Attribution, attribution, attribution

An essential part of journalism is saying how or from whom we know what we know — in other words, attribution. This means that the source for every fact or assertion must be clear to the audience. This doesn’t mean reporters have to tell “who says” in every sentence. But it’s vital to establish the source for a set of facts in a way that is clear and unambiguous.

WRONG: This week, Darryl Hopkins told the story from his point of view. Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

RIGHT: This week, Darryl Hopkins told WBZ-TV the story from his point of view. He said Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

The differences between the versions of this (randomly selected) paragraph seem minor at first glance — just a few words. But they convey very important information that gives credit where it’s due (to WBZ, in this case) and more importantly, helps the audience judge the credibility of the assertions. How do we know what Clark Rockefeller allegedly told Darryl Hopkins? Because Hopkins said so. The audience can then judge the claim on the basis of whether it thinks Hopkins is credible, a publicity hound, a guy trying save his own neck, or whatever.

So when in doubt, attribute, attribute, attribute. There should be at least one source attribution per story (more if you used more), and one for each controversial assertion in the story (i.e. every statement in the script that someone might quarrel with). Generally speaking, the place to put your source attribution is early on in the script, connected to a controversial assertion, or at least with some newsy, up-to-date fact that you got from the source.

Wearing my ‘négligée’ on my sleeve

Since today I’m traveling to Washington for the 2008 annual convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, I thought this might be a good time to explain what the group is and why I’m a dedicated member.

NLGJA (or “négligée,” as some waggish members call it) was founded in 1990 by the late executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, Leroy Aarons. It provides a home for the thousands of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender journalists, students, publicists and other media professionals in this country. In addition to the annual national convention, chapters across the U.S. hold meetings, mixers, panel discussions, screenings, parties and other events that help members make new friends in the industry, and advance their careers through networking and skills-building.

I’ve belonged to NLGJA since about 1994. Most of my gay friends in the media business I met through NLGJA–including some valuable and close relationships. Personally, my membership has never led to any new jobs–though I know many people for whom it has. But about a third of the freelance reporters (“stringers”) I use on OutQ News, as well as the substitute anchor I’m training right now, are people I met through the organization. All in all, it’s been the most fruitful group membership I’ve ever had.

Link of the Week: USA Today Election Guide

Here’s one appropriate to the season:

USA Today maintains an excellent, up-to-date, state-by-state guide to national and state level races, including candidates for Congress and state legislatures. It includes all official candidates (even minor parties) with their contact information and background briefings, and it lists major dates on the states’ electoral calendars. It would be the perfect one-stop-shop, if only it denoted who’s an incumbent.

Pulling Plosives (or How to stoP PoPPing P’s)

One very common problem when recording a newscast or the narration for a story (even for veteran announcers) is popping ‘P’ or ‘B’ sounds. It’s a very annoying sound to listeners, and reminds them that they’re listening to someone speaking into a microphone rather than a friend sitting next to them. The pop of a ‘plosive’ (the linguistic word for sounds with that ‘explosion’ of breath built up behind sealed lips) is unique to sound recorded through a microphone, because in normal in-person speech, the listener’s ear is never close enough to the speaker’s mouth for the overpressure of air to create the ‘boom’ of a popped plosive.

Which brings me to the first of several suggestions here for reducing or eliminating popped P’s.

  1. Back off the mic. For most stick and studio microphones, the ideal recording distance is about 3-to-5 inches from the speaker’s mouth. Much further, and the speaker starts to sound ‘off-mic,’ that is, too much room noise and room echo gets mixed in with the voice. Closer than that, and the mic starts to pick up too much breath and mouth noise, including popped P’s. (Note: some more-expensive hand mics — the kind used by rock stars — are specifically designed to suppress popped P’s even at very close, even point-blank range from the mouth. But I would not recommend these mics for newsgathering or announcing use, because they have other pickup characteristics that make them undesirable in these applications.)
  2. Talk across the microphone. Most people talk directly into any microphone placed in front of them. This is not the best approach. Instead, try putting the mic at an angle, pointing at the speaker’s mouth, about 45 degrees below and to the side. This minimizes air from the mouth hitting the mic pickup, while barely reducing sound waves at close range.
  3. Buy a mic filter. You’ve probably seen these in movies and music videos; they’re cheap and very effective at eliminating, or at least lessening pops. For studio mics, pop filters are widely available. You can even make your own for about six bucks. But for field recording, a hoop-type pop screen is too awkward. For stick microphones used in the field, the best portable solution is a foam rubber windscreen, also widely and cheaply available. (Radio Shack has ’em). Not only will a windscreen cut back on popped plosives, but, as the name suggests, it will also reduce wind noise. In the OutQ Newsroom, I have a studio mic with a double set of pop filters, which is very helpful, but still not enough.
  4. Pull your plosives. This is a mic technique that is highly effective at eliminating popped P’s and B’s, but somewhat difficult to explain, learn and practice, because it requires you to learn how to speak in an unnatural way. Essentially, you alter your breath control, so that you ‘check’ (i.e. reduce) the volume of air you build up in your mouth when speaking plosive consonants. One way to force yourself to do this is to tighten up your lips more than normal, so that you can’t build up too much air in your mouth. This is an awkward way to speak at first, but with practice you learn the breath control without having your lips frozen like the mouth of a puppet.

You’ll find that with the mic placed just inches from your mouth, you can essentially speak without uttering normally audible P’s and B’s (which would sound quite odd to someone sitting across the room from you), and it still sounds normal to the mic — better in fact, because there are no pops.

One way to check your Progress Pulling your Plosives is to Practice ‘Peter Piper’ with your fingertips upraised about an inch from your mouth. Speaking normally, you’ll feel a slight burst of air on your fingers with each plosive. But if you’re correctly pulling your plosives, you should hardly feel anything at all.

Please feel free to leave a comment here if you have any questions — or for that matter, any success — with this technique. I’d love to hear about it.

On assignment

Sorry I’ve been a little irregular posting here. I’ve been spending most of my precious free time here preparing to go on assignment, producing a radio documentary in Washington State all next week. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular posting schedule here at Curran Events once I return.

No mind reading allowed

While we’re on the subject of “says” and similar verbs of expression…

In addition to all the silly synonyms I listed in my previous post on the subject, it’s also wise–journalistically–to avoid words that imply you have mind reading skills and actually know what the speaker is thinking. That means “thinks,” “feels,” “believes,” “understands,” and so on are O-U-T, out. If the subject says he feels relieved… Then. Say. That.

WRONG: Senator Cornwall feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

BETTER: Senator Cornall says he feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

PROBABLY BEST: Senator Cornwall says the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

In some cases, where you really are dealing with Senator Cornwall’s interior, emotional state, the middle form, “says he feels,” is a better choice than just plain “says.”

Senator Cornwall says he thinks both candidates have turned in disappointing performances.

Consider this practice another form of accurate attribution… a subject we’ll come to soon.

Say “says”

One of the imperatives of good writing that’s drilled into beginner’s heads is not to repeat the same word or phrase too often. If a sentence has the word “ability” in it, the next sentence shouldn’t use the same word. I agree that this is generally good practice. But I make a big exception for all forms of the word “says” — especially in the case of broadcast writing.

It’s tempting to cook up a bunch of synonyms to avoid saying “said” over and over again: “He laughed,” “He announced,” “He revealed,” “He exclaimed,” “He chuckled,” “He sighed,” “He intoned,” and so on and on. Don’t.

Unless you have a synonym for “said” that is absolutely on-point and accurate, that just cries out to be used instead of “said” because it is just right… then use “said” instead. Feel absolutely free to formulate a paragraph that uses “says” over and over again.

Governor Smith says the state treasury is nearly empty. He says tax and fee income has “totally failed” to keep up with expenditures. Smith says he plans to call a special session of the legislature to deal with the state’s financial crisis.

As you can see from this example, “says” is such a ‘null’ word that — as long as there’s enough going on in the story — its repetition will bother absolutely nobody. Also notice that it’s good practice to restate the speaker’s name once in a while, to create variety in the shape of the sentence, and so that you don’t give listeners a chance to actually forget who’s talking.

Link of the Week:

Any time you need to track the status of a particular bill as it moves through the U.S. Congress, there’s OpenCongress.

From the ‘About’ section:

OpenCongress brings together official government data with news coverage, blog posts, comments, and more to give you the real story behind what’s happening in Congress. Small groups of political insiders and lobbyists already know what’s really going on in Congress. We think everyone should be an insider.

OpenCongress is a free, open-source, non-profit, and non-partisan web resource with a mission to make Congress more transparent and to encourage civic engagement. OpenCongress is a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation.

One especially handy feature is that the site offers RSS feeds not only of a bill’s status, but also related news and blog coverage. I have feeds set up for all the sexual orientation-related bills working their way through Congress, since that’s what I cover. OpenCongress is a very good way to make sure you don’t miss any action on a bill of interest… especially if it’s a bill that does not get a lot of media coverage.

We’re done in by the passive voice

It’s nothing new for editors and journalism teachers to inveigh against the use of the passive voice in newswriting. In fact, that’s an understatement. Such exhortations are commonplace, trite, and boring; they’re the first chapter in every writing guide. And still, the passive voice is everywhere in news copy. I fix a dozen passive voice sentences a day in copy from our stringers, writers and wire services, and still some get by me. So here is my brief harangue on the subject.

First, a definition. The passive voice is a verb form in which the subject of the sentence is the thing being acted upon, instead of the thing doing the acting.

John’s ice cream is being eaten.

…instead of…

Sally is eating John’s ice cream.

As these examples demonstrate, there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Sometimes (rarely) the passive voice is a necessary evil, when the ‘actor’ in the sentence is unknown or totally irrelevant.

Forty women and children were found dead in a remote Nigerian village this morning.

If this came to me from my wire service and I didn’t know who found them, I’d be kind of stuck with the lede. But oftentimes, the passive voice can be fixed with a resort to one of the all-purpose ‘actors.’ Thus,

Residents of the Shaw neighborhood are being urged to boil their water until further notice.

…can easily be made active voice.

City officials are urging Shaw residents to boil their water until further notice.

“Officials” are, by far, the most beloved generic ‘actors.’ “A spokesman,” “police,” and “the administration” (as appropriate) are also very popular. (Comment if you can think of any others. I’m momentarily stumped.)

As I implied earlier, beginning newswriters seem to crank out passive voice sentences left and right. But with practice (or enough negative feedback from your editor), it’s possible to develop very sensitive antennae that will ring an alarm every time you write or read something in the passive voice. And when that alarm rings, it’s time to ask “Why is that line in the passive voice? Is it because who did what to whom is being hidden?” (Catch the hidden passive voice sentence in the forgoing paragraph and win a prize.)

Their system vs. ours

I’d like to say a few words about the differences between parliamentary democracies, such as they have in the UK, Canada, and most other places in the world, and presidential republics like we have in the US. I’d like to say a few words, but it’s pretty hard, because the differences are many and complex — worthy of the sort of lengthy essay one might find on Wikipedia.

But because the topic comes up constantly in my work (reporting on gay-related bills passing through foreign parliaments) and because college poli sci classes seem to do an awfully bad job of explaining this stuff to students who become my interns, I want to highlight just a couple of the principal differences between the two systems — in very brief outline.

The main difference between the two systems of government is that parliamentary democracies have no separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. That is, the majority party (or coalition of parties) in Parliament is the government, and foreign newspapers use the terms “the government” and “majority party(s)” interchangeably. Typically, the government is led by a Prime Minister with the support of a bunch of cabinet ministers* (in charge of defense, foreign relations, health services and so on), all of whom are also voting members of parliament.

The members of the cabinet are usually referred to as “front-benchers,” because that’s where they sit in the Parliament. The minority or “opposition” parties (or “opposition coalition”) usually assemble a team of leaders or experts on all the cabinet ministries, who are referred to as “shadow ministers” or “critics” (Shadow Health Minister or Health Critic, etc.) Because of their seating location in Parliament, these opposition leaders are collectively referred to as “back-benchers.”

I could go on and on about how these differences affect the political system, how bills pass, and so forth (although there’s considerable variation from country to country), but I’ll stop here. I’ll probably add other pertinent observations later, as they arise in my work.

*I hope it goes without saying that in the context of a government, “minister” does not refer to a member of the clergy. A government minister in a parliamentary system corresponds to a cabinet secretary in the US system: (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, etc.)

Link of the Week:

In the last Link of the Week, I described a few tips for hunting people down using the Swiss Army Knife of search engines, Google. This week, I want to mention a people-finder site that is more of a precision tool for the same job:

The Zoominfo search engine is specifically optimized for extracting the names of people and companies, and attempting to thread all that information together to produce ad hoc sort of résumés for the individuals in its database. Zoominfo lets you search for names, companies, or jobs — and only those three things. You can refine your search by location, company name, and a few other parameters. In other words, it’s a good specialty tool for find people who have at least some business presence on the web.

Zoominfo’s system is far from perfect: Sometimes single individuals have several different entries, as if they were different people; sometimes various individuals with the same or similar name get smushed together into a single (confusing) entry; and many people don’t appear at all — especially those who haven’t built up web identities in the business world. But for what it is, Zoominfo is another handy tool for your people-hunting toolbox. And more to come!

Link of the Week: Man- (or woman-) hunt via Google

One extremely common task for a reporter is tracking someone down, be they the subject of a story, a witness, an expert, a bad guy or whatever. I hardly need to say that the routine first stop in such a search is Google. But searching for individuals via Google is not entirely as simple as it seems, so this brief entry will offer a few tips.

Although I generally favor literal searches in Google (those “in quotes,” or with a hyphen-between-the-words) because they narrow down the results to the exact phrase you’re looking for, they don’t work as well with names. That’s because the name of a single individual can appear in many different formats: Tim Curran | Timothy Curran | Timothy A. Curran | Timothy Augustin Curran | Curran, Timothy | Curran, Timothy A. | Timmy Curran… etc., etc., etc.

For this reason, I usually do name searches on Google using just the first and last name, without surrounding quotes. For this purpose, Google has most other search engines beat, because it does the best job of interpreting the query as a name, and returning results that include not just the name in the query, but all the likely variants as well.

In the case of very common names (e.g. “Mark Johnson”), it may be necessary to put the name in quotes, and to try a few variants. It also might be helpful to throw in a related search term or two (a job title, or city, or anything else likely to turn up in a description) that narrow the results. But in such instances, it is often helpful to try more ‘people’ specific search engines, about which, more in the next Link of the Week.

Back in service

You may have thought I was slacking in my blog duties, or just forgot about you. But in fact, due to a big ‘oopsie’ by my web host, this blog and my web gallery have both been offline for the better part of a week. But now that they’re back in service, I will endeavor to catch up.

Link of the Week: Google News sources

In my job, I’m a very heavy user of Google News. Sometimes I need to know whether a particular news source is among those feeding Google News, so that if it isn’t, I can visit/subscribe to that source separately.

Bad news: Google treats this information as proprietary. Good news: somebody else has compiled a list by analyzing a zillion Google news search results.

Newsknife, a New Zealand-based Google news ranking service, maintains what seems to be the most complete and up-to-date list of Google News sources. It’s not perfect–there’s a chance they’ve missed some, and any sources Google has dropped (or which have closed up shop) may still be on the list.

Another alternative, if you just want to confirm whether a known source is feeding Google News, is to do an advanced search on Google News, and fill in only the name of the ‘News Source.’ If there are any search results, Google (obviously) is using that source. If there are no results, then Google is probably not.

Tools for emphasis

Many newsreaders, including some veterans, seem to think there is only one tool for emphasizing the important words in a sentence, and that is to punch them. That is, to make them louder. But if you’ve ever heard a radio newscast or TV news story read this way, you know that having the significant words punched the same way, over and over, can sound monotonous and robotic.

In fact, there are at least three other techniques skilled broadcast reporters or newsreaders can use to highlight important words. These tools also add variety, shape, and ‘music’ to a reader’s delivery. Besides amplitude (i.e. louder), there’s also pitch/stress (making your voice slightly higher and tenser), e l o n g a t i o n (stretching the word out a bit), and   pausing   (surrounding a word with slight pauses tends strongly to draw attention to it).

In fact, there’s also another kind of amplitude variation (besides, did I mention, louder?) that can be occasionally be used to emphasize a word. Some times lowering your voice can draw the audience in, and convey just the right note of intimacy or conspiracy.

Anyone have other techniques they use for emphasis besides those I’ve mentioned?