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Issue for July 2014

How to Corrupt Editorial Integrity

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:19 PM

A recent New York Times fiasco is a blueprint for trashing integrity. It offers a good lesson on what not to do if you want to maintain high standards.

By William Dunkerley

On April 20, the New York Times splashed the headline, "Ukraine Provides Evidence of Russian Military in Civil Unrest." The article presented an array of photos showing soldiers in various situations. A caption attested to the claim made in the headline. Accompanying text said that "the State Department, which has also alleged Russian interference, says that the Ukrainian evidence is convincing." State Department officials disseminated the photos publicly.

Journalists Andrew Higgins, Michael R. Gordon, and Andrew E. Kramer repeated those allegations in a bylined story on the same day. A version of their story ran on page 1 of the paper's April 21 New York edition.

Just days later, the paper printed a retraction of sorts.

What was wrong with the story? What went wrong at the Times? And how is editorial integrity at stake here?

Covering Hot News

The crisis in Ukraine has been in the news for some time now. Coverage was punctuated in July by stories of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. So it is not surprising that the Times had been hot on the story for some time.

Back in April I viewed the Times' photo array with great interest. Proof that Russia was playing an active military role in Ukraine's civil war sounded like a big deal.

The Times' story presented two shots of a bearded man in military garb. The caption identified him as a Russian military operative seen in the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia, and also spotted in Ukraine this year.

But as I looked closely at the two blurry photos alleged to be of the same man, I saw something different. They looked to me like two different men. What could explain that discrepancy?

To get to the bottom of this, I clipped both blurry images and entered them into Google's "search by image" function. That instantly located much higher-resolution images of both bearded men. And clearly the photos were not of the same man. The two people didn't resemble each other at all. Even the beards were dissimilar.

Yet the Times was attesting that this was the same man in two different military conflicts, and that this was proof of a startling conclusion about foreign interference in Ukraine's civil war.

Power of the Press

Even though the photographic basis for this story was obviously suspect, a lot of readers trusted the Times and believed the story. Here are a few reader comments posted on the Times' website:

--"It is good to see hard evidence showing up for what we always knew was going on in eastern Ukraine."
--"I trust that no one is surprised by this, save for the usual pro-Putin/pro-Russia propagandists, that is."
--"It's time to demonstrate to the Kremlin -- and the Russian people -- that such a divergence from global norms has significant costs."

But not everyone fell for the fake story. There were skeptical comments as well. Here are a few examples:

--"Those photos look as convincing as the satellite shots of Iraq's WMD that the CIA presented just before the invasion."
--"Whether or not Russian operatives are in Ukraine, this evidence is a joke."
--"One of them could have been Santa if he changed his outfit and dyed his beard."

A Retraction?

The skeptics like me must have made quite an impression with someone, because on April 24 a piece appeared from Margaret Sullivan, the paper's "public editor." It was titled, "Aftermath of Ukraine Photo Story Shows Need for More Caution." That sounds like quite an understatement!

Ms. Sullivan was quick to comment that the photos had been "endorsed by the Obama administration." But, she added, "More recently, some of those grainy photographs have been discredited."

So, after being caught prominently running a phony story, the Times sought to shed blame by pointing a finger at the Obama administration and fingering the "grainy photographs."

But what about the Times' responsibility as a watchdog against government malfeasance and misinformation? The dog must have died. And what about journalists Higgins, Gordon, and Kramer? They are experienced journalists. Why did they sully their reputations by putting their names on a garbage story out of Washington?

Where were the Times' fact checkers? It took me less than five minutes to determine that the photos attested to by the State Department were fraudulent. Getting high-resolution images to clarify the "grainy photographs" required no more than a series of mouse clicks.

And what about the Times' foreign editor, Joseph Kahn? Actually, Sullivan gave him a chance to speak for himself in her article. She says he told her that "the Times has made a major commitment to covering the Russia-Ukraine story over the past several months, using as many as 12 staff reporters, many of them on the ground. He calls the coverage 'voluminous, competitive, and excellent.'" Isn't that incredible? The paper makes a public arse of itself and Kahn calls his team's work excellent?

Kahn hinted that the Times, in running the phony story, "was not entirely dependent for its conclusions on the photographs, but also included other reporting that led to similar conclusions." But why did he run the faked photos?

So Kahn published the rigged photos without remarking upon their inauthenticity, and he expects us to believe whatever other reporting they may have done? The story was about the photos. That's what the headline said. But he didn't mention that the photos were fraudulent.

And what did Sullivan, the paper's internal watchdog, say about all this? She concluded that the "coverage of this crisis has had much to commend it" but that the story in question "was displayed too prominently and questioned too lightly."

What the Photos Proved

The photos published by the Times may not have proved that a Russian soldier seen in the Georgian conflict was recently seen in Ukraine. But the photos did prove a few things:

--The Times didn't check its facts. It could easily have found the photos to be fakes.

--The Times relied upon a single noncombatant source, the State Department, to validate the photos and attendant conclusions. It's no secret that governments lie. That's why the media are expected to serve as watchdogs to offset government lies and malfeasance, and to promote better governance. As a result, we are given First Amendment protection and are often referred to as the Fourth Estate.

--The bearded men episode also proved that, when confronted by others with the photographic discrepancy, the Times couldn't bring itself to simply fess up to what it had been caught doing. Instead it obfuscated, equivocated, and congratulated itself.

That's perhaps the Times' biggest offense. The editors seem to believe they are above plain accountability. That leaves them free to repeat lies and mislead their readers, yet feel no unmitigated guilt. In other words, they seem to have no integrity.

For the Rest of Us...

Not all of us cover world news. Some of us do carry articles that rely upon governmental sources. But we all have readers who rely upon us to provide them with true and reliable information.

That's what sets us apart as branded publications. There is a host of information available on the Internet. Some of it is reliable. Some is not. It can be burdensome for information seekers to evaluate the veracity of any particular source that is not well known to them.

The name of our publication -- our brand -- is what sets us apart from the plethora of websites competing with us to satisfy readers' demands for information. If we fail in our responsibility to readers, we lose our edge and we lose our integrity.

In a sense, we're all in this together. More and more, information seekers are abandoning branded publications in favor of simply searching the Web for whatever information they happen to need at the moment.

Upholding the notion that publication brands signify reliability is important to our industry as a whole. When such a well-known brand as the New York Times shows remarkable indifference to accuracy and accountability, it hurts us all.

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

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"The most embarrassing thing about this is that a plethora of evidence exists of Russian involvement. The Times' reporters are just too lazy or gutless to find it." --Sergey Panasenko, Moscow, Russia

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Three Writing and Editing References

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:18 PM

We owe our readers our best.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I wouldn't predict the following books will end up on your top shelf of writing and editing references, but they will offer benefits.

Practical Examples and Exercises

Don McNair's Edit-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave (Quill Driver Books) overemphasizes that publisher/agent angle. "You can be published" is the title of the introduction, and that sort of stress on selling suggests the author is focusing on novice writers.

Don't let that put you off, however. The book, by a veteran editor, contains solid advice on how to improve your writing, novice or otherwise. McNair has divided his material into sections. The most developed and useful ones are "Putting Words In" and "Taking Words Out."

Within the "In," he addresses hooks and point of view, warns us about dumping information, and shows how to create hardworking scenes. The "Out" brings us McNair's 21 steps "to fog-free writing."

"Now we're going to throw some of those wonderful words out," he warns. "Why? Because they fog up your meaning, suck power from your story, and put agents and editors on life support."

What follows is practical. Among the steps, you'll find: "Use fewer -ing words," "Use fewer infinitives," "Change passive voice to active voice," "Eliminate double verbs" ("She watched television all day" versus "She sat and watched television all day"), "Watch for foggy phrases" ("It eases the pain" versus "It has the effect of easing the pain"), "Delete -ly words" ("John crawled off the carpet" versus "John slowly crawled off the carpet"), "Eliminate redundancies" ("That was the result" versus "That was the end result."), and "Avoid clichés like the plague" ("He made it before the door slammed shut" versus "He made it in the nick of time").

The book bulges with examples and exercises.

Amusing Lessons and Reminders on Committing Writer Sins

The brother/sister writing team of Ross and Kathryn Petras has issued Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee Trade). "Wretched writing," they explain, "is, to put it politely, a felonious assault on the English language. It is the lowest of the low. It plumbs the depths of literature and spelunks the caves of nonfiction. In other words, it stinks."

There follows a close-to-200-page alphabetical display of writer sins, from "adjectives, excessive use of" to "zoological sexual encounters," as supplied by "politician-writers." Each entry gets an explanation and, usually, examples. Under "character descriptions, too much," one sample is taken from Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, a 1992 novel by Ron Miller. Here's a single paragraph of a description far more extensive than that:

"Her hair had the sheen of the sea beneath an eclipsed moon. It was the color of a leopard's tongue, of oiled mahogany. It was terra cotta, bay and chestnut. Her hair was a helmet, a hood, the cowl of the monk, magician or cobra."

The entry "eumerdification" requires definition: "Making academic writing at least 25% incomprehensible crap, to seem smarter." One example, from The Continental Philosophy Reader: "Since thought is seen to be 'rhizomatic' rather than 'arboreal,' the movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own positive trajectory."

You'll find: "constructions, confusing, convoluted, and otherwise confounding" and "dialogue, deadly" and "hipster writing, horribly outdated" and "modifiers, misplaced" and "obviousness, excessive" and "pretension, pseudo-philosophical prose" and "saying nothing."

There's fun to be had in the reading, along with the lessons and reminders.

Nothing the Same Again

To the contrary, very good writing can be savored in the 2013 version of The Best American Essays, part of the annual "Best American Series" published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There's plenty in this collection to enjoy and to learn from. What is it we tell those who write for us? That reading is essential for writers (and editors).

The editor of this latest in the best essays series is Cheryl Strayed, an essayist, novelist, and teacher. In an introduction, she states: "When I teach writing, I tell my students that the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again. By which I mean the reader should feel the ground shift, if even only a bit, when he or she comes to the end of the essay. Also, there should be something at stake in the writing of it. Or, better yet, everything."

An intriguing thought, even when we're not engaged with essays but with news stories and features and columns: nothing the same again, ground shift, something at stake. Not all we write or edit can be that auspicious, that important, but aiming honestly and realistically for import is a noble, worthy, and appropriate goal. We owe our readers our best. We should aim to enrich their lives in some way and repay them for agreeing to spend reading time with us.

Twenty-six essays spread across just short of 300 pages. Each one is a journey twice taken, first by the writer, then -- because the substance and the writing are so involving -- by the reader. Editor Strayed says, "The essay's engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. Their vibrancy and intimacy, their mystery and nerve, their relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and a wow. An ouch and a yes. A stop and a go."

I encourage you to take a look-see.

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.

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"Hey, watch those stinky caver analogies! The terms 'spelunker' or 'spelunk' have a negative connotation these days -- denoting unprepared people who go into caves and get lost or hurt. Thus the bumper sticker: Cavers Rescue Spelunkers." --Curt Harler, freelance writer and editor

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The Fog Index

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:18 PM

Assessing the readability of a Newsweek.com excerpt.

This month, we're calculating the Fog Index of a sample from a July 26 Newsweek.com article ("Can Google Build the Perfect Human Being?" by Paula Mejia). Here's the clip:

"Once all of the thousands of samples are gathered, Google will use its state-of-the-art software to find molecular sequences -- or, biomarkers -- within them. These biomarkers can signal a range of specific data points about a given body; for example, a biomarker could identify a protein excess or a mutated gene. Biomarkers aren't inherently bad. They can either be a biological advantage or disadvantage depending on the person and the specifics of the biomarker. Either way, they can be a boon to medical researchers, who could, for example, cross-reference the database in order to identify those people with, say, a biomarker linked to potential diabetes risk. Those people could then be flagged, and worked with to take steps to lower their risk for developing the disease."

--Word count: 125
--Average sentence length: 21 words (23, 27, 4, 19, 32, 20)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 18 percent (22/125 words)
--Fog Index (21+18)*.4 = 15 (no rounding)

The Fog Index is fairly low for a sample of this nature. Because we're dealing with highly scientific subject matter, we can expect a higher score than, say, a sample from a pop culture piece. The author has done a good job of breaking it down for the lay reader, but perhaps we can improve the Fog score a bit:

"Once the thousands of samples are gathered, Google will use its advanced software to find molecular sequences -- or, biomarkers -- within them. These biomarkers can signal a range of precise data points about a given body. For example, a biomarker could find a protein excess or a mutated gene. Biomarkers aren't inherently bad. They can either be a biological advantage or disadvantage, depending on the person and the specifics of the biomarker. Either way, they can be a boon to medical researchers. For example, they could cross-reference the database in order to detect those people with, say, a biomarker linked to diabetes risk. Those people could then be flagged, and worked with to take steps to lower their risk of getting the disease."

--Word count: 122
--Average sentence length: 15 words (21, 14, 13, 4, 19, 10, 21, 20)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 14 percent (17/122 words)
--Fog Index (15+14)*.4 = 11 (no rounding)

We made very few changes to this piece beyond a word tweak here and there. We cut through the fog primarily by turning 6 sentences into 8. We also replaced a few longer words where possible. Overall, these minor changes reduced our sentence length average by 6 and our percentage of longer words by 4 points. Thus, we were able to cut our 15-point Fog score down to 11.

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Magazine Launches in 2014

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:17 PM

In the news: How do magazine launches stack up against magazine closures in the first half of the year?

MediaFinder.com has released its magazine launch numbers for the first half of 2014. To sum up, there were 93 magazine launches and just 30 closures. Particularly hot were the regional interest category, with 6 new print titles, and business-to-magazines with 15 new titles. Meanwhile, 13 of the 30 closures were auto enthusiast magazines published by TEN: The Enthusiast Network (formerly Source Interlink Media). Read more here.

Also Notable

Are Readers Leaving Print Behind?

In a July 20 NYTimes.com piece, David Carr writes, "I am a faithful reader of The Journal's and The Times's print edition.... But when big things happen, I stay glued to the web, at The Times and other great news sites. Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now." Read his commentary on "the train ... that left print behind" here.

The New Yorker Relaunches Online

Recently, The New Yorker relaunched its website. Online has always been a challenging endeavor for the magazine, which prides itself on careful copy editing and fact checking. Online editor Nicholas Thompson tells CapitalNewYork.com, "What we're trying to do is to make a website that is to the Internet what the magazine is to all other magazines." According to the CapitalNewYork.com piece, "At this point, most New Yorker employees have both print and web duties: including fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who records a podcast, and the print editors, who write web headlines for their stories." Read more about the relaunch here.

"Netflixing" Hearst's Video Content

This month, Hearst unveiled its new magazine video channel. "CosmoBody" will feature daily fitness and lifestyle videos and editorial content. Subscribers pay $9.95 per month for unlimited access to the (as of now) ad-free content, similar to the Netflix model. Hearst plans to develop other digital magazine channels in the future. Read more here.

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