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Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

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Tuesday, Sep. 09, 2014

Ray Rice, Janay Palmer

How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims

The Executive Director of CASA, the St. Petersburg, Florida domestic violence center told me “not a single word” of Janay Rice’s Instagram post surprised her.

janay-rice-statement

After 30 years of working with domestic violence victims, Linda Osmundson says the Ray Rice case is typical of the 6,000 cases a year that flow through the victim support system, including a small shelter she oversees in Pinellas County. The big difference is most abuse cases don’t make the news. Most abuse happens behind closed doors, not in front of casino elevator cameras.

“Victims stand by their man,” Osmundson said. They will stand by him and stand by him and stand by him until they can’t stand by any longer. Why? Because they love him. They have children together, a house together, a life together. Battered women leave five to seven times before they finally leave for good. The batterer does not batter all the time. The charming guy comes back and charms her. The victim loves the charming guy.”

And so, like Janay Rice, they stay with the man who hit them. “Most of the victims have never been involved with police. They know the system will not defend their lives. We don’t prosecute most domestic violence cases in this county. They go back to the abusers. They are on their own. Restraining orders don’t stop fists and bullets. Many are terrified, what if they don’t win the case.”

Osmundson says shelters like CASA don’t see a big increase in calls for help after high profile cases anymore. Sadly, they have become so common, she says, the public doesn’t react to the news as it once did. “In the OJ Simpson years we saw an increase in calls. That was the first time it was out in the public among high visibility people. It is much less of a surprise now, we don’t see the same reaction now. OJ was a ‘goldmine’ to us because people said ‘Oh, that happens to other people?”‘

Osmundson offers this advice to journalists:

  • Focus on the abuser. Social media and even some talk radio focused on the woman for staying with a man who hit her. The victim should not be re-victimized. It sends a strong signal to other women that this public judgement is what awaits you if you report your abuser. “Women don’t report abuse for a lot of reasons. Maybe the batterer got to her and said if you tell I will hurt you and your family,” Osmundson said.
  • Alcohol and drug use is involved a significant number of cases that come through CASA. But, Osmundson said, don’t allow alcohol to become an excuse. In fact, she said, sober abusers may be even more dangerous.  “Alcohol makes me not be able to abuse “clearly.” Abuse is planned, thought through. It is important to remember they have two problems, one is abuse, the other is alcohol,” she said.
  • Abuse is a world view, it is not a disease. Your view is reinforced by family, friends, advertising, videos and music. It is reinforced culturally all the time when, for example, athletes beat their wives and continue on with their career. “If you get to guys when they are young there is some hope they can turn around. Take an older guy who has done this all along, I don’t have a lot of hope for him,” Osmundson told me.

Resources for Journalists

The stories Linda Osmundson told me based on her decades of experience are backed up by stacks of studies.

The CDC says in a newly released national survey(using 2011 data) :

On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 10 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story—nearly 2 million women are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men are victims of stalking in a year.

You can see state-by-state breakdowns of domestic violence from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control survey here. Note: the report urges you NOT to try to use the data to compare states because the report relies on different levels of responses from different locations.)

The Department of Justice reports:

Overall, African Americans were victimized by intimate partners a(t) significantly higher rates than persons of any other race between 1993 and 1998. Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races.
– Callie Marie Rennison and Sarah Welchans, U.S. Department of Justice, Intimate Partner Violence (2000)

In a study of African-American sexual assault survivors, only 17% reported the assault to police. (Africana Voices Against Violence, Tufts University, Statistics, 2002)

One story that journalists could explore is whether your community has enough support for abuse victims. Help centers told the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s 2013 national survey that they had lost workers including shelter staff and legal assistants. The NNEDV’s census including shelters and centers that house abuse victims found:

Domestic violence programs do not always know what happens when a survivor courageously calls a stranger to ask for a bed or other help and the services aren’t available; however;

  • 60 percent of programs report that victims return to the abuser,
  • 27 percent report that victims become homeless
  • 11 percent report that victims end up living in their cars.

The survey also found this statistic that journalists could explore:

Across the United States 1,696 staff positions were eliminated in the past year. Most of these positions were direct service providers, such as shelter staff or legal advocates. This means there were fewer advocates to answer calls for help or provide needed services.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists these stunning statistics. I am linking to the studies on which some of this data is based. Much of it is from the Department of Justice, and some of the data is 15 years old:

  • One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

  • An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

  • Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.

  • In 70-80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

  • Less than 20 percent of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.

The American Bar Association pulled together data for lawyers who deal with these kinds of cases. One of the more interesting facts the ABA lists this statistic from the American Journal of Public Health:

Access to firearms yields a more than five-fold increase in risk of intimate partner homicide when considering other factors of abuse, according to a recent study, suggesting that abusers who possess guns tend to inflict the most severe abuse on their partners.

Linda Osmundson offered two other key thoughts to journalists covering the Ray Rice story.  “This is not the first time a well-known athlete has done this. The exciting thing to me is that somebody is taking action this time. Other athletic organizations should take action too, it would make a difference.” She added, journalists should remember that victims are reading, listening and watching this coverage. If the case is taken seriously, they might find the courage to come forward. “For abusers, it is always power and control. Most of times, guys plan the abuse. That fist is connected to his arm. It is always his choice.”

Update:
In the day and a half since TMZ released the knockout punch video, Twitter users posted 96,000 entries with the hashtags #whyistay and #whyIleft.
While it is not possible to verify the stories behind the posts, the entries are heartbreaking. I put some of the posts in this Storify collection. Read more

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Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

Jay Nixon

Was Ferguson a ‘news desert’ until two weeks ago?

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference  in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of  Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. Violent protests in Ferguson erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Coming late to the Ferguson story, I have a modest thought to add to the ongoing discussion of why the police shooting and the bumbling local response to protests happened there.

My hunch is that like many aging and changing suburban communities, Ferguson had received only the most episodic of news coverage until all hell broke loose.  Political theory and high profile reports from the Knight Foundation and FCC suggest that when a town is a news desert, low civic engagement is almost certain to follow.

So if that’s the theory, isn’t Ferguson the practice?  A community, as the phrase goes, that doesn’t know how to talk to itself.

Many reports have noted that with a nearly 70 percent African-American population (flipping the racial composition of 20 years ago), the town’s 53-person police force has only three black officers.  Others have observed that the mayor, the school board and other elements of the governing power structure in Ferguson remain virtually all white.

We will soon find out whether patronage and racism have kept the police force as it is.  But as for white dominance in elections, that seems as if it could only be explained by the black majority being uninvolved and unorganized politically.  Rev. Al Sharpton observed as much Sunday, calling for a registration drive and improvement of a dismal 12 percent turnout rate in the last election.

What kind of news coverage had Ferguson been receiving?

Margie Freivogel, editor of St. Louis Public Radio (formerly the St. Louis Beacon) pointed me to a pair of weeklies based in larger towns nearby.   But their Ferguson stories appear fragmentary and not aggressive at all.  (The August 14 edition of the Florissant Valley Independent led with “leaders’ reactions” to the shooting and protests with no additional reporting).

Freivogel, who was a long time Post-Dispatch staffer from 1971 to the mid-2000s, added “the P-D never intensely covered Ferguson or north county. But it was certainly covered more heavily than now.”

Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor of the Post-Dispatch, confirmed that in an e-mail:

The Post-Dispatch used to have a North County bureau, which I believe we closed in 2007.  Ferguson was one of many north St. Louis County communities covered by two reporters in that office. We used to zone a North County page twice a week. Our sister Suburban Journals publications ended their weekly North County edition in 2011.

But, Goodman said, the Post-Dispatch has still made it out to Ferguson to cover important stories like the dismissal of a popular black school superintendent or continuing foreclosure issues.

My own reporting and Steve Waldman’s FCC study both found that metros, which have been forced to make the deepest cute news staff in the last decade, typically denuded their suburban coverage and pulled back to the city limits.

I visited this phenomenon five years ago in a story “Alhambra, Calif.: The  Little Town News Forgot.”  Four times the population of Ferguson, Alhambra is a suburban community of small bungalows, just north of prosperous South Pasadena.  It once had its own daily newspaper and subsequently was covered by a small Los Angeles Times bureau and the Pasadena Star-News until the early 2000s.  Then coverage dropped from several stories a week in the Times to five or six a year.

Meantime Alhambra demographics, like Ferguson’s, changed radically.  From a mostly white community, it  became a center for Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with some white and a very small African-American population remaining.  Indicators of civic vitality were remarkably low, in part because many in the major ethnic groups could not speak each others’ language.

This prompted USC-Annenberg journalism professor Michael Parks (formerly the editor of the  L.A. Times) to assemble grants and help from colleagues to build a new digital site with the Alhambra community from the ground up. The resulting  Alhambra Source, with a professional editor coordinating a corps of citizen contributors, has had typical growing pains and financial sustainability challenges but is still publishing.

I can see something of the sort in Ferguson’s future once the current crisis settles.  Huffington Post announced yesterday that it will try to crowd-source a locally based reporter and give her continuing support from its own professionals.

My Poynter colleagues Kristen Hare and Jill Geisler have ably chronicled the strong local media response of the last two weeks (Ferguson is just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis). Freivogel’s public radio news department will no doubt continue its Ferguson blog, and the Post-Dispatch and TV stations now have the issues of Ferguson and similar towns in fragmented St. Louis county in their sites.  National media wonks too have discovered oddities that bear continuing analysis.

To be clear, the erosion of newspaper coverage in Ferguson and a vast swath of  suburban/exurban communities where so many Americans choose to live undercuts democracy.  But the remedy, if one is forthcoming, is not going to be a revival of  newspaper coverage — but rather something else, something new, something digital.

Related:
Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice Read more

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Friday, Oct. 19, 2012

ipaddesignlabsmall

Excerpt from ‘iPad Design Lab’: How tablets allow us to disconnect

As Poynter releases the findings of its latest Eyetrack tablet research, we are also excerpting an abridged section from Mario Garcia’s new book, “iPad Design Lab.”

Storytelling is the one thing that has not changed, regardless of how many platforms we use to practice our craft. With a good story in hand, the rest becomes easy.

A medium in its infancy, the tablet affords us the opportunity to examine and discover as we create apps. We know users spend considerable time with it and prefer it as an evening companion.

I was struck, when designing my first tablet app, that I was designing for the brain, the eye and the finger — and all at the same time. I pay particular attention to the finger, which I consider both unforgiving and impatient: It wants to touch the screen and immediately get results. It is up to an editor or designer to provide for this finger.

The use of the finger is one of the unique characteristics of the tablet. The tablet is not a newspaper, an online edition or a television. But it can act at times like all of the above. In many ways, the tablet is more exciting than print and more engaging than a website. It creates an interactive relationship with the user, who wants to participate, not just read passively.

In addition, tablets allow people to disconnect, as William Powers wrote in his 2010 book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry.” With a tablet, we disconnect from the hectic, buzzing, constantly updated world the way we do with a good book that we have chosen to read at a special moment when we know we will be relaxing. But the tablet is not purely a device for disconnection. Modern news consumers also want more active experiences along with the passive ones. The tablet is flexible and affords total connectivity as well.

William Powers and I exchange frequent e-mails on everything from the state of storytelling to the eternal qualities of print.

Mario Garcia: Let’s talk about the appealing sense of disconnect that you so often refer to. How do you see paper allowing us to disconnect?

William Powers: I believe that paper allows us to be alone in a way we’re seldom alone anymore. It quiets the mind. And people are hungry for that. True, we all love all these devices, including me and my family. But they’re also driving us crazy.

How do you strike a balance between being connected and disconnected? That is what my book is about.

I look back at seven moments in history when a new technology came along posing a similar challenge to the one we face now. At each moment I focus on one philosopher who had some useful practical ideas about how to deal with this in everyday life. They range from Plato to Shakespeare to Thoreau. And, of course, I mention Gutenberg. While we always talk about the printing press itself as Gutenberg’s ultimate contribution to civilization, I argue his real achievement was allowing all of us to have the inward experience of reading, that delightful moment of being alone with a page.

As we learn more about the habits of tablet users, we see that they spend considerable time with their tablets in the evening. The tablet has become the ultimate lean-back platform. It is mobile telephones and computers during the working hours, followed by print and tablets in the evening. So we know that there is a sense that the tablet, too, like print, allows one to disconnect, to lean back and relax. Do you agree that perhaps the tablet comes the closest to a digital platform that provides some of the disconnection of print?

Powers: Yes, based on the emerging user habits you mention, as well as personal experience, these first-generation tablets have been a giant step forward for digital reading. My thesis is that as digital devices mature, the experience they offer will get closer and closer to the immersive type of engagement print on paper has offered for centuries.

As everyone who grew up reading hard-copy books and newspapers knows, there’s nothing better than connecting with information in a way that feels relatively disconnected — focused, peaceful and calm. This is an experience people will always value highly, so the better tablets are at providing it, the better for news outlets and other providers of digital content seeking to build audiences of faithful readers.

Having said that, I would note that we are still in the early stages of this transition, and these technologies have a long way to go. Some day in the not-so-distant future, the tablets we’re using today will seem laughably primitive. In fact, tablets may be replaced by a more advanced kind of a device we can’t even envision because it hasn’t been invented yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tablet, as we know it today, turns out to be the eight-track tape of the digital age.

How do you see the role of long-form reading—as in long narratives—in the future, both for print and tablets? We know from early research that long stories seem to do well on tablets, whereas they rarely did online. Are we going to see a renaissance of long-form journalism, specifically in the tablets?

Powers: I do think we’re going to see a great flowering of long-form journalism in the digital medium. It’s already begun, and I’m certain it will ramp up hugely when the economy revives.

Long-form storytelling wasn’t an accidental development—it’s as old as civilization, because it meets a fundamental human need. We’re not just here to be stimulated and entertained in the short-attention-span ways that have dominated the digital era so far. We’re here to understand our world, the societies we live in and ourselves. Understanding comes from time, attention and thoughtful reflection. It comes from storytelling that goes long and deep.

As we build out the digital world, I’m confident there’s going to be more of that kind of storytelling than ever before. The public’s love affair with tablets is an early glimpse of that future. Read more

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Thursday, Sep. 05, 2002

Good Indexing Key to Successful Publications

There are different ways in which a well-designed publication can use indexing:

through promotional units for main stories to the inside
through a specific summary of highlights (the news that the reader MUST not miss inside)
through a directory of sections, i.e. sports, classified advertising, opinion, etc.

Readers appreciate a newspaper, magazine or newsletter that is easy to navigate; pure design takes this into account as a top priority.

It is with indexes and promotional units that color can be used most effectively, to color key sections, or to guide the reader from one section to the next.

However, editorial hierarchy plays a role here; do not create indexes to decorate a cover or page one, to show off good photos or visuals.

Good indexes give the front of the publication a sense of hierarchy. What do editors think the reader should read first, second and third? If the reader only has 10minutes, what is MUST reading in this edition? If five more minutes become available, what should be next? Good indexing prioritizes content for the busy reader. Pure design packages such priority attractively.


All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter. Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002

Black on White, White on Black

From time to time one sees white type reversed over a black background. Some purists of design hate the technique and it is even banned in some newsrooms.

True, there is no substitute for the legibility of black type over a white background.

That said, it is also true that white type over a black background can look sharp, raise the presence of a quote or other elements on a page, and add a “visual” to a page where there might not be one.

Like all other tools available to the designer, reverses work best when used in moderation. A very large top- to bottom-of-the-page box, all black, with a long article set in white over it, will not be legible. In fact, it will look hard to penetrate — and few will enter it.

When used sparingly, and not repeatedly, white-on-black can be another efficient way to offer contrast and hierarchy for an item on a page.


All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter. Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2002

Italics Effeminate? Hardly!

Even editors who confess to being ‘visually illiterate’ (which is rarely the case!) have at least five minutes of conversation and opinion on the subject of italics. That suggests that a bit of slant to the right is more controversial than any other weight or style for a typeface.

At one point, perhaps in the 1950s, italics were mostly found in the women’s section of the newspaper. Fifty years later, thanks to the newsroom legacy syndrome, the rumor persists: italics are not macho enough — never use them for sports stories, never on hard news stories. And so, one still sees beautiful italics as decoration for articles about flower arrangement, new recipes for quiche, and the latest fashions from Paris.

It is time to give italics a bit of credit. Readers do not associate italics with a specific gender. They do not perceive italics as being less forceful — it is the words that make a headline strong or weak! Readers do not slow down when the headline is in italics, either.

Having said that, I would like to express some personal thoughts on italics:


  • Do not use them for every headline in the newspaper. This is a matter of avoiding monotony more than anything that has to do with perception.
  • Give italics a job to do through your creation of story structures. In other words, do not use italics for a feature today and for an opinion piece tomorrow, and then for a lead international story the next. Whatever its particular use happens to be, italics must be used consistently and continuously in that role.
  • Avoid excessive use of italics for text. Italics are suitable for headlines, quotes and highlights, but are not as attractive in text size.

And if anyone wants to run a sports column in italics, even one written by a male reporter, go for it. But, it’s true — italics can also make that new recipe for caviar quiche very appetizing!

All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter. Read more

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Saturday, Aug. 17, 2002

Headlines in Color

Every designer and/or editor I have met has his own opinion on the subject of color headlines.

And so do I, of course. My preference is for headlines in black, 99% of the time. In the days before newspapers could reproduce beautiful color through photographs and illustrations, the occasional headline in color added a bit of visual excitement to the page.

However, today we can achieve colorful pages without colorizing headlines.

True, feature pages can benefit from a touch of color in a headline, and it can spice things up. More often, however, a page can run the extra mile with just good color images, and a nice, big headline in black.

The same applies to dropped capital letters, by the way.


All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter. Read more

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Saturday, Aug. 10, 2002

The Relationship Game

Perhaps one of the most important tasks of the designer, whether in print or on the Web, is to make sure that items that are conceptually connected actually show that connection. Many times, in their efforts to keep things modularly aligned, designers forget to use techniques that emphasize relationships.

Here are some of the best:


  • If a short item is related to a major piece, box the small item — but not in a full box. Allow an opening to establish that the two items are related.


  • If the related item is very short, place it in the midst of the longer article. Be careful not to make the reader jump too deeply before continuing the text.


  • Use a color tint to highlight the related article and call attention to it.


  • The secondary, related item should always be under the coverage of the headline for the main article.


  • Do not use heavy borders around the related item.

Whatever technique is used, make sure that readers don’t have to second-guess your intentions, and that they see the established relationship in a matter of seconds.


Normally, that’s all the time they have!

All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter.


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Center This Headline?

Centered headlines dominated newspapers for decades, but that changed in the ’70s, when the more experimental newspapers began to abandon them for flush left headlines.

Suddenly, newspapers would use the left-hand side of the page to align not only headlines, but other elements like bylines, summary paragraphs, quotes, and captions under photos.

One of the first newspapers to do this was the now defunct Chicago Daily News. The style was also adopted by the Minneapolis Tribune when, in 1971, it also switched to an all-Helvetica approach.

Since then, newspapers have opted mostly for flush left headlines, especially in the United States, where centered heads are rare in any newspaper today.

However, take a quick trip across the Atlantic and you’ll find that such classic newspapers as The Times of London continue to use centered heads, a style followed by many other European newspapers, as well as dailies in Asia and South America.

Comments about headline alignment aren’t based only on personal preference. How one aligns headlines does have an overall effect on the look of the page. How so?


  • Centered headlines give a page a more classic and traditional look; flush left headlines are more modern, and invite a bit more white space into the page.


  • Flush left headlines must be followed by a flush left alignment for all other elements that follow it, while centered heads can very well be accompanied by bylines and other elements which are aligned to the left. This is an important difference to consider when making choices.


  • Tabloids fare much better with flush left headlines, while broadsheets can use either style.


  • Consistency is important: either all heads centered, or all heads flushed left. However, some papers with centered headlines, such as The Times of London, do offer a bit of contrast by making their brief headlines flush left. This is better when there is also a font switch, from serif for centered heads to sans serif for flushed left heads.

At the end of the day, the wording of the headline — the message transmitted, the hook to get the reader to read the text — is far more important than the alignment.

All or a portion of this column was originally published in the IFRA newsletter.


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