Wednesday, September 27, 2006
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 — in reality, almost never.

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 used 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.

UPDATE: The News & Observer and the Minneapolis paper each had to deal with this issue recently. Here is reaction from readers at the N&O and the Star Tribune.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:20 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, September 25, 2006
Bill Clinton gone wild!
OK, no one wrote that headline for the story about Bill Clinton's recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, but some came close. The former president became "testy" (as The News & Observer headline described it) when he was asked about his record on terrorism. This column by Howard Kurtz labels it as "Clinton's finger-wagging moment."

Here are some other headlines:
  • Clinton, Fox anchor battle in interview — The Associated Press
  • Bill Clinton: I got closer to killing bin Laden —
  • Purple faced rage — The Drudge Report
  • Clinton sets the Fox News record straight — The Huffington Post
  • Bubba boils over — The Boston Herald
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:35 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, September 22, 2006
Selling the front
Several community newspapers in North Carolina owned by The News & Observer Publishing Co. are selling off a portion of the front page to advertisers. Starting this weekend in The Durham News, the ads for a Toyota dealership will go across six columns and be three inches tall — a significant chunk of real estate.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:09 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Pushed or polled?
The practice of push polling is a devious one. It diminishes the work of legitimate surveys that the media and others use to find out what people think. Push polls, designed to change the minds of respondents rather than gauge their opinions, typically have questions with loaded language.

Defense attorneys in the Duke lacrosse case may have used a push poll recently. The attorneys for the accused players say they were simply seeking information, but the wording of this question, as reported by The News & Observer, indicates otherwise:
If you heard that two strippers were hired to perform for some men and one was saying she was locked into the bathroom and the other one was not there; and one said she was raped and the other contradicted her statement, one time saying she did not think anything happened, then later changed her story; and that the rape victim had changed her story several times; and then you learned that she had said she was raped at another time and nothing happened with that charge, would you be likely to believe a rape occurred?
Whew. That's a 96-word question. Is it a fair one?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:26 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Use your allusion
Leave it to The Drudge Report to allude to Murray Head in its coverage of the coup in Thailand. In case you have forgotten or missed it at the time, Head's song "One Night in Bangkok" was a big hit in 1985, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At least Drudge didn't go with "Hungary Like the Wolf" for its headline on the unrest in Budapest.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:09 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Time to redesign
Visitors to this blog will notice a new look today. This change is an example of how Tom Friedman is right: The world is flat. The redesign was put together by a friend of a friend who lives in Greece, and we did it all by e-mail.

Thanks to Chloe for all of her hard work on this project.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:05 PM | Permalink | 3 comments
Saturday, September 16, 2006
Runaway photo
Here is an example of the danger of using a file photo with a story that makes an allegation against someone. This headline and picture from The Huffington Post site linked to a New York Times story about people "crashing" popular marathons with counterfeit credentials. (Those numbers on runners' chests are called "bibs," by the way, and are bootlegged or scalped online.) Would-be runners do so because the number of applications to participate in races such as the New York marathon far exceeds their capacities.

HuffPo has made the error of dredging up a file photo of a marathon and coupling that image with an accusatory headline. The result could bring legal trouble if any of the faces are recognizable. Editors should always use caution when using old images to illustrate a situation like this one.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:20 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Friday, September 15, 2006
I feel possessed
The confusion about plurals vs. possessives continues. Such problems tend to turn up in signs or advertising (as noted here). This example is from the start of a story in The North Raleigh News. The restaurant in question has two owners, as explained later in the story, so let's change "owner's" to "owners" in that first sentence. And yes, the establishment has "Clubb" as parts of its name. We'll have to live with that.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:45 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Spacing out with jargon
NPR has a funny take on the heavy use of jargon in NASA briefings about the space shuttle. The idea? Spice it up with some overheated sports-style "color commentary." Here's the audio clip.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:24 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, September 11, 2006
My biggest blunders
It's easy for blogs about editing to be consumed with errors found in print and online. To be sure, we can learn from these mistakes, but we have to be careful not to slip into the "gotcha!" attitude.

In the interest of full disclosure and just because I am in a confessional mood, here are my two biggest blunders as a copy editor. Luckily, neither became blog fodder:
  • As an intern at the News & Record in Greensboro, I misspelled "astronaut" in a headline. I typed in "astronuat," and it ran that way in 42-point type for all editions.
  • As wire editor in Raleigh, I made Donald Rumsfeld the secretary of state in a summary paragraph (the bold-face lead-ins that come between a headline and story text). It ran on the front page for all editions. This same error happened again recently at that paper, but I am not to blame this time.
In both instances, I felt horrible when I found out about the error. I wanted to give up and go home. My supervisors, luckily, were forgiving, if a bit unhappy. They knew that they too had made mistakes in their careers. I took my punishment (filling out a correction form and submitting it to the managing editor) and moved on.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:50 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Type for dummies
Despite the best efforts of copy editors and page designers, dummy type still appears now and again. Here's a an example of the problem: "Race here" is dummy type, not some sort of odd command.

Dummy type is placeholder text, usually in spaces where logos, headlines or cutlines go. An editor or designer needs to replace that text with relevant language — in this case, maybe "Congress" would have worked. Dummy type is not supposed to be published, but on occasion, it does get in, to the confusion of readers and embarrassment of newspapers.

Print journalism is not alone in this, however. A "sports ticker" on the local ABC affiliate sometimes lists "unknown" where a team name is supposed to go. D'oh!
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:28 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Thursday, September 07, 2006
Speaking alternatively
It's time to speak up again on alternative story forms. An annual event such as a "state of the university" speech is a good candidate for this sort of treatment, and that's the way The News & Observer covered it, as seen here.

The news value of this speech was weak. UNC-Chapel Hill's chancellor said the university needs to bring in more grant money and improve graduation rates — the standard stuff. Still, this speech merits coverage even when no groundbreaking initiatives are at stake. The obligatory nature of this event is another reason that an alternative approach might be better. Do our readers really want to pore over a 35-paragraph recap of a speech? Here's a chance to experiment, an opportunity to try something different.

This N&O story is closer to the mark than the recent one on Duke football, as discussed here. The story has introductory text. (One of my colleagues, however, complained that it's too vague.) The themes are categorized clearly, allowing readers to find what they want to know from the speech, but the chancellor's quotes get lost. A boldface "key quote" in each item followed by his words would have helped. Also, the list of the chancellor's top goals may be overlooked in the lower left corner of the package. When working with alternative formats, editors and designers need to collaborate to make sure that doesn't happen.

The rival Herald-Sun ran a traditional story that worked fine but felt like every other speech recap ever written. The Daily Tar Heel, the campus paper, took a middle ground, with a straight-ahead story accompanied by a textbox highlighting the most frequently used words from the speech. "Great" led the list.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:51 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Drudge, Katie and Alessandra
The Drudge Report offered this roundup of reviews of Katie Couric's debut in the anchor chair. Note how the Drudge headlines use the last name of the critics — except for Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times.

It's unclear why Drudge chose to use Stanley's first name. It seems vaguely patronizing, but her first name is more interesting than, say, Tom (as in Shales). But as noted here earlier, such familiarity in headlines is uncomfortable.

Drudge got it right in the last item by using the name of the publication. A parallel structure would have been better here, with the paper's name at the start of each headline followed by a summary of that critique.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:53 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Be an ACE
The American Copy Editors Society isn't just about the annual convention, as good as that is. The organization also offers scholarships to college students interested in careers in copy editing. The biggest scholarship is worth $2,500.

The deadline this year is Oct. 15. Here's more on how to apply.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:26 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Alternative gameday
The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., is trying something different in its sports coverage. The paper is using an alternative story form for game stories on Duke football. (It's wise to pick an obscure sport for this type of experiment!)

Instead of an inverted pyramid story with a summary lead and requisite quotes from players and coaches, the story of the game is broken into categories. This is worth a try, especially in an era when the newspaper day-after story faces the challenge of ESPN and the Web, where fans can follow almost any game play by play online. Those readers want something more than just a 25-inch story that recounts what they already know.

The N&O approach is interesting, but it has a few rough edges. Here's what works and what needs work:

  • The items are set up effectively, and none runs too long. And they still add up to a significant story.
  • The "review" item creates a benchmark that can be used throughout the season.
  • The "call to action" at the end is a good way to tell readers that more on the Duke game is available online.
  • Some introductory text is needed. Without it, this presentation has an inappropriate "in medias res" tone.
  • The typeface for the body copy may be hard on the eyes of some readers.
  • The Web version doesn't have the same effect as the print one does. This is often true with these story forms.
DISCLAIMER: I have worked with the N&O on story forms and am a co-author on its handbook on the topic.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:23 AM | Permalink | 0 comments