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

Marital affair? Take special care

By · Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Transparency. Journalists strive for it. The audience craves it. We all need it.

Residents called for it recently at a school board meeting about an issue that has been in the news: “West Genesee residents ‘outraged, embarrassed’; want transparency over superintendent”

What’s the story?

These lead paragraphs from that story, published Jan. 16 on syracuse.com explain:

CAMILLUS, NY – More than 100 residents jammed the West Genesee Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, many saying they want the board to be more transparent with the community about an investigation into Superintendent Chris Brown.


The school board’s lawyers are investigating allegations made on social media that Brown was in a relationship with an employee he supervises. Brown’s wife, Rachel Gough Brown, posted on social media in early January that Chris Brown told her he wanted a divorce and that he was in love with the female employee. She later took the social media posts down.

The superintendent, who took personal time off, told syracuse.com that he “did not have a romantic or sexual relationship with any employee in the district. He has said the woman was a good friend who he confided in. He has said he and his wife are divorcing.”

News continued to break.

This story involves multiple layers, including: ethics, public vs private figures, social media, what/how/when to report details, welfare of students, and consideration of stakeholders — residents, faculty, staff and students.

By its nature — and human nature — it’s a story that drew a lot of interest and a lot of questions. Some were addressed in the Jan. 16 story about the residents.

One parent asked at the board meeting: “Where is the communication?”

Another speaker at the meeting said teachers are fearful to speak out.

One resident summed up what ultimately will define this story: “The trust is broken, and that doesn’t get fixed.”

At the time it was announced that the superintendent was leaving, the story included an outstanding question: Did the district’s law firm finish its investigation and, if so, what did it find?

The teachers association statement focused on hope for the future.

For journalists, the future will always hold stories with multiple layers and the need for a principled approach to covering them.

Here’s a gentle reminder about the basics, which journalists surely followed in the reporting of the West Genesee story:

Lastly, as an aside, any journalist wants to cover the news, not be a part of the story. So while covering the personal and professional lives of others, remember that your own actions — personal and professional — have consequences for you, your careers and your colleagues.

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

Show, don’t tell — keep us interested

By · Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Comedians might “tell” jokes, but they do so with such a “show” of explicit details and colorful anecdotes that listeners can visualize what they are hearing. And that is how comedians get their laughs.

Journalists, too, use the same approach. They include anecdotes, examples and details in their storytelling because these are the elements that keep readers interested. These elements also keep a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

Here’s a quick example of how easily it can be done.

Consider this story about a college student who came upon a quacking mother duck who was upset because her ducklings had fallen through a sewer grate. Firefighters used two “massive” crowbars to pry off the grate, but the firefighters were “too big” to fit down the opening. The student volunteered to go down, and he rescued all nine ducklings.

It’s a cute story. It could be even better.

The answers to these questions would elicit even more colorful detail to an already good story.

This example brings up another important point about the all-important anecdotes, examples and details. They naturally come out when a reporter does three key things:

Anecdotes are short stories that help readers to visualize information.

Examples and details add information, description and support; they answer questions that readers raise as they are reading.

Storytellers were using these colorful essentials to bring vivid images to their work long before this became such a visual world. Now it’s your turn to keep us interested.

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

10 dangers when you trim a story

By · Wednesday, January 9th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Journalists and surgeons have something in common. Trimming a story is like performing delicate surgery. A surgeon wants to leave no evidence of a scalpel or sutures. Journalists, too, aim to trim stories without drawing attention to what has been deleted.

But trimming someone else’s copy comes with risks. Writers put their words together in particular and individual ways. Stories are full of nuances. When you trim, you might gain space. But you also might lose something else. Whenever you trim copy, ask yourself: “What, exactly, did I just lose here?”

Keep in mind these 10 dangers when you trim. There’s a danger that:

  1. You take out too much background, confusing readers who don’t know important history of the story.
  2. You eliminate the first reference to a person or thing.
  3. You eliminate follow-up to a critical point made earlier.
  4. You lop off a strong ending.
  5. You lose beginning or ending quote marks.
  6. You take out important qualifiers, either single words or short phrases.
  7. You “cheat” on attribution, losing it where you really shouldn’t and confusing readers about the source of some important information.
  8. You run sources’ quotes or comments together, creating confusion about what information came from which source.
  9. You shorten too many quotes, creating a stew of ellipses.
  10. You eliminate the lone critic or other view represented in the story.

Remember, too, that these dangers can apply when you trim your own work — not just when you handle the work of others. And you still must ask: “What, exactly, did I just lose here?”

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

6 ways to keep people honest

By · Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019 · Comments Off on 6 ways to keep people honest

not teaching,
still THINKING …

It’s not always easy to know “the right thing” to do, but these tips about honesty can help. They were written from the perspective of editors working with reporters in their all-important relationship. But, realistically, they can apply to just about anyone doing anything in any profession.

  1. Educate them. When it comes to plagiarism (taking credit for work that is not yours) and fabrication (making up information), be sure that people working with you know those definitions — and the consequences of plagiarizing or fabricating. Some good ways: new-hire orientation; training and re-training; brown-bag lunches.
  2. Give them enough time. Allow realistic time for work to be accomplished. For reporters, this means gathering information, checking it and writing it. Don’t pressure others to meet unrealistic deadlines. Be open-minded when people tell you they need more time.
  3. Control their workloads. Help others to pace themselves; work with them to prioritize; ask them from time to time how they are coming along. Be ready to step in with suggestions if they are having trouble. Be aware of — and sincere about — others’ personal lives, especially during any change in their lives that can cause stress.
  4. Give them feedback. Tell others when they are sloppy or careless, but be constructive. Set a standard, make others aware of it, and acknowledge when they reach or surpass that standard.
  5. Encourage teamwork. Do not foster a competitive atmosphere by recognizing only a few achievers. Instead, encourage camaraderie among co-workers.
  6. Tolerate shortcomings. When others don’t deliver what was planned, let them feel comfortable telling you. Set the proper tone by treating others with respect and reacting to them in a civilized manner.

When people fail at being honest, it’s usually because of a lack of time, a lot of stress, or undue pressure. But helping others to avoid these pitfalls can also help them to do “the right thing.”

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

What’s your stake in ethical decisions?

By · Wednesday, December 26th, 2018 · Comments Off on What’s your stake in ethical decisions?

not teaching,
still THINKING …

When it comes to making ethical decisions, a good place to start is by considering three specific stakeholders and then asking yourself key questions about them. It’s a methodical process, and it works.

First, the stakeholders:

  1. Audience. This includes your news consumers; your many sources; and your advertisers.
  2. Peers and profession. This includes your newsroom colleagues and the bigger community of professional journalists.
  3. Yourself. This means that while every decision may not go your way, you must make your point of view heard, stand up for yourself and be comfortable with the way things are done. Do the right thing.

Now, the 10 key questions to ask about these stakeholders when an ethical issue arises:

  1. What stake does each constituency have in this discussion? 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 be helped or harmed, or otherwise affected by the different decisions we could make?
  4. Is there one stakeholder’s interest that seems pre-eminent and that should “rule” the discussion?
  5. How would each stakeholder view each possible decision? What might the perception of each be?
  6. Are the interests of the least powerful fairly represented?
  7. Should we reach outside our newsroom for other views from the community or the profession?
  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 these ethical pressures we have identified?
  10. Is our decision one that we would be comfortable sharing openly?

Ethical issues come at us fast. As journalists, we look at our profession as a service, not just a job. And acting ethically is at the heart of it.

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

10 ways to keep your wits on deadline

By · Wednesday, December 12th, 2018 · Comments Off on 10 ways to keep your wits on deadline

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Now, more than ever, editors must remain unflappable in their roles as gatekeeper, cool head and last defense — sometimes the only defense — against error and misstep.

Editors are asked to do more, to know more and to juggle more, and often they have less time to do it. Newcomers and veterans alike — all editors — need a mindset to help them handle deadlines.

Here are 10 ways to keep your wits — and your credibility:

  1. Be transparent. Digital audiences are now spectators to a real-time news process that once was invisible. They need your help to understand what they are seeing.
  2. Take care with the “Post” button. Before you publish, take that extra few seconds to ask, “Is everything right?” You can’t take it back, so take special care.
  3. Breathe. Editors face second-by-second deadlines. The stress can be overwhelming. But it can be exhilarating if you make room for oxygen.
  4. Know the competition. Keep up with it and get ahead of it. But don’t abandon your principles and good instincts. There is no honor in being the first one to have it wrong.
  5. Talk with others. A quick exchange can do wonders for your news judgment. Talk with others when you can because these discussions will help you at other times — on the late and very early shifts or overnight — when you might be the only one in the room.
  6. Listen to your audience. People who consume the news you publish can be great sources of up-to-the-minute and on-the-scene information for breaking news stories. They can provide valuable tips. Listen, and then use your best judgment before publishing.
  7. Be accurate. Publish what you know. Hold back until you are confident about what you know.
  8. Keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much. Approach every story incrementally — in sentence structure, story concept and word flow.
  9. Keep organized lists. Don’t have too much faith in your multitasking skills. There is a lot to keep track of, and making a list can help.
  10. Be disciplined. Remember this saying: “When those around you are losing their heads, keep yours.”

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