Tips for reporting and telling stories with traditional and new tools, including “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark.

no-fly-zone

Resources for Journalists Covering Malaysian Air MH17

Poynter is assembling a Twitter list of journalists who are on the ground or near the crash site of the Malaysia Airline jet. These contacts may be especially useful to those of you who want to get permission to use images and get information directly from journalists on the scene.

FlightRadar24 is a website that provides global flight tracking. The site provides this data showing where the Malaysia Air jet was last seen on radar.… Read more

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.… Read more

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

active or passive

In praise of the passive voice

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb.… Read more

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Editor Definition in English Dictionary.

How to report without editors

I was once asked by a top newspaper editor if I could help make his reporters more productive. Now they were responsible for three stories a week. Could I coach them to produce six stories a week? My answer was: “I could, but I won’t.”

I did not want to enable the ownership — which was cutting staff — to tell the big corporate lie: that they could do more with less. My reluctance, while principled, now seems hopelessly naïve and nostalgic. We’ve lost journalists by the thousands. Those who remain on newspapers, even as they cling to their jobs like cats on a clothesline, are being asked to perform miracles.

Their jobs, in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, are about to get harder. The Courier-Journal, once a great American newspaper, has fired some key editors.… Read more

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Monday, June 16, 2014

cnn-screen-small

Advice on publishing graphic photos from Iraq

It’s just a matter of time.

That’s what I told a Kalish Visual Editing workshop on the campus of Ball State University just last week. I told the group that it was a matter of time before they were forced to make a decision on a graphic photograph and they needed to be prepared to defend their decision.… Read more

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

bowe_cnn

What Harry Potter teaches about naming killers

My colleague Al Tompkins has written about the journalistic imperative of using names whenever we can, including the names of mass murderers. To withhold those names in the hopes of not romanticizing the killer – and not inspiring demented copycats – is an abdication of responsibility by the journalist. We need to know everything we can about the people who terrorize society – and that begins with their names.

I stand with Al on that opinion and would add another layer to his argument in the form of this sidebar: Withholding the name of the killer may have the opposite of the intended effect.

My argument comes not just from the journalism tradition of naming, but from a much larger cultural tradition in which naming is seen as a source of power.… Read more

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Canada Shooting Funeral

Will withholding shooters’ names and photos reduce violence?

Sun News in Canada is not naming the person accused of killing three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and wounding two others last week in Moncton, New Brunswick. The network said in an editorial:

When it comes to mass murders, too often, it is attention and infamy they crave. Luckily, shootings of this nature are rare in Canada.

And, in the U.S. they account for less than one percent of all gun-related deaths. Far more people have been killed in the bad neighborhoods of Chicago than were killed in all of the mass shootings combined. But these rare incidents are never forgotten. And with the rise of social media, they have become a spectacle.

It is easy to report on the life of the killer, to scour his deranged Facebook page, to speculate about motive, but doing so could actually encourage the perception that his heinous acts are somehow justified.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Afghanistan

Friendly Fire: learn its history before you use it

An Afghan police officer stands guard during a campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, Afghanistan. Five American troops were killed in an apparent coalition airstrike in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, in one of the worst friendly fire incidents involving U.S. and coalition troops since the start of the war in 2001. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The recent death of American forces in Afghanistan by what is called “friendly fire” invites a discussion of the meaning and history of that term. Should journalists use it as standard language for a certain kind of military accident? Should it be avoided as euphemism or propaganda, the way some writers avoid “collateral damage”?

What I’ve learned about the term comes from a variety of dictionaries, including the OED; an overview on Wikipedia; and a useful commentary from 2007 on the Language Log website by Ben Zimmer.… Read more

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Pollard

The ‘cinematic slow-motion effect’ of Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit’

[What we all need leading up to a Triple Crown horse race is an essay about the rhetoric of punctuation. So here it is, adapted from a chapter in my book The Glamour of Grammar. Don’t worry, there is an actual connection to horse racing. I have chosen to analyze a special passage from a special book, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. A close reading of her prose will reveal how a champion among writers uses every trick in the book to create special literary effects.]

Whenever we concentrate on the rules of grammar and punctuation, we run the risk of veiling the creativity and flexibility available to authors who think of them as tools of meaning and effect.

Let’s take as an example a splendid passage from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Seabiscuit, a stirring narrative history of one of America’s legendary racehorses.… Read more

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Monday, June 02, 2014

honestwriter_deposit

Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer

I’ve written four books since 2006, and I’m at work on another. But for every book that reaches publication, I have at least one (sometimes two or three) proposals rejected.

One of them was to be called “The Honest Writer: A Guide to Originality.” I stumbled upon my proposal last week and delivered part of it to a group of college teachers gathered for a conference on academic integrity. Having dusted it off for them, I thought I’d show it to you. It includes, you should know at the start, a list of some of my literary sins over the years. The purpose of such a list is not to insist that everyone cheats, or, as they say in the sports world: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I write more in the spirit of “The Confessions” of St.… Read more

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