Student guest post: It’s time for euphemisms to kick the bucket

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 17th of those posts. Molly Sprecher is a junior double-majoring in reporting and English and Comparative Literature. She works as a digital intern for the General Alumni Association and as the publicity editor and assistant photo editor for the Yackety Yack yearbook. She also freelances as an event and landscape photographer.

If there’s one thing I know as an English and Comparative Literature major, it’s how to draw out the word count with beautiful, fluffy, meaningless chatter. You give me a phrase, and I’ll tell you one with three more adjectives and at least 25 more syllables.

But journalism values brevity and honesty, appealing to the shortening attention span of consumers overwhelmed with options. My professor for MEJO 358 (Opinion Writing), Angelia Herrin, gave me a reality check this semester when she told me I was such a clever writer that I seduced myself into not realizing I wasn’t writing about anything.

Journalists are often criticized for the practice of concisely, objectively reporting the news, and accused of not caring about the subjects they report on. Viewers see indifference and distance in journalists’ blunt style. In any other segment of public life, death is a four-letter word (please excuse the euphemism). But in the news, it is commonplace, and according to The Associated Press Stylebook, the only acceptable choice.

But journalists’ rejection of euphemisms and fluff phrases is a testament to their dedication to telling the public the truth. Such as, Howard Schultz is a billionaire, not a “person of means,” and “alternative facts” are just lies. Editors delete phrases that have little concrete meaning, like “passed away,” “powder your nose,” “vertically challenged” or “au natural,” not just because they are awkward, but also because they don’t serve to inform the public, which is a journalist’s primary responsibility. Changing the wording doesn’t change the facts, but can skew public perception.

The AP Stylebook recently announced that the phrases “racially charged” or “racially motivated” should be replaced with “racist.” Herein lies another instance of giving up what is comfortable in favor of what is. Downplaying the significance of what journalists’ report on would be a disservice to those reported to.

To say that someone died, was racist or is homeless is to recognize the shared humanity of the audience. The people in the news are human beings, not abstractions to decorate with pretty phrases.

This distinction is more important than ever as society takes on the challenge of practicing inclusive language in a diversifying community. Editors must be aware not only of what the stylebook says, but also of the preferences of the public. Tip-toeing around these sensitive phrases only serves to alienate or condescend to the community involved.

While increasing budget cuts and online options call for cutting word count, it is still important for journalists and editors to remain cognizant of any attempt to create a language buffer between ideas and the audience. Avoiding the issue won’t make it stop existing, it will just make the line of communication between journalists and the public that much more convoluted.

In journalism, both the public and the individual matter. No, we cannot report on every single person. But we can show that we see their humanity in word choice. Your grandmother died; she didn’t pass away. Her employee was fired, not let go or between jobs. He is a member of the LGBTQ community, not batting for the other team. They are victims, not collateral damage.

Hard facts and objective reporting, instead of eliminating emotion, can be humanizing and help end the “other” perception of marginalized groups. The AP Stylebook’s transition to “racist” as an accepted phrase is a step in the right direction.

As journalists, we have promised to pursue and report only the truth. We have not promised flowery language, only that we will not shy away from difficult issues, and that we will respect what we have the responsibility to report. Disregarding meaningless phrases only sacrifices denigrating important issues, not our journalistic integrity nor our human sympathy.

When classes collaborate

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Students in MEJO 557 (Advanced Editing) talk with high school students visiting from Durham, North Carolina.

I enjoy all of the journalism courses that I teach at UNC-Chapel Hill, but for different reasons.

In MEJO 157 (News Editing), I introduce students to the fundamentals of style, punctuation and word choice. Students learn to check facts and verify information, and they write headlines, captions and tweets.

In MEJO 711 (Writing and Editing for Digital Media), I work with midcareer communicators who want to refresh their skills and learn new ones. The course is part of a master’s program that’s taught online.

In MEJO 557 (Advanced Editing). I have a class of experienced student editors. A theme of the course is the editor-writer relationship, which students explore via guest speakers, “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Fisher Saller and the movie “Spotlight.”

A key difference with Advanced Editing is that the course collaborates with others in the journalism school. My students team up with those in MEJO 356 (Feature Writing), MEJO 459 (Community Journalism) and MEJO 584 (Documentary Multimedia Storytelling). We have collaborated on the following projects this semester:

  • Omnibus, a website showcasing feature stories about the university, Chapel Hill and beyond.
  • The Durham VOICE, a website and monthly publication covering Northeast Central Durham.
  • Uprooted, a multimedia website covering the refugee crisis in Venezuela and Colombia.

My students and I learn a great deal through these collaborations. Each one allows us to get the feel of working in a newsroom. Thanks to instructors John Robinson, Jock Lauterer and Pat Davison for making those experiences possible.

Guest post: Remembering N&O cartoonist Dwane Powell

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Cartoonist Dwane Powell at a News & Observer reunion in April 2018. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Cain)

Carol Jenkins worked for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, for nearly 22 years. As a page designer, she won an SND award for World’s Best Designed Newspaper as part of the newspaper’s design staff. Jenkins was assistant editor for community news at the N&O when she requested and received a buyout in 2010. For the past eight years, she has worked as marketing communications manager for SMT, a sports technology company in Durham, North Carolina. Jenkins lives in Raleigh with her wife, Carolyn Davis, daughter, Ellis, and two border collies, Josie and Abbey. In this essay originally posted on Facebook, Jenkins remembers N&O cartoonist Dwane Powell, who died this week at age 74.

I had just turned 21 and was still in the closet when I started working for The News & Observer in 1988. I detested the fear-mongering politics of Sen. Jesse Helms, so I was buoyed by the stances of the editorial board and empowered by Dwane Powell’s killer cartoons that skewered far-right politicians and their radical policies.

At the time, racist, sexist and homophobic jokes were still flying around — yes, even at this “liberal” newspaper. Although I was seen as a civil rights advocate, I was not yet courageous enough to announce to coworkers and family that I was gay.

When I first started working at the paper, I was little star-struck when I passed a Dennis Rogers or Michael Skube or Marion Gregory or Mary Cornatzer or A.C. Snow or — gasp! — Frank Daniels Jr. in the hallway or in the Pre Press department. But Dwane Powell was just so casually cool and humble that he made everyone instantly feel at ease. He was one of the most down-to-earth, unassuming, charming, friendly people in that building, and he just so happened to be a brilliant cartoonist whose views aligned with mine.

Back then — in the era before desktop publishing — we pasted up news pages headline by headline, copy strip by copy strip, ad by ad and cartoon by cartoon. After the pages were shot and turned to negatives via a huge camera in Pre Press, we’d check the manifest for ads that were re-running the following week, strip the ads off the pages and file them in long, skinny drawers with the corresponding dates.

I stripped Dwane’s cartoons, too, and kept a sticky collection on the walls of my cubby, a body of work that conveyed in a single drawing the eye-rolling frustration, fury and pain at the policies of our hate-spewing legislators. For someone like me from a conservative-leaning family, feeling the validation of my world views from such a strong contingent of smart, reasoned, hard-working journalists was just what the goddesses ordered.

The News & Observer would be the place I would spend the greater part of the next two decades. Working late nights, weekends and holidays means having to gel with your coworkers, and these people became my second family. We would ride out storms in the downtown Hair Curler and walk miles into work through the ice and snow (hello, Jan. 25, 2000). We showed up for each other: birthdays, weddings, funerals, births, bris ceremonies, chemo treatments, musical gigs, acting performances — maybe even a kid’s baseball game.

Even though most of us are long gone from 215 S. McDowell St., we still show up for one another. When, in 2009, I held a fundraiser for a program for the Raleigh LGBTQ Center, Dwane happily contributed a collection of original cartoons for auction (topics included Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas, Roe vs. Wade, and, yes, Jesse Helms).

Dwane was part of our N&O family, and today I mourn his passing and celebrate his life. My deepest condolences to wife, Jan, daughter, Devon, extended family and friends, and to the entire N&O family.

Read Dwane Powell’s obituary and see some of his editorial cartoons on the N&O website.

Student guest post: the evolution of copy editing in a college newspaper’s newsroom

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 16th of those posts. Charlotte Spence is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is studying media and journalism, with a concentration in editing and graphic design, and political science while minoring in Hispanic studies. She has worked at The Daily Tar Heel throughout her time in college.

Before coming to college, I had little to no interest in journalism, and I never imagined I would pursue any role in publishing news.

In a desperate search to up my involvement on campus, I joined the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel during my first semester. This helped me discover a career path I was passionate about and meet incredible friends along the way. To this day, the fundamentals have stayed the same — except the evolution of the function of the copy desk.

I was very nervous for my first shift at the DTH. I had no experience in editing, and I did not know anyone who worked there at the time. I will never forget how red my face became after asking my editor, “What’s a CQ?” and hearing several chuckles throughout the newsroom. Thankfully, she patiently guided me through all of my queries and uninformed edits. She played a substantial role in my interest in journalism, definitely more than she will ever realize.

I will also never forget how archaic the whole production felt to me. We used iMac computers that had greatly passed their prime and Adobe InCopy software that had not been updated since those computers were purchased. Because we only had access to a few desktops, every copy desk member would alternate using them for each individual story. It was crowded, bothersome and inefficient.

While our office was very well-furnished and spacious, the structure of our newsroom did not do the copy desk any favors. We sat at computers alongside the management team, while the rest of the writers and editors worked together in the room next door. This fostered little collaboration between the copy desk and the writers, and made me feel even more intimidated to ask them questions.

After returning from a semester abroad in Spain, I found that the copy desk had completely transformed. We stopped using InCopy and began using a content management system called CEO. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program, CEO combines the user interface of InCopy with the comment functionality of Google Docs. This made a huge difference as it gave copy desk members the freedom of mobility — to ask questions, to approach writers and to read their comments.

On top of this change, I discovered that the paper was relocating to an office on Franklin Street. This office had no dividing walls separating the different desks, which gave me the opportunity to meet people from different specializations in the newsroom and ask them for feedback. It was also much closer to my house, which was a nice bonus.

Surprisingly, neither of these changes was the most dramatic to occur that semester. I realized that the copy desk and the online desk had morphed into one. This meant that copy desk members were also tasked with writing the DTH’s social media posts. We were challenged with writing a one-to-two sentence post that summarized the story well and also enticed people to keep reading.

The position of the copy editor in a newsroom is a challenging one in that we wear a multitude of hats. We edit stories for Associated Press style, clarity and grammar. We write headlines and abstracts. And now, we write tweets and Facebook posts. In my four short years working at the DTH, I have seen that copy editors must own all of these hats — and wear them well.

While our work sometimes may go unnoticed, copy editors are the foundation of the newsroom. Throughout my time in college, I have learned how copy editors can serve a more dominant role in the production of news and how we can do so efficiently.

While the position of the copy editor is constantly evolving, it will never lose its purpose. Behind every good writer is a great editor.

A WordPress upgrade

After using WordPress for free for more than a decade, I’ve decided to pay for an upgrade.

For me, this means I will have more storage space for images and other content on this site. I’ll also have access to more themes for its design, among other benefits.

For you, the upgrade means you will no longer see ads on this site. Thanks for reading!

Student guest post: Style changes debut at ACES conference

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Johnny Sobczak is a UNC-Chapel Hill junior from Fayetteville, North Carolina. He is majoring in journalism, with a concentration in reporting, and minoring in global cinema. He writes for the Durham VOICE. He is most strongly interested in the film industry and writes about film on his personal blog. He hopes to pursue a career in film journalism after college.

Anyone involved in the journalism industry knows AP style like the back of his or her hand. From reporters to editors, it’s the standardized style and usage maintained by American journalists that work in connection with The Associated Press. Every year since 1997, ACES: The Society for Editing has held a conference to improve their editing skills, learn about style and usage trends, and meet fellow editors from across the country. One of the conference’s most interesting and discussed events is the AP’s reveal of the changes to the stylebook.

The most significant change this year was the addition of a new section that will attempt to improve race-related coverage by pulling together similar, scattered entries, updating AP guidance, and attaching more importance to the topic, according to Paula Froke, lead editor of the AP Stylebook. My colleague writes about those race-related style changes here, so I want to discuss a couple of the other notable changes made for 2019. As a student reporter and editor, my colleagues and professors are constantly debating the merit of AP Stylebook choices. It’s important to not only know the style, but the reasoning behind the choices, and I think most of the AP’s changes are for the better.

One of the AP style choices that has always baffled me was the decision to forego the % sign. To me, journalistic writing is about conciseness and communicating information as effectively as possible, so spelling out “percent” in every instance seemed antithetical. To remember it, I began forcing myself to type out “percent” in every context, whether it was a text to my mom or a Twitter message to a friend. Thankfully, the AP has come around and is now allowing the use of the % sign when paired with a numeral, with no space, in most cases. In casual uses, the word will still be preferred, such as in “he has zero percent chance of winning.”

The hyphen is another point of contention that has been cleared up this year. As most of my fellow students know, the use of the hyphen with modifiers can be tricky business. The previous rule made phrases like “third-grade teacher” and “first-quarter touchdown” standard. Now, the AP is suggesting that no hyphen is necessary if the modifiers are commonly recognized as one phrase, such as “chocolate chip cookie” or “early morning transaction.”

I feel like this is another example of a good, common sense move to improve clarity. Of course, this still means using the hyphen when it’ll help make things easier to understand for the reader. Recently, I was editing a piece and was about to leave out a hyphen for “small business owner.” My editing professor reminded me that we wouldn’t want any readers thinking the business owner was small in stature, so I opted to leave it in. The elimination of superfluous hyphens is also being extended to combinations with double-e construction, such as “reelect” and “preexisting.”

As I have grown increasingly familiar with AP style, I think it’s fair to say I’ve at times also grown increasingly frustrated. Some of the style choices might seem arbitrary or confusing, but the ultimate goal of the AP is to recognize which are most troublesome and improve as much as possible each year. These new style changes are just two of many that will make my work, and the work of journalists across the country, a little bit easier.

A cool homepage

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Many news organizations use a homepage template, consisting of a main story with a photo surrounded by lists of headlines and smaller images. These designs are efficient, but they can make it difficult to emphasize a big story.

Last week, The News & Observer broke the mold of its homepage. The Carolina Hurricanes had clinched a position in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

This big news deserved bigger play. The N&O’s news judgment reflected that, with a larger image and all-caps headline.

Andrew Roman, audience growth producer at the N&O, explained how this cool homepage came together:

The N&O and other McClatchy papers in the Carolinas had an intricate deep homepage banner last fall during hurricane season that linked to multiple stories and displayed weather radar. A couple weeks ago, we decided we wanted to do something similar, but more simple, to honor local basketball teams that made this year’s Final Four. Since that didn’t happen, the opportunity arose to give a different momentous sports event the same treatment. I was working the night the Canes clinched a playoff spot; I made the call to use the banner, selected a suitable staff photo and wrote the display text.

Good luck to the Canes (and the journalists who cover them) on this playoff run. Take warning!