A challenging word

boxill-headline

This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.

Q&A with Brooke Pryor, sports reporter at North State Journal

Brooke Pryor is a sportswriter at North State Journal, a new newspaper covering the state of North Carolina. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Pryor previously worked at The Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Pryor discusses her job, describes how editing and headline writing work at the NSJ, and offers advice to college students looking to go into sports journalism.

Q. Describe your job at North State Journal. What is your typical workweek like?

A. The best/worst thing about working for a newspaper, and a startup newspaper no less, is that there’s no pattern to my workweek. Most of the time I love variety in my job, but it can also be a little draining to be on call all the time.

My schedule at least starts the same every week when I send in a story budget to my editor Monday morning. He’ll usually shoot back an email green-lighting the good stuff and tells me to scrap anything else.

Then I get to work reporting on all the different stories. As I write this, I’m sitting in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park procrastinating on a story about Rays top prospect Blake Snell. I just finished talking to him, so I want to transcribe the interview and then start writing or at least formulate a lede and an angle.

Right now, the NSJ is a weekly paper, and our hard deadline to submit the pages to the printer is Friday at 6 p.m. Recently, I’ve been flooding the copy editors with stories Friday morning, but I can pretty much file throughout the week up until about noon on Friday.

During the weekends, at least in the spring, I’m usually at baseball games or other events, gathering more material for feature stories. With the weekly print schedule, I have to focus on the long game and spend most of my time working on long-term evergreen stories and personality profiles.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work at the NSJ?

A. Great question — and one that I didn’t know until I went to the office last week. Like pretty much any newspaper, the process to produce a (mostly) error-free paper is a long one.

When I finish a story, I send it to my sports editor, who copy-fits it for print and edits for content, length, accuracy, etc. Then, it gets placed on a page, and when the rest of the stories for the page are placed and copy-fit by our wonderful designer Cece Pascual (UNC and Daily Tar Heel alum, woo!), they are printed out and passed out among the staff gathered in the office.

We circulate the pages for three reads before the section editor goes back to Cece and shows her all of the necessary changes. Then the page is printed out one more time and goes through three more reads before the final edits are made and the page is sent to the printer.

Headline writing is a group effort and usually involves a bunch of people yelling ideas at a computer screen. It’s just as chaotic and riveting as it sounds.

Q. You previously worked at the Herald-Sun. What has it been like to move from an established publication like that to a startup?

A. A lot of my day-to-day work stuff has been the same, but I do get a lot of questions about what the NSJ is or who’s paying for it. Spoiler, in case you thought I would have an answer to the latter: I have no idea. There’s a bunch of rumors floating around, but I don’t pay attention to them because I’m grateful for the opportunity and I love working in such a creative environment.

Because we’re not established, we run into some administrative or copy flow issues that are second-nature at established papers. So we’re in the phase of figuring out the details that make newspapers work, like how to submit photo requests, who should what and when, etc.

One thing I’m interested to see is how much access I’ll get to different events when the college football season starts up. When I was working for an established newspaper, I got plenty of access and interviews and was never denied a credential. But that could change now that I’m working for a brand new paper. Luckily, since I’ve been around UNC/Triangle sports since my freshman year at UNC, I’ve made a lot of connections, and I hope that those will keep me in the loop around here.

Q. Many journalism students have an interest in sports. What advice do you have for those seeking a career in sports journalism?

A. I think the biggest and most helpful thing I’ve learned as a writer is to not be afraid to try something new.

If you’ve only ever watched and written about football and basketball, try covering women’s lacrosse or field hockey. Sports journalism is more than just covering the revenue stuff, and you’ll find that there are plenty, if not more, interesting storylines in the less mainstream stuff. You might not understand what’s going on, but challenge yourself to find a story in an unfamiliar environment. It’ll make you a stronger reporter and adding a variety of sports to your background will come in handy when you’re looking for jobs.

You’ll probably have to cover a lot of random stuff in your career and the more experience you have going into unfamiliar territory, the better. Talk to everyone you can at those events and look for the human angle. People love reading about other people, so even if you don’t understand all the logistics of the game or event you’ve just covered, you can find an interesting story just by asking questions and tapping into human emotion.

Follow Brooke Pryor on Twitter and read some of her stories on her website.

UPDATE: In August 2016, Pryor announced that she had accepted a job covering college football for The Oklahoman.

Guest post: 7 thoughts on clickbait from a student journalist

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Alisa Pelaez is a senior reporting major at UNC-Chapel Hill who enjoys writing and playing music. This semester she’s working hard to launch The Internationalist, an undergraduate research journal with a focus on foreign affairs. 

Everyone’s scrolled through Facebook and seen those headlines: “I Left My Husband & Daughter At Home And THIS Happened! I Can’t Believe It!,” which leads to a video of a father and daughter singing a duet. Cute, perhaps, but not exactly what we were expecting. We’ve been clickbaited.

“Clickbait” is a huge buzzword among online journalism (or really online content creation of any type), such that it’s spurred parody sites like ClickHole that satirize the sheer ridiculousness of digital headlines. With a never-ending stream of headlines competing for our attention on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, what does clickbait mean in the ever-evolving world of online journalism?

1. Clickbait is almost impossible to define.

The Oxford Dictionary defines clickbait as “(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” The problem with this definition is that there is very little, if any, content, written on the Internet or elsewhere, that is made to discourage attention or visitors from clicking on a link.

As editors, we’re taught about search engine optimization, writing headlines featuring key terms related to the subject of an article. Even the driest of local news stories are paired with headlines designed to entice readers, even if those readers may be limited to the area of geographic relevance. There must be another compounding element contributing to the creation of clickbait. Could it be banal content, the withholding of key information, deliberate misdirection, or some combination of the three?

2. Storytellers always ask us to mind the gap.

Content creators want us to view their content; it’s a fact of the industry. Sometimes they choose to do this by teasing with part of a plot to ensure we stay tuned to see the conclusion. This can be anything from heightened suspense before a commercial break (only to conclude that the problem was really just a clever misdirection), or teasing a new character after the credits of a superhero movie.

The Internet has become so inundated with these types of stories that Twitter accounts like Saved You a Click devote their whole feed to answering questions posed in headlines. Even movie trailers are just a more acceptable version of “You’ll Never Guess What Donald Trump Said to Marco Rubio at Last Night’s Debate” type headlines. So why is it that this strategy bothers us so much more in print?

3. Our real problem is misinformation.

James Hamblin of the Atlantic argues that our problem may stem from the misdirection of headlines more than the content itself. He compares headlines to carnival barkers, saying if he goes into a freak show expecting to see a man with three legs and instead sees a sword swallower, no matter how impressive the sword swallowing is, he’ll be disappointed because he came for the man with three legs. This is immediately applicable to stories like the father-daughter ukulele cover, where the headline would have been much less infuriating if it was marketed as an adorable sing-along.

4. Alternative story formats are actually more effective.

Another problem I frequently hear complaints about is the Internet’s saturation with list articles or “listicles.” While stories like “19 Pictures that Scream ‘Dad’” may seem superfluous, it has been shown that alternative story formats, including lists, infographics, ratings and timelines actually help us comprehend more information than traditional news stories. I also enjoy the natural stopping places that lists provide. When I only have a few minutes to read while waiting for the bus, it’s easier to know where to pick up again later.

5. Could “sharebait” be a better term?

Another term passed around regarding inflammatory headlines is “sharebait,” meaning the headlines are written to encourage people to share the stories on social media. Some say sharing can act as quality control, that only quality content will be shared enough to become viral. The jury is out on whether or not that’s true, but I know that one of the most popular conversation topics among my friends was “16 Things Lady Gaga Looked Like During Her Super Bowl Performance,” which isn’t exactly groundbreaking journalism.

6. Where does this leave us?

My working title for this article at its conception was “We don’t like it either: Why journalists don’t want to write clickbait.” While I maintain that no one gets into journalism to write banal stories about YouTube videos that only get attention because of misleading headlines, other aspects of “clickbait,” like enticing—but truthful—headlines and alternative story formats certainly do have their place in online journalism.

7. In conclusion.

I may have bit off a bit more than I can chew with this list, but I like the number seven better than six. Here’s your misleading clickbait story.

How you can help editors write better headlines

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society is only a few weeks away. This year’s gathering is in Portland, Oregon, from March 31 to April 2.

I am organizing and moderating a discussion on headline writing. For this session, we are inviting everyday people to give spontaneous feedback on a set of headlines and tweets. There will be no right or wrong answers. We’re just curious what real readers think of real headlines.

It’s a reprise of a session at the 2014 ACES conference in Las Vegas. Alex Cruden, a former editor at the Detroit Free Press and winner of the ACES Glamann Award, came up with the concept years ago. He hoped a dialog between editors and readers might result in better headlines.

If you know someone in Portland who would like to serve on this reader panel, please contact me. I am also taking requests for headlines to include in the session, which will take place at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 1.

For more about the ACES conference and a full list of sessions and events, check out the official site. I’d love to see you there.

Q&A with New York Times reporter Julie Turkewitz

Julie Turkewitz is a reporter for The New York Times, covering the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. She previously worked as a staff writer at Housing Works and as an associate producer at Talking Eyes Media. She is a 2008 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Turkewitz discusses her work at The New York Times, including her coverage of the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

Q. Describe your job with The New York Times. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m a reporter for the national desk, based in Colorado and covering the Rocky Mountain region and beyond. This means I write features and cover breaking news, reporting on everything from amateur rodeo competitions to toxic mine spills and fierce battles over the use of public land. Unfortunately, I have also covered a number of mass shootings in recent months.

Much of my job involves getting up close and personal with rural America, and I travel about a third of the year. I have no physical office, so there is no typical day — in the past year I’ve covered an inauguration on the Navajo Nation, written about a group of middle school girls in California who wanted to join the Boy Scouts, and followed a group of cowboys on a bison roundup in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.

Writing is done on the airplane, in a tent or in the back of a rental car. I get particular joy out of filing from anyplace with the words “saloon” written out front.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work on your stories?

A. The process of choosing and editing stories is collaborative — sometimes I suggest ideas, sometimes my fellow reporters suggest ideas, sometimes my editors suggest ideas. We keep in touch as a story develops. I turn in copy, and editors make adjustments.

Headline writing is mostly done by our skilled copy editors. But in a digital age where journalism is increasingly conversational, the desk has asked that reporters start to suggest “share lines” — meaning the phrasing that will be used to pitch a story on social media.

Q. You recently covered the standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. What was that experience like? What challenges did it present to you as a reporter?

A. I spent most of January in a small town in rural Oregon, covering an armed group that had taken over a federal bird sanctuary, in protest of Washington’s control of public lands. I sometimes felt like I’d parachuted into a Coen brothers film, with armed protesters, FBI agents, a child gospel band, journalists, environmentalists and ranchers mixing in the same tiny motels and snow-lined cafes.

At the refuge, I watched children prepare snack platters for the occupiers. Sometimes I had to remind myself that the guns were real, and that the situation could turn violent in a matter of moments. (Sadly, it did, when a protest leader died after a car chase with authorities.)

Perhaps the hardest part was unpacking this story for the non-Western, non-rural reader. Out here, there is a lot of anxiety about the future of the rural West, and many blame federal rules for the decline of rural economies, whether or not this is a fair assessment.

This has produced a spectrum of political activity, including the rise of self-described “patriot” groups, who see themselves as guardians against government overreach, sort of Robin Hoods for the rural American. Some go as far as claiming that we are on the cusp of the next civil war, and the major question is how the Malheur standoff will affect these groups.

These are the greater themes lying beneath the takeover, but I sometimes struggle to explain them in my stories.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking careers similar to yours?

A. My journalism path was not “traditional,” if such a thing even exists.

After college, I moved to Argentina because I wanted to learn Spanish fluently and get outside of my comfort zone. I worked in Buenos Aires and then traveled around Latin America. Then I worked at a nonprofit in New York City, where I learned a lot about public health and HIV, and spent a lot of time in the poorest corners of the city. After that, I worked at a documentary company with some of the brightest storytellers I’ve met. I also began freelancing for the Times, reporting news stories, pitching features and eventually becoming involved with a major investigative series.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Do grunt work for smart people; you will learn so much from them. If you’re just starting out, find a story you care about and report the hell out of it. Then use it as your calling card. Show it to those smart people. If they think it’s terrible, do it again.

When you finally get an assignment, don’t go home until you’ve unturned every stone. Twice. Then turn around and pitch three new stories to that editor. If the editor hates them, do it again.

Talk to cab drivers. Read small and big newspapers, for story ideas and writing tips. Talk to restaurant workers and the dry cleaner and your neighbors and more cab drivers.

Learn to live on a budget. Get out of your bubble. Learn another language — trust me, you can do it.

But also remember that some of the best stories are the ones at your doorstep that no one bothered to investigate. And if you’re out on assignment, don’t go home because you’re tired or hot or cold or hungry or your phone died. Bring coffee and snacks, wear sunscreen and good shoes and carry two phone chargers.

Learn to file stories fast and on your phone. Make friends with other journalists; they will save you emotionally and physically. And if you happen to be covering an armed standoff in a snowy town four hours from any major city, remember to call your mother to tell her you’re OK.

Thanks to anyone who made it this far.

Follow Julie Turkewitz on Twitter and read her stories at The New York Times.

Q&A with Eric Garcia, reporter at Roll Call

Eric Garcia is a staff writer at Roll Call in Washington, D.C. He previously worked at National Journal. In this interview, conducted by email, Garcia discusses his job, journalism education and his recent article about living and working with autism.

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

A. I am on the political team, which is to say I cover campaigns on the presidential, Senate and House level.

That usually means just scrolling around for story ideas either through social media, reading other media outlets, going through FEC docs or talking to sources (which is something I am getting better at doing). If I come up with an idea or my editor does, then I usually jump on that idea and start reporting.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Roll Call?

A. Typically once you finish a story, you file it to your editor, and they make any changes or ask you about anything you are unclear about.

What’s interesting about Roll Call is we typically write a normal headline and an SEO-friendly one, so that has definitely made me more conscious of how to write headlines for online. I always try to make sure to include search-friendly words or a candidate’s name in a headline so it’s better for people to search, especially if it’s a story about someone like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, both of whom guaranteed to be more viral online. When I was at National Journal, I wrote mostly for online, so SEO-headlines were also extremely important.

Q. You recently shared about your experiences with autism. What inspired you to write about that article, and what was the reaction to it?

A. I kind of fell into writing the magazine story by a series of coincidental events. I was at a party and made an offhand comment about being on the spectrum, and a friend said something to the effect of I should write a story about being a journalist on the spectrum. I thought that’d be a cool story but felt I’d file it away until I got better as a journalist.

Then, when National Journal announced it was shutting down its print edition magazine at the end of last year, I tossed the idea around with the magazine editor, Richard Just, and he said he wanted it for the print edition.

I honestly did not expect the reaction I got, which was largely positive. I heard a lot from families of people with someone on the spectrum or even people I knew who said they had a loved one on the spectrum.

I have also met and spoken with a few people on the spectrum or with other disabilities who live and work in D.C. or elsewhere who are trying to live fulfilling lives, and that has been extremely satisfying. I love talking with people about their own individual experiences, but at the same time, I have noticed there are so many common strains among people on the spectrum.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts did you learn there that you use in your job now? What have you learned since then?

A. Honestly, I still use a lot of the skills I learned both at the j-school and when I was at The Daily Tar Heel, which might as well have been a class in and of itself.

I took Paul O’Connor’s reporting class the semester that students reported on the N.C. General Assembly, and I really cut my teeth as a reporter that way. I learned how to talk to legislators, lobbyists and other people who influence policy. That came in handy when it came to reporting on members of Congress or candidates on the national level.

Ferrel Guillory taught me a lot about how to come up with story ideas or look at the news critically. I could not have written the magazine story on autism had it not been for taking Paul Cuadros‘ feature writing class. I learned the mechanics and rudiments of journalism like writing succinctly, ethics and editing skills, not to mention AP style. I think those values are pretty much the same anywhere you go.

Since graduating, I think I’ve learned a lot more about building source relationships, how to be tougher in my questioning when I am reporting and how to build stronger news judgment. What I think might be a good story may not be what readers want, and I am working on thinking like a reader.