Student guest post: Month of turmoil unites UNC students

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kathleen Harrington is a born-and-raised North Carolinian and die-hard Tar Heels fan. She hopes her adoration for dogs, countless hours spent in the School of Journalism dungeon and overall Pinterest prowess can somehow translate into the perfect career. There’s a job for that, right?

February has been a tumultuous month for the UNC-Chapel Hill community and its appearance in the news. It started Feb. 7, 2015, with former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith’s passing. Though his deteriorating memory was a clear sign that his health would not last forever, his death was still a shock to both the UNC and sports worlds.

Three days after his death, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were shot and killed by a neighbor in Summerwalk Circle – a neighborhood less than 5 miles from campus. Barakat, a UNC School of Dentistry student, had been married to his wife, Yusor, a N.C. State University graduate, for six weeks when they were killed. Razan, Yusor’s sister, was a sophomore at NCSU.

A little over one week after the shootings, UNC experienced a devastating 92-90 loss in overtime against Duke University in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 18. Unlike most, a loss to Duke is especially hard because of the national devotion to its rivalry with UNC.

Just three days later on Feb. 21, Coach Roy Williams chastised UNC fans for not being more enthusiastic during a resounding 89-60 win against Georgia Tech in the Smith Center. The Tar Heels had opened the game with a tribute to Smith and his famous Four Corners offense.

“We need some more support. My gosh. We’re trying to honor the greatest coach I’ve ever — maybe one of the greatest individuals I’ve ever known. And I can understand if you didn’t recognize it because it sort of went quickly. And it was nice to get a backdoor layup. But don’t sit over there and feel like we have to entertain you. This is a team thing,” Williams said to a reporter after the game. The reaction went viral in the UNC community because of the situations leading up to the game.

In short, we, as Tar Heels, are exhausted. February consisted of endless headlines covering the bad news in Chapel Hill.

Smith’s death filled newspapers across the nation because of his work in both basketball and civil rights, and his legacy will not soon be forgotten. The shooting victims brought thousands of students at both UNC and NCSU together in remembrance of their lives. National news speculated on the intent of the shooting – was it a hate crime or senseless violence? It feels as though everyone has had a say in how our town will be thought of nationally.

Instead of looking forward to seeing the university’s name recognized nationally, I am left with a sense of anguish knowing that it won’t be for a positive reason. Even the Duke loss and Georgia Tech snub hit students at the core because the bliss that is Chapel Hill was questioned.

In the coming days, I hope to see editors take a second glance at our small town. Chapel Hill has had losses this month. It has dealt with hardship. But, more importantly, it has risen above it and come together as a community.

Multiple moments of silence at both home and away games in honor of Smith have been a small comfort. NCSU’s massive support for the fallen students has been bolstered by the Facebook group “Our Three Winners,” which now has almost 184,000 likes. We have a chance to come back at Duke this Saturday for a spring break rematch in the Smith Center. Williams successfully stirred the crowd for the NCSU game that followed Georgia Tech and felt apologetic for not living up to expectations. For each of our struggles, we have responded with strength and a sense of community.

I challenge editors to follow up on the downtrodden Heels. Reporting thus far has been thorough and accurate – as reporting should be. The difference is where we’ve gone since those newspapers  left their boxes. True to our name, the Tar Heels have fought through adversity and refused to let these challenges set us back.

The Heels are here to stay, regardless of February’s strife. How’s that for a headline?

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.

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.

Student guest post: Language and perception in coverage of Paris march

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Jordan Bailey is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She enjoys studying the effects of media and is particularly interested in how minority groups are portrayed in the mainstream media. Other interests include traveling, writing, reading, cooking and eating.

As a student of both anthropology and journalism, I am interested in how language and word choice work together to affect how a story is received by its readers.

A reader’s reaction to a news event is likely to be heavily influenced by how that story is presented to them. The use of certain words and phrases typically triggers specific reactions by readers, and those reactions will vary depending on the language used. This is why it is imperative that journalists are conscious of the language choices they make.

In order to illustrate this point, I will compare aspects of two news stories — both of which cover the march in Paris that took place on Jan. 11 in response to the attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One article is from The New York Times, and the other appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

In the first paragraph of The New York Times article, the march is described as “the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.” By immediately connecting the Paris attacks to Islamic extremism and the events of Sept. 11, the article is priming the reader to think negatively about the Islamic faith.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal calls the march a “display of unity against the terror attacks that tore through (France’s) capital.” By not instantly identifying the attacks as an act of Islamic extremism, The Wall Street Journal shifts the focus from the faith of the attackers to the individual instance of tragedy that inspired the march.

The two articles also differ in how they describe the U.S. participation in the event. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe joined the marchers in Paris.

However, neither President Barack Obama nor any other top U.S. official was present. To relay this information, The New York Times states: “Mr. Holder did not participate in the rally and march; the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.” The Wall Street Journal writes: “Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip. But on the sidelines of Sunday’s rally, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve convened a meeting of senior security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Attorney General Eric Holder to address terror threats.”

It is interesting to note that The Wall Street Journal explicitly mentions the absence of Obama and Biden, while The New York Times does not. Highlighting their lack of attendance might cause readers to think more critically about the U.S. participation, while The New York Times article likely would not.

Language is powerful in that it can both foreground and background certain elements of a story. Influencing the way a reader is likely to perceive the event. I feel that editors should strive to be conscious of this and work to eradicate language that compromises the neutrality of the story.

What I am teaching this semester

Jan. 7 is the first day of class for the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here’s what I am teaching in 2015:

  • JOMC 157, News Editing. This is the introductory course on editing for print and digital news. It covers story editing, fact checking, word choice, social media, Associated Press style, headline writing and caption writing. Students will use InDesign, WordPress, Soundslides and Twitter. Here is the syllabus for the course.
  • JOMC 457, Advanced Editing. This course builds on skills that students learned in J157. It includes editing and writing headlines for features, sports and opinion pieces. Students will edit and post stories to the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites. They will also explore the editor-writer relationship with help from “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Saller. Here is the syllabus for the course.

In addition to teaching, I will continue to oversee our certificate program in communication and technology. Other tasks this semester will include reviewing and interviewing applicants for the master’s program and the online MATC program. I will also serve as co-chair of the university’s Faculty Grievance Committee.

Best wishes to faculty, staff and students on a successful semester and a fun, productive 2015.