Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Skeptical Editing

By Reid MaCluggage

THE ISSUE: Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter. Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information.

A reporter in Owensboro, Ky., says she fabricated five columns about her struggle with cancer to hide the fact she really has AIDS. And now she says she doesn't have AIDS, either.

Two newspapers in Colorado get a press release claiming a sexual harassment lawsuit is about to be filed against two local radio stations. They write a story about it and find out later it isn't true. The press release is a phony. Then the editors blame the reporters for doing a sloppy job.

Someone slips the television program "60 Minutes" an official-looking document about drug-smuggling on the California-Mexico border, and Mike Wallace has another exclusive. The problem is, it isn't true. The document is a fake. So is an earlier document used to support another "60 Minutes" exclusive on drug smuggling from Colombia to England. Maybe "60 Minutes" should just say no to the next drug story.

Frogs in the United States, Central America and Australia are found with extra deformed legs, and the predominant speculation in our newspapers is that ozone depletion or pesticides are to blame. Now we find out the culprit might be a tiny worm parasite.

Congress and the president have plans to use the surplus to save Social Security. Do any editors see the irony in those plans? Without Social Security funds, there is no surplus. It is Social Security that is saving the surplus.

Deep flaws 

Whether it's the reporting of child abuse at day-care centers, the burning of black churches in the south, the dangers of second-hand smoke and silicone breast implants, or the extent to which children are k
kidnapped in America, some of our reporting and editing has been deeply flawed.

And I haven't even mentioned last year's fiascoes at some of America's most respected newspapers, magazines and television networks. But you already know the details, and they are why we are in this situation in the first place.

One of those fiascos happened at The New Republic where a colorful writer decided to make up nearly everything he wrote. He got away with it for a long time before he was caught and fired.

His editor, Charles Lane, was introspective.

"I've searched my soul and asked, why didn't my bull... meter go off?" he said. "I have to learn a lesson from this: Edit more skeptically."

Edit more skeptically
Sometimes it takes a fiasco or two to remind us that skepticism is a big part of the editing function.
It's our job to challenge information reporters bring back to the newspaper, and to question conclusions drawn from that information. It's our job to battle assumptions or preconceived notions and provide the scrutiny needed to make certain that all stories are fair and accurate.

Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter, although there have been too many of them lately. Our biggest weakness is the unchallenged information we put in our newspapers every day that turns out not to be true.

Sometimes these stories slip into the newspaper because we don't have time to check them out. Sometimes they get in because we believe them to be true. Sometimes they get in because of sloppiness or incompetence. And sometimes we just get caught up in the public frenzy of a story and forget to step back and question, question, question.

We forget to practice what Sissela Bok calls "a good, old-fashioned editorial virtue" -- incredulity. It requires, she says, "that we not be quick to grant credence to what we read and hear."

To tighten standards, I believe we need to take the following steps, among others:
  • We need to train editors and reporters in critical thinking -- the art of asking the right questions, the art of obtaining the right facts, the art of pinpointing the real issues.
  • We need to make certain our editors and reporters understand The Scientific Method. Scientists are much more comfortable with uncertainty than are journalists and are less likely to jump to conclusions or to make black and white out of gray.
  • We need to introduce editors and reporters to the mysterious world of mathematics. Numbers. Averages. Percentages. A rock review in my newspaper had this to say about Gregg Allman: "He devoted probably two-thirds of his playlist to material from 'Simplicity,' another third or so to his own past recordings and another third to classic Allmans."
  • We need to develop reporting and writing skills to present complexities in an interesting way. Journalists often are uncomfortable with ambiguity. But some stories are mysteries, like the one about the frogs with the extra, deformed legs, and the politically-charged global warming hypothesis. We don't know what causes those extra frog legs, and we don't know whether Mother Nature or Mankind is causing the earth's surface to warm, although much of the reporting would suggest that we do know.
  • I think we also need to re-examine the relationship between editor and reporter. Too often they are on the same team, working toward the same goal: publication. The editor is the coach, a supporter, someone who helps the reporter get the story in shape, protects the reporter from outside pressure and moves the story into the newspaper -- all essential goals. But sometimes it can be too cozy.
Prosecute the story
To strengthen the editing function I propose we develop training of editors and sub-editors in the craft of prosecuting the story.

Law school students are taught how to cross-examine a witness. Editors should be trained in a comparable skill. Put the story on the witness stand and cross-examine it. Tear it apart. Expose its weaknesses. Raise all the unanswered questions. Cast doubt on it. All major stories should go through a process similar to a rigorous cross-examination.

Stories don't need advocates. They have plenty of advocates by the time publication nears. What stories need are adversaries. Stories develop a life of their own. We need to become involved in their lives right from the start because that's when most of the important development happens.

Reporters and sub-editors become advocates of stories very early in the process, and are a powerful force in the decision to publish. If skeptics aren't built into the process right from the start, stories will slide onto Page One without the proper scrutiny. If stories hold up on the witness stand, under the rigorous cross-examination of tough editors, they will hold up under any assault.

Assign a naysayer 
To accomplish this, I propose we assign devil's advocates to every major story -- someone to play the role of naysayer. It would be the devil's advocate's job to cross-examine the story -- to try to shoot it down.

The benefit of a designated devil's advocate is that it provides an opportunity for someone who wants to disagree with the group. Sometimes it takes a brave person to take on the group. The pressure is to go along, even among editors. Appointing a designated devil's advocate gives that person the freedom to ask the tough questions without being overwhelmed by the others.

Try it. Appoint an editor to be the designated devil's advocate on the next big story and see whether there isn't a more thorough examination of the premise, the facts and the tone. Appoint a different editor on the next story. It would be a good training experience for many sub-editors and a device to sharpen their questioning skills.

Create a diverse editing team of journalists from different backgrounds and interests. Hire and develop editors and reporters who can bring diversity of opinion and life experience to our newsrooms. And then use them to improve stories.

As Bob Steele, associate dean and director of the Poynter Institute's Ethics and Diversity Programs, says: "I think we make our best decisions when we make them with people who are different from us in the newsroom."

Reid MacCluggage participated in the Gannett Newspaper Division brainstorming session that developed the Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms. This is excerpted from his speech at the company-wide Gannett editors meeting in 1999.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

DWI = Dense With Information

Bonus: Which headline is DWI (Dense With Information)?

Nobel Peace Prize
goes to dissident,
angering Chinese

Peace Prize goes
to jailed dissident,
angering Chinese

Nobel committee
awards Peace Prize
to Chinese dissident

 Here is a version of an example of what I mean by DWI from my headline lecture:

Heds tell the story best when they are:

  • Clear
  • Specific
  • Precise
  • And are DWI = Dense with information
For example:
Original Hed =
Teenager found not guilty in killing, rape of UCLA college student

This hed has padding to fill out the line:
You don't need the word "college" - goes without saying
And you can replace three words - "found not guilty" - with one word - "acquitted"

Here are some keywords I listed before rewriting headline: teenager / acquitted / killing / rape / student / college student / of UCLA student / second trial burglary

So, a hed more DWI would be =
Second trial acquits teenager in UCLA student’s killing, rape

Second trial adds more information - that this is the second time this guy has been tried for killing and rape

You can apply this thinking to cutlines, blurbs, even the text of your story. This is an especially important skill to develop in writing good SEO headlines.

It is all about being precise and concise without being obscure.

French poodle rule

The French poodle rule is fairly straightforward.
is a proper noun and therefore is capitalized. But poodle is a common noun. There is no province called

Here are violations of rule:
Toxic Cane toads are killing alarming numbers of Australia's freshwater crocodiles as the alien pests hop inexorably across the continent, research showed Tuesday.

The scouts had planned to plant 100 Douglas Fur seedlings and another 50 Western White Pines

Fisherman off the coast of Antarctica landed a rare Colossal Squid, a species that was first identified in 1925.
Williams claimed he has requested permission to train cadaver-finding Bloodhounds at the site.
Like raccoons with picnic coolers or urban coyotes with pet cats, west Florida's Bottlenose Dolphins are learning that proximity to humans can make for easy meals.

Metrics in Stories - AP's Guideline

metric system For U.S. members, use metric terms only in situations where they are universally accepted forms of measurement (16 mm film) or where the metric distance is an important number in itself: He vowed to walk 100 kilometers (62 miles) in a week.

Normally, the equivalent should be in parentheses after the metric figure. A general statement, however, such as A kilometer equals about five-eighths of a mile, would be acceptable to avoid repeated use of parenthetical equivalents in a story that uses kilometers many times.
To avoid the need for long strings of figures, prefixes are added to the metric units to denote fractional elements or large multiples. The prefixes are: pico- (one-trillionth), nano- (one-billionth), micro- (one-millionth), milli- (one-thousandth), centi- (one-hundredth), deci- (one-tenth), deka- (10 units), hecto- (100 units), kilo- (1,000 units), mega- (1 million units), giga- (1 billion units), tera- (1 trillion units). Entries for each prefix show how to convert a unit preceded by the prefix to the basic unit.
In addition, separate entries for gram, meter, liter, Celsius and other frequently used metric units define them and give examples of how to convert them to equivalents in the terminology that has been used in the United States.
Similarly, entries for pound, inch, quart, Fahrenheit, etc., contain examples of how to convert these terms to metric forms.
ABBREVIATIONS: The abbreviation mm for millimeter is acceptable in references to film widths (8 mm film) and weapons (a 105 mm cannon). (Note space between numeral and abbreviation.)
The principal abbreviations, for reference in the event they are used by a source, are: g (gram), kg (kilogram), t (metric ton), m (meter), cm (centimeter), km (kilometer), mm (millimeter), L (liter, capital L to avoid confusion with the figure 1) and mL (milliliter).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Keyword Slug Line

AP Stylebook entry

Keyword Slug Line

Filing the Wire: Keyword Slugline

Every news item in the AP report has a keyword section that consists of a cycle designator, a hyphen and a keyword or keywords. A comma marks the end of the section.
Because the keyword section provides the basic identification of a story for automatic linkup routines, it must be repeated in exactly the same form on all subsequent leads, etc., filed for a story.
keyword section
The cycle designator is always BC-, to indicate that the story may be used in both morning and afternoon news cycles. For online services, this may switch to AP-.
The keyword or slug (sometimes more than one word) clearly indicates the content of the story. With crime stories, make sure the slug does not imply guilt before the completion of the trial.
Use of easily recognized abbreviations and acronyms is encouraged. (Also, the keyword of an item sent on a state service contains the postal code for the state of origin.)
Some computer systems automatically add a word count at the end of a line.

AP Stylebook Entry: Photo Captions

Nearly all AP captions follow a simple formula:
* The first sentence of the caption should follow this structure; the first clause should describe who is in the photograph and what is going on within the photo in the present tense followed by the city and state where the image was made, following AP style for the city and state as appropriate. Captions must give attribution for action not seen (e.g. the scene of accident where more than 10 died, according to police). The last portion of the first sentence should be the date, including the day of the week if the photograph was made within the past two weeks, and preceded by a comma. (e.g., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008). These three elements are MANDATORY and no caption is complete without all of them. Names should always be listed in order, left to right, unless it is impossible for the caption to read normally otherwise. With multiple people identified within the caption, enough representations to placement are necessary that there is no confusion for who is who.
* The second sentence of the caption is used to give context to the news event or describes why the photo is significant. While a second sentence can be illuminating, it also has the potential to create problems and is often where errors can be found. A photo caption's second sentence should be carefully crafted to include information from the text wire story when appropriate or additional relevant observations from the photographer on scene. There may be some instances when a second sentence is not needed. Many sports photos taken during a game or match, for example, do not require a second sentence; nor do photos from some ongoing news events. Most daily pictures of the president do not need a second sentence either.
* Whenever possible, try to keep captions to no more than two concise sentences, while including the relevant information. Try to anticipate what information the reader will need. Any non-publishable information in the body of the caption should be set off by dual asterisks, (**) both before and after the highlighted information.
Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivers his policy on Iraq speech, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007, in Clinton, Iowa. Obama called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq, with the pullout being completed by the end of next year. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FOR HANDOUT PHOTOS (provided or released by governments, armies, companies or other official sources):
In this image released by the Milk Processor Education Program, actress Glenn Close is shown in the latest ad for the National Milk Mustache got milk? Campaign. (AP Photo/Milk Processor Education Program)
The caption should begin with In this photo released by, followed by the name of the providing body.
The name of the releasing body is then repeated in the photo credit: (The name of the releasing person or organization should be translated according to AP style, where applicable.
ALL handout images from ANY source MUST, as a final step, be examined carefully in Photoshop by at least two editors on the handling regional photo desk. If there is any doubt about the integrity of a handout image, it should not be transmitted.
1. SAFE AT SECOND-For a baseball play at second base, or PRESIDENT ADDRESSES WOMEN-For a presidential speech to a women's group. Regular captions have NO overlines.
INSTRUCTIVE OVERLINES will be used in the following cases:
1. For FILE PHOTOS the word FILE will be the OVERLINE.
Example: FILE – Johnny Depp is shown in London, in this Jan. 10, 2008, file photo. Depp won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his role in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", announced, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2008, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)
2. For ADVANCES the OVERLINE is the word ADVANCE and the RELEASE DATE. Do not use story slugs or writer's name in the OVERLINE.
Example: **ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND MAY 15-16** Sean Smith, a fish culturist at Vermont's new fish hatchery in Grand Isle, Vt., one of the Lake Champlain islands, moves young rainbow trout on May 4, 1993, to a new tank. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
3. For SPECIALS the OVERLINE should be the word SPECIAL and the name of the publication. Do not use the authorizing editor in the OVERLINE. Also, if the city is not part of the formal title of the publication's name, add it. Put SPCL in the subcategory field of the NAA/IPTC header.
Example: **SPECIAL FOR THE CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER** Diana Holmes participates in the second day of the 66th annual National Spelling Bee in Washington Thursday, June 3, 1993. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
4. For EMBARGOED photos the OVERLINE should be the word EMBARGOED with the RELEASE TIME and DATE. Also, add HFR (Hold for Release) in the SUPPLEMENTAL CATEGORY field of the NAA/IPTC header for embargoed photos for same day release.
Example: **EMBARGOED UNTIL 1 P.M. EST, SUNDAY, DEC. 10, 2006** This undated handout photo provided by the Census of Marine Life shows a Kiwa hirsuta, the Yeti crab, a new species found near Easter Island. (AP Photo/Ifremer, A. Fifis)
If the date when the photo was made is unknown, state "date of photo unknown" in the body of the caption and in the INSTRUCTIONS field of the NAA/IPTC header.
The SIGNOFF for an AP staffer or stringer is, in parentheses, AP Photo followed by a slash and the name of the photographer. Don't use str or stf. Example: (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer). If the name of the photographer is not known or needs to be withheld, the signoff is: (AP Photo).
MEMBER PHOTO SIGNOFF: (AP Photo/USA Today, Anne Ryan). Put MBR in the BYLINE TITLE field of the NAA/IPTC header.
HANDOUT PHOTO SIGNOFF: (AP Photo/General Motors). If photographer is known: (AP Photo/General Motors, John Smith).
POOL PHOTO SIGNOFF: (AP Photo/Bill Waugh, Pool). For pool photos, do not name the newspaper or agency that shot for the pool in the caption signoff. However, put the name of the organization that shot the pool in the Source field, after the word POOL, for example, POOL AP. The BYLINE TITLE field of the NAA/IPTC header should contain the word POOL. The Instructions field should also say POOL PHOTO.
SPECIALS PHOTO SIGNOFF for photo shot by AP: (AP Photo/Al Smith). If made by member's own photographer: (Chicago Tribune Photo/Bill James).
FILE PHOTO SIGNOFF: (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, File). If the name of the photographer who shot the file photo is not known the signoff should be: (AP Photo/File)
AP GRAPHIC SIGNOFF: (AP Graphic/Karl Tate).
MANDATORY CREDITS, OUTS, CORRECTION INFORMATION should always appear in the caption box and should be set off by twin asterisks. Corrective information is placed before the caption, credits and restrictions are placed after the signoff. This information must also appear in the INSTRUCTIONS field of the NAA/IPTC header. When necessary in the caption box, they appear AFTER the signoff.
HANDOUT PHOTOS: The use of handout photos requires the release of the copyright holder when known. The AP provides access to handout images only for the editorial use involving what is depicted within the image. All handout photos will be accompanied with the following text in the Special Instructions.

A List of Job Sites

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Book Editing Resources

Here are some Book Editing Resources


Some comments on your critiques:

I would say read the bogus trend stories linked on syllabus and then think about this story once again. This article makes me want to believe that inner-city violence between females exists, but also that it dropping because police say so. The conflict of interest between what was being said by the teenagers and the police confused me. A follow-up or replacement story could include interviews with the girls regarding why they think violence exists and how they would react to it, rather than hearing information from bureaucrats about a drop in violent attacks.

You have a sense there is something wrong here, but have not quite identified it: I’m not sure what to think about the article on girl violence. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything remarkable about the article if I’d read it as a stand-alone.
I suppose it could be playing up the violence of a few crimes to get a story out of it. Despite an overall trend of decreased female violence, it insists on focusing on the extreme outcomes. It even cites one attack, saying “such extreme brutality remains rare.”
The reporter may be struggling to make a mountain out of a molehill or has written the story too broadly for a detailed look at the rise in girl cliques. To focus the article, it would be nice to have one consistent perspective we could jump back to, such as a single victim or official. As it stands, it’s too broad.
Other than playing up one specific angle, I don’t notice anything too unusual about this piece.

Shows you are thinking like a focused, critical thinking editor. Yes! And I like the note re cosmic!!! This story, I feel, is a good example of a reporter trying too hard on a slow news day. The angle is somewhat vague, the information not heavily substantiated. Frankly, I fail to see how this topic is new(s). Girls, boys, men and women have been beating up each other since man came on the scene. And, the most glaring omission: The writer doesn't even source or quote anyone who runs with a female posse that is meting out group beatings. This is the story's biggest fault, and it could make the reader question the validity, relevance and importance of the story. I know I did. Also, the writing style borderlines on sensational. And as far as the sourcing and facts in the story go, the writer presents two contradictions: First, violent crime among women is up, according to teenagers, street works and youth advocates. But the story then goes on to quote Boston police as saying that violent crime among girls has fallen since 2005. As a journalist, not only is your job to report the news, but also to synthesize and analyze the news in such a way that is easily digestible to the everyday reader. The writer fails in this regard. The writer says the reason Boston police claim violent crime among women has decreased is because the victims are either afraid to tell authorities, or the injuries not severe enough to be noticed. This argument Is flawed. First, if the victim is beaten badly enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, this could very well lead to a doctor reporting the crime instead of the victim. Second, if the beatings aren't bad enough to cause noticeable harm, is this really a big enough issue to warrant an in-depth story? Finally, there are a few angles the writer could have use that would make this story more interesting or more “cosmic.” What is the trend of violence among women nationwide? How does it compare to Boston? A second, more cosmic angle could be to address the culture of violence among women. When did it start? When did it become a serious issue? What are the sociological, cultural and historical implications? Is it isolated to the United States, or is it prevalent in other countries, too?

Yes!! Shows you are thinking like a focused, critical thinking editor.

What’s being asserted here is messed up feminism. The shock at women being capable of violence in almost the same capacity as men, specifically how women can’t pull the trigger the way men can, runs throughout. But I still feel like I don’t understand what’s going on. So there is an increase in violence but the reasoning for the fighting seems flimsy. And the quotes are there, but more is needed to make this story feel complete. This story also asserts a lack of police intervention. But if this is as prevalent as the article seems to claim wouldn’t police have seen these roaming groups of violent women jumping people? Or is the article claiming the police shirking their duties just because the subjects are women? Female gangs are certainly a new thing, but the presentation feels off. And the portrayal of women seems to limit the depth of women’s feelings to good is nice and bad is mean. The story is novel in the statistics but the gender element is certainly played up. The numbers, particularly in the number of examples, are off and the article tries to spin them in another direction.

I disagree with this argument - journalism is a kind of rough empiricism.
I like the story because it looks like the writer went to the street and asked people about female violence instead of relying on police reports and statistics. I really like this approach because statistics can show certain trends, but sometimes they are not correct. In this case, statistics say that attacks by girls have decreased. However, the reporter finds a lot of people who thinks the opposite.