Pushing the news

Each semester, I ask students in my courses at UNC-Chapel Hill how they get their news. I encourage them to be honest, and I tell them that there are no right answers.

As in recent years, several mentioned The Skimm, an email newsletter. Others said they regularly read CNN.com and the digital versions of The Washington Post and The New York Times. A few said they still like to get news in print via The New York Times or The Daily Tar Heel.

No one mentioned regional newspapers such as The Charlotte Observer. Same for radio and television.

Several students said that they rely on push notifications on their phones. In previous semesters, I had never heard that answer. Those students said that they relied on the notifications to let them know about big news. They catch up on other things later.

Like a headline, a push notification should match the tone of the news and the tone of the organization. Editors must use news judgment to decide when and how to send such notifications. Too many can be overwhelming.

I will keep an eye on how news organizations are exploring how to push news in this way, perhaps incorporating that into my editing course. If students receive news that way, they should know how to send it.

Advertisements

The public editor, before and after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student guest post: Don’t give up on the truth in the face of fake news

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Elise Clouser is a senior from Matthews, North Carolina, majoring in reporting and minoring in biology. She wants a career writing about science, and in her free time, she can usually be found hanging out with her cat.

Back in December, as the dust finally began to settle after the 2016 election, “fake news” grabbed hold of national attention, and it hasn’t really let go. It was straightforward enough in the beginning – fake news was any completely made-up news story written to sound like fact. Remember that time Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from a pizza shop? One hundred percent certified fake news.

I remember how incredulous I was when the “fake news” story broke. Who actually believed this stuff anyway? My Facebook timeline was full of fellow journalists and other university folks posting perfectly credible articles from The New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post. Any editor worth his or her salt wouldn’t let a fake news story slip past their desk, right?

Hoaxes, half-truths and propaganda are certainly nothing new, especially when politics are involved. It’s practically accepted as fact that politicians lie. So what makes fake news different?

Fake news fits nicely into the narrative that we are living in a post-truth society. In fact, post-truth, meaning “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. And when “alternative facts” are now part of the mainstream American political rhetoric, it’s not hard to see why.

But fake news has evolved to mean more than just a false news story. It’s now been co-opted to mean “anything that contradicts my worldview.” Biases have always existed in news reporting. But when “fake news” is conflated with “anything that paints me in a negative light,” the line between what is real and what is fake seems even more blurred.

All of this is pretty disheartening to journalists and editors who have always strived for fairness and for reporting the truth. It feels as though we need to be on the defense, especially when we’re called the “opposition party.”

The role of the editor has evolved just as the media have evolved over the past few decades. But in the face of “fake news,” the editor must do what he or she has always done: dedicate himself or herself to the truth. Sensationalism gets the clicks, but I think that people still crave the truth.

People want to be informed. Yes, sometimes we want to hear things that reinforce our personal opinions, but we also simply want to know what’s going on. We don’t always want loaded language and jabs at the other side. Sometimes we just need the facts.

More than ever, editors must ensure that they publish the facts. There is still a place for facts in modern society. Editors are in the powerful position of making sure facts are out there.

Editors need to not only trust their reporters to be thorough and fair, but to hold them accountable if they are not. Editors need to verify information before publishing. They need to present both sides of the story. Editors will have to make tough news judgments in the coming months. It will be tempting to shun the facts when they don’t fit a certain narrative. But editors never give up on the truth. There is still an audience for the truth.

Restoring the public’s faith in the press is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. There are no easy answers for how to combat fake news or the filter bubble. Fake news may be here to stay, but so is good, truthful journalism. And we can’t give up on it just yet.

Student guest post: BuzzFeed should re-evaluate its news judgment

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Luke Bollinger is a junior majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoys reporting for The Daily Tar Heel and all things “Game of Thrones.”

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier containing unverified information should cause journalists, especially editors, to contemplate the importance of sound news judgment when fake news is rampant and trust in the media is dishearteningly low.

The dossier contains uncorroborated information that Russia has damaging information on newly elected President Donald Trump. The dossier had been circulating among government officials. News outlets reported on the documents but did not disclose the specific details.

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full dossier instantly ignited a debate of whether they should have published the documents.

The question of whether BuzzFeed should have published the document, despite knowledge of its potential falsity (this sounds a bit like actual malice) is a question of news judgment and how it should be exercised.

BuzzFeed stated that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” And the story does hold practically every news value editors consider when deciding what to publish: impact, magnitude, conflict, timeliness, proximity and emotional impact.

Yet, this looks like fake news.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”

It is not reporting if a journalist simply regurgitates information; there needs to be a process of verification.

This is not the fake news grounded in imagination that normally plagues Facebook and Twitter, but it has similar effects. Fake news sensationalizes, and BuzzFeed has done the same by publishing the dossier.

The story has been sensationalized; BuzzFeed has put itself at the center of attention and some of the more perverse contents of the dossier have been turned into internet memes.

There is definitely cause to report on the dossier circulating among senators and top intelligence officials. The dossier is concerning; the possibility that a foreign power has compromising information on President Trump is frightening. This needs to be reported on, but this is where exercising cautious news judgment is critical when considering the prevalence of fake news.

The BuzzFeed article said the reasoning for publishing the dossier was “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Presenting the people with the information and letting them make their own conclusions is something journalists should work toward every day, but not to the extent that a journalist no longer practices accurate reporting.

Fake news is a huge problem, a problem that diminishes the value of accurate information and jeopardizes the effectiveness of journalists that actively seek to provide the truth. BuzzFeed should have considered how publishing the dossier would work against journalists who verify their information.

Many journalists took offense. Columnists and commentators scolded BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith for his decision and news judgment while CNN released a statement distancing itself from BuzzFeed.

The next four years will most likely hold plenty of controversy. Situations such as the dossier complicate editorial decisions when you have the responsibility of keeping an audience as informed as possible, as well as the responsibility of seeking the truth. In the era of fake news, finding a balance should rely more on truth. Not the possibility of truth.

Q&A with Bob Bryan, reporter for Business Insider

Bob Bryan at the Chairman's Room at the New York Stock Exchange.

Bob Bryan at the Chairman’s Room at the New York Stock Exchange.

Bob Bryan is markets reporter for Business Insider. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses his beat and headline writing and social media at BI.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. As a markets reporter, my team usually gets an early jump on things. Four of us are in the office by 7 a.m., looking at overnight news in European and Asian markets or covering quarterly earnings that are announced before the opening of the market.

From there the day can really be anything. Since Business Insider has a relatively slim team, we have a lot of freedom to explore topics that interest us, For instance I could write about Obamacare, the Wells Fargo scandal and how inflation is impacting the Federal Reserve all in one day (and have before).

Posts usually come out of three places: breaking news (which can come from anywhere: Twitter, press releases, email tips); research from banks and economic analysts such as the International Monetary Fund or the Fed; and interviews done with market followers, economists, and major investors.

I’m usually on the go until 3 to 3:30 p.m. when I stop to start planning the Facebook Live broadcast I host every day at 430 p.m. That involves going through the headlines of the day selecting what I want to talk about, getting graphics and charts made up by our markets graphics guru, and planning chyrons with the video team. I typically write myself a rough outline, but ad lib most of the show.

The show usually wraps at 4:50 p.m., and afterwards, I check some emails and maybe finish a post I was working on. Typically, I leave the office anywhere from 5:15 to 6:00, though I may do some work at home if news breaks afterward.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your job?

A. Social media is incredibly important for my job, Twitter being the most prominent.

Not only is Twitter a source of ideas, but for financial journalists, there is a robust conversation between finance media and those in the markets world. There is a great group of economists and traders that use Twitter and are active in conversing with others. Heck, even current Fed president Neel Kashkari takes question on Twitter from time to time.

Obviously, Facebook is also important not just as a source of traffic, but it’s also where I do my daily videos.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Business Insider?

A. Everything starts with the writer. At BI, the reporters write their own headline, tweet, pick their picture, write the captions. Even the short browser title you see from search engines is done by the writer.

Stories are then sent via Slack to an editor, unpublished, to be looked over. It may go by a second editor occasionally depending on the subject matter. For longer features, the copy desk will look over the text before it goes live. If it is a normal, shorter post, the copy desk looks over the story after it goes live. We strive for speed, so the copy desk is incredibly quick at making edits to a story once it goes live.

Headlines are usually collaborative as well. If we try a headline that doesn’t get a lot of reader attention, we may change it or try a different construction to connect better with readers. This is usually discussed with the editor who read the story via Slack or, more likely, verbally. A lot of changes are discussed verbally since the office is open with shared tables and most of editorial is in one big space.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for the class of 2017?

A. Say yes. When you’re starting out, always be the first to jump on something when it’s offered. If there is a story idea thrown out, say yes even if you’re not sure about it. It’s a great way to learn, prove your capable, and add value to whatever newsroom (or any other job) you’re in.

For instance, I said yes to a story about UnitedHealthcare’s quarterly earnings in which it turned out they were leaving a majority of their Obamacare markets. Now six months later, I’m the primary Obamacare and health insurance reporter, which draws a lot of reader interest. If I had said “I don’t know too much about that,” then I would’ve missed one of the best opportunities of my career so far.

Read Bob Bryan’s posts on Business Insider and follow him on Twitter.

Q&A with Kevin Uhrmacher, graphics editor at The Washington Post

Kevin Uhrmacher is a graphics editor at The Washington Post. In this interview, conducted by email, Uhrmacher discusses his work there and offers advice to journalism students looking at careers like his.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m involved in making everything from simple maps and charts to more meaty interactives and data visualizations. I also spend some time making sure our graphics are being copy-edited and included with related stories that others in the newsroom are writing.

My days vary quite a bit, but it’s typical that each includes some combination of responding to breaking news, working on daily and longer-term projects and getting our team’s graphics work published across platforms and promoted on social media.

Today, for example, I went in at 7 a.m. to get a jump on updating our page covering the EgyptAir Flight 804 crash. Another graphics editor, Denise Lu, and I updated the page periodically throughout the day as more information became available. As we pushed out updates to the page, we were sharing them on our @postgraphics Twitter account. We were also working on a couple of other projects intermittently.

I should also mention that the members of our team regularly solicit and offer feedback to one another about projects in progress.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for graphics at The Washington Post?

A. Any graphic I create goes through several layers of editing, including my own editors on the graphics team, other content-specific reporters and editors, and a small army of very attentive copy editors.

Headline writing is a team effort here, for sure. While we’re writing a headline, we do a lot of sharing and testing to see what connects with people. Often that means sharing headlines in an internal chat room and asking others to offer suggestions for how to improve something.

Often, the most valuable feedback you can get on a headline is from someone who has no preconceived notions about the story. This helps you see how much interest your headline generates and make sure your story (whether it takes the form of text, graphics, video or some combination of things) delivers on whatever you promise in the headline.

We also have a new-ish tool that helps us A/B test promotional material for our stories (headlines, deks and — especially helpful for our graphics — promo images) You can read more about it here. We’re fortunate enough to have a tremendous engineering team to build tools like this one.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use day to day? What have you had to learn on the job?

A. I think the most obvious thing I took with me out of the journalism school, and many nights in The Daily Tar Heel, was a keen sense of news judgment. By that I mean being able to identify the crux of a story and making sure that it is coming across in the way it is presented. It also means recognizing stories that are not being told and finding a unique way to tell them.

That reminds me of another thing UNC taught me, which is how to learn something that I don’t know. There are plenty of new skills and concepts that didn’t exist when I was in school just a couple of years ago. The key is knowing how to adapt and learn them.

Q. Being a graphics editor at The Washington Post sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students considering similar career paths?

A. Well, first let me say it IS a good gig!

As far as advice goes, I would say students should not be devastated if they don’t get their dream internship or job on the first try. Never cut off a relationship with someone at a company you want to work for because you assume they don’t want you. For all you know, you’re at the top of their list for the next open job.

This one can be awkward but really pays off: Ask what you could do to improve your chances for the next time around. Do you need to beef up your portfolio in some way? Need to show more similar experience on your resume? Occasionally send them an email when you publish something you’re really proud of. Don’t underestimate the power that putting yourself on someone’s radar has for your future prospects.

I also recommend getting involved in professional organizations such as the Society for News Design, the Online News Association or the American Copy Editors Society. The annual conferences are great ways to meet people and learn more about what’s happening in the field you one day hope to work in.

Student guest post: A different kind of news judgment

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Katie Reeder is a senior journalism major and the managing editor of Southern Neighbor. She has a deep appreciation for coffee, witty humor and Carolina basketball.

I avoided social media after the Tar Heels lost the national championship on a Monday night in what was the most heartbreaking game I have ever watched. I did not want to see the comments — good or bad — or stories that I knew were coming. My friends had already agreed not to talk about basketball for the next few days.

By Wednesday, I decided I could handle the stories. March Madness was over, and I knew I would miss the college basketball coverage. I started with The News & Observer and ended with Adam Lucas’ column on GoHeels.com.

When I logged onto Facebook, the Lucas column was at the top of my news feed, and I could see that more than 20 of my friends had shared it. But what caught my attention was that my news feed also had a good number of blog posts friends had shared (mostly written by people other than themselves) about the season and what this team had meant to them.

I will admit that I read just about everything relating to Carolina basketball that I saw on my news feed. But as a journalist, I was struck by the seemingly illogical reasoning behind this. I was reading essentially the same story retold with a different personal angle. Most of those stories could be boiled down to this: We are heartbroken but proud, and we are still Tar Heels. There was no new information, but so many people read it and shared it anyway.

So what does this mean for journalists and editors? It’s tempting to say, “You’re talking about social media and blogs. There are different rules.” But when more than 50 percent of Americans consider Facebook a news source, the rules of Facebook are something to pay attention to.

Add in the fact that Facebook has an algorithm for what shows up in news feeds, and it begins to sound like the curation side of an editor’s job. The front page of The New York Times may still have the box boasting that it’s “all the news that’s fit to print,” but social media has taken away much of that authoritative voice and changed how people consume news.

I do not think all blogs are journalism, and I do not think the rules of social media are always transferable to traditional media. But the common denominator between the two is information intake. Both forms of media ask the question, “What do people care about?”

If my news feed the week after the national championship game is any indicator, people do not always care about fresh information or how timely a story is. The news values of proximity and magnitude came into play here, but do they fully explain why people continued to read and share similar stories? I don’t think so.

Sometimes people like to see the same story retold because they love a basketball team that lost a heartbreaking game, and reading those stories reminds them why they loved the team in the first place. Sometimes stories are about connecting with others and feeling like you can say, “Me too.”

We’re not always taught that in our newswriting classes, and this is not meant to discount the importance of objectivity and accuracy. But I think as journalists learn to navigate the increasingly social digital world, it’s important to remember that people don’t always share what we think they should share. Sometimes stories are more about fostering a sense of community than taking in new information.