Student guest post: Student newspaper covered murder-suicide wisely

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Chris Haney is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. He enjoys sports, writing and traveling to anywhere he hasn’t been yet.

There may be many aspects of an editor-in-chief’s job that seem attractive, but making judgment calls on the fly during times of crisis is not enviable.

Every media outlet wants to be the first to break news to the public. This isn’t a new trend that has just surfaced in the era of news coverage driven by social media. No, this rush to be first has been a cornerstone of the media for decades, if not centuries in some form.

Yet what is the true value of being first if a story isn’t covered properly and mistakes are made by rushing to print? Much more can be lost than gained by rushing a story if there are inaccuracies of any kind.

On Thursday, Feb. 5, there was a murder-suicide on the University of South Carolina’s campus that was reported around 1 p.m. Rumors spread quickly of what happened and who was involved.

By late Thursday evening, there were still no confirmed reports of the individuals involved or the cause of the incident.The Daily Gamecock – USC’s campus newspaper – didn’t give in to rushing out information that wasn’t confirmed yet for their Friday edition. It may seem like an easy decision to avoid hearsay. But Editor-in-Chief Hannah Jeffrey made a bold and correct decision to only print confirmed details, even if that meant that readers would get their updates from other sources first throughout the weekend.

Jeffrey penned an editor’s letter in that Friday edition that spoke to her reasoning behind her decisions. She was candid and honest. She canceled every other story they had to focus on the incident, but wasn’t going to risk the journalistic integrity and accuracy of the newspaper just to get in on the name-dropping the next morning.

“The Daily Gamecock will not risk credibility in the hopes of being first because tragedy isn’t a time to be wrong,” Jeffrey ended her letter. “In fact, errors in reporting tragedy can result in confusion and devastation. And in the end, tragedy is hard enough on its own.”

There are sadly many media outlets today that could learn from this wait-and-see approach.

Well said and well done, Ms. Jeffrey.

Q&A with Michael Lananna, assistant editor at Baseball America

Michael Lananna is assistant editor at Baseball America magazine, with a focus on college baseball and the Major League Baseball draft. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his job and his predictions for the 2015 season.

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

A. Baseball America is a five-day-a-week, 9-to-5 kind of job. It’s a biweekly publication, so some weeks I’m busy writing and editing stories and preparing pages for production. Other weeks, all of my energy goes toward reporting.

I’m one of two main college writers for the magazine and the website, so I need to constantly stay on the pulse of what’s happening in college baseball. With the season starting a couple of weeks ago, our college coverage is in full swing, meaning that we’re doing podcasts, previews, features, top 25 rankings and roundups every week.

Of course, being a baseball writer, I try to get out to ballparks as much as I can, traveling on the weekends to catch teams or players that intrigue me. Baseball America is unique in that it focuses on baseball from a player-development perspective. Most of our coverage is geared toward finding tomorrow’s future stars.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at Baseball America?

A. Every story that appears in our magazine goes through multiple rounds of editing. For every issue, we have a page budget, where different editors are assigned first and second reads of specific pages.

Our in-office editorial staff is a relatively small group, so everyone gets their hands dirty when it comes to editing. For the pages you’re assigned, you’re responsible for copy-fitting and writing headlines, subheads, captions and any other required maintenance. And when you’re done with the page, you print it out and hand it off to someone else in the office to proof.

We have our own style guide, so we edit for style as well as content and grammar. Headlines, for the most part, are written in a newspaper style — present tense with a subject and a verb. Our online headlines often differ at least somewhat from those in print for SEO purposes.

Q. You’re a 2014 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills that you learned there are you using in your job now, and what new ones have you picked up?

A. Looking back at my four years in Chapel Hill, I’d say UNC’s J-school helped me build a very diverse skill set. Skills I learned in courses such as reporting, creative sports writing, feature writing and — of course — editing and advanced editing have all come into play to some degree.

From an editing standpoint, familiarity with InCopy and InDesign, the ability to use a stylebook, headline and cutline writing and editing for grammar and content are all skills that I employ every day. Sometimes, Andy, it truly does feel like I’m sitting in your advanced editing class.

As far as writing and reporting, I find myself applying lessons I learned in Tim Crothers’ creative sports-writing class and John Robinson’s feature-writing course with nearly every piece I write. Both professors pushed me to be creative with my writing, and I often try to imagine how they’d critique my stories as I write them.

I’d also say that the lessons I learned in Ryan Thornburg’s social media for reporters course especially come in handy. I’m working on a feature story right now that I dug up using Twitter, and my number of followers has doubled in the past month using some of the skills Thornburg taught in that class. (Follow me at @mlananna!)

New skills? I’m slowly but surely getting the hang of podcasts. That’s entirely new for me, but I don’t think I’ve embarrassed myself too much yet.

Also, while I worked as a beat writer for The Daily Tar Heel, various internships and in reporting classes, this job is my first exposure to covering a national beat. We’re trying to cover college baseball holistically — not just a specific team or a localized group of teams. So there’s been some adjustment and learning on my part in trying to figure how to best handle such a wide breadth of coverage. I think I’m getting it, though.

Q. Last year, you were an intern for the Los Angeles Dodgers. What was it like to cover the same team for an entire season?

A. Serving as an associate reporter for Dodgers.com was an unbelievable learning experience and certainly a pinch-me opportunity for a lifelong baseball fan. It was also quite the grind. I covered every home game from May through the postseason.

You might think, “Oh, you’re getting paid to go to baseball games. That’s an easy job.” It’s not easy.

Often times, I got to the ballpark before some of the players did (there were many elevator rides down with Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, A.J. Ellis — you name it). And every night, I left hours after the players had already filed out of the locker room.

Most games, I worked with Dodgers.com beat writer Ken Gurnick, and we split the workload. Other games, I was on my own, responsible for writing a pre-game notebook, in-game notes, injury updates, a running game story and a game story write-thru. On some especially busy nights, I wound up writing six or seven pieces. And if there was a day game the next day? Well, I just didn’t sleep.

I learned that the life of a baseball beat writer — in a sport with a 162-game regular season — can be a rigorous and demanding one. However, it’s not without its perks, especially if you love the game like I do.

I had incredible access. I went into the locker room before and after every game to talk with players (some were very approachable; others, not so much). I sat in the dugout with manager Don Mattingly before every game for his pre-game media session. I shared a press box with Vin Scully. I had the opportunity to cover Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter and write a story about it.

I was in the clubhouse immediately after the Dodgers clinched the National League West, and I got champagne sprayed all over me. Covering the playoffs was an absolute blast and something I’ll never forget.

Like any job, many days dragged. Sometimes the workload was overwhelming. But the highs were exhilarating. I’d recommend the internship for anyone serious about sports writing.

Q. College baseball’s season is already underway, and spring training for Major League Baseball starts soon. Care to make any predictions?

A. I like the Louisiana State baseball team quite a bit. I picked the Tigers to win the College World Series in our college preview issue, and I’m sticking to that prediction.

As for Major League Baseball, I have the Dodgers defeating the Mariners in six games for the World Series. Why the Dodgers? Because I’m not covering them anymore. Of course they’ll win it the year after I cover them. That’s just the way the world works.

Student guest post: Respect your subjects — and their pronouns

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Mary Alta Feddeman is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill with minors in women’s and gender studies and creative writing. She is from Chapel Hill, and she is interested in alternative education rooted in youth empowerment and sustainable food production, particularly in underserved communities. She likes writing essays and articles about queer politics, media representation, mental health and intersectional feminism. She also writes poetry and bikes a lot.

Recently, the mainstream entertainment media has become completely preoccupied with the gender identity of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and ex-spouse of Kris Kardashian, matriarch of the Kardashian clan. (Note: I will be using “they” as the pronoun referring to Jenner, but more on that later.)

As Janet Mock explained on her MSNBC show “So Popular,” the mainstream media’s coverage of Jenner’s transition—eventually confirmed by their family members—has been horrendous. Here’s a brief but representative list of Jenner-related headlines from some mainstream news outlets:

  • “Bruce Jenner To Reveal New Name As A Woman — See What He’s Been Considering” (Inquistr)
  • “Bruce Jenner confirms he’s taking hormones to look more like a woman” (The Washington Times)
  • “Transitioning from male to female: Bruce Jenner, ‘He is finally happy.'”(People)
  • “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All” (The New York Times)

All of these are problematic, as are the stories they headline, for several reasons. First of all, the voyeuristic lens through which these publications are scrutinizing not just the life of Jenner, but the deeply personal aspects of so many lives, is insulting and needs to significantly calm down. Second, the boiling down of someone’s gender identity to hormone use, body parts and surgery is reductive, and not at all the narrative that does justice to the complex and whole lives of trans people.

But what I’m concerned with in this particular piece is the misgendering of Jenner, by way of their pronouns. These articles all use the pronoun “he,” as do the articles of every other publication that I came across in my extensive Googling. Mock explained on her show: “Pronouns may not seem like a big deal, but to trans people, they are yet another minefield to navigate in our gender binary-obsessed culture.”

Jenner’s transition has now been confirmed by their family members, but Jenner has not yet spoken to the media directly about their transition, their pronouns, or whether they wish to be called by a different name — despite what many of these publications would lead readers to believe. It’s rumored that Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer about their transition will be broadcast in the coming weeks, but until then, we do not have Jenner to rely on for answers.

So, what’s the respectful — and correct — thing to do as editors? Become more flexible with our adhesion to style guides in this particular category and use “they” pronouns until Jenner has personally made a statement on the matter. Referring to Jenner with “he” pronouns is not only blatantly rude to the subject of these articles. It is also, now, fundamentally incorrect.

Janet Mock and I agree on this subject, and it’s surprising to me that more publications did not consult with members of trans or queer communities before writing these pieces, in addition to consulting their stylebooks.

Mock summed up her response beautifully, saying, “What I don’t understand about the Jenner story is this: The media is making every effort to proclaim that Jenner is living as a woman. However, the media refuses to call Jenner ‘she’ or even ‘they.’ If we’re going to report on Jenner’s identity as a woman, we should be vigilant in ensuring we use gender-inclusive language, starting with ‘they’ until Jenner — the only source that actually matters — tells us otherwise.”

The N&O, Dana Cope and politics

On Sunday, The News & Observer published this front-page story about questionable spending by Dana Cope, head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. On Tuesday, Cope resigned.

It’s a stunning and quick fall for Cope, who had led the labor organization for 15 years. His style was sometimes combative, especially after Republicans took control of the governor’s office and legislative branch in North Carolina in recent years.

As a former News & Observer journalist, I am sometimes asked: Why is the newspaper tough on Republicans and easy on Democrats? My answer: The newspaper is tough on anyone who may be engaging in wrongdoing and attempts to hide that. The more someone hides, the more the paper will dig to find answers. Party affiliation is irrelevant.

Here are, for example, three prominent Democrats in North Carolina who have faced the the Raleigh newspaper’s scrutiny over the years:

  • Meg Scott Phipps, commissioner of agriculture. Pleaded guilty to numerous charges related to awarding of a contract for the North Carolina State Fair and improper use of campaign funds.
  • Jim Black, speaker of the N.C. House. Pleaded guilty to a corruption charge and admitted taking money from chiropractors while the General Assembly considered a bill that would affect them.
  • Mike Easley, governor. Pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law related to free air travel he received while in office. His attorney criticized the N&O’s coverage of several other questionable actions by Easley but never refuted it.

In each instance, the N&O’s investigative reporting played an important role in shining a light on corruption. It so happened that each of these people was a Democrat. I know that N&O editors could cite other examples, just as they could for Republican malfeasance.

The reporting on Dana Cope is the latest example of a newspaper doing its work as a watchdog. Even with a diminished staff, the N&O is holding powerful people and organizations accountable. I hope it continues to do so for many years to come.

Student guest post: Swipe left for news

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Juanita Chavarro Arias is a junior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill with a minor in composition, rhetoric and digital literacy. She enjoys keeping up with entertainment news and is a self-proclaimed TV junkie.

In an age where we want everything now and in one place, media companies are looking for ways to get their content more easily in the palm of our hands. We can open our smartphone’s Twitter app and find out what’s going on in the world before we even get out of bed in the morning.

Increasing technology developments have forever changed the standards for reporting news. Consumers no longer rely on traditional media outlets for news and stories. Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram photos can provide information more efficiently and easily to anyone who scrolls through a feed and doesn’t want to follow a link.

Social media may seem daunting or unnecessary for a news organization to use. But they are essential tools for promoting content, gaining traffic and communicating with readers, viewers and listeners.

The Wrap reported last week that NowThis News, a video news source, recently decided to operate exclusively on social media and shut down its website. NowThisNews.com displays a message saying, “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. Today the news lives where you live.”

The media industry has experienced the decline of print news, the transition to the Internet and the incorporation of social media, but how long will it be before even websites become obsolete? Apps and social media are on the rise, so if NTN’s move away from its website is an indication, it could be a possibility in the future.

Last week, the popular messaging app Snapchat unveiled Discover, a new service which allows users to look through stories made up of text, video and pictures. The stories are only available on the app for 24 hours before Discover refreshes and releases new ones. Discover launched as a collaboration with CNN, Comedy Central, Cosmopolitan, Daily Mail, ESPN, Food Network, National Geographic, People, Vice, Yahoo! News and Warner Music Group.

Snapchat’s Discover works from the social media ideal that content should be gathered in one place so consumers don’t have to click around or switch from app to app to find what they want. Through the app, people can communicate with friends and swipe to the left to get their fill of news such as a feature on a potty-trained sloth to a story about RadioShack’s bankruptcy.

“How do we edit for Snapchat?” is probably a question the news media weren’t expecting to ask themselves. However, editing on this platform is just as important as editing for print and online media as short, concise stories are what audiences want.

Most of the time, readers spend seconds on a story before clicking or swiping away, so editors have the difficult task of creating attention-grabbing, short and accurate headlines to pull in readers. Writers and editors are adjusting their skills and story formats to fit technological constraints and the short attention spans of consumers who have grown accustomed to getting everything in 140-character tweets.

It may be difficult to adjust to changing consumer habits and media platforms, but it’s worth working through. News outlets should embrace the technology that becomes available to them because each new app or social media network provides an additional opportunity to share content and attract a greater audience.

Q&A with Roddy Boyd of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation

Roddy Boyd is president and editor of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, a nonprofit news organization based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Boyd has been a reporter at Fortune magazine and at The New York Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Boyd discusses SIRF’s mission, its process for editing and a recent collaboration with student journalists at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Q. What is SIRF? What is the site trying to achieve?

A. The Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation is seeking to use investigative reporting to stand in the gap left by a pair of woeful developments: the diminished capacity of mainstream media’s business watchdog and accountability roles, and the Pontius Pilate-like federal regulatory refusal to engage with corporate fraud.

SIRF was constructed and launched on the view that using documents and deep-dive research, combined with shoe-leather reporting, would enable us to tell good stories and expose wrongdoing. In many cases, sadly, I find we are the only actor willing to illuminate self-serving activity and questionable dealings.

As business investigative reporting goes, SIRF’s lot isn’t easy. Every subject seems to be arrayed with multiple teams of lawyers and flaks; mistakes, even the slightest oversight, create the risk of litigation.

Our work has achieved much in the few years we’ve been alive. We’ve been the primary reason two hedge fund managers were indicted and sentenced to prison, we helped stop an initial public offering of an abusive multi-level marketing company and we identified a network of undisclosed promoters trying to inflate the shares of a so-called cloud computing company (it would fail and the shares collapsed under a series of investor lawsuits.) SIRF even managed to get a pair of billionaire brothers to acknowledge (implicitly) that their private foundations were being used to gather millions in dubious tax breaks while keeping control of the company in family hands.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that SIRF identified a veritable buffet of governance and disclosure abuses at a for-profit medical marijuana company; despite a series of legal threats, our two stories were the catalyst for concurrent Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations.

There’s a lot more, but that’s a good taste.

Fret not: This success won’t go to my head — I’ll be grateful to grow SIRF to where there are two months of paychecks lined up.

Q. What is your role at the site? How are story editing and headline writing handled?

A. I am the editor and president. Developing a close working relationship with copy and story editing staff has been an imperative for me throughout my career as an investigative reporter, especially one who makes frequent use of arcane legal and financial documents.

This kind of editing requires one to be on the lookout for A) rabbit holes and B) useless data distractions and convoluted arguments. Both copy editors and story editors have saved me repeatedly without compromising the reporting.

Moreover, the easiest way to diminish the power of good, original reporting is through poorly framed arguments that don’t flow, spelling and grammar errors, pointless hyperlinks; actually, now that I think about it, there are about a dozen ways to hurt a good piece when a copy editor isn’t around.

So SIRF has good copy editors that we pay fairly and listen to. It matters, a great deal, to the board and myself that the copy flows.

The headlines are my work, and I won’t lie: I think they attract the reader. I do, however, look forward to a day where my NY Post Biz desk refined headline skills are put out to pasture because we have a full-time staff of story editors and copy editors.

One day, perhaps.

Q. You recently worked with a team of student journalists on a story called “Who Owns Our Water?” How did that story come about, and what was it like to collaborate with students?

A. I had been aware of the story for some time and prior to the semester’s start, I think I spent a few days looking into the availability of documents and whether, to be frank, anyone had done a large piece on it. The piece wasn’t without its risks:

It seemed like a lot to bite off, and there were many points I wondered if we shouldn’t have done just a series of pieces, maybe two or three. But we got a 4,200-word effort off the ground, got some evocative photos, and I think it made sense.

Next year, I think the effort will be sharply more targeted so that we have an unmistakable “drop,” or angle on a story. It will force students to read documents more closely and report harder, every single week. Again, I wonder if we don’t do two pieces, so that deadlines are staggered.

The students were great and, fortunately for me, everyone had some collegiate journalism and work/internship experience. Our reporting unit worked best when the students were pushed to study financial documents they didn’t understand, sit in a courtroom and listen to ponder lawyers and rewrite copy that was good, but perhaps not specific enough.

If they got anything out of my class, it was hopefully to develop a keen appreciation of document-seeking. I wouldn’t shut up about it and likely never shall. People lie, documents illustrate. Whether you think “Who Owns Our Water?” is good or milquetoast, we sure had the documents that supported some of our more compelling claims.

A final note: UNC-Chapel Hill can do a lot more to help young journalists avoid getting sucked into the giant collapsing journalism clickbait machine. Self-servingly, at least having the rudiments of investigative reporting won’t hurt, even if they wind up anchoring the evening news.

But the JOMC administration fearlessly took big steps and placed a lot of faith in me and what I hold dear. Look around: There aren’t many other J-schools willing to do this. Chris Roush and Susan King deserve one hell of a round of applause.

Q. Investigative journalism is expensive and time-consuming. How can it be sustained in an increasingly difficult economic environment for the media? What does the future hold?

It is indeed expensive and time-consuming. The value proposition, even more unfortunately, for this work is defined by imagining its absence as much as its presence: asking people to imagine a world without investigative reporting is not quite like asking them to imagine a world with segregation still in place or without clean drinking water.

But much of the equity, accountability and honesty in our nation exists because reporters, editors and sources risked much to inform fellow citizens about abusive conditions in factories and mental hospitals, political graft, corporate dishonesty and governmental waste. It is the only check on entrenched institutional power, whether governmental, cultural or corporate, that cannot be readily bought off or silenced.

In the for-profit realm of legacy media, investigative reporting will always exist, but it will become even more rare and as such, great stories will stack up, unreported for want of staff.

Nor should we forget that in many corners of the earth, like China, Russia and the Mideast, performing this reporting will be to flirt with instant incarceration or death.

The only bright spot is nonprofit, independent news outfits, like SIRF, ProPublica and dozens of others, from coast to coast. The challenge here is money. For now, the shear volume of operations will guarantee a steady stream of stories. My guess is that a thinly funded, yet journalistically vibrant independent media cohort will motor along until a series of benefactors set up foundations with deep funding streams to ensure these operations can obtain grants.

I have in mind something akin to what occurred on the right wing in the 1970s, when foundations like Olin and Bradley funded magazines like National Review and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to ensure these views remained widely available.

That being said, a recent example of a benefactor taking an interest in journalism is disappointing. First Look Media, with its purportedly deep pockets, is apparently content to use its assets to frame opinion, rather than dig and gather hard news.

In the short term, opinion always sells, and lord knows it’s easier to write and present.

Student guest post: Don’t forget to check facts online

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Jessica Castro-Rappl is a third-year editing and graphic design student from Raleigh, North Carolina. Her interests include travel, baking and procrastination.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it gives us the capacity to spread information instantly. This also doubles as one of the not-so-great things about the Internet.

The velocity of information on the Internet leads to a race to publish news, and news outlets might sacrifice quality in order to quickly deliver information to readers.

This isn’t a new concept — a rush to publish has affected our field for years. But when information can be spread to a virtually unlimited audience with a couple of clicks, it’s important that that information be accurate.

And it can be tricky to make sure that your story is accurate! When an event happens and there isn’t a plethora of reliable sources and you’re working on a deadline, maybe you don’t have all the information you need before going to print.

But your first duty is to your readers, and that means giving them the highest-quality information you can offer.

A couple of weeks ago, a California man sent an elementary school into lockdown when he was spotted carrying what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.

That’s not how the story was reported, though. Online article titles read “Suspect who waved sawed-off shotgun near Otay Elementary in custody” or “Man receiving psychological evaluation wielding a sawed-off shotgun near school.”

The problem? The man wasn’t wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Police reported him as “possibly carrying a sawed-off shotgun.” In reality, it was a replica firearm.

The worst part to me, though, is that some of the stories that reported the gun was a replica were the same ones that put “sawed-off shotgun” in the headline. It’s unclear if the headline writer even read the whole article.

Even if you’re rushing to write an eye-catching headline, even if you’ve got to publish the story online as soon as possible and even if you’re working with limited sources, there is no excuse for providing your readers with misinformation.

Before style or grammar, editors (and writers!) should focus on fact-checking and source verification.

Then, maybe, we can take true advantage of the instantaneousness of the Internet, using it to deliver accurate information to readers — without them having to wait for the morning newspaper.