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.

Riding Cuba’s new wave

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Journalism student Veasey Conway lines up a shot in Havana, Cuba. He and other students spent spring break in the country. (Photo by Peyton Chance)

This semester, students in a multimedia course at UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to Cuba. Their mission was to document changes there, with a focus on the country’s young people.

Back in Chapel Hill, students in Advanced Editing pitched in by working with the writers of five feature stories and suggesting headlines and subheads. It was a fun and fruitful collaboration between classes.

The result is Cuba’s New Wave, a multimedia website developed from scratch. It examines the country’s post-Castro evolution. The students do that in words, video, still images and interactive graphics.

I encourage you to take some time to explore the site and to follow Cuba’s New Wave on Instagram and Twitter. You will be impressed by where this wave takes you.

Student guest post: Rethinking editing — my journey from editing news to reading books

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Molly Weybright is a junior studying journalism and creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. This summer, she will be an editorial intern at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As a college student, figuring out what you love is one challenge, and synthesizing what to do with it is another.

I always knew that I loved books, reading and writing, but it wasn’t until I was a junior in college studying journalism that I discovered my knack and love for editing.

I love reading and editing — now what? As I tried to figure that out, I started to learn about the field of book editing.

Lindsey Alexander, the editorial director of The Reading List, told me that to be a book editor, I had to love books and reading, have a good sense of trends in the market and be able to give constructive feedback to authors and agents.

To me, it sounded perfect.

So there I was finally feeling like I was discovering what I was meant to be doing. Books and editing, what could be better?

But as with any career path, I quickly discovered some misconceptions and challenges I would have to overcome in order to succeed as a book editor.

Different Types of Book Editing

In the process of researching book editing, I learned that there are four different types of book editors who are involved in different aspects of the book publishing process. There are project editors, developmental editors, copy editors and acquisitions editors.

Project editors and developmental editors work with authors during the writing and production of their books. Copy editors edit manuscripts line by line to correct grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Acquisitions editors read through book proposals and manuscripts to determine whether the publishing house should acquire the books.

While project and developmental editing sounded interesting, I was more interested in working with the physical books than I was in working with authors. So, I thought, copy editor or acquisitions editor?

Both positions are so distinctly different, but to me, the idea of reading books for their content and quality rather than looking for every error was appealing. Also, most publishing companies offer internships as editorial assistants to acquisitions editors.

Acquisitions editor it was.

Thinking Differently

Naively, I thought that once I decided what form of book editing I was interested in, it would be smooth sailing from that point on. Not only did I have a background in editing, but I also study creative writing, so I figured it would be an easy learning process.

I was wrong.

After interviewing with the local publishing company for an editorial intern position, they gave me a test. In less than a week I was to read an unedited first draft of a 400-page manuscript and decide whether the company should take the book to publishing.

I could not have foreseen the difficulty I had with reading that unedited manuscript. It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve done since being in college.

Earlier in the year, I read “The Subversive Copy Editor,” from which I learned that authors operate on a different plane than editors. In other words, as authors write, they don’t always pay close attention to grammar, punctuation and spelling. In order to get their thoughts on the page and write their story, those editorial aspects are often pushed aside.

I discovered the truth of that while I was reading the manuscript. Every misspelled word, every grammatical error, every incorrect sentence structure jolted me out of the story that I was trying to analyze.

Throughout the process I developed tactics to help me read the manuscript without getting too distracted by my learned newsroom copy editing techniques, but it wasn’t easy.

Book Editing Strategies (That Helped Me)

I had to get out of the mindset of a newsroom copy editor. So what did I do?

There were four main things that helped me refocus my frame of thought:

  • Jot down edits onto the manuscript as needed. The manuscript is there to make notes on so I found that making some copy editing marks helped to ease my mind.
  • Make note of the common errors on a separate sheet of paper so that I knew I had already accounted for them.
  • Remind myself of what my job was: to decide if the story needs to be told. If a book is brought to print, it will get copy edited by someone; it will not be published with the errors.
  • Think about the first draft of any paper or story ever written and remember that it’s never perfect. Also, I tried to remember that what I was reading was someone’s hard work and a huge accomplishment.

This was a learning experience for me, and I got the job. This summer as an editorial intern I know I will encounter more challenges, but my experience as a news copy editor will help me overcome them.

Remembering Bill Walsh

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Bill Walsh (right) at the spelling bee at the ACES conference in Las Vegas in 2014. (Photo by Mark Allen)

Bill Walsh, the noted Washington Post copy editor and author of several books, died earlier this month of cancer at age 55. It’s a heartbreaking loss for his friends and family, and for the craft of editing.

I had the good fortune to meet Bill via ACES, the Society for Editing. We had shared interests in journalism, tennis and ’80s bands such as Aztec Camera. It was always a pleasure to spend time with him and to attend his wise and witty presentations at ACES conferences.

When thinking of Bill, I recall one ACES conference in particular. It was in New Orleans in 2012.

I was chatting with a journalism student at the post-conference reception at a bar in the French Quarter. Bill was nearby. The student mentioned how she had attended Bill’s session at the conference and how she’d like to meet him.

But she was nervous. Would Bill Walsh, one of the stars of the conference, be willing to talk with a college student attending an ACES conference for the first time? I assured her that yes, he would be happy to, and I introduced them. Bill greeted the student as he would a close friend or trusted colleague. I stepped away to give them time to talk one on one.

That moment was a prime example of the open and inviting atmosphere of ACES conferences. It doesn’t matter whether you are a novice or a doyen. We are all editors who can learn from each other.

Now, ACES has established a scholarship in Bill’s name. It is intended for a student interested in a career in editing news. Bill’s wife, Jacqueline Dupree, is generously matching initial donations to the scholarship fund.

I hope that you will consider donating as I have. It’s a significant way to keep the memory of Bill Walsh alive for many years to come.

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.

The latest from ACES

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ACES member Neil Holdway contemplates the organization’s new logo on his hoodie.

The 2017 ACES conference is over. I was fortunate to attend this annual gathering of editors, held this year in St. Petersburg, Florida. Of nearly 1,900 members of ACES, 591 were there for three days of training, fun and fellowship.

Here are the headlines:

  • The American Copy Editors Society is now ACES, The Society for Editing. The organization has a new logo, and a redesigned website will come soon.
  • ACES is establishing a scholarship in memory of Bill Walsh, the noted Washington Post copy editor and book author who died this month. You can contribute here.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook is opening the door to the singular they in the upcoming edition. It (they?) will still recommend avoiding using it when possible.
  • In the headline contest, The Daily Tar Heel won first place in the Student Publications category for the sixth consecutive year. Congratulations!

You can learn more about the conference via Twitter and on the ACES website. The 2018 conference will be in Chicago. I hope to see you there.