Common Sense Journalism
An extension of the Common Sense Journalism monthly column by Doug Fisher, former broadcaster, newspaper reporter and wire service editor. From new media to old, much of journalism is just plain common sense.
"In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." - Unknown (often improperly attributed to Thomas Jefferson)
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
"Common sense is not so common" - Voltaire "Common sense is instinct; enough of it is genius" - George Bernard Shaw
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Why I love ACES meetings
I've been absent for two years from the annual gatherings of the American Copy Editors Society. I missed them. I'd forgotten how much till I was able to make it again this year to the gathering in St. Louis.
It's about meeting old friends - and some of them former co-workers - like John McIntyre, Bill Cloud, Wayne Countryman, Joyce Laskowski, Vicki Krueger, David Sullivan, Rich Holden (great to have him back from bypass surgery), Merrill Perlman, Doug Ward, Nicole Stockdale, Fred Vultee ... and too many others to mention.
And finally getting to meet others who have been kindred spirits over the digital divide, like Ruth Thaler-Carter (and having a great lunch).
It's about great sessions, like the annual AP lovefest and seeing my old friend and former colleague Darrell Christian. Or how to make copy readable without making it stupid.
There's listening to a former editor of Hustler - yeah, we concentrated on the text errors as he flashed various examples on the screen (trust me, the other stuff was very tastefully redacted).
There's sharing stories with others in the trenches, especially the academic trenches, about teaching editing and writing and dealing with plagiarism and fabrication. I always come away with new ideas as well as the realization we all are seeing the same thing: students who are great hunter-gatherers if the information prey is on the surface in front of them but who have trouble connecting the dots (or, continuing the bad metaphor, aren't great farmers in making things grow). It's compounded by watching more students increasingly struggle to read things quickly and critically. (I do miss the lunches that we "profs" used to have at these meetings and hope we can resume them.)
There's the great conversation about Southern politics with the guy next to me at dinner.
Followed by a great talk by Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. Yes, people do read the dictionary, and the online stats show it. Some fascinating things. For instance, what are the most looked-up words? Affect and effect. So don't feel bad, dear student. As I've said many times, look it up (grin).
(And the reminder from Bill Walsh that sentence fragments like those in the previous graf are fine if used sparingly and artfully.)
There is great food. And there are great views.
And there's the reminder that I need to push some of our students more to apply for ACES scholarships. (Yeah, you who are going to that North Carolina city for an editing internship - I'm talkin' about you. My bad for not pushing it more. Expect to get pushed for next year when I get back. Next year's application is already online.)
And most of all there is satisfaction and pride.
- Satisfaction that the reality Nicole and I predicted has come true from when we did those blogging and SEO for editors sessions back in Los Angeles and Miami and Cleveland (and when I went solo in Denver), and people were crowding the room but also were looking at us like we had three eyes and were lighting torches and sharpening their pitchforks. I don't mean smug satisfaction -- we admittedly were out on the high wire and, like everyone else at that time, were making it up as we went. And I remember being almost jumped at the general session in Denver when I got up and suggested ACES needed to start broadening from its newspaper-centric view.
- Pride that ACES has matured, expanded and embraced the digital age and the wide range of editing arts full bore. Yes, some of it was born of necessity, mixed with a bit of panic as ACES saw its ranks thin as newsrooms went through wholesale cuts, centralization (or elimination) of editing, etc. But the measure of a person or organization is not necessarily the motivation, but how they (yes, they -- it's not wrong to use it there) respond. And by that measure, ACES has truly risen to the challenge and found its stride and its strength. And while it still remains too hidden (including, Sokolowski acknowledged, to him), and while editors still too often are seen as nit-pickers and grammar grunts, neither of which has ever been true of those who truly practice the craft, knowing that ACES continues to strengthen is great -- because I plan on attending these for a few more years at least.
Best line seen at the meeting on a T-shirt (paraphrased from memory): How does a copy editor comfort a struggling writer? Just walk over and whisper "they're, there, their."
On to Las Vegas.
Thursday, April 04, 2013
AP Style: 'Underway" and numerals
I'm going to take a bow here - AP FINALLY is making two changes I have urged for years. Revealed today at the ACES convention in St. Louis:
underway - Now one word in all uses. Editor-at-Large Darrell Christian says it's to conform to the dictionary. Frankly, AP was being outflanked by even common usage in newspapers. This follows last year's change of "work force" to "workforce."
Numerals - The entry will now be consolidated and expanded in an attempt, as Christian said, to bring things all together and simplify while not sending people hither and yon through the stylebook looking for variations. It will be about four pages long. (David Minthorn noted there were several hundred related possible entries.)
One wrinkle on this - all distances will now be figures. So you no longer need to distinguish between dimensions and distances. The pipe was 3 feet long (dimension) and now he ran 4 miles or the town was 6 square miles.
In a way, however, the AP is complicating things a bit here - why not also take on the duration versus age dichotomy and use all figures there? He is 5 years old -- as it is now -- but why not also he was sentenced to 5 years' probation?
I've urged for some time that the AP simplify its arcane numeral entries. My suggestion was to spell out everything between one and nine unless a dollar sign or something similar preceded it. It works fine for the Wall Street Journal, for instance.
But if the digital -- and especially the mobile -- age requires shortening and figures, I'm fine with that too -- just do it across the board.
And here's another:
Moped: Now one word, not that awkward "mo-ped" that so many ignored anyhow. Did anyone really think that in context people would think it meant wandering around listlessly?
AP's David Minthorn repeatedly says the stylebook is "coming into compliance with the dictionary." So, AP, maybe it's also time to consider changing dictionaries. Webster's New World College 4th (when will we get a 5th - it was supposed to be this spring) is the more conservative -- and, frankly, the most out of step, of the three majors. Merriam-Webster still has its haters as too liberal. So why not American Heritage 5? It has the benefit of much better explanations than Webster's of the reasoning behind lots of its entries.
So will AP also change "gantlet/gauntlet" to favor gauntlet (run the gauntlet) as M-W and AH do?
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
AP Style: Illigal immigrant, murder
Two welcome changes from AP in recent days just before the American Copy Editors Society conference in St. Louis.
illegal immigrant: The wire service has dropped the term, unless used in a quote, explaining that "illegal" should be used only referring to an action, not a person. From the AP:
Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented. Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution. Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?Notably, the AP isn't adopting the "undocumented immigrant" language that is just as controversial in anti-immigration circles. Still this marks a big victory for groups that for years have been protesting the term. The New York Times is also considering the change.
murder: The stylebook now reinforces what many of us have preached in editing classes for years - don't say someone was "charged with murdering." Say "charged with murder in the killing of" ...
Having said that, I don't expect newsrooms to rush to get it right, especially TV. Kudos to those that are professional enough to do so.
I wonder if AP will announce anything else major at the ACES meeting.
Friday, March 22, 2013
AP v. Meltwater - I'm not betting for AP on the appeal
AP won a "big" victory against news aggregator Meltwater yesterday.
But I'm not betting against Meltwater on appeal when it comes to the judge's ruling that showing the lead from a story is not fair use.
While the ruling specifically couches it in the frame that Meltwater is not like a search engine, driving traffic to other sites, I expect the EFF and other groups to really pile on in the appeals court to gut the AP's "heart of the work" argument. I just have this sneaking suspicion the appeals court will agree.
What's clear, however, is that the next few years will see sustained battle in the courts - both legal and of public opinion - over the new equilibrium to be established in the digital age. Google already is battling on the European front.
The courts are usually about a decade behind technology in having the law catch up. We're about due.
(For some detailed commentary on all this, see Mike Masnick on TechDirt, who finds numerous flaws in the ruling, and Jeff John Roberts on Paid Content.)
Google taking flak
There was the ouburst of unhappiness last week when it was announced Google Reader was being phased out, and now there are broadsides against the search giant for problems with Google Alerts (which I have to agree has been sucking lately).
Here's the deal, folks. This decade is going to be pay to play. Many of these free services were launched with the idea they could be ad supported. We know where that's gone with the media, so why does anyone think it would be different with anything else?
Sure, some will stay free (there's always the motive to get people in the door or there will be other objectives, such as Google's and Facebooks' massive data-gathering efforts -- if you'e buying FB stock, you're not buying a social media company but a huge database you hope can be monetized). And with churn there will be new free ones popping up.
But if you make them part of your workflow, get ready to pony up. It's going to be a cost of business.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Allyson Bird's "Why I left news"
Allyson Bird, one of the best students I've ever had, writes at length about why she left journalism. You should read it.
I think there's a lot to chew on here:
I don’t think the Internet killed newspapers. Newspapers killed newspapers.
People like to say that print media didn’t adapt to online demand, but that’s only part of it. The corporate folks who manage newspapers tried to comply with the whims of a thankless audience with a microscopic attention span. And newspaper staffers tried to comply with the demands of a thankless establishment that often didn’t even read their work. Everyone lost.
People came to demand CNN’s 24-hour news format from every news outlet, including local newspapers. And the news outlets nodded their heads in response, scrambling into action without offering anything to the employees who were now expected to check their emails after hours and to stay connected with readers through social media in between stories.
There was never such a thing as an eight-hour workday at newspapers, but overtime became the stuff of legend. You knew better than to demand fair compensation. If any agency that a newspaper covered had refused to pay employees for their time, the front-page headlines wouldn’t cease. But when it came to watching out for themselves, the watchdogs kept their heads down.
Combine it with the latest from the State of the Media report and it's observation that "nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to," and I think it's time to reassess.
One of the things I'm going to suggest to the S.C. Press Association this weekend: Do Less With Less - but do it better.
I think our audience is telling us very simply: We can get the "more" if we want it very easily. But if you want our loyalty and engagement, the formula isn't more, but better - do what you do well. Show us you care -- about us and about your own profession. And while you're at it, show us you're having some fun, because to read most news sites and papers these days is no-fun city.
(There's an interesting debate about some of this at Slate between author Matthew Yglesias and the reaction by the commenters on his article that argues journalism has never been in better shape.)
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
Get rid of the cop speak
From The State today, a good example of how cop speak creeps into stories and how we can get it out. Also, there are questions about using an unidentified "spokesman" and some other suggestions. My comments (for my editing class) are in bold:
A 23-year-old jail guard has been arrested for allegedly shooting his pregnant girlfriend and then burning her body in woods near Eastover.
A 23-year-old jail guard has been arrested on allegations he shot his pregnant girlfriend and then burned her body in woods near Eastover. "For" still tends to convict, even with "allegedly." And it's a simple change.
Tristan Gist, a former detention officer at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, is charged with murder and death or injury of a child in utero due to the commission of a violent crime, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department reported Monday. Gist was fired from the detention center over the weekend when he did not show up to work, according to a spokesman in the Richland County public information office.
… according to a county spokesman (who?). Why do we need to get into the anonymous source here if the person is a spokesman - leave the fake skulduggery to inside the Beltway. And if the person is a spokesman, do we need "public information office"? Is there a danger we might think it's a sheriff's spokesman? (And, although minor, it would be better as at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.)
Gist is being held at the Lexington County Detention Center. He must appear before a Richland County circuit court judge for a bond hearing.
The paper can use what style it wants, but in many styles (including our local style) Circuit Court is capped. But it could be written just as circuit judge. Might also be nice to explain why he's being held in Lexington County (assume it's for safety since he used to be a guard at Richland County's, but why make readers connect the dots).
The victim has been tentatively identified as Dierra Fisher, 22, of Columbia, said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. He said he was 99.9 percent sure Fisher was the victim but was waiting on medical records to be certain.
… said he was almost certain Fisher was the victim but was waiting for medical records to be sure. Why do we need the false-precision figure?
Gist is accused of shooting Fisher once in the head and then driving her body to woods off Screaming Eagle Road Extension, east of Fort Jackson, and then burning her.
A small thing, but ditch the first "and then" for a comma.
Gist brought Fisher’s two small children with him in the car as he drove to burn her body, said Sheriff Leon Lott.
Another small thing, but for brevity with him can be deleted.
“It’s probably one of the more vicious crimes I’ve seen,” Lott said. “I keep saying that over and over. When I don’t think I can see worse, something like this happens.”
Firefighters responding to a brush fire in the 3800 block of Screaming Eagle Extension Thursday afternoon discovered the burning body in the woods. The victim was burned so badly that the firefighters who discovered the burning body could not identify the gender.
The body was burned so badly the firefighters could not tell whether it was a man or woman.
An autopsy determined the victim was a woman who was about five months pregnant. She died from a single gunshot to the head, Watts said.
An autopsy determined it was a woman about five months pregnant. She died from being shot once in the head, Watts said.
But Watts had not been able to identify the woman until sheriff’s deputies arrested Gist Monday afternoon.
So the mere fact of the arrest made him conclude it was Fisher? Seems kind of tautological. Did anything else lead him to that conclusion?
It was unknown Monday who took custody of the two children who rode in the car with Gist, said Deputy Curtis Wilson, a sheriff’s department spokesman.
It was unknown: Does that mean the sheriff's department did not know, or does it mean Wilson said he did not know, or did the kids just disappear into thin air? Avoid the passive that diffuses responsibility. And you can delete who rode in the car with Gist; those are the only two children mentioned in the story and it already establishes they rode with him.
Gist was the father of one of the children, according to reports. It has not been determined whether Gist was the father of Fisher’s unborn baby.
Whose reports? Police? Media? Twitter? Message in a mayonnaise bottle? And who is doing this "has not been" determining. Another passive that diffuses things. Who said this?
No one had reported Fisher missing or called the coroner’s office about the victim when the burning was first reported, he said. She has family in Orangeburg, New Jersey and Kansas, and those relatives have been notified.
Who is the "he" here - Watts or Wilson. Who said they have been notified? And why use "the victim"? Just say "her."
Investigators received a tip Monday morning from someone in the community that Gist might be a suspect in the shooting and burning. From there, the investigation progressed quickly, Lott said.
From someone in the community - what community? Better yet, unless it came from Mars, the default is it's probably going to have been in the community. Is that really needed? If he won't say who, just say that. Same thing with in the shooting and burning. Have we been talking about anything else?
Several officers went to Gist’s home to make the arrest, and he was apprehended without incident.
Officers went to Gist's home where he was arrested without a struggle. If it's plural, we can assume "several." That adds nothing. And if these were sheriff's "officers," wouldn't "deputies" be more correct?
Gist admitted to the shooting death and burning, Lott said.
Gist has no prior criminal record, according to a rap sheet from the State Law Enforcement Division. He was hired at the detention center on May 14, 2012, according to a county spokesman. Other details about Gist’s employment, including his certification as a jail guard and his educational history, were not available Monday.
Gist has no criminal record. Or, if you want to be absolutely on the fine point: Gist had no criminal record. (He obviously has one now.) "Prior" isn't really needed. We can debate whether you need according to a rap sheet from - is the form important or just that it's according to SLED.
He was hired at the detention center May 14. Since it was last year, 2012 isn't needed.
And there's that ghost county spokesman again.
Fisher’s killing was the third deadly incident of domestic violence in the past week in Richland County.
Fisher's killing was the third death related to domestic violence …
I'd also suggest during the past week just to change up the prepositions, but that's small potatoes.
On Feb. 25, Percy Williams, 31, was charged with murder after he allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend, Tabatha Priester, 35, the sheriff’s department reported. On Feb. 26, 28-year-old Adam Jurgen died in a hail of gunfire after he got into a shootout with sheriff’s deputies who were searching for him after he allegedly beat his girlfriend.
If you're keeping score, that's Sheriff's Department under AP style because it refers to a previously named department in the story. But that's the least of our worries, and the newsroom is entitled to its own style.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Hold that apostrophe
Thursday, February 21, 2013
AP Style: Husband and wife
The AP really kicked up a hornet's nest last month when an internal memo surfaced saying that "husband" and "wife" were fine for same-sex couples if the couples had regularly used those terms. Otherwise, the memo said, "couple" or "partners" was probably the better choice.
Slate's Jeffrey Bloomer had a more nuanced and reasoned look at the issue.
Now the AP has issued its stylebook ruling:
Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.Those who were upset before might fire at "legally recognized marriage," since the federal Defense of Marriage Act still, technically, puts those state-recognized marriages of gay couples outside the bounds of federal law -- at least until the Supreme Court issues a ruling on a challenge to DOMA.
But I'm pretty sure AP intends to follow the lead of the particular states, and, overall, the new guidance seems eminently reasonable given the current state of things.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Always ask "Why"
Here is a story that's a good example of failing to ask many of the right questions (if they were asked, it doesn't show).
The headline holds great promise:
How SC keeps mental-health data from gun database
South Carolina is not passing critical information about residents with mental illness along to the federal government, leaving the door open for potentially violent people to buy firearms, critics say.
This lack of a sharing, paired with a flawed federal system, could one day yield deadly results, according to a growing chorus of state leaders, lawmakers and parents.
Sounds like a pretty good look at how and why South Carolina isn't sharing this information, right?
Except nowhere in that story can I find the how or the why.
The how, I guess, is fairly simple - it just isn't doing it. But why isn't it doing it? Nowhere does reporter Gina Smith, whose work I respect, actually tell us. She dwells on the case of a woman with mental health problems who got a gun and tried to fire it outside a school. She tells us the state's attorney general, Alan Wilson, is upset and he and some lawmakers are preparing legislation that would require the state to share mental health information with the federal database.
She tells us:
South Carolina rarely provides mental health records to an FBI database for gun background checks.
That means the FBI cannot enter that information into a database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System or NICS. Gun-store owners around the country rely on the database to alert them when a potential buyer is ineligible to purchase a gun.
It's up to state governments to share their data including mental-health records, proof of citizenship, criminal and drug-abuse histories and more.
South Carolina shared only 17 mental-health records from the time the database came into existence in 1998 to October 2011, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors from across the nation working to help law enforcement target illegal guns. Eighteen other states provided even fewer records, according to the report.And that's it. One dismissive line - the attorney general would not speculate. So why not dig for the answer to some basic questions:
Colin Miller, a law professor at the University of South Carolina's law school, said the NICS system does not provide adequate information that gun stores and others who sell firearms need.
"There is a lot of information that should be there that isn't. There is a lot of missing data," Miller said. "There are a lot of reasons why it's not there. Bureaucracy, red tape. And there's not anything that incentivizes states to provide that information to NICS.
"And there are no enforcement mechanisms to punish them for not providing it."
Officials in some states say the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prevents them from turning over such records to the FBI. They also say there is no money to create a system to collect the records from health agencies and courts, and no laws requiring it.
Wilson would not speculate on why South Carolina does not do it.
- Whose responsibility is it to turn them over?
- Why isn't that person or agency not doing it?
- Who turned over the 17 and why hasn't that person or agency turned over more?
- Are there privacy (HIPAA) concerns or conflicts specifically in South Carolina?
- Did I miss it, or why is no one from the state Mental Health Department quizzed at length on all this?
But it never drills down into South Carolina to see who is or is not responsible (if no one is responsible, that's a good story in itself) and if someone or some agency is responsible, why that responsibility isn't being carried out.
As quoted by Brant Houston in "The Investigative Reporter's Handbook":
Newspaper editor Tom Honig wrote in The IRE Journal that "most good investigations come down to one of two things -- either a process did not work or people did not follow the guidelines."Smith's story provides neither answer and essentially becomes a big shrug combined with a bit of hand-wringing. But government without responsibility is chaos, and it's our jobs to penetrate the surface and tell people whether there is malfeasance, nonfeasance or just cluelessness.
We can and should do better.