Tag Archives: discussion notes

Discussion notes: accuracy

The first commandment of modern journalism remains accuracy (it wasn’t always so). Present accurate information in an accurate context and in a way that can be understood by the reader, listener or viewer. That’s the reporter’s job. That’s especially the editor’s job.

What does that mean? How can an editor make it happen?

Many errors, if not most, are made at the reporting stage of the journalistic process. Sometimes, there is not much that an editor can do about them, given limited time and resources to check them. (This is true for daily news organizations, but it is less so for magazines.) Still, editors have to take responsibility for all the errors in their publication, and they need to systematically guard against making errors.

So, how?

• Presenting information that is verifiable. Some information should not be produced by professional journalistic organizations because it cannot be checked. We used to put most rumors in that category, although the standard here may be changing.

• Making sure interpretations of information are fair and reasonable and that they exclude other interpretations.

• Gathering information from various sources that might confirm the information we have or give us additional perspective on it. The editor must exercise careful judgment in weighing the credibility of those sources.

Many times in our editing of news stories, the nature of the information points to one and only one source, so this last procedure may not be possible. An editor must be practiced and knowledgeable enough to discern that

— which argues for a wide range of knowledge on the part of an editor. It also argued for editors being specialists in something – that is, having an intimate knowledge of some subject. What are you a specialist in? (Instructors: Ask this question of your students and you’ll get some interesting answers.)

 

Achieving accuracy

What are the practical steps we can take as editing students to achieve accuracy? Read chapter 4 in your text (The Complete Editor) on Accuracy, Clarity and Brevity, the tri-part Holy Grail of Journalism. Then, when you have an editing assignment, do the following:

question, question, question. Raise questions about every sentence you read. Does this sound right? Does it pass a smell test? Could the source have really said this? Does this make sense? Do I know something different? If you do, it’s your responsibility to change the copy or to raise a question with the instructor.

check what you can check. The stylebook and dictionary are the first places to begin. If an article refers to the “assassination of President John Kennedy in 1964,” check it out (it’s wrong!). As time allows, check anything you think there will be a record of.

names, dates, times. Names of people in news stories should always be checked for spelling and appropriate titles. Go back to the reporter (or ask the instructor) for a check on dates and times.

do the math. When a story contains numbers, make sure you add them up. If a story says something like “35 years ago in 1969,” make sure that 1969 is 35 years ago (it isn’t).

internal logic. Reporters contradict themselves in their writing; it happens more than you might think. Stay sensitive to finding these contradictions. Sometimes there is a reason for including contradictory information, but those reasons should be obvious or spelled out for the reader. The editor has to deal with them.

use the language literally. One of the exercises in The Complete Editor says that the city council reacted “violently” to the mayor’s budge proposal. Yet, there was no fighting during the city council meeting. Everything was civil, no violence at all.  The word “violently” was used inaccurately, making the description of the event inaccurate.

In journalism, we speak literally, not figuratively, and we deal with specific, concrete information rather than vague ideas.

use your common sense.  You don’t enter a parallel universe when you are an editor; you deal with a very real world. Words, phrases, sentences, statements and other items that sound out of kilter probably are. Deal with them; fix them. Make them make sense.

Judging the accuracy of a piece of writing and correcting the writing to make it accurate is not unlike what we do as adults in reacting to the world around us. We have to decide what is true, relevant and accurate in order to make good decisions about our lives. In journalistic editing, those processes are the same – only they are often done with more intensity, with the knowledge that decisions will affect the lives of others, and with the pressure of a deadline.

Example

A local newspaper had this headline in a January 2000 edition.

Grandson revives the memory of Confederate general

The headline ran beside a picture of two men shaking hands. Presumably, one was the man to whom the headline referred. Both appeared to be middle aged, between 40 and 60 years old. Given that the Civil War occurred in the 1860s, nearly 140 years ago, it did not seem reasonable that either was the grandson of a Confederate general. DO THE MATH.

The headline was wrong.

The story identified one of the men in the picture as the great-grandson of Confederate general Jeb Stuart. The headline writer — on most newspapers that’s a different person that the one who writes the story — misunderstood or was too lazy to rewrite the head to make it accurate.

Or worse, the headline writer didn’t think it made any difference. For people who try to promote professionalism in the media, that’s a scary thought.


An additional note: John Early McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copydesk at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent piece on the Poynter web site about the importance of editing. In it, he cites a 2003 conference on Editing for the Future held at the First Amendment Center in Nashville. The web site for the conference contains many resources for those interested in editing, including a session devoted to accuracy. That session was led by Margaret Holt, customer service editor of the Chicago Tribune. During her presentation (which can be viewed on video at the site), she told the story of the time when the Tribune got serious about guarding against inaccuracies:

Since 1992 the Chicago Tribune has hired a proofreader to do an errors-per-page annual report, so the newsroom can track errors from year to year. “We were abysmal starting out,” she said. “I think we were as high as 4.82 errors per page.”

However, the Tribune’s accuracy program kicked into high gear in 1995 when it suffered an accuracy “meltdown.” A senior writer misidentified a top Tribune executive in an obituary of a beloved editor. That executive was “not happy,” Holt said. The obit was published on a Saturday, and by Monday, the executive ordered the Tribune to establish an error policy.

(Posted Feb. 9, 2005)

Discussion notes: attacking wordiness

Most of the editing students I have taught over the last three decades share this trait: they are reluctant to change anything in an editing exercise, even when it is obviously wrong. Getting them to where they will correct grammar, spelling and style errors in the first step. But to be good editors, of course, they must go far beyond this. They must learn to recognize and attack wordiness – the heart disease of good writing. Here are some lecture/discussion notes about what to tell editing students about wordiness – how to recognize the symptoms and cure the disease.

He gave $25,000 of his own money to charity.

At first glance, this sentence may seem ok – straightforward, grammatically correct, not too long, uses short words, expresses a fairly simply thought. But look again. It has too many words, way too many. The first culprit if easy to spot: the word “own.” Totally unnecessary. Of course, it’s his own money. He wouldn’t be giving anyone else’s money to charity, would he?

He gave $25,000 of his money to charity.

But wait, there’s more. By the same logic that we just used, we can also eliminate “of his money” from our revised sentence. Again, we can’t assume that he’s giving away somebody else’s money.

He gave $25,000 to charity.

What does the first sentence have that this third one does not? Nothing – but a bunch of words. Certainly no information is gone.

A good copyeditor should approach every sentence in this way, always asking, “What’s not necessary? What can I eliminate?” The goal of a good copyeditor in a professional setting is to give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible. All the words used in any writing should carry as much informational weight as possible. The copyeditor who can achieve this goal and shorten a piece of writing has done a good job.

But brevity isn’t the goal. It’s clarity. Making writing clear, so that it can be read easily and understood completely the first time, is what a copyeditor is all about. Sometimes that may mean making a sentence or a paragraph longer, and you should allow for that possibility. Most often, however, when you attack wordiness successfully, that’s what you will be doing.

(Remember, too, that accuracy is the number one goal of all journalists. You should never sacrifice accuracy to brevity. See the notes about achieving accuracy.)

Here are some things you should develop a sensitivity too – or let’s say these are pollens that you should develop an allergy to:

Redundancy. A redundancy is a set of words in which the idea or information is repeated. Some redundancies are easy to spot and eliminate. For instance:

Easter Sunday

Easter is always on Sunday, so the word “Sunday” doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. There are lots of redundancies floating around in the language (“component parts,” “exact same,” etc.), so carry a can of redundancide around with you and try to eliminate as many as possible. In fact, you should come to the next class with five redundancies that you have read or heard.

Sometimes redundancies may take a bit more consideration. The legal eagles around us are full of redundancies, and one of my favorites is “cease and desist.” Strictly speaking, I suppose, this is not a redundancy; there is a shade of difference between the meanings of these two words, enough so that they add something for the reader. But the copyeditor has to make a judgment about how good these words are, how much value they have. Are they worth using? Both of them? Or would the reader be just as well off with the word “stop”? The good copyeditor is always thinking about this stuff.

Repetition. The general principle is that no information in a news story should be repeated. You are probably safe in sticking with that principle. But you might be surprised by how many times the principle gets violated. Beginning reporters – especially those who have under-reported their stories – are bad about repeating information. The time and date that was in the lead paragraph often shows up in the last paragraph.

Taking a course from a paraphrase to a direct quotation is sometimes the occasion for repetition. For example:

She said the president had no plans to invade Iran at this time. “President Smith has said repeatedly that there are no plans on the table to launch an invasion of Iran,” she said.

The direct quotation does not tell us any more than the first sentence did. It should be eliminated, and another direct quotation – one that adds to the information we can give our readers – should be used.

Avoid repeating major words in a news story. Try to use synonyms.

Avoid repeating major or unique phrases.

And, above all, try to avoid repeating verbs, especially from one sentence to the next. Active, descriptive verbs carry more information weight than any other words. When you repeat a verb, even in a different paragraph, you usually haven’t told the reader much more than he or she already knew.

 

Note: Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute has written an excellent essay on “word territory.” Key words and phrases in your writing should be given space, or territory, and you do this by not repeating them.

Bureaucratese, or “official speak.” Reporters often fall into the trap of using the language or phrases of their sources, who may be officials of government agencies or businesses. Usually, this language is overblown or laden with excessive verbiage. In other words, it uses too many words, and it’s not plain English. Reporters might be forgiven for this sin (or they might not), but editors can never be forgiven for missing this stuff.

The following is from a state education site, describing what a journalism course or program should be in a high school:

The primary goal of any journalism program should be for students to improve oral and written communication skills. Many high school students seek opportunities to explore career possibilities in the media. Journalism programs should offer students many opportunities to excel in a variety of areas.

It’s full of “official speak.” Let’s try to rewrite it in plain English. What does it really say?

And watch out for jargon. What’s jargon? The language of a special group. Scientists have their jargon; so do sports writers and educators and jazz musicians. All God’s children got their jargon. As an editor, you shouldn’t let it slip into the writing.


Now the soapbox.

As a copyeditor, you should be offended by any misuse of the language. You should call for public humiliation of people who misuse the language by anything from grammatical errors to redundancies to bureaucratese. You should feel an affinity for the language and should be protective of it, just as you might be protective of a family member. And you should root out such violations of the language, mercilessly.

As an editor, your duty is to change what needs to be changed. Your duty is to help the reporter give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible.

And most reporters need help.

Check out the exercises on wordiness, redundancies and repetition in The Complete Editor.

Jim Stovall (Posted Feb. 10, 2005)

Discussion notes: Responsibilities of the editor

Editors have broader responsibilites than a reporter to a news organization. They must take charge of various aspects of the news operation that reporters do not have to consider.

— Editors must take a broader view of their job, the news organization and the entire profession

— Editors must know the organization

• purpose
• structure
• processes
• history and tradition

— Editors must develop skills in handling people and resources

• budgets
• helping people achieve success
• allocating resources

— Editors must be masters of the language

• style, especially style
• grammar (sometimes they must arbitrate)
• understand the importance of language precision

— Editors must understand the forms of information presentation that their medium demands

• inverted pyramid story structure
• other forms of news presentation
• graphic forms
• photo editing
• language of design