Student guest post: BuzzFeed should re-evaluate its news judgment

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Luke Bollinger is a junior majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoys reporting for The Daily Tar Heel and all things “Game of Thrones.”

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier containing unverified information should cause journalists, especially editors, to contemplate the importance of sound news judgment when fake news is rampant and trust in the media is dishearteningly low.

The dossier contains uncorroborated information that Russia has damaging information on newly elected President Donald Trump. The dossier had been circulating among government officials. News outlets reported on the documents but did not disclose the specific details.

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full dossier instantly ignited a debate of whether they should have published the documents.

The question of whether BuzzFeed should have published the document, despite knowledge of its potential falsity (this sounds a bit like actual malice) is a question of news judgment and how it should be exercised.

BuzzFeed stated that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” And the story does hold practically every news value editors consider when deciding what to publish: impact, magnitude, conflict, timeliness, proximity and emotional impact.

Yet, this looks like fake news.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”

It is not reporting if a journalist simply regurgitates information; there needs to be a process of verification.

This is not the fake news grounded in imagination that normally plagues Facebook and Twitter, but it has similar effects. Fake news sensationalizes, and BuzzFeed has done the same by publishing the dossier.

The story has been sensationalized; BuzzFeed has put itself at the center of attention and some of the more perverse contents of the dossier have been turned into internet memes.

There is definitely cause to report on the dossier circulating among senators and top intelligence officials. The dossier is concerning; the possibility that a foreign power has compromising information on President Trump is frightening. This needs to be reported on, but this is where exercising cautious news judgment is critical when considering the prevalence of fake news.

The BuzzFeed article said the reasoning for publishing the dossier was “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Presenting the people with the information and letting them make their own conclusions is something journalists should work toward every day, but not to the extent that a journalist no longer practices accurate reporting.

Fake news is a huge problem, a problem that diminishes the value of accurate information and jeopardizes the effectiveness of journalists that actively seek to provide the truth. BuzzFeed should have considered how publishing the dossier would work against journalists who verify their information.

Many journalists took offense. Columnists and commentators scolded BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith for his decision and news judgment while CNN released a statement distancing itself from BuzzFeed.

The next four years will most likely hold plenty of controversy. Situations such as the dossier complicate editorial decisions when you have the responsibility of keeping an audience as informed as possible, as well as the responsibility of seeking the truth. In the era of fake news, finding a balance should rely more on truth. Not the possibility of truth.

Q&A with Grace Raynor, sportswriter at the Post and Courier

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The front page of the Post and Courier the day after Clemson won the national championship on a last-second touchdown.

Grace Raynor is a sportswriter at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. She is a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, and she was sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel during her time in college. In this interview, conducted by email, Raynor discusses sports journalism, her experience covering a national championship football game and her use of social media as part of her job.

Q. Describe your job at the Post and Courier. What is your typical day like?

A. I joined the Post and Courier’s sports staff in March as a general assignment reporter. What’s cool about being a GA sports reporter is that every day is different. There would be some days I’d cover high school football, others I’d cover minor league baseball and even some when I’d head out to the water and write sailing articles.

My favorite part about being GA is the ability to write the off-the-wall stuff. Once I wrote about a 70-year old pole vaulter, and another time I wrote about a couple that are judo partners together. My role is helping out in any capacity with the day-to-day stuff and then finding stories or enterprise on my own that I find interesting and want to tackle.

This week is a little unconventional in that I’m actually about to take on a new role at the P&C as our Clemson beat writer, meaning I’ll be making the move to the Upstate soon. In that capacity I’ll cover Clemson football, men’s basketball and baseball for the P&C — so the day-to-day grind is about to change!

Q. You recently covered Clemson’s victory in the college football playoff. What was it like to cover the championship game?

A. Covering the national championship game was unlike any experience I’ve ever had before, both journalistically and personally.

From a journalistic standpoint, it was the ultimate adrenaline rush: It was an 8:17 p.m. kickoff; for print deadline purposes, my first story was due 15 minutes after the game ended, and then the game came down the literal last second. It was stressful at times when I had to adjust so quickly after that last touchdown, but also such a rush that it’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Personally, it’s always been on my sports reporter bucket list to cover a national championship game. The way that one ended couldn’t have been more exciting.

Q. You’re active on Twitter. How does social media help or hinder your work?

A. Twitter is such a great tool to reach a large audience of people who are all interested in a common thing. With Clemson fans, Twitter is one of the first places they go to to get in-game information or postgame reactions, and so in that regard it’s very efficient and engaging. If there’s a quote or detail I want to get out there before my story is published, Twitter is the best way to do that.

I do think it can be a bit of a hindrance sometimes, though. I am guilty of sometimes spending so much time tweeting a postgame press conference or a locker room scene that I miss out on body language or eye contact or those little details that we miss when we’re on our phones. It’s definitely a give-and-take balance that I’m still learning.

Q. Covering college sports is challenging and rewarding. What advice do you have for students who are considering sportswriting as a career?

A. You’re so right in that regard that it’s both challenging and rewarding. I’m still learning myself the ins and outs of the sports journalism world, but my advice is this: Be patient.

After I graduated from UNC, I had an internship that lasted until October and then didn’t find a full-time job I liked until March. It took me almost six full months to land on my feet, and that’s OK!

Now, I’m so glad I waited on taking a job I knew I would be really passionate about, rather than just taking the first thing that was thrown my way. In those five months I continued to freelance so I had an income (definitely not advising not working here!) and then things fell into place.

I realize it’s annoying when people tell recent graduates that things will work out as they should. I used to hate hearing that. But it’s true. Stay patient, write things you’re passionate about and surround yourself with people who care about you. When it works out, it’s awesome.

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter and read her stories on the Post and Courier website.

What I am teaching this semester

Today is the first day of the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here’s what I am teaching this term:

  • MEJO 157, News Editing. This is a course on the fundamentals of editing for print and digital media. It includes headline writing and caption writing. Here is the syllabus.
  • MEJO 457, Advanced Editing. This is a course that focuses on subject areas such as features, opinion writing and sports. Students also collaborate with other courses on projects such as The Durham VOICE. Here is the syllabus.

In addition to my coursework, I will serve on several committees for master’s theses, and I’ll chair one.

Best wishes to faculty, staff and students on a successful semester!

Q&A with Marnie Shure, deputy managing editor at The Onion

Marnie Shure is deputy managing editor at The Onion, the satirical website that describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source.” In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her role at The Onion and how editing and headline writing work there.

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

A. A typical workday actually starts around 7 a.m. In addition to being the deputy managing editor, I’m also the features editor, covering small content types; this means I have to find news topics early in the morning for the writers to comment on throughout the day.

Later, at the office, we typically have between one and three different meetings in a day, targeting certain editorial objectives like slating a future issue or responding quickly to a developing news story. In between, I am assembling features, communicating with freelancers, looking over content schedules and generally just shepherding things through the various stages of production.

I also occasionally still copyedit stories when I can, which is a delight all its own.

Q. How do writers and editors at The Onion come up with ideas for stories and “report” them?

A. Every writer has their own methods of generating story ideas to bring to the table, but of course keeping an eye on real news trends and developments is a huge part of that.

From there, the process is incredibly collaborative: Headlines are read aloud in a meeting and voted upon, and selected stories are brainstormed as a group. Drafts are written, rewritten, edited and edited again.

All told, each piece of content goes through about six different rounds of review. But it has to begin with a headline that could just as easily stand on its own, without text. If the headline cannot be fully understood without further elaboration, then the headline isn’t strong enough to be selected in the first place.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at The Onion?

A. Story editing is also a group effort, in that no single person’s preferences are shaping the finished product. Each sentence is scrutinized for joke opportunities and infused with as much satire as can be stuffed into it.

At the same time, though, nothing can read too much like a joke is being made; it should sound natural, businesslike, and newsworthy, no matter the topic. It’s this particular aspect of the voice that makes it hard to master: It can never sound as though anyone but a journalist is writing it.

Q. Working at The Onion sounds like fun. What advice do you have for people interested in jobs there?

A. Working at The Onion is certainly very fun, provided you are an obsessed freak like me!

Within the editorial realm, a borderline unhealthy fandom for America’s Finest News Source (coupled with a workhorse mentality and gluttony for punishment) outweighs the most esteemed journalism degree. I’ve never been around people who work so hard in my life.

So I guess the answer is, find it fun to work very hard at this one particular thing. I’m not good with advice.

Q&A with Lisa McLendon, author ‘The Perfect English Grammar Workbook’

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Lisa McLendon is the coordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas. She is the author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English.” In this interview, conducted by email, McLendon discusses the book and her views on “grammar police” and the singular they.

Q. What prompted you to write this workbook, and how did it come together?

A. This was a great example of the power of networking: Someone I’m connected with on Twitter and through the American Copy Editors Society is a freelance copy editor for publisher Callisto Media and edited Grant Barrett’s “Perfect English Grammar.” When Callisto decided to do a workbook, too, she couldn’t take it on so she recommended me.

The publisher uses data to figure out what audiences are looking for and what needs are unmet, so the turnaround was quick. I wrote the book in about six weeks. Then it went through two rounds of editing, design, marketing and then release.

Q. You’re an editor. As an author, how did it feel to be edited?

A. EVERYONE needs an editor, and that includes editors who are writing. It gave me a lot of confidence in the publisher that editing was still an important part of the process.

I was pleased to have a thorough content edit and then a thorough copy edit on top of that. Both editors were excellent, and the process was relatively painless. But still, there were a couple of places where I thought, “yikes, did I write that?” That’s why we all need editors!

Q. What are some areas of grammar that cause people headaches?

A. Agreement, both subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent. Subjunctives. Subject and object pronoun use. Punctuation, apostrophes in particular.

Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?

I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing.

Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.

But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

A. Oxford comma: Honestly, I wish people would quit arguing about this. There are so many more important issues in language. Follow the designated style guide and be done with it. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2013/07/31/dont-sweat-it-serial-comma/)

Singular they: We have been using “they” for centuries to refer to unspecified or unknown people, and English has not crumbled into dust as a result. (In fact, this exact grammatical phenomenon has occurred before, when plural “you” expanded into the singular, displacing “thou” and “thee.”) It’s here to stay, and it’s rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream publications. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2015/08/12/singularthey/)

A newspaper helps with giving

trianglegivesThe Thanksgiving Day newspaper is typically the largest of the year, loaded with advertising for Black Friday. That’s true of The News & Observer, the paper I read every day.

My favorite section of the Thanksgiving edition of the N&O is Triangle Gives. In print, it consists of 40 pages of profiles of nonprofit organizations that do good things in North Carolina. Some, such as Habitat for Humanity, are familiar. Others, such as the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, may be less so.

I’ll use the Triangle Gives section to select a few organizations for donations during the holidays. I’ll ask my 16-year-old son to do the same.

And if you live in North Carolina, I’ll ask you too. If you missed the section in print, you can read it online. Either way, I hope you will follow the advice of one of the headlines in Triangle Gives: “To do the greatest good, write a check or volunteer.”