« December 2016 | Home | February 2017 »

Issue for January 2017

Reliable Sources, Accessible Sources, Part I

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:28 PM

Using sound editorial judgment to identify credible sources.

By William Dunkerley

It's time to reexamine how we deal with the issue of sources. They are an essential part of most editorial stories.

Sources can provide the nuggets of information on which to base an article, they can offer a perspective that allows readers to see a topic in a comprehensive context, and they can affirm or question the validity of claims that arise regarding areas of interest.

In this age of social media, it's worth taking a fresh look at the nature of sources and their accessibility to us.

Back to Fundamentals

Beginning university students are schooled on the matter of sources and what constitutes a reliable source. The University of Oklahoma's School of Library and Information Studies has created a comprehensive online resource (http://bit.ly/2kOkevj) to help students and instructors. It's really worth a look as a refresher course.

The site aims to help users:

--Define what credibility means and why it's important to use credible sources

--Find credible sources

--Recognize and identify what makes a source credible

--Evaluate a source for its credibility

In addressing credibility it says, "Credibility is defined as 'the quality or power of inspiring belief.' Credible sources, therefore, must be reliable sources that provide information that one can believe to be true."

That's a good starting point, but it doesn't give us the whole picture in today's milieu. For me, "believability" is not the only test. Factuality is important too.


I've done a number of studies of topical themes popularly portrayed in publication. Upon close examination it's been impossible in multiple cases to find a factual basis. Nonetheless, those popular media portrayals have become established beliefs among audiences.

Circumstances like that present editors with quite a challenge. Something based in fact may not be believable as a result of prevalent misunderstandings. Truth and fact may therefore appear counterintuitive to the reader. That makes it necessary to consider how much of the truth your audience can handle. You may have to first create a readiness in readers to redefine their beliefs.


The foregoing underlines the importance of ethical editorial judgment.

Social media presents its own set of challenges here. I've seen cases where bloggers have uncovered new information or presented unique analyses that have escaped attention from recognized experts or officials. But will information from a blog be believed by your audience? You may have to dig up supportive references to give your readers confidence in the blogged material.

Another issue is the reliability over time of any particular blogger. You may justify to readers material from a particular blog post only to see that blogger later go off on a tangent with unsupported nonsense. Using a blog as a source requires great vigilance.

Vigilance is likewise needed for Twitter feeds. Unsupported allegations can arise quickly and be received with little scrutiny by users reading the tweets.

One example involves presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. After his primary loss to Hillary Clinton, many of his supporters were disappointed that Sanders did not continue asserting his opposition to key ideas of Clinton's. To rationalize his silence an explanation erupted on Sanders-friendly twitter hashtags: that he had been silenced after receiving death threats targeting his wife. No factual substantiation ever appeared as far as I could tell.

A Formula for Good Judgment?

Indeed, is there a useful formula for making editorial judgments?

Wikipedia has codified the process of what constitutes a credible source. The purpose is to allow people without expertise (anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry) to exercise editorial judgment. But too often this approach results in formulaic judgments being made by people who are working in the blind. There's no substitute for experienced, professional editorial judgment.

When making editorial judgments about sources, there are some important principles to consider. Perhaps the foremost is that we owe our primary allegiance to our audiences.

According to ASBPE, "In all ways, editorial coverage must be based solely on reader needs in the view of the editors.

"A publication's constant attention [must be given to] reader needs and on a publicly expressed dedication to such journalistic principles as:



--full attribution to sources

--clear separation of news from analysis, news and analysis from opinion, and of editorial from advertising content."

In Part II we'll move into issues of theory versus practice in the utilization of sources, and we'll discuss the matter of access to useful sources.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Punctuation, Titles, Grammar, and Style

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:20 PM

A review of some recent style and grammar guides for writers and editors.

By Peter P. Jacobi

June Casagrande offers you The Best Punctuation Book, Period (Ten Speed Press). In an introduction, she argues: "A lot of people assume that there's a single correct answer for every punctuation conundrum. Either a comma belongs in a certain spot or it doesn't. Either the possessive of James is formed by adding an apostrophe plus an s, or it's formed by adding the apostrophe alone.

"The good news here," Casagrande adds, "is also the bad news; often there's more than one right answer. Whether to use a certain punctuation mark can be a matter of choice -- the writer's way of emphasizing his meaning, creating rhythm, or making the words more pleasing to the eye. Other times these questions boil down to a matter of style," and so forth.

The author gives us close to 250 pages of lessons and examples that should clear up any questions or confusions you have about commas (40 pages), apostrophes (13), and periods (8). There's also a section titled "Punctuation A to Z" that deals with how word and phrases should be treated stylistically if you're writing a book or news or science or academia. There are distinct differences.

Now Write! Nonfiction

Sherry Ellis offers Now Write! Nonfiction (Tarcher/Penguin). Ellis is the editor, and as that, she asked 85 writers and teachers to contribute one exercise each, designed to sharpen a specific skill in writing or editing.

Here are a few of the titles to give you an idea of the scope attended to in this collection:

"Writing Your Way in the Back Door" by Christine Hemp; "What Am I Going to Say?" by Myra Sklarew; "Breaking from 'Fact' in Essay Writing" by Jenny Boully; "On Propriety, Or the Fear of Looking Foolish" by Paul Lisicky; "Seeing without Judging" by Joy Castro; "Author as Character in Narrative Nonfiction" by Tilar Mazzeo; "Specificity and Characters" by Hope Edelman; "Landscape and Memory" by Natalia Rachel Singer; "Legwork: Exploring Place" by Lynne Barrett; "The Artful 'I'; Exercises in Style and Voice" by Carl Klaus; "The Music of Sentences" by Rebecca McClanahan; "Outlining: The Writer's Road Map" by Gay Talese; "On Achieving Distance" by Ira Wood; "Don't Just Describe It ... Evoke It ... Make It Real!" by Bruce Dobler; "Make It Brief" by Neal Bowers; "Abracadabra! The Art Is in the Editing" by Robert Leleux; and "The Yellow Test" by Lee Gutkind.

I couldn't recognize all of the contributors' names, but rest assured: each one is identified, each has a multitude of worthy credits, and each has added a lesson worth applying as we continue to better ourselves as writers and editors of writers. Creativity is hard at work in the pages of this book.

Gwynne's Grammar

Teacher N.M. Gwynne has lent his name to the title of his book, Gwynne's Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Knopf).

In summary early on, he tells us, "Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which -- as both common sense and experience show -- happiness is impossible. Therefore, happiness depends at least partly on good grammar."

Parts of speech, the basics of syntax, punctuation, the rules of usage, the principles of composition, matters of form, irregular verbs, and the formation of plurals receive in depth coverage. You'll also find a section, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," which got my attention. Here's an example from that lengthy list: the word "certainly." It gets these words of advice: "Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use 'very,' to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing."

And here is another: "He is a man who ... " Says Gwynne: "A common type of redundant expression." He then quotes Strunk and White, their rule to "omit needless words." Gwynne follows with examples: "'He is a man who is very ambitious' should simply be 'He is very ambitious,' and 'Spain is a country which I have always wanted to visit' should be 'I have always wanted to visit Spain.'"

Lively little book.

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking) is the work of Steven Pinker, a professor in Harvard's department of psychology and also chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Pinker's opening chapter is titled "Good Writing." He asks. "Where does it come from?", then answers: "I'd be the last to doubt that good writers are blessed with an innate dose of fluency with syntax and memory for words. But no one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere.

"That somewhere," he continues, "is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive 'ear' of a skilled writer."

Pinker's "ear" is sharp as a tack. Reading him is not only a pleasure but an education. He does not avoid complicated issues such as the thorny masculine and feminine dilemma. For it, he uses a statement from President Obama that followed a Supreme Court decision to strike down a discriminatory law: "No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like."

In so doing, says Professor Pinker, the president "touched one of the hottest usage buttons of the past forty years: the use of the plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves with a grammatically singular antecedent like no American. Why didn't the president write because of what he looks like, or because of what he or she looks like?"

There is no one answer, but Pinker discusses the options for the six or so pages that follow, thereby giving you ample reasons for whatever solution you choose to use. He is thorough. In the 300-plus pages of The Sense of Style, I believe, you can come up with answers to just about anything that troubles or confuses you in the realms of style and grammar.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:16 PM

Assessing the readability of sample text from TheAtlantic.com.

This month's Fog Index excerpt comes from a January 24 article on TheAtlantic.com ("What Do You Mean by 'The Media?'" by James Hamblin). Here's the text we're analyzing:

"The term 'the media' was first used as a singular, collective noun around 100 years ago, meaning 'an intervening agency, means, or instrument.' The instrument (or medium) of the time was the printing press. People in the business of operating printing presses were a distinct group. Now mediums abound -- many like Twitter and Facebook are still known as social media, even though the platforms have faded toward something closer to personal printing presses. At the same time, traditional media institutions are publishing on these platforms -- and others like Medium and YouTube -- alongside non-journalists. Everyone plays a role as an intermediary to some degree, an intervening agent in each news story, choosing what to share and how to frame it. As the term was originally conceived, many people would now qualify as part of 'the media.'"

(Note: We did not italicize longer words as we normally do because the sample itself contained an italicized phrase.)

--Word count: 135 words
--Average sentence length: 23 words (23, 11, 39, 20, 26, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 16 percent (21/135 words)
--Fog Index: (23+16)*.4 = 15 (15.6, no rounding)

Both sentence length and number of longer words play a role in the elevated score of 15. Let's see if our modifications can bring us below 12.

"The term 'the media' was first used as a singular, collective noun around 100 years ago. It means 'an intervening agency, means, or instrument.' The instrument (or medium) of the time was the printing press. People in the business of running printing presses were a distinct group. Now mediums abound. Many like Twitter and Facebook are still known as social media, even though the platforms have become more like personal printing presses. At the same time, traditional media institutions are publishing on these platforms -- and others like Medium and YouTube -- alongside non-journalists. Everyone functions as an intermediary to some degree, an intervening agent in each news story, choosing what to share and how to frame it. As the term was first conceived, many people would now qualify as part of 'the media.'"

--Word count: words
--Average sentence length: 15 words (16, 8, 11, 12, 3, 22, 20, 24, 16)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (19/132 words)
--Fog Index: (15+14)*.4 = 11 (11.6, no rounding)

There are a lot of three-syllable media terms here that would be hard to replace. Instead we focused our efforts on reducing the average sentence length. A few minor changes yielded dramatic results. The original 6 sentences became 9, cutting 8 points from the average length. We also gained ground by eliminating 2 of the longer words. All this brought the Fog Score down from 15 to 11.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

Vetting Anonymous Sources

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:14 PM

In the news: How readers and journalists should assess the credibility of anonymous sources.

Readers are becoming more vigilant about "fake news," which means that journalists face new dilemmas when incorporating unnamed sources into their articles. According to Poynter last week, "Studies have shown that using unnamed sources hurts journalists' credibility with the public. At the same time, some potentially important stories would not be reported if journalists were unable to promise sources anonymity."

Poynter's discussion focuses on readers but contains wisdom for journalists and editors as well. Anonymous sourcing is sometimes necessary to protect the source from legal retribution, as seen in the cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

Ultimately, Poynter advises, "Sources must trust that journalists will protect their identities. Journalists must trust that sources are being truthful regardless of any ulterior motives. Readers, meanwhile, have to choose whether to trust media reports based on unnamed sources. Each reader has his or her own reasons for trusting or not trusting the news, but media outlets could help by relying as little as possible on unnamed sources and being as transparent as possible when they do." Read the full article here.

Also Notable

Unsatisfactory Access to Government Sources

The Society of Professional Journalists has written to Donald Trump and Mike Pence expressing concerns over unsatisfactory access to government sources dating back to the Obama administration. In 2015 SPJ prepared a white paper with background on the problem. See it here.

AAM Certifies Digital Fulfillment System

Last week, the Alliance for Audited Media certified Valuemags' Digital Fulfillment. This marks the first time the AAM has given this certification. According to the PR Newswire on Yahoo's Finance page, "AAM concluded that ValueMags' Digital Fulfillment System complies with the AAM bylaws and rules related to tracking access for sponsored digital subscriptions, as well as industry guidelines and best practices for IT controls." Read the full newswire here.

Add your comment.

Posted in (RSS)

« December 2016 | Top | February 2017 »