August 29, 2010

Journalism and Omission

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Welcome back!For new readers, I have been The Sun’s public editor since the Spring 2009 semester, and I will serve until the current board’s term ends. I am the representative of you, the reader, and I try to bring an added sense of transparency and accountability to The Sun’s editorial process. I welcome reader feedback on all things Sun-related. If you have disputes or issues with how The Sun is reporting, I am happy to listen to you and work with you toward a satisfactory outcome or compromise. With reader feedback, this column can be an avenue for helpful communication between The Sun and the community on which it reports. If problems arise, I talk to Sun staffers to get a sense of what went wrong and what can be done differently in the future. To kick off the semester, there are a few issues I’d like to tackle.

Causes of Death

As I have written before, student deaths are always newsy. When a young person dies, the often-unexpected nature of it rings tragically. Deaths should be reported sensitively but still comprehensively.When a recent graduate was found dead on campus this summer, the initial reporting did not list a cause of death. A reader wrote to me asking why that information was not listed. I’m glad the reader contacted me; it was a hole in the story. A young person’s death is almost always unexpected. When hearing that a student has died, a universal and immediate reaction is: How? A newspaper has a responsibility to provide that information whenever possible. If no cause of death was being released or revealed by the family or by the authorities, the newspaper should say so. I followed up with News Editor Brendan Doyle ’12, who also wrote the piece. Doyle accepted responsibility for the oversight and said he would be more vigilant on that issue in future stories about death. As it turned out, no cause of death was released, and the story was updated accordingly. This might cause some readers to speculate about the nature of the death. That’s their prerogative, but the newspaper should not contribute to this speculation by leaving out that information. As the reader noted, a newspaper should not treat death with euphemism — even euphemism by omission.

Editing

The Aug. 26 story “Math Faculty Outraged by Cuts” illustrates an important, ongoing problem facing The Sun: inadequate editing. The story, reported by Jeff Stein ’13, was the front-page, top-fold, main news story for the day. Stein’s reporting laid out the conflict between math department faculty and those who decide the budget. He reported thoroughly and found many different sources to speak on the issue. The piece quoted two math professors: Robert Strichartz and Edward Swartz. Both, however, were listed with a superfluous “s” at the end of their first names. These are the kinds of mistakes that torpedo otherwise-good reporting. Blame does not lie with Stein here, although his name is at the top of the piece: It lies with The Sun. (Personally, I think Stein is a strong, productive reporter and good writer.) Layers of editing should be in place to correct any errors in the reporter’s writing process. Individual reporters and The Sun as a whole share the fruits of excellent reporting but they also share the blame when mistakes are made. This is a familiar refrain for anyone who reads this column regularly: The Sun’s editing needs to be better. I think it is mostly a manpower issue; news editors are focused on content and story selection, and sometimes line editing falls by the wayside on a daily deadline. Bringing more copy editors into the fold could fix this, especially if their duties are smartly delegated. Novice copy editors could have specific tasks, which could be broadened as they become more comfortable with Sun conventions. The Sun is expanding into new media. But for all the ongoing and potential innovation, the paper is still fundamentally based on reporting and storytelling. That product of that reporting needs to be accurate. I encourage readers to contact me or Sun editors with feedback on this issue. I answer every message I get and will refer the matter, when necessary, to the appropriate parties. I am looking forward to another productive semester. Rob Tricchinelli is a third-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli