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.

This wasn’t the “Star Wars” trailer I was looking for

Editors care deeply about accuracy. Sites such as Emergent, Politifact and Snopes are helpful resources to make sure we get things right before publishing, posting and sharing.

In my editing courses, fact-checking and verification are important elements. And I always take care to be sure something is real before sharing it on social media.

Well, almost always. Earlier, this week, my fandom for “Star Wars” eclipsed my usual caution. I saw a link on Twitter to what was purported to be the trailer for the new movie in the series. After a quick look at the preview, I retweeted the link and posted it to Facebook with the message “stay on target.”

Several friends and my cousin pointed out within minutes that the trailer was made by fans and not the real preview of the movie. I edited my status update on Facebook and sent a followup tweet.

How did I fall for a fake and share it? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The person who tweeted the link is an editor with many years of experience. I trusted him and still do, but even reliable sources make mistakes.
  • I knew the official trailer was set to be released on Nov. 28, so a leaked version appearing on YouTube a couple of days beforehand seemed plausible.
  • The fan-generated trailer is pretty convincing. It even fooled Rolling Stone magazine.
  • I didn’t read the comments on the YouTube post that would have tipped me off. But I tend to ignore reader comments, especially on that site.
  • I am a big fan of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, and my excitement about a new movie let my defenses down. It was a trap.

I regret the error, and I apologize for sharing bad information. I will double my efforts.

A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:


I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.


As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Student guest post: CNN’s sensational coverage of Flight 370

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Jasmin Singh is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in reporting, focusing on medical and science writing and minors in biology and chemistry. She is a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and the health and science correspondent for Carolina Week. Besides pursuing a career in science journalism, she aspires to be a full-time physician in the Eastern North Carolina region.

As a reporter for the school’s paper, I was told to keep it simple and not to exaggerate. I came to love the simplicity of the newspaper and online news – I don’t have to dig around or read a huge anecdote before I get to the point of the story.

But when I was writing stories for a broadcast journalism course, I was in shock. I’m talking about sensationalism.

Sensationalizing the news isn’t new. We can think of yellow journalism used in the late 1800s, where reporters used misleading headlines, dramatic quotes and scary pictures to draw their readers in.

Nowadays, newspapers work away from this form, trying to present the most honest, factual stories possible. One of the few places in print that we still see this sensationalism is in tabloids. But there is another medium that uses it far too often.

TV news loves to sensationalize. But if we do so in print, our editors are quick to calm it down. Is this a double standard? Take for example CNN’s online coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner.

Flight 370 was a trending topic on CNN’s homepage since it first disappeared March 8. At first, CNN reported hard facts, or stories about the passengers, following what many other news organizations were doing at the time.

But as the search continued, CNN brought in analysts to talk about theories and potential flight paths  – even though the Malaysian government hadn’t released any new information at the time. And as CNN’s March 22 headline read, “When facts are few, imaginations run wild.”

And wild they were. Headlines changed every hour on CNN’s homepage, each one leading to a new theory, like those of terrorism, pilot suicide or hijacking. But no new information was being used for these stories – it was the same few facts being repeated, or twisted to create a new theory.

Is there a reason that CNN can do this while other news sources can’t? Is it because CNN is a large broadcast, 24/7-news network, or because it has the power and name to do so? I don’t know, but it could be a mix of the two. But when a smaller organization came out with their theory, CNN was quick to turn it down.

Wired magazine published an article (originally published on Google Plus) presenting a very simple and realistic theory that the plane tried to land at a nearby airport. The article was written by a former airline pilot with over 20 years of flight experience.

However, CNN’s analysts quickly turned down the pilot’s theory, saying it wasn’t possible – probably because CNN analysts had other theories: The pilots could be terrorists or the plane was hijacked.

On March 24, the Malaysian government released information stating the flight was officially lost in the Indian Ocean. The final transcript of the conversation between the pilots and flight control were released on April 1. And again, CNN continued to post updated stories by its analysts using this small amount of information. The latest headline as of 8:32 p.m. April 3, “Flight 370: Search to resume with high-tech help, hopes for breakthrough.”

So how can we avoid these sensationalized headlines and news stories? Beth Winegarner of The Poynter Institute wrote a list of five simple things we can do to make sure our stories are clean and still draw in readers.

Stick to facts: When we have a fact and it is confirmed, use it. News stories should be filled with facts. When we hear about breaking news, we need to make sure it is accurate and is supported by evidence. If we don’t have the evidence or the facts to support a claim, we shouldn’t publish it.

Be careful with identifications: This is important for a story regarding a crime. If we have information about a potential suspect, we must make sure that we identify the right person. Is it John A. Smith or John R. Smith? The middle name, age, height and even race can destroy your credibility if you misidentify a suspect.

Be a skeptic: This would be a useful tip for CNN. Winegarner said we should be skeptical of experts. Nobody knows everything, so we shouldn’t trust everything they say, especially if our credibility is on the line. Seek out counterarguments and other outside experts who have no affiliation to the story or the organization.

Give details. A lot of them: Our readers want to know everything that is going on, so if we have the details, use them. Details help develop the story and also create a mental picture of what is going on, which can help make the story easier to understand. Using details also strengthens your credibility because you are giving your readers every fact available, leaving no room for questions.

Write a good story: If you have all the facts, outside sources, use caution and include a lot of details, the story will write itself, with no need to sensationalize.

I think that’s what reporting is all about. Delivering the facts in the most basic, honest way possible. If we sensationalize it, do we really have a story to tell?


Student guest post: The real media and the real fake media

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Michael Dickson is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill with majors in English and reporting. He edits and does opinion writing for the Daily Tar Heel, and he aspires to get paid for doing something similar at some point in the future.

The question of the day used to be, “Who gets to count as a real journalist?” But that doesn’t seem to cover it anymore. For some reason, the question just seems irrelevant and nitpicky.

Now there’s a better question: “What gets to count as a real news organization?” After all, that’s the first thing we see when sharing or finding information online. Any article I’m sharing is attributed first and foremost to a company or website and only secondarily to the individual.

Here are a few online news organizations you may or may not have heard of: Free Wood Post, The Daily Currant, Diversity Chronicle and Hayibo. All of them have had articles go viral at one point or another.

The catch? They’re all fake. They call themselves satire, which seems to legitimize what they do, but they are “satire” the same way TMZ or the Drudge Report could be called “news.”

So let’s amend our question once more: “What gets to count as a real fake news organization?”

Given how easy it is to confuse the real and the fake, we should consider it as a spectrum. At one end is The Onion, the big dog as far as media satire is concerned, and at the other end are the most reputable of the standard news agencies: The New York Times, CNN, BBC, etc.

Then we drift toward the middle, what we might generally refer to as the tabloid zone. The National Enquirer imitates real news organizations just like Diversity Chronicle imitates fake news organizations, but at that point in the spectrum they probably have more in common with each other than with either of our more reliable poles.

Although, of course, there are ambiguous points on each side. The Drudge Report and Hayibo might be closer to the edge, if not out of the tabloid zone entirely. (Hayibo is a South African satire site, now defunct.) But the worst satire is virtually indistinguishable from the worst news.

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: Bad news can spread misinformation and reduce people’s trust in the news, and bad satire is even worse.

The Onion is a fairly well-established organization, but their articles still occasionally get taken as real news. For the more tabloid-esque satire, however, one gets the feeling that they subsist almost entirely on readers that mistakenly think they’re reading actual journalism. And this isn’t only because the brands aren’t well-known and the disclaimers are tucked away in corners; the content is different too.

Polished satire from organizations like The Onion tends to have a political slant, but it’s obvious, and it approaches issues from a very particular sort of angle that shapes the way it’s read. They feature shareable headlines like “Al-Qaeda operative can’t believe how expensive Super Bowl tickets are,” or “Biden frantically hitting up Cabinet members for piss.” Readers might take these as real, but that only leads to confusion, hilarity and embarrassment.

And how does bad satire compare? Free Wood Post goes viral with headlines like “Mitt Romney: I can relate to black people, my ancestors once owned slaves,” and Daily Currant gets views with headlines like “Obamacare death panel orders first execution.” The contrast should be obvious. The worst of these articles are nothing more than hyperbolic political rants masquerading as journalism — and as a rule, they’re not even funny.

While satire ideally contributes to public discourse and offers novel perspectives in otherwise stagnant debates, sites like these reflect and perpetuate the political polarization that permeates our media. Uncritical readers who share the expressed partisan views take the satire as fact, while others simply disbelieve.

And if I haven’t made it clear so far, this problem isn’t adjacent to the modern media landscape and its own quirks and discrepancies, it’s fully a part of it. It’s an extension of the already polarized political media, and it’s only one of a number of ongoing factors that erode media credibility and contribute to the conflicting views of reality entrenched on each side of the political spectrum.

So it’s a problem. And it’s not clear what we can do about it.

The need to edit opinion pieces

Opinion pieces such as columns, op-eds and movie reviews need editing just as news stories do. Two incidents in the past week serve as a reminder of that.

First, The Wall Street Journal posted an op-ed by Suzanne Somers in which she criticized President Obama’s health-care law as a Ponzi scheme. To support her view of the Affordable Care Act as a power grab, the “Three’s Company” actress included these quotes from history:

  • “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.” — Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
  • “Control your citizens’ health care and you control your citizens.” — Winston Churchill

Neither man, however, said those things, as numerous websites and bloggers pointed out. The Wall Street Journal updated the post to remove the erroneous quotes and appended a correction.

But why didn’t the Journal detect and delete the bad quotes before publication? The editor who oversees the series of posts that included Somers’ op-ed told The Poynter Institute that opinion writers get greater leeway. But that doesn’t excuse them from fact errors.

Second, Sen. Rand Paul has been confronted with charges of plagiarism in speeches, a book and an op-ed in The Washington Times. In the latter instance, BuzzFeed reported that Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, apparently lifted significant segments of an opinion piece about mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders.

Plagiarism can be more difficult to detect than a made-up quote, but it can be done. But in this instance, Paul included an anecdote about a Florida man who was convicted of illegally selling painkillers. A careful editor could have asked the senator: What is your source for that story? Can we attribute that information or link to a primary source?

In both situations, the publications were embarrassed by breakdowns in editing. These blunders were preventable. Here’s how:

  • Doublecheck quotes from books, movies and historical figures.
  • Ask columnists and op-ed writers for links to sources for facts, figures and anecdotes.
  • Be especially careful with guest submissions from politicians and celebrities who may not be familiar with the rigorous standards for fact-checking, verification and sourcing.

An effective opinion piece has a unique voice, solid research and original ideas. It’s up to writers and editors, working together, to make those viewpoints as persuasive as possible.

For more on editing opinion pieces, here are interviews with editors who have worked with that kind of writing: