Best Practices: Reporting and Writing and Editing

Desensationalizing stories dealing with tragedies such as the shootings at Columbine High School require careful reporting by journalists. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

5 tips on how to desensationalize stories

Every year, news agencies fight harder than before to capture the audience’s attention — and every innovation seems to make that job tougher. With the creation of cable news, the 24-hour news cycle and, more recently, a seemingly infinite number of online options, consumers can get their news just about anywhere, forcing news outlets into ever-more-questionable reporting practices.

Kathy Walton, an audio engineer for several broadcast news services, told me online recently, “I blame the wireless remote control. I’m serious. The day it became so easy to change the channel was the day television news stopped being news and began tap dancing to keep people from clicking away.”

Often, sensationalism is used to lure the audience’s attention. While some publications have made exaggeration and manipulation of the news their stock-in-trade, others stretch the truth less intentionally, not realizing their chosen angle is iffy or just plain wrong. But when it comes to breaking news, especially crime, there’s no substitute for strong storytelling based on solid facts. Read more

The performance of isn't what will count in the end, says Politico's Joanne Kenen. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Health care coverage is more than numbers

We’ve heard a lot about the website and its performance metrics recently.

But the Affordable Care Act metric that really matters isn’t error rates or response time. It’s enrollment.

Furthermore, what matters isn’t just how many people enroll – although that’s part of it. It’s also who enrolls – in particular, their age and health status. A mix that includes younger and healthier people is needed for a viable insurance risk pool. And whether that mix has been achieved may not be clear until later in the six-month open-enrollment season. Read more

Occupy Oakland

Journalists under attack: Pros offer safety advice

Look at this page on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ website and feel a pain in your gut. The site documents the 45 journalists who have been killed on the job worldwide this year. Most were covering human rights, politics and/or crime when they died.

If you think the only journalists who face danger on the job are those working in Syria or Egypt, you’re wrong. Last week, WDAZ reporter Adam Ladwig was attacked by three people while covering a fire. Last month, a woman attacked a WUSA9 crew. A CBS2/KCAL9 reporter and photojournalist were attacked while covering the Zimmerman verdict protests in July. In August, told you about the San Francisco area attacks on news crews. In a six-week period, thieves attacked journalists six times, targeting cameras, computers and tripods and taking gear at gunpoint in at least one case. In 2011, journalists across the country said they were attacked by both crowds and police while covering the “Occupy” protests.

I turned to seasoned reporters and photojournalists and to the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma for advice on how to stay safe and still get your job done. (Their answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

I asked my questions of:

What advice do you have about how to stay safe and still get the job done?


Lynn French, KPNX-TV Phoenix: Even though it feels a little “Mother may I?”, I always let the assignment desk or someone in my department know where I am going and when I should be back. It sounds simple, but journalists are independent by nature and have to fight the urge to just run out the door and hope for the best. No matter where I am going, I have my phone on me and location services turned on so if worst came to worst the newsroom could track my phone for evidence. If I am going into a tense situation, especially a door knock, I will call someone at the station to stay on the phone with me and I will tuck my phone somewhere where they can hear me (Arizona is a one-party state). And they know the exact address I am at so if things turn bad they can call the police and I can concentrate on getting to safety.


Bruce Shapiro, Dart Center for Trauma & Journalism: Even local journalists need to be aware of a potentially hostile environment, and pay attention both to the vulnerabilities we share with other citizens and the special risks which may be involved in our work. Anyone should worry, for instance, about being alone on a dark street. On the other hand, a journalist may also need to worry about being mistaken for law enforcement or some other unwanted presence, may be knocking on doors or taking photos in a community that has felt badly treated by media in the past, or may be displaying technology that makes us a target.


Richard Adkins, WRAL-TV Raleigh: Knowledge is more than power — knowledge is armor. Know your surroundings and your way around. In the rush to the scene of  breaking news, pay attention to how you got there. What was the road/intersection where you parked your vehicle? Remember the street names. If you need to call 911 on your cell, could you give your exact location? I’m amazed at how often a reporter turns to me and asks, “Where are we?” If I’m working with a reporter at an active scene, the first thing I do is give the reporter my wireless microphone and turn it on — that way while I’m shooting video I can keep track of the reporter, who may go knocking on doors or talking with gathering crowds. This not only helps with safety, but also lets me come running if the reporter finds a great interview.


Byron Pitts, ABC News: Pack the best first-aid kit possible. Get certified in basic first aid and CPR. I always carry a bandana, flashlights, local map and contact numbers. I also have a get-out-of jail card — either a note or phone number from the most important person in that part of the world I know. A colleague asked me once, “How much blood are you bringing?” There are places in the world where that is a legitimate question. Read, read, read. And always pray, pray, pray. But at the end of the day none of that may be enough — sometimes the best reporting is not going and telling the story another way.

What are the key things to never do and always do?

French: The No. 1 thing to never do is play the “Don’t you know who I am?” card. I have watched reporters do this time and time again in heated situations and not once has the other party stepped back and said, “Oh, I love your newscast, by all means proceed.” The desperation behind their motives is far greater than the stature you believe your organization has in the community. Something I learned from wildfire training is to always have an escape route. I try to stay close to my vehicle or have a place to flee to where someone can call for help. I am always looking for security cameras on buildings and ATMs, so that if something is going to happen, at least it is caught on someone else’s camera. And even though it is a competitive environment, when it comes to some situations there’s safety in numbers.

Pitts: The “ugly American” thing never works. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind to all you meet.

Adkins: Probably the most important advice I can give is for people to speak up. Don’t be afraid to tell the assignment desk when you have concerns for your safety — especially if you are working alone. The desk may give you an address that’s just a street with numbers to them, but you may know it’s an area with issues. Speak up — tell them that’s not a safe area. In the field, get out if you feel threatened — don’t wait for the situation to escalate. Always have an escape plan.

French: I just try to stay calm and aware, which is much tougher to do than it sounds. If someone asks why I’m there shooting video — especially if they have an edge of contention about them — I’m honest but don’t give any details other than the headline of the story. A little perceived ignorance can go a long way toward keeping the situation calm. If someone prods for more details on the story and it’s not apparent how they are attached to it, I’m apt to shrug my shoulders and say, “I was just told to get some shots of this building, I think it’s for tonight’s newscast. Do you know what goes on here that might help me understand why I’m here?” If someone asks me how much my gear is worth, again I play ignorant: “This stuff? It’s pretty old. It’s like cars — the value decreases really fast. We’re really the last ones using this old format.”

If you are working alone, does that change things?

Adkins: I often work alone. A while back I was shooting video along Oregon Inlet. I stepped wrong and one leg went into a hole up to my waist while the other leg went 90 degrees out to my left, a gymnastic move I had never practiced. I was stuck, couldn’t free myself and could feel blood running down my leg. Luckily a couple of guys fishing nearby saw me and came to help. While I was being stitched up at the local Urgent Care, I knew that from now on someone needed to keep tabs on me while I was out. The assignment desk is too busy, so we enabled my phone for my wife to keep up with me via GPS. I also text her where I am and where I’m going. If too long passes without her hearing from me she will call and check on me.

French: Working alone absolutely changes things. Other than your camera, there are no witnesses who have your back. When I am working alone, I roll tape on every interaction and whenever my Spidey sense tingles. While nothing may come of the interaction in the moment, it has helped me prove my conduct was proper when someone has called the news director after the fact to say I was trespassing or being unprofessional. If a situation feels bad, I trust my gut and treat it as a dangerous situation. That may include not advancing into the scene as fast as I normally would, calling the desk to alert them that my safety is in question, or finding an alternative way to cover the story.

What do you wish your reporter/photojournalist partner would or would not do to lower the temperature out there?

Pitts: My checklist: Get the latest security intel from the government, local law enforcement, private security and any reliable source on the ground. Make sure I’m aware of local customs, weapon systems and the proper threat assessment. What’s the biggest threat: kidnapping, murder, violence, intimidation, robbery? I make sure I pack the proper clothes to fit in or not fit in. I make sure I’m in the best physical shape I can possibly be in. In many parts of the world size matters — if you look like someone not to be fooled with people will usually leave you alone. Have an exit strategy. I usually travel with a team, and here are the rules: Let someone in the home office know your schedule, then stay on schedule. We travel most often in daylight. We know in advance (as best we can) who must get paid on the trip — local drivers, interpreters, etc. Avoid negotiating prices on the ground and never flash money. We make all safety decisions as a group, and unanimous votes are the only ones that count. If anyone votes to stop, we stop — no questions asked.

Adkins: Door knocks are one of the most difficult things we do and most of us don’t want to be there. Recently I was with a reporter on a door knock, and when we got back to the car he turned to me and thanked me for being beside him on the stoop. He said, “You’re the only photog I work with that gets out of the car on these things.” I told him it’s a safety-in-numbers thing so I always go to the door with the reporter. Some reporters like to sit in the car while I may be out shooting B-roll. In some situations, I’ll ask them to get out of the car with me. Again, safety in numbers — and while my eye is glued to the viewfinder, their eyes can be open to our surroundings.

French: Read the situation and consider how the camera will change the dynamic. Cameras are a lot like alcohol, they intensify people’s personalities and intentions. If people are happy, they become happier around the camera; if they are angry, they become angrier at the camera and the person using it. Everyone is trying to hit a deadline, but remembering the people we are covering have to live with a situation long after our deadline has passed will hopefully help us be more respectful of the emotional temperature. Finally, keep an eye on each other and help if needed. Yes, we are competitors but at the end of the day our goal is the same.

Do newsrooms train journalists to handle this sort of thing? What would such training include?

Shapiro: No — and they should. Assessing threats and staying safe — whether that means being smart about physical threats, understanding basic cybersecurity, being able to deliver routine first aid, or basic awareness of psychological trauma — is part of the training news organizations should provide. This isn’t just something for correspondents covering exotic conflicts. Even local journalists may contend with mass shootings, disasters, civil unrest, or simply dangerous streets, disturbed individuals, traumatic assignments or the risk of mugging, sexual assault or being targeted because of our work. It’s an occupational health risk, just like repetitive strain injury. If a news company would invest in ergonomic chairs, why not invest in a safety briefing, first-aid course or trauma-awareness session?

Pitts: The first time I went to Afghanistan for CBS News, Dan Rather called me into his office. “Here are the rules of the road,” he said. “Don’t eat the meat, don’t drink the water and never look at the women.” He was smiling when he said it. And then he turned serious: “Who are the people you love most in the world? Think about it. Go back to your office and write each of them a letter. Seal the letters and leave them with me if you like. Because when you go someplace like Afghanistan, you might not come home.” Then he just sat there and let the idea sink in. Finally he added: “If you can accept that reality, then go with God. If not, we will send someone else.” Period. End of discussion. I share that story only to say this: In our business and in these times there are no guarantees. I’ve known some of the best, most-seasoned people in our business go on assignment and never come home. It comes with the territory. That’s not drama — that’s just the deal.”

Additional Resources:

NewsU: Reporting Amid Danger | Safety in International Reporting | Trauma Awareness | Journalism and Trauma

Dart Center: Covering Trauma | Reporting on War

The Committee to Protect Journalists has a webpage packed with advice on how to handle threats, or what to do if you are taken captive.

The journalism support group Reporters Without Borders monitors cases of journalists and bloggers who are jailed around the globe. It also offers an international hotline for journalists. Read more

Attribution in a digital age is getting murkier. (Depositphotos)

Getting digital attribution right, Part 2

This is the second of a two-part series. Part 1 is here.

Traditional journalism standards have typically governed attribution, and the general rule when using the work of others verbatim is to put quotation marks around the republished content and clearly indicate the source.

But this isn’t the only method of attribution used in the digital world — publishers are trying different tactics, and audience expectations may be changing as well. During a recent Poynter and MediaShift symposium on journalism ethics in the digital age, Tom Rosenstiel, former Project for Excellence in Journalism director and current executive director of the American Press Institute, said that the norms and ethics of journalism “have come from the streets,” adding that “audience has been the determiner of what works.”

Aggregation and curation, two techniques that often overlap, have become popular forms of publishing — and places where problems with attribution often arise. Aggregators gather information related to a topic that’s been published elsewhere into a single article, telling a story with material from different sources and, typically, linking to them. Similarly, curators guide readers through a story by offering links to content created by others, with context and commentary added along the way. These publishing forms appeal to social-media communities that like to share and are encouraged to do so. But the fast-paced, quick-hit rhythms of aggregation potentially challenge truth in several ways.

Poynter confronted the challenge of attribution issues and aggregation with a blog on by Jim Romenesko, in which he commonly aggregated, linked to, paraphrased and quoted from the work of others. After a dispute over attribution issues that highlighted Poynter’s need for clear and consistent practices, Romenesko resigned in 2011 and started a new blog.

Roy Peter Clark, vice-president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has written frequently about attribution and raised the question of whether print standards are outdated when applied to digital publishers.

“There are enduring standards, to be sure, and we should be influenced by them,” Clark wrote in 2011. “But the cultural mores governing intellectual property have been in constant flux for centuries and are currently under special strain.”

These attribution issues raise ethical concerns of truth and transparency related to both the content itself and the person creating it. And such situations are increasingly common: consider the practice of “patchwriting.”

In a 2008 study, Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, defined patchwriting as “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”

Patchwriting isn’t plagiarism, but it relies too much on what the original source says, hindering the patchwriter’s ability to create new ideas. Kelly McBride, a Poynter senior faculty member for ethics, has called patchwriting “more common” than plagiarism and “just as dishonest.”

To avoid patchwriting’s perils, McBride suggests writers starting an assignment ask themselves this question: “What can we provide to our audience that’s different than what’s already been published?” That answer can then become a foundation for more-original work.

Practical Guidance

A common problem is that writers lack guidance about how to attribute information found elsewhere, especially online. Organizations should review their values and policies related to attribution, and create policies if they don’t exist.

The examples below represent possible approaches organizations can take in coaching their writers and editors about clear attribution of information that they would like to repurpose.

Example: The Associated Press on user-generated content

Last year, Poynter’s Craig Silverman talked with Fergus Bell, a social-media and UGC editor for the AP, about the verification process he developed for the organization.

Bell told Silverman that he and his colleagues strive to find the original source and speak to the person who created the information they want to use. Bell’s new verification process for user-generated content builds on best practices and the existing AP verification process. It also depends on consistency and following the process even in urgent breaking-news situations.

The first stage is to “confirm and verify the original source.”

Steps in this process include:
1. Find the earliest example.
2. Check the source’s social history.
3. Ask the source questions

The next stage is to “verify content and context.”

The process involves these steps:
4. Secure permission to use.
5. Compare content with AP reporting.
6. Check content with regional experts.

The AP publishes disclaimers to accompany UGC content designed to explain AP’s process and manage its audience’s expectations. Bell gave this sample that might be used with a video script:

++USER GENERATED CONTENT: UGC cannot be absolutely verified. This video has been authenticated based on the following validation checks:
++Video and audio translated and content checked by regional experts against known locations and events
++Video is consistent with independent AP reporting
++Video cleared for use by all AP clients by content creator

Example: Embed practices in standards and explain them to the audience.

Poynter’s attribution policy for its website takes the approach of explaining its organizational standards and the practices based on those standards.

Standard: We maintain high standards of reporting, writing, and editing in order to produce work that is as error-free as possible.

Practice: We create and edit our journalism in ways aimed at anticipating problem areas, reducing mistakes, and correcting them as quickly and transparently as we can. We maintain an online corrections page that makes it easy for the audience to report errors. We provide timely response, clear corrections, and prominent acknowledgement that a mistake was made and addressed. We credit the authors and creators of the various forms of journalism we publish. We apply appropriate scrutiny to work by staff and contributing writers to prevent plagiarism, intentional or otherwise. We do not intentionally mislead with words or images. We do not deliberately deceive as we gather information.

Tips for creating a content-verification process

Establishing a consistent process for vetting and verifying content that others create can provide a framework for handling such material during high-pressure situations or when colleagues are unsure of the content’s origin. Once such a process is created, communicate it throughout the organization.

The following questions will help when creating criteria for a vetting and verification process:

How do we determine what makes a source trustworthy? First, when finding a story idea, it’s important to confirm that news or idea with a trustworthy source.

How do we determine who said that trustworthy information first? It can be difficult to determine who said what first. To give the most value to truth, a writer should give credit to the original source, not someone who merely republished that content. People seek sources they can trust for credible news. For aggregation to be trustworthy, it should state the linked information accurately and be transparent about who said it first.

What information should be attributed, and how do we best communicate where this information came from with our audience? In an effort to add their own voice, aggregators often change a few words around in repurposing something and linking to it. But such efforts don’t always clearly indicate to the audience which words the original publisher created and which words the aggregator created. In such a situation, it’s often better to use the original speaker’s text, attributed with quotation marks and a link to the original publication.

The value of human contact

While digital tools let us overcome distance and time to connect with people in new ways, when it comes to vetting and verifying information, the more human contact you have with a source, the better. An in-person interview is better than a video-conference interview because it gives you a better chance to notice someone’s body language and non-verbal cues. And, in turn, video conferencing is preferable to a phone conversation because you can see the person in addition to simply hearing their voice. When it comes to vetting and verification, the more information you can gather, the more confident you will be.

Here are guidelines that will help vet and verify information:

1. When possible, acquire the information firsthand.

2. If that’s not possible, say how you acquired the information — during a phone interview, via an email, at a press conference, in a prepared statement, in a direct message on Twitter, in a Facebook post, and so forth.

3. When you find information on social media, use it as a lead but never as the final step in the reporting process. You want to be able to confirm that the person who posted the information is who they say they are, and you also want to confirm that the information they published is true. To do this you first need to identify the original source, which may require a little digging and contacting those who have republished the information. Your ultimate goal will be to find the first known publication of the content and contact that person to confirm that the information is true and that they were the original creator.

4. Contact the original source. Use information shared on a social-media profile to try to find a way to contact a person privately — via email, a Twitter direct message, or some other method. If they don’t share much about themselves on their profile, try a Google search of their name or social-media alias.

5. Quote information appropriately. Determine how you will attribute information and stick with that convention. The important thing is to make it clear to your audience what content you created and what content was created by others — and who those others are.

6. Link to the original source, even if you quote someone’s work appropriately

7. Mention the original source on social media. This will encourage that person to share your story with their network. It may also help you build a new relationship, since the person may appreciate the exposure to your own network.

Attribution tips

  • Avoid copying and pasting when republishing content. Typing out the content you are using from another source makes you more aware of how much you’re using and how you’re using it.
  • Quote and attribute. Use exact words from the source and put them in quotes. Then label the quote with who said it or wrote it, link to it and mention it on social media.
  • If you are republishing someone else’s image or video, first be sure you have the original content. Then be sure you have permission to use it. When you use this content, mention who created it and then link back to the original post.

Attribution on social media

Social media sites have their own conventions for crediting others.

If you are republishing someone’s content verbatim, put a “RT” (“retweet”) in front of your tweet. If you are republishing essentially the same message but changing a few words, preface your tweet with MT (“modified tweet”).

When you see a Facebook post you’d like to post to your own page, the “share” button lets you do so easily. When sharing content on Facebook, only the content itself transfers, not the caption your friend wrote, so you’ll have to write your own. Facebook also lets you tag or mention Facebook friends and pages within a post. To tag a friend or a page, start typing their name and a drop-down list that includes them should appear. If it doesn’t show up, type an @ before the name of the person or page. Click on the name you want to tag and it will automatically create a link to that person or page.

Additional resources:
How to find an original source of an image on Pinterest
Flickr teams with Pinterest, releases share button for proper photo attribution

Ellyn Angelotti is Poynter’s faculty member for digital trends and social media. This is the fourth in a series of case studies underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.

Related: Getting digital attribution right, Part 1 | 6 ways journalists can use press releases | Seven ways to make your work easy to fact check | How to handle plagiarism | Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists Read more

Computer keyboard keys used CTRL, C and V for copy and paste. (Depositphotos)

Getting digital attribution right, Part 1

Control+C, Control+V.

These two simple keystrokes — copy, paste — have created a culture that makes it easy for online publishers to share others’ content and use it in their own work. Much of this sharing and reuse is done appropriately, but sometimes the way a work is credited may not meet traditional standards for attribution.

Most people agree on a definition of plagiarism: It’s a verbatim republication of work that was originally published elsewhere, without clear attribution to the original publication. But ask how to apply that definition to practices and things get murky. Some say any use of more than seven words should be attributed. Others say attribution becomes necessary when more than two sentences are used. Applying that definition to the online publishing world introduces even more gray areas.

The Poynter Institute has written about attribution-related topics frequently in recent years. Those efforts have led to lively discussions, in part because there are new ways to give credit when using another’s work besides the traditional and widely accepted quotation marks. You can offset another’s work in a blockquote, link to the original source, mention someone on a social-media post, or use tools that share the original post on a social network. Which of these methods are sufficient in properly crediting the original content? That’s where views vary and conversations can turn heated.

The PR question

Here’s another wrinkle for publishers trying to determine what content requires attribution: Corporate-communicators and public-relations practitioners widely distribute releases and official statements that come complete with facts and quotes. Those releases are often written by people who used to work for news organizations. And the PR practitioners want their work republished.

Some newsrooms struggling with fewer resources and more pressure to publish frequently use this PR material verbatim, and without attribution. That fits the definition of plagiarism, but raises a key question: Is it plagiarism if the original source consents to the republication and finds attribution unnecessary?

In July 2011, the Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn for using content from press releases in his columns without attribution, declaring that he was fired for “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own.”

Penn later sued the Star’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for defamation of character. In his complaint, he claimed the Star’s accusations of plagiarism were false and resulted in “damage to his reputation and a loss of business standing … including lost job opportunities.”

Penn said that such attribution hadn’t been required in his previous experience and training at the Star, and therefore he would occasionally use such releases unattributed, with the knowledge of his editors.

In the complaint, Penn also said: “The widespread practice in journalism is to treat such press releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or published, and preferably with no or minimal editing.”

Penn’s statements highlight an issue online publishers are often unclear about: Now that organizations have the ability to publish content directly, without the press as a middleman, how should journalists use and attribute information that comes from an official source via press release, a prepared statement, an official social-media account or some other widely distributed avenue?

Attributing a quote or fact, even when it comes from an official source, gives the audience more context about that information and how it was acquired by the writer. “It tells readers how we know what we know,” said Steve Buttry, Digital First Media’s digital transformation editor, in his blog post “You can quote me on that: Advice on attribution for journalists.”

Gerard Corbett, 2012 chair and CEO for the Public Relations Society of America, said in a blog post that attribution is “recommended” when a quote is reused or facts or figures are cited, but added that in general, “PRSA views the issuance of a news release as giving implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content.”

In that post, Corbett noted that most public-relations professionals like to see their press releases published in print: “After all, those words found their way into the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. What better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release?”

When deciding whether to publish information that comes via an organization’s official release, it’s important to consider the context of the source. The release could reflect a skewed perspective — or, worse, the information may not be accurate. So by publishing information in a release verbatim, you potentially run afoul of the important ethical value of acting independently and holding those who are powerful accountable.

Additionally, disseminating information published in official releases without additional reporting may not allow for diversity of voices in the conversation, especially on social media. When people recirculate the same information, they contribute to the echo chamber of the existing conversation online, instead of adding new knowledge.

Practical guidance

Using a release as a resource instead of as a source can be a great first step in your reporting process. It shouldn’t be the only step, however.

Social-media posts, like official statements, can be a great starting point for reporters. But the information people find via either of these channels should be considered the equivalent of information that comes across a police scanner. You never know what else you might get by interviewing a source on your own instead of by relying on a prepared statement.

What should be included in an editorial policy for how content creators should best use information or quotes from an official source?

An organization should update its existing policies, or if necessary, create a policy for how to use information created by others, including official sources. These policies should identify potential trouble areas and provide clarity on how to avoid practices that could possibly be interpreted as plagiarism.

Example: Arizona State on plagiarism

Arizona State provides guidance to help its students avoid plagiarism, and its informative page could be a useful guide for organizations looking to develop editorial polices regarding such issues.

Below is a summary of ASU’s suggested standards and practices:

1. Explain why these standards are important. ASU begins its policy by articulating the journalistic standards of honesty and accuracy that drive the expectations it has for its students.

2. Identify trouble spots and how to handle them. ASU sets clear standards for what is expected when students copy and paste information from other sources. It recommends that students use quotes when using exact language, paraphrasing the content into original words when possible, and always attributing the entire statement to the original source.

3. Explain when attribution is not required:

  • When information is “commonly known to a majority of the people.”
  • When including background information for stories that is “undisputed factually and is available from a wide variety of reliable sources.”
  • When witnessing something firsthand.

4. Clarify how official statements or releases should be used in reporting, if at all. When using press releases, the ASU guidelines make clear that “rules of attribution apply.”

The guidelines go on to suggest that when you use content from a press release and don’t attribute it, you are misleading the audience into thinking you spoke to a source directly, so full disclosure is necessary. The same goes for content acquired via email or from an organization’s web site.

While the list above isn’t comprehensive, it highlights some of the topics of greatest concern.

When “teachable moments” come up within an organization, especially about an issue not included already in the editorial guidelines, those issues should be discussed and editors should consider revising those guidelines. As with any policy or procedure, custom-tailor the guidelines to the needs of the organization and preserve flexibility by treating them as a work in progress.


The journalist’s role is to seek truth and report it. Social networks and blogging have introduced an abundance of new publishers that create more news and information to share than ever before. And the nature of social media is to share. On Twitter, it’s easier to retweet someone else’s content than it is to create your own. On Facebook, one click lets you share content created by a friend created with your entire network. Because it’s so easy to share, information travels faster than ever before — and the audience is in charge.

With so much new information being published and shared so quickly, the role of journalists is expanding. They’re no longer just storytellers, but also sense-makers who guide audiences to relevant and verifiable information by sharing it with them.

Given this culture shift, online publishers that lack a traditional journalism background will challenge the rules and standards created by journalists for journalists. And that makes it even more important to find a solution to attribution questions. And that solution must recognize the nature and habits of the community without compromising what is ultimately important: truth.

Tomorrow: Getting digital attribution right, Part 2

Ellyn Angelotti is Poynter’s faculty member for digital trends and social media. This case study, the third in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.

Related: 6 ways journalists can use press releases | Seven ways to make your work easy to fact check | How to handle plagiarism | Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists Read more

An undated photo of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (AP Photo)

What writers and speakers can learn from the Gettysburg Address

Editor’s note: Nov. 19 is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, arguably the most famous speech in American history. In his new book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, Roy Peter Clark devotes the chapter “Surprise with brevity” to an examination of Lincoln’s speech. It is reprinted here with permission of publisher Little, Brown.

In the fourth grade I memorized and delivered the Gettysburg Address to my parochial school classmates. I can’t remember the assignment that inspired my performance, but I do recall that I was more parrot than poet, reciting Lincoln by rote with no understanding of historical context or of the meaning of individual words and phrases, beginning with “Four score and seven…” The only “four score” I knew was a grand-slam home run at Yankee Stadium.

Still, I grade that now-distant experience as among the most formative of my life. It put my young brain to hard work. It put me in front of an audience. And it put on my lips what is arguably the greatest short piece of writing in American history.

Five versions of the speech survive, along with news accounts from the period. The standard version is 269 words, and experts believe it contains revisions that Abraham Lincoln made himself so that his best thoughts could be preserved for posterity in the best language.

As a schoolboy, I was told that the president had scribbled the speech on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania battle sites. That tale turns out not to be true, but I embraced it as a kid. If little George Washington could chop down a cherry tree and then own up to it, surely Honest Abe could push a pen on the back of an envelope.

Such civic parables may mask a more inspiring history. Lincoln looked terrible that day and complained of illness, and some scholars speculate that he may have been suffering from a form of smallpox. The president was not the main speaker at the cemetery dedication and — already ill and fatigued — had to endure a stem-winder of more than two hours by former senator and Harvard College president Edward Everett, considered the most celebrated orator of his day.

Hostile editorialists criticized Lincoln’s address as short, shallow, and unworthy of the civic liturgy. But for most who heard or read it, the speech became famous because of its brevity. Let’s do the math. Everett spoke for two hours; Lincoln for two minutes. The now-forgotten oration was sixty times longer than the Gettysburg Address.

To Everett’s credit, no one recognized the disparity or gave Lincoln more props than he did. “I should be glad,” wrote Everett in a letter to his president, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The obvious difference in the two speeches was length, but that was not the only difference. Though there is a formality to Lincoln’s language that to modern eyes seems appropriate for the occasion, in the shadow of Everett’s classical oration, the president’s speech seems as spare as a Quaker meeting room. Here is a quick sample of Everett’s speech — and remember, as you read it, that back then long dramatic orations were considered forms of public entertainment:

It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre, where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives, — flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases, (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe,) — the last tributes of surviving affection.

Imagine having to sit or stand through two hours of this, waiting for President Lincoln’s two minutes. As I read the speech, it does not surprise me that as Harvard’s president, Everett was unpopular with the students, who referred to him as Granny.

In his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, historian Garry Wills asserts that the famous speech helped create a new form of political discourse, “a revolution in style.” Sonorous and bombastic language gave way to the plain and simple — with this caveat:

It would be wrong to think that Lincoln moved toward the plain style of the Gettysburg just by writing shorter, simpler sentences. Actually, that Address ends with a very long sentence — eighty two words, almost a third of the whole talk’s length.

Wills argues that at their best “Lincoln’s words acquired a flexibility of structure, a rhythmic pacing, a variation in length of words and phrases and clauses and sentences, that make his sentences move ‘naturally’ for all their density and scope.”

Not only could Lincoln draft great short writing, but he could find it in the unpolished work of others. The most persuasive example of the president’s “verbal workshop” comes from a revision of his adviser William Seward. For the conclusion to the first Inaugural Address, Seward had suggested:

The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

Lincoln takes the frothy sentence and applies the tools of an old-timey newspaper rewrite-man:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

New Yorker editor Dorothy Wickenden describes the effect this way: “Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history.” The lesson for those who write short is that brevity loves company — in the form of substance and style.

This book began with the reflection that the right words in the right order might be worth a thousand pictures. When I hear the famous words of Lincoln, or a recitation of the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the final, climactic litany of Dr. King standing before the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, I close my eyes and hear and then see images, word pictures that fill my heart and fire up my soul, language that sets my imagination soaring.

There is a lesson here for all of us. Students, teachers, workers, bosses — most citizens find themselves with the duty of having to deliver a report, a presentation, a case study, a sermon, a speech. We know that this task — while common and important — often induces great anxiety in the speaker. One way to accomplish the task with the minimum amount of performance anxiety is to remember Honest Abe and keep the message short. Think of how grateful you are as a listener when the graduation speaker, no matter how powerful, delivers the goods in ten minutes rather than twenty, or even better, five minutes rather than ten. Read more

In this June 5, 2013 file photo, Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, then-Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, is escorted out of a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., after the third day of his court martial. Manning provided information to the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people’s stories

Transgender people make news of all kinds, so reporters of all kinds need to know how to write about them – not just journalists whose beats regularly include diversity issues. Recently, government reporters found themselves writing about Pvt. Chelsea Manning, crime reporters in Orlando covered the murder of Ashley Sinclair, and Cosmo got an exclusive shot at punk rocker Laura Jane Grace’s coming out story.

A good starting point is this style guide from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which monitors media coverage of the LGBT community. But the issues go deeper than the basics of pronouns, adjectives and names.

“You can still be insensitive using the right words,” Janet Mock, an advocate, author and former journalist at People, said in a phone interview. “You can still completely be dehumanizing using the right words.”

The kinds of stories journalists write, what information they include, and how they ask for that information are all just as important or more important than which words they use. With that in mind, here are nine ways to do justice to transgender people’s stories:

1. Stop writing the same story.

“There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when every story about a gay person was the coming out narrative,” Nick Adams, associate director of communications for GLAAD, said in a phone interview. But, he added, “with trans stories we’re still in that period.”

The coming out narrative is often framed in the same way, Adams said, and the story becomes “I was a man and now I’m a woman” — something that at best is an oversimplification and at worst is a rejection of the identity of a person who may have never identified with the gender on his or her birth certificate.

By concentrating on the coming out narrative, journalists may ignore other issues that affect the transgender community. With the Manning story, Mock said, “it took days to get to the media to talk about healthcare and rights for prisoners, and those are the bigger issues. [Journalists] were hung up over ‘he, she, Bradley, Chelsea’ ” instead of focusing on the question of how we should treat people when we incarcerate them.

2. Pursue the ordinary.

When journalists focus too much on the “heavy” issues and get stuck on medical transitions, they miss the opportunity to show that most transgender people live full lives that don’t revolve around these issues. In a 2010 Poynter Online article, NPR vice president of diversity and former Poynter dean Keith Woods argued that such a misplaced focus leaves people in marginalized communities “frozen in permanent pathology” and causes journalists to miss “the normal parts of their lives that make them laugh, cry, rejoice.”

3. Stop asking for before and after photos.

Journalists often ask transgender people for before and after photos, and sometimes refuse to write about them without such material. Before making such a request, journalists should ask themselves whether they want the photos to tell a full story or just to entice readers.

Jos Truitt, executive director for development and policy at, a feminist blog and online community, said in a phone interview that many transgender people feel like reporters are trying to fit them into a standard narrative: “So-and-so was born this, but they always felt they were such-and-such. You have to give the name, you have to give the pictures to get your story told.”

This is especially problematic because of the perceived power of the journalist in these situations. Transgender people are part of a marginalized group, and the traditional journalistic value of giving voice to the voiceless makes it important to tell their stories and amplify their voices. But the fact that a story subject has handed over a photo doesn’t mean running it supports that value or does justice to that person’s story.

“We can’t just accept people for who they are now,” Mock said. “We have to compare it to who they were before.”

4. When you’re told someone’s name, use it.

Even in stories where the appropriate pronouns and names are used, Truitt said, journalists will sometimes say things such as “she goes by this name” or “she wants to be called” or “she calls herself.” Such distancing by the journalist casts doubt on the transgender person’s identity.

Mock said journalists may have trouble accepting a name and pronoun given by a transgender person because they get caught up in verifying what they see as facts, such as a person’s legal name. But Adams notes that court-ordered name changes and the medical treatments necessary to obtain a court-ordered gender change can be prohibitively expensive.

And journalists don’t always insist on such legalistic distinctions: “Reporters accept celebrities’ stage names (or symbols) at face value and don’t constantly remind readers that Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta,” Adams said in an email.

Truitt’s suggestion for journalists on this point is straightforward: Assume “that the person that the person you’re talking to has the expertise to identify themselves.”

5. Stop asking about someone’s medical transition process.

Ask whether the answer is relevant to the story. Do you need to know where someone is in their transition process in order to write about that person, however they’ve become newsworthy?

It’s as simple as mentally reframing the story, Truitt said: If you were writing about a woman who isn’t transgender, “would it be relevant to ask her what her genitals look like?”

Generally speaking, a person’s decisions to have surgery and take medications are private matters between that person and his or her doctor. Granting transgender people that same level of privacy should be common sense: Even if you’re writing a coming out narrative, readers probably don’t need to know about specific medical procedures.

6. Stop using outdated or dehumanizing language.

The GLAAD style guide goes into more depth about outdated terms, but the first thing to know is that “transgender” is the accepted umbrella term. It’s incorrect to refer to someone as “transgendered” or as “a transgender.” Using the former is unnecessary and using the latter has the effect of objectifying or reducing people to their gender identity.

7. Learn from your mistakes.

Riese Bernard is the founder and CEO of, an online community that describes itself as for “lesbians, bisexuals, and otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends.)” She and her staff make an effort to be inclusive of all women, she said in a phone interview, including transgender women. “When we started, it’s both embarrassing and really revelatory the degree to which we knew nothing about trans issues, particularly trans women’s issues,” she said. “We made a bazillion mistakes when we first started.”

For example, the site faced a fan backlash when it published a story written by a transgender man. Autostraddle doesn’t publish material by men, Bernard said, so allowing such a contribution sent the message that transgender men aren’t “real men.”

By featuring transgender women’s writing and covering issues that impact transgender people, Bernard said, the Autostraddle team has made an effort to learn from its mistakes. For Autostraddle, “being trans-inclusive goes beyond articles about trans issues,” Bernard said. Publishing the work of transgender writers — including stories that go beyond the typical coming-out narrative — is an important part of being inclusive, she said, because transgender people are as diverse as the rest of the population, and their needs and stories are as well.

8. If you’re unsure about which pronoun to use, ask the person you’re writing about. If you can’t do that, defer to the style guide.

When journalists use a different pronoun than the one a transgender person uses, they tell the reader that the transgender person’s identity is fake. This is especially insidious when it happens in a crime story. When a transgender woman is killed, Mock said, the story “becomes ‘a man killed a man’, when in actuality, a man targeted a woman who is a marginalized, trans-stigmatized woman and murdered her.”

The intent may not be to dehumanize a transgender victim of crime, but it may happen because “a crime-beat reporter may not be typically someone who writes about LGBT issues — they get their facts from the police,” Adams said, and as such can wind up simply repeating information from authority figures.

Such missteps can be avoided by giving all reporters guidance about transgender subjects – this GLAAD guide may be helpful — so that they recognize the importance of using the appropriate name and pronoun. When writing about transgender victims of crime, it’s also important to see the violence in the broader context: Transgender women, especially transgender women of color, experience violence at dramatically higher rates than other LGBT people, according to a National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs study.

Transgender women accounted for half of all victims of LGBT-related and HIV/AIDS-related homicides in the U.S. in 2012, according to the NCAVP study. “The main way you see trans people show up in the media is as dead bodies,” Truitt said.

9. Remember that transgender women are women, transgender men are men, and everyone is human.

“It’s not actually all that complicated,” Truitt said, offering a simple question for journalists reporting on transgender people to ask themselves: “I’m speaking to someone who is a person — is this okay to say to a person?” Read more


How to turn hard facts into easy reading

I was recently hired by a department of the federal government to conduct a workshop on how to write reports that were short and clear. The director of the department who hired me pointed out the problem in her own official title. It was 29 words long.

I am “vice-president and senior scholar” at the Poynter Institute. I am embarrassed that my title is too long — and it’s only five words. What could I possibly do with 24 more?

“Bureaucracies,” I moaned, “is where language goes to die.”

The sixty policy wonks in the room collectively rolled up their sleeves. They understood the problem. They knew that they worked in a language club where jargon and thick information were king and queen. But they were stuck.

They wanted to know “how” they could change. They wanted to know “how” in the world it’s possible to take very hard, very complex, very technical, very academic, very abstract elements and turn them into easy reading.

To find out what I told them, and to air your own tough writing problems, replay the chat anytime. You can find every chats we’ve hosted at

Read more


Details ‘are what make people connect’ with stories, says student who wrote about Waffle House closing

Jessica Contrera’s “The End of the Waffle House” begins on the morning when a big change comes to a small square of Bloomington, Ind.

“Tap, tap, tap. Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House. That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again.”

Contrera had never been to the old restaurant surrounded by new student apartments before, but when the senior from Akron, Ohio, started her semester at Indiana University, she saw the sign reading “We will close Sept. 4.” And she wanted to tell the story.

Her piece ran last week in the Indiana Daily Student and was produced as part of a class at IU’s journalism school called Words and Pictures, which brings together reporting, photography and multimedia. Contrera worked with photographer Anna Teeter and multimedia reporter and designer Emma Grdina, she told Poynter in a phone interview.

Contrera visited the Waffle House a week before it closed, when she met her three major characters, as well as the day it closed and the day it was torn down. She also spoke with about a dozen other customers and staff who didn’t make it into the story, but did help her understand what the business meant to the community. In her reporting, Contrera’s professor of practice, Pulitzer-prize winner and Poynter writing fellow Tom French, pushed her to find details.

Fifteen drafts later, those details include many small things that help readers feel what the closing of the old restaurant meant to its regulars, the owner and the community.

Contrera met customer Rose Thomas on her first visit, but only discovered why the restaurant was significant to the aging woman while visiting her at home. There, Contrera saw a photo of Thomas’ late husband. And she asked about it.

Contrera at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she interned this past summer.

From her story: “Other than her church, the Waffle House was about the only place Rose felt comfortable going alone since Stan, her husband of 65 years, passed away last year. They used to eat at the restaurant together. From time to time she’d retell how the two of them met, a long and winding story involving a Ouija board and a flirtatious secretary rival. Now going on two years without him, Rose still talked to Stan’s picture on the wall above her piano.”

After the story ran, Contrera said, French asked her what she’d learned from telling it — and she laughed when Poynter asked her the same question.

Her answer: “Those little details that some people would just call color? Those are what make people connect with it.”

For example, the wife of Dr. Dick Leyda wasn’t simply hoarding as Alzheimer’s settled in: “Without Dr. Leyda ever really noticing, his wife had begun filling up their children’s old bedrooms with newly bought items. Shoes still in their boxes, beautiful shirts and dresses from Talbots in the closet, never worn.”

Contrera will graduate at the end of next semester from IU’s School of Journalism, though she’ll be among the last class since the school announced a merger with other departments.

The more she’s learned about that merger, the better she feels about it, she said: “The most important thing to me is that the New Media School keeps journalism and your core reporting skills at the center of its focus.”

It’s great if reporters can code, she said, but if they can’t report the story, then they can’t do the work.

After graduating, Contrera hopes to find a job as a beat reporter, with time for enterprise stories on the side. When her Waffle House story ran, she said, she heard from other reporters but also from people in the community, including a Bob Evans employee and someone who works at the library, adding that such interactions showed her the value of these stories and the small details behind them.

Good storytelling, she said, still matters. Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: How to polish your writing

Lucky me. My office is two doors down from one of the world’s best writing coaches. I go to Roy Peter Clark often when writer’s block hits me. Here, you’ll find a few particularly helpful tips. Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, think of this as bite-sized inspiration. Next Friday: How to make your photos better.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: How to polish your writing

Related: How to make the most of your tweets | How to shoot great video Read more

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