Student guest post: Going on the record is a risk for sources

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Tara Jeffries is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Stokesdale, North Carolina, she is interested in longform reporting, politics, criminal justice reform and international affairs.

There’s a conversation every journalist knows. The one many journalists dread. The one that could sink the whole story. It feels like that final, tentative moment at the end of a first date, or the moment of truth at a job interview. Sometimes, it feels like you’re asking too much.

“Please, let me use your name on the record.”

Even as a student journalist, I’ve had a few of these conversations. Few of them ended in a “yes,” and I know why. When you’re a source — especially for a big story, one that challenges a system or institution — you’ve sometimes got a lot to lose. As journalists, we should respect the personal and professional risks our sources take to tell us their stories.

Still, there are good reasons news outlets are wary of publishing stories including anonymous sources, especially stories driven solely by their unidentified testimony. Occasionally, a source might request anonymity not to protect himself from backlash from the system or punishment from his boss, but because he wants a platform for a personal vendetta.

Journalism also owes the public a high degree of transparency, and relying on anonymous sources can cloud that transparency. But perhaps the most important reason is this: Journalism depends on and celebrates openness, accuracy and accountability, and stories with anonymous sources sometimes leave the facts murkier than they should be.

And in stories controversial enough to elicit requests for anonymity, the facts and the details are more important than ever. Earlier this month, I read an article in The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, about allegations of sexual assault against former basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from the team.

It came as no surprise that most of the sources in the article were anonymous. (Of course, many publications, by default, do not name victims of sexual assault.) The reasons for anonymity were obvious — publicly challenging an established athletic system is an absolute minefield. It’s clear that the reporters at the Chronicle did the best with what they had and were fairly transparent in their reporting process, noting the steps they took to contact athletics officials. But the proliferation of anonymous sources still made me a bit uneasy.

Most publications have policies in place for dealing with anonymous sources. In my experience as an editor and reporter at The Daily Tar Heel, the use of anonymous sources was discouraged but occasionally allowed, particularly for stories on issues of unfair work environments, stories about sensitive issues like sexual assault or stories that challenged or criticized some aspect of the university. I’ve asked editors to grant my sources anonymity not because I fancied myself Woodward or Bernstein, but because I knew their stories wouldn’t be told otherwise. I should note, too, that my sources and the stories they told were always thoroughly vetted.

I didn’t like having to omit the names of the people I interviewed. I wished they were comfortable being fully on the record. But the anonymity of sources in stories like the one I wrote on graduate students who use food stamps is a part of the narrative. It shows the public how much fear of backlash some people felt when discussing their employment, their low pay, their lack of negotiating power. It shows the public how intense the stigma is against government assistance. And it shows how much risk these people took to tell their story — a sure sign that that story is one worth reading.

Anonymity requires the reporter to put a great deal of trust in a source, but it involves perhaps a greater degree of trust between a reporter and editor. Publishing a successful, accurate story that includes anonymous sources often depends entirely on the integrity of the reporter.

Take, for instance, the infamous “Jimmy’s World” story, written by Janet Cooke of The Washington Post in 1980. The story, which chronicled the heroin addiction of a young boy and won a Pulitzer, turned out to be fabricated. Its main sources were anonymous, their stories (and existence!) not vetted by Cooke’s editors.

More recently, Rolling Stone published a retraction of a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that reported horrific incidents of rape at University of Virginia fraternity houses. The story, driven largely by anonymous sources, turned out to be full of holes, factual errors and unreliable reporting. These two examples are enough to scare any editor.

But the story that included the most famous anonymous source — Deep Throat, of Woodward and Bernstein fame — unraveled a political plot whose name is still, some 40-plus years later, shorthand for scandal and corruption. It shone a light on illegal government activity and revealed a president to be a crook. That’s kind of what journalism is all about: speaking truth to power; keeping an eye on the people we elect.

Talking to reporters poses a huge risk for some sources. Editors should appreciate both that risk and the risk they take in their own newsrooms when using anonymous sources. But some stories — especially those that hold powerful people and institutions accountable — deserve to be told.

Student guest post: Editing a rivalry

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Pat James is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting and sports communication. He was born in Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up constantly watching Tar Heels athletics. He is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. Outside of working in the field of sports journalism, James dreams of one day winning his fantasy football league.

It’s just past 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 18, and the UNC men’s basketball team is moments away from a 92-90 loss against Duke University at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As the game ends, fans in the stadium leave, people at home turn off their TVs and those who were listening to the game on the radio turn the dial or wait to hear Coach Roy Williams’ postgame interview.

But as an assistant sports editor for The Daily Tar Heel, my night is just getting started. The deadline for our newspaper is 12:30 a.m., and I need to be prepared for when our writers send in their stories. It’s this preparation that can determine whether we make deadline as well as the edits that can be made in the short amount of time allotted.

The first step of preparation is to know what’s going on in the game as it happens. This can be difficult at times, as we might have other stories and writers coming in throughout the night. In these situations, I tend to keep a play-by-play or Twitter window open on my computer as I edit.

But on this night, the two UNC-Duke stories are the only ones we have coming in. Because of this, I’m able to watch the game in our conference room and keep notes of players, plays, stats and other notes that might be mentioned in our writers’ stories.

After the game ends, I begin searching through my notes and the final box score to determine what information I should start CQing, or fact-checking. In our CMS, links to CQs are included in our articles to help management and the copy desk as they read the story. Good CQs can cut the amount of time it takes for them to read the stories, and it also gives me more time to make my own edits once the stories are sent to me.

Once all of the CQs I can think of our compiled into a single Google document, it’s time to wait for the stories to come in. During this time period, I’m thinking about whether there are any CQs I might have missed as well as what pertinent information, such as records and national rankings, I should be looking for once I start editing.

When the stories come in, I take one story and one of the other assistants takes the other. My first read includes looking over the story to make sure it has all of the essential elements — most significantly the final score in one of the opening paragraphs. I then read for grammar, spelling and style errors. Lastly, I do a full read in which I make sure the story makes sense before CQing it.

This entire process is how I approach every story that comes in late. I believe the routine helps cut down on the amount of time it takes for me to read while also making sure I cover everything that could pose a potential problem once the story gets to management and eventually to our readers the next day.

Us and them — and her

Earlier this week, The News & Observer reprinted this editorial from The Charlotte Observer. The topic was judicial elections in North Carolina. It included this paragraph:

Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

The last sentence caught the eye of a reader, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the use of “her.” The letter writer found it insulting to female voters.

I don’t think the editorial board of the Observer intended to use “her” as a slight. The writer likely intended the opposite: rather than use “him” as the default pronoun for a hypothetical voter, use “her” for balance. A quick edit to “pluralize” the sentence could avoid that issue, of course:

Rational people might just skip over them all and move on with their lives, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

That would have been my choice if I had been writing or editing that editorial. At the same time, I am increasingly open to the singular they in these situations. Most of us use it in conversation, and I have no objection to it in informal writing such as email.

Then again, I also like the royal we.

Student guest post: How coding is like copy editing

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Katie Marriner is an aspiring designer/developer who enjoys copy editing. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the Reese News Lab team.

There is a huge push nowadays for everyone to learn how to code – women, men, children, journalists, family pets. Technology plays a huge part in our lives today, so I agree that it is important we understand what we consume daily.

Coding may seem like a completely foreign concept to those who are not constantly exposed to it. I am a developer who enjoys copy editing, and I see the overlap in both fields. There are five “C”s of copy editing – be clear, be correct, be concise, be comprehensible, be consistent. These five “C”s can be applied to coding.

How does code work?

First, it is important to understand the basics of coding. Don’t worry: I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details because there are tons of resources out there where you can learn the basics. Codecademy is a great one.

HTML is the structure of a Web page. It is where headers, paragraphs, images and other content are placed on the page.

CSS styles the content. Classes and IDs in HTML are named so they can be identified in a CSS stylesheet. Below is how you would name a class called “main-header.”

This is a Header

In the CSS stylesheet, the format will be this:

.main-header {
font-color: blue;
}

The “.” indicates that it is a class you are referencing. Inside the “{}” is where you write all of your styling – change the font color, size, family. In this example, the color of the text would change to blue.

The following are the five “C”s of copy editing, according to Jodi Cleghorn’s post on Write Anything:

Correct

No errors. This will be the first indication that your code needs some refining.

This one is pretty simple. HTML is picky. Even if a “>” is missing at the end of a tag, the code will be incorrect and not run as it is intended. Code has strict syntax. Every ;, {}, and <> is necessary. And they have to be in the right place. It’s like misspelling a word in the English language – it’s always incorrect.

Clarity

The names of classes must be clear, and it must be understood what these classes do to someone who looks at the code for the first time. If you are naming a class for introductory paragraphs, use an intuitive name such as “intro-paragraph.”

HTML

This is an example of an introductory paragraph.

CSS

.intro-paragraph {
text-decoration: italic;
}

Concise

Refactoring is the process of editing existing code in order to prevent errors from occurring in the future, make the page load faster and make it easier to read. Refactoring code does not change the appearance of what it outputs, but it changes the ease at which it is processed by the browser.

When editing text when you don’t change the meaning of what you’re trying to say but you improve the understand of the text by being more concise. A simple example would be using the world “use” instead of “utilize.”

Comprehensible

GitHub is a great, free service that allows coders to contribute to other projects by building off of what others have done. If others are reading your code, it needs to be comprehensible and in a form that others will be able to understand just as it is important for others to easily read a news article.

Consistent

Use the same naming conventions. If a number is spelled out once, spell out every other number. If you use hyphens, use hyphens. If you use camelCase, use camelCase.

It’s not “wrong” if the names are not consistent because the code will run, but it is not easy to read. This relates to using a stylebook to keep consistency. In AP style, numbers under 10 are usually spelled out, but numbers greater than or equal to 10 are written numerically.

Copy editors edit to help readers better understand the author’s words. Editing code can do just the same thing for others who read your code and when code is revisited to make changes.

Student guest post: Transitioning into understanding

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Zach Freshwater is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He is a communications intern at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and a communication consultant for Planetary Emissions Management.

What’s blue and white and has over 50 gender identity options? If you guessed Facebook, you’re right.

Last week the site announced that it will now offer users 56 choices to indicate their gender identity. The options range from male and female to transgender, gender questioning, androgynous and non-binary.

While the change might leave some confused when they join the site, Facebook’s move denotes an important shift toward recognizing transgender individuals. And journalists need to pay attention.

Earlier this month, Janet Mock, a transgender author and activist, appeared on “Piers Morgan Live” to discuss her new book about her life and struggles as a transgender woman. The interview went well, and both seemed cordial and excited about Mock’s work.

But the conversation went sour soon after the interview when Mock tweeted that she was disappointed in how Morgan discussed her identity. As a transgender woman, Mock took offense to Morgan’s statements that she was “formerly a man.”

Morgan fired back, and the Twitter conversation culminated in Mock returning to Morgan’s show to discuss the issue several days later.

While the clip above is a bit lengthy, it marks an important note for journalists: Be informed and be sensitive.

Transgendered individuals and their struggles are growing in national prominence, and journalists need to keep up. Understanding and acknowledging someone’s identity doesn’t indicate political affiliation — it denotes accuracy and respect.

GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) offers a media reference guidefor journalists covering transgender topics. The organization also offers a Transgender 101 guide that acts as an introduction to transgender identities and issues. Reading through these two guides only takes about 15 minutes and could prevent serious difficulty and embarrassment.

So, to all of the reporters, bloggers, editors and newsies out there, do your transgender homework. You’ll be better for it.