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

Instant recall is a tricky undertaking

By · Monday, September 11th, 2017 · Comments Off on Instant recall is a tricky undertaking

IMG_0647In a visual exercise the other day to demonstrate how editors must be mindful of a variety of issues in a story, I donned two different earrings (usually, I wear none); a pin with three snowmen (it’s September); my jacket backward (on only one arm) and a sock (on my other arm).

When students returned from their 10-minute break, I was ready. They took one look at me and, of course, they were curious. So I reminded them what we’d been talking about before break and asked them what all of this might represent. They told me:

All true.

I put myself back together and class resumed.

Next class, I decided to test their recall. So on their current events quiz, I included an “instant recall” question that asked in T/F style: “The sock prof emilie wore on her arm had pink/orange polka dots.”

Our practice is to go over quizzes after they are taken, so when we got to this question, students called out their answers:

The answer was “false,” I told them. The sock actually had pink and orange stripes, with maybe some aqua.

Hmmm … when I got home that day and was taking the sock out of my bag, wasn’t I surprised. No polka dots, true. But argyle? Oh, yes. One of the students had recalled correctly that the sock had argyle. My own sock, and I had gotten it wrong.

Instant recall can be tricky. Detectives know it. Investigators know it. Anyone who deals with witnesses knows it.

We don’t always register what we see. We don’t always correctly recall what we see. We don’t always agree on what we see — even when we see the same thing at the same time.

Editors are trained to “see” errors that lurk in stories because they are trained how to find them. That includes, as the students had said: inconsistencies, inaccuracies, inappropriate content. They are trained to find the primary source of information and to trust the primary source.

Well, now they know even the primary source can be wrong. That’s OK. They are trained to “see” errors, and they will come to see that, too.

Context can enhance even a solid story

By · Tuesday, September 5th, 2017 · Comments Off on Context can enhance even a solid story

BIG numbers. How can journalists convey how big?

A good example is found in the work of Manny Fernandez of The New York Times, whose story about Houston after Hurricane Harvey carries the headline: “Over 21 Miles of Highway, Snapshots of a Resilient Houston.”

How can we visualize the size of Houston?

Fernandez shows us in the lead of the story:

HOUSTON — This city sprawls over 600 square miles, an area so big that Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit could all fit within it simultaneously. The nine-county Houston metropolitan region, covering more than 10,000 square miles, is almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts.

Context. Fernandez puts the size of Houston in context of what is familiar to us and what we can see. For veteran journalists, context is a natural item on the mental checklist when reporting and writing. Inserting context is an art that takes practice.

Editors have a role in ensuring that context is present, and context has multiple roles, too:

When context is present, even an otherwise solid story is greatly enhanced.

Without context, editors can feel a bit confused when editing a story, and they have an obligation to readers to do something about it. That’s because context says to readers: “Keep this in mind when you read this story.”

Editors can identify places where stories might need context by asking themselves an assortment of questions in the appropriate places:

  1. Is the news peg evident fairly high in the story?
  2. In numbers-heavy stories, are good comparisons made when possible?
  3. Are chronologies clear?
  4. Are special terms or references explained?
  5. Is there ample background information, or is it missing or scattered about in the story?

Even if you’re not an editor, and especially as a reader, at least this list of questions can empower you. You’ll know that it’s not you who is missing the point of the story. Instead, something likely is missing that should be in the story. Context.

Gatorade for inspiration? Give it a try

By · Monday, August 28th, 2017 · Comments Off on Gatorade for inspiration? Give it a try
PERFORM

Gatorade.com

Gatorade. Two TV commercials have become favorites in the memorable way they urge us to “rehydrate, replenish and refuel.”

“One and Only” has this kicker: “So if you want to be the one and only, and not just one of many, give that extra ounce. It might just be the one that all the others don’t.”

“Difference Maker” ends this way: “The next ounce you give might just be the one the other guy doesn’t.”

“Give.” That’s the theme that resonates.

On this first day of classes at Syracuse University, it’s a fitting time to share with students who are studying to be journalists that from the beginning, they will be expected to give to their profession:

It’s a competitive world for journalists, too. Working is not enough. Neither is working hard. Or long. Or for a good number of years. Read the latest news about layoffs, buyouts and job eliminations at any news organization around the country, and you’ll understand.

So why do it? Why spend thousands of dollars a year — for four years — to eventually take on a job that will challenge you, drain you and then, maybe, drop you?

Why do athletes do it?

They are devoted and driven. So are journalists. And while journalists will never make the kind of money that professional athletes do, they are passionate about their calling.

Perhaps in these trying times, when journalists are under constant attack like never before, they can apply the Gatorade message in a way that helps them cope and gives them hope. They might consider this: “Rehydrate, replenish and refuel” — any way you can, as often as possible, determined to have an advantage over the next guy.

Think twice about a thankless job

By · Friday, April 28th, 2017 · Comments Off on Think twice about a thankless job

Thankless jobs. Have one?

This question came to me today as I was leaving what I’ll generically describe as a lawn mower retail and service store. I was there on a mission to pick up newly sharpened lawn mower blades. They were not ready, so I chose to wait while they were sharpened — about 20 minutes.

During that time, I watched in a bit of fear as what looked to be a hornet — a huge one — flew around the small store, mostly from ceiling light to ceiling light. When I had arrived, the man behind the counter had asked, ducking, “Is that a bee?” after the hornet had buzzed past him.

So while the man was in the back sharpening, I walked to the front door and opened it. The fresh air drew the hornet my way. But it hopelessly kept bumping itself against the adjacent window instead. I closed the door and waited. In time, the hornet dove to the floor by the door. I opened the door, cautiously, and the hornet finally found its freedom.

A short while later, the man emerged with the blades. As he packaged them up, I told him that while I was waiting, I let the hornet out the front door. A couple of customers near the counter chuckled. And then the man said, “A lot of good it will do me. I’m allergic. I would have killed it.” Hmmm, I thought: It’s not good enough that the hornet is NO LONGER IN YOUR STORE TO STING YOU!

But that thought stayed in my head — right there with the long-held notion that a lot of jobs are thankless, especially the role of an editor.

Editors, though, have a built-in tolerance. We don’t expect praise for catches and fixes (that’s our job). We expect to make improvements without inserting errors (that’s our intention). We brace ourselves when we fail. We keep moving when we succeed.

That’s why it was easy to walk out the door of that store with a smile and a thank you for the blades. Our jobs are thankless only when we perceive them that way.

Hard worker? No thank you

By · Monday, April 10th, 2017 · Comments Off on Hard worker? No thank you

Perfection. Attainable? Desirable? It depends.

Consider the following perspectives. Then see what you think.

Perfection. Attainable? Desirable? It depends on how you define it.

Don’t look at me — it’s on you, now

By · Tuesday, February 21st, 2017 · Comments Off on Don’t look at me — it’s on you, now

A relationship with benefits.

That’s how we used to define the mutually attractive agreement between reporters and editors. A reporter would tell a source: “I have to ask this question. My editor will want to know.” And an editor was happy to be blamed because, in all likelihood, the question was a legitimate one that would end up being answered.

Everyone benefited, especially the audience.

Dwindling are the days when that’s the case.

With fewer editors in newsrooms, reporters are losing the partners who have had their backs. It’s all on them.

That’s why it is comforting to watch young reporters embrace the essence of what it takes to be a good editor — an advocate for accuracy and for the audience. Editors follow three key steps:

  1. Check everything
  2. Know your resources and use them
  3. Ask the reporter, who is the primary person “in the know” when questions arise about a story

Oh, wait, no … that’s the one key step that is out of step when a reporter takes on the role of editor. There’s no one else to ask.

That’s a shame, in one sense. And it’s a loss for anyone who has ever enjoyed that mutually beneficial relationship of reporter and editor.

Up-and-coming reporters: You don’t know what you’re missing. And that’s a shame, too.

Do a good job, and you’ll never know.

But fail as an editor, and you can be sure that editors will be back.