J-333 / News Editing

Frank E. Fee Jr.

Lecture Recap - Day 3

The cover sheet on the research exercise mentions just about everything I had to say on the subject. I'd welcome any questions or comments about the basic lessons therein. The main points in all that are:
  • When in doubt -- and sometimes when you are not -- go to original, primary sources.

  • The Internet and World Wide Web are great but not everything is available electronically. And, Web sites don't give you the chance to ask other, confirmatory questions or signal to a source that you didn't understand an answer. Moreover, with archives such as Lexis-Nexis, you may lose relevant detail by not seeing photos or other graphics from the original package. Know when to head for the library and pick up a reference book, but better yet, talk to the Best Source.

  • When you pick up that reference book, the first thing you should look for is the copyright date. (And on a Web page, check when it was last edited or revised.) Jobholders, demographics and numbers can change; if the copyright of your reference is not the current year, you should recognize that the "facts" may be out of date. Even publications from the current year may be wrong because of deaths, resignations, midyear term limits, etc. Best to double-check a live source, preferably THE source.

  • Sometimes searching the Internet may take more time than you've got. Develop a sense of what a URL for a particular site might be and try to hit your target directly. Keep a list of (bookmark) URLs you're likely to use more than a few times so you are not using Yahoo to find the Census Bureau every time you need a population statistic.

  • Search engines (such as Excite and Alta Vista) and subject-oriented directories (such as Yahoo) don't all work the same way or produce the same results. Thus, if you are going to use these good tools, you have to use more than one each time or you may miss things. (And a study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly a couple of years ago reported that electronic searches of data bases can miss quite a bit.)

  • Because apparently reputable, authoritative sources may differ in the facts they present (e.g., number of daily newspapers published in 1998), you should be quick to insist on identifying a source in the story.

Internet Challenge
The Internet offers editors powerful new tools but you have to know how to use them and what some of their limitations or risks may be.

The upside:

As you can know, a tremendous amount of information is available to you, often instantly. This ability to check facts, find complete documents and reports and get background information was unavailable even three or four years ago at most newspapers. The result can be far greater depth in our reporting on even relatively minor subjects than ever before. No longer are editors constrained by the extent of their reference materials and news libraries when a fact needs to be checked, or when new information is desired. Information from such vast government data bases as the Census Bureau's provides much greater context than ever before for those who know how to get it.

The downside:

Reliability. You may not be able to get through to the site you want when you want it. And when you do get through, don't get swept away by the rhetoric of a full-color, interactive display. For many sites, you need to think of a Web page as simply a high-tech press release. As with any press release, the material therein needs to be looked at critically and corroborated. Beware, too, the possibility of sudden change in or elimination of the Web site without notice -- and without tracks. You may have quoted a Web site accurately but you could have a hard time proving that if the site is changed in some way.
Information overload. You went to check one little thing and got snowed under by all the information a simple search produces (e.g., the Census Bureau).
Evaluation. Relates to reliability. How do you evaluate the information at a site? What are the standards? What standards or biases or lapses were at work when the site's webmaster selected his links? A recent study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that there was a surprisingly high rate of misinformation on well-intentioned, university medical Web pages. Good grief!
Two important suggestions when working with Internet resources:

(1) Keep in mind that change is the norm. Every Web site is under construction, or should be. That means lots of surprises -- some good and some bad --may await. Be on your guard.

(2) Creativity is rewarded. Can't find what you want -- or expected? Keep at it. Sometimes it seems like a crapshoot but persistence pays, as does attacking the problem from different angles. Try the obvious things first, but then be imaginative in how you might find something and you're more likely to succeed.

Our discussion of story selection drew out a number of important points. One is the continual tug of war between providing news that audiences want and news that editors think they ought to have. Ultimately, of course, most editors supplying news they think audiences want are only guessing at their readers' interests; many journalists have surprisingly few contacts with real readers. That's risky business, as one of your readings in the text points out.

Still, the issue continues to be controversial among journalists. Some fear that a news report designed to fulfill reader wants risks being trivial, sensationalist and shallow. Others argue that the reader is not as dumb as that, and ought to have a say in what goes into his or her newspaper or news broadcast.

I'll be looking forward to your  comparison of front pages to see how your teams decide where the five Ohio newspapers by their  selection and presentation of news seems to stand in the debate. Don't forget that the reports are due at the beginning of class on Day 5.
Another element in selecting and editing news is how the traditional news criteria affect your judgment. Just as the reporter may have been guided by the timeliness, prominence, proximity, unusualness, impact, conflict and human interest in an event, so the editor is influenced by these criteria when selecting stories for the paper, evaluating the organization of a story or writing a headline.

Don't forget that Topic Paper No. 1, Accuracy, is due at the beginning of next class. Also, that we have the second AP style quiz next class -- alas. And: Start studying the 50 common writing errors. That quiz, coming up on Day 5. Closed book, of course.

Special Offer -- Held Over! 

Anyone who would like some extra help with the basics of the Mac computers in Room 001 should get in touch with me soon.

Likewise, anyone having trouble with basic Internet searches can stop by for some additional coaching. Call ahead (3-9851) to set up a time.

Comments? Questions? Call 593-9851 (o) or 594-5251 (h), or send me an e-mail message for virtual office hours. Or, stop in for a real visit. You're always welcome.

-- Frank Fee