Accurately depicting the nuances

Nov. 10, 2011, 12:25 p.m. | By Claire Sleigh | 10 years, 6 months ago

Even minor textual misrepresentations can mislead readers

There are many layers to a story — planning, searching for sources, interviewing and outlining, synthesizing and finally writing.

It takes practice and dedication to incorporate the many layers of a story into a seamless piece, and when this is not done properly some points of view are compromised. Sometimes little details or nuances slip through the crack, and even the smallest of word choices can completely spin meaning in the wrong direction.

Photo: Ombudsman Claire Sleigh Photo courtesy of Tolu Omokehinde.

Getting all of the nuances into a story can be a feat, but it is a task that every competent journalist must try to accomplish and one that every editor should look for when editing stories.

In the last issue, Oct. 7 issue, Silver Chips ran a feature about a farm run by social studies teacher Marc Grossman. While the article itself was accurately reported, the title and second deck were grossly misleading, which then caused the story to take a new spin. (For more information see Letter to the Editor, below.)

The headline, "Farming is a different kind of juvenile detention" gives the negative image that Grossman is running a hurtful operation, rather than offering work experience and other opportunities.

Headlines are a big part of what people actually read and get out of a story, but, as in most national publications, some are written the night we go to print, and many aren't even written by the author of the story. Sometimes the headline that the author writes doesn't fit the page and words are added or removed to stretch or cut down the headline. But this is no excuse for printing a misleading headline because the truth and accuracy of the story and headline must take priority over design and layout.

The headline error was a big mistake that we missed, a mistake that can be rectified with more scrupulous editing. The senior editors must be willing and able to criticize drafts at a more content-based level.

The kind of editing that is needed isn't merely copy editing or fact checking - it is something that goes deeper into the particulars of the story.

However, for more obscure stories only the author knows the particulars and nuances, which makes it harder for the editors to catch mistakes. Here, the burden of keeping the story accurate lies on the specific author. Part of this comes with experience, but part comes with greater direction and foresight on behalf of both the editors-in-chief and the specific section editors.

Even something as seemingly small as the word choice between, "Offering an opportunity to work" and, "Using them to work" can be misleading. However, the ability to recognize and address fine distinctions - especially in journalism - comes with experience.

At the beginning of the school year, we put out the paper when only half the staff is truly experienced in the deadlines and expectations of Silver Chips. The author of the Grossman story is a junior who is just starting to write for Silver Chips. We traditionally see the most improvements in the paper between the first and second cycles, and are confident that we can smooth over these glitches in the future.

Silver Chips is a nationally recognized paper, but to deserve that recognition we have to work on everything and anything from sweeping layout changes and story assignments to word choice differences that might lend themselves to editorializing.

An error in journalism is much bigger than an error in an essay written in school — newspaper articles are about real people doing real things, and any misleading article has the potential to reach a wide range of people.

Tags: print ombudsman

Claire Sleigh. I love crew. Silver Chips should cover it. More »

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