Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”

Student guest post: Graphic video of S.C. shooting needed a warning

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Amanda Raymond is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and psychology, with a minor in English literature. She is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in Concord, North Carolina, for the past 11 years. She enjoys spending time with her family and close friends and watching movies and television. She loves reading fiction novels and often buys four new books before finishing her current one.

As the credits rolled signaling the end of one of the primetime TV shows I watch during the week, a teaser for the 11 p.m. news started to play. It was what looked like a citizen video of a police officer shooting a man that was running away from him until he fell to the ground. There was no lead-in, no warning. The new station showed almost all of the video during a promo. I was shocked.

The anchors went on to say that the video was of a white officer (Michael Thomas Slager) shooting an African-American man (Walter Scott) in South Carolina. Stay tuned for all of the information brought to you by your local news at 11.

If the station wanted to get my attention, they accomplished their goal. I was stunned into watching the first 10 minutes of the broadcast. I can understand that this story is especially relevant because of the other white-officer-shooting-black-civilian stories that have been cropping up recently. The story also has a proximity value because South Carolina is practically in our own backyards. But was it a good idea to show the most graphic part of the video without any warning during a promo?

There is always going to be hesitation when a newsroom wants show a graphic video on the air. On the one hand, using videos by witnesses does add to the credibility of the story. Videos can be used to verify what the journalist is reporting. And allowing the audience to actually see the video adds a higher level of believability to the story. As they say, seeing is believing. Showing a video can also add clarity. A journalist can use all of the words in the dictionary to describe an event, but it still won’t compare to actually seeing it for yourself.

On the other hand, news organizations run the risk of the video’s content disturbing their viewers. No parent would want their young child to see someone being burned alive by terrorists if they happen to be passing by the television. And some people would simply prefer not to see those kinds of things. It’s all right if you tell them about it, but they cannot handle seeing the graphic details.

Using bystanders as sources can be a risky move. There is always a chance that the video has been digitally altered. Also, some videos are just one moment in the timeline. We do not see anything that happened before or after that moment. One moment could mean 10 different things when put in different contexts.

Some news organizations will choose to show the least graphic parts of a video on their broadcast while verbally explaining the more violent parts. Others will mention the contents of the video and tell the viewers to go to their website if they want to see it. Others still will choose to show the most graphic parts of the video with a verbal warning beforehand.

I think it’s safe to say that all of the news organizations will show the video in some capacity (either on air or online) because if your station is the only one not showing the video, the station will look like it is not as knowledgeable. If the station does go that route, I think audiences respect them if they give a statement about why they made that decision. That way, the viewers know the station is aware of the video and are deliberately choosing not to show it.

There are obviously many pros and cons to using graphic videos during a broadcast. As more residents record the actions of law enforcement and other officials in order to keep authority in check, editors and news organizations will have to weigh those considerations to determine if using the video adds value to the piece and is necessary for the audience to see, or too graphic for most people to handle and better explained with words.

Regarding the broadcast that used the South Carolina video as a teaser, as a viewer, I would at least appreciate a warning before that kind of graphic content is shown.

Happy birthday, NewsU

Poynter’s News University, an e-learning site for journalists and other communicators, celebrates its 10th birthday this week. Hooray!

I have worked with NewsU when it was a toddler and I was a new faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill. In August 2006, I saw a NewsU booth at the AEJMC conference in San Francisco and struck up a conversation with Vicki Krueger, who is now manager of NewsU. It was my first encounter with online education, and I quickly saw the power and effectiveness of this method of training and instruction.

Between then and now, I’ve worked with the NewsU crew to create a course on alternative story forms and contributed to a course on the fundamentals of editing. An all-new version of the ASF course will debut on the site this year. In 2013, I led a Webinar on headline writing for digital media.

I’ve also used several NewsU Webinars in my editing courses on topics such as verification and curation. My students learn a great deal from these guest speakers, and so do I.

To mark its birthday, NewsU will hold a Webinar on Friday called “NewsU at 10: Top Lessons from a Decade of E-Learning.” I’ll be there, and I look forward to celebrating the occasion with some virtual birthday cake.

Happy birthday, NewsU, and congratulations on 10 years of journalism education. Here’s to many more!

Student guest post: UVa newspaper shows limits of ‘satire’

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Nick Niedzwiadek is a junior from Latham, New York, majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like Jerry Seinfeld, he too transferred from SUNY Oswego.

It’s hard to be funny.

News organizations, which typically pride themselves on directness and objectivity, are particularly vulnerable to underestimating humor’s difficulty. Journalists can be tempted to show they don’t take themselves too seriously, but The Cavalier Daily showed how easy it is for satire to go too far and be offensive.

The University of Virginia’s student newspaper featured an April Fools’ Day story called “ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo’s Bagels.” Not only was it reminiscent of the events that led to black UVa student Martese Johnson’s violent arrest earlier this month, the subhead “Students decry ‘Trail of Schmears’” offended Native Americans. The Cavalier Daily also ran an article titled “Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks’ party.”

The backlash against the story resulted in the articles being removed from the newspaper’s website, and it quickly posted an apology.

The Cavalier Daily could have learned a lesson from N.C. State’s student newspaper, Technician, which ended its spoof edition in 2013. The Daily Tar Hell was typically published when N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill squared off in men’s basketball, and it copied the style of UNC’s paper, The Daily Tar Heel. The editor who ended the tradition, Sam DeGrave — perhaps prophetically — wrote that he did it because “the humor, if you can call it that, which the editions relied on was sexist, racist and most commonly homophobic.”

While these faux-newspapers are only meant to be light-hearted college hijinks, they often cross the line between pointedly funny and offensive — something even professional comedians can struggle with. Very few people fully appreciate the amount of time and thoughtfulness that goes into articles on The Onion, or even The Minor — which did a better job of ribbing UNC than Technician ever did.

An editor’s job is to uphold and protect the organization from embarrassing mistakes, even it leads to unpopular decisions like DeGrave’s. Besides, truth can be stranger than fiction anyway: The same day as The Cavalier Daily’s stories, The Daily Tar Heel’s front page included stories about the university possibly buying a porn domain name and a whistleblower lawsuit involving a sex-for-hire scheme in the housekeeping department. Both were real stories that didn’t have much trouble getting attention in print or online.

Student guest post: “Breaking news” is broken

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Mark Lihn is a senior journalism and political science major from Arlington, Virginia. He will begin pursuing a master’s degree in international relations next fall. 

In today’s media world, people get their news from a wide variety of sources, from television to the Internet to newspapers. While the print industry is struggling, it was never the ideal method of distribution for breaking news. However, the Internet and social media are perfectly equipped to spread the newest news, keeping people updated on their tablets, computers and smartphones.

But how long can breaking news be considered “breaking”?

The rise of the 24-hour news cycle in cable television and the Internet has had its advantages. News is more accessible across the country than ever before. If I want to know what is going on in the world, I simply have to check an application on my phone or turn on my computer or television. We generally learn breaking news long before I have to turn on a television or computer though.

The first time I hear a big news story tends to be through word of mouth or my smartphone. I either see the news on Twitter or my CNN app first, or I hear about it from a friend who learned about it a similar way. In today’s modern society, it seems safe to assume that most people who would turn to the Internet for their news get their breaking news this way.

The amount of time a story remains “breaking” is open to interpretation. It certainly seems safe to assume though that a story I have heard about three or four times already is no longer breaking news to me.

Why then do websites like CNN.com insist on having a breaking news story front and center 24/7? If a story broke in the morning, then in the afternoon, it is no longer “breaking.”

Such is the case with most of the major stories that CNN covers, like the recent tragedy of the plane crash in France. The crash of the plane was a breaking news story. However, the first story that the plane crashed keeps its timeliness far longer than any update to that story. The update that the co-pilot of the Germanwings plane was medically unfit to work broke this morning. At 4 p.m., the same update to a story that began three days ago is still labeled “breaking.”

The infatuation with breaking news on Internet news sites leads to the devaluation of breaking news. I have become immune to the monstrously large headlines and pictures of the lead pack on CNN’s site. They are always there, no matter what is going on the world, there seems to be a breaking news story.

News happens all of the time, which is why it is news. Simply because a story is new, though, does not make it a breaking news story.

Editors need to be more aware that they can wear out their audiences by overusing the categorization of breaking news. Breaking news stories can garner clicks, leading indirectly to increased revenue, but if editors are not careful, their audiences will become immune to their stories and their sites. It is something I have encountered with CNN, and it has led me to look for other news sources.

Editors of steel at ACES 2015

Later this week, the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

About 500 full-time, part-time and freelance editors are registered for this year’s three-day gathering. That would make it the best-attended ACES conference in 10 years. They will come from news, academia, government, book publishing and the corporate world.

Sadly, I will not be among them. I cannot attend this year’s conference because of a family issue. I’ll miss out on great sessions and won’t be able to cheer on winners of the headline contest or congratulate students who have won scholarships. I will, of course, follow the news from the conference on the ACES website and via Twitter.

Best wishes to everyone going to Pittsburgh. I know that you will share a lot of knowledge as well as a few laughs. I hope to see you in Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 conference.

Student guest post: A farewell to the homepage

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Paige Ladisic is a junior studying editing and graphic design and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. But most of the time, she’s the online editor at The Daily Tar Heel, studying how to manage a print-first college newspaper in a digital-first world.

Every day, between 25,000 and 30,000 people view dailytarheel.com, clicking on links from Facebook, Twitter and the homepage. But every day when I open our Google Analytics panel, I’m noticing a trend — it’s just a little change for us, but at newspapers all over the country, it’s happening a lot faster and with far bigger numbers.

The modern homepage is dying.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t reading news, although seeing that The New York Times lost 80 million homepage visitors over two years is a scary statistic. That just means that people are getting to news in different ways.

Instead of treating a homepage like a digital copy of a newspaper, readers find news through social media referrals, Google searches and something analytics sites call “dark social.” Instead of readers reading the news online at certain times throughout the day, people are grabbing bits of information here and there.

At The Daily Tar Heel, our homepage’s death is coming more slowly than 80 million pageviews lost, but I’ve been watching the decline and getting ready for it.

What’s a student journalist to do?

My job every day is to make sure our website is produced with the reader and their experience in mind. I also oversee everything pushed to Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

Before, the goal of producing a website would just be to drive people to your homepage — but now, every social media post I write is a pitch to read that one story, to share it or to send it to your friends. People aren’t seeking out our news, because hundreds of articles are competing for every UNC student’s attention at any given time — we have to jump in the fray too.

When I open a story in our content management system, the first thing I do is write a headline — but instead of one headline, I’ll write two or three.

One is the normal newsy headline that will also be featured in the URL, one is a feature headline for the story page itself and the final headline is exclusively for social media sharing. I take advantage of that third headline to drive people from Facebook to the website, and the feature headline is important to keep people on the site once they click.

In the body text of the story, I link to everything I can — older stories with important context, profiles about key players in a story, topic pages and archives of related stories. And when it’s time to write the social media post, it’s more than just using all 140 characters — I have to take advantage of every single character to convince readers to click that link.

It’s all about getting people to the site, and once they get there, keeping them there.

RIP, homepage.