Student guest post: Editing, writing go hand in hand

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Ben Swanson is the managing editor of RufusOnFire.com, covering the Charlotte Bobcats for the past two years. You can find him on Twitter at @CardboardGerald.

People often ask me how to make it in sports writing.

First, the main thing is to write your [expletive] off. But the other thing that’s emerged in importance is being able to edit.

Eyes moving from paper to screen for news and sports coverage have lessened the barrier between traditional media and new media. As a result, we’re seeing increased access being granted to bloggers as credentialed members of the media.

Even with growing respect for new media such as blogs, it’s not enough to just write a lot. Not only should writers be able to write well, but they should be able to edit, too. Creating consistently well-written works is crucial to keeping readers returning to your site and keeping their respect for your writing.

When I talk about consistency, I mostly mean style. I adhere to AP style, but regardless of preference, find a style (or create one) and stick to it. It’s also important to remember that style can bend. You’re writing to connect with people.

Above all, write so that readers of varying levels of knowledge can understand what you say. This also includes fact-checking, checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. You should have an inner editor following behind your fingers as you write.

Content placement is also key. With some websites, posts are automatically organized reverse-chronologically. But if you can change that, think critically about which stories will attract the most eyes from the home page.

Blogging is not the dirty word it once was. Starting a website is easy, but to break through and rise into the world of sports writing, an enterprising person needs to not only be able to write but also edit.

A good writer and editor that can write attractive headlines, engaging posts and draw readership can rise through the ranks and enter into the sports writing world with hard work. Being able to do it all in running an independent blog has never been so important in an industry where the level of access required is increasingly being leveled.

Student guest post: The role of editing in public diplomacy

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Melissa Tolentino is a senior double major in journalism (editing and graphic design) and Japanese studies. As a former intern at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, she has a passion for public diplomacy, particularly with youth. She also loves pugs. In the fall, she is moving to Tokyo to attend graduate school for international communications.

The relationship between the government and the media has always been a tricky one. In the three years I’ve been taking classes in the journalism school, I’ve heard time and time again that journalists are supposed to act as the government’s watchdog—though sometimes, that role changes to lapdog, depending on the issue. Regardless of the role, we’ve seen how government scandals and officials have been handled by all kinds of media. Just look at the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks and Valerie Plame’s outing as an undercover CIA agent in The Washington Post.

But let’s take a step back from the notion of bureaucracy for a second. There’s another aspect of government that the media has to deal with every day, and it doesn’t carry the same stiff reputation. It’s called public diplomacy, which is a more grassroots form of diplomacy that relies on fostering mutual understanding among countries through international communication. Rather than do this through bureaucratic channels, though, public diplomacy relies on the people, which is why it’s often called “the people’s diplomacy.”

The most important word in that definition is communication. Any form of international relations would not exist without it, and the media is the perfect channel through which such communication should occur. No matter the region or the culture, newspapers, blogs and news broadcasts carry the same purpose: to inform.

But the way an event is interpreted by the American media may not be the way it is interpreted by media outlets in Argentina or Laos. This is why editing is so important. I don’t just mean editing for style and grammar, I mean editing for the audience, which may be the most difficult job of all. There are so many questions to ask:

  • Is the information presented in the news piece biased toward Americans?
  • Does it make any cultural faux pas that could potentially be damaging to international relations?
  • How can I word this to make it sound neutral and not hurtful to any other people?

Granted, this isn’t usually a job for the typical journalist, especially one who works at a local newspaper. But if you work at a more prominent U.S. newspaper, especially one with international desks, this is something to keep in mind, as the consequences could build into something irreversible.

As an example of this, I spent my senior year writing an honors thesis that looked at how Filipino women are portrayed by Philippine and Japanese media sources, particularly newspapers. The articles I analyzed were rife with negative images, most of which were based on stereotypes, and all for the sake of familiarity and convenience. Most of the images weren’t even obvious — many were subtle, sneaked into a paragraph through a well-placed word or the absence of another. And the prominence of these constructions give the media power to subordinate minority groups.

This is something we have to avoid. Though I know it’s difficult (and much easier said than done), I want journalists to strive not only to inform their main audience, but the global audience beyond, in a way that really and truly promotes people-to-people communication rather than blind bias. Luckily, the U.S. Department of State is helping local and international journalists with that, as they have several journalism-oriented exchange programs, one of which — the Edward R. Murrow Program — is partly held at UNC’s own j-school.

I know the snag in the road is that there is no such thing as truly bias-free media. But I also believe that there is a point we can reach in our journalistic practices and pieces that can communicate the U.S.’ news and messages to the rest of the world in a way that promotes cross-cultural understanding rather than breaks it. Journalism is no longer — and has never been, really — a narrow, bounded industry. It was meant to be globalized and to globalize. We just have to find the right way to do it.

Is there still a place for print media in an editing course?

In my Advanced Editing class, I take a day at the end of the semester for a debriefing. We look back on our work on the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites as well as other assignments and discussions. It’s a chance for the students and me to talk, in an informal setting, about what they did and didn’t like about the course.

For the third consecutive year, I asked the students this week whether I should eliminate the portion of the course that focuses on print media and go exclusively digital. And for another year, the answer was a resounding no. The students said they valued the experience of editing, writing headlines and designing pages using InDesign and InCopy. After all, there are still jobs that require those skills.

Over the years, I have incrementally updated the syllabus to include more online editing. This semester, students used Storify for several assignments and wrote and edited posts for Triangle Wiki, a regional version of Wikipedia. (They said they especially enjoyed that assignment.) And each student wrote a guest post for this blog.

I’ll teach Advanced Editing again in spring 2014. Between now and then, I will think about how to add digital content while maintaining the print portion of the course. I’m open to suggestions.

Student guest post: Catastrophe, photography and media ethics

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kinsey Sullivan enjoys studying and writing about international arts and culture. In May, she will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, after which she is excited to move to London for work. Follow her on Twitter at @misskinseylane.

We were still reeling from the news of the bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday when we learned another devastating explosion had occurred near Waco, Texas, in the early hours of Thursday morning. Images of burning buildings and of the wounded ran constantly, a byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle.

As we cope with these catastrophes, it is critical that we evaluate not only what we information we create and consume, but how we create and consume it. Specifically, we must consider the ethics of photo editing in conflict situations, because of the graphic and exposing nature of these images.

Photos are valuable in conflict situations because they do help viewers understand and contextualize the information they receive; they help tell the story more effectively.

Think to the photographs circulating post-9/11, with which the New York Times did an exceptional job. Those images helped people around the world conceptualize the utter devastation and heart-wrenching grief, as well as the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Both aspects of conflict situations are vital to understand, and photography allows an unprecedented closeness to both extremes.

Journalists often walk a fine line between documenting and exploiting in sensitive situations, and this is particularly true of photos and film.

Photographs offer a seemingly unbiased and unmediated perspective on these events. In essence, they offer the illusion of objectivity. However, objectivity, even in photography, is impossible.

The framing of the photo, the perspective, the focus and the proximity all affect how we interpret the image; all of these elements are determined by a photographer. This fact, combined with the potentially disturbing nature of such photos, means that we must tread very delicately as reporters and editors.

As we edit such images, we must question the ethics of images and avoid exploiting the situation or the victims at all costs. Since such editing is subjective, it comes back to editing and taste. A few things to consider:

  • Does the image help propel the story and aid readers, while avoiding sensationalism?
  • Is the image respectful of the situation and the victims?
  • Does the image present an accurate depiction of the situation?
  • As a photographer or editor, would you be willing to be in the image?

Some examples from CNN’s coverage of the bombing at the Boston Marathon will help illustrate the potential problems. Though it isn’t graphic, this CNN slideshow does not propel the story and seems gratuitous.

However, this slideshow includes many graphic images that are both troublesome and seem to lack sensitivity. Additionally, viewers are not warned about the upcoming graphic images. While photograph four does seem to express the chaos of the situation while being deferential to the victims, photograph seven shows, I think, extremely poor taste in editing.

As we deal with the news of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, let us remember that these are not just stories but human stories. Editing the images of conflict is critical, and in these situations, it is critical that it is done well.

Carol Folt: a new chancellor in the headlines

UNC-Chapel Hill has selected a new chancellor. As first reported by The News & Observer, Carol Folt of Dartmouth University will succeed Holden Thorp as the leader of the state’s flagship public university.

As a faculty member, I like the selection of Folt for a couple of reasons: She’s from outside the UNC system, and she will be the first woman to lead the Chapel Hill campus. After a period of academic and athletic scandals, it’s time for a fresh start and new perspectives.

As an editor, I like Folt’s selection for a couple of other reasons: “Folt” is a short word for headlines in print and online. And “Carol Folt” is an unusual name that is more helpful for search engine optimization than, say, “Becky Jones” would be. Both of those aspects of her name will help headline writers do their jobs well.

Best wishes, Carol, on your move to Chapel Hill. I look forward to seeing your name in the headlines — and for all the right reasons.

Student guest post: When are warnings in headlines enough?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Sarah Sessoms is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double-majoring in journalism and sports administration. A former world champion equestrian, she grew up on a horse farm in Hillsborough, N.C. She is an intern for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team and hopes to embark on a career in the athletic administration after graduation in May.

During the NCAA Tournament this year, there was one storyline that you could barely miss hearing about: Kevin Ware’s injury. (In case you did miss it, the Louisville basketball player broke his leg in a horrific way during the game again Duke in the Elite Eight).

CBS showed the injury during its live coverage, then again on replay before deciding not to air the injury again. If you were watching it live like me, you were probably OK never to see it again. But the video of Ware breaking his leg blew up on YouTube, and now, over two weeks later, it has almost 5 million hits.

CBS started the discussion with what they thought was the best decision for everyone: don’t replay the injury and keep the coverage to the basics. No warnings, no graphic images. Many followed CBS’s lead.

But other media outlets didn’t choose to do it this way. One such example is Deadspin’s headline (I won’t link to it, because it takes you to the video of the injury itself). The headline to its article and accompanying media reads: “Kevin Ware Suffered Maybe The Most Gruesome Injury In The History Of Televised Sports [WARNING: VERY GROSS]”.

But when you write a story, is the headline with a warning enough? Is it too much? Should an editor warn the audience that the article, or any corresponding media, is graphic? Should readers be prepared for the content?

The answer is that it depends. Warnings for graphic content are common, but they need to be used sparingly.

What to focus on here is “Warning: Very gross.” True, the break is extremely gross. You could even call it disturbing.  They’re right about needing a warning on some level, but it shouldn’t be in the headline. And there has to be a better, more professional way to put it. In this piece Deadspin goes beyond reporting the injury, they sensationalize it.

But is this enough of a warning for the violent leg break? Is this even enough warning for the giant video that graces the front of this article? Did the editors who wrote the headline think that a warning would be enough? Or is this sensationalism for the sake of getting more hits on the website? There’s no clear answer, but I have a feeling that the more gruesome the headline, the more people would want to click on it.

Let’s compare with some other headlines from the incident. “Louisville’s Ware leaves with right leg injury” or “Horrific injury: Louisville’s Kevin Ware breaks leg vs. Duke in Elite Eight.” These headlines are far better for the privacy of the student-athlete, his family and his team.

Warnings are a really good tool to make sure that readers are aware of the disturbing content. In fact, one of the articles gives its own warning when linking to pictures of the injury. But the fact that it is in the body of the text makes it a much better option than sticking it in a headline. By putting a colloquial warning in their headline, Deadspin took away from the news value of the incident and placed it squarely as a spectacle.

When writing a headline for something this shocking, it’s good to remember all of the parties involved. Yes, it’s good to get readers’ attention, but it’s better to inform them of what happened.

The latter headlines are better for search engines and give many more details to readers in a rush. The headline with the warning only makes a bigger deal out of the injury, with little respect for Ware. In this situation, some media outlets forgot that the injured athlete is still a person, even if his leg break was “very gross.”

All in all, readers needed to be aware that the content of the Ware injury could cause some discomfort. In this case, the warning was definitely warranted, had it been phrased correctly. Where the warning goes wrong is focusing on the gruesomeness of the injury and by doing so taking away from the humanity of the situation.

Student guest post: The hazards of sponsored content

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lindsay Sebastian is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in journalism and global studies. She works as an educator at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and she is an intern at a local nonprofit organization, A Ban Against Neglect.

As journalism students, we’ve been told over and over: Newspapers are closing, circulation is down, and everything can be found online for free. The industry is dying as there is a huge shift away from traditional media consumption.

But this shift is not a shift away from the necessity of news media; it’s a shift in the way news is received. There’s still a demand; it has just taken on a different form.

As forms of media are changing, types of advertising have changed with it. In particular, within the past two years, sponsored content has gained serious momentum among online news organizations.

Newspapers have companies “sponsor” news stories, producing editorial content instead of typical banner ads. While this is great for the news publication’s revenue, the lines between journalism and advertisements are now blurred, sometimes to even dangerous extremes.

One example of this is a post published in January by The Atlantic titled, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” accompanied by a large picture of Miscavige and links to Scientology websites. The article detailed the openings of 12 Scientology churches around the world in the past year, an unprecedented number in the organization’s history. It also mentioned how much the “ecclesiastical leader” Miscavige had done in “leading a renaissance for the religion.” Eleven hours later, the content was removed and in its place, a message read, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”

Though the content was marked as sponsored by the Church of Scientology, journalists criticized The Atlantic for a variety of reasons.

The first reason surrounded the nature of the content itself. The Church of Scientology has a history of abuse, financial fraud and even human trafficking. It is known for intimidating its critics and avoiding the press at all costs. The bizarre and blatantly positive Scientology propaganda didn’t jibe well with The Atlantic’s readers.

Beyond the actual nature of the content, critics pointed out the manner in which the post was displayed. The page itself was identical to the format of news stories on The Atlantic, including font size and type, layout and use of pictures. Though the small “sponsored content” tag was present at the top, everything else was nearly identical.

Additionally, reader comments on the post were censored, leaving only the ones that reflected the positive tone of the piece. For such a controversial article, the lack of critical comments made it clear that someone was censoring them. Later, a spokeswoman from The Atlantic said that the marketing team was monitoring comments and issued an apology for the entire article that started with the words, “We screwed up.”

So how can news organizations avoid controversies around their sponsored content? By being transparent and honest, upholding content standards and allowing conversation around the posts.

Most critics found the Scientology post to be misleading. Whether it was intentional or not, The Atlantic made no attempts to clarify the difference between opinion and reporting. Though some may be able to recognize the difference, it is presumptuous to assume all readers will be able to differentiate the two, especially considering the similarity between the sponsored post’s format and regular news coverage format. More transparency and honesty about the nature of the posts will ensure that readers know a brand influenced the content.

Yet, regardless, content should not be compromised in the posts. News organizations should hold brands to the same standards they hold their reporters to in order to create engaging content that reflects the values of the organization itself. This ensures that the reader is still the highest priority above the company sponsoring the editorials.

Finally, there should be discussion within organizations surrounding the ethics of these sponsored posts. Whether or not a new framework is created to handle these sponsored posts is ultimately up to the news company, but standards for review might be helpful to avoid a situation like the one The Atlantic faced.