Editing “Mallard Fillmore”

The News & Observer publishes “Mallard Fillmore” on its comics pages each weekday and on Saturday. The politically oriented strip has been the subject of debate among readers, with many stating that it should be on the editorial pages along with “Doonesbury,” not in the features section.

I won’t step into that broader discussion. I would, however, question the decision to publish one of the “Mallard” strips this week.

On Wednesday, “Mallard” poked fun at Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker. That’s fine, but the strip has three problems:

  • It is ungrammatical. In the text of the first panel, the subject and verb “outrage” and “have” do not agree. (Thanks to Grammar Monkeys for pointing this out.)
  • It does not follow AP style. The strip refers to the “Ground-Zero Mosque.” As the AP recently advised, that is inaccurate. The N&O’s editors use the Associated Press Stylebook as their primary reference.
  • It uses anonymous sources. The N&O shuns anonymous sources. Sure, “Mallard” is using them in an attempt at humor, but is that an exception to N&O policy?

If a story from a wire service or a staff writer landed on an editor’s desk at the N&O in this condition, it would not be published on its news pages. Why was this comic strip?


Editing another Edwards story

This week, The Daily Beast website unleashed an update on the saga of John Edwards, the disgraced North Carolina senator whose marriage and political fortunes evaporated amid an extramarital affair. Unfortunately, the reporting sheds little light and is, to quote George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” a story about nothing.

The Daily Beast is certainly not the first media outlet to publish a gossipy Edwards story based on anonymous sources, and it won’t be the last. Even The New York Times has fallen victim to that temptation.

Still, a discerning editor could have read a draft of this one and told the reporter, Diane Dimond, that she needed to go back out and do some more reporting. That’s what editors do, after all.

Even if the site decided to publish what she filed, some story editing is necessary. Here are some places to start regarding geography:

  • The story mentions that Edwards lives “around the Research Triangle of North Carolina.” To most of us who live here, it’s either the Triangle or Research Triangle Park. They aren’t the same thing.
  • The story says Edwards has moved out of his Chapel Hill mansion and lives in the “nearby Hillsborough neighborhood.” Hillsborough is a town, not a neighborhood, and one with a proud history.
  • The story says that Edwards’ scorned wife, Elizabeth, is considering a move to “the neighborhood known as Meadowmont, euphemistically called Wisteria Lane, where all the women are blond, perfect hostesses and drive late model Volvos.” I live here and have never heard the Meadowmont development referred to that way, and Google hasn’t either. As Stepford wives? Maybe. But not as “Desperate Housewives.”
  • The story asserts that John Edwards was drinking white wine and hitting on attractive women at either the Saratoga Grill or Sarasota Grill, but it can’t decide on the spelling. It’s probably the former.

There’s also the matter of the writing, which is frequently wretched in its excess. Here’s an example of that wordiness:

Among Hunter’s demands: That Young give up all profits from both his bestselling book, The Politician, and the movie adaptation — a deal represented by hotshot Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel and in partnership with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin of No Country for Old Men fame.

“Hotshot” is sensationalist hyperbole, and “of [TV show/movie/book] fame” is a cliché. And that sentence is simply too long.

The National Enquirer famously used anonymous sources to expose Edwards’ affair and downfall. Is it possible that other, supposedly legitimate media are now willing to follow its lead of shady ethics and sensationalism to report on his travails? Let’s hope not.

Thanks to Fiona Morgan and others on Facebook for pointing out the story and its myriad problems.

A week without Facebook

I started teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005, and on the first day of class that fall, I asked the students about their favorite news sources. Several mentioned The New York Times (online, not in print), ESPN and The Daily Tar Heel.

One told me emphatically: “Facebook.” I responded that I had read about Facebook, but I wasn’t on it yet. The student’s response: “Mr. Bechtel, you have to be on Facebook!”

Of course, I am now, along with more than 400 million other users. And yes, it is one of my news sources. I use Facebook not only to keep up with what my friends are doing, but also to see what they are sharing there, especially news stories that they have seen that I have overlooked.

I recently took a Facebook hiatus. Annoyed by news about Facebook’s slippery policy on privacy and by the hacking of my account by spammers, I decided to take a break. I’d had enough.

Being away from Facebook was more difficult than I expected. I missed my friends, both old and new. I missed knowing what they were talking about. I admit that I cheated on my pledge once, to look up an e-mail address for a former student to let her know about a job opportunity.

During my week away, I realized that leaving Facebook would not improve my privacy online. Let’s face it: There is no privacy online.

For example, the content of my Gmail account is regularly mined so Google can offer advertising related to what my friends and I are talking about:

  • Discussion of a recent canoe trip led to ads for kayaks.
  • A friend and I had a jokey exchange about Grecian Formula, and now Gmail wants to sell me hair dye.

That’s because Google is a company interested in making money. And Facebook is not a public good; it’s a business.

I’m back on Facebook and will keep using Gmail. I like Twitter too. They’re all convenient and free.

I’ll also do what I can on Facebook (and elsewhere online) to guard my privacy. I urge you to do the same — stay connected, but stay cautious.

Guest post: When you can’t find the right (bleeping) words

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Landon Wallace is a junior majoring in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. He is minoring in German and spent a semester in Berlin. His career goal is to be a tennis columnist for ESPN.com.

Writer’s note: Some links contain unedited profane language.

In an interview for a UNC-Chapel Hill reporting class last semester, I found a perfect source for a story on the not-so-interesting beat of nontraditional schools. A well-respected, influential man in Durham gave me an hour-long interview, complete with his true feelings about the N.C. General Assembly after it voted to cut some funding to charter schools. At one point he said, “I think the Senate is filled with a bunch of f—— idiots.”

I was living a young reporter’s dream. That quote carried that story, and I thought it might actually create a wave of controversy in the community. (The story was never actually published, and thus it didn’t even cause a ripple, but that’s not the point.) I still remember the excitement I had from getting a solid quote with profanity, because I thought that it took my story to another level.

However, as I have transitioned to classes that focus more on the editing side of journalism, I lost the excitement for expletives. The Associated Press Stylebook instructs to leave out profanity except from direct quotes, and even in those cases, there must be a compelling reason to use it. If profanity is used, every letter after the first should be hyphenated (as shown in the quote in the first paragraph of this post).

But with the advent of online media, many news organizations have not followed the style set forth by the AP. One example is when Vice President Joe Biden’s slip-up about health-care reform from last month. A Washington Post blog favored the “[expletive]” route, and The New York Times decided to use ellipses, but the NBC video attached to the NYT article uses correct AP style.

But the issue with profanity isn’t just about the continuity set forth by major news organizations — it is about whether to use the profanity at all. The United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper admitted in 2008 that cursing in its stories has significantly risen over the past decade. With this rise probably consistent with many online news organizations in the United States, editors now have even more difficult jobs; they must carefully weigh the newsworthiness of the quote with the integrity of the organization and the possible negative reaction from the audience.

Speaking with students and professors in the j-school here for the past week, the overall consensus here is that editors must put the audience before the shock value of profanity. One student said that although profane language might gain some attention online, it will probably offend many more in print, especially because the average age of the newspaper reader is growing older.

It’s a battle, the student said, because as young people, we want to make the world more progressive, but we can’t lose the patrons of news organizations in doing so.

Reading too much into a transcript

A relative of mine likes to forward e-mails about politics and the media. Usually, the e-mail includes an allegation of bias.

The latest example involves the sentencing of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber.” In January 2003, Reid was given life in prison for his attempt to blow up a plane with explosives that he had smuggled on board in his shoes.

The federal judge in the case, William Young, didn’t take well to Reid’s defiant attitude at the sentencing. He lectured Reid on issues of terrorism and patriotism.

“Richard Reid, see that flag?” Young concluded. “That is the flag of the United States of America, it will fly there long after this is over, and I am now sentencing you to life in prison.”

The e-mail includes Young’s full remarks and then asks: “So how much of this judge’s comments did we hear on our TV sets? We need more judges like Judge Young. Pass this around. Everyone should and needs to hear what this fine judge had to say.”

My first instinct when I receive this sort of e-mail is to check it out at Snopes. Sure enough, it’s there, and Snopes verifies that the e-mail fairly reports the judge’s statement.

But what about allegations of bias? Were the Reid verdict and judge’s comments ignored by the media?

The answer is no. CNN.com has a full transcript. The BBC story highlights a quote from the judge. The Wikipedia entries for Reid and Williams both quote his statement to Reid.

But what about broadcast media? Why didn’t viewers see and hear the judge’s statement for themselves?

Because the case was heard in federal court, cameras and recording devices were forbidden. So it would have been impossible for anyone who was not in court that day to see or hear the judge. We can only read about what he said in print and online, and see the artist rendering of what the proceedings looked like.

Reuters puts stylebook (and more) online

The Reuters news service has put its Handbook of Journalism online for all to see. It includes what American editors would call a stylebook as well as general advice on reporting and editing.

Here are a few highlights:

On using Wikipedia: “Do not link to Wikipedia or similar collaborative encyclopedia sites as a source of background information on any topic. More suitable sites can almost always be found, and indeed are often flagged at the bottom of Wikipedia entries.

On covering cricket: “Correspondents should write a story at lunch (200 words) and update at tea.”

On listening to readers’ complaints: “As an underlying principle, remember throughout the process of dealing with complaints that attitude counts.”

Copy editing and anonymity

The Web site for the McClatchy Washington bureau includes this statement on anonymous sources. The policy is written largely from the point of view of reporting.

Anonymous sourcing, however, is not only an issue for reporters. It affects copy editors as well. After all, we have to edit these stories, and sometimes we are deciding whether to run them at all.

In my days on the wire desk at The News & Observer, we ran into this problem almost every evening. The New York Times and The Washington Post would have an exclusive story that relied heavily (or entirely) on unidentified sources. Should we run the story in our paper?

For years, that is what we did. We routinely ran anonymously sourced wire stories, edited them and wrote headlines for them. Some of these stories were blockbusters on the front page, others inside. On occasion, some reporters on the staff would point out an apparent double standard: The paper frequently published wire stories with anonymous sources, but our reporters could only use them in extreme cases.

That changed in 2003, partly because of those complaints but also because some anonymously sourced stories were wrong. Luckily, we dodged Judith Miller, but the one we got burned on was about Jessica Lynch, the soldier held captive during the Iraq war. In the Washington Post story we published on the front page about the rescue, an anonymous source described how Lynch had fought with her captors when she was first captured, firing her weapon and dodging the enemy.

It turned out that Lynch hadn’t done those things. Later that spring, we ran a Chicago Tribune story that clarified the story of her capture and rescue, and dispelled some of the mythology that had been built around her service in Iraq.

At that time, we began to restrict our uses of anonymously sourced wire stories. The new policy required the approval of the managing editor, who made it clear that he was reluctant to grant permission. We had to make a case for why an anonymously sourced story was important. Did other wire services have the same information? Were they using anonymous sources too? Will there be a way to verify in the near term what this anonymous source is saying? These questions all played a role in these decisions.

Copy editors, including those working the wires, should question the use of unidentified sources the same way others in the newsroom do. Copy editors should also be included in the conversation when a newspaper, magazine or Web site sets a policy on using these sources. We’re as responsible as everyone else in guarding our credibility.