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

Polls: How the math is figured matters

By · Wednesday, February 19th, 2020 · Comments Off on Polls: How the math is figured matters

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Political polling is in full force, and it brings to mind the importance of knowing the difference between percent and percentage point. These terms do not mean the same thing. Using one instead of the other will alter the accuracy of the information.

Here is an example and an explanation:

Consider a $90,000 home assessed at a tax rate of 2 percent of the full value of the home.

When following coverage of poll numbers as they rise and fall, read and listen carefully when percent and percentage points are mentioned. You know the difference. And, should someone misuse one for the other, you will know that, too.

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

Heard news? Ask: How do you know?

By · Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 · Comments Off on Heard news? Ask: How do you know?

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still THINKING …

When Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, along with seven others, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, a lot of “details” were shared — some overheard in casual conversations.

For example:

All of these details raised the question: How do they know?

Some 13 days after the crash, The New York Times put that question to rest by putting those details in perspective.

Its piece was published Feb. 8 under the headline, ‘Helicopter Went Down, Flames Seen’: Kobe Bryant’s Last Flight. It describes Our Lady Queen of Angels, “the Catholic church that the Bryants attended.”

The church is a beige, modern building, with a large patio and fountain in front. Inside, two thin speakers hang from the ceiling to project the priest’s words to the back part of the church, where Bryant sometimes sat, trying to blend in.

The piece shares a glimpse of Bryant’s visit to the church the morning of the crash.

Sunday’s first Mass was at 7 a.m., but Bryant had come and gone by then. As other parishioners began to arrive, a priest bumped into Bryant on his way out. The men chatted briefly, shook hands, and the priest noted the drop of holy water on Bryant’s forehead. He had been praying, he thought.

The question, “How do you know?” is a staple for journalists. When asked, it can lead to a simple answer or to more questions. But, ultimately, the hope is that the question leads to verified information that anyone would feel comfortable sharing.

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

Make the most of your competitive spirit

By · Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 · Comments Off on Make the most of your competitive spirit

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still THINKING …

Competition can be a good thing when it leads to a person looking inward and assessing personal philosophies.

That’s one reason we encourage having a credo — a practical way to consider what guides you when you make decisions. A credo is a way to check in with yourself during times of crisis, doubt or worry.

Competition can trigger such feelings. But instead of comparing yourself to others in a harmful way, make it a practice to learn from others. Here are some simple tips:

The result? The more you know about others, the better you can adapt that knowledge to your own thinking. Compare and contrast. This practice can be positive reinforcement for what you already do and how you already think; it also can be a cue for change.

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

Why adversity demands tough questions

By · Wednesday, January 29th, 2020 · Comments Off on Why adversity demands tough questions

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still THINKING ..

Questions are the mainstay of journalists.

Mary Louise Kelly, a co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” explains that point well in a recent opinion piece published in The New York Times under the headline: Pompeo Called Me a ‘Liar.’ That’s Not What Bothers Me.

Kelly states:

Ask journalists why they do the job they do, and you’ll hear a range of answers. Here’s mine: Not every day, but on the best ones, we get to put questions to powerful people and hold them to account. This is both a privilege and a responsibility.

Kelly describes her one-on-one interviews this month with each of “the top diplomats of both the United States and Iran, in their respective capitals.” Each interview lasted 10 minutes.

The differences are stark between her interview first with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and then with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Kelly’s experience serves as a reminder to all journalists of three important points that she makes in her piece:

  1. Freedom of the press is “enshrined in the Constitution” for a reason
  2. People in power are “held to account” for a reason
  3. Journalists ask “tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens,” for a reason

Take a moment to read Kelly’s short, powerful piece about her two interviews, including her description of “Mr. Pompeo’s subsequently swearing at me, calling me a liar and challenging me to find Ukraine on an unmarked map.”

We are glad — according to the headline over her piece — that Kelly is not bothered by being called a liar. Journalists know they must be able to take whatever is thrown at them to get answers to the questions they ask.

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

Astros sign scandal steals reputations

By · Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020 · Comments Off on Astros sign scandal steals reputations

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still THINKING …

“At the end of the day, all we have in this game is our reputation.”

So said a baseball executive to ESPN in the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, thus stating the obvious when it comes to ethics. 

Why do people cheat or stretch the rules or otherwise risk their good names? The reasons are legion. On a bad day, they are just bad people doing bad things. On better days, they are good people who get reckless. And, on better days still, they are good people who just don’t take time to think, under pressure of all kinds: pressure of the clock, pressure of profit, pressure of competition. Or maybe they act out of fear of the boss, or of their peers, or maybe it’s the pressure they put on themselves. 

In the case of the Astros, it appears the entire team was party to a system where the video feed from the centerfield camera at their home park was relayed to players in the dugout, and then from them to hitters at the plate. Hitters knew what the pitcher was throwing, an immense advantage. It helped the Astros win the 2017 World Series and make it to the Series again in 2019, where they lost to the Washington Nationals. 

Well, the Astros were finally caught when a former player exposed the scheme, and the manager and general manager have been fired, as well as the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets managers, who had been with the Astros. No players were disciplined, though all (most likely) were complicit. You can’t fire all the players, so leadership took the hit. The analog in journalism: Top editors get fired when reporters and lower-level management cheat, or tacitly allow it. It has been distressing to hear and see some players either shrug this off (Jose Altuve) or simply refuse to talk about it (Alex Bregman), much less take responsibility.

It is easy to preach that this case is an example every profession should pay attention to and learn from. Easy because, indeed, that is what we should do. 

These kinds of disasters — whether in baseball, journalism or especially right now, politics — should remind journalists of the immense responsibility they have, and inspire them to reflect on how to work ethically and how to put that ethos to work every day. 

To that end, here are 10 examples from our book of the range of ethical issues the journalist is likely to encounter and that should be considered warning signs:

  1. Source questions of all kinds. Should a source be given anonymity? On what grounds? (See the plagiarism and fabrication strategies in Part III of Think Like an Editor.) Should a source be “protected” in some cases, such as a whistleblower who fears losing a job, or victims of certain crimes who would be embarrassed or even possibly endangered by having their names published? 
  2. Issues of all kinds involving interviewing or identifying children, teens or young adults, including juvenile delinquents.
  3. Stories involving sources who are naïve, who may not understand or appreciate the consequences of talking to the press. Should you identify illegal immigrants who talk to you openly and for the record, failing to realize they could be easily tracked down and deported by authorities if they are quoted and named? Or, an uneducated person who may not realize the consequences of admitting to an illegal or questionable act?
  4. Deceptions of various kinds, even those that serve readers’ interests. A reporter poses as a customer with car trouble in order to catch a shady mechanic. Is this a last resort to getting a story? Never a resort?
  5. Anything that might be considered a “quid pro quo.” That is, doing something — or not doing something — in exchange for something else. (For example, not running a story or “burying” it in order to keep an advertiser’s dollars flowing or a favored source talking.) Participating in any kind of questionable tradeoff. Trading information with a source.
  6. Anything that would seem at odds with the value that says the readers’ interests should be pre-eminent. 
  7. Exceptions. Whenever you make an exception to what you do you are probably getting into ethical territory. By their nature, exceptions call into question why you are not following standard practice, what your motives are, and what you might be getting out of it. 
  8. Anything that seems to favor people who have power over people who don’t. 
  9. Anything that alters reality in any way. Airbrushing a picture to add to it, subtract from it or change it. Leaving something out of a story. Coaching someone on what to say or do for a story or picture.
  10. Acquiring privileged or private information through any means, from peaking at papers left on someone’s desk, to listening in on conversations through paper-thin walls, to accepting grand jury testimony.   

At the end of the day, all we have is our reputation. Unless we give it away. And with it, our present and our futures and our careers, as well as those — quite possibly — of others.

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

How we can add style to our writing

By · Wednesday, January 15th, 2020 · Comments Off on How we can add style to our writing

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still THINKING …

Order out of chaos. That’s what style guides bring to our writing.

The go-to resource for journalists is The Associated Press Stylebook. When used properly and regularly, it brings consistency to what we write and to what you read. That means:

These benefits of style were brought to mind in an email from the AP just this morning. We are sharing them here because anyone — even a “newsroom” of one — can subscribe to AP Online for fresh tips and updates throughout the year.

So can health/medical public relations professionals and public relations/marketing agencies, as the AP also offers webinars specifically for them.

We have plenty of chaos in our everyday lives for one reason or another. It is comforting to know that The Associated Press is there for us — and for you.

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