Loose language in media’s coverage of U.S. government ‘shutstorm’

© nebari - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably figured out that you can’t visit Yosemite,  federal workers are on furlough, nine million women and children usually served by the WIC program can’t  get access to nutrition, and some random guy has taken it upon himself to mow the lawn at the Lincoln Memorial.

There are many words to describe the government shutdown (now in its 10th excruciating day), but the most fitting one that comes to mind involves a storm of excrement. Of course, the Twittersphere and ‘The Daily Show’ have taken a shining to #shutstorm and Shutstorm 2013 — and lately, I have too.

But the madness isn’t isolated to the government. The media coverage has also come under scrutiny, particularly for relying on loose language that confuses the issues. The result is a generally misinformed public about the root causes of the shutdown and what needs to happen to bring Shutstorm 2013 to an end. Here are a few sample offenders:

Obamacare vs. Affordable Care Act
The real name of the new health care law is the Affordable Care Act, but you’ve probably heard it called Obamacare far more often. What’s in a name? Jimmy Kimmel illustrated this beautifully in a segment on his show, where he found that some Americans support the Affordable Health Care Act but not Obamacare (remember, they’re one and the same).

The problem is that the term Obamacare was actually coined by opponents of the law, but it’s become so ubiquitous that nearly every media outlet — from Fox News to NBC to NPR — has used it. (Thankfully, NPR recently announced that it will use the term ‘Obamacare’ less often.) Objective coverage of the shutdown starts with not using loaded terms.

Shutdown vs. Slimdown
“You know, paying federal employees for their work is a sign that our government is bloated. We need a slimdown” … said nobody ever. Well okay, Fox News seems to think the current crisis is basically a diet to help the government slim down.

This analogy is particularly offensive when you consider the millions of Americans in poverty (including children) who have lost access to food as a result of the shutdown. Fox has been rightfully shamed for this, but slimdown has still become the ubiquitous word of choice on their website for discussing the crisis.

Stalemate vs. Brinkmanship
The words you hear most often in the shutdown coverage are stalemate, gridlock, and standoff, which suggest two equally matched parties who can’t reach an agreement despite active negotiations. But what we’re actually witnessing is brinkmanship, or one party allowing a situation to become dangerous in order to get the results they want.

As John McCain observed, moderates in both parties are being held hostage by the extreme views of Tea Party Republicans. He even described their effort to defund the Affordable Care Act as a “fool’s errand.” In other words, this isn’t a stalemate or a negotiation — it’s hostage-taking.

The debt ceiling deadline is only a week away, and the U.S. government could default on its debt obligations for the first time ever.  The stakes are high. The words we use matter.

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The Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial doesn’t mean that all sponsored content is bad

atlantic scientologyIn the world of journalism, “sponsored” content is often treated like a dirty word — an untouchable that gets cordoned off, lest it tarnish the purity of true editorial content.

But the recent controversy around The Atlantic’s decision to run a bizarre and confusing advertorial from the Church of Scientology shows what happens when editorial thinking doesn’t play a role in sponsored content. This was neither a good ad, nor was it a good piece of content. And it runs the risk of giving a bad name to all sponsored content, which can actually be a useful way for publications to get revenue and brands or organizations to connect with their audiences. (For the record, I have a journalism background and work in sponsored content).

In a world where sponsored content is becoming so prevalent, what sparked the outcry around this particular advertorial?

The art and science of sponsored content
Let’s break this down. This isn’t the first time The Atlantic has run sponsored content. As other critics have noted, they had a series on innovation by Boeing and an IBM piece about the power of data. There’s a “Sponsor Content” call-out at the top of the page, and if you hover over it, The Atlantic explicitly states that it is “created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.”

This is a sound policy. You don’t want the editorial team directing the ads, and you don’t want advertisers influencing editorial decisions. But that being said, editorial thinking and content strategy should absolutely come into play — especially if you’re a highly-regarded journalistic publication that’s running advertorial content. In this case, the editorial reputation of The Atlantic took a hit anyway, despite this policy and their swift apology. Why is that?

Well, there are two main issues that caused readers to lash out at The Atlantic:

1.) Don’t try and trick people into thinking they’re not reading an ad. There were very few cues suggesting that this piece about the Church of Scientology was not an actual article, other than the tiny yellow “Sponsor Content” box at the top of the page (see the above image). But perhaps most controversial was the comment moderation for this piece — only comments supportive of Scientology were allowed to appear on the site. These tactics are unnecessary because, really, sponsored content should ideally be good content on its own that also happens to be sponsored.

2.) Just because content is sponsored, doesn’t mean it can be totally random. You can’t treat sponsored content the same way you would a traditional ad. It’s content, so it requires some finesse. It promises the reader information, so it should mesh with the brand image of the publication (for example, Foreign Policy had a special advertising section about Timor-Leste … you’re not going to see that running in Better Homes & Garden). But the actual copy of the Scientology advertorial  wasn’t good content — it was pro-Scientology propaganda (note that the Boeing series was about innovation, not airplanes). It would’ve better served Scientology’s purposes to think about the context, and develop content accordingly.

Don’t hate me because I’m sponsored
All that being said, there is such a thing as good sponsored content — and we shouldn’t let this one incident convince us that there’s no place for it. The moral of this story is that when  it comes to sponsored content, a.) don’t trick people and b.) make sure your piece fits in with the brand image of the publication in which it’s running. You’re only doing your brand or organization a service that way — otherwise, it’s wasted money and effort.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that sponsored isn’t always bad. Sponsorship is basically the new word for patronage — and it’s why Shea Stadium is now Citi Field and the American Tour de France team is called the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a creative at heart, and I don’t think advertising should invade all aspects of life. I strongly believe in a free press that’s unattached from corporate and political pressures. But that being said, sponsorship can support projects that would otherwise never happen — and it presents a very real way for struggling online publications to earn some revenue.

One good example of sponsored content, in my mind, is Huffington Posts’s Global Motherhood channel, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. It’s real content, written by experts in the field, on an important topic that likely wouldn’t get this level of coverage otherwise. It’s health-related, which fits with Johnson & Johnson’s brand, but they aren’t literally selling baby shampoo and bandages. It puts the content in sponsored content first.

Finally, while some of the greatest works of art from the renaissance were “sponsored” by patrons who wanted to assert their power and status, these patrons didn’t climb ladders and paint stick figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, someone with expertise, actually created the final product. Sure, we’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. But there’s a lesson in this for brands seeking to create sponsored content — if you aren’t an editorial and marketing expert (or you don’t have any of those in-house), find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you.

Why? Because sponsored content is, in fact, content. And savvy readers will rip it apart if it’s terrible or insults their intelligence. Just ask The Atlantic.

The Style Guide Wars: Why there are (and will continue to be) so many darn style guides

© Pixsooz - Fotolia.comThis week’s headline from The Onion says it all: “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence.” (By the way, in case this gets picked up in China, The Onion is a satirical newspaper… no editors died over comma usage and capitalization this week, as far as we know).

But if you’ve ever worked for a major publication or written an academic paper, you know that style guides are no laughing matter — especially when you’re faced with a hair-pulling grammatical conundrum. Comma or no comma at the end of that list? Is that one compound word or two words with a hyphen between them? And once and for all, is it website, web site, or Website … or Web site?!

The answer, it turns out, isn’t an absolute truth — nor is it something that stays the same over time. It depends on what style guide you’re using, and how recently it was updated. Style guides, like the dictionary, are always evolving. In 2011, the Associated Press caused a stir when its style guide finally moved from the hyphenated “e-mail” (you know … electronic mail) to just plain old “email” (the thing that needs no explanation).

So which style guide should you be using for that article, blog post or paper? Well, you can’t just pick one willy-nilly — there are rules and guidelines to follow, dammit! (Turns out people who worry about grammar for a living also tend to like rules in general…) Chances are, there’s a specific style guide you should be using. Here’a rundown of the big players:

The Associated Press StylebookMost widely used by journalists, sometimes called the journalist’s bible. If you’re writing for a newspaper, the AP Stylebook is your new pal.

The Chicago Manual of Style: This bad boy — common in book publishing — gives the AP manual a run for its money, calling itself a guide for writers, editors and publishers.

The MLA Style Manual: If you’ve ever written an academic research paper, then you don’t need me to tell you about the MLA Style Manual. Citations are your friend… really.

The Yahoo Style GuideObviously, this guide doesn’t date back to 1906 like the Chicago style guide. But it speaks to an increasingly international online readership.

So, are these guys likely to play nice and consolidate into a single style guide that makes life easier? Well, no. This isn’t likely to change any time soon because a.) editors are stubborn (I should know — I am one) and b.) style guides are actually based on practical and stylistic preferences for a particular medium, as Poynter points out:

“For example, AP style does not use italics because italics become garbled over the AP wire. It’s the only style guide I’m familiar with that doesn’t use italics.”

That’s just one example out of hundreds. Sure, spelling ‘website’ four different ways across four different style guides might seem silly — but hey, we editors are a silly bunch sometimes. Still, the fact is, what style you follow if you’re writing for an international, online audience differs quite a bit from if you’re presenting your research in print to an academic audience who’s already well-versed in your field. Plus, a little variety in style never hurt anyone (as long as it doesn’t actually spark AP Style vs. Chicago Manual gang violence).

So next time an editor asks you to follow a particular style guide that you’re not familiar with, don’t a.) make it up, or b.) tell him or her that you’re opting out of this whole style guide thing, unless you’re prepared for something like a scene out of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video (that is, a spectacular fight … not spontaneous choreographed dancing, though that would be awesome).

Here’s hoping our quest for better writing remains a peaceful one!

Are plagiarism and fabrication on the rise because we’re too info-hungry?

(c) drubig-photo - Fotolia.comWhen I first heard the news about Jonah Lehrer fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in his book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” I was shocked. Aside from the fact that I’ve really enjoyed reading his writing over the years, it takes serious balls to lie about Dylan, of all people.

But when I heard on Friday that Fareed Zakaria had admitted to plagiarizing sections of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece on gun control in his own column for Time, well, that was just completely befuddling. I mean, we’re talking about the former editor of Newsweek International, a current editor-at-large for Time, host of his own show on CNN, and a seemingly omnipresent columnist and pundit on international relations and foreign policy.

Looking at his resume, you might wonder “How does he do it?” Well, that’s precisely the problem. At some point, it’s physically impossible to keep up with the demands for more information in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Something has to give. In the case of tech blogger Om Malik, it was his health, and he suffered (but survived) a heart attack at the young age of 41. In the case of Fareed Zakaria, it was his reporting that took the hit, and you can see the full extent of his ‘lapse’ on the Atlantic Wire.

There’d been warning signs that Zakaria was over-extended — like when he basically gave the same graduation speech at Duke and Harvard. Still, copying yourself isn’t necessarily a moral quandary — it’s just really tacky. Chances are, things started to come to a head and Zakaria likely hired himself research or writing assistants to stay on top of the heap of assignments. Of course, that’s just speculation — though I’m not alone in my thinking. But when he says the incident “is entirely my fault,” he’s right. Whether the lapse was a result of his own reporting or failing to review someone else’s, it was sloppy work for someone of his caliber.

Now, before it sounds like I’m going too easy on Zakaria, I should point out that plagiarism makes me furious and I think it’s a fundamental sin of journalism. A few years ago, my writing partner and I poured our hearts (and a whole lot of time) into writing a piece for Little India magazine about Indian immigrants who are leaving the U.S. and returning home. We were shocked and angry when we learned that Mona Sarika had plagiarized us extensively in an online piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

But Zakaria isn’t right out of journalism school, nor is he a struggling journalist trying to make a name for himself. As the Dallas Morning News points out, Zakaria is widely-respected as a  first-rate thinker. I say “is” (not “was”) because despite some cries for all plagiarists’ heads on a platter, I believe he deserves a second chance. I’m surprised by my position (which I know is supported by at least one other group of editors), since I’m usually of the hard-nosed Jack Shafer school on this issue. But in this case, I can’t help but wonder if a.) there’s a  systemic problem that needs to be addressed, b.) degree of the offense and intention should matter (is this as bad as Jayson Blair?), and c.) maybe I’m a little biased, and would hate to see Zakaria — at long last, a smart Indian-American personality on TV — get fired.

To be sure, he hasn’t exactly done us any favors with this recent incident. And saying that the reason plagiarism’s on the rise is because journalists are too busy or we as an audience are too demanding is a total cop-out.There are hoards of skilled journalists out there who would happily share the burden but can’t seem to find work.

The good news is, we live in a world where there’s obviously still a demand for good ideas and information. The bad news is, as beat reporters fall by the wayside, it seems original reporting is getting replaced with linking off to what other people reported and calling it a day (ahem, HuffPo). And with editorial budgets getting slashed, having full-time fact-checkers (who might uncover some of these transgressions in their research) is becoming a luxury except for some of the most elite organizations.But that’s opening a can of worms, and I don’t expect anyone to have a simple solution to the business problems facing journalism.

At the root, this is a marketing problem — and by that, I mean Zakaria’s own desire to be the face of foreign policy news in the U.S., and the media’s desire to build up marketable personalities who can sell books and draw ratings. And for better or worse, the only real solution is personal responsibility. Call me crazy, but maybe having your own TV show and doing it with integrity is enough. Sure, you can take on the occasional side project (an article here, a book deal there) but what’s the point in biting off more than you can chew in the name of building your brand?

I hope to see work from Zakaria in the future, just much less of it. After all, when you’re trying to be Superman, you usually end up more like Icarus — burned and bruised from your nasty fall.