Thursday, July 28, 2005

First, do no harm

Today's lesson steals shamelessly from our better-paid brethren -- sistren? siblren? -- in the medical dodge, who understand that a nice job of stitching doesn't do much good if you forgot which way a couple of similar-looking organs were supposed to fit back in and just, sort of, well, left 'em out instead. Somehow the patient seems not to work as well as he or she did before.

That holds true even for the lowly wire story, particularly if you put it on the front page, as in this example from 1A Wednesday:

Nearly one out of every three Missourians gambled in the past year, according to new survey results released Tuesday by the state Department of Health and Senior Services. But state gambling officials bet the actual figure is much higher. After weighting the results to correspond with the demographics of Missouri's adult population, the health department concluded that 32 percent of the state's adults gambled.

The trouble begins with the "but" clause (don't worry about the "but," though; it's almost always better than "however"). It sets the reader up for a sentence that explains what the real figure is thought to be. What we get, though, is a restatement of the lede, so the logical structure looks like this:

Nearly 33 percent of Missourians say they gambled last year.

But the real figure is probably much higher.

Once the figures are adjusted, it turns out that 32 percent of Missourians gambled last year.

Well, stop the press: 32 percent is nearly 33 percent.

Here are the two grafs that originally came between the second and third sentences:

Last year marked the first time Missourians were asked about gambling as part of the annual behavioral risk survey conducted by the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

The telephone survey asked adults whether they had gambled in the past 12 months, without specifying what activities qualified as gambling. Of the 4,712 people who responded, 1,416 said they had gambled.

Nothing wrong with deleting those to fit in the space available. The problem arises because the next sentence isn't deleted: After weighting the results to correspond with the demographics of Missouri's adult population, the health department concluded that 32 percent of adults gambled. It's explaining why a raw figure of about 30 percent probably adds up to about 32 percent in real life, but without the context, it sounds as if we needed an extra layer of statistical work to figure out that a third is really about a third.

Rather than explaining that, why not explain something that needs explaining? Cut the fifth graf, which repeats the second sentence:

But "that's probably a low number," said Kevin Mullally, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission and chairman of the Missouri Alliance to Curb Problem Gambling.

and edit the sixth graf to fit:

For example, Mullally said the figure likely would be higher if survey respondents considered that basketball office pools, bingo and lunch wagers based on the outcome of certain events all amount to gambling -- just as if a person were putting change in a slot machine or buying a lottery ticket.

Try something like: "The figure would probably have been higher if respondents had counted bingo and basketball pools as gambling, officials said."

It's not Shakespeare (hell, it ain't even Wallace Stevens), but it explains what needs explaining. And it doesn't leave readers thinking we can't count to 32.

PS: Sharp-eyed readers might be wondering about the reference to the "health department." Missourian style would make that the "Health Department." Don't nod approvingly at style mistakes. Fix them.


Anonymous Amy Fiscus said...

What's the aversion to 'however'? You've explained this before, but it escapes me.

12:12 PM, July 29, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

"However" isn't wrong here, but it's worth the occasional reminder because people tend to read it as a rule -- thou shalt not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction -- rather than an option. I prefer "but" because it's shorter and offers a chance to bitch about the differences between rules, preferences and whims. And why play outdoors when you can bitch about language?

4:24 PM, July 31, 2005  

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