Open mike for interns, 2008 edition
Here's the comment from Luke**: "It's a struggle finding where what you've been taught was ideal in J-school applies and when exceptions are OK." He's quite right, and it may not be much consolation to know that the boundary can remain fluid long after the J-school and internship stage. But the matter does touch on a lot of issues that keep on coming up here, and interns are often in an especially ill-defined position when it comes to negotiating those issues.
There's the problem, for starters, of exactly how grammatical you want to get. One of the fun secrets of the newsroom is that the people who talk the loudest about "the language" often don't know very much about it (if you frequent the peevology section, you might have noticed that journalists -- and, to be fair, J-profs -- aren't alone in this regard). If someone tells you to stop sending over passive heds, you might need a decoder ring to know whether "passive" means "passive" or just "boring."
In many ways, you and your slot editor are navigating by throwing rocks in the dark and waiting to hear if any glass breaks. You're trying to figure out what the slot means by "grammar" and "rules," and the slot's wondering whether you let a split auxiliary go through because you exercised solid professional judgment or because you've never heard of the one "rule" the publisher remembers from college. Who's going to ask first? That's tricky even in a relationship where power is about even.
(The faculty*** is in a bit of a bind too. There's a lot of stuff in the secret-handshake category that really shouldn't be taught anymore -- certainly not as "grammar." But practically, we can't stop teaching the "over/more than" thing until editors stop testing for it. I expect lots of people on both sides will be happy to attend the opening ceremony of the disarmament talks, but until then, it'd be a brave journalism school that decided to teach the AP Stylebook as an important cultural artifact with nothing whatsoever worth reading about grammar and usage.)
Figuring out the grammar part is only the beginning. At some point in any good journalism program, students are introduced to the Forbidden Ledes: "It's official," "Christmas came early for ..." and all the other ones that should never stain a dead pine tree. The list tends to leave out a mundane but highly pertinent observation. Writers use the Forbidden Ledes. A lot. What's going to happen the first time you kill a "Christmas came early" on the local front centerpiece?
Did somebody say all journalism students ought to take at least one stats course? Well, they should. Does that mean someone's going to listen when you suggest that Star Reporter's keen political analysis of the latest poll is entirely unsupported by the data? You may be right, but don't expect to win.
So with that cheery screed aside, I hope this summer's journalism interns will take a moment to offer some advice. Two specific questions are posed:
1) What's the biggest surprise of your summer in journalism?
2) What's the one thing we should have taught you and didn't?
If you're an intern, please hit the button and comment. If you work in a shop with some interns, let 'em know they're invited. If you have some comments from your recent experience on either side**** of the divide, you can play too.
I hope to hear from you.
* Dating back to the turn of the millennium, when HEADSUP-L was an actual Listserv with a mere few dozen subscribers
** More visitors from KU would be welcome, by the way.
*** A whole bunch of us are going to get together and talk about you guys next week, by the way. Just so's you know.
**** I know. See above about the AP Stylebook.