Of Obama and Osama

The dominant news story in the United States (and probably the world) for the past week has been the death of Osama bin Laden. The terrorist leader was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan early Monday.

Reporting on breaking news of this magnitude is difficult. The rush for information almost invariably leads to errors of different kinds. Here are some of those mistakes surrounding the Osama story:

  • Several U.S. senators claimed to have seen photos showing bin Laden after he was shot and killed. The photos were not authentic.
  • This quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” He never said that, but an American woman living in Japan did.
  • Numerous media organizations — including CNN, The Charlotte Observer and NPR — have mixed up Osama and Obama. I did it myself yesterday on Twitter, so I deleted that Tweet and admitted to my mistake there and on Facebook.

Each of these errors speaks to the need for editors, both formal and informal. Editors at news organizations should be careful to verify information, and readers should be vigilant and notify the media when they detect mistakes. Together, maybe we can get it right.

UPDATE: Errors in Osama infographics were frequent as well. An article on the Nieman site offers excellent advice in how to prevent that from happening again.

I am curious (Chicago)

As an American journalist, I have used the Associated Press Stylebook throughout my career. I’ve found it be a helpful resource on matters of grammar punctuation, word choice and other matters of usage.

I’ve used other stylebooks on occasion, too. When I was in graduate school writing a thesis on a media law topic, I used The Bluebook. More recently, I used the Los Angeles Times stylebook when I worked there during the summer of 2008.

I’ve suggested a “style smackdown” between AP editors and their counterparts from the Chicago Manual of Style at the 2012 ACES conference, which will take place in New Orleans. I’ve since revised that to a “style lovefest” in order to make such a session seem less adversarial. But the idea is the same: Get editors from several stylebooks together for a discussion about what they do and how they do it.

In the meantime, I am contemplating branching out in my style knowledge. Yes, I am style-curious.

I mentioned this weekend on Twitter that one of my goals for the summer is to try to learn Chicago style. Here are some of the reactions there:

  • OH, IS THAT ALL? Should only take a minute or two. (Recommend signing up for online access. Easy-peasy.)
  •  Give up now. The numbers section alone goes from 8.1-8.80.
  • At least it’s logical to ex-journos, unlike APA, where you don’t capitalize book or article titles.
  • It’s a little rough at first, but eventually you become bilingual. Then again, I was only fluent in Chicago 14.
  • CMS made easy: Yes to serial comma; no to spaces around em dashes.
  • Very cool!
My goal is not to become an expert in Chicago style or even fluent in it. I want to know enough to satisfy my curiosity — and so I can ask intelligent questions at a style lovefest, should one take place at the next ACES conference. Let’s hope that happens.

Student guest post: A new definition for love in the OED

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Alice Miller is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and is finishing her studies in journalism and art history. She is soaking up all aspects of her final spring in Chapel Hill including, but not limited to, frozen yogurt, friends and sunny afternoons in the Quad.

At the end of March, the Oxford English Dictionary released the newest additions and revisions to its 600,000-word database. Yet, not all of the new changes fit the traditional definition of “word” itself.

Some chat and text originated terms, such as LOL, OMG and FYI have infiltrated the pages, but those stand-ins for longer catch phrases do not compare with the most controversial addition.


Still looking for the word of which I am speaking? You didn’t miss it. The heart icon you probably skimmed over has officially been added to the OED. Often created by a less-than sign and number 3 (<3), the heart icon is a sign of chat culture transforming the English language as we know it.

With not much faith in American English traditions, ♥ was incorporated into the OED. What worries me most about this new addition is that it could foreshadow a trend toward icons representing words. While LOL is a stand-in for “laugh out loud,” everyone knows it, or can look it up and find its clear definition. But with ♥, what does it really mean? Love? Heart? Less than 3?

In 1993, the French Academy, the organization in France assigned to protect the authenticity and integrity of the French language, banned the usage of the word “email.” Rather than incorporating the American term into the French language like a few other phrases have been, they banned it all together and came up with a French replacement of “courriel.”

This example is one of the many times the French Academy has fought to keep American lingo from becoming a part of French language.

While the majority of French citizens still use “email,” I applaud the academy’s attempt to preserve the French language. I think this pride of language could be a trend we look up to the French for an example.

It may be faster to insert on small phone keyboards and help stay in a 140-character limit on Twitter, but I think it is troubling to think that ♥ is considered a word. We have 26 letters in the alphabet, with some that deserve some more usage, so let’s stick to letters and leave the icons out of the dictionary.

Student guest post: Why can’t Microsoft Word be smarter?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Tim Freer is a senior graphic design and editing major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He spends his hours writing, enjoying the company of friends, debating philosophical issues and in the near future (he hopes) traveling the world.

Microsoft Word is easily the most widely used word processor in America. It was what I grew up typing with, and I’m sure most of the people of my generation can relate to that.

Word has long boasted many useful tools for paper-writing, checking spelling and grammar and offering templates for users, along with much more (including long-standing problems that still have yet to be fixed). Especially given the recent technological surge, I can’t help but feel that Word should be a much smarter program than it is.

Considering the vast array of technological wonders we’ve accomplished in the last few years — touch screens, 3-D movies, video chat, video games that map your body movements and transfer them to the screen — you’d think that we would be able to formulate a program that can  provide useful grammatical insight while simultaneously allowing users to format a visually appealing page.

However, that reality remains elusive. At the most basic level, Word is often frustrating, even for a common user like me.  The faulty grammar check is one of the biggest turn-offs: Nothing is more annoying than writing a grammatically accurate sentence, only to see it underlined in squiggly green because Word misinterpreted a comma or an apostrophe.

As a writer, I have conditioned myself to know the difference between sound-alikes like ‘tail’ and ‘tale.’ “The boy stepped on the cat’s tale” is an obviously flawed sentence that Word could never see because its abilities are so limited. This is a very basic example, but it applies to countless other words and grammatical situations; eliminating these misunderstandings could be highly useful for practically everyone.

Grammar is just the start of it. In terms of layout, Word is also ages behind a program like Adobe InDesign, which allows for much easier placement and organization of pictures and text boxes. This makes Word’s on-spot placement and irritating text wrap seem clunky and outdated.

As far as I know, you cannot change the spacing in Word without the format of the entire document reverting back to its original size and font. Even if Word can do that through changing the default settings or doing some other complicated maneuver, the point is that these annoyances are a non-factor in InDesign. Indentations and bulleting are still problematic and inconsistent in Word as well.

Why Microsoft Word has fallen this far behind the technological curve is somewhat puzzling, because it clearly seems to be within our capabilities to improve it. Is it that far-fetched for a program like Word to be able to map word rhythms and patterns, analyze similar-sounding words and multiple meanings, and sniff out those little ‘tale-tail’ mishaps?  What if, similar to Word’s built-in spell check, thesaurus and dictionary, it had a pre-programmed AP style guide (or any other guide, for that matter) that could detect flaws accordingly and suggest changes?

I understand that more complex functions like these could have difficulty analyzing sentences as they are being written, but how much more complex is that, really, than the basic automatic grammar and spell check? Regardless, if the function were not automatic and instead initiated by the user for the sake of revision, that argument becomes more difficult to make.

Before I get ahead of myself, I must clear up one reservation I have with all of this. There is truly something to be said for people being able to formulate sentences themselves without seeking wisdom from a screen. A pampered society is a stupid society (and in this case, a potentially illiterate one). I certainly want my kids to be able to use proper grammar, to write and to spell on their own.

At the same time, at least at a professional level, the utility of a program with a built-in style guide or group of style guides would be undeniable. Though it may be less exciting to create a problem-free, all-encompassing word processor than it is to create a dazzlingly realistic video game, the former could quicken the transfer of news and information around the world considerably. It’s astounding to think of how much more efficient writing and editing news stories could be if newspaper staffs didn’t have to leaf through their AP style guides looking for guidelines that may or may not exist at all.

What I edit and what I don’t

This Tweet from Overheard in the Newsroom made me smile and cringe at the same. I smiled because it’s funny. I cringed because it feeds into a stereotype about copy editors.

I don’t edit e-mails from my friends, family and students. I don’t edit status updates on Facebook. I don’t edit Tweets. I don’t edit comments on news stories (though some errors are indeed amusing). And I don’t edit spoken conversation.

I do edit news stories, blog posts on news sites, cover letters, menus, speeches and billboards — anything that’s professionally produced and set into type in print, online or on screen. Even so, I don’t insist that these things adhere to Associated Press style. Style is a choice, not a commandment.

So for those of you with friends and family who work as editors: Relax. It’s OK.

Most of us won’t judge you for a typo in an e-mail or chat session online. If you don’t use the subjunctive mood correctly the next time we talk on the phone, I won’t stop the conversation to point that out.

We all make mistakes sometimes; I’ve made some doozies. That’s why we have copy editors to help us communicate better in professional settings for specific audiences. We want to help, not nag, and we’ll do so with tact and understanding, not mockery.

Got it? So give us a call, send us a text message or drop us a line by e-mail. We’ll chat.

Q&A with Amy Goldstein, editor at ESPN.com

Amy Goldstein has been an associate editor on the copy desk at ESPN.com since February 2008. Before moving to central Connecticut, she completed a master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at CUNY Queens College. She has interned at the Detroit Free Press, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and News 12 Long Island. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Goldstein offers a glimpse of what it’s like to be an editor at the ESPN site.

Q. Describe your job at ESPN. What is your typical workday like?

A. I edit 12 to 15 stories, blogs and photo galleries each day and am the copy desk editor who backreads subject page tops that are sent via e-mail. I also often assign priorities to stories in our queue system based on what’s expected to be featured prominently on our front page or on section pages. When time allows, I slot stories and coordinate copy desk reads of entire index pages.

We have a copy desk and a news desk, and the copy desk is responsible for editing features, columns, power rankings and other staff-generated items, while the news desk mostly edits headline news stories and game recaps. Most copy deskers work during the day rather than at night because the stories we edit generally come to us during normal business hours. Stories’ lengths vary significantly, as do their subject matter — I might edit a feature about an NFL player, then a Q-and-A with the creator of a sports video game, then a live blog about a poker event.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?

A. You were expecting it to be working against the clock, weren’t you? Well, not quite. If a story needs to be published right away (for example, right after the Masters tournament) it is, and then we’ll backread it as soon as possible. If it doesn’t, we’ll be expected to turn the story around within a reasonable amount of time, but there’s usually no rush.

ESPN is a reporter-driven environment, and that’s what enables our best writers to develop a distinct voice that is recognized on a national level. Our writers have a lot of editors — a story might be edited by two or three people before it reaches the copy desk — and we’re charged with maintaining our writers’ voices while making sure they don’t cross the line on sensitive topics. With so many hands on deck, sometimes it’s hard to appease everyone. My biggest challenge is deciding which battles to pick and how best to compromise.

Q. You have worked for print and online media. What are the biggest differences between them? What about similarities?

A. My work online might be a little less creative than what I did for print media, but that’s really a function of the workflow here. I typically don’t write headlines or cutlines or select photos, but section editors (who do all those things) ask me for headline and blurb suggestions several times a day. We also have two layers of headlines for most of our stories — the index page display text, which aims to get the reader to click on a story (and often has tight head counts, just like in print media!), and the headline on top of the story, which is often a summary type of head because the reader already was engaged enough to click through to that point.

As I hinted at above, there generally aren’t deadlines at ESPN.com, so I find working online to be less stressful than working in print. I try to finish a story as fast as I can, but I almost always have plenty of time to make it as good as it should be. At the same time, there’s little downtime during our workday. We always have something to do because our writers and section editors produce so much content each day.

As for similarities, the reality is that both print and online media work to tell similar or identical stories. A story published online might be longer, but the general rules of keeping a reader engaged still apply.

Q. Many college students would love to have a job like yours. What career advice do you have for them?

A. Persistence was key for me in landing this job. A number of things had to fall perfectly into place for me to end up here, but if I hadn’t kept calling my boss during a seven-month period, I wouldn’t be at ESPN. In addition, knowing what you really want in a job helps you sell yourself, and internships help you refine what path you want your career to take.

In graduate school, I had several opportunities to learn Web programs, and I’m thankful for that because although ESPN.com’s publishing system is proprietary, I learned how to tell a story using interactive media. I share that knowledge with my colleagues whenever I think it might be useful. I suggest that college students take advantage of the opportunity to learn new programs — it’s fun and rewarding when you finish a project, even a quick photo gallery produced with Soundslides.