Dealing with data

data-startrek
Data is a character who appears in “Star Trek” TV series and movies. People differ on whether the noun “data” should take a singular or plural verb.

A colleague recently expressed surprise that the latest edition of the AP Stylebook recommends using a singular verb with the word “data” in most instances. He asked: Isn’t that word plural? Is AP wrong?

The short answers are yes and no. Let’s take a look at the data.

Merriam-Webster defines “data” as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.” The dictionary’s entry for the word notes that it is technically a plural form for the word “datum” but singular or plural in construction. M-W says “data” may take a singular or plural verb.

Stylebooks help writers and editors decide what to choose when we have such options. That guidance builds consistency whether we are working on a book manuscript, a magazine or a company website. It would be distracting to see “data is” in one paragraph of a news story or press release and “data are” in the next.

Here’s what the entry in the 2019 AP Stylebook says about “data” and verbs:

The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.

Most, but not all, U.S. news organizations use AP style. Some have their own style.

Regarding “data,” The Washington Post uses the singular verb: “Their bipartisan bill would also require the companies to regularly disclose the ways consumers’ data is being used.” The New York Times does likewise: “The data shows how personal it is.”

Beyond journalism, the Chicago Manual of Style says either verb is fine with “data.” I asked my Twitter following, which consists mostly of editors and writers from an array of disciplines, what they recommended. Here are the results of that informal poll:

twitter-data

A few responded: “It depends.” That’s essentially what the AP entry says too.

If the use of singular verbs and pronouns with “data” bothers you because of the word’s plural heritage, consider other English words imported and modified from Latin. “Agenda” comes from the singular “agendum.” Today we apply a singular verb to it without a second thought.

In my editing classes, I share with my students a love of language and a recognition that words and meanings evolve. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. As we write and edit, we should consider the context of the piece and use resources such as stylebooks and dictionaries to make smart choices.

So it is with “data” and other matters. That’s my agenda.

Book review: Dreyer’s English

cover of Dreyer's English

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York, NY. Random House, 2019. 279 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9570-1

Many people, including journalism students, want firm rules on how to write and edit, but English is messy with gray areas and endless debates over commas. That’s where stylebooks and other usage manuals step in, offering clarity and guidance.

“Dreyer’s English” isn’t a stylebook that represents an organization as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style do. It certainly has the characteristics of one, with sections of advice on punctuation, word choice, redundancy and other matters that writers and editors care about.

What sets this book apart from others on writing and editing? As indicated by its title, “Dreyer’s English” is a style manifesto of one editor: Benjamin Dreyer.

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House, and he has edited writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery.” He has worked at Random House since 1993 in nonfiction and fiction.

Editing those writers (among others) makes Dreyer ideally qualified to take on the task of writing this book, which offers a look at the inner workings of a publishing house. His background, coupled with a sense of humor, makes “Dreyer’s English” feel like an AP Stylebook with wicked one-liners. In a section on word choice, for example, Dreyer takes on business jargon: “It feels like a terribly short walk from ‘onboarding’ a new employee to waterboarding one.”

Like any editor, Dreyer has strong views on many language topics. Among them:

  • He still takes “literally” literally, calling it the “Intensifier from Hell.”
  • He is holding on to “whom” despite talk of its decline: “Until someone can come up with a better word, we are stuck with it.”
  • He is an advocate of the Oxford comma: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

Yet Dreyer is a flexible editor, and he cheerfully acknowledges that his preferences may not be yours. He is all right with “alright” on occasion. He suggests that “enormity” can mean more than “monstrous evil” but advises avoiding it in positive contexts such as “the enormity of her talents.” He’s getting more comfortable with the singular they.

The section on punctuation, presented in a list format, neatly describes how using a comma, semicolon or period can alter the pace and tone of writing. Dreyer also offers a helpful tip for students who struggle with appositives with a guideline he calls the “only” comma. And he illustrates the difference between an em dash an en dash.

Dreyer also provides helpful guidance on fact checking. Journalists and public relations practitioners will want to turn to his lists of frequently misspelled names, companies and organizations. Apocryphal quotes from famous people, a bane of journalistic writing, are also addressed. Be wary of words of wisdom attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, among others.

In a chapter on editing fiction, Dreyer goes in depth on the need for continuity of characters and timelines. Street names, historical references and vocabulary must match the time period. Readers will notice such errors.

As in journalistic writing, redundancy can weaken fiction. Dreyer warns against “the angry flaring of nostrils” and “the quizzical cocking of the head,” among other wordy constructions. And he once encountered this doozy: “He implied without quite saying.”

So where does all of this guidance take us? In Dreyer’s view, editing is about serving the writer. It’s a collaboration for the benefit of the reader. He writes:

An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in the writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.

“Dreyer’s English” would work well in a variety of courses in journalism and English departments. For example, in a class on book publishing, “Dreyer’s English” would be perfect in tandem with Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.”

Beyond the classroom, “Dreyer’s English” will appeal to writers and editors alike. It is a worthy addition to the library of any lover of language.

This review also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.

Q&A with Abbie Bennett, reporter at Connecting Vets

AbbieBennett-Mug
Abbie Bennett is senior reporter at Connecting Vets, a news organization that covers “the veteran experience through stories of inspiration and perseverance.” A 2012 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Bennett previously worked at North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Daily Reflector in Greenville. In this interview, conducted by email, Bennett discusses her work at Connecting Vets, where she covers the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Defense Department and Congress.

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

A. Every day is different for me, and since I cover the Hill, it really depends on what’s happening at the Capitol and at the VA, usually.

My early mornings start about the same no matter the day — checking emails (hoping to be surprised by a FOIA request return), Slack and Twitter. Since we are a national publication covering veterans and the military, we cover multiple time zones, and things can break overnight.

By about 8 a.m., I’m headed to the Metro either on my way to the office or more likely the Hill, especially if Congress is in session or hearings are scheduled. Sometimes I will stop on my way for a breakfast meeting with a source.

Around 9 or 10 a.m., depending on the day, our newsroom has its daily budget meeting, letting our editor know what we’re working on and what is expected to turn that day, along with coordinating social with our social media manager and appearances on our radio shows and podcasts. If I’m at the Capitol, I join via Slack or phone.

I spend the early parts of my day tracking activities on the Hill, including hearings, press conferences, votes and other scheduled events and planning interviews. Many of my interviews are done in our recording studios so they can be used in our podcasts and on our radio shows, so those take some extra planning. I keep a detailed planner and calendar to track all those moving pieces, and we have a shared team calendar.

I spend the rest of my day going to hearings, working on stories, either dailies — shorter stories that publish the same day — or long-form pieces.

I also help edit my team’s work, so I edit and socialize their stories, especially on days I’m not on the Hill.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Connecting Vets?

A. When a story is ready, it goes through at least two phases of line editing.

The writer drops it in our “drafts” Slack channel with proposed social share text. Usually, another member of our team will read over the story, check all of the metadata and assets (such as photos and embed codes) and then post a Slack message letting an editor know it’s ready for a final read. After the second edit, the story is published to our site (or sent to a network of company sites) and is scheduled for social.

Headline writing is a collaborative effort sometimes, though I hope to make it more so. Every reporter is expected to put a headline on their story in our content management system, and editors can make changes. Our executive producer has final say. We also workshop headlines together either out loud in the newsroom or on Slack.

Q. You previously worked at daily newspapers. What differences and similarities have you seen between those jobs and the one you have now?

A. Connecting Vets is a national digital publication that was originally founded under CBS Radio. CBS Radio was later purchased and merged with Entercom, the second-largest radio company in the U.S. We still partner with CBS media, too.

So I’d say the biggest difference is that my work is much more multimedia than ever before. In addition to video and photo that is such a big part of the digital experience at newspapers, I’m also working on audio and am a regular on radio and podcasts produced by my company. At my newspaper jobs, I was sometimes called on to be a guest on radio shows like WUNC’s “The State of Things” or a call-in for national television for big stories, but it was never regular. I certainly wasn’t producing any audio content myself.

Other than that, much of the work is similar. I report and write for our website and network, and then I talk about my work on air. My work is no different in style, quality or standard than it was at my newspaper jobs — the internet is a big equalizer in that way.

I think that if this was the 1980s, I’d have difficulty imagining a switch from print to radio, but now everything is print, in a way. And yes, we still follow AP and our own house styles.

Working with a smaller, more specialized team also gives me the opportunity to work on my writing, which I never had much luck getting feedback on at my previous jobs, especially at newspapers where cuts meant a lot less one-on-one time with editors. Sometimes it felt like the emphasis was on filling the paper or the site with content and not necessarily helping writers find their unique style and voice, and I missed that. I always want to get better at what I do.

Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in reporting and editing at a specialized site like Connecting Vets?

A. You need to have a passion for your specialization. We report on many topics, but it all circles back to veterans and the military.

I grew up an Army brat, moving all over the country and outside it, and much of my life was shaped by that lifestyle and community. All of us on the team are connected to the service in some way — spouses, military kids, active service members and veterans — and it means something to all of us to be a part of a publication dedicated to providing timely, accurate coverage of issues that touch that community.

In my last reporting position, I was covering anything and everything. While that was almost never dull, I didn’t have a chance to build sources and work a beat as I had in past reporting jobs. When your entire enterprise is a specialty publication, you definitely have that opportunity.

Beyond enthusiasm for your subject, you have to be willing to be an authoritative voice on the subject. You have to be willing to learn every single day and build a breadth of knowledge that readers recognize and trust, or you won’t ever build an audience.

That’s especially true for editing. You can’t fact check a story full of military terms and culture if you don’t understand it. And you certainly can’t relate to an audience who understands it all if you yourself don’t.

Connecting Vets has only been around about two years, so we’re working to build that authority and find that voice. We’re growing by leaps and bounds every day, building an audience in the millions while shining light on issues of critical importance to the millions of veterans, family members and advocates in the U.S.

My advice would be to find your passions and stay open to opportunities to combine a love for journalism with those subjects or be willing to suggest them yourself. Speak up in budget meetings, don’t be afraid to make ambitious pitches and work to serve those stories that don’t get the voice you think they should.

Read Abbie Bennett’s stories on the Connecting Vets website, and follow her on Twitter.

Where jazz and journalism meet

jazzworkshop
The UNC Jazz Workshop includes nightly concerts at Hill Hall. The performances are free and open to the public.

This week, I am stepping out of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and spending my days at the music department.

I am one of several instructors in the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop. It’s the fourth time that I’ve participated in the one-week program.

So what is an editor doing at a jazz workshop? I’ll work with about a dozen students who want to learn about digital journalism as part of their workshop experience. Among other tasks, they will interview workshop participants and cover the evening performances, which are free and open to all.

Here is our schedule:

Monday, June 17
Topic: Introductions. What is news? What makes a good post?
Exercises: Create a WordPress site at web.unc.edu. Post your impressions of this evening’s performance.

Tuesday, June 18
Topics: Exploring writing formats for digital media; basics of interviewing.
Exercise: Interview a workshop participant and post a vignette about them.

Wednesday, June 19
Topic: Writing headlines and captions.
Exercise: Write headlines and captions.

Thursday, June 20
Topic: Writing for social media and live-tweeting.
Exercise: Use Twitter (and more) to cover the evening performance.

Friday, June 21
Topic: Pulling it all together.
Exercise: Use Wakelet to recap our week.

Thanks to Stephen Anderson, the workshop’s director, for the opportunity to work with these students. I’m looking forward to a fun week of music, words and images.

Eating well with style

farmersmarket
The Durham Farmers’ Market is one of several farmers markets in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

Two recent tweets have had my mind working — and my stomach growling — about some food-related style choices.

  • First, Merriam-Webster tweeted a link to this post about “farmers market” versus “farmer’s market” versus “farmers’ market.” The one near my home calls itself the Durham Farmers’ Market, going with the plural possessive. That’s fine, but when writing about such places in general, I prefer “farmers market,” using the argument that the farmers gather there but do not own the space. The AP Stylebook makes the same recommendation.
  • Second, BuzzFeed tweeted that it was changing its style from “doughnut” to “donut.” For fun, I conducted a Twitter poll to see what my followers thought, and “donut” prevailed by a comfortable margin. I also prefer that spelling, which strikes me as more contemporary. The AP Stylebook sticks with “doughnut” in its latest edition.

I look forward to eating a donut soon at the farmers market. Yum!

Remembering Tiananmen Square

tiananmen-frontpage-NYT
The front page of The New York Times for June 4, 1989.

Thirty years ago today, the Chinese government ended a pro-democracy movement centered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. At their peak, the demonstrations attracted nearly a million people. Among the protestors’ demands: freedom of the press.

In the early hours of June 4, 1989, the Chinese military moved through the city and into the square, crushing the demonstrations with brute force. Thousands of people were killed, although the precise toll is unclear.

At the time, I was an intern on the copy desk at The News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina. I recall seeing those horrific events unfold on the wire services that the newspaper subscribed to and on a small television in the newsroom. I helped update the story for the final edition of the Sunday newspaper.

Twenty years later, I spent a week in Beijing, training journalists at an English language website called China.org. The site is overseen by the Chinese government. I saw the trip as an opportunity to bring a bit of American-style journalism to Beijing.

During my stay, our hosts gave us a tour of the city, including Tiananmen Square. They briefly mentioned the 1989 protests as “unrest.” They spent more time and energy describing places where Japanese troops had committed atrocities during World War II.

Today, there is no mention of what happened at Tiananmen Square on the China.org website. That’s no surprise given the Chinese government’s efforts to erase the crackdown from the nation’s history.

Thankfully, other news organizations remind us of what happened that spring. Among them is the Hong Kong Free Press, an independent, not-for-profit news organization. HKFP has provided excellent coverage of the Tiananmen demonstrations and clampdown. I encourage you to take some time with the stories, photos and videos there, and to never forget what happened on June 4, 1989.

A fond farewell to a cherished colleague

ChrisRoush
Professor Chris Roush, left, shows students how to use a Bloomberg terminal at the Park Library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Roush has won numerous teaching awards over the years.

I am fortunate to work with brilliant and dedicated colleagues at the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. They inspire our students every day.

One of those colleagues, Chris Roush, is moving on to lead the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. He begins work there on July 22.

In an email announcement to Quinnipiac students, faculty and staff, Provost Mark Thompson wrote:

Chris’ clear sense of vision and mission for the School of Communications, coupled with his commitment to a collaborative and transparent leadership style, made him the ideal candidate to lead the school.

Since coming to Chapel Hill in 2002, Roush has built a spectacularly successful program in business journalism. His students have gone on to work at North Carolina news organizations such as The Charlotte Observer and Triad Business Journal, and at national ones such as Reuters, Bloomberg, Business Insider, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Roush has written two textbooks on business journalism, and he is the co-author of the SABEW stylebook. His website, Talking Biz News, is the go-to destination for news about business journalism.

Roush is an award-winning teacher. He and I have adjacent offices at Carroll Hall, and I have informally observed his interactions with students over the years. He has high expectations, pushing students to do their best. In doing so, he uses warmth and humor as he shares the skills and concepts of reporting and writing.

Congratulations and best wishes, Chris, in your new role. We will miss you in Chapel Hill. The students, faculty and staff at Quinnipiac are lucky to have you.