The Hardest Things About Journalism: No. 5

By Andrew Gibson

Please know that this post is a time capsule.

I’ve only completed one year of college and just one media internship at KCNC-TV in Denver.

In fact, I haven’t even declared an emphasis at the Missouri School of Journalism yet.

That makes me about as much a journalism expert as I am a Kansas Jayhawks fan.

My reason for writing this post is so I can look back 10 or 15 years from now and see how my reporting strengths and weaknesses have changed. I’ll probably have no trouble with Associated Press style by the time I graduate from the Missouri School of Journalism, but right now it’s somewhat overwhelming.

So, if it sounds like I’m pretending to be a know-it-all, please realize that’s not my intention.

I’m only 19.

Without further ado, here’s the first post of my series “The Five Hardest Things About Journalism.”

No. 5: Writing Mechanics

In high school, proper grammar and punctuation were only at the fringes of my writing assignments. A misplaced comma might draw a red-pen mark or a teacher’s laugh, but with the exception of Daily Grammar Practice in ninth grade, no one held me accountable for proper mechanics.

And then I took News (Journalism 2100H) at Mizzou. “Whose” instead of “who’s” combined with an Oxford comma sometimes meant a full letter-grade deduction from an assignment.

I’ll never forget when I mis-spelled my News instructor’s first name in a story. That’s Karon Speckman, an adjunct associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. She wrote her name as “Karen Speckman” on an assignment sheet and also intentionally mis-spelled several other peoples’ names. It was my job to verify all of the correct spellings.

Of course, I spelled every other name besides hers correctly. The result? Minus 25 percent in addition to my other errors.

That was one of the most important academic mistakes I’ve made in my entire life. Whenever I interview someone now, I double or triple check the spelling of that person’s name.

Associated Press style is another challenge I’ve encountered. I never learned any rules in high school about spelling out numbers, and I had no clue before taking News that someone stands on a lectern but in a pulpit.

Now that I’ve used AP style for about eight months, I think it’s great. Having a universal reporting language simply makes sense. But I consider it one of my early journalism challenges because so many words or phrases that seem like they’re cut-and-dry actually aren’t.

“Toward,” not “towards.”

“E-mail,” not “email,” according to my 2010 Associated Press Stylebook. But AP re-added the hyphen in the 2011 stylebook, an example of how journalists have constantly keep up with language shifts.

Maybe it seems odd that I put “writing mechanics” in my five early journalism challenges. But, as I’ve learned, words matter.

” ‘Allegedly’ will not save you from a libel suit,” said Earnest Perry, Missouri School of Journalism associate professor, during a Cross-Cultural Journalism (Journalism 2000) lecture.

Naming a criminal suspect “Jeff Jones” instead of “Geoff Jones” could mean you’ve permanently damaged an innocent person’s reputation.

When I see a spelling error in an article, I find it distracting. I can now sympathize a bit with reporters having been through the “Karon” versus “Karen” crisis, but I can’t stop my eyes from returning to an extra letter or misplaced quotation mark once I’ve noticed it in a story.

However, “writing mechanics” is No. 5, not No. 1, on this countdown.

The reason is that it’s more important to be ethically correct than grammatically correct.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of “The Elements of Journalism,” agree.

“Again, people care less whether journalists make mistakes, or correct them well, or always pick the right stories,” according to the book, which defines 10 core purposes of journalism. “The key element of credibility is the perceived motive of the journalist. People do not expect perfection. They do expect good intentions.”

I don’t think the authors were talking specifically about mechanical mistakes, but it’s a relevant quote nonetheless.

That’s it for No. 5. Just remember: Smith could be Smyth, or Smythe or Smithe. You just never know.

What prevents journalists from having perfect spelling, word choice, AP style and grammar? I’ve learned that one of the biggest factors is deadlines.

And that’s the subject of journalism challenge No. 4.

Cross posted from Andrew Gibson’s personal blog.

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