cover deployed in late August/early September and are still there. Unlike a typical deployment, they don’t know when they’ll be coming home. With so many newsrooms tightening their belts these days — including mine — it was a great opportunity to go and shed a little light on what our local men and women were doing on the island and send those stories back home.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are exploring careers in reporting?

A. Absorb the sort of work that you want to create. Reach out to people who are doing now what you want to do some day. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you think it makes you sound “stupid.”

It’s a complete cliché, but many people will be willing to spend the time to help you understand their lives/jobs/culture if you demonstrate the willingness to learn.

Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter and read her stories at PilotOnline.com.

Scholarships that support editing

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BILL WALSH (RIGHT) AT THE SPELLING BEE AT THE ACES CONFERENCE IN LAS VEGAS IN 2014. Proceeds from the bee benefit the ACES Education Fund. (PHOTO BY MARK ALLEN)

For nearly 20 years, the ACES Education Fund has offered scholarships to students interested in careers in editing. Once again, it’s time to apply.

What’s new this year is a scholarship named for Bill Walsh, an author and Washington Post copy editor who died earlier this year. That $3,000 award will go to a student interested in editing news.

The other five scholarships are open to editors in any field. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill student Marisa DiNovis won an ACES scholarship in 2015. She now works in book publishing.

Another UNC-Chapel Hill student, Danny Nett, was awarded a scholarship this year. He recently completed an internship at National Public Radio and is seeking a job in editing.

“It’s a good extra thing to be able to mention on my resume when I’m applying places,” said Nett, who graduated in May. “I actually had a co-worker at NPR realize I was one of the recipients (I guess when she went back through conference photos) and tweet at me freaking out, like, three months into my being here. That was kind of fun.”

In addition to the scholarship, the award provides financial assistance for winners to attend the national conference of ACES, the Society for Editing. The next conference will be in Chicago in April 2018.

Nett attended the ACES gathering this year in St. Petersburg, Florida, and found it beneficial personally and professionally.

“I interviewed for an internship while I was at the conference, and I ended up getting an offer. I definitely think meeting in person and getting the chance to talk helped a ton,” Nett said. “I also met a couple of friends down in St. Pete who I still talk to on a weekly basis. I loathe the word ‘networking,’ but it was a good way to get a bit further into some editing circles.”

The deadline to apply for an ACES scholarship is Nov. 15. To learn more, check out the ACES Education Fund’s page on the ACES website.

Good luck to all applicants!

Q&A with Kevin Schaefer, columnist and editor at SMA News Today

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Kevin Schaefer is a writer and community editor at SMA News Today, a website about the genetic disease spinal muscular atrophy. He lives in Cary, North Carolina, and is a graduate of N.C. State University. In this interview, conducted by email, Schaefer discusses his work at SMA News Today and offers advice on how others with SMA can explore careers in writing.

Q. Describe your job at SMA News Today. What is your typical workweek like?

A. I started working for SMA News Today a few months ago writing a weekly column. Recently I started full-time as a community editor. In addition to writing my column, I also write and edit content for our news section.

Our news page is divided into two main sections. There’s the research side, which covers all of the latest research news within the SMA community and information about clinical trials, and those articles are written by people with scientific backgrounds who have direct access to the literature. The other component is our social clips section, which I’m now helping oversee. This is where we post articles about managing life with SMA and also do profiles on SMA individuals.

Some of the articles I just wrote for this section include: “5 Tips for Going To School When You Have SMA” and “5 Tips for Supporting a Friend or Family Member with SMA.” My executive editor and my publisher really wanted a patient specialist like me to provide feedback on this content and take a more active role in producing content from here on.

That said, my day-to-day work kind of varies depending on what tasks I have to do. At the beginning of the week, I chat with my editors and our social media team to brainstorm ideas and decide which articles we’re going to run on our social media pages. Then if I’m not reviewing other posts, I’m usually writing.

So far I’ve been writing a couple social clips articles per week, and then I write my column on Thursdays. I also record weekly audio flash briefings of previously published content. These are basically mini-podcasts that anyone with an Echo device from Amazon Alexa can access. I just read an excerpt from one of my articles from that week and do an audio recording.

My next project is to produce a monthly podcast in which I’ll interview various people with SMA. I just scheduled my first interview, and I am working to get that first episode live on our site by the end of the month. So it’s a very multimedia job that requires me to use all of my journalism and communication skills.

Q. How do editing and headline writing work at SMA News Today?

A. SMA News Today is one of multiple websites that are owned by a parent company called BioNews. Each of these websites provides daily digital coverage of a specific neuromuscular condition.

BioNews has a vast network of employees from all around the world. I live in North Carolina and work from home, my main editors live in Texas, another lives in Canada, etc. As such, all of our communication is done digitally. We use an app called Slack, which despite the name is basically a professional version of GroupMe. We use it constantly to share ideas, ask each other questions and conduct conference calls.

So when I post one of my columns, I save it as a draft so my editors can look it over and make the necessary changes. I’ll post a placeholder headline which they usually like, but if they come up with something better, then they’ll change it.

Most of the editing so far has been of previously published content. One of my first tasks when I started this new role was to go through all of the old articles in the social clips section and provide feedback. Here I did change a few headlines and make some other suggestions for specific articles, and I just had a conference call last week with my team in which I shared my thoughts on this section as it is and also pitched ideas for future content. It went great, and I’m excited for the ideas we came up with together. All that said, every post is a collaborative effort, and we go through an extensive editorial process just like any other professional publication.

Q. What is your assessment of how news organizations cover SMA in general? How could they improve?

A. You know, there was a tragic story last year about a teenage girl who had a severe case of SMA and who made the decision to get rid of all life support. She died a few weeks later, and every media outlet was all over this story like a pack of wolves. Every one of them competed to produce the most heart-wrenching account of a story that was so grounded in ethical controversy. The message they all sent, however, was that SMA is nothing more than a terrifying disease, and that everyone with it is better off dead.

Yeah SMA is terrifying and difficult, but so many of us who live with it are living great lives and not letting it stop us. We also now have the FDA-approved treatment Spinraza, as well as an abundance of support within the SMA community. I was pretty enraged by the sheer laziness of these journalists who all took the same watered-down approach to this story, and I wrote about it in my school newspaper while I was still in college.

It’s getting better, but a lot of times the mainstream media either portrays people with disabilities as helpless objects of pity or as angels who are only here to inspire the rest of the world. We’re just people who have different challenges and obstacles than someone who is able-bodied.

In terms of good media examples, I’ve enjoyed reading The New York Times section on disability. This is a weekly series of essays by disabled authors, and I know of at least one SMA writer who has contributed to it. The last one I read was by a woman who wrote about online dating when you’re in a wheelchair, which I found really insightful. I also love watching the ABC sitcom “Speechless” with my parents, which does a great job juxtaposing humor with its more sentimental aspects.

In terms of what makes SMA News Today and BioNews stand out is that we’re the only publication producing daily coverage of SMA. The organization Cure SMA, which I’m also involved with, does post news stories, but their primary focus is raising money for research. SMA News Today posts both news articles and a wide range of columns. Including me we have four columnists right now, and we each bring something different to the table.

It’s pretty surreal working for this site. I always figured that if something like SMA News Today existed, I’d have to be the one to start it. Thankfully, that’s not the case! I love the job I have, but I could never handle the pressure or skill level of a CEO or publisher. Mike and Chris (my executive editor and publisher) have done a fantastic job building the company from the ground up, and I’m happy to be a part of it now.

Q. What advice do you have for other people with SMA who are considering careers in writing?

I encourage anyone who has SMA and who has an interest in writing to pursue it. The great thing about it is that you can do it from anywhere, and despite what people tell you, it can lead to a paying job eventually. You just have to stick with it and figure out what kind of writing you’re good at.

For me, I was a theater kid growing up, and my high school drama teachers noticed I had a knack for writing when I scripted monologues for my peers to perform. I tried my hand at writing longer plays and prose fiction, but it was always too amateur. Still, my parents and all my teachers were supportive, and I remember my creative writing teacher at the time observing how I’d always have a graphic novel on me every time she saw me. It’s fitting that I’ve now written several comic book scripts and am trying to break into the industry.

Then in college I majored in English hoping to become a screenwriter, and I kind of stumbled into journalism on a whim. Although my parents were both journalism majors in college and have years of experience working for newspapers, I went into N.C. State’s student newspaper office without an ounce of knowledge about reporting. I’m pretty sure I even spelled a source’s name incorrectly in my first article. I came in just wanting to write movie reviews, and I ended up staying there throughout my college career and even being the features co-editor my junior year.

I definitely wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for my time at the Technician, and it was there that I wrote my first columns about my disability. Though I mainly wrote for the Arts & Entertainment section, my articles about how people with disabilities are portrayed in the media were some of my most well-received. The same thing happened when I tackled the subject in my fiction-writing classes. I realized how much I had to say about life with SMA and that I could convey my perspective through a blend of humor and serious essays. That’s basically the foundation of my column “Embracing My Inner Alien.”

So that’s how I got to this point, but there’s no secret formula. If you’re an SMA individual who wants to write, then start writing now and read every book you can. You don’t have to become an English major, but I do strongly recommend some form of higher education.

All it boils down to is your willingness to put forth the effort and getting your work out there. Start your own blog. Write a book or a screenplay. We need our voices heard and our stories told, and in this day and age it’s easier than ever before to build an audience. You can start your own blog for free or submit articles to different publications and acquire freelance work that way.

Heck, I’ve even done stand-up comedy a couple of times, and I’m now working on several comic book projects with some artist friends of mine. There aren’t many limits you have in terms of what you can do as a writer, and the term “writer’s block” is nothing more than a BS excuse to be lazy.

I’m far from a perfect example of an ultra-disciplined writer, but if I go a day without writing at least a page of something or an article, I feel guilty. If I’m ever feeling complacent with my writing output, I look at heroes of mine like Neil Gaiman and Scott Snyder and get back to work.

Follow Kevin Schaefer on Twitter and read his posts at SMA News Today.