Student guest post: Don’t forget to check facts online

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Jessica Castro-Rappl is a third-year editing and graphic design student from Raleigh, North Carolina. Her interests include travel, baking and procrastination.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it gives us the capacity to spread information instantly. This also doubles as one of the not-so-great things about the Internet.

The velocity of information on the Internet leads to a race to publish news, and news outlets might sacrifice quality in order to quickly deliver information to readers.

This isn’t a new concept — a rush to publish has affected our field for years. But when information can be spread to a virtually unlimited audience with a couple of clicks, it’s important that that information be accurate.

And it can be tricky to make sure that your story is accurate! When an event happens and there isn’t a plethora of reliable sources and you’re working on a deadline, maybe you don’t have all the information you need before going to print.

But your first duty is to your readers, and that means giving them the highest-quality information you can offer.

A couple of weeks ago, a California man sent an elementary school into lockdown when he was spotted carrying what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.

That’s not how the story was reported, though. Online article titles read “Suspect who waved sawed-off shotgun near Otay Elementary in custody” or “Man receiving psychological evaluation wielding a sawed-off shotgun near school.”

The problem? The man wasn’t wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Police reported him as “possibly carrying a sawed-off shotgun.” In reality, it was a replica firearm.

The worst part to me, though, is that some of the stories that reported the gun was a replica were the same ones that put “sawed-off shotgun” in the headline. It’s unclear if the headline writer even read the whole article.

Even if you’re rushing to write an eye-catching headline, even if you’ve got to publish the story online as soon as possible and even if you’re working with limited sources, there is no excuse for providing your readers with misinformation.

Before style or grammar, editors (and writers!) should focus on fact-checking and source verification.

Then, maybe, we can take true advantage of the instantaneousness of the Internet, using it to deliver accurate information to readers — without them having to wait for the morning newspaper.

Defining a president

N.C. State University in Raleigh is one of the 17 campuses that make up the UNC system. (Creative Commons image)
N.C. State University in Raleigh is one of the 17 campuses that make up the UNC system. (Creative Commons image)

In a surprise move, Tom Ross has announced that he will resign as president of the University of North Carolina system. It’s unclear why the system’s Board of Governors forced out Ross, and some see a political motive behind the change.

Reading the online coverage of this big news, I noticed that many readers are confused about Ross’ role. In the comments sections on news sites, they blamed Ross for the academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, even though the fake classes at issue had ended by the time he took office. Readers also criticized him for the expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference, including the addition of the University of Miami. That, too, took place before Ross led the UNC system.

Many comments focused on the Chapel Hill campus, implying that Ross is its leader. That university is led by Chancellor Carol Folt.

This confusion presents an opportunity for editors and reporters to define the role of UNC’s president. As coverage continues, why not include a textbox that provides a job description for the position? Describe how the UNC president oversees 17 campuses, not one. What role, if any, does the president have in athletics, including conference affiliations?

It’s possible that some of the readers’ ignorance is willful. Trolls will be trolls. But many people may simply not understand how a complicated university system is governed. They’d like to know how it works. Here’s our chance to tell them.

Student guest post: Language and perception in coverage of Paris march

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Jordan Bailey is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She enjoys studying the effects of media and is particularly interested in how minority groups are portrayed in the mainstream media. Other interests include traveling, writing, reading, cooking and eating.

As a student of both anthropology and journalism, I am interested in how language and word choice work together to affect how a story is received by its readers.

A reader’s reaction to a news event is likely to be heavily influenced by how that story is presented to them. The use of certain words and phrases typically triggers specific reactions by readers, and those reactions will vary depending on the language used. This is why it is imperative that journalists are conscious of the language choices they make.

In order to illustrate this point, I will compare aspects of two news stories — both of which cover the march in Paris that took place on Jan. 11 in response to the attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One article is from The New York Times, and the other appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

In the first paragraph of The New York Times article, the march is described as “the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.” By immediately connecting the Paris attacks to Islamic extremism and the events of Sept. 11, the article is priming the reader to think negatively about the Islamic faith.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal calls the march a “display of unity against the terror attacks that tore through (France’s) capital.” By not instantly identifying the attacks as an act of Islamic extremism, The Wall Street Journal shifts the focus from the faith of the attackers to the individual instance of tragedy that inspired the march.

The two articles also differ in how they describe the U.S. participation in the event. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe joined the marchers in Paris.

However, neither President Barack Obama nor any other top U.S. official was present. To relay this information, The New York Times states: “Mr. Holder did not participate in the rally and march; the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.” The Wall Street Journal writes: “Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip. But on the sidelines of Sunday’s rally, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve convened a meeting of senior security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Attorney General Eric Holder to address terror threats.”

It is interesting to note that The Wall Street Journal explicitly mentions the absence of Obama and Biden, while The New York Times does not. Highlighting their lack of attendance might cause readers to think more critically about the U.S. participation, while The New York Times article likely would not.

Language is powerful in that it can both foreground and background certain elements of a story. Influencing the way a reader is likely to perceive the event. I feel that editors should strive to be conscious of this and work to eradicate language that compromises the neutrality of the story.

Q&A with Mebane Rash of EducationNC

Mebane Rash is CEO of EducationNC and editor of its website, which launched this week. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the project’s objectives.

Q. What is EducationNC? What are you hoping to achieve with this site?

A. EdNC is a nonpartisan online platform, providing data, research, news, information and analysis about the major trends, issues and challenges facing our schools. EdNC intends to surface ideas, success stories and statistics that will inspire us all to reconsider our assumptions about education.

EdNC intends to host a bipartisan conversation fueled with good information. We seek a statewide audience, including farmers and foundation staffs, leaders of religious organizations and political parties. We want EdNC to be read by public officials, parents and policymakers, as well as by teachers and school administrators.

Q. Describe your role with the site. How were you involved with its development, and now that it’s up and running, what is your typical workweek like?

A. I am the CEO and editor-in-chief, but I didn’t know very much about EdNC until July. I started in September, and I think we have had more than 150 meetings since then across the state.

I wanted to make sure we were building a website that people would actually use. I met with teachers, principals, students, administrators and parents. I talked to policymakers, the media and advocates.

Talking to people was my way of making sure EdNC was grounded in the lived experience of educators statewide. What we can promise is that we will monitor and adjust the content of the site based on user experience.

The only thing that is a sure thing about my day is that I get up about 5 a.m. so that I can post our news aggregation by 8 a.m. We only have three full-time staff so we all do whatever it takes to have a website with fresh content each day designed to maximize the user experience.

Q. EducationNC promises a mix of news and opinion. How will you balance that, particularly as a nonprofit organization that receives support from grants and donations?

A. I think our users will get use to our mix of content. We want to have something for everybody.

We have columns each day of the week. We have features — sometimes they will be research-based, other times they will be contributed by an education stakeholder. We have straight news. Sometimes we will have articles that express a point of view because we want the state to know the range of opinions that are influencing policy. We have maps that give people the opportunity to visualize data and interact with it. You can upload your ed events to our site. We have a crowdsourced EdLibrary with important resources. We will be live-streaming events – like the Triangle Startup Weekend on Education in February. Users can pick and choose what interests them.

I have editorial and content control. Our full-time staff are required to be unaffiliated voters – but they also need to be living nonpartisan lives personally and professionally. EdNC discloses when an article includes information about a board member or a financial contributor. Our funders know they can’t influence our content.

Q. North Carolina is a competitive place for news. How do you anticipate EducationNC will fit in with the likes of WRAL and The Charlotte Observer?

A. We know that for EdNC to be a success we need to have good relationships with legacy media.

We hope to provide an EdWire to the urban newspapers. We hope to provide explanatory journalism to rural newspapers. We try to package articles with all the assets a media outlet would need to run a story – photos, graphics, art, etc.

Each morning, our news aggregation drives traffic to national, state and local news stories. Our focus on education allows us to dive deep on this issue — an issue we happen to think is the most important issue facing North Carolina.

For more about EducationNC, visit the website, watch this video and follow the project on Twitter.

Defending free expression doesn’t require republishing offensive material

News from Paris this week has shocked the world. Terrorists killed editors and cartoonists at a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. The assailants died in a standoff with police two days later. The overall death toll from the mayhem was 20.

The assault on Charlie Hebdo was apparently prompted by the newspaper’s cartoons mocking Islam. Other targets of the cartoonists’ pens included Jews, the pope and French politicians. Some of the cartoons’ imagery has been described as pornographic and racist.

U.S. news organizations have responded that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression. Deans of top journalism schools issued a statement condemning the “brutal assault on our colleagues in Paris.”

That view is widely shared, if not universally. The question of whether U.S. media should reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is more divisive, however.

The New York Times, for example, decided not to do so on the grounds that the caricatures were offensive. That led to this testy exchange on Facebook between the newspaper’s editor, Dean Baquet, and a journalism professor.

My daily newspaper, The News & Observer, has not reprinted any of the cartoons in its coverage of the Paris attack and has no plans to do so, according to editors there. The Raleigh paper has described the cartoons in news stories and written an editorial defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish them.

I believe that is the correct call. This situation reminds me of a Supreme Court case involving content that might offend readers of a mainstream publication like the N&O.

In 1988, the court ruled in Hustler v. Falwell that a satirical advertisement was protected speech under the First Amendment. Hustler magazine’s mock ad described an incestuous liaison in an outhouse between the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his mother. It included sexual, scatological and profane language that was typical to Hustler but not to daily newspapers.

In covering the court’s ruling in favor of Hustler, mainstream newspapers did not need to reprint the satirical ad. Doing so was not necessary to a full understanding of the topic. Describing the ad, as I have done here, is sufficient. Likewise, it is possible to write an editorial defending Hustler’s right of free expression without republishing the offensive material.

I suggest the same approach now: Provide comprehensive news coverage of the events and issues surrounding the violence in Paris. Publish strongly worded editorials on freedom of the press paired with evocative cartoons on the topic. That communicates a powerful message of freedom without publishing material that may offend some readers.

What I am teaching this semester

Jan. 7 is the first day of class for the spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here’s what I am teaching in 2015:

  • JOMC 157, News Editing. This is the introductory course on editing for print and digital news. It covers story editing, fact checking, word choice, social media, Associated Press style, headline writing and caption writing. Students will use InDesign, WordPress, Soundslides and Twitter. Here is the syllabus for the course.
  • JOMC 457, Advanced Editing. This course builds on skills that students learned in J157. It includes editing and writing headlines for features, sports and opinion pieces. Students will edit and post stories to the Carrboro Commons and Durham VOICE websites. They will also explore the editor-writer relationship with help from “The Subversive Copy Editor” by Carol Saller. Here is the syllabus for the course.

In addition to teaching, I will continue to oversee our certificate program in communication and technology. Other tasks this semester will include reviewing and interviewing applicants for the master’s program and the online MATC program. I will also serve as co-chair of the university’s Faculty Grievance Committee.

Best wishes to faculty, staff and students on a successful semester and a productive 2015.

That’s not my problem

Imagine that I did a small favor for you such as making change for a $20 bill. You say: “Thank you.” I respond with “no problem.”

Would you find my reply to be ungrammatical? Would you consider it rude? According to this list of grammar gripes on the NPR site, some people would.

A couple of things about that item in the list surprised me. First, that NPR would include it as matter of grammar. Second, that people continue to edit casual conversation, including personal email.

To my ear, “no problem” is fine between friends or family members to acknowledge gratitude for a minor task. It doesn’t break a grammar rule to say it or write it.

You’re welcome.