Passive voice redeemed

Here’s something I love about the Internet: the way it forces you to reconsider what you think you already know. Take the passive voice, for example. For years, I’ve urged journalists to avoid it in almost every circumstance. Writing in the passive means putting the object before the verb and sometimes leaving the subject out altogether. That can leave the audience wondering who did what, and it’s often a signal that the writer needed to do more reporting.

Now comes the Internet, which requires a different way of thinking about writing.  While most text should be written in the active voice,  Jakob Nielsen says that rule doesn’t always apply.

Recent findings from our eyetracking research emphasized the overwhelming importance of getting the first 2 words right, since that’s often all users see when they scan Web pages. Given this, we have to bend the writing guidelines a bit, especially for elements that users fixate on when they scan — that is, headlines, subheads, summaries, captions, hypertext links, and bulleted lists.

So to get the right key words at the start, you may need to resort to passive voice.  Example: “Deer hunter finds body of missing girl” is active, but puts the key words at the end.  “Missing girl’s body found” is in passive voice but the key words come first.

This isn’t the only exception to the no passives “rule” for journalists.  When writing to video, you may decide to put the object first because that’s what you have pictures of.  Just be sure that when you use a passive in any medium, you do it for a good reason.


Ethics in translation

How do you use sound bites from an interview with someone whose native language is not English? The standard approach is to have their answers translated and use a voiceover for the bite you decide to include. That sounds simple enough, but it can get complicated, as Rich Beckman points out in NPPA’s News Photographer magazine.

Even in Spanish, the most common foreign language in the States, the same words and expressions can have different meanings depending on which country and region your subject is from. It’s important to have people who know these nuances to help you maintain accuracy.

Point taken. Now let’s say you have an accurate translation in hand. Who’s going to voice it and how?

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Stop yelling at me

Job applicants, be forewarned.  TV news directors don’t want you to shout.  They don’t want sing-song delivery, nasality or sloppy articulation, either, according to a 2005 survey by Ann Utterback.  But they hear a lot of it.  Former news director Dave Cupp, who now teaches at the University of North Carolina, writes in the journal Electronic News about watching a news director screen audition tapes for a reporter position.   After just seven seconds, he’d had enough.

At that instant, [he] spoke aloud, literally talking back to the image on the TV screen.  “No!” he said.  “Stop yelling at me.”  With that, he punched the Eject button…”I always try to give each applicant at least 10 seconds.  But sometimes I just can’t.”

Does that sound heartless?  It’s a fact of life for news directors who often have 100 or more applicants for every on-air opening.  If you’re one of those applicants, you have to make a good impression in the first 10 seconds or less.  And the way you sound will have a lot to do with it. In Utterback’s survey, 86 percent of TV news executives said voice has been a factor in their hiring or firing of on-air talent.  Work on your voicing.  Get some coaching.  And please, don’t shout.

Video veracity

We often talk about the opportunity multimedia reporting provides to tell more of a story – the Web, for example, is a perfect medium for providing audiences access to source documents, links to more information, etc. Now, KCNC-TV in Denver has found a way to use the Web to be more transparent in its reporting, helping audiences to better understand the context of edited video.

In Al’s Morning Meeting, Poynter’s Al Tompkins details KCNC’s investigation of a company that contracts to de-ice aircraft in the U.S. and around the world. According to the report, the company fed test answers to applicants who have to be certified before they can de-ice planes. Tompkins says this is a big deal because Federal Aviation Administration records show that since 1993, 135 airplanes have crashed and 171 people have died because their planes were not properly de-iced.

Al says the station also used its Web site to offer people an inside look at the station’s reporting.

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Integrated newsroom pays off

The New York Times has finally entered the 21st century at its new headquarters at 620 Eighth Avenue. Instead of being housed in separate buildings five blocks apart, the print and online newsrooms are now integrated. Web producers sit right next to the print news desk. As a result, says deputy managing editor Jon Landman, “It’s simply much easier to get together, either spontaneously or by design, and it’s much easier to share ideas.” Take a video tour here.

User generated video losing its appeal?

Online video sites are scaling back their use of amateur videos in favor of professionally produced programming, according to a report in Business Week. “People would rather watch content that has production value than watch their neighbors in the garage,” says Matt Sanchez, co-founder and chief executive of VideoEgg. One major reason for the switch is that advertisers will pay more to support professsional content. That doesn’t mean user-generated video is dead.

But to stay relevant, non-pros will have to step up the quality. And even when they do, the mix of user-generated video and professional content is likely to look very different in a couple of years. VideoEgg’s Sanchez sees it changing from a landscape dominated by user-generated video to one where the most watched content is largely professionally produced. “The user will still be on the playlist,” Sanchez says. But “it will be 10% to 15% of consumption, not 60% of consumption.”

Lost Remote‘s Cory Bergman says that analysis misses the point.

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Crime data stories

lacrimemap.jpgLots of news organizations have created crime maps online; many of those maps include searchable databases. But the Los Angeles Times has taken crime data to a whole new level on its Homicide Map. All homicides for the year are mapped by location, but also sorted by age, race/ethnicity, gender, cause of death, day of week. You can tell at a glance that more people die of gunshots in LA than any other cause, and that the overwhelming majority of victims are male. But that’s not what’s so innovative here. If you click on a name in the list of victims, a pop-up window appears on the map with details about the person’s death and an opportunity to comment. Hundreds of people have weighed in with comments like these about the death of Eddie Green:

Boobie, was more then a friend to me he was my brother and an uncle to my children. GOD I MISS YOU SO MUCH BOOBIE……. I can’t understand this unfamiliar feeling of HURT…. Get togethers won’t be the same with your smile not there lighting up the place.


These personal stories add power and meaning to what had been a dry list of data. Outstanding work.

Unlearn what you know

Three misconceptions about the audience are leading journalists to produce vapid journalism for the Web, says Robert Niles in the Online Journalism Review. Do you think today’s audience suffers from too-short attention spans, can’t handle details and hates numbers? Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Niles.

Attention spans are not the issue. Competition for time is. People will drop everything to read 800 pages, if it offers a thrilling narrative like Harry Potter. But they won’t waste a moment on garbage…If your content is not grabbing an audience, don’t blame attention spans. Blame your inability to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

As for detail, Niles points out that people crave minutiae on subjects that interest them. A site that “dumbs down” reporting for the uninitiated risks losing loyal readers, he says, so Niles suggests using hyperlinks to provide explanations for people who need them. And numbers? “If you put math (or anything else) in a context that readers can understand, well, they’ll understand it.”

I don’t think that means you should use lots of numbers or acronyms when you write for a general audience–quite the contrary. But don’t be afraid to tackle difficult stories and explain their significance. Make it compelling, and the audience will come.

Journalistic suicide

A cable news anchor in New York has lost his job for making a crank call to one of the station’s talk shows. A Washington Post reporter has been disciplined for sending an angry email. Both journalists expressed their personal opinions in ways they clearly should not have.

According to the New York Daily News, anchor Gary Anthony Ramsay, a 15-year veteran of the local cable outlet New York 1, made comments about the city’s former police chief Bernard Kerik on the station’s nightly talk show, “The Call.”

New York 1 sources said Ramsay committed journalistic suicide by revealing his opinions on Kerik and by not identifying himself when he spoke on “The Call.” When he called, he claimed he was “Dalton, from the upper East Side,” a source said.

The Washington Post’s music critic, Tim Page, got in trouble for responding to an unsolicited press release about the city’s former mayor, Marion Barry. In an email sent from his Post account, Page called Barry a “crack addict” and accused him of “half-witted political grandstanding.”

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Moyers’ take on media ownership

Bill Moyers of PBS has been crusading against media consolidation for years. With the FCC again considering new ownership rules, Bill Moyers Journal took on the issue again.  As you watch this, remember that it’s an opinion piece and focuses on just one side of the issue.