J-333 / News Editing

Frank E. Fee Jr.

Lecture Recap - Day 6

The last line of defense

The subject was tighter, brighter, more effective writing, and the focus was on empty words and phrases that fog meaning. Look for stories that contain such monstrosities as "rain event," or "hostage situation."  In The Word, Jack Cappon of the Associated Press lists some clichés that he says are "among the dreariest in captivity." As editors, you should guard against the readers ever seeing in your stories such clichés as: blazing inferno, blessing in disguise, bull in a china shop, burn the midnight oil, hammer out (an agreement), never a dull moment, paint a grim picture, spearheading the campaign, storm of protest, trail of death and destruction -- and many more. I've put this book on reserve for J-333 at Lasher Learning Center. 
The lines between redundant writing, clichés and idioms sometimes are unclear. A construction might start out as just plain bad ("weather event," for instance) and through repeated use become a cliché (exponentially just plain bad). See how many pre-election campaign stories you can find that DON'T have somebody's "seat up for grabs." As I used to tell my reporters when deleting this grotesque imagery, tell them to keep their hands to themselves!

And some other stuff

Besides the concern for tight and disciplined use of the language, here are some other editing concerns we have been discussing and will be talking about some more:
  • Buried Ledes. The problems an editor is likely to encounter can be limitless, but they tend to fall into only a few categories. We've talked about one such category, accuracy, at some length. Another group of problems falls under the heading of organization. In the bus crash story, there was a minor problem of a somewhat buried lede. Editors needed to spot that the result of the event, six children hurt in a bus-truck crash, was being overshadowed (albeit slightly) by the process that led to the injuries. For a first-day story, results should be more important than the process or how it all happened. On the other hand, a second-day story might appropriately be built around the process. So, the first thing you need to do in that hands-off reading that initiates the editing process is determine what the point and object of the story are. The answer will tip you off to organization problems, particularly with the lede.
  • Relevant and irrelevant detail. Some information in a story will be essential, can't-live-without-it stuff, while some may be useless clutter. At that level, relevant and irrelevant detail are fairly straightforward. But sometimes what's irrelevant in one place is a perfect fit someplace else. That's where good judgment comes in. Keep in mind the definition of a weed -- something growing where we don't want it. Sometimes the editor just has to do some judicious "transplanting" for the best possible yield.
  • Rules, skepticism and common sense. Copy editors live by rules, rules found in the stylebook, the dictionary and other reference material. And we have to be skeptical of just about everything that moves; skeptical that the facts are correct and skeptical that the means of checking those facts are really the last word. But copy editors also have to have some common sense to temper that skepticism. Sometimes it's a matter of knowing how unlikely it would be for a school bus to be dropping kids off at 2 a.m. and making the obvious fix rather than a big fuss.
  • The difference between tightening a story, cutting it and boiling it. The Bowles and Borden text distinguishes between the three activities; today's first effort largely looked at tightening a story, making sure that excess verbiage is eliminated as we edit the day's news. We will be talking next about trimming on the one hand, something the bus crash story required as well, and wholesale boiling -- taking a large story and boiling it down to a brief. All of these tasks are performed routinely by copy editors.

"Playboy" redux
I hope that you have read the FEEdback on the "Playboy" exercise. The key points are the reminder that good copy editing requires more than merely "hanging" paragraphs, more than simply zealously applying the AP Stylebook, more than precise application of the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Make no mistake, style, grammar and punctuation are critical to good performance, but the job also requires unflagging fact checking, common sense, consistency, the ability to separate the relevant from the irrelevant and the sense of when to act and when to sit back and admire the reporter's good work. Add to those a sense of fairness and ethics, and you have a fair summary of what copy editors do.
You might look at those skills and activities and conclude that the copy editor is a mighty key person on the news team. You would be right.
The errors seen most often in your the editing exercise were: 
  • Failure to check all of the names mentioned in the story. (If you did not know how to spell the name before seeing it in print, how could you NOT check to make sure it was accurate? And if one name could be wrong, why trust that the other names were OK?)
  • Failure to check titles, and know how to handle them in the story. The directory would get you started on the specific accuracy issue, while the AP Stylebook would tell you how to handle the titles. Note, too, that a good copy editor is knowledgeable about his or her surroundings and, in this case, would know the difference between an assistant professor and an associate professor. 
  • Letting spelling, grammar and punctuation errors slide through. A good copy editor is alert to all of these problems. Moreover, you should be using the computer's spelling program to backstop your work.
And then there was that quote. This showed the need for critical judgment. The quote was a zinger but it stood out as well for its lack of supporting information, context and logic. A quote is a mighty important part of a story but sometimes, just sometimes, good editing requires taking one out of the story.
In sum, lessons from the exercise remind us of the 44 Tips for Greater Accuracy, including:
  • Never assume anything. ("If your mother says she loves you, check it out.") 
  • Always use all of the tools available to you. 
  • Never assume that of two spellings for the same name the first is correct, or that the most frequent spelling is correct, or that either spelling is correct. Remember that anything with a capital letter can probably be found in some reference work or other. Use those directories. 
  • Never commit to print anything that YOU don't understand. 
  • Always remember that errors can come in clusters, finding one doesn't mean you've found them all. In fact, finding one should alert you to the possibility that others exist.
Remember, too, that you can always drop back to safer ground. If you have a fact that is questioned but cannot be verified, drop back to the more general information that IS known and IS confirmed. While we want to give the reader as much precise information as possible, sometimes it's better to be a bit more general in order to prevent inaccuracy. Not sure it is "57 Eden Place"? Then make it "on Eden Place." Not sure it's Eden Place? Make it "of Athens." Just don't get lazy and drop the specificity from ALL your stories. "Of the world" just won't do. That's what's meant by qualify or, perhaps more on target, specify, in the four "fies" (you remember, Simplify, Clarify, Verify and Specify).

And about the next topic paper

A couple of people have asked for advice on tackling the next assignment. The idea is NOT to go to some list of rules for good headlines and then find examples. The assignment asks you to use your critical faculties to design your own list of rules for writing headlines, based on what you see in the Dispatch. Don't forget to be aware of what you don't see, too, because that may be the result of rule. For instance, not seeing first names used in headlines may lead you to conclude that only last names will be used in headlines.
I hope that helps.

Sign up for a chat

I should have a grid sheet on my door Friday for you to sign up for an informal, 20-minutes-or-less chat about anything you have on your minds relating to JOUR 333. Please stop by and select a spot.

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