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Issue for November 2011

Editorial Integrity Gone Awry

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Where were the editors when a phony news story went viral in the worldwide media?

By William Dunkerley

Do you remember the Alexander Litvinenko story from 2006? A reputed Russian spy was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium, and a gruesome photo of him languishing in a hospital bed popped up in media all over the world. Top worldwide news stories reported, "Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered on orders of Vladimir Putin."

Now, five years later, the truth finally comes out. Alexander Litvinenko wasn't a spy. He never worked for the KGB. And the claim that Vladimir Putin ordered the murder is not rooted in fact; it was merely an allegation by one of Putin's arch-enemies. What's more, the London coroner has never concluded that Litvinenko was even murdered.

What Went Wrong

How could an editorial failure of this magnitude have happened? And what can we as editors learn from this outstanding embarrassment to our profession?

Actually, I've had a personal connection with the Litvinenko story. In 2007, I was commissioned by the organizers of the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists to study the media coverage of the Litvinenko poisoning. The Congress was held in Moscow, where I presented my report.

I told the Congress participants that the story was specious, and I presented an analysis of headlines and articles to back up my conclusion.

A few months ago, with the approaching fifth anniversary of the Litvinenko case, I thought of doing an article to reflect upon those findings. I pitched the story to Foreign Policy magazine. They rejected it. Then I tried the Columbia Journalism Review. They gave it the thumbs-down, too. So I decided to do a book on the topic instead.

That's when I uncovered more startling evidence of the story's inauthenticity. When I searched for details of the coroner's report on the murder, I could find none. It seemed as though no ruling had been made. I contacted the coroner's office in London seeking confirmation. I wrote:

"Based on my present understanding, I will report:

"'As of now, the coroner has not determined that Litvinenko's death was a homicide. Indeed, no certification has been issued as to the cause and manner of death.

"If that contains any inaccuracies, please correct me. Thanks."

The coroner's office responded:


"That is correct. Thanks for seeking clarification."

So all the time while newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media were reporting on a murder, there never had been an actual ruling that a murder took place. Perhaps "alleged murder" would have been a better term. But then there were also less-publicized but competing explanations. One claimed the poisoning was accidental, the other that it was a suicide. All things considered, reporting it as a "suspicious death" would have been more appropriate.

Then, I heard from a former instructor at the FSB (similar to the American FBI) academy whose students had worked with Litvinenko. He told me that Litvinenko was never a spy and never worked for the KGB. I also found a video of a 2007 Charlie Rose Show episode during which Litvinenko's widow maintained the same story.

This means that all the key elements of the story don't check out. Media outlets called the Litvinenko case a James Bond mystery. I say it's more like Alice in Wonderland -- a fantasy adventure that's full of illogical nonsense.

The book I wrote, The Phony Litvinenko Murder (www.omnicompress.com/plm), offers an insightful analysis into this example of editorial integrity gone awry. In it, I suggest that the most newsworthy aspect of the Litvinenko case is how a baseless story was pumped up in top headlines around the world. I describe how the story was "managed" by a PR firm bent on propagating a certain perspective. The firm in question apparently developed the now well-publicized storyline, handed out photos, and arranged interviews.

Why Editors and Journalists Failed

But, still, how could this have fooled experienced editors and journalists? Did they fail to do a responsible job out of ill intent? I've seen nothing to suggest that. Why, then, did they neglect their responsibility?

I'll posit a few contributing factors:

1. It was easier for them to go with a managed story that was handed to them, or to just follow the crowd in using the angle that others had taken. And it took less effort to write to their audiences' stereotypes than to explain realities that contradicted the accepted story.

2. A simple spy story had more instant audience appeal than a complex story of intermingled relationships, hidden agendas, and unfamiliar subtleties.

3. The editors and journalists involved lacked the expertise and resources necessary to do a thorough job. Was this a London story, or was it a Russian story that just happened to play out in London? Methinks the latter. But for the most part, the news crews in charge of the story were UK-based. And they were clueless about the critically important Russian subtleties of the case. A Moscow-based journalist of a UK paper told me of his fruitless efforts to correct the faulty journalism of his colleagues in London. He said that they were in control of the story and wouldn't listen to his input.

While the editors and journalists may have had no ill intent, the result of their failure was hardly benign. For instance, the present chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was duped by the story. At her instigation, the Committee in 2008 passed a condemnatory resolution based on the Litvinenko "facts" that turned out not to be factual at all. And based on that same phony information, Ros-Lehtinen urged President Obama in 2010 to seriously consider backing out of the US-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement and to curtail certain trade between the two countries.

Perhaps you don't edit stories about spies or murder. But whatever field your publication covers, you have an important role as an editor. As we've seen with the Litvinenko case, editorial integrity means going beyond just telling the truth as it may appear. You have a responsibility to do your due diligence (i.e., thorough, objective research) before toeing the journalistic party line. Failure to do so can yield disastrous results!

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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In Any Given Word

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM

Thesauruses with an angle, each usable on certain occasions

By Peter P. Jacobi

In the recently published book, OK, the Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word (Oxford University Press), author Allan Metcalf spends 210 pages retracing the etymology of the word. He even includes a chapter devoted to an offspring, "Okey-dokey."

It's up to you to determine whether all that verbiage about so circumscribed a subject is worth your personal pursuit. But for some reason or other, the book's presence on the market led me to a column subject, about words, more specifically about what's in a given word. As writers, we must weigh the words we use constantly and carefully, always seeking to determine if we've assigned the proper ones to articulate a thought or action or scene we have in mind and wish to express in print or sound.

We go to the dictionary to provide meaning, should we be fuzzy about what a considered word actually signifies. On the other hand, if we seek an alternate word to "OK" or any other in our huge and ever growing language, then we turn to the thesaurus, "a book of words and especially synonyms," as the dictionary defines it.

I turn to it all the time. In fact, I turn to them all the time. Over the years, I've collected a pile of variations. Let me share information about some of the thesauruses I have, each with an angle, each usable on certain occasions.

Generic but Widely Used

On top of the pile is the generic one, the widely used one, Roget's; mine currently is a Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (Barnes & Noble Books, but there are other versions, such as The Oxford Thesaurus, American Edition). Roget's does not spend 210 pages on "OK, but, choosing to spell the word "okay," it supplies three sets of synonyms: for the noun okay as "acceptable, satisfactory," for the noun okay as "agreement," and the verb okay as "agree to."

Under each, you find alternatives aplenty.

Now I haven't forgotten what my journalism professors told me way back when, a command I've passed along to my own students: that in news stories, we should depend primarily on the word "said," when quoting someone, with perhaps an "added" or "continued" thrown in for seasoning. And never mind that my Roget's lists 59 synonyms.

But I must admit that even for "say," I seek out and use alternatives, and since I don't write a lot of news stories any more, why not? Anyway, I love my Roget's.

The Original Thesaurus

The original, conceived and first published by Peter Mark Roget in 1852, was not in dictionary, A to Z, format. It arranged words and phrases according to meanings. And you can still get such a Roget's, Roget's International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition (Collins Reference). I have one of these, too, and it's not gathering dust up on the shelf. Here, one is required to look for the word, "say," in an alphabetical listing in the back; there one will find a selection of noun and verb synonyms that are expanded upon in the body of the book ("affirmation," "speech," "speak up," "utter," just for instances). Purists tend to prefer this version, and though it adds a step to the hunt, it divides the word into conceptual arrangements which help the hunter quickly recognize differentiations in the meanings of synonyms.

That may not be terribly important for "say, since it is a word we all understand and its synonyms are almost as familiar. But take the word "restitution." My alphabetical version puts the words "compensation, repayment" next to it and then gives me an "amends" to "squaring things" list. The original version, on the other hand, offers me a set of wide-ranging possibilities in the back-of-the-book listing ("atonement," "compensation," "payment," "recompense," "restoration," "return," "reversion"). I can then select the word closest in meaning to what I am looking for and seek options. Take your pick of Roget's, or benefit from having one of each.

For the Writer in Everyone

Since you, my readers, are writers and editors, you might wish to look into the purchase of Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus (Oxford), which is heralded "for the writer in everyone." The authors of this one provide sentences to support a given usage and then add synonyms for that particular meaning of the word. Example: "say, verb 1 she felt her stomach flutter as he said her name SPEAK, utter, voice, pronounce, give voice to, vocalize. 2 "I must go," she said DECLARE, state, announce, remark, observe, mention, comment, note, add; reply, respond, answer, rejoin; informal come out with.... 4 I can't conjure up the words to say how I feel EXPRESS, put into words, phrase, articulate, communicate, make known, put/get across, convey, verbalize; reveal, divulge, impart, disclose; imply, suggest." And so forth. Very useful.

I also like Sisson's Synonyms, An unabridged synonym and related-term locater, by A. F. Sisson (Prentice Hall). It is alphabetical in approach.

A Blend of Thesaurus with Dictionary

S.I. Hayakawa's Choose the Right Word, Second Edition (Harper, Collins), is an update by former Columbia English Professor Eugene Ehrlich of former U.S. Senator and semanticist Hayakawa's work. It blends the thesaurus concept with dictionary and English usage manual. "Say" is not one of the words selected in this hefty volume. But the alphabetically nearby "sad" is, followed with the synonyms "blue," "dejected," "depressed," "despondent," "disconsolate,", "lugubrious," and "melancholy." What follows in the entry is a thorough explanation of what these words mean and how they should be differentiated.

"These adjectives all characterize unhappy or despairing states of mind and, in some cases, situations that cause or are evocative of such feelings," one reads. "Sad, the mildest and most general term, is also the least explicit, giving no hint as to how downcast a person may be or for what reason. One may feel sad because of the passing of summer or sad because a child leaves home to be married. A funeral may be a sad occasion, but so may the cutting of a virgin forest for timber. A monkey peering out of a cage may have the sad eyes of a lonely old man." And so forth for the other words in the listing.

The Thinker's Thesaurus

Peter Meltzer's The Thinker's Thesaurus (Norton) is subtitled "Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words." The author devised it, he says, "to fill the void between conventional thesauruses and rare-word books." He points out that in it, "Nearly all of the synonyms, while completely legitimate, are harder or more sophisticated words than one would find in a regular thesaurus" and that, "Because the synonyms are more interesting and generally more unusual than those found in conventional thesauruses, the entries have examples from current books or periodicals," so to demonstrate how the words are properly used and "that these are real words currently used by real writers in the real world, not obsolete words that are never used anymore."

When I turn to the word "sad," I get the adjective "tristful" and a reference to a poem by Richard Wilbur. I get "sad (as in dejected) adj. chapfallen. See dejected." Turning to "dejected," I read again of the adjective "chapfallen," followed by: "Under the headline 'Wielders of mass deception?' on the cover of this week's Economist, President Bush sits, stroking his chin, mouth covered by his right hand, his brow furrowed, with ... a melancholy look that seems to say, 'Now what?' Seated next to him is a chapfallen British Prime Minister Tony Blair, weary head propped up by his left hand, whose unspoken thought could easily be, 'I'm not his poodle, but no one believes me.'" Admittedly, a rather specialized thesaurus, but it contains loads of interesting examples along with good, underused words that can enliven one's copy.

More follows next month.

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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The Fog Index

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM

Assessing the readability of a TheAtlantic.com excerpt.

This month, we examine a passage from a recent TheAtlantic.com article ("Forget Shopping, Friday Is Update Your Parents' Browser Day!" by Alexis Madrigal):

This year, though, do something different. Don't just explain to Grandpa or Mom or your father-in-law that there is a whole world of secure web browsing out there. No, take a firm stand. Tell them they won't be able to watch funny fishing videos on YouTube with IE6 anymore. Usually, by this point, most parents are begging for help and you can extract excellent perquisites for your labor. That big bedroom your little sister got for some reason? Now's the time to finally occupy it. While you're at it, you will probably fix (or set up) the wifi, which you can helpfully explain is like Internet particles floating in the air.

--Word count: 111
--Average sentence length: 14 words (6, 22, 5, 16, 19, 10, 7, 26)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 10 percent (11/111 words)
--Fog Index: (14+10)*.4 = 9 (no rounding)

For the first time, we've selected a passage whose Fog score falls within ideal range (i.e., below 12). If our sole goal is to attain a score below 12, then our work here is done. However, there are some places we can tweak slightly. Here's our attempt:

This year, though, do something different. Don't just explain to Grandpa or Mom or your father-in-law that there is a whole world of secure web browsing out there. No, take a firm stand. Tell them they won't be able to watch funny fishing videos on YouTube with IE6 anymore. Your parents will likely beg you for help and reward you for it. That big bedroom your little sister got for some reason? Now's the time to finally occupy it. While you're at it, you can fix (or set up) the wifi, which you can describe as Internet particles floating in the air.

--Word count: 102
--Average sentence length: 13 words (6, 22, 5, 16, 13, 10, 7, 23)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (6/111 words)
--Fog Index: (13+5)*.4 = 7 (no rounding)

We didn't do much to the original sample. Its Fog index was already ideal, but it still needed a tweak here and there for clarity. These minimal changes brought the Fog score down by two points.

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Grammar for Texters

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM

In the news: One mother's attempt to combat "txtspeak"-induced ambivalence about grammar.

In all likelihood, you've received a text from a friend or business associate that makes your inner grammarian cringe. The text may contain typos, ungodly "txtspeak" (e.g., "c u l8r"), or unfortunate autocomplete errors. Geraldine Onorato, a Manhattan mother, discovered just how pervasive txtspeak has become when her son, who was in junior high at the time, had no knowledge of adverbs.

This led Onorato and a friend, Donna Harrow, to create a booklet entitled Facts for English. The booklet, which took two years to complete, collects basic grammatical concepts. Read more about the project here.

Also Notable

Editors as "Brandividuals"

Last month, Foliomag.com blogger Stefanie Botehlo reported on the 2011 American Business Media Executive Forum. Discussion topics ran the gamut from paywalls to branding, but also on tap was a lively discussion regarding what Botehlo calls the "emerging editorial model." The role of the editor, in other words, is changing. Today's editor must harness the power of social media to her publication's advantage by generating online interest in written, video, and online content. No longer can an editor work quietly in his cubicle to polish the content; today's b-to-b editor must be "as comfortable on camera as they are on a laptop." Our profession, it would seem, is becoming high-profile. Read more here.

Staff Changes at Newsweek

Just one year after the high-profile Newsweek/The Daily Beast merger, there was a recent staff shakeup at the publishing giant. Two weeks ago, executive editor Edward Felsenthal and managing editor Tom Weber resigned, as did publisher Ray Chelstowski. The resignations come after a reportedly difficult year for the newly merged entity, which, like many magazines, is struggling to recover in today's uncertain environment. Read more here and here.

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