Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

Timing is everything — this is our time

By · Wednesday, June 10th, 2020 · 2 Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING

Thinking brought us here, with our first Think Like an Editor post published more than 10 years ago, on Dec. 22, 2009.

Since then, we have published more than 500 posts, all connected in some way with the all-important trait of “thinking,” which we believe is underrated.

Now we are thinking it is time for this to be our final post. Our site will remain live, and it is searchable. We strive to make you think, and our hope is that you always will ask questions.

We leave you with these 10 key questions, which also make up the 50th and final strategy in our book:

  1. How have I added value to the work I do and what I produce?
  2. What purpose is my work serving in my community and for my audience?
  3. How can readers and consumers act on my work?
  4. How have I been creative?
  5. How have I inspired others, whether they are peers and colleagues or readers and consumers?
  6. What do people need to know and how can I deliver it to them?
  7. How can I embrace and involve my audience?
  8. How have I had fun?
  9. What have I learned?
  10. How can I work better with my colleagues?

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

10 questions for unprecedented times

By · Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020 · Comments Off on 10 questions for unprecedented times

not teaching,
still THINKING

Stakeholders are the most important people to journalists, and you — as news consumers — are among them.

Usually, when we talk of stakeholders, we mean the following people we consider when we face ethical issues:

Today, we broaden our definition beyond the journalism world to include all people who are in the news now, those who are following the news, and those who are participating in news in the making — be it the coronavirus pandemic or the death of George Floyd.

We ask all of you to consider these questions about stakeholders as you cover the news, consume it or play a role in it. However today’s news affects you, the hope is that these questions might help you in some way.

  1. What stake does each person have in this news and its effects? Are there any hidden interests, ones that are not readily apparent?
  2. Are there any ways in which these interests are in direct conflict? How?
  3. How might each person be helped or harmed, or otherwise affected by the different decisions we make?
  4. Is there one stakeholder’s interest that seems pre-eminent and that should “rule” our thinking?
  5. How would each stakeholder view each possible decision or action? What might the perception of each be?
  6. Are the interests of the least powerful fairly represented?
  7. To whom should we reach out in our community or profession for other views?
  8. Are there any long-term effects on any stakeholder that we might not see today?
  9. Are there alternative ways or compromises to accomplish our goals that relieve any pressures we have identified?
  10. Is our decision one that we would be comfortable sharing openly with others?

These are unprecedented times. Often we are faced with many more questions than answers. But asking questions is the natural thing to do and — especially now — the important thing to do.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Checking facts? Try these 5 steps

By · Wednesday, May 27th, 2020 · Comments Off on Checking facts? Try these 5 steps

not teaching,
still THINKING

Fact checking has everyone’s attention again. And for good reason. So this is a good time to share a trusted method that will draw your attention to how many facts can appear in a story. It is a step-by-step fact-checking exercise that reporters have routinely followed in the past. We think it’s something that shouldn’t go out of style.

If you’re a news consumer, not a journalist, scan this exercise anyway. It is a bit long, yes, but then so is the process for ensuring credible information, not misinformation, is published and shared.

Step One. Ask a fellow reporter to have a story fact-checked. Agree to have that person fact-check a story of yours. Use a story of substantial length that has four to six sources. Agree with your partner that neither of you will be defensive as questions arise.

Step Two. Go through the story and underline or highlight every fact. There are many of them. Names, addresses, ages, job titles, statistics, dates, reports, songs, books, buildings, organizations, locations, and on and on. Assume nothing is “known.” You must be dogged in your checking. Listen to song lyrics or movie lines; anything and everything that can be checked must be checked. Any information that comes from a source must be checked with that source. But when you do that, don’t read facts back to the source; have the source give them to you again. For example, have the source, not you, spell a name. If it is not clear to you where a fact in a story comes from, then you will have to ask the reporter to tell you, and then you can proceed from there.

A special note: As the fact checker, you must be clear with sources about what you are doing and why you are doing it. You and your partner in this exercise should agree at the outset that when questions arise with sources, the reporter will get in touch with them to discuss points in question.

Step Three. You must check assertions of fact. It’s not enough that a source reiterates what he or she told a reporter. Whatever a source asserts, you must check — any statement presented as “fact.” If a source says something happened or someone did something, then the fact checker looks for ways to independently confirm it. When you can, go to primary sources. If the source of a report or a study is someone who summarized it for the reporter, then attempt to check the actual report or the study.

Step Four. Check quotes and paraphrases. You should avoid reading the quotes directly to sources because that could lead some of them to wish they’d said something differently. They might want to negotiate revisions, which you can’t do. Instead, identify the facts and assertions within the quotes, and check those. You could say something like, “You are quoted as saying this happened and that happened. Is that right? You say this about this person. You identify this as your favorite moment, and that it happened on this date. You said this was a difficult business to deal with, and you said this was why.” Make detailed notes about any challenges. These will have to be checked against the reporter’s notes. A source could get a little upset on occasion, so be prepared to politely reiterate what you’re doing and that you can’t speak for the reporter. Your message should be: “This is a process to uncover problems or issues, so it’s working, which is good.”

Step Five. Prepare a report that documents what appear to be clear errors found, potential errors found, and useful new facts uncovered. Give the reporter your documentation for every fact checked. Save everything because it might help the reporter if further checking is required. Agree on an orderly and easy-to-read system because your fact-checking exercise is likely to generate quite a bit of material.

This five-step process is described as an exercise, and it is. But it also is used “for real” when facts might be questioned. There is no shame in being challenged. Fact-checking is just the right thing to do.

These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Take care with the smallest details

By · Wednesday, May 20th, 2020 · Comments Off on Take care with the smallest details

not teaching,
still THINKING

Image via teamsupport.com

What’s right and what’s not? It is a major question these days as we consume and scrutinize every bit of news coming at us from all levels of government and agencies, not to mention from colleagues, family, friends and strangers on social media.

While we are not disseminating information about the coronavirus pandemic, we can offer some simple reminders about all the things that can be wrong in a story.

Watch for — and prevent — these as a journalist. Be aware of them as a consumer.

Name errors

Number errors

Title errors

Photo errors

Superlative errors

A society cannot survive and thrive without accuracy and trust. We must be vigilant with the smallest of details so we can get the major ones right.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Curiosity led us to meet these cool cats

By · Wednesday, May 13th, 2020 · Comments Off on Curiosity led us to meet these cool cats

not teaching,
still THINKING

You don’t have to be a journalist to get an idea published. Curious viewers took action on social media recently, and the PBS NewsHour satisfied their curiosity with this lighthearted piece: The NewsHour’s Family of Furry Friends

Before you engage and enjoy, here’s a friendly reminder about curiosity:

The reward for curiosity? Stories that answer readers’ questions and satisfy their curiosity — as well as your own. With a few “furry friends” as a special bonus.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Want to do it yourself? Think again

By · Wednesday, May 6th, 2020 · Comments Off on Want to do it yourself? Think again

not teaching,
still THINKING

Amazed is our reaction to watching a professional crew take down a mature tree more than 40 feet tall in a neighboring yard. All in a mere half day’s work.

What did we take away from this?

Context: The tree was diseased, sad as it was to see it go.

Process: A step-by-step approach defined the job.

Role: Each worker performed a specific task.

Pace: Together, workers maintained a steady rhythm and stayed in motion.

We are reminded — some things are just better left to the professionals.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)