journalistic rigor in… the blog?

President Obama said in 2009:

I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.

Is this fair?

blog

It’s true that there is a lot of chaff out there: some estimates put the number of blogs in the tens of millions, with the number of new posts a day at 500,000. Not all of these are active of course — many blogs don’t survive past the first few months of their existence. Of those that do, most are of limited interest to anyone but the creator and his or her friends and relations. And for those few that actually do get a decent following, a good portion are escapist — humour, celebrity gossip, TV-show fansites, and the like. I have no quarrel with any of that: give me a good dose of Crappy Pictures (crappy baby!), Hyperbole and a Half (love pathetic dog), Go Fug Yourself (“look into pants“), or The Bloggess, (“knock, knock, motherfucker“) and most days I’m perfectly happy.**

But I think Obama has it completely wrong. Bloggers are upending journalism and research in ways that truly benefit the consumer of content on the internet.They are the new fact-checkers, in a journalistic environment where news desks are being cut, where consumers expect real-time news, and where a timely story is valued more highly than an edited one.

Consider the following.

News-analyst bloggers

Blogger Carol Waino of mediaculpa discovered and exposed the alleged plagiarism of Globe and Mail star columnist Margaret Wente (among others). Her side-by-side comparisons of Wente’s “work” and the work of others are astounding. It hasn’t resulted in Wente losing her job (yet), but it did prompt the Globe to suspend her, issue an apology (of sorts), put its content behind a pay-wall, and block commenting on some of its articles. The CBC removed Wente from its Q Media panel. So why wasn’t the Globe‘s editorial desk taking care of this sort of fact checking, the sort of fact checking that someone with free time, some motivation, and an internet connection can do with ease? Waino has stepped into a vacancy at the Globe all right, but she’s not being paid for it, and she’s certainly not being thanked for it. On the contrary, in her words, the Globe’s response to her work has been “frosty.” But as news consumers, Carol, I tell you: we are grateful.

And an example of a blogger unearthing even more important and embarrassing falsehoods: During the 2004 American presidential election, Charles Johnson and other bloggers exposed documents regarding purported irregularities in George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard as forgeries.

Scientist-bloggers

Mark LibermanRosie Redfield, and Ben Goldacre analyse and critique scientific studies and scientific journalism, usually by actually looking at and evaluating the data and research methodology.

Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania and co-helmsman of the popular Language Log blog, a makes mincemeat of scientific “scholarship” on a near-weekly basis. His blog includes countless examples of this sort of investigation; a recent one is his skeptical assessment of claims that young people today are less empathetic than those in a bygone age.

Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the RRResearch blog, is an open-science advocate who entered the public eye when she made a justified stink in the #arseniclife affair, which cast serious doubts on NASA claims  to have discovered arsenic-based lifeforms on Earth.

And Goldacre, a medical doctor from the United Kingdom who has used his BadScience blog to expose sloppy (at best) and near criminal (at worst) research methods and reporting, has done an enormous amount to educate the public on how to assess what they read in scientific journals and the popular press. See what he has to say about Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax, for example.

This is not “all opinions”

This is not “all opinions.” This is not “people shouting at each other across the void.” On the contrary, this is careful and considered work that holds traditional journalists and researchers accountable. It gives consumers some assurances that someone is taking a look. And, most importantly (I think), it shows us that regular people can take a look too…. we learn from writers like Waino, Liberman, and Goldacre how to read critically.

Time to reflect in a time of instant information?

Why have bloggers taken on this role? It might have something to do with the rise of Twitter and Facebook — platforms that allow for people to communicate an instant reaction to events around the world. This means that the traditional journalists have to get content together in a real hurry too — the competition for a scoop, the race to get there first, must be brutal in this digital age. And, unfortunately, it’s at the expense of quality. (“Report a Typo” forms are de rigueur these days –– news sites expect you to find mistakes. Think about that for a moment.) In contrast, bloggers can take their time. They can read the tweets, the status updates, the hastily-put together news articles, and reflect. Analyse. Fact-check.

In a 2010 piece for Wired, Clive Thompson states

[Twitter and status updates have] already changed blogging. Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays. Why?

“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.

What do you think of this? What blogs do you read? How do you rate blogs against more traditional news outlets like The Globe and Mail or the New York Times? Have bloggers influenced the way you read? Add your thoughts to the comments below.

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** I only wish that The Bruni Digest were still active. Believe me, it’s worth reading the archives.

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write for translation… even if you’re not going to translate

Why? Because writing for ESL and writing for translation makes for good technical writing, regardless of whether we have ESL readers or expect the documents to be translated. It makes writing more straightforward, consistent, predictable, and succinct.

In particular:

  • Use simple sentence constructions of subject-verb-object.
  • Use the active voice. The passive voice, although appropriate sometimes, can introduce ambiguity.
  • Use pronouns clearly so that the antecedent is clear.
  • Avoid turning verbs into nouns (nominalization).
  • Avoid phrasal and modal verbs. Phrasal verbs have two or more words. Choose a one-word verb that says the same thing. Modal verbs express the mood of the main verb (“should,” “could,” “can,” “would,” “might,” and “may”). Use these when there is no other way to make these subtle distinctions. Certainly avoid using both phrasal and modal verbs together.
  • Avoid noun strings (more than one adjective).
  • Use positive language: avoid negative constructions.
  • Choose one term for a concept and use it consistently.
  • Do not omit articles and prepositions when they help to clarify the meaning.
  • Avoid wordiness: keep sentence length under 20 words.

Examples
Before:
To ensure synchronization (nominalization) between the two (redundant) controller cards is maintained (passive), the operating system occasionally performs an automatic reload of (nominalization) the standby controller card. To facilitate the automatic reload (repetitive, nominalization) of an controller card, the auto-boot? variable must be set (passive) to true. [40 words]

After:
To synchronize the controller cards, the operating system occasionally reloads the standby controller card. To enable this process, set the auto-boot? variable to true. [25 words]

when is an error not an error?

People … feel emotional about the past. Thousands of comments followed the post. At stake here is really the arbitrariness of so many rules of writing. We respect most of them merely for the sake of consistency.

— Russell Smith (The Globe and Mail,19 Jan 2011), regarding a column about style and typography.

Many grammatical and stylistic “rules” have been drilled into us since early school days. However, a good portion of these are not real errors – the best of our writers make them (Shakespeare, Austin, E.B. White, Orwell).

It doesn’t help that popular style books state the “rules” (The Elements of Style; “Politics and the English Language”), while simultaneously breaking them. This fills writers with self-doubt and confusion.

Q: Which of these are errors?

  • Splitting an infinitive.
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition.
  • Beginning a sentence with a conjunction (such as “and” or “but”).
  • Using the passive voice.

A: None of them.

Compare:

  • Donors have pledged $100 million to dramatically increase learning opportunities for undergraduates. (Split infinitive. Are we bothered? No.)
  • Donors have pledged $100 million to increase dramatically learning opportunities for undergraduates.(Better? I think not.)

Should you revise this sentence?

  • Spell check won’t help you when you have the wrong word to start with.  (Are you worried about the preposition at the end of the sentence? Don’t be.)

So, should we enforce these “rules”?

Yes, sometimes. Consistency is important—it makes the voice neutral, especially even when multiple writers are involved in a project. Adhere to your style guide. And remember that readers are armchair editors who have been warned about the very same “errors.” They will judge you, especially if they notice inconsistencies. People really, really, really, really care about matters of style, grammar, spelling, and the like.

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken.

— Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

So, break the “rules” if it makes sense – but pick your moments.

don’t hide your actions under a bushel

Nominalization is a fantastic word. Like multisyllabic, it perfectly illustrates itself. It means “the noun form of a verb or adjective.” In this case, the verb is nominalize, which means “to make a noun from a verb or adjective.”

But nominalization is not always such a good practice. Nominizations can (not always; see below) weaken your writing by turning powerful energy-filled verbs into nouns, draining away the action from your sentence. Unfortunately, nominalizations are among the scourges of technical writing. I’m not sure why! Fortunately, once you start looking for them, they’re easy to find and (usually) easy to revise away.

In Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams (Canadian Edition by Joseph M. Williams and Ira Nadel) gives some helpful examples of how to find and excise nominalizations from your writing. The following examples are inspired by his work.

Nominalized verbs

In general, writing is more clear when the main action is in the form of a concrete verb rather than a noun.

Compare (VERBS are in all-caps; nominalizations in bold):

  • It PERFORMS a reboot of the system
  • It REBOOTS the system
  • We COME to the discovery that…
  • We DISCOVER that…
  • Please DO a review of the data
  • Please REVIEW the data
  • Customers may MAKE an objection if..
  • Customers may OBJECT if…

NOTE that the action and the verb COINCIDE in the more direct examples. Or, if you prefer (and would you really?): It IS notable that there IS a coincidence of action and verb in the more direct examples.

Nominalized adjectives

Likewise, try to use a concrete verb instead of an adjective. Actions hidden in adjectives usually appear after a form of the verb to be.

Compare:

  • The data ARE indicative of the general trend.
  • The data INDICATE the general trend.
  • Our product IS deserving of such an honour because….
  • Our product DESERVES such an honour because…
  • These examples ARE applicable to our situation.
  • These examples APPLY to our situation.

Exceptions

As with so many “rules” of writing, there are exceptions: sometimes a nominalization is better than the alternative. For example:

  • What we have argued previously…
  • These arguments ….
  • The fact that our service team acknowledges every call…
  • Our service team’s acknowledgement of every call…
  • We will respond to what you request.
  • We will respond to your request.

writing release notes (bug descriptions)

Five or so years ago, I wrote these guidelines on how to write release notes for the software developers I work with. I’m happy to say that I still get asked for copies.

Where I work, we generate lists of release notes directly from our bug-tracking software. For each bug that we plan to reveal to the customer, the software developers write draft release notes and draft workarounds right in the bug tracker, and then technical writers (like me) go in and edit their text. Then, right before a software release, we press a button and get our list of issues for the customer.**

The release notes process likely varies a lot from company to company, but I am posting these tips here anyway in the hope they may be useful to someone else. (I couldn’t find much advice online when I first started working on bug descriptions.) I’ve included sample problem descriptions as well as workarounds.

How to describe a software bug

What do customers need to know? Give them just enough information so that they can recognize and respond to an issue. Things to consider:

  • Symptom—How will the customer recognize the issue?
  • Trigger—What customer action or particular configuration or some combination thereof might cause the issue?
  • Operational impact—What is the effect in the customer environment? (I work in the IP routing domain, so some examples here are things like dropped sessions, accounting errors, access problems, upgrade issues, and so forth.) If there is no impact, or if the issue is display-only, say so.

Examples:

How to write a workaround

Things to include:

  • How can the customer avoid the problem?
  • How can the customer recover from the problem if it does occur?

Examples:

Information to exclude

  • Hidden commands (ones the customer will not see)
  • Customer names
  • Real user names
  • Code snippets
  • Feature IDs
  • Code snippets
  • Low-level details, such as the interaction between internal processes

Always describe the bug as if it were open (even after it’s fixed)

Even if you publish lists of fixed issues, as we do, I recommend you do not revise the bug description to put it into the past tense after you fix the bug. It’s too much overhead. We think it’s enough to include the issue in a list called “Resolved Issues.” Also, this approach will allow you to handle a bug that may be open in one software branch and fixed in another—you can get by with a single description that works for both cases.

Also, if your bug-tracking software includes separate fields for the release note text and the workaround text, you can omit the workaround when you generate your list of fixed bugs.

**OK, it’s a bit more complicated than that!

participatory design in libraries

While many academic libraries are constructing learning commons, the implementation varies from place to place depending on the needs of the library users (Somerville and Collins 803). It is not enough to decide to build a learning commons and expect to find a blueprint that will suit all libraries: one size does not fit all. How best to determine what’s right for a particular institution? One important strategy is to involve library users early on in the project. This approach is called participatory design.

Nancy Fried Foster tells us that

Participatory design is an approach to building spaces, services, and tools where the people who will use those things participate centrally in coming up with concepts and then designing the actual products.
(“Participatory Design” 1)

Sens identifies participatory design as another trend in library design. He describes Georgia Tech’s recent renovation, during which “‘student affinity focus groups’ helped solidify a list of desired characteristics that informed every space, ranging from the café to the theater space. As a result, the new Georgia Tech library integrated current student needs with a vision for the future” (“12 Major Trends”).

Planning committees that consult library users early in the process can ensure that the new space is valuable to its patrons. Such consultation also changes how librarians think about users, bringing their needs to the foreground. And finally, this relationship fosters a cycle of continuous improvement (Somerville and Collins 803). Student input should not begin and end with the initial plans; rather, the principles of participatory design encourage continued dialog so the space continues to be relevant to library users as their needs evolve.

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Works Cited
Foster, Nancy F. “Introduction.” Participatory Design in Academic Libraries: Methods, Findings, and Implementations. Council on Library and Information Resources, Wash., DC. (2012): 1-3. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Foster, Nancy F. and Sania Battalova. “Participatory Design: EIFL Webinar.” eifl.net. 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Sens, Thomas. “12 Major Trends in Library Design.” Building Design & Construction, 50.12 (2009): 38-42. ProQuest. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Somerville, Mary M. and Lydia Collins. “Collaborative Design: a Learner-Centered Library Planning Approach.” Electronic Library 26.6 (2008): 803–820. Emerald Publishing. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

the emergence of the learning commons

Chapman Commons at UBCAs Marcia J. Bates tells us, we gain knowledge when “information [is] given meaning and integrated with other contents of understanding” (1036). Giving students access to information is not enough. Library design has therefore been moving away from the more traditional information commons and toward a learning commons (Sens).

What is a learning commons? Richard A. Holmgren describes it as a space that:

  • Includes a range of services, such as writing services, IT support, a library reference desk, tutoring services, food and drink, and more (178).
  • Offers various workspaces, including some or all of couches, tables, desks, study rooms, traditional carrels, access to multimedia tools, and so on (178).
  • Supports students as they work either independently or in collaboration, and seek assistance from others (178).

In “12 Major Trends in Library Design,” Thomas Sens identifies the emergence of the learning commons as one of the important recent trends in library design today. He states that “the commons has become the heart and soul of the academic library…. [it] has become a blend of computer technology services and classical library reference and research resources. It serves as a hub for students to gather, exchange ideas, collaborate, and utilize multiple technologies” (Sens).

In “Designing for Uncertainty: Three Approaches,” former Yale librarian Scott Bennett identifies some issues with the information commons and contrasts it with a learning commons:

Genuine collaborations among historically distinct and physically separated student support services require immense attention, support, and nurturance. There is excellent potential for success, improvement to services, and epiphanies that lead to betteroutcomes for student academic success and productivity. (168)

Elsewhere, Bennett explains that while the information commons supports students’ independent “manipulation and mastery of information” (“Libraries Designed” 38), a learning commons is a more social, integrated, and flexible space. It enables students to work collaboratively and to adapt their environment to their varied and mutable needs; this in turn helps them “turn information into knowledge and sometimes into wisdom” (38).

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Works Cited
Bates, Marcia J. “Fundamental Forms of Information.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57.8 (2006): 1033-1045. Wiley Online Library. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.

Bennett, Scott. “Designing for Uncertainty: Three Approaches.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33. 2 (March 2007): 165-179. Science Direct. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

—. “Libraries Designed for Learning.” Council on Library and Information Resources, Washington, DC. (2003) Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Holmgren, Richard A. “Learning Commons: A Learning-Centered Library Design.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17.2-3 (2010): 177-191. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

Sens, Thomas. “12 Major Trends in Library Design.” Building Design & Construction, 50.12 (2009): 38-42. ProQuest. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.