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

Trust what you publish, what you read

By · Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018 · Comments Off on Trust what you publish, what you read

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Skeptical about anything these days?

It’s not enough for stories to be complete and clear. They also must be free of faults and shortcomings.

The best way to look for these — whether you are a journalist or a reader — is to apply methodical scrutiny to a story by asking questions.

We have relied over the years on a list of questions created by Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant. (He is a retired president, publisher and editor of The Day Publishing Company in New London, Connecticut, and former national president of Associated Press Managing Editors.)

Here are 10 typical questions you can ask as you read:

  1. Says who? If attribution is needed, is it clear?
  2. How does the source know this? Why does the source know this? This gets to what makes an expert an expert.
  3. Are the people we are quoting eyewitnesses, or are they repeating what someone else told them?
  4. What is the source’s motivation? Is it transparent?
  5. How do we know that? If statements need to be checked, have they been? Are we accepting something as true when we should be checking further, or at least applying a qualifier?
  6. Did we see information ourselves, or read this ourselves? This comes down to how much we are relying on someone else, who that someone is, and how clear we are about that to our readers.
  7. Did we check these numbers? Did we do the math? Do numbers add up? Where did they come from?
  8. Is there anyone who disagrees with this? Are there “givens” that should be challenged, or could be challenged?
  9. Are these generalizations supported? Or is this stated as a fact that we are asked to accept on faith?
  10. Who else could confirm this? Is vital information based on the account or telling of a single person or document?

If you’re a journalist, asking these questions can help in publishing a top-notch piece. If you’re a reader, asking these questions can leave you confident about what you’re reading or better equipped to find a better story.

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

It’s true — there’s only one ‘only’

By · Wednesday, September 26th, 2018 · Comments Off on It’s true — there’s only one ‘only’

not teaching,
still THINKING …

If you listen carefully to what people say, you’re likely to hear this phrase: “one of the only …”

It doesn’t make sense.

Something can be “one” of a specific number, such as one of three, or it can be the “only” one, meaning just that.

Words take up valuable space when written and precious time when spoken. It makes sense to tighten words when possible, especially when clarity is at issue.

What does it mean, for example, to say: “One of the only times I broke my leg was when I was skating.”

The phrase “one of the only” confuses the message.

We might not care about this person’s leg, but think about it:

And if you’re deciding the veracity of anyone’s statement about anything, you’d be sure to keep in mind that there’s only one “only.”

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

Wash, rinse, don’t repeat

By · Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 · Comments Off on Wash, rinse, don’t repeat

not teaching,
still THINKING …

An embarrassingly number of times, the following has happened to me: Go to washing machine, set all of the dials, start water, open lid — only to find not an empty washer, but instead a washer full of clean clothes, already washed, rinsed and spun. And now those clothes are being showered with water.

The result when the load is washed again?

The reason this happens?

All it would take to prevent this scene:

These very solutions also apply well to editing for accuracy, which would avoid embarrassing errors getting published. Finding errors is an editor’s job by definition — and needs to be everyone’s job by necessity.

Consider the following published material — mistakes such as transposed letters and numbers, wrong information, misspelled names — which are examples in our “Think Like an Editor” book:

We encourage one extra look to possibly spot that something is wrong; one more call to verify; an extra second it takes to take care with the publish button.

It all starts with the basics, and here are 10 quick ways to ensure accuracy before publishing material:

  1. Check names
  2. Check addresses and phone numbers
  3. Do the math
  4. Check dates
  5. Check numbers in the lead (to ensure they match the rest of the story)
  6. Use your resources
  7. Check previous stories
  8. Use common sense
  9. Check your own work
  10. Ask the reporter (when in doubt about accuracy of any kind)

No one likes to make a mistake. No one likes to miss a mistake. And there’s a big difference between a mistake happening in the privacy of your laundry room and one that is out there for all to see.

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

Think golf. That’s it. Just think golf.

By · Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Golf has topped the agenda of one of these two profs (you know which one) this past summer. So it is not surprising to reflect back on Strategy #3 of our “Think Like an Editor” book and to recall how golf is used as an analogy to explain how reporters can “manage up” when working with editors. As an editor, how can you be seen as a help, not a hindrance?

The idea, as in golf, is to do the opposite to get the result you want.

To get the ball airborne, for example, hit down on it. Don’t try to lift it. Likewise, editors are encouraged to share with reporters ideas for what the reporters can do to manage them, to anticipate their questions and to make the entire reporter-editor process less stressful, more efficient and even fun.

As we say in the book:

 “In the business world, consultants make a lot of money coaching employees on how to flourish in a work model where not everything flows from the top down, where the staff ‘manages up.’ This is especially important in ‘lean’ environments where there are fewer bosses, employees and support staff — less of everything.”

Editors would do well to make sure reporters, who are their partners, know they don’t mind giving up some power. Then the idea is to coach reporters on how to seize that power.

Here’s an easy start:

As we say:

“We advocate sharing power because we know the end product is a shared responsibility. You can’t share one without sharing the other.”

Don’t have an editor? You can still think like one, and you’ll find that coaching yourself regularly — just as a golfer does — will improve your results dramatically.

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

‘Just enough’ isn’t good enough

By · Wednesday, September 5th, 2018 · Comments Off on ‘Just enough’ isn’t good enough

not teaching,
still THINKING …

When a special occasion comes around and we order a roast to entertain, we always order more than the suggested number of pounds per person who will be seated at the table. Usually the standard is given as 1/2 pound per person. We make it 1 pound per person. The thinking goes:

That practice of ordering more than we need has gotten us through many a meal without worry — well, at least about the roast.

“Just enough” isn’t good enough. It’s the same with storytelling, too.

As editors, we always encouraged more quotes in a reporter’s notebook than might actually be published. And for those quotes to get in the notebook, we encouraged reporters to interview more people than only a couple or a few.

Why? Because you always want more than you need.

Today with digital, which offers links and options to read more or less, it’s even easier to offer more, and it’s less likely that material won’t be published for space reasons.

As we say in our “Think Like an Editor” book:

“When you read and write stories, you listen for and hear voices. They humanize our work. That’s why there’s a premium not just on collecting good quotes, but also on placing one or two of the very best ones high in a story, in the opening paragraphs. We all know good quotes when we see them or hear them, and we intuitively know how important they are to our work.”

Not a writer or an editor? You’re still a reader, and you intuitively have high expectations for stories that you read.

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

Everyone: Embrace these 3 traits

By · Wednesday, August 29th, 2018 · Comments Off on Everyone: Embrace these 3 traits

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Three traits that can motivate anyone — not just journalists — are:

Courage: to pursue all stories, not just the easy or familiar ones; to ask tough questions; to approach sensitive issues with confidence and care.

Patience: to wait for the best source of information, not the usual go-to person; to take time asking questions; to accept weakness and failure in yourself and in others.

Perseverance: to politely pursue difficult-to-reach sources; to ask a key question more than once — in different ways — when an answer is not forthcoming; to tolerate change.

When we say these traits can motivate “anyone,” we mean all consumers of news and information because they are at the receiving end of journalists’ work. Consumers end up, we hope, being fully informed; being educated; being enlightened; and being entertained.

It takes courage, patience and perseverance for people to trust the news and information they consume. These are tough times for journalists, and they must not give up or despair.

Consider action taken earlier this month by The Daily Orange, the independent news organization run by students at Syracuse University. Following an “industry trend,” the D.O. is “cutting a day of print production to better focus on digital storytelling.” No more editions will be printed Tuesdays. Print versions will be available on racks Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (Friday print editions had been eliminated previously). And the D.O. will “continue 24/7 online news coverage.”

Sam Ogozalek, editor-in-chief, says in the story about this change that “the paper’s staff on Monday nights will focus on digital content, such as podcasts, photostories and interactive web applications.” His quote illuminates the decision:

“I think everyone sees where the news media industry is and where it’s going.”

Yes, we all see it. And we must embrace it with courage, patience and perseverance.

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