Quoted and tweeted out of context

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

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

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

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

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

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

pitt-strippers

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

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

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

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

foxnews-tapper

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

tapper-response

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

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

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

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The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Student guest post: Editing narrative journalism (an essay in question form)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Jordan Wilkie is a first-year master’s student on the reporting track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on the criminal justice system, with an expertise in juvenile and LGBTQ incarceration.

New Journalism is defined by Robert S. Boynton, the author of “New New Journalism,” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction.” In other words, journalists tell long stories that are true (we’ll get back to that last word in a minute).

In the obligatory name-drop paragraphs, I’ll mention that the most famous contemporary, i.e. “new new journalists,” include Adrian LeBlanc, John Krakauer and Ted Conover. They inherit their craft from off-beat journalists of the 1960s and 1970s looking to make journalism tell stories rather than just inform. They experimented with language and style, incorporating literary techniques long relegated to fiction. These rebels, who certainly had their detractors, were such giants as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and, the man credited with codifying the genre as “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe.

“New” journalism is, of course, a misnomer. Nothing is new under the sun, and the tradition of narrative reporting harkens back through Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to a handful of 19th century writers (really, read the summary, it’s helpful).

Now that you’ve reserved 10 more books on your public library’s website, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do we, as editors, manage creative writing in journalism? How do we negotiate truth — facts, observed reality — and Truth, the honesty and faithful-to-experience essence of a story?

[Spoiler: I don’t know the answer. Ask The New Yorker.]

Let’s look at an article by an up-and-coming journalist, a soon-to-graduate senior, who published an excellent article on Media Hub, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Tess Allen’s piece on the abuse of women in French refugee camps opens with a narrative scene: A woman goes to the restroom in the middle of the night; she is raped.

Allen is not present to see the unnamed woman wake, to see her tip-toe around others sleeping on the ground, to listen outside the bathroom stall with the broken latch, yet Allen writes with near omnipotence.

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

The writing is based off good journalism, off interviews and being on-scene. Even if Allen’s subject did not describe the earth under her feet when she stepped outside, Allen would have been able to see this detail for herself when she visited the shelter and later add it to the story. Allen measured, or at least eyeballed, the distance to the nearest bathroom.

But how did Allen know her subject shuffled to the bathroom? Does she always shuffle?
And how did Allen know her subject smelled feces and urine even before she entered the bathroom? Was that described in the interview? Or did Allen go there herself and think, “How could you not smell this s**t a block away?

[Disclaimer: I have never met Tess Allen and know nothing about the editorial process for publication on Media Hub. I chose her work to rep UNC and because it is a solid piece of journalism – for anyone, not just for a student.]

Journalism is the reporting of facts, which makes new journalism — such as narrative journalism and creative non-fiction — especially hard to write. Where does a publication draw the line around reality, and how does an editor enforce it?

If I were editing Allen’s work, I’d be a hard-liner. Show me your notes, show me the interview. Where did she tell you about the smell? Tell you about the water? For a new reporter, I’d say no inventiveness, no assumptions, get it on tape, from multiple sources, or no dice.

The logic is to teach the young reporter to ask extremely detailed questions, to elicit sensory descriptions. It is also to protect the reporter from accusations of falsification.

The secondary role of an editor would be to improve the writing, to improve the flow, to edit for the creative presentation of the facts. In that role, I have nothing to offer Allen’s superb writing.

When you make it big, the rules can be bent. Take Gay Talese, famous for his in-depth reporting, which he often takes years to develop. His method is old school. He packs boxes with manila folders stuffed with clippings and notes, then covers them in collage relating to his stories. Talese earned his stripes decades ago – his career took off in 1965 with his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which he researched in the lightning’s flash of 31 days. Right at the beginning, Talese does the impossible:

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Talese gets into their heads!

He didn’t interview the women, does not know their names, nothing. The line was an educated projection, a third-party judgment from afar, just shy pure fancy.

But I’ll be dammed if it didn’t sound good.

Student guest post: Should Facebook Live be deleted?

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Avery Williams is a junior studying editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the campus editor at The Tab – UNC, an online newspaper.

Facebook Live was launched in April 2016 as a reaction to consumers of media becoming media producers themselves. More than ever, major news events are filmed by civilians on their smartphones and shared with their friends and followers. News outlets have picked up on this trend and now use Facebook Live for many of their own events or coverage, including using Facebook Live footage from their viewers for their own news coverage.

Using Facebook Live rather than posted a video shortly after recording it has some benefits. This function allows the user to see how many people are currently watching them as well as any likes or comments along the way. If a comment brings up a certain question, the person(s) in the Facebook Live video has the ability to respond in real time. It has become a popular tool to many since its launch, especially to those with a large following.

What started out as a way to better interaction and interconnectedness has now shown some of its negative side effects. On Easter Sunday 2017, Steven Stephens killed an elderly man and recorded the entire ordeal and posted it to Facebook. He later allegedly posted several videos bragging about killing more random civilians throughout the day.

Close friends of Stephens say they have no idea what the motivation could have been and have never noticed violent tendencies or clues toward this behavior.

Facebook has come out saying the video of the homicide was not live, but other videos throughout the day were. Even if this particular event was not done through Facebook Live, this opens the question of what would happen if it actually were.

Social media sites have a certain responsibility to censor posts to their viewers without too much restriction, but Facebook Live has always been in the moment with no previous review, censorship or filtration.

Even if this homicide was not committed on Facebook Live, it has proven that this could very possibly occur on the social media site.

Should users have this much power? Is no censorship and the ability to go live socially responsible for everyone, or should only trusted sources and media organizations have this power?

Many may argue that Facebook Live does more harm than good, allowing entertainers and public figures alike a chance to speak to their audience directly in real time. The issues that have now arisen deal with what happens when this power gets into the wrong hands. This is certainly not the first time illegal activity was filmed on Facebook Live, and it will not be the last.

Steven Stephens was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot on April 18, two days after the homicide.

Student guest post: Overhauling the copy editor’s arsenal

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Danny Nett is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is online managing editor and columnist at The Daily Tar Heel.

Let’s face it: The need for a copy editor to be socially conscious is more pertinent than ever.

With the surge of #BlackLivesMatter, queer rights and other critical movements into mainstream awareness, it’s not enough for an editor to pack the usual wide arsenal of grammar, style and fact-checking skills. We should also be coming to work with an understanding of the diverse and nuanced communities that have been thrust to the forefront of American politics.

When we don’t, we end up with stories like the infamous “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village,” in which a straight Daily Beast reporter essentially catfished athletes and posted identifying information of multiple people from countries that criminalize homosexuality.

Or if I’m looking closer to home, you can end up with a piece suggesting there should be a fence built to keep Durham crime out of Chapel Hill. Or you end up with the swath of articles that misgender trans victims, like a recent piece on the death of Symone Marie Jones that ran in The Charlotte Observer.

This isn’t a call-out post — as a fellow editor, I know firsthand that mistakes are going to happen in the workflow of a daily publication. But when it comes to covering members of some of the most marginalized communities in our society, we have a responsibility to do our due diligence.

I read a lot of stories that still call a trans person by their dead name or the wrong pronoun — or unnecessarily discuss details of their transitioning. I also hear a lot of fellow journalists justify these decisions as “explaining” trans people to their readers.

In these instances, I think about two sections in particular from the SPJ Code of Ethics:

  1. “Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.”
  2. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

There are plenty of ways an editor can help contextualize trans experiences to a cisgender audience without being harmful. Rather than discussing a person’s surgical history or what name they were given at birth, discuss how health-care plans typically don’t cover hormone treatment and surgery for the transgender community.

Or talk about how legislation will directly influence the lives of queer young people or the fact that trans women of color face incredibly disproportionate rates of violence.

Looking at a broader sense, there are tons of things a journalist can keep in mind when editing stories about marginalized identities.

  • For one, make sure you’re not only covering a community when something is wrong. Celebrate the high points, too. And while you’re at it, check through the sources in every piece you edit. Make sure they’re not all cis, straight white guys.
  • Also, don’t be afraid to get input from other sets of eyes in the newsroom. Editing is a team sport — and chances are, the people in your newsroom will bring some different perspectives to the table.
  • Even if your staff is pretty diverse, take the time to educate yourself. Read up on experiences of people from different communities than you. Identities coverage shouldn’t be parachute journalism; so just like you’d do your research for an unfamiliar town, do the same for identity-based communities.

If you’re looking for other resources — particularly for updating your publication’s style guide — some other good points of reference are NABJ, AAJA, The Diversity Style Guide and GLAAD.

Student guest post: Sexist media treatment of Hillary Clinton indicates larger problem

clinton

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in Ohio in October 2016. (Creative Commons image)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Sarah Muzzillo is a senior majoring in journalism with a minor in women’s and gender studies. When she’s not writing or reading about feminism and social justice, you can find her watching “Parks and Recreation” for the 10th time.

As a feminist writer and journalist, I am hyperaware of sexist language and coverage in the media. Because I’ve taken courses that teach media literacy, I have a particular understanding of the ways in which sexism and misogyny manifest in news. The media literacy project defines this skill as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media.”

If editors fail to adequately provide content to readers that is inclusive and respectful, they consequently perpetuate oppression, harmful stereotypes and gender roles. Communicators, writers and editors have a responsibility to deliver readers inclusive, respectful and thoughtful content.

The past year, for example, provided the public with a seemingly constant stream of sexist coverage. The 2016 presidential election is clear evidence that media perpetuates damaging stereotypes about women in politics.

Hillary Clinton, a prominent figure who has remained in the spotlight for decades and famously became the first woman candidate to win the nomination of a major United States political party for a general election, weathered sexist attack after sexist attack after sexist attack.

In 2014, Clinton said, “The double standard is alive and well, and I think in many respects the media is the principal propagator of its existence.”

And she’s right. This double standard that media perpetuates about women in leadership positions privileges men while oppressing women.

A male politician, particularly a white male politician, is typically framed in media as an in control, responsible, reliable leader. On the other hand, ambitious women politicians like Clinton are characterized as shrill, robotic or dramatic and power hungry.

Clinton’s wardrobe makes headlines instead of her policy positions. She is asked how her career may affect her marriage or role as a mother and grandmother. Pundits say she wouldn’t be successful if it weren’t for her husband.

This coverage does not simply stay on the page or the screen, either. Media representation, underrepresentation and misrepresentation have a powerful, lasting effect on the ways in which society views and treats women in real life.

According to “Miss Representation,” a documentary that analyzes the ways in which women are objectified and misrepresented in media, media representation has a direct correlation to women and girls’ self esteem, health and desire to pursue leadership positions.

“Women who are high self-objectifiers have lower political efficacy,” Dr. Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said in the documentary.

Political efficacy is the idea that your voice matters in politics, and that you can bring about change in politics. So if we have a whole generation of young people being raised where women’s objectification is just par for the course, it’s normal, it’s OK, we have a whole generation of women who are less likely to run for office and vote.”

Sexist media treatment of Hillary Clinton is simply one case out of countless other women in political leadership positions who have endured unfair coverage. In order to avoid and combat sexist media attacks, news outlets ought to be committed to inclusivity by increasing diversity training for staff, for example.

Women leaders deserve to be taken seriously. If journalists claim to be fair and report the truth, writers and editors must be committed to tackling sexism, one news story at a time.

Student guest post: Lauren Duca interview shows how female journalists aren’t taken seriously

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Paige Connelly is a senior at the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She’s interned for The News & Observer, and she currently interns at Chapel Hill and Durham Magazine. She also writes for The Daily Tar Heel and enjoys Jack Kerouac and boybands. 

Back in December, a Teen Vogue journalist by the name of Lauren Duca went on Fox News to chat with Tucker Carlson about an article she wrote criticizing Donald Trump. Carlson and Duca quipped back and forth, naturally, but about halfway through, the discussion turned into an argument, and Duca’s responses to Carlson’s condescension points to an important notion within newsrooms right now: the changing role of female journalists.

Duca had no reservations, and when Carlson mentions her writing, saying “Here’s your description of the Trump Administration, you wrote this piece for Teen Vogue, which I guess you write for,” Duca lashed out, “Which you guess I write for? That’s not fake news,” she said. “You guess? That’s really patronizing…you have my Teen Vogue article right in front of you.”

Carlson’s patronizing comments don’t stand alone. They represent a patriarchal institution, upheld specifically by outlets like Fox News, where female journalists can exist, but only if they don’t get too loud (as exemplified by Megyn Kelly’s resignation from the network after she spoke out about sexual harassment at the hands of her boss).

The interview also exemplifies the idea that female writers have a place, and it’s not in politics.

“A woman can love Ariana Grande and her thigh-high boots and still discuss politics,” was how Duca responded when Carlson questioned her credibility after learning she also writes about popular culture. “Those things are not mutually exclusive. You know, now that you bring up Teen Vogue – we treat young women like they don’t have a right to a political conversation.”

The things women like and create aren’t often taken very seriously – music, books, entertainment, etc. – so when a female journalist and a female-centered publication decide to take a stance, that’s not taken seriously, either.

This exchange, and Duca in particular, represents the way that journalism is changing but still has a long way to go. And it doesn’t help that female journalists are often portrayed as incompetent.

I can name countless rom-coms and sitcoms where the main character works in either publishing or media: All three Bridget Jones’ Diary movies, “13 Going On 30,” “Trainwreck,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Sex in the City,” “Never Been Kissed,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” The list goes on.

Bridget Jones sleeps with her boss when she’s a publisher, then gets a new job as an anchor and does nothing but stumble around. “Trainwreck” portrays Amy Schumer as a party girl who sleeps with her sources. Rory Gilmore is always unprepared and, once again, sleeps with her sources. Anne Hathaway in “Devil Wears Prada” sleeps with sources and knows nothing about fashion.

The flaws go on and on. “Spotlight” is the only movie where a female journalist actually takes her job seriously, but her character still lacks depth and personality.

So why can’t we accept professional female journalists?

Maybe because it’s threatening to a patriarchal flow of information. Only men know what they’re talking about, and we’ll leave the entertainment news and ethical breaches to women.

It also solidifies a subtle form of objectification – that women aren’t more than their bodies, so therefore that’s their only advantage when it comes to their jobs. Not their intelligence, not their perseverance, and not their ethics.

Newsrooms are still 64 percent male, while enrollment in journalism schools, right now, sits at 75 percent female. This means the landscape is going to change soon, but does it mean that women will be allowed into the more serious roles relating to journalism? Or will we only be taken seriously as far as our opinions on Ariana Grande’s thigh-high boots?