Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Wish you were here
This blog will likely be quiet the rest of the week as I will be in St. Petersburg, Fla., on business.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:01 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
An ethical donation
Are you a journalist tempted to give money to your favorite candidate? Why not avoid the hassle of being called on it by MSNBC and make that donation to the ACES Education Fund instead?

Your gift helps pay for scholarships for promising students who want to go into copy editing. For my money, that's a more worthy cause than most political campaigns.

Find out more here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:51 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, June 25, 2007
TMZ, the site that regularly uses adjectives such as "Fergalicious" and "asstastic" in its coverage of celebrities, is also having fun with headlines. Here's an example:

Hannah Still a Fannah of Lohan-nah

The New York Times has the inside story on TMZ, which calls itself The Associated Press of the world of celebrity gossip. It's a fascinating and troubling look at what draws readers and how that affects news judgment of other media.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:48 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
  • Salon asks why there seem to be more al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq than there used to be. At least that's how they are described by the White House and news stories.
  • An assistant managing editor at the paper in Birmingham, Ala., has turned an old newsrack into something new. It just takes a some imagination and a Mac mini.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:06 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Alternative profiles in courage
Can a personality profile be done in alternative story form? Of course.

This example from The News & Observer features section shows how. Here's the recipe:
  • Remix liberally.
  • Add bold lede-ins.
  • Sprinkle with carefully selected information from the Web.
  • Enjoy!
Should every profile be done this way? Of course not. But this packs a lot of information into a small space, and it's easy to scan. It comes in bite sizes but is still nutritious. Stories about speeches can be done the same way. (Thanks to N&O copy editor Chuck Small for the "before and after" insight on this regular feature.)

For all the talk here lately about alternative story forms, I'd like to point to two well-done stories written as old-fashioned narratives, both from the N&O:
No recipe needed. Just enjoy!
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:07 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Editing with Atari

Who needs Quark CopyDesk or the latest version of InCopy when you have an Atari? Watch Alan Alda and and friend edit some historic copy in this 1984 commercial.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:10 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
The handling and packaging of news stories
An alternative story form at the bottom of the front page of The News & Observer fulfills its mission. It's sort of an executive summary of a report on how climate change will affect the state economically. A full story — necessary in this case to elaborate on the findings — appears elsewhere in the paper.

It's where that story appears that makes little sense. It's on 10A, sandwiched between a page with two short wire stories about Iraq and Afghanistan and the editorial page. But the news about the climate report is a state story, and the N&O has a City & State section. Why not put the full story in City & State, where it belongs, rather than in the back of the A section?

Just because the ASF is on the front page doesn't mean the story it refers to should be in the same section.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:35 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Contributing editors
The Drudge Report, in its typically histrionic style, is trumpeting this MSNBC story that reports on political contributions by members of the media. As Drudge puts it:


But that headline is imprecise. A look at the full list shows that the contributors are not all reporters. Photographers, critics and copy editors are on it.

The MSNBC story also has this useful list of newsroom policies on this issue.

UPDATE: A Boston University professor has questions about the story's method and conclusions.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:55 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Seeking story forms
I'm heading for St. Petersburg, Fla., next week to work on a module for Poynter Institute's NewsU project. The module's topic is alternative story forms.

In preparation, I'm looking to add to my collection of these forms. They go by various names:
If you have an example of an alternative story that you thought was effective, send it along in whatever format you have. We might incorporate it into the module. Thanks!
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:42 PM | Permalink | 4 comments
Monday, June 18, 2007
Book review: "The Ethics of the Story"
A skim through the table of contents of “The Ethics of the Story” could lead the casual reader to perceive this book as a typical textbook on reporting or editing. The chapter titles sound familiar enough: Description and Attribution; Quotes and Paraphrasing; Word Choice, Labeling and Bias.

But a closer look reveals that the treatment of these topics is anything but perfunctory. “The Ethics of the Story” is an illuminative discussion of the intersections of journalistic practices and philosophies. It is an important work that addresses audiences both in the classroom and in the newsroom.

The author, David Craig, has gone straight to the source of what is happening in newsrooms across the country, interviewing 60 journalists about the ethical choices they make in their jobs. A former copy editor who now teaches at the University of Oklahoma, Craig has spoken with reporters, copy editors and assignment editors at The Oregonian, the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times. The depth and candor of their comments show that Craig is an effective interviewer in his own right; the clarity with which he presents his findings demonstrates his prowess as a writer.

The methodology of “in the newsroom” interviewing serves as a perfect vehicle in the drive to find answers to the questions that Craig poses:
  • How are journalists reflecting reality in their writing and editing?
  • How does the simple act of deciding which direct quote to use from an interview affect the value of truth?
  • How does a choice of wording by an editor alter the tenor of a story?
  • What are the ethical values that form the foundation of these choices?
The questions may seem obvious, but they have often gone unasked even in the face of high-profile violations of ethical responsibilities in journalism. Craig mentions the fabrications perpetrated by reporters Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, and the devastation they brought on the entire profession.

However, Craig is not especially interested in this scandalous side of the profession. Instead, he focuses on the behavior of honest journalists. These are hard-working, straightforward people attempting to present readers with the reality around them with the tools of reporting, writing and editing.

In trying to accurately depict that reality, the journalists Craig studies must constantly make decisions — about sources, about story forms and about word choices — while under deadline pressure. As Craig writes: “The day-to-day, paragraph-by-paragraph choices are important ethical matters because they go together to influence the picture of the world that the audience takes from news stories, features, analyses and commentaries.”

Focusing on this narrow segment of the ethical spectrum makes “The Ethics of the Story” a thought-provoking portrayal of the everyday workings of the newspaper newsroom. Most journalists, after all, are not like Blair or Kelley. They are the ones interviewed here: They want to do the right thing, and they adhere to the principles of truth and compassion, which Craig asserts are core ethical concerns.

None of these journalists would argue that the actions of Blair are ethical. But they may disagree, for example, about whether an anecdotal lead inadvertently skews a story in an unethical direction. And they may disagree about terminology on issues such as abortion. These are the daily debates among journalists (and, ideally, among students in journalism schools) that are finally getting the academic study that they deserve.

For much of the book, Craig allows the journalists to speak for themselves, and their comments open a window on the newsroom that will fascinate academics and professionals alike. “It’s not my job to insert my voice into the story,” says one copy editor about respecting the work of reporters. “But it is my job to make sure that his voice is as clear as possible.” At the end of each chapter, Craig also offers his recommendations on these decisions, and he provides well-reasoned advice on attribution, anecdotal leads and other topics.

If “The Ethics of the Story” has any shortcomings, it is its exclusivity to print journalism. The author acknowledges the rapid changes in the newspaper industry but doesn’t bring in the views of those working in other media, particularly online. How are these new journalists confronting the issues faced by their print counterparts? Their views would be a worthy addition to the next edition of this book.

This book review also appears in the latest issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:22 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Saturday, June 16, 2007
Editor and publisher — and governor
Mike Easley, the governor of North Carolina, has benefited from some editing from his press office, as reported today in The News & Observer.

At issue is a state-supported book called "The Governors of North Carolina." In the entry on Easley, gone are references to tax increases and a failed run for U.S. Senate, replaced by mentions of savings and education. Be sure to check out the "before and after" examples to see the full force of the rewrites.

UPDATE: The N&O editorial board asks for a rewrite for the next edition.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:06 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Maybe just call him Barry
Why was this "story highlight" about Barack Obama written this way? Here are some possible explanations:
  • Maybe it's because his name isn't as classically American as, say, Mitt Romney's, so writers and editors get confused about which is his first name and which is his last.
  • Maybe it's because the media are worried about another Obama/Osama mixup, so they are switching to his first name to be safe.
  • Maybe it's because we see more politicians, entertainers and athletes referred to by their first names in headlines and other display text. (See here and here.)
  • Maybe it's because someone just screwed up.
Whatever the reason, someone at CNN.com decided to call Barack Obama "Sen Barack." At least the item followed AP style on the abbreviation.

And I am a little worried that Romney's net worth may be as low as $190.01
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:15 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Nifong's F-Bomb
The lead story in The News & Observer today was about Mike Nifong, the district attorney whom you may recall from the seemingly endless Duke lacrosse case. Now he's facing ethics charges — and hearing some foul language in the courtroom. The story included this edited quote from a witness, which reminded me of this recent discussion at the ACES site.

I asked Ted Vaden, the public editor for the N&O, whether editors at the paper considered running the full word in the quote or, on the other hand, simply paraphrasing what the witness said. Here is an excerpt from Vaden's response:
John Drescher, N&O managing editor, said editors had several discussions about whether to publish the vulgarity. "The consensus was that readers should know what Nifong said, according to Himan, and that the use of the f-word spoke to the force of Nifong's statement," Drescher said. "We also thought spelling the word out would be too profane."
I am willing to go along with this compromise. It is certainly better than what I have seen in the N&O before, awkward constructions like this: "You know we're [expletive]," he said, using indelicate language. Masking the word in the video clip, however, seems unnecessary. A "not safe for work" warning at the link to the video would suffice.

UPDATE: Drescher elaborates here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:54 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Going alternative in Allentown
I recently spent a few days at The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa. I had been invited to visit and talk to the staff about alternative story forms. It was an area that the paper had already been experimenting with, and now the newsroom wanted to build on those efforts.

The first segment of my stay consisted of workshops on the topic, one for reporters and assigning editors, and another for copy editors and designers. The second part of my visit was more spontaneous and open-ended: I would follow a story form from conception to birth, watching the process and coaching people along the way.

Here’s the story of one story:


At the 10 a.m. meeting, editors from each department offered previews of their best stories. A few of these seemed to have possibilities to work as an alternative story form:
  • A statewide poll on Pennsylvanians’ views on climate change.
  • A possible resolution in a textile strike.
  • The sentencing of a man who had fatally struck a bystander during a brawl at a wedding reception.
  • A preview of the NBA Finals.
Any of these could have been pulled off, but the most challenging ones would have been the sentencing and the textile strike. Each of those stories had complicated characters and complex plots that can be difficult to break down into the “chunky text” that characterize ASFs. Such dramas are usually better told in traditional story formats such as the inverted pyramid or narrative.

We decided to proceed with two ASF projects: the warming poll and the NBA Finals. They had the ingredients to make an ASF work: lots of data that needed to be organized and grouped by theme. Each ASF would be a centerpiece, with the poll on the front page.


I met with Pete Leffler, a state editor, about the poll on global warming. He and I went through the survey’s results, looking for themes to the questions and answers. We came up with three concepts: what people knew about the issue and its causes; what government should be doing about it; and what people are willing to do themselves. He also got a reporter going on collecting comments from the poll respondents.

From there, we convened another, smaller meeting. Craig Larimer, a design editor, and a representative of the photo desk joined me, Pete and a reporter, Arlene Martinez. We hashed out some more ideas. Craig made a great suggestion: Let’s come up with the display text now, not later, and build the package around that. We agreed that the big type needed to communicate to readers that this wasn’t just another story on global warming. This was a survey of their views, the first poll of its kind. After floating various “hot” headlines, we went with “Global issue, local concern” for the main headline. We also labeled the three themes: Your Views, Government’s Role and Your Role.

That led to a discussion of photos — should we go with the iconic imagery of a person pumping gas and factories blowing who knows what into the air? It seemed like a cliché. Why not just use a globe image, given the headline that we had crafted?

We also added references to the G-8 story inside and to the full results of the survey online.


A page designer began working on the centerpiece, and Martinez worked on the introductory text. The designer also put a “Morning Call exclusive” label atop the package — designers can be word people, too. Leffler worked with a reporter in Harrisburg on boiling down the poll results. Everything was going according to plan.

At 3:15, some of the paper's top editors got together for a “standup” — a less formal meeting to check on what was up for the front page. Typically, this meeting takes only a few minutes, but the poll ASF became the topic of an extended and lively discussion.

David Erdman, the managing editor, saw the draft of the page and asked whether a traditional story on the poll would accompany the story form. The answer was no, which worried him. Erdman argued that a traditional story would have the “connective tissue” that would make the poll data come together. He liked the alternative story form as an introduction to a full story somewhere in the paper. Otherwise, we’d be putting 15 pounds of sausage into a 5-pound barrel.

While agreeing that we wanted a complete report on this poll’s results, many of us countered that alternative storytelling could work just as well at capturing readers’ attention and helping them learn more about the topic. Recent EyeTrack research has indicated that story forms do just that. Erdman was willing to go along with a standalone ASF if we reworked the design to allow more results.

Jeffrey Lindenmuth, assistant managing editor for visuals, sketched out a revised layout that allowed for more substantial reporting on the poll. It also improved the flow of the text from headline, to intro text and into each category of results.


The global warming story, with those revisions, was the centerpiece in the June 7 edition of The Morning Call. The package works, thanks to well-written intro text (yes, story forms like these require good writing), tight editing and careful attention to design.

Collaboration and conversation were also essential ingredients. Everyone involved needs to have a voice, before, during and after. This story was well received, though some editors still wondered whether the package delivered enough. That’s something to think about for ongoing efforts.

(This and previous posts on story forms here.)
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:53 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, June 11, 2007
Is anybody interested in the NBA Finals?
The buzz around the NBA Finals, already weak, is diminishing as San Antonio takes a 2-0 lead over Cleveland. Even the Spurs are finding it all a bit dull, if this sentence from The Associated Press is to be believed:
The Western Conference champions, who got sloppy and perhaps disinterested, responded as they almost always do.
But wait: Are the Spurs impartial or bored? If it's the latter, then they were uninterested. The refs were disinterested.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:06 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Parade of weirdness
The funniest thing in the Sunday paper isn't the funnies — it's Parade magazine. From the pomposity of Marilyn vos Savant to the puffery of James Brady, Parade has long been a source of unintended humor.

This week, the magazine offered a quiz on popular culture written by Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, who seems like an odd choice for such an assignment given his "culture warrior" views. Even more bizarre is O'Reilly's phrasing in this question:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had one recreational passion outside of Mamie. It was: a) eight ball b) golf c) jogging d) gangsta rap.

Do most people think of their spouses as a recreational passion? Is that how Ike thought of Mamie, his lovely wife? Is a marriage akin to yoga, scrapbooking or World of Warcraft? Then again, this sentence was (allegedly) written by the man who once confused a loofah with falafel.

The answer to the Ike question, by the way, is golf.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:51 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Friday, June 08, 2007
  • The News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., is laying off 41 of its employees. The reductions apparently include some in the newsroom, and editor John Robinson writes that "everyone feels the sense of loss."
  • Author Tom Robbins, a former copy editor, talks to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about writing and editing.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:29 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Regrets, they've had a few
Public editors at The News & Observer and the Orlando Sentinel write this week about fact errors and corrections. Here's what they have to say:
  • Ted Vaden at the N&O wonders why the Raleigh paper's corrections are often cryptic. It's to avoid repeating the error, but Vaden suggests that the result is a corrections policy that only further obscures the problem. (Having written a few of those corrections in my day, I agree with him.)
  • Manning Pynn at the Orlando paper asserts that newsroom cutbacks there will result in more errors. He asks readers to let him know when they see mistakes.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:50 PM | Permalink | 0 comments