How to Avoid Mistakes

For decades, I have been preaching to journalism students that the writer is the first copy editor.  Often, however, these days the writer is the only copy editor.

It shows.

Mistakes have plagued newspapers since the print-only days, and it seems to have gotten only worse with the multiplicity of online breaking news sites.

I hate mistakes.  Before we discuss that, here are some tips on how to avoid mistakes in articles.

1. Want to.

If you are one of those “future seasoned pros” who find such sentiments an OCD obsession, you probably make mistakes in copy and don’t care enough to realize it.

As for me, again, I hate mistakes.  I hate to make them, and I hate to read them.  If you find a mistake in this post, I won’t just shrug it off.  It will plague me.  If I find an avoidable mistake in your post, I will think less of you as a journalist.

If you don’t want to create error-free copy, you are more likely to make mistakes.  True, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but that leaves 1,438 bad calls on the correct time.

2. Check names

Nothing is so unnecessary as misspelling a name, especially today, where checking online is so easy.  I take off 25 points for a misspelled name, but I promise to restore the points if the student does not make a mistake on a name for the rest of the semester.

The student will promise, “I will double-check every name from now on!”  Um, that was the idea.

Auburn’s mayor has the last name of Ham.  At least once a semester, someone will spell it “Hamm” (though not as often now that Mia has retired).  He and everyone named in your articles deserve better.

3. Do the math

Journalists, in general, are terrible at math. My students tell me that if they were better at math, they would major in engineering and pull down the big bucks.

The math errors that crop up reinforce the stereotype.  In some cases, worse than embarrassing the journalist, it also lets sources get away with some shady calculating.

If you can’t do the math, learn.  Until you learn, get someone to help you.  But take control of every bit of information in whatever publishes under your name — including those annoying numbers.

4. How sure are you?

I play a game with my students.  I will hold a cup of whatever over a student’s head and ask a student about a difficult grammar or AP style question: who/whom? who/that? that/which? comma/no comma?  I tell the student that if the answer is wrong, I will turn the cup over.

The student typically blurts out an answer. “Are you sure?” I ask.  The student often confesses, “No!”  I ask, “Would you like to look it up?”  “Yes!”  Again, that’s the idea.

I don’t expect my students to be 100 percent sure of all style rules.  I am on most, but I’ve had almost 40 years of practice.  If you’re not sure, it takes just a few minutes to look it up.  Don’t just “blurt out” the answer to yourself.

As you look them up, make a list of your most common errors and keep it near when you write.  That will help you identify them and, through your own years of practice, make them second nature much more quickly.

Don’t flip a coin.  (And for heaven’s sake, don’t do it half the time one way and half the time the other.)

5. Read it out loud

Even on a deadline, take the time to read your article out loud, and listen to what you are reading.  A 500-word article takes maybe 3-4 minutes to read aloud, and it could save you some embarrassing errors, particularly in sentence structure.

The whole act of reading out loud slows your brain down by a few miles per hour, to a speed where you can see more than you would if you were merely scanning it.

Here are a couple more tips if you are not on a tight deadline:

6. Sleep on it

I recommend this for research papers as well as article projects.  Complete your rough draft the day before it is due, and give yourself one night’s sleep away from it.  When you give it a fresh look the next morning, you will catch things you did not see during the rough draft.

The idea of procrastinating until your deadline, and then throwing what you’ve got at some unfortunate editor, is one of those many cherished habits of youth that simply become annoying once you claim to be a professional.

7. Print it out and look at it

This works particularly well with longform articles: Before you read the article out loud, print it out and arrange the pages on a table, left to right.  Look at structure, sources. (Is one quoted noticeably more than others? Does a good source pop up at the end?)

One of my grad school professors, Donald Shaw, went so far as to literally cut and paste paragraphs, with scissors and tape, to move them around and create a long scroll of taped pages.  A bit old school, perhaps, but a good concept.

All of these tips are meaningless if you don’t care about what goes out under your byline. Above everything, care about putting out your best possible work.  It will produce work that will make you, your news organization and even your profession look better.

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The Pre-Main Event at Mayweather-Pacquiao? Media vs. PR

Even before the undercard had started at the “Fight of the Century,” a nasty dispute ensued, with Rachel Nichols of CNN and Michelle Beadle of ESPN squaring off against the Mayweather camp, particularly his publicist, Kelly Swanson.

The basics were that Nichols and Beadle said they were told they had been denied credentials.  Amidst the outrage that ensued, Swanson emerged claiming that they had indeed been issued credentials and that their claims to the contrary were false.

You can get details on the actual conflict in this account by Richard Deitsch of SI.com.  But let’s also think about what this tells us about the professional practice of public relations — as demonstrated by Swanson and, in contrast, how it should be done.

Although she is considered one of the most powerful people in boxing, male or female, most non-boxing fans would not be familiar with her.  This profile from the Buffalo News might have given journalists more hope about how she would have handled the situation with Nichols and Beadle.

Conflict and Credibility

At one point, the conflict was a debate between Nichols and Swanson about whether indeed Nichols’ credential had been pulled.  Swanson claimed otherwise, as this transcript from a USA Today interview shows (apologies for the muddy screen capture):

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But Nichols brings some credibility to the table on this.  Many in the audience — and I daresay most in the profession — would be inclined to accept Nichols’ version of events.

If the person involved were Geraldo Rivera or Clay Travis, then of course their claims would be greeted with some skepticism, given their reputation for self-serving promotional scams.  But Nichols has earned more respect than that.

Some PR folks also have a reputation for credibility, maintained under fire.  One close-to-home example is Kirk Sampson, long-time SID at Auburn.  Even during the height of the flames in the Cam Newton controversy during the 2010 season, Sampson cemented his reputation for respectful, ethical professional behavior, as this Deadspin report pointed out.

Some reporters were as skeptical toward Auburn as Nichols and others were toward Mayweather’s treatment of women.  But Sampson maintained a level head and afforded courteous treatment to all requests.

Entertainer or Journalist?

It was a side issue, but some wondered whether Beadle deserved the same treatment as Nichols, because Beadle has a different reputation within the media.

But that is another mark of a professional public relations practitioner — equal respectful treatment of all in the media.  You might not have enough seats on press row for everyone, but you have an unlimited amount of respect and courtesy to show each media member.

In this case, it is a false distinction to think that Beadle should be accorded less courtesy than Nichols because Beadle is a host of an ESPN2 program rather than a reporter for CNN.  Given the available facilities, Beadle deserved better treatment.

Of course there is going to be a “pecking order” for media attention; sports figures have only so much time available for the media, especially during the season.  But the most respected media relations folks do everything they can even for smaller media outlets.  It gets tricky with the emergence of blogs and podcasts, requiring even more media savvy by the public relations folks.  But they understand that as part of their job.

Never Lie for a Client

The above Buffalo News feature notwithstanding, Swanson definitely lost credibility.  Her account, as described above, simply does not ring true.  At once, she acknowledges that Nichols got bad information, then seems to discount its importance.

It would be more appropriate for Swanson to acknowledge the misunderstanding or miscommunication, and then to go the extra mile to make sure Nichols and Beadle were accommodated.  It might have taken some phone calls and direct contact from Swanson to Nichols and Beadle, but it was her office that had created the confusion, so it was her responsibility to clear it up directly — not through Twitter or the media.

But for Swanson to claim that Nichols was always credentialed implies that Nichols was not telling the truth.  It’s difficult to imagine Nichols’ motives for lying.  She had more to gain by being at the fight as a credentialed journalist than leaving, indignant and jilted.

Given that Mayweather and Swanson were not pleased with Nichols’ grilling of the fighter during an earlier interview, the situation came off as payback, draining believability from Swanson’s explanation even further.

My master’s degree was in public relations, and my last job before I started teaching was as a public relations director for Azusa Pacific University, a private liberal arts university in Southern California, in the early 1990s.

My policy was always that I would never lie.  As the person who submitted the statistics for the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings, I never “cooked” the numbers.

It’s not a PR professional’s role to do the media’s newsgathering work for them, either.  When seven APU students were diagnosed with hepatitis, I did not contact the media to announce it.  At the same time, our office had everything in place so that when the first journalist contacted us (thank goodness none ever did), we were ready with full disclosure — a release and fact sheet, the dean of students as chief spokesperson.  We were not going to lie about it.

It’s one thing to keep internal information private, another to intentionally mislead, as Swanson seemed to do in her explanation.

No doubt Swanson is well paid for her work with Mayweather, and some superstar athletes might consider the truth to be theirs to call for their public relations folks.  But Swanson’s credibility is hers to maintain, and any public relations professional must determine with his or her perceived honesty is up for bid.

No doubt some athletes would be relieved that their publicist would go to such lengths to keep them from unpleasant questions.  If she’s looking to expand, Swanson will gain well-paying clients, impressed at her willingness to take on reporters like Nichols.

But at what price?

Can Jason Whitlock Coach The Undefeated?

Note: ESPN announced today (June 12) that Jason Whitlock would step down as head of The Undefeated project.  The details are in this article by Rich Sandomir of The New York Times.

It’s an oversimplification worth heeding: Journalists should never be in charge of anything.  Don’t ever say to a columnist, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do something other than criticize?”  Too risky.  We can organize words, sentences and paragraphs into an article.  Beyond that, we struggle to organize a BLT sandwich.

Kidding, mainly, but there is a grain of truth in the above.  Often, one of the worst things you can do to a gifted journalist is to turn him or her into an editor.

For decades, however, that was the only way for good writers to get better pay and promotion.  The results were often disastrous.  A chaotic office and the loss of a top-notch writer.

We see the same phenomenon in sports.  How many championship teams are led by former superstar athletes?  Popovich? Belichick? Meyer? Krzyzewski?

All of this is a long way around to talk about Greg Howard’s takedown of Jason Whitlock on Deadspin.  Howard generated plenty of heat talking about what actually are two separate issues: Whitlock’s competency in leading a major media project, and his personal philosophy of race.

Mashing up the two in a longer essay implies a connection.  With the negativity Howard applies to both, the problems might seem to multiply exponentially.

But these are two separate, unrelated issues.  A top-flight media manager might be unable to keep up with this better writers and come off as a lightweight, even as his or her own publication features those writers generating thought-provoking copy.

An incompetent media project manager might have a well-articulated philosophy on controversial topics that leaves others saying, “If the boss is so smart, why are we in so much chaos here?.”

But neither scenario is dependent on the other.  And Whitlock seems to be the latter — at least as a media project manager.

The reason Whitlock, like most popular writers, struggles as an editor is that the two roles require different tool kits, and those too are often unrelated.  A writer must direct passion and focus toward his or her personal projects and see them as an extension of self and worth the expenditure of concentrated energy.

An editor, on the other hand, again to oversimplify, is judged by the success brought to other writers and their products in creating a unified product.

To me, the most effective editors are “servant leaders” — subsuming their egos to serve their writers by creating an environment where those writers can succeed, knowing that the project (and the editor) will benefit as a result.

When an editor becomes as central to a project as Whitlock perceived himself, then the project serves the editor, rather than vice versa.  Passion is needed in any media project, even in the front office, but too much sends it over the top of the bell curve, and effectiveness decreases.

And for someone like Whitlock, his personal ebbs and flows apparently could not be mediated by skillful leadership when it involved other writers and editors.

Managing writers is like herding high-maintenance cats with an ego.  All of us remember editors who inspired us — a combination of tough love, exhortation and red ink, sweetened with a protective instinct that would allow no one to hammer except the editor.

Any editor who does so successfully probably goes home at the end of the day and needs a good workout at the gym or the bar to decompress.

Obviously, the proof in the pudding will be how long The Undefeated’s ingredients stay in the mix.  Pay alone will not keep them; they will need a sense that they are crucial to the mission.  Let’s be fair: It could be that Whitlock still can pull it off.  The delays are troubling, but not fatal.

The solution is for Whitlock to hand over editorial control to an editor who shares his editorial vision for what Undefeated can be, but who also has the authority to run the project.  Whitlock’s leadership and inspiration still fit in, but filtered through someone with authority over the writers.

I won’t address Howard’s take on Whitlock’s philosophy, because it’s simply a debate, a difference of opinion.  Howard’s criticisms of Whitlock are deep and thoughtful, and maybe Whitlock’s approach to race is a dangerous retread of a previous age, but that is not the danger game on the schedule for The Undefeated.

If Whitlock were a better manager, The Undefeated would be sure to attract, motivate and publish the best writers, and their thoughts, not Whitlock’s would carry the day, as they should, in thinking through the tough issues Howard raises.

So in that sense, Howard is right.  If Whitlock cannot manage the Undefeated so that it retains a staff that consistently produces top-notch copy, it will have to rely on not only his vision, but also his production to power The Undefeated.

And I don’t think ESPN is interested in a glorified blog.