Archives for November 2009

Bloggers Are Citizen Journalists

A common complaint I hear from big-J Journalists about bloggers is that we’re not “real” journalists. That we’re somehow beneath their contempt and notice.

Bullshit. We’re citizen journalists!

I first saw this attitude when I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health, and a few of my colleagues said we would never deal with bloggers because they only wanted to put out bad information. And in dealing with other Journalists, they almost seemed to say “blogger” with a sneer. As if “blogger” was something they stepped in on their way to the office.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

Bloggers are citizen journalists, like it or not.

As a result, many Journalists don’t believe things like Reporter Shield Laws should apply to us citizen journalists. For example, if an environmental blog were to uncover environmental violations by a large corporation, that citizen journalist could be forced to reveal who his or her sources were. But if a newspaper wrote the same story, the reporter would not.

The biggest question comes down to who is a real journalist and who is only a blogger/citizen journalists. In the Branzburg v. Hayes case, Justice Byron White said

“Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which ‘is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. … The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’ … The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press in the present cases is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.”

— Quote from an article by David Hudson of FirstAmendmentCenter.org

Even back in 1973, when Justice White threw open “The Press” to anyone who produced the printed word, technology has widened the definition to anyone who writes for blogs, the 21st century’s electronic pamphlet.

In his article, Hudson also cited Kurt Opsahl, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who mentioned a couple examples where bloggers outperformed the big-J Journalists

“Bloggers hammered on the Trent Lott story (Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond) until mainstream media was forced to pick it up again,” he said. “Three amateur journalists at the Powerline.com blog were primarily responsible for discrediting the documents used in CBS’s rush-to-air story on President George Bush’s National Guard service. And the list goes on.”

Cox lists several other national-headline stories affected greatly by reporting from blogs, including: Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard memos, the White House giving press credentials to James Guckert/Jeff Gannon, the resignation of CNN news executive Eason Jordan after publicity surrounding his remarks at the World Economic Forum and the John Kerry-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy.

Or to put it another way, the big political scoops in the last 5 years have not been by the media, but by bloggers. Also called little-J journalists.

So, other than an overwhelming sense of elitism by the men and women of the dead-tree media, what really separates us from being real Journalists?

Is it the medium? Many former newspaper reporters and columnists have left the printed word, and gone on to start their own blogging career:

  1. Ruth Holladay who is serving brilliantly as a cheerleader for traditional media and a thorn in the side of her former employer, Gannett
  2. Lori Borgman the former arts columnist for the Indianapolis Star
  3. Columnist Saul Friedman who retired from Newsday rather than let his column go up behind a paywall

(I’m curious what their colleagues think? Have these writers somehow fallen from grace, and are no longer “good enough” to be considered Journalists? Are they now mentioned with the same sneer I heard three years ago?)

Maybe the pay is the issue. The fact that bloggers don’t get paid as much as newspaper writers (who, frankly, are not known for their lavish pay and glamorous lifestyle) may be the deciding factor. However, there are some online writers who make a lot more money than most successful businesspeople, let alone Journalists. So that argument doesn’t seem to hold weight.

Maybe it’s the training. The aforementioned paper-turned-pixel writers notwithstanding, Journalists seem to think they have the super-secret training that makes them a font of reliability and trustworthiness. Yet I know a lot of journalists who can’t spell, don’t know grammar, and in some cases, just plain can’t write. I took several journalism classes in college, and I can tell you they don’t teach anything extra special that someone with a penchant for the written word couldn’t pick up.

Even the Washington Post isn’t immune from bad writers. Meanwhile, there are several outstanding bloggers who produce some outstanding prose that would make any big-J Journalist green with envy.

Maybe it’s because the media is trustworthy and bloggers aren’t? You know, trustworthy. People like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit. Of course, Shalit is back in journalism, Blair is a life coach in Virginia, and Glass is now a multi-millionaire, thanks to the book and movie deals he has gotten.

Admittedly, these three are the exception to the rule, and not the rule themselves. But my point is there are bad apples in blogging and bad apples in Journalism. Still if you’re going to accuse bloggers of not telling the truth, you need to look at the journalists who make stuff up too.

I just don’t see what the big difference is, other than bloggers don’t kill a lot of trees to get their message out through a dying medium. Yes, there are bad bloggers, but there are bad journalists. Yes, there are bloggers who lie, but there are lying journalists as well. (Some people might say that term is redundant.) Yes, journalists are trained as writers, but there are a lot of trained writers who use the electronic medium instead of newsprint.

If the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the definition of Citizen Journalists to pamphleteers and leaflet-writers, then they can certainly open it up to bloggers. And as bloggers, we need to make sure we can meet that expectation. We need to take on the mantle of Citizen Journalist ourselves, and then make sure we live up to that standard. (I’ll discuss that more in the future.)

So what do you think? Are bloggers journalists? Or are we a bunch of cranks sitting in our parents’ basement under bare light bulbs, writing about conspiracy theories and Paris Hilton sightings?

Stacks of newspapers photo: John Thurm
Ann Arbor News photo: mfophoto

Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds

Five Grammar Myths Exploded

I love language, and I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation. I don’t always know the names of the rules, or how to diagram a sentence, but I know what’s right, and what’s not.

So as a professional wordsmith, and self-confessed know-it-all, I want to explode five common grammar myths I hear rather frequently.

  1. You can’t end your sentences with a preposition: According to Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, hosts of at A Way With Words, an NPR radio show for Word Nerds, this is a tired old proscriptiondating back from the 17th century.Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty said it best in her podcast:

    A key point, you might say the Quick and Dirty Tip, is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence.

    I can hear some of you gnashing your teeth right now, while you think, “What about saying, ‘On what did you step?’”

    But really, have you ever heard anyone talk that way? I’ve read long, contorted arguments from noted grammarians about why it’s OK to end sentences with prepositions when the preposition isn’t extraneous (1), but the driving point still seems to be, “Nobody in their right mind talks this way.” Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should.

    Or in the famous words of Winston Churchill, “this is utter nonsense, up with which I shall not put.

  2. Don’t split infinitives: Patricia O’Connor, author of Woe Is I, says this is a bunch of hooey. She lays the blame at the feet of Henry Alford, a Latinist and Dean of Canterbury in the 1800s, for foisting this crap on us.Alford published a grammar book in 1864, A Plea for the Queen’s English, where he used several Latin rules to create English rules, like the idea that the word “to” is part of an infinitive, and thus should be inseparable. O’Connor’s book is much bigger and more popular, and she says Alford is dead wrong.

    Part of the problem is that infinitives in Latin are single words, while they’re two words in English: to go, to run, to lift, to look. Alford figured if they can’t be split in his dead language of choice, they shouldn’t be split in the language everyone else was using.

    Look, English isn’t Latin, so we shouldn’t be bound by rules that guys with funny beards tried to impose on us, especially when they had no foundation to begin with. (This same kind of Latin = English is the reason for the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” myth too.)

  3. It’s an historic occasion: Use “an” when a word starts with a vowel sound, like “an NBA referee.” Bottom line: does “historic” start with a vowel sound? No. So stop saying “an historic.” The reason some people do it is because the British do it. Why do the British do it? Because in some regions of the country, and with a Cockney accent, they sometimes drop the H sound from words like her, he, or his. (And yet they stick it on words like herbal. Go figure) A dropped H means a word starts with a vowel sound, and hence the “an” in front of it. So people who want to sound like they’re educated in England will do the whole “an historic” thing.
  4. Alright isn’t all right:Turns out it is, much to my relief. I have been using “alright” for years, and was told recently it was wrong. It was a dark day.However, Gabe Doyle, a 4th year computational psycholinguistics graduate student at UC-San Diego (i.e. he’s smarter than you) and owner of the Motivated Grammar blog, says you can. “Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although.” So if a 4th year computational psycholinguist on the Internet says it’s true, that’s good enough for me.
  5. Don’t start sentences with And, But, or Or: That might have been true once, but not anymore. It’s a modern invention of writing and language, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Patricia O’Connor says we’ve been starting sentences with And and other conjunctions since the 10th century. She says that other than a bunch of high school English teachers driving themselves to hysterics, there’s no proof we can’t do this.

Explosion photo: Veo

Making the Argument for Ghost Blogging. Yet Again.

My good friend Lindsay Manfredi and I were both interviewed about ghost blogging last week, and asked whether we thought it carried any ethical dilemmas.

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Not if it’s done correctly.

I’ve talked about ghost blogging before, and said if it follows a few basic procedures, it’s as ethical as, say, public relations. (Er, on second thought. . . )social media ninjas

Yet, the issue keeps getting brought up, as if we’re committing some unpardonable ethical sin, like medical testing on baby seals. But the only people who seem to care are social media purists and “social media ninjas” who talk about transparency, yet work in industries where their efforts, if done correctly, are anonymous and behind the scenes as well.

Ghostwriting = copywriting

Anyone who does freelance copywriting can tell you that their name doesn’t go on squat when it comes to their efforts. Sales brochures, web copy, sales letters, speeches, you name it, the writer’s name is not-so-noticeably absent from the final copy. And that’s fine. That’s the life we choose.

Marketing agencies don’t get their names on their clients’ campaigns. No one whines that “my name isn’t on that sales brochure I wrote” or “my name isn’t in the newspaper article I sent the press release about.” Frankly, if you’re worried about getting credit for your work, you’re in the wrong business. If you want a byline, be a journalist.

Maintaining Ethical Boundaries for Ghost Blogging

A good ghost has procedures they follow with their clients:

  1. I interview the client, who tells me — in his own words — his thoughts about their industry-specific issues.
  2. I transcribe the interview and clean it up, turning it into 350 – 450 words of clear, informative copy.
  3. The client approves the article.
  4. I publish the article on their blog.

It’s the clients thoughts, the client’s words. I just transcribe it. Or as we like to say, “we do the work so you can go to your meetings.”

How is this any different from the CEO’s letter at the front of the company’s annual report? Or a politician’s speech to her constituents? Or the catalog copy that was supposedly written by the company’s founder? How is it any different from a PR flak’s press release that becomes the basis for a news article? (I say this as a former flak whose press releases were often turned into “Staff Wire Reports” by one county newspaper.)

Answer: It isn’t. Not a bit. They are exactly the same thing. (In fact, Jason Falls says that we’re not ghostwriters, we’re copywriters, and that it’s okay.)

These are the same steps that every other copywriter, speechwriter, and marketing director in the world follows when they produce work for a client. This has been an acceptable practice since well before Judson Welliver ghosted for Warren G. Harding, thus becoming the first presidential speechwriter.

The only place ghostwriting isn’t acceptable is journalism and academia, as it should be. Your merit is based on the work you produce; in business, it’s based on the results you achieve. (Although academia seems to have some of its own ghostwriting issues.)

So if you are against ghost blogging, you need to be against all ghostwriting. You need to speak out against speechwriters for politicians. You need to put an end to all freelance copywriting. You need to stop sending out press releases that don’t include your name as a quoted source.

Otherwise, it’s a non-issue. The people who hire me are the ones I’m concerned with. The social media purists? Well, you just give me something to blog about, thus boosting my own search engine rankings.

So, thanks for that.

The Role of New Media in a National Toy Recall

Never doubt the power of a few well-connected people, or a confluence of timing, technology, and information, to have a huge impact on events around the world. I got to witness one of these events firsthand, and even played a very small role in it. You may remember it. It turned out to be one of the biggest lead-contaminated toy recalls in 2006, and one of the first in a long series of Chinese toy recalls that year.

In June 2006, I was working at the Indiana State Department of Health as the Risk Communication Director. Basically, I was in charge of crisis communication, or as I called it, “oh shit” PR.

That’s because whenever some emergency or crisis came up, those were the first two words any of us usually said. We all did, the public affairs staff, the epidemiologists, even the Emergency Response department. Whether it was a Hepatitis A scare at a Pizza Hut in Fort Wayne, salmonella in a Wal-Mart in Johnson County, or a national outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter, we all had the same response when we first heard the news of the latest public health crisis.

I had been working on the job for about three weeks, when I was called down to Legal because “we have a problem.” My first “problem,” in fact. When I showed up, there were eight people sitting around a conference table. They filled me in.

As part of a summer reading program, the Monroe County Library in Bloomington had been giving away bendable children’s toys which were discovered to be dangerously contaminated with lead. The children’s librarian and the lead prevention nurse at Monroe County Hospital had sent samples a couple months earlier to the Consumer Protection Agency, but no one had responded beyond an initial phone call.

Rather than giving up, they then contacted the State Health Department, hoping that someone, anyone, would pay attention to the fact that they had just given out a bunch of lead-contaminated toys, and could we please help them get the word out to their community?

Happily, I didn’t utter my little mantra out loud.

Turns out, another library in another county had also been giving away these toys, which made this a statewide issue. So we decided to send out a press release to all the state media outlets, and see what happened. That afternoon, I answered a few reporters’ questions, and then forgot all about it.

Three days later, I received a call from the director of the New Jersey State Library Association.

It turns out the Muncie Star-Press had run our story, which was then picked up by a librarian blogger. The director read the blog and nearly freaked: they had been giving those toys to a statewide children’s reading program all summer.

Guess what I said, out loud, over the phone.

“You’re telling me,” he said. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know, I’ve been doing this job for three freaking weeks!” I wanted to shout. “This is my first real crisis.”

Instead, I ran through the talking points we had given out to the media, and gave him a few recommendations.

“Could you email that to me?” he asked. “I belong to a listserv group of librarians around the country. I think several of us have been giving out these toys. I can pass it on to them.”

I emailed the talking points and recommendations off to the guy, and then forgot all about it again. Two days later, I received another phone call from the Orange County Register.

The reporter said that several of California’s libraries had been giving away some toys that were found to be contaminated with lead, and since we were the ones who had started this whole thing, did we have any information we could give them?

I explained how the whole thing had started with the nurse and librarian in Monroe County, and how this was apparently being felt in a couple of states now.

“Oh, it’s more than a couple now,” said the Times reporter.

As the days went by, I would go online to see who else had been recalling these children’s toys. Within 24 hours of the OC Register call, the story exploded. Several librarians on the librarian listserv had called their local media with the same story. In a couple cases, someone in one city would read the story and tell their librarian friends in another city, who would then find the listserv information, and call their media outlets.

The tipping point came when the Associated Press sent a national story over the newswire, and local reporters called their local libraries to see if they had those toys. The librarians would go pale and whisper my two words. A quick check always revealed the very same toys for the very same children’s reading program.

A few weeks later, a check of Google News showed something I had never expected: a recall of 385,000 lead-contaminated toys from all 50 states, and more than 530 news stories in the United States, Canada, Germany, England, Italy, India, and Taiwan. And two field agents from the Consumer Protection Agency were suddenly very interested in some bendable toys they had received several months earlier from two women in Bloomington, Indiana.

As I look back on this story, I am struck by one very important lesson: this did not become a national recall just because of traditional media. They had help. What really kicked it off is that a blogger saw an article in her local paper and wrote about it. Then a guy on an email listserv sent it out to the other members. Old-school media played an important part, but it was the new media that really pushed it in the right direction.

All because a librarian blogger was connected to a guy on a librarian listserv. But more importantly, because a nurse and a children’s librarian decided that they needed to speak up about an issue in their hometown, and didn’t quit until someone heard them.