Journalists love a good quote from a source. Used well, those words can add details to the story and elicit emotions in the reader. They also add credibility because readers can see sources speaking in their own words.
Accurately quoting a source isn’t a simple task, however. People speak faster than reporters can take notes. Sources go off on tangents and speak in incomplete sentences. Tape recorders and flip cameras can help, but deadline pressure presents challenges too.
Perhaps that’s what happened with recent coverage of a college football game between UNC and N.C. State. The Wolfpack prevailed over the Tar Heels in a contest that included a failed two-point conversion that would have tied the game.
My colleague Bill Cloud detected two renderings of a post-game quote from UNC quarterback T.J. Yates. Here’s how The News & Observer quoted him:
The rival Herald-Sun in Durham also covered the game. It quoted Yates this way:
I believe that each newspaper was making a good-faith effort to quote Yates accurately. The differences here are not significant; the meaning of what Yates said is intact in each one.
Yet, these two versions of the quote illustrate the challenge of quoting a source and including those exact words in a story in context. Different people can hear different things, or they can record them differently.
Ambrose Bierce put it this way in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Quoting is the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” I hope that I am quoting him accurately.
My 10-year-old son had an interesting homework assignment today: create a “bubble map” with the theme of truth. He and his classmates worked together to research that topic, and then each student made a map at home.
The bubble at the center of the map has that word inside it, and it branches in different directions. Here’s what the bubbles say, in my son’s exact words:
“That which is true.” — student dictionary
“The body of real events or facts.” — Webster’s dictionary
“Sincerity in action, character and utterance.” — Webster’s collegiate dictionary
If you tell the truth, you are being honest.
If you confess to something, that can be truth.
If you don’t tell the truth, you will be in trouble.
If you don’t tell the truth, you could be killed.
Or you could be put in jail.
Truth is different from different points of view.
I could say that he hit me first.
That’s my truth.
As a journalist, I like this assignment on two levels: first, as an exercise in alternative storytelling; second, as an examination of truth, one of the core values of our profession.
Monty Cook is executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital Project at UNC-Chapel Hill. In that role, he is the leader of a newsroom and research center at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before coming to the university in 2010, Cook was senior vice president and editor of the Baltimore Sun. He has also worked at newspapers in Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Akron and Washington. D.C. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Cook describes his job, the goals of the Reese Felts project and the future of journalism education.
Q. Describe your job. What does the executive director of the Reese Felts Digital Project do?
A. It’s my role, and the role of Tony Zeoli, our lead developer, to work with students on projects, on programming, and on the site, as they develop the necessary skills and critical thinking needed to be journalists in the 21st century. We have resisted any model that forces students to simply shovel content onto the site. We don’t believe that students learn anything from working in a digital sweatshop or content assembly line.
We discuss stories. We talk about story form. We talk about technology. We talk about audience expectations. We talk about what’s happening in the industry and the culture.
We direct, challenge and work with students to put their work in the best possible position for audiences. We also allow students the time and freedom to choose some stories of their own to pursue. But through our experience we can create teaching moments along the way. Our student staff has been wonderful to work with. They’ve been engaged, energized and professional.
We also decide on the direction of the project; what research initiatives to pursue, which partnerships to form for the benefit of students and the project as a whole.
We’ve taken two steps since summer. We’ve renovated and created the space for the physical newsroom, and we’ve launched a news and information site in a little more than two months. It’s just two steps, and there are many more to come: hyper-local journalism, opinion, sports journalism, original programming and multiple audience research projects.
Q. Where does the Reese Felts site fit into the media landscape on campus, in Chapel Hill and beyond?
A. Reese Felts has many missions. We give students digital skill sets and practical application through story development, production and publishing across multiple platforms. Our site, reesenews.org, serves as not only an outlet for students’ work but the foundation for the project’s audience research initiatives. We look to create natural partnerships with legacy, new media and citizen journalists. That gives us an opportunity to look at strategies to help companies continue making the transition to the evolving digital and cultural audience habits.
Will we cover the university and Chapel Hill? Absolutely. We’ll cover the region, North Carolina and occasional national stories, too. Our goal is to experiment with story form — we’re already doing that with non-traditional sports game coverage — and also with long-form journalism and documentary style.
We believe that emerging platforms, like the iPad and other tablet devices, will ultimately change how journalism is presented. There will be more of a menu for story form options as audiences transition. But data visualization, animation and gaming will have roles to play, too.
Q. As editor of the Baltimore Sun, you oversaw significant layoffs at the newspaper, particularly on the copy desk. What do you see as the role of editing in today’s media?
A. It’s just as important in new media as it is in legacy media, maybe more so. Proper search engine optimization and learning how to draw audiences to articles, video, other content, is layered onto the critical roles of editing for context, for grammar, for structure, for word usage. Newspaper editors, news directors, they’re all being forced into false choices because of the audience transition to new platforms and the poor economy.
That said, journalism roles are becoming less specialized. Journalists need to understand programming, marketing and social media, editing and solid SEO. Those principles are no longer the roles of just a few in a modern newsroom. They have to be top-of-mind for everyone.
Q. You are a graduate of UNC’s journalism school. How has journalism education changed from when you were a student, and what changes do you see ahead?
A. Well, there was no digital newsroom in the mid-1980s. And I have many fond memories of the j-school from my time as an undergraduate. Jim Schumaker, covering town zoning board meetings for Dr. Donald Shaw’s class. I was in Jan Yopp’s news editing class the morning that Challenger exploded on liftoff. The teletype machines were going crazy in the next room.
But even if platforms have evolved, the Web, mobile, now tablet devices — and there will be others — the importance journalism plays in culture remains a constant. The barriers to entry are lower. You no longer have to be The Washington Post or The New York Times to provide news.
Citizen journalism and blogging continue to provide outlets for news, commentary and information. There has never been greater access to news and information. It’s just more fragmented. And it also may not be as in-depth.
Traditional news outlets have struggled with staff attrition. Small and mid-sized newspapers still provide quality watchdog functions to their readers. They may have to pick their spots, however, without the greater bandwidth of a large staff. There are some local broadcast outlets that provide valuable accountability journalism. The Raleigh-Durham market is an excellent one in that respect.
I think we’ll continue to see non-legacy news outlets rise, some broad-based, others niche. Whatever you think of The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast or even Gawker, those sites have large followings.
Reesenews.org, on a student level, will look at different models. We constantly ask how we can serve journalism, both from a practical and theoretical standpoint, on current and emerging platforms. The site itself is non-traditional and looks to create a design bridge between the browser and tablet interface experiences.
It’s about using technology in service of story, not as a toy at the expense of solid storytelling. It’s about using technology in service of reporting. Crowdsourcing and engaging with audiences, followers, after a story publishes are critically important to the newsgathering and dissemination processes.
It’s about understanding that metadata and search engine optimization are as important to the editing process as grammar, line edits, structure and usage.
We work with students on putting the vast digital knowledge and multitasking ability they already possess into the framework of 21st century journalism.
And the thing is, that’s what we see as the need in journalism education — now. As technology and culture continues to evolve, we’ll evolve.
UPDATE: Monty Cook has resigned as leader of the Reese Felts project because of inappropriate relations with a student. Faculty member Don Wittekind is serving in that role on an interim basis.
The Poynter Institute published an interview this week with Tom Brokaw, the former anchor for NBC News. The occasion for the interview was Brokaw’s speech there marking the institute’s 35th anniversary. (Happy birthday, Poynter!)
In the interview, Brokaw says he is not yet convinced that social media are a legitimate news outlet, and he reopens the tired debate about whether journalism exists in that part of the online world. Brokaw worries that Facebook will unnerve him. He’s even less complimentary about Twitter:
I know that it’s very popular and that it’s a quick way of getting a text blast out, so to speak, but an awful lot of it seems to be … just stuff that fills air.
Later in the story, Brokaw touches on a topic that would make any journalist or educator happy, the importance of writing:
Journalists: learn to write. Text messaging is not writing. Whether you’re writing for a newspaper, online or on the air, get better at writing.
Certainly, writing — and its sibling, editing — are essential to journalism. But Brokaw fails to see that writing and editing are just as essential in social media as they are for traditional media.
Journalists today need to know how to write for social media, including blogs, Facebook and Twitter. A headline on the front page needs to be revised to work as a Tweet. A nut graf of a news story needs to be edited for use as a blurb on a Facebook fan page. That’s what news organizations like the Los Angeles Times and NPR, among others, do every day.
Effective communication in social media requires a need to understand the medium and the audience. And it requires good writing and editing.
Election nights on a newspaper’s copy desk are characterized by long waits for results followed by a frenzy of editing and headline writing. Now that I am teaching, I spend my election nights at home, getting results online and watching coverage on cable TV. The morning after, I’ll look for my newspaper to tie it all together and tell me what it all means.
Free pizza for the newsroom was one of the traditions of election night in the newsrooms where I worked. An “election pool” was another one. Those of us who chose to participate predicted the outcome of various races. The winner claimed bragging rights of being politically astute, although luck may have been involved too.
I can’t join one of those pools tonight, but I will offer my predictions here. To be clear, this is who I think will win, not who should win. My voting preferences are between me and my touch screen. And away we go:
ALASKA: Murkowski over Miller
CALIFORNIA: Boxer over Fiorina
CONNECTICUT: Blumenthal over McMahon
DELAWARE: Coons over O’Donnell
FLORIDA: Rubio over Crist
KENTUCKY: Paul over Conway
NEVADA: Angle over Reid
NORTH CAROLINA: Burr over Marshall
U.S. HOUSE from North Carolina
DISTRICT 2: Etheridge over Ellmers
DISTRICT 4: Price over Lawson
DISTRICT 8: Johnson over Kissell
DISTRICT 13: Miller over Randall
CONTROL OF CONGRESS
HOUSE: Republicans, 230-205
SENATE: Democrats, 51-47 (and two independents)
California says NO to legalizing marijuana
CALIFORNIA: Brown over Whitman
FLORIDA: Scott over Sink
NEW YORK: Cuomo over Paladino (But either way, the rent will still be too damn high.)
UPDATE: On the day after, I’d call my performance as prognosticator fair to middling. In my newsroom experience, the day after an election is more difficult than the day of the election. Everyone is tired, and there’s no free pizza. Kudos to all of those who do this hard work. We readers appreciate it.