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

Um, you might want to know this

By · Wednesday, November 14th, 2018 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Um. It’s a word that fills time when someone is thinking while speaking. We hear it so often — and use it so often — that it can go unnoticed.

Other filler words, however, are not so subtle, particularly when used as a transition of sorts, at the start of someone’s answer to a question. Here are a few you might have heard spoken:

Does it matter that these words are used this way? In some cases, yes: If they are overused, if they are a distraction, if they inappropriately express a point of view. For example, when we hear “right,” we think “correct.”

Transition words in writing are just as important. Words that move a reader from one paragraph to the next must be neutral and unobtrusive. Consider these commonly used — overused — transitions:

Most of these words could be eliminated as transitions, and they would not be missed. That’s because they don’t tend to add anything to the meaning of the sentence. They are merely fillers. And two of them — “nevertheless” and “moreover” — could actually give the impression that the writer is mixing in opinion with fact.

Strive for original, strong transitions that will help understanding, not hinder comprehension. One way is to ask yourself these five simple questions when you are searching for a transition from one thought to the next — either in your writing or when you are editing the work of someone else:

  1. Do I understand the sequence of paragraphs?
  2. Am I confused?
  3. Could the paragraph stand alone without the transition?
  4. What is the purpose of the transition?
  5. Am I drawn to it as an aid or am I distracted by it?

We already have enough distractions. Eliminating a few short words can go a long way.

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

10 Warning Signs a Story Should Not Run

By · Wednesday, November 7th, 2018 · Comments Off on 10 Warning Signs a Story Should Not Run

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Decisions to publish stories can result in long-lasting consequences, which we always hope are good ones. Sometimes a story is not ready to run, and an editor must hold it. How to decide?

Here are 10 warning signs that a story should not run. And, we would add a note to news consumers: When reading a story that already has been published, you can use these warning signs to make your own decision on whether the editor made the right call.

  1. One-sided story: There is more than one side to every story. But merely quoting all sides will not fix the problem of a one-sided story; the story also must include the necessary reporting and research that explains the issues and brings support to what people are saying.
  2. Only one source: Many factors motivate sources, and a one-source story is more apt to be slanted in favor of the source. Even a reliable source with good intentions can be wrong. Every story with only one source deserves close attention. Whenever a reporter has verified information with more than one person, the story is stronger and the information is more believable.
  3. A key source is anonymous: Policies about anonymous sources vary among news organizations. But any story whose key source is anonymous must undergo serious scrutiny that goes beyond a discussion between the reporter and editor. Others, such as the top editor, usually are consulted. Even when reporters and editors are careful about using a single anonymous source, things can go wrong.
  4. Thin or little substantiation: Information in stories must be supported, such as with details, quotes, numbers, comparisons. Without support, a story is weak.
  5. Missing or unclear attribution: News consumers need to know the source of information — the attribution — in a story. Sometimes attribution might be unclear, or a piece of a story might lack attribution. Without attribution, information sounds as if it comes from the reporter. That is misleading.
  6. Few or no direct quotes: A story without direct quotes will read in one voice — that of the reporter who wrote the story. The words chosen, the cadence, the pace will all belong to the reporter. Paraphrased information or partial quotes are not enough. A story with few or no direct quotes will lack life because it lacks a variety of voices.
  7. No new information: Sometimes a story is a compelling read because of the topic, but a close look will reveal that “developments” are not new, and the story really is only a rehash of news that already has been reported. Developments, not merely interest, should determine when a story is warranted.
  8. Conflicting information: A story with conflict actually is a good thing. Conflict is an element that defines a worthwhile news story, and sources will always disagree on things. But conflicting information is not the same as conflict. A story with conflicting details — numbers or reasons or causes or effects that contradict one another — will raise questions for news consumers.
  9. Editorializing: This is similar to a story without complete attribution; news consumers will conclude that the information in the story comes from the reporter and not from sources or that the reporter has a point of view about the story. Word choices and tone of the story must get close attention.
  10. Gut instinct: An editor needs a solid reason to hold a story, and gut instinct can be that reason. Pay attention to feelings of doubt. Potential long-term consequences of running a questionable story — not short-term inconvenience of holding it — should guide an editor’s decision.

These warning signs come from our “Think Like an Editor” book. If you want to read more, including examples, refer to Strategy 21: Holding a Story.

The intention of these warning signs is to stay alert, and every story will be different. But all of us — reporters, editors and news consumers — have a responsibility for what we publish and for what we share.

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

5 Ways to Cause Trouble for Yourself

By · Wednesday, October 31st, 2018 · Comments Off on 5 Ways to Cause Trouble for Yourself

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Trouble finds us easily enough, but sometimes we cause trouble for ourselves — especially when our personal and professional interests intermingle.

Here are five ways we could cause that trouble. Recognize them. Avoid them.

  1. Keep your boss in the dark about any conflict of interest, hoping it will go away or, worse, that people will not find out. (They will.)
  2. Make a personal decision to do what is right for the credibility of your news organization and then delay following through with it. (Procrastination can be damaging.)
  3. Choose your job over your personal life to avoid a conflict of interest, and then hold a grudge. (Your unhappiness will affect everyone.)
  4. Criticize or bad-mouth your news organization publicly — in conversations or in any electronic communication — if a story you’re personally interested in or involved with isn’t covered to your satisfaction in news or editorials. (There is no way this can be a good thing.)
  5. Be dishonest or misleading in any way, at any point, with anyone — thinking that some things are so small that they don’t matter that much. (They do.)

These tips are from our “Think Like an Editor” book. If you want to read more, refer to Strategy 47: Credibility.

Here are three more tips that will help you to make wise personal decisions and keep your credibility:

  1. Assess the situation
  2. Consider the consequences
  3. Take responsibility

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

Take a number — and put it in context

By · Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 · Comments Off on Take a number — and put it in context

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still THINKING …

Election ads. Full of increases, decreases, numbers and percentages. Whether you are consuming news about the upcoming elections or you are engaged in campaign coverage, here are some quick tips about putting numbers into context that might help. These tips are intended to empower you to publish clear stories that are void of vague details, which will lead others to make smart choices.

Always look for the number behind the numbers. What does that mean?

EXAMPLE 1: Consider percentages. It’s one thing to tell readers that 10 percent of the high school population is out with the flu. But what does that 10 percent represent? Is it 50 students out of a school of 500? Or is it three students out of a classroom of 30? There’s a big difference, and the answer probably would make a difference in how the story is reported.

EXAMPLE 2: Research can help to put numbers in context. If the mayor’s $90,000 salary is about to increase by $30,000, and it’s the first such increase in 15 years, think about how numbers can enhance the reporting and put the news into context. Yes, that’s a 33 percent increase. But what about the cost-of-living trend and the average salary increase for workers over the past decade and a half? When that information is researched and applied to $90,000, you might find the mayor’s raise, which city residents have complained is “huge,” still might leave the mayor behind most everyone else.

EXAMPLE 3: If police suggest that violent crime in a neighborhood has decreased by 25 percent because of great crime-fighting, make sure the story includes the appropriate context. It probably would not be much of a story if crime fell from 20 incidents to 15; any number of factors, not necessarily good policing, might explain that decrease. But if incidents are down from 200 to 150, then those numbers are more significant and would make a good story.

These tips are taken from our “Think Like an Editor” book. If you want to read more, refer to Strategy 16: Context.

Two more tips:

1. Polls and surveys. References to these should include pertinent information, such as what kind of poll, who conducted it and who paid for it.

2. Percents and percentage points. These are not the same. The difference between 2 percent and 5 percent is expressed in percentage points. The difference is 3 percentage points (not 3 percent).

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

Listen! Can you hear the collaboration?

By · Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 · Comments Off on Listen! Can you hear the collaboration?

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Collaboration is one of those words that evokes strong emotion, and not usually positive.

When asked about collaboration and teamwork, journalism students in the past often gave these responses:

Fair enough. But. These reasons miss the most exhilarating part of collaboration — the mix of minds and talents.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read the recent piece in The New York Times by Jim Farber under the headline: “Elvis Costello, Carole King and a Song 20 Years in the Making.” Their song, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” was just released on Elvis Costello’s new album, “Look Now.”

If you want to get an idea of how two professionals do it, consider these two excerpts from their published conversation with Farber.

Farber asked this question:

Elvis, you’re known for full-album collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Roots. Carole, you’ve teamed with artists from Paul Westerberg to Mariah Carey. Why do you enjoy the collaborative process?

Costello: It’s the speed with which it’s done. When I did the songs with Paul McCartney, it was like a tennis match. Reaching across the table, I’ve got this line. I’ve got that line. And then the song was done.

And Farber followed with this question for Carole King:

Carole, what do you look for in a collaborator?

King: You trust that the person is coming from the same place — i.e. let’s write something creative that comes to a conclusion we both want. Most of the people who I collaborate with rise to that occasion.

What stands out? A positive spirit. A shared outlook. Trust. Communication. Excitement. Energy.

And you can’t really experience all of that if you’re working alone.

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

Give up, but don’t quit

By · Wednesday, October 10th, 2018 · Comments Off on Give up, but don’t quit

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Time works against us in a publish-every-second world. But it doesn’t have to get the best of us.

Here are some tested tips to get you through time-sensitive moments:

As a journalist, you give up a lot of time to your profession — nights, weekends, holidays — but your sacrifices matter. Don’t quit on your life’s work.

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