Editing locally, editing globally

Students in my Advanced Editing class at UNC-Chapel Hill often work on real-world assignments. Their work is both local and global:

  • As in years past, my students work with those in another course, Community Journalism, to produce the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites. In addition to preparing news for posting on WordPress, the students create PDF “printer friendly” designs for each story. We’ll update the sites five times during the spring semester.
  • Two master’s students, Andrea Patiño Contreras and Gabriela Arp, asked my class to edit feature stories and write headlines for their website about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. We did so by compiling six stories into a Google document. Half the students focused on fact checking and story structure; the other half edited for grammar, punctuation, spelling and AP style. The remarkable project, called Divided By The Sea, launched last week.

Each project gives students a chance to work with real copy and write headlines and captions that will be seen by readers in North Carolina and beyond. I feel fortunate to work with colleagues who encourage such collaboration — and who value what editors do.


Student guest post: Objectivity and its murky future

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kevin Mercer a reporting major from Chapel Hill. He is on the sports desk with The Daily Tar Heel, and he also writes for Southern Neighbor

It was Saturday, Feb. 13, and my friends and I had returned to our dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill from a night of ice skating in time to see the Republican debate on CBS News. Donald Trump, leading most Republican primary polls, said prominent Republican politicians should not allow President Barack Obama to appoint a new, ostensibly liberal, justice to the U.S. Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died earlier that day: “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”

Some in the dorm room were liberals, some conservatives. Some argued for the president’s obligation to appoint a new justice when a seat is vacated. Some argued that such an action would work counter to the president’s role as a representative of the American people. Neither debate solved much of anything. The dispute still rages.

For the rest of the night, I saw liberals and conservatives spar on Twitter and Facebook about the issue, using as ammunition news articles that align with their beliefs. An objective summary of the facts of Scalia’s life and death or of the appointment of new Supreme Court justices were not the articles getting shared, and therefore read.

It is no secret that the field of journalism has changed and continues to change. Traditional print media has lost favor with some, and social media is here to stay. Qualities that journalists used to hold dear — like the importance of specialization — are being pushed aside because of the evolving demands of media. Is political objectivity the next to go?

Don’t get me wrong. The importance of objectivity has been ingrained in me during my time in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH. There is still plenty of objective news in every journalistic medium, but increasingly there is a shift to subjectivity in favor of objectivity. Think of Fox News and MSNBC on television or “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on the radio, or The Progressive in print.

And it makes sense. The business model used by traditional media began to become less viable. Media organizations needed to adjust – and they have – but they now find themselves in a hyper-competitive field vying for consumers’ attention.

Media organizations have discovered that people are drawn to news presented in a way that reinforces their beliefs. A study from Ohio State University suggests that consumers spend more time with media that support their opinions. Media organizations have had to appeal to as many readers as possible or else get pushed to the wayside by the many news outlets more than willing to provide consumers with what they want.

Call me a cynic, but I think the journalism profession collectively would sacrifice almost any enduring tenet to remain profitable. The thought of sacrificing accuracy seems incomprehensible to every journalist I know.

But we’ve largely done away with objectivity.  Decreasing objectivity can increase readership temporarily, but how will someone trust any media organization if the stories they tell of the truth are distorted by political opinions?

Consumers will become disillusioned with media generally and eventually flee.  I think, however, there is a way to reconcile objectivity with the way in which media are now consumed.

News publications would disassociate themselves completely from individual journalists. Writers and videographers would build their own unique brands and market themselves to publications as freelancers, embracing and disseminating a political ideology.

To reach more of an audience, The New York Times, for example, would hire a known liberal writer and a known conservative writer to both cover the same story. The Times would maintain its objectivity while consumers would still get the slanted news they crave. An average person would read The Times’ brief synopsis of every pertinent fact of a breaking news story, but the synopsis would direct the reader to the longer and subjective material he or she would undoubtedly want to read.

Whether it’s practical or not is uncertain, but I believe something has to be done to curtail the abundance of biased media sources we have now.

Q&A with Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics

Sydney Smith is managing editor and reporter for iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit organization covering issues in the news media. Smith previously wrote for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and has worked as a public relations consultant. In this interview, conducted by email, Smith discusses her role at iMediaEthics and some of the ethical issues facing news organizations.

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

A. One of the things I love about working with iMediaEthics is that every day is completely different and can go in any direction. One day I’ll be researching a story about political reporting in Australia, the next day the fallout from the phone hacking scandal in England, and the next may be something going on with a tiny news site in the middle of nowhere.

We publish at least one story seven days a week, so every day I’m writing something. I typically start the day off reading and responding to email, scrolling through Twitter and reading a ton of Google alerts and various sites looking for stories or ideas. Depending on the day/week, I’m also researching or editing anyone else’s stories, writing our weekly newsletter, checking out tips or trying to chip away at older reports in the never-ending backlog of stories that need to be finished.

Q. How does iMediaEthics decide what to write about, and how do editing and headline writing work at the site?

A. We’re open to tips and cover media ethics around the world. That said, our publisher, Art Science Research Laboratory, which was co-founded by Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer, calls for featuring the quantifiable.

Cases involving fact checking, libel, fabrication, adherence to standards —those are clear-cut issues we are always up for.

We are particularly interested in covering issues that are gray areas that require judgment like whether to publish something, how to sensitively report on victims or how to best report on issues like suicide for the simple reason that it’s not always an easy call. It requires editorial debate, sensitivity and discussion.

In terms of editing: Alan Bisbort is our copy editor. For our day-to-day stories, unless it’s breaking, he edits before publication. In cases of breaking news, I’ll post something, and he’ll read it typically right after. Our editor-in-chief and publisher Rhonda also reads every story and sends feedback. I write an initial headline, but I’d say about a third of the time Rhonda will suggest a change and we’ll update.

All hands are on deck for our bigger news stories and special investigations. At the minimum, two editors will read and edit anything before publication, often several times, and work together on a headline.

Q. What are some of the pressing ethical issues you see in journalism today?

A. Fact checking is probably at the top: It’s so, so simple, but we see so many problems — like libel threats, fabrication, hoaxes or plagiarism — which could have been prevented or possibly caught with more (or any!) fact checking.

After fact checking, transparency comes to mind: transparency about everything — not just in saying who you are but also about the reporting process (where information came from, how it was checked, etc).

For a third, the need for sensitivity, which comes into play with invasion of privacy, graphic content, bad taste and a lot of other issues. Is that graphic photo necessary? OK, then why. Or if it’s really not, then don’t run it. Should you publish this private information just because you have it, or is it going too far? Is that turn of phrase something you’re going to regret later because it is more insensitive than clever?

Q. Writing about journalism ethics sounds like a great gig. What advice do you have for journalism students looking at jobs similar to yours?

A. It is! Really the same advice for any job — be ready for anything, read everything you can, doublecheck everything and then once more, find out where information is coming from, and ask questions.

Student guest post: Local government and the issue with the younger population

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Kerry Lengyel is a senior reporting major who has been the city editor at UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, for two semesters now. She is originally from New Jersey but currently calls Chapel Hill home.

It’s the game all journalists play each day: How do we get readers interested in our content? How do we crank out news that interests a majority of the public? How do we get the most likes, shares or favorites on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

It’s a constant struggle, but one always worth fighting for in the end.

To me, as the city editor at my university’s newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, I feel an even harder push to get people to pick up the paper whenever there’s a local election around the corner.

As the editor of the city desk, I have the job to inform the community, both the Chapel Hill residents and the UNC student body, on who is running for office in our local government.

While reaching the older generation is rarely a strain on my mind, it’s the younger generation — the college students and the millennials — who keep me up at night.

As a college student myself coming from another state, I was not all that interested in Chapel Hill government. But after acquiring this position, it has found a real place in my heart.

I honestly do care about the development that is happening, or isn’t happening, in my area. I honestly do worry about bicyclist and pedestrian safety. I honestly do care about who will be the next Orange County commissioners, and I want UNC students to care as well.

But how do you do make students care about something they don’t feel affects them in any way, shape or form?

It feels impossible, but for now all I can do is try to bring the student body the news that they want to read, and bring it in a more exciting way.

For example, Chapel Hill Town Council is once again cracking down on the housing rule the city has, which states that no more than four unrelated persons may live under one roof. The town has been trying to enforce this rule for years, and it has led to hundreds of students being kicked out of their apartments, left with nowhere to go.

My job as the city editor is to inform the student body of this rule, because I’m positive many are unaware that this occupancy limit even exists.

How do we get this into the minds of the student body, though? We go out and we speak to them directly.

We find people directly affected by this housing limit, and we tell their stories, hoping that other students will pick up the paper the next day and have an opinion on the matter.

We hope these students will become angry or upset with this rule and actually come out to a Town Council public hearing to ask for change.

It’s the job of any journalist to inform their readership of things that directly affect them, but it’s an even tougher job when your readership doesn’t seem to care.

It’s all we can do as a newspaper to keep finding those stories to connect the student body to the town they live in and to make them worry about who will be making decisions on town government.

We may not all be from Chapel Hill originally, but we live here now, we have the chance to choose who represents us and we should take that chance whenever possible.

Q&A with Dylan Howlett, researcher for NBC Olympics

Dylan Howlett is a researcher for NBC Olympics, helping the network prepare for the summer games in Brazil. In this interview, conducted by email, Howlett talks about his job and his journalism education. He also gives us a preview of what we might see in Rio de Janeiro in August.

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

A. Every day, the Olympics department serves the mission of readying our broadcasters, producers, marketers and digital writers for the upcoming Olympic Games. How, exactly, we serve that mission differs greatly. The ultimate goal remains assembling “The Manual,” a veritable bible that provides all Olympic employees with everything they need to know — and don’t need to know — about the host country, the games and Olympic athletes.

We don’t do this out of bravado, but rather out of necessity, because the breadth of the Olympics is staggering: In Rio, more than 10,500 athletes from about 205 nations will compete in 35 sports.

I think the undertaking falls somewhere between Quixotic and delusional, but NBC has routinely proven itself up to the task. I just try my best to not screw up a pristine operation.

Because of the magnitude of the games, NBC’s team of five Olympic researchers divides among themselves the 35 sports. We then fan out across the country and globe, traveling to world championships and other internationally attended events to speak with athletes and learn about  their personal stories. These help lend substance to, or even identify subjects for, NBC’s renowned “Up Close and Personal” profile pieces — those weepy, uber-inspiring tales that induce eye moisture in the most stoic people you know.

They also bolster our preparation for specific events: It’s helpful on multiple fronts to know that an Egyptian fencer once used makeshift weaponry to help protect his Alexandria home from roving bandits during the Egyptian revolution AND that he faces stiff competition, namely from three Americans, as he vies to defend his 2012 London silver medal. That fusion of the compelling and pedantic ensures we can serve our whole Olympic audience, from those who are there purely for sport to those who want a compelling reason to root for someone.

My Rio portfolio includes handball, weightlifting, fencing, rugby and golf. I have the attention span of a goldfish, so I typically allot my time according to my upcoming travel schedule. With two international rugby events slated for early March, I’m now immersed in scrums and rucks and the Haka tribal dance.

Rugby presents an ideal example of what we try to do with every sport, mostly because its return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence means we’re starting from scratch. We produce entries in The Manual on Rules, Olympic Venues, Olympic Schedule, History of Sport, Olympic History and a Glossary for every sport, as well as brief biographies on as many athletes as possible.

With those main entries completed, I’ve turned my attention to reading articles on players from around the world to prepare for, I hope, insightful interviews on the ground at those tournaments in March. The catch, however, is this: All reporting and research is strictly internal. I don’t produce any external editorial content. Everything I gather at events gets dumped into a virtual notebook, and those facts, quotes and anecdotes will eventually be repurposed throughout The Manual. Though I do love the sound of my own voice, we don’t want to tip off any other outlets to our precious information.

The gratification comes during the Olympics when someone learns something about an athlete that makes their heart skip a beat. Be on the lookout, for instance, for an American athlete who as a teenager ate dog food while in foster care.

Each day brings something unexpected because we are, at least in theory, the keepers of Olympic knowledge and arcane statistics. That means we often get solicitations from NBC’s promo department, marketing department, graphics coordinators, producers and anyone with intellectual curiosities about Rio de Janeiro or the 1936 Olympic bid process or how Michael Phelps performed at an international swimming meet in 2005 (we are not to question the relevance of any of these queries). It’s simply another chance to masquerade as an expert.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying this: Most days, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. Thanks, Andy, for reminding me that I’ve left the Southern Part of Heaven for the prickly environs of the Real World.

My job proves emphatically a maxim that my newswriting professor, Keith King, and my good friend John Robinson both imparted to me early on at the j-school: Journalism is constant learning. You wade into something you either don’t understand or wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, you learn what you don’t know from those who know, and then you synthesize everything you’re learned into a clear, concise and correct piece of writing that creates this wonderful illusion of expertise.

That’s pretty much my whole job. I’m not a connoisseur of fencing or weightlifting by any means, but after spending time with athletes and coaches, I can at least speak of both pursuits without sounding like I’m having an aneurysm. And what’s not to love about learning?

For every bit of inconsequential minutiae (Albertson Van Zo Post won the United States’ last men’s fencing gold medal in 1904) there’s a bit of something fascinating, like how much money Qatar makes every year from its lucrative oil contracts (an unspeakable sum) and how much of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed (an area about 160 times the size of Manhattan). It’s hard to beat free, constant learning.

The other bit of j-school resonance in this job comes from the teachings of John and the inimitable Tim Crothers: Everyone — EVERYONE — has a story, and everyone whose story you think you know has an even better one.

I think it’s fair to say that most prospective sportswriters or broadcasters aspire to high-profile subjects: the Super Bowl, LeBron James, the Yankees beat. But deeply moving and largely unknown stories lie in everyone.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated’s tour-de-force football writer, once said that famed SI feature writer Gary Smith almost exclusively delved into “the marginalia of life” — a black high school basketball coach in Amish country, a young man with intellectual disabilities helping out a high school football team, a mediocre baseball player haunted by an accidental murder from his childhood.

Talking to fencers and weightlifters and handball players has reminded me that the human spirit is indefatigable, and it is not the exclusive domain of those athletes we know by heart. That is, perhaps, the most compelling part of this job: finding untold stories that are worth telling the world.

I also have other j-school reminders: a copy of the 2013 AP Stylebook, the conventions of reporting from J153 and J253 and an eye for editing from your News Editing course. As for new skills (besides finding out that I screw up prolifically, and sometimes publicly), I’ve harkened back to my J153 days and learned how to write simply, clearly and effectively. Most of the written material we produce is designed to be told over the air, and there’s little room for overwrought, flowery language.

I am a repeated perpetrator of said language. I’ve found it challenging at times to rein it in, but there’s certainly something to be said for writing copy like you would say it (hat tip to Dave Cupp). There is singular eloquence in simplicity. It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in sportswriting?

A. First, drown out all of the masochists who have been singing the dirge of journalism for God knows how long. Yes, Buzzfeed pisses me off too, but its sheer existence doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to some sort of hellscape where a Snapchatting Tupac hologram constitutes our only news source.

Second, there are so many opportunities in this business to contribute in a creative and writing capacity beyond traditional reporting roles. I had no idea my current job existed until my boss emailed me and asked whether I’d be interested in applying.

Sure, I miss writing stories on deadline and working on longer feature stories, but it’s a job in sports, and it’s a job in sports that allows me to, at the very least, afford the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. In other words, there are many ways to get to the same place.

Speaking directly to anyone who’s foolish enough to care about what I have to say: I know you’ve probably heard a lot of defeatist proclamations about journalism and the insane level of competition in broadcasting and all sorts of dire projections about your desired career path. To all of that apocalyptic noise I say this: Who made those people the arbiter of your dreams? If this is what you love, if this is what vaults you out of bed every morning, if this is what makes you happy, then who is anyone to tell you “no”? Go for it.

Q. So. Based on your research so far, what storylines and fun facts can we expect to hear about from Rio? And will you get to go?

A. A breeding pool of 30 baby alligators sits behind the 13th green on the Olympic golf course. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating that is 12 percentage points lower than Richard Nixon’s was the day he resigned from office (24 percent). The 1920 Brazilian water polo team featured a player known as Chocolate. If that doesn’t get you excited for Rio, I don’t know what will.

It’s impossible to discuss the Rio Olympics without addressing the negativity that has strangled the latest Olympic news cycle. The United States Olympic Committee denies it told its sports federations that they could give female athletes and staffers the option to skip the games if they didn’t want to risk the health of their future children by contracting the Zika virus (it’s been attributed to cases of microcephaly in newborns). There’s a severe shortage of available doctors in the city. The games are wildly over budget, and some venues have either been downsized or compromised. As part of its successful bid in 2009, Rio promised to sanitize 80 percent of its filthy Guanabara Bay. With 150,000 gallons of raw sewage still spilling into the bay every minute, organizers have now conceded their promise will go unfulfilled. They will instead have 20 “eco boats” patrolling the waters during sailing and swimming competitions to scoop up, say, floating sofas before they obstruct competitors.

This is all part of the six-month ritual that precedes the Olympics: Nothing is getting done, nothing will get done and the games will be an unremitting disaster. And then all of that magically disappears for 16 days in August (though I’m sure Brazilians will argue rather audibly that the nation’s issues, some of which the organizing committee vowed to ameliorate, will not disappear after August 2016).

Returning to competition, I’m looking forward to these three storylines:

  • Michael Phelps says he’s in the best shape of his life. Michael Phelps says he has never been more committed to swimming. Michael Phelps says he’s anxious to see what he can accomplish while giving swimming his unconditional all. Michael Phelps’s greatest was already pretty damn great. He might set a new threshold in Rio. And even if he doesn’t, it will likely be everyone’s last chance to watch one of the world’s most extraordinary athletes.
  • Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who already has four gold medals and two silver, will attempt something in Rio that only two other women have ever accomplished at the Olympics: winning the 200m and 400m, both of which are held on the same day. The other women were 24 and 28, respectively, when they pulled off “the double.” Felix is 30. It would be a remarkable, if not unprecedented, feat for a 30-year-old Olympian.
  • This is how much Brazilians care about soccer: Brazil lost on home soil to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. It is regarded as the nation’s greatest embarrassment, so much so that Brazilians consider the loss an equivalent tragedy to 9/11 and the bombing of Hiroshima. Then there was the 2014 World Cup, again on home soil, when they lost, 7-1, to Germany in the semifinals. A tabloid declared the defeat “Humiliation for Eternity.” Brazil has never won an Olympic gold medal in soccer. For the sake of its people’s psychological, emotional and physical well-being, it would be nice for Brazil to experience soccer bliss. They’re running out of morbid analogies, anyway.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be in Rio or working with a dedicated studio team at our NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Either way, I’ll be part of the production, which represents a serious lapse in judgment on the part of my supervisors. I won’t ask too many questions.

Student guest post: Why editors need to push for more watchdog journalism

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Keith Larsen is a first-year master’s student in the business and media track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a reporter at GreenBiz, where he reports on the intersection of sustainability and business. Previously, he interned at the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, where he investigated corporate fraud and misdeeds in the capital markets.

I have undoubtedly become a better journalist during my time as a graduate student at UNC. My knowledge of AP style has improved, I can write better leads and I have gained some semblance of how to tell stories visually.

Yet, while I have been inundated with the fundamentals of journalism and I have enhanced my writing skills, rarely has the question been asked: Why does it all matter? Why do any of us want to become journalists or editors given the obvious decaying economics of traditional newsrooms? Why would any of us take out student loans and subject ourselves to an intense job market only to be rewarded with mediocre pay?

Well, we do it anyway because it matters. We do it because we believe it’s important. And we do it because we want to be the first recorders of history and the tireless watchdogs who hold our institutions accountable.

It is important to remind ourselves why we chose to pursue a job in the news business, not only in journalism schools, but also in the newsroom. It is equally integral that editors continue to fight complacency and push for more watchdog journalism.

The importance of these conversations has become none more evident than with the national media coverage of the Flint water crisis, and the question of whether the national media acted appropriately as a watchdog.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan attempted to answer this question in her blog, The Public Editor’s Journal, and concluded that “If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the ‘trending‘ list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”

Sullivan’s remarks highlight the daunting challenge that editors and journalists face today of providing watchdog journalism despite its marginal financial returns. Subsequently, there is no apparent answer to this challenge. Watchdog journalism can be expensive, it can be more time intensive, and, much to our chagrin, its clicks often pale in comparison to a BuzzFeed list about breakfast food.

However, I believe it is important for editors to continue to hold these conversations in newsrooms and to push back against the business side of news organizations, which might argue that this type of reporting is too costly, or inefficient, or doesn’t affect our core audience.

Undoubtedly, these are all fair points and especially poignant for a concerned shareholder of a media company, but we must never forget why we decided to be in this business in the first place. We must continually think of new ways to make this type of reporting economically viable as well as how it can enhance a media organization’s credibility and bottom line.

Editors must continue to push back against reporting stories simply for convenience and clicks, and push for stories that inform readers about serious issues in our societies through an objective lens.

We owe it not only to ourselves by upholding our most deeply held beliefs as journalists and editors, but we owe it to the children of Flint, who will forever be devastated by lead poisoning.

We owe it to these children not just to report intensively on a crisis, but to make sure that we will always put people ahead of profits because what matters more: a satisfied shareholder or a child’s life?

Obama is not a lame duck — yet

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia surprised many Americans. Perhaps not surprisingly, the political debate over his successor started immediately.

Republican candidates for president such as Marco Rubio argue that President Obama shouldn’t make a nomination to the court because he is a “lame duck.” Some media organizations are using that term for Obama as well.

This use of “lame duck” warps its meaning. Bill Walsh of The Washington Post tweeted this tip:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists a similar definition as well as this one: “one whose position or term of office will soon end.”

What is “soon” is subjective, but Obama has 11 months left in office. That’s a significant amount of time.

Editors should be precise in their word choices. So let’s reserve “lame duck” as a label for Obama on Nov. 9, 2016.