Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Radio clash
Call it masochism, but on occasion I listen to talk radio, both news and sports.

I've come to agree with Chuck Klosterman that much of sports talk creates a debate where none exists. (Today's topic on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" was whether baseball players should have to wait a week after the World Series to declare for free agency, hardly one of the pressing issues of our time.) And the "news" talk programs are rife with conjecture and speculation, sometimes passed off under the guise of "it's really just entertainment."

Expecting such programs to check facts seems futile. Yet the hosts of talk radio (we won't even bother with the callers) operate with what they purport to be the facts. Like newspaper columnists, these hosts attempt to establish facts and then use those facts to make an argument. Unfortunately, the "facts" are often dubious.

Here are two recent examples from the big AM station in my area and how their hosts' reality doesn't match mine:

HOST'S REALITY: A report on the increasing poverty among students in public schools is flawed because it is based on the number of children getting a reduced or free lunch. The school system actually wants more poor kids because it gets a kickback from the federal government based on the level of participation in the lunch program. School administrators, therefore, badger parents into enrolling even if they don't need the assistance.

MY REALITY: The report does use enrollment in the lunch program to measure poverty among students, but the local school system (a frequent target of this particular host) doesn't twist arms to get people to participate. Here's how it works: During the first week of school, my second-grader brought home a pile of paperwork for us parents to deal with. One piece of this paperwork was an application for the lunch program. For the past two years, we didn't fill it out or return it because we can afford to pay for his lunch, and the school system never said anything about it. There was no pressure to apply.

HOST'S REALITY: America is condoning the "pornification" of Halloween, with little girls encouraged to dress in sexy costumes. (Yes, it's a trend!) Traditional costumes such as princess and Snow White are nowhere to be found, replaced by outfits such as the naughty nurse and the devil. This was big news, according to the host, because it was not only on Fox and CNN, but also the lead story in today's Washington Post.

MY REALITY: My son and I went to several stores to look at Halloween costumes. (He's going as a skeleton.) We saw plenty of traditional costumes for girls, including the ones the host mentioned as vanishing because of this (alleged) trend. Yes, there were sexy outfits at one party store, but these were clearly intended for adults. Also, the Post does not have this story in the lead position on the front page today, but it did have a story yesterday. I cannot find that page online to see whether it was the lead, but I strongly doubt that it was.

CONCLUSION: Talk radio doesn't have copy desks, but it could sure use some. Be especially wary of any "facts" presented there. We can't expect perfection in off-the-cuff remarks or in conversations between hosts and callers. But hosts should be expected to present factual information in their prepared remarks, just as columnists in print and online are required to have solid facts to back up their viewpoints.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:35 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
A front page without stories — or headlines

A story in Editor & Publisher discusses how The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., has covered the fire that killed seven college students. That news has dominated the front page for the past two days, as well it should.

What's unexpected about this front page is the lack of a traditional story and the lack of a dominant headline, or any real headlines at all. Cutlines and images make up the bulk of this presentation, with a chunk of text offering an overview of developments. Blurbs at the bottom of the page send readers inside the section for traditional stories.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:24 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, October 29, 2007
Headlines that do not stick on the Web
Here's how my employer's news aggregator is presenting the local news today. As you can see, most of the headlines from The Chapel Hill News are more cryptic than informative. That's because they've been stripped of their context: no photos, no dropheads, no labels saying what section of the paper these stories came from.

This isn't the fault of the aggregator. It needs a human touch to help it live up to its potential. To do that, the paper should consider rewriting these headlines for the Web to make them more literal. Using proper nouns (think in terms of key words) would help. The stories would make more sense in this sort of presentation and also be more likely to pop up at the top of a Google search.

Writing different headlines for print and online isn't necessary for every story. Yes, it creates more work for the headline writer, but that extra effort is often worth it. It all adds up to another example of how the skills of a copy editors are just important online as in print, if not more so.

More on Web headlines here and here. And NewsU offers a $20 "Webinar" on the topic.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:06 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Interesting reads
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:05 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Surf and turf
Thanks to the Web, I've learned a new word this week — or at least a new definition for word I already knew. The word is "Astroturf."

Posts on blogs here and here use the term, and they define what they mean by it. "Astroturf" in this usage is a reference to grassroots efforts that aren't. These campaigns look like an uprising by everyday people on some issue but are actually carefully orchestrated by consultants and interest groups who try to hide their roles. Consider the torch-wielding "Frankenstein" villagers on the march, only they're secretly organized and paid by a foundation or think tank with some interest in the result.

It's not a new practice, and the word has been used this way for a while, if this Wikipedia entry is to be trusted. The entry itself admits that Wikipedia is vulnerable to Astroturfing.

Thanks to these bloggers, I'll be watching out for Astroturf — the word and the practice — from now on.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:27 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Passive voice preferred by some
Passive voice is scorned by those who say it removes the action from a sentence. Some even see bias in its use, and it can be a way to obscure who's doing what. "Mistakes were made," someone once said. But who made them?

Accusations of bias aside, we'd likely agree that the active voice is more interesting and concise here:
  • The seventh game was won by the Red Sox.
  • The Red Sox won the seventh game.
But smart writers and editors know that passive voice is OK, even preferred, on occasion. Sometimes the person or thing being acted upon is more interesting than the person or thing doing the action. That's often true in crime stories ("A man was arrested...") or stories about local government ("A tax increase was approved...").

But what about headlines, in particular those on the Web? The advice from usability expert Jakob Nielsen is to consider passive voice. Putting the key words at the start of a headline, Nielsen says, can be more important than making the headline active. Doing so helps people who scan the results of a Web search find what they are looking for. Nielsen suggests sometimes using the passive voice in blurbs, leads and lists as well.

Nielsen's perspective is not new or unique to the Web. My colleague Bill Cloud says that during his work at The Miami Herald, he would sometimes write headlines and blurbs in the passive voice to allow the important words to come first. This was not Herald policy and didn't have the eye-tracking research behind it that Nielsen has, but it was a widely accepted practice.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:22 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Sunday, October 21, 2007
The game that never happened
This paragraph comes from this story, which is mostly about a speech by poet Nikki Giovanni. In addition to covering the speech, the reporter apparently had time to interview Giovanni, who is a faculty member at Virginia Tech.

That's where things get weird in this story. Here's why: Virginia Tech didn't play Penn State on Saturday. In fact, the Hokies had the week off, and they will not play the Nittany Lions this year. Penn State did play, defeating Indiana. How could Giovanni be distracted by a "dramatic turn" in a game that didn't happen?

Perhaps the copy editor who handled this story could have asked that question.

UPDATE: The reporter responded to an e-mail asking about this problem. "This error was introduced by an editor (!) who paraphrased something in the story incorrectly, without doing a simple check of which teams played which before he changed the story," she says. The story then went to the copy desk, which didn't detect the mistake.

The paper ran this correction today, but as of this writing, the online version of the story has not been corrected.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:42 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, October 19, 2007
Interesting reads
  • Charles Strum of The New York Times on the newsroom at night, including discussion of pun headlines and the "oddballs of journalism."
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:59 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, October 18, 2007
A little less conversation
Let's converse about conservation, but don't let those ideas get mixed up as they do here. It's an especially unfortunate error because it appears in a direct quote in the lead story on the front page.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:10 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
You make the call
Newspaper editors are using their blogs to get reader advice on issues of taste and ethics. Here are two examples:
  • John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., on whether to allow "scared shitless" in a direct quote from someone battling cancer.
  • Mark Schultz of The Chapel Hill News on whether to run a photograph of a cadaver with a story about first-year medical students.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:27 AM | Permalink | 3 comments
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Don't you really want to hurt me?
The fight to stop the abuse of "impact" as a verb is probably a losing one. It's time to regroup and take on the adverb-verb combination seen here in news stories and reporters' blog posts:

  • Board members said the new design was a good compromise that wouldn’t negatively impact performing arts classes.
  • The scientific projections are dire and threaten to negatively impact the planet as we know it.
  • Owl Creek Community School founding member Deidra Krois stated that a private school in Ridgway could negatively impact the district’s budget far greater than a charter school.
"Negatively impact" is wordy, and it has the tone of jargon. Let's find a single verb to add punch to these sentences. Yes, they have other problems, but we'll limit our efforts to the issue at hand.
  • Board members said the new design was a good compromise that wouldn’t hinder performing arts classes.
  • The scientific projections are dire and threaten to destroy the planet as we know it.
  • Owl Creek Community School founding member Deidra Krois stated that a private school in Ridgway could affect the district’s budget far greater than a charter school.
Perhaps you prefer the original sentences. That's OK: You won't negatively impact my feelings if you disagree.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:08 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, October 15, 2007
And so can you!

Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report" has taken over the op-ed page of The New York Times, at least for a day. Amid this parody of op-ed sanctimony, Colbert manages to plug the hilariously titled “I Am America (And So Can You!)” and gets in some wicked wordplay.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:53 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, October 12, 2007
Checking blogs and blogging
I've noticed that Microsoft Word doesn't recognize "blog" and "blogging" as proper words. Here are the suggested replacements for each:

  • Bog
  • Bloc
  • Blot
  • Blob
  • Blow
  • Bogging
  • Logging
  • Flogging
  • Clogging
  • Sogging
The Associated Press is more comfortable with the word. Here's what its Ask the Stylebook site said earlier this year:
AP has found that "blog" is familiar enough to readers now that "Web log" is no longer necessary.
Perhaps Microsoft will catch up with this for the next version of Word. Meanwhile, we can contemplate how to cite blogs in academic papers. The NLM Style Guide for Authors, Editors and Publishers offers this guidance.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:33 AM | Permalink | 3 comments
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Null and void

This non-headline worked in its own way — I clicked on it, thinking it could be a clever reference to Led Zeppelin's fourth album or some other "untitled" work of note. Alas, the "untitled" here is just a post about Duke football.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:13 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, October 08, 2007
Blogs need editing too
The rush to have newspaper reporters write blogs has not been followed by a rush of copy editors to polish those blogs. It shows. Glitches of all types abound, with posts showing little or no evidence of editing.

Here are five sentences from reporters' blogs, each with an editing error that most copy editors would detect and correct if given the chance. Take a look at these and see whether you notice anything. Answers are in the comments area.

1. They're wins over Tennessee and Oregon are good, but South Florida's are better.

2. Given past history I'd guess that it will end up on the satellite providers in reasonably short order.

3. I watched State play for the first time on Saturday and I don't know how much Raycom Lincoln Financial Sports' equipment had to do with it but there's way too much white on the field at State.

4. But if you're ordering a sweater or something, totally free shipping!

5. The second film, “The Rabbit Hunters,” sort of a moody “I’m Not Rappaport” set on the outskirts in Lisbon, is alright.

UPDATES: John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., offers a dissenting view. And Brian Cubbison of the Syracuse paper has some good advice.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:35 PM | Permalink | 6 comments
Friday, October 05, 2007
Alternative story forms and copy editing
The print version of this post appears in the new issue of ACES, the newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. Don't get the newsletter? Join ACES, and you will.

A recent post
on my blog took note of a new job requirement for journalists: the ability to write and edit alternative story forms. Here’s how an ad for an entertainment editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution phrased it:
The candidate takes responsibility for the whole package, including collaborating with other departments to ensure the best presentation, including online, print, alternative story forms, sidebars, photos, graphics and other elements.
Just what are alternative story forms, and what does their rise mean for copy editors? And what’s this about collaboration? Here’s what you need to know:

WHAT THEY ARE: Alternative story forms, or ASFs for short, are best defined by what they are not. They’re not stories told in traditional formats, such as the inverted pyramid or the long-form narrative. They’re not graphics, though they are often highly visual. Examples of alternative story forms include the Q&A, the checklist, “by the numbers” and the breakdown. That last type is what you are reading right now: a story structure with introductory text that then “breaks down” information by theme into “chunky type.” We can still use inverted pyramid stories, anecdotal leads and other devices, but we can also tell stories and convey information in other ways. Consider these forms as another option in brainstorming, writing and editing. Copy editors can be the leaders in this effort.

WHO’S USING THEM: Newspapers such as The Florida Times-Union, the American-Statesman in Texas, RedEye in Chicago and The News & Observer in North Carolina are among the leaders in using ASFs. The Dallas Morning News has trained its staff on ASFs, and the Atlanta paper says that alternative story forms make up 60 percent of its front page, up from a third of its front page a year ago. They’re popping up on the Web as well.

WHY USE THEM: Well-executed ASFs inform readers, providing not only quick facts but also deep context. ASFs can provide information in “bite sizes” that are easier to digest. The key is to make those bite sizes add up to something nutritious. ASFs can educate readers and bolster our role as watchdogs over government and other powerful institutions. ASFs can also offer variety and surprise the reader, and they can bring visual pizzazz to a page. “As a reader, when I approach an alternative story form, I want to feel smarter afterward,” says Katie Schwing, a copy editor at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It needs to show me things, explain things to me, make comparisons, present information in a way I haven't thought about it before, tell me how my daily life will be affected.”

WHEN TO USE THEM: There are no hard rules on this. Nearly any story can be told in alternative form. Topics that make you groan — tax day, commencements, holiday shopping — are excellent candidates for alternative approaches. If you’re tired of writing or editing that story in a traditional form, you can be certain your reader is tired of reading it.

HOW WE KNOW THEY’RE EFFECTIVE: We’re still figuring that out, but some research has been done on ASFs. Poynter Institute’s EyeTrack project found that ASFs get more attention from readers and that readers recall more information from them. In a study, readers were shown different pages with information about bird flu, some with traditional stories and others told in alternative story form. After looking at a page, people took a pop quiz on what they had read. Readers who had read the ASF version scored better.

WHY COPY EDITORS ARE IMPORTANT: Copy editors are accustomed to working with a variety of story structures. We understand the “bones” of a story as well as, if not better than, anyone in the newsroom. On any given workday, a copy editor may edit a front-page centerpiece, compile and edit a briefs column, and trim a wire story. We can even turn an inverted pyramid story into a Q&A. We also appreciate the fine-tuning required to make an ASF work. For example, it’s important to use parallel construction with the lede-ins for each piece of text, as this story form tries to do. We also see the big picture: Does this “by the numbers” story form put these numbers into adequate context? That combination of knowledge helps copy editors analyze whether an ASF works, and if it doesn’t, how to fix it.

WHAT STORY FORMS MEAN FOR WORK FLOW: The model of a story going from a reporter to assigning editor to designer to copy editor to slot is fading. It’s no longer a straight path. ASFs require collaboration at every step of the process, and copy editors should be included at the beginning, not just the end. “ASFs require the use of fewer words to say more, often by pairing those words with photos, graphics or icons,” says Denise Reagan, assistant managing editor/visual journalism at The Florida Times-Union. “This kind of coordination in story architecture and organization doesn't happen without conversation.”

HOW TO LEARN MORE: NewsU, the e-learning site of The Poynter Institute, will soon offer a course on ASFs. “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” is set to launch in early 2008, and it will have several exercises, including one in which the student is given an inverted-pyramid story and asked to “remix” it into an ASF. The course will be free, and you can take it anytime you like. I'm the author of the course, so if you take it, let me know what you think of it and of alternative story forms in general.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:07 AM | Permalink | 4 comments
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Let's converge on Greensboro
This reader comment from a News & Observer blog made me chuckle:
It isn't news. It's a blog entry.
The reporter who writes the blog — and others like him — would disagree. Their posts are news. Many bloggers would disagree, too. Many of them engage in serious journalism and would argue that their posts are news.

Earlier this year, this op-ed piece by journalism professor Michael Skube caused a ruckus in the online world by arguing that bloggers are not reporters. It prompted reaction such as this from Talking Points Memo. What seems lost in the discussion is just what a blog is: It's a description of form, not content.

The uneasy relationship between blogging and journalism will be one of the topics at ConvergeSouth, a conference set for Oct. 19-20 at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. I'll be moderating a panel called "J-School and B-School: Journalism Education and Blogging."

Columnist and blogger Ed Cone tells us what ConvergeSouth is all about in this post. The conference is free, but you'll need to register. I hope to see you there.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:50 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
Monday, October 01, 2007
Motherhood and headlines
This sad, bizarre story was the big news earlier today at The news judgment seems odd enough, but we can attribute that to the nature of the Web.

The truly odd and ill-conceived part of this story, however, is the preoccupation with the woman's status as a parent. That element of this presentation brings us to some questions:
  • How is it relevant to the story that she was a mother?
  • Is that fact so pertinent that it should be in the headline?
  • In the lead of the story?
  • If the person in the story had been a man, would CNN's headline be "Dad cuffed, found dead after missing flight"? It seems unlikely.
Too often, we assign parental labels to women in news stories, but not men. In some cases, that fact may shed light on a person, their motivations and their reason for being in the news. But in many situations, whether someone is a parent can be mentioned later in a story — or not at all.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:48 PM | Permalink | 3 comments