Thursday, June 30, 2005

Coffee with the Missourian

A few quick impressions from this morning's effort -- not the Web version, which isn't up at this writing, but the paper one, which miraculously landed in the neighbor's driveway instead of under his truck. But we're going to talk about content, not delivery.

COY CORRECTIONS: "A photo caption in the June 12 edition contained incorrect information." News flash. That's what "corrections" means. A correction shouldn't repeat the error it corrects, but it needs to say what the error was: date, number, name? Try something like "A photo caption June 12 reported an incorrect number." And cut it out with "the June 12 edition."

ALBOM ALERT: One of the best ways to set yourself up for a fall is to proclaim what the weather "will" do ("Short rain will bring relief from heat," 1A). You can say what it's expected to do, or what the experts hope it will or won't do, but don't tempt nature by being definite.

Farther inside but of greater importance, never -- yes, to repeat a point, that means never, never, never -- say "is being held on $200,000 bond" ("Woman faces charge," 4A). You know what was true Wednesday -- "was being held Wednesday on $200,000 bond" -- but you have no way of knowing what will be true Thursday morning. This is a really simple rule, and we need to follow it without fail.

RTFP: Speaking of "Woman faces charge of assault," what's in that headline that wasn't on Wednesday's front page? If this story's in the paper because bond was set, or to update the victim's condition, that's what the hed needs to reflect -- not old news.

SAVE IT FOR USA TODAY: "As the temperature rises, so does our desire to water our lawns" (1A). Don't talk about what "we" want unless you have some data to back it up. Come to think of it, don't do it then either. Save the "we're eating more beets" bit for your robot masters at Gannett, once you're hired there.

LONG DISTANCE, LOCAL STORY: "Taliban" is a plural noun, so don't use it with a singular verb ("Taliban claims responsibility," 3A). Since this looks so weird, better to use "Taliban" to modify a noun -- Taliban leaders, a Taliban spokesman -- that can then govern number.

Macro point: That hed might be true, but there's no way to tell from the story. When you're cutting, whether on the screen or the page, don't cut the part of the story that the hed comes from. If it's far enough down in the story to cut, you should question why it's the hed.

And yeah, that being one of the country's two Current Unpleasantnesses, I'd say it qualifies as a local story. There's more here for me, at any rate, than in another featurized lede about Mizz Thistlebottom's third-grade science class.

AND YOUR DEGREE IS FROM ...? Watch out for gee-whiz ledes like "Two MU researchers are changing the face of autism diagnosis" (1A). A statement that sweeping needs a lot of backup -- for starters, where does this step fit in these folks' research program, and how do other autism researchers characterize it? Science tends to be a back-and-forth process, and one refereed publication doesn't make a summer. There's a good story in here, but -- at least from the evidence we present -- nothing that can hold up the lede. (Time for another plug for HEADSUP-L's current favorite columnist, Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame. Read him every week for strong bones and teeth.)

There's lots more, but real work calls. Next up?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Question heds: The plague continues

If the arguments trotted out already against question heds -- they risk shilling for the causes they report on, and they look dumb -- don't work for you, how about ... GRAMMAR?

You can't form a question in English by tacking a question mark on the end of a declarative sentence. You need to do some reworking, either inversion:

I am going to Isle of Capri/Are you going to Isle of Capri?

or what's known as "do"-support:

I went to Isle of Capri/Did you go to Isle of Capri?

Adding a question mark changes the meaning, but it doesn't create a question based on the original:

I went to Isle of Capri/*You went to Isle of Capri?

The question version might mean something like "Gee whillikers! I bet you had fun!" or "You b#$%&*%*&, you know we needed that money to pay the rent." But it does not mean "Did you go to Isle of Capri?"

So a hed like this, to the extent it isn't outright meaningless, suggests that the paper thinks the proposal at hand is a pretty bizarre idea:

To fight prostitution, educate 'Johns'?
Courts turn attention to men paying for sex

It doesn't mean (and there's nothing in the structure of English to suggest it could) "this is somebody else's idea." Or "We haven't verified this independently, but somebody else said it." The most grammatical meaning for it, again, is on the order of "You've got to be kidding."

Please, please, please, stop it with the question heds.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

And the foreign desk springs into action

Had to share this one, in part to remind the Missourian that other papers are equally capable -- sometimes more capable -- of writing disingenuous, question-dodging corrections. Here are some excerpts of one from today's Paper o'Record (do check out the original sometime, if only to see how morbidly overwritten a correction can be):

An essay on Page 15 of The Times Magazine ... misidentifies the hometown of Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina. ... He grew up in Rocky Mount, not in the hills near Greenville.

Here's the offending sentence (OK, again, part of it) from the original: Hank and his neighbors remind him of the people he grew up with in the hills near Greenville.

The correction leaves with you the impression that there are two places at issue, Rocky Mount and some hills near Greenville, and that the writer merely placed the governor in the wrong one. Not quite. There is a Rocky Mount, and it's pretty near Greenville (go up to Bethel and turn left), but there's no such place as "the hills near Greenville" because there are no hills near Greenville, which is in the forgodsake coastal plain (it is also the official HEADSUP-L Hometown of Record, so pardon us if we get exercised). The Times has decided, again, that it Really Doesn't Matter what you write about distant states, since ... well, I don't know. Maybe somebody at the Times will explain. Didn't anybody tell them the Steinberg map was a parody?

It's amusing in part because some colleagues and I at a smallish southern fount o'knowledge had a very similar conversation with a Times desk back in January '85 regarding this sentence and its surrounding story:

The state that produced the dark writings of Thomas Wolfe and the folksiness of the actor Andy Griffith still grows more tobacco than any other state, still holds a hollering contest every year for the mountain folk at Spivey's Corner and still celebrates Mule Day* in Benson to honor that fine farm animal.

In comparative terms, there are about as many mountains in Spivey's Corner as there are apple orchards in the Garment District. Like zed. It's in the aforementioned painfully flat coastal plain, as, oh, 15 to 30 seconds with a map would tell you. The Times's response: "Well, they let mountain people enter it, don't they?"

So copyeds, never venture into the world of the world wire without your atlas at hand. Some papers do. The end result is rarely pretty.

* That's Mule Days to you, bubba.


Here's a classic hed glitch to watch out for: taking two facts that are true independently and joining them into a third fact that's ... oh, let's say "debatable." Or "unable to support rejection of the null hypothesis." Or "nonsense."

Faithful flock to see legend
80,000 gain memory of lifetime
NEW YORK - Maybe this, in the end, is what Billy Graham means to the faithful:

Over a half-century of crusades, he has given who knows how many Christians a moment or a memory that will stay with them always. (Fact 1)

He has earned a place in the autobiographies of millions who can sit back in this summer of 2005 and recall with sweet clarity how this man came into their lives and homes and never really left.

... Saturday evening, following a Christian rock concert, Graham preached to a largely teenage crowd of 80,000 (Fact 2) for just 18 minutes, turning over the pulpit in that time to an unannounced guest: former President Bill Clinton, who was joined on the stage by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So, Fact 1: Some people who attend Billy Graham shows have the experience of a lifetime. Fact 2: Some 80,000 attended this one. 2+2=22: All 80,000 now have the memory of a lifetime. BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT!

Sure, this is the hometown paper, and it'd shill for Billy Graham even if he ate sauteed babies on stage and flossed with the American flag afterward. But maybe we could work a little harder to keep it out of the big type.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


So what happened? Did a cliche tanker overturn just upstream from Vox's water intake? Did we have a contest to see who could hit the softest and everybody lost? Was Friday the deadline for the Planet Mxyzptlk Scripps-Howard Bizarro Lede Contest? Or is there some other, better reason for the raftload of shopworn ledes in this week's Vox?

Question: What does Missouri have in common with Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma? (p. 5). Hell, I don't know. Overinflated sense of own cultural importance? Multiple geography-based isogloss bundles? Widespread tendency to mistake Roast Beef With Ketchup for barbecue? (Oops, there goes Virginia.) Capital punishment is a reasonably interesting topic. Let's go ahead and mention it in the lede.

The best gifts always come in small packages (p. 7). Well, it could have been worse. How could a lede like this be worse? It could have said: "As the saying goes, the best gifts always come in small packages."

It is a premise universally acknowledged by many people that when a book is made into a movie, the book is usually better (p. 11). If you're going to steal a lede, don't be coy. Have enough respect for the original to put some energy into it. "Universally acknowledged" means a lot more people than "many" (as "must be in want of a wife" is more definite than "is usually better"). This one might have escaped if only it had dropped those pesky qualifiers. As it is, it's down in the fourth or fifth circle with It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Which a cautious 306er would render It was the best of times, but for some, it was the worst of times. Which someone on the copydesk will then change to It was the best of times. However, for some, it was the worst of times. The road goes ever on and on.

News out of Columbia doesn't normally involve strong women, good-looking men and above-average children (p. 18). First off, tarry not but slay any lede of the genus Not Your Typical, Doesn't Normally or Most People Don't. Second, c'mon: If there's any place where "normal" is one standard deviation above the mean, it's Columbia. Above-average children and their hackneyed counterparts are exactly what the news around here does involve.

That's a pretty hefty cliche load for one week. Against it, the Missourian proper can only muster a "For some" (Thursday) and a "Help wanted" (Friday). Let's call this one a draw and start keeping these things out of the ecosystem. I hear they breed.

You guys are kidding, right?
Somebody really ought to mention this one, from Vox's "It figures" feature:

15: Migrant workers injured in a car accident just west of Columbia. They paid $500 for the ride from Los Angeles, and five of the 20 passengers were killed.

I'm trying to think of the circumstances under which nobody in the whole damn room would have twigged to the idea that this is in appalling, execrable taste for Vox's weekly dose of the trivial, coy and self-referential. So far, I'm coming up blank.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Forbidden Verb hat trick

Hey, sports fans: What do these cutlines have in common?

"Florida's Adam Davis, right, celebrates with teammate Jeff Corsaletti after both scored on Davis' first-inning home run" (3B Monday).

"Roger Federer reacts to winning match point against Andy Roddick in 2004's Wimbledon final" (4B Monday).

"Greg Biffle celebrates his fifth Nextel Cup win in 15 starts and another victory for Roush Racing, which has eight wins this season" (4B Monday).

Yow. Three in one section. Let's cut it out, shall we?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Is that a mote in your eye, or are you just glad to see me?

OK, we wouldn’t all be gathered ’round this little electric campfire if we didn’t think whingeing about language was fun, right? A downside, as some of you might have noticed already, is that those who would complain about language should do it really, really carefully, lest they be held up as examples for the rest of us.

Hence today’s food for thought, a column from one of the two leading local daily papers. The problem with it is not necessarily that it’s prescriptivist. We all have a little prescriptivist in us (some of us have a lot). Rather, it’s the array of side dishes – grammatical glitches, inability to distinguish fundamentals, dialect chauvinism, BoCoMo ethnocentrism, hyperformal usage and annoying J-school-isms – served up along with the implausible, and essentially untenable, thesis.
[Footnote: Should you run across any mistakes in this screed, see Rule I. Hey, we all do what we can]

Let's start with a selection from the last paragraph:
Whew. I can get worked up about the misuse of the English language and how we’ve nearly destroyed it, but I think I’ll stop before one of my readers who is more anal than I points out the errors of my ways.

Notice the subtle hint of argument ad hominem here: people who point out errors are "anal," and there's a scale of less-to-more "anal" that runs alongside less-to-more persnickety in grammar/usage/whatever. (We're going to come back in a bit to whether it's possible to "destroy" a language short of killing everybody who speaks it, but the short answer is "no.") The writer is undertaking a preemptive strike against people who might suggest, for example, that if you're going to mention the number of years you've taught "word usage," you not do so in a sentence kicked off by a dangling participle:

But having taught word usage for nearly two decades, her pet peeve did strike a nerve.

"Dangler" is shorthand for a couple of misplaced-modifier sins, but this is the classic one: The introductory participial phrase modifies the grammatical subject of the sentence, and that's "peeve." What taught usage, in other words, is not the author, but the questioner's peeve. (The Missouri Group would have you believe that a postposed participial phrase can't modify the subject, but a long-established body of good English says otherwise [verse 39 here is one of many examples]. The issue is trickier when a predicative participle could modify a main-clause subject, a subordinate subject or an object, but we're getting to one of those.)

That one's a matter of "grammar." Compare it with these:

As parents, we allow our toddlers, who are just learning to form words, a wide berth when it comes to syntax. As a young mother, when my first born called a cricket a “hopgrasser,” I just smiled and let it pass. Another son got away saying pacific when he meant specific. But by the time they’re 5, it’s time to gently correct the child and insert the proper word.
“We taked the movie back to the store,” is replaced with “No honey we took the movie back to the store.”

Where to start? Well, word recombining, consonant cluster reduction and the like have little if anything to do with "syntax." "Pacific" for "specific" doesn't seem a lot different from, say, "asterick" for "asterisk," which often goes uncorrected in the speech of adults (as it should; adults who go around correcting other adults' pronounciation give honest pedants a bad name).

As for "we taked the movie back to the store," it's a parlor trick to point out how much syntax the notional 5-year-old has already put into this sentence: He has subject, verb and object in order. He knows where tense goes and how to inflect and regularize it. (The author doesn't say, but he's probably even figured out the rule for when to devoice the final consonant: /tekt/ vs. /tekd/*). What he hasn't done is stagger into the thicket of English irregular verbs, and if you get too bothered by those, well ... maybe the little darling has been paying attention too closely during the Eucharist. Sometimes it happens.

(While we're here, "honey," as a noun of direct address, needs to be set off by commas. That's how standard American English distinguishes "Let's eat, Buffy" from "Let's eat Buffy" -- as the hon. Friar Fuhlhage puts it, the difference between dinner party and Donner Party.)

Again, "taked" and "took" (or, more practically, "dived" vs. "dove") isn't an issue of grammar or syntax, or how words go together to make sentences and their friends. This one is: I can barely tolerate my 13-year-old granddaughter telling me about going to the mall with a friend using the words “like” and “go.” What's the object of "tolerate": the hapless granddaughter or her speech habits? Grammar has a well-established signal for that: If you want the object to be the gerund "telling," make "granddaughter" possessive (I can barely tolerate my 13-year-old granddaughter's telling me about going to the mall...). Otherwise, "telling" is a participle that adds a little more information about the poor adolescent Grandmother can barely tolerate. And while we're here, pace King James and his crack rewrite crew in the examples above, who's "using the words 'like' and 'go'" -- the friend, the granddaughter or the original subject?

It's often hard to tell exactly what the writer is exercised about: grammar, speech habits or usage. Using improper verb tenses is problematic nationwide is a usage issue. The writer apparently thinks improper verb tense is a problem, but choosing a glitzier word -- "problematic" -- that means something a shade different** muddies the point. Dangling participles, confusion of gerunds with participles and the like are grammar issues. Picking on people's speech -- especially when, like, you know, they've just been near-missed by a freakin' airplane ("When I seen the plane coming at me I ducked") -- is pretty uncharitable. If you're prone to any of your particular region's interesting dialect habits, it's also a good way to set yourself up for a fall.

That's the core problem with being a dialect snob. Nobody's going to misunderstand "We was going to the store." It's nonstandard ("substandard" if you want, "wrong" if you must), but unlike a misplaced modifier or a screwed-up noun of address, there's nothing unclear about its meaning. And for heaven's sake, it's speech. If you can't tell the difference between speech and writing, you're in more trouble than a copyediting blog can fix. It doesn't matter how often you use "however" when you mean "but."

The idea that the world revolves around Boone County is charming, but it illustrates the perils of drawing conclusions from a convenience sample. No, final "at" is not exclusively a Midwesternism; it's a staple of jokes in the "redneck at Harvard" category, for one. And this:

There is a verb phrase I think is used in only Boone County and one that drives me to distraction. I have had people say to me, “Come smell of the soup.” Can’t I just smell the soup? Why do I have to smell OF it?

Somebody needs to get out more. The construction isn't used "in only Boone County" (which strikes me as a hypercorrect version of "only in Boone County"). I have a friend from the wilds of North Carolina who has a bunch of interesting prepositional uses, including "feel of" ("He felt of my thigh, and I smacked him"). But the issue isn't Boone County v. Ashe County, it's that darned trail of construction going back to King James again:

He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it.

He means "all y'all drink from it," not "drink all of it." And no, the Mount of Olives is not in Boone County. I checked.

So, to summarize: Speech isn't writing. Usage isn't syntax. Complaining about grammar isn't the same thing as understanding it. Every dialect is its own glass house. Read a lot. English is no danger of being "destroyed" (it got run over by French 900 years ago and survived, 5-year-olds can apparently cop to its syntax pretty fast, and it's about to take over the world). People who complain about the coming death of English aren't usually talking about language; they're talking about something else (on the order of "And your music, it's just noise").

One more thing:

Because I’m on a roll, the word is Realtor not real-it-tor.

I don't claim to be on a roll, but the word is (well, the words are) "real estate agent." "Realtor" was invented by real estate agents to make themselves sound cooler. And people who don't want their invented words to undergo cluster reduction shouldn't invent words with difficult consonant clusters.

* Sorry, real phonetic alphabet unavailable.
** Look it up, dammit.

Friday, June 17, 2005

How long, O Lord?

Alleged hed in major East Coast fount o'knowledge:

Al-Zarqawi aide in custody?

Look, not to put too fine a point on it, but -- since you guys are the ones charging 50 cents a pop for a helping of your international expertise, why are you asking me?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Yo. Jersey. Wanna buy a bridge?

Fact-checking tends to be an underexplored part of the deskly life, in part because rim rats generally don't have time for the sort of full-bore, line-by-line sifting that magazines boast of. Like a traffic cop, you're not going to be very effective if you try to pull over every car you see, or every Nth one, or every Escort. But you can make better stops -- meaning better chances of picking off the bad guys and lower chances of irritating the civilians -- if you have a well-organized set of suspicions that you apply in order.

Here are some points of suspicion in a real story -- ripped from today's headlines, as it were -- and some conclusions they can lead to. Numbers refer to notes below the story:

Original 9-11 flag missing
It's believed to have been taken from site shortly after attacks
The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) (1)
HACKENSACK, N.J. - It's one of the most famous flags in American history, (2) destined to take its place alongside Francis Scott Key's star-spangled banner and the symbol of sacrifice and triumph at Iwo Jima.
It's the flag hoisted at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, by three New York City firefighters, immortalized in the photo by The Record's (3) Tom Franklin and taken to heart by millions as an emblem of the loss and heroism of that horrible day.
And the search for the flag has come up empty. (4)
The flag raised over the ruins of the World Trade Center was taken by firefighter Dan McWilliams from the Star of America yacht, docked near the site. It measured 3 feet by 5 feet. The flag returned a year later to the yacht's owners, Spiros Kopelakis and Shirley Dreifus, measured 5 feet by 8 feet.
It wasn't the same flag. (5)
"The city of New York lost the flag," Dreifus said.
She and Kopelakis say they tried suing the city administration to get them to find the flag, but their lawsuit seeking $525,000 in damages fizzled after the couple ran out of money. (6)
"The reason we came forward to say the flag was lost was so nobody could sell it on eBay," (7)Dreifus said. "It belongs in a museum, where people can see it. Or it belongs downtown. I have absolutely no idea where it is."
Dreifus said she and her husband were planning to donate the flag to the Smithsonian Institution. They believe the original flag was taken from ground zero soon after 9-11, because the larger flag bears the signatures of Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries who visited the site less than two weeks after the attacks on the twin towers.
The larger flag flew on U.S. ships serving in the war in Afghanistan, then was returned to New York in March 2002 to tour firehouses and police stations. It came back to Dreifus and Kopelakis when they planned a benefit cruise for fallen firefighters in 2002.
Calls for comment from New York City officials were not immediately returned. (8)
Franklin's photo seemed, more than any other image, (9) to capture that day's conflicting emotions of anger, sadness and pride. Franklin said that even now, he receives messages from people who were moved by the image.
"The flag should be treated as historic," he said. "The photo has meant so much to so many people. It saddens me to know the flag is not being treated with respect."

1) Not all stories that move on the wires are created equal. Stuff from the New York Times has gone through the Times' editing process before it shows up on the NYTimes News Service; stuff from Lakeland or Sarasota hasn't. A small paper is likely to have a significantly different --usually weaker -- editing machine. Alert perimeter guards.
2) Superlative alert. Whenever you see a superlative or absolute construction (even padded with a "one of the ...") in a lede, a list of runners-up and a breakdown of the scoring should follow. Here, it looks like painting the lily. Raise threat level one step.
3) Self-promotion alert. News value of story likely to fall off significantly if your paper is not The Record. Which it ain't. Raise threat level another step.
4) Delayed-impact news peg. This looks like the why-we're-running-this, and the verb tense suggests that it's not a Tuesday story but a sometime-this-week story. If that isn't borne out at some point in the text, you have a problem. Circulate description of intruder.
5) Sun-rises-in-East alert. Having just told you it can't be the same flag, writer proceeds to tell you it isn't the same flag! Issue live ammunition to copydesk.
6) Yacht-owning couple ran out of money to pursue half-million-dollar lawsuit? Sound general quarters and initiate search.

Remember, Google isn't a source; it's a way of getting to sources. Execute a narrow search there and in any relevant Lexis-Nexis spots you can reach. The yacht owner has a fairly distinctive name; try searching for 'kopelakis' and 'flag.' Dodging the blogs and tabloids, you can find a good news name -- the BBC -- on the first page. It will suggest that if there's a story here, it's going to need to go a long way beyond the events of September 2002, when the missing-osity of the flag was first reported.

At this point, the rim rat is justified in advising the wire desk that there isn't a story. But other departments have an investment in this thing too; it's taken some design and selection time. So keep on looking for evidence:

7) Somebody's blowing smoke. If there's a time the couple "came forward," it was in 2002 (March, April or September; you can take your pick, depending in part on your view of human nature). Is there something we aren't being told about the lawsuit -- filed in March 2004, as the Daily News reported under the classic tab hed "Sue city in 9/11 flag flap"?
8) "Calls were not immediately returned ..." is OK for a story that broke half an hour before deadline. On a day-old story from out of town, it's a dead giveaway that something is amiss. If the originating paper didn't want to at least mention what city officials had told the AP or the NYT at the time (one can see, perhaps, why the anonymous fire official's March 2004 comment to the News -- "They paid $10 for a flag, and now they want a half-million?" -- was omitted), there's always that staff-written piece from September 2002. I mean, it'd even let you say "city officials told The Record."
9) Irrelevant horn-tooting, but you have all the evidence you need by now anyway.

I was going to say something like "this isn't really such a bad story," but it really is such a bad story. It pretends to be something it isn't. It leaves a bunch of two- and three-year-old questions unanswered. It makes the paper look like it'll trade damn near anything for a handful of magic beans. And it takes up space that could be spent on real news.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Worse than the disease

Quick, what's more embarrassing than a correction (aside from that video of you, Paris Hilton in a Nixon mask, the vacuum cleaner and lots and lots of petroleum products)? Right. A correction of a correction. As in, it was nice of the Missourian to correct the errors in the 1A Friday tale about student drinking, but instead of two errors, both of them corrected, we now have five errors, none of them corrected. So let's chat a little about how to prevent -- and failing that, how to write -- corrections in survey stories.

Rule 1: Everything comes back to RTFS. That's going to be your life preserver as you remember these two central rules about survey tales (come to that, they probably go for other sorts of research tales as well):
* A survey measures only what it measures
* A survey says only what it says

When you're comfortable with that, you can head off almost any error, from the sort in the Friday and Sunday papers to the type of stuff reporters produce when they're trying to sound authoritative:

"The 2001 Carolinas Poll confirms what many believe about the Charlotte region: This is a faithful community."

Armed with Rule 1, you can counter: The hell it does. The poll measures the proportion of people who say they attended a worship service in the past week. It doesn't say whether they were looking out the windows, or coveting their neighbor's hem-hem, or reciting the Lord's Prayer backward after the offertory. It doesn't "confirm" a thing about who's faithful and who's not. That's a case of writer says, not "survey says."

Now on to the Friday Missourian, which reports a survey of MU students' drinking habits. Both the initial errors appear to stem from the same passage:

"Dude, who gave a presentation on student alcohol use, displayed data from a spring 2005 survey showing that 34 percent of MU students consumed alcohol three or more times a week, which was 11 percent higher than the national average of 23 percent."

The writer made a common error: The difference is 11 percentage points, but about 48 percent (if you wondered why things like that kept showing up on J4400 quizzes, it's so they won't show up in the Missourian). So the story got the "says" part wrong. The hed writer, by turning "more MU students drink three or more times a week" into "MU students drink more alcohol than the national average," misstated what the survey was measuring. Both straightforward, correctible errors of fact.

Trouble is, the correction managed to get both points wrong again: "A story and headline on Page 1A Friday about a survey of college students' drinking patterns included incorrect information. The survey found that 34 percent of MU students who reported drinking more than three times a week exceeded the national average by about 48 percent. Also, MU students reported drinking more frequently than the national average."

These are two different sorts of error than the originals, but the roots are still in the basics. It'll help if you can diagram a sentence, or at least break a clause down into complete subject and complete predicate, but start with the fundamental questions:

What does the survey measure? Percentage of students who say they drink three or more times a week.
What's the result? At MU, 34 percent; nationally, 23 percent.

Grammar time! What's the subject of the object clause? "34 percent of MU students who reported drinking more than three times a week." What did they do? Exceeded. What did they exceed? The national average. By how much? About 48 percent.

That shows you where the first error is. The survey isn't about 34 percent of MU students in the frequent-drinking category, it's about all the students in that category (34 percent of the students who report drinking three or more times a week would be about 11.5 percent of all MU students, or half the national average). Alert readers will have also noticed that "more than three times a week" is not the same thing as "three or more times a week"; again, if you can't correctly describe what the survey is measuring, you're going to make errors.

That same question will show you the next error as well: "Also, MU students reported drinking more frequently than the national average." It's entirely possible that MU students do drink more frequently than the average, but if so, it's a coincidence, not a finding of the survey.

What the survey found is that more of them drink "frequently," and again, look at the data. Let's say that students can fall in two categories: frequent drinkers (3 or more times a week) and others (0 to 2 times a week). "Frequent" is more frequent than "other," but we don't know how much more frequent: 7 vs. 0 is the same as 3 vs. 2.

We know that we have more of Category I (frequent drinkers), but on the evidence at hand, we don't know how frequently they drink. If most students nationally in Category I drink seven times a week, compared with three for the MU sample, and most students nationally in Category II drink twice a week (compared with none for MU), we have rather a different picture.

Part of the problem with the correction (hey, remember him?) is that it doesn't tell you what it's correcting. Corrections need to say what went wrong, not just that something went wrong (the hed says "corrections," so it's kinda painting the lily to tell me that there was "incorrect information"). And you can do that without repeating the error:

"A headline on page 1A Friday incorrectly described the findings of a study on student drinking patterns. The study found that MU students are more likely than the national average to be frequent drinkers. The accompanying article also misstated the relationship of the MU statistic to the national average. It is about 48 percent higher."

See? No need to waste space explaining what the story was about, or that "corrections" means "we screwed up."
Now go forth and do the math.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

J-thoughts of the masters

"No evidence is neutral; all evidence bears the bias of the witness, whether it records a tax-payment or a vision."
--G. E. Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise: A biography of William Blake

Friday, June 10, 2005

Knock and it shall be opened

Letter to the editor: "The O*****er should try catering to the majority. Watch more of Fox News -- that's how you report the news!"

Series standing slug: "WITH OUR SOLDIERS: O*****er reporter **** ********, right, and M***n T***graph photographer **** *** are in Iraq to report on our troops' humanitarian missions."

(The "our" is a form of empathetic deixis common to all the Murdoch products I've seen. I think it's most prevalent on Fox, but that might be because I no longer get to read the Sun every morning.)

How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Hey, gang, ever want your rezz to reach editors all across the purple mountains and amber waves? Try sending along a letter like this, provided -- names deleted to protect all parties -- by one of our alert regional buros. Having already accepted the job, the writer decides to ...

I wanted to get back to you earlier, but it's been really tight.

I had to come back to NNNNN again, looking for housing -- and I found nothing. At least I found nothing that was nice and affordable. There was lots of crappy housing in my price range, but nothing I felt safe with.

Also I have been offered another job with OOOOO that I've decided to take. I am really sorry about the late notice and wasting your time. And I want you to know that I was not looking for another offer. But it just fell in my lap. And I could really turn it down. ... But you guys were all very amazing and I am terribly sorry I won't be joining you.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The plague of question heds

Veiled hints don't seem to be doing it, so let's be a little more direct here. Certain major East Coast founts o'knowledge need to rein in the plague of question heds in their A sections in a major hurry, lest the young and impressionable start thinking question heds are acceptable. Here are two particularly bad examples from today's online edn (and yes, one implication of that is that if one question hed is bad, two is more than twice as bad).

Is extra milk bad for kids?
Children who drink more than three servings of milk each day are prone to becoming overweight, according to a large new study that undermines a heavily advertised dairy industry claim that milk helps people lose weight.

First, biggest and only-one-you-really-need rule: Question heds are questions. They should only go on stories that are about questions. This story is about an assertion, to wit: A new study suggests that milk isn't a good tool for controlling kids' weight. That's what the hed needs to reflect.

The hed is misleading in two other ways:
* It uses an abstract term ("extra") as a synonym for a concrete one ("more than three N-ounce servings").
* It uses one aspect of health (weight) to stand for a whole array of factors ("bad for kids"). If high dairy consumption correlates with other factors -- higher calorie consumption in general and less exercise, say -- there's no reason to believe the "extra" milk is "bad."

The article itself isn't flawless, but it does contain the stuff a hed writer needs to produce something useful and informative. Let's try to do that, rather than raising questions-that-aren't. (Designers, if you're forcing the rimsters to do science in 23 spaces or less, shame on you.)

Does Bible show where to find oil?
Businessman says biblical clues point to `blessings of the deep'

Well, in a word: No. Bible does not show where to find oil. Nor does Bible foretell Rabin assassination. (If I recall correctly, the page of "The Bible Code" on which that preposterous claim is demonstrated also contains right nearby the Hebrew word for "bridge," of which I have one in Brooklyn to sell to the next person who writes a hed like "Does Bible show where to find oil?")

HEADSUP-L likes to think of itself as a big tent, freedom-of-conscience-wise. Holy writ is, and should be, many things to many people. But it ain't petro-geography. And if the Fractious Near East has overnight gotten so sodding peaceful that you can p*** away your international news space on some goober who wants to go wildcatting with the Good Book, at least try to avoid suggesting that you take his assertion at face value.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A bad hed in the NYT is still....

... exactly! A bad hed:

It's Official:
It's All Up
To Cashman
And Torre

(page 4 of the Sunday sports section, if you're scoring along at home)

Friday, June 03, 2005

Logical hygiene, or keeping the brane clean

There's a reason we spend a bit of time in 4400-nee-110 going over some of the widely known errors in reasoning. Actually, there are several reasons:

* So you can be the life of the party with cool phrases like "post hoc, ergo propter hoc."
* So you don't say "begs the question" (Vox, p. 7) when you mean "raises the question." Begging the question would be supporting an assertion with another unsupported assertion, as in: "This is Fiona Apple's most adventurous album because she takes chances she's never taken before."
* And, of course, the real reason, which is to exercise good traffic-copping over what gets into the newspaper. From the editor's perspective, this comes in two main flavors, so pay attention.

1) Faulty reasoning (accidental or deliberate, it doesn't really matter) on the part of the source. Unfortunately, we don't get to put big red stickers saying NON SEQUITUR or ARGUMENTUM AD MISERICORDIAM on offending passages. But we might think about moving a contrasting paragraph higher in the story, asking the originating desk whether it sought out a rebuttal, suggesting that a passage be deleted or even asking to hold a story for a day or two in the interest of getting an appropriate comment.

2) Faulty reasoning on our own part. This too calls for consultation, but it's even more important to raise the flag; people who see it in the paper can't tell if we just don't know any better or if we're stacking the deck. Herewith a case in point, from Wednesday's 1A piece on traffic-stop statistics:

"The statistics also showed that on average, all blacks age 16 and older had a 60 percent of being stopped for a violation."

The statistics don't show that, for a couple of reasons. First, as the chief suggests, the stats measure total traffic stops against the population. They don't tally stops of nonresidents or account for the possibility anyone's being stopped more than once. That's not to say the overall percentage is inaccurate, it's to say we have no way of knowing whether it's accurate. If it's correct, it's correct only by accident -- not by "statistics."

Of equal concern, though, is the logical fallacy of turning this stat -- I think it's (traffic stops/black residents)(100), but this machine won't let me open two windows at the same time -- into a generalized percentage. It's called the fallacy of division: assuming that what's true of the whole is true in equivalent proportions of every part of the whole. If you're an undergraduate J-student reading this, you don't have a 60 percent chance of being female. Your chances are either 0 or 100 percent.

Circumstances beyond accidents of birth are likely to have an effect too. If you peacefully finish your shift at the Missourian, obey all the traffic laws while driving home, pour a glass of lemonade and settle in to memorize the stylebook, you have a pretty low chance of being arrested. On the other hand, if you get drunk, trash the place, ram a police cruiser on the way out of the parking lot, squeeze off a few rounds from a stolen handgun and and impugn the responding officers' heritage, your chances of free room and board for the evening go up substantially. You can't add those two chances, divide by two and get a number generalizable to the undergraduate J-population.

None of this is to say that the disparities in traffic-stop numbers aren't interesting and important. They are. It's a serious issue worth serious attention. But we're going to have a hard time reporting on that issue properly if we can't distinguish between "statistics say" and "Missourian says." And when we put a thumb on the metaphorical scales, we're not just suggesting that we have different rules for causes we like and causes we don't. We're giving everybody who doesn't believe there's racial profiling a chance to say: "See? All the reports on this are distorted" -- a Rush Limbaugh trick of the first order.

Speaking of whom, ff you want to sharpen your fallacy-hunting skills, tune Limbaugh in. In the brief time it takes to get from the Stewart-Providence intersection to the Hitt Street deck, he indulged in:
* Argument ad hominem: Gleefully quoting Ben Stein's idiotic observation that Mark Felt "looks like one of those old Nazi war criminals they find in Bolivia or Paraguay."
* Tu quoque: Lefties think Nixon was awful, but look at what Clinton did!
* Fallacy of composition: Whatever Dan Rather says is what The Meedja does (the singular usage is Rush's).

There might well have been more, but, y'know, keep your mind on your driving....

Corrections that don't

Couple of thoughts on the ongoing struggle to get stuff right and keep it that way:

1) From Thursday's 1A: "A story on page 1A Wednesday about W. Mark Felt being identified as 'Deep Throat' in the Watergate scandal included incorrect information about the status of President Nixon at the time he left office. Felt's information led to Nixon's impeachment investigation and eventual resignation."

For starters, that's significantly more information than the poor reader needs to identify the offending story. Only one article on 1A Wednesday included information about Tricky's status in August 1974. Pare the first sentence down to "An article (please, not "a story"; haven't we been over this?) on page 1A Wednesday included incorrect information about the status of President Nixon at the time he left office."

Second, we have us sort of a basic non sequitur here. The first sentence is about Nixon's status. The second is about what Mark Felt's information allegedly did, and there's no indication of what the two have to do with each other. This is one of the rare cases in which it's best to repeat the error before correcting it: "Nixon was not impeached, though the House Judiciary Committee had recommended three articles of impeachment against him in the weeks before he resigned."

Third, corrections are about facts, not opinions. We're welcome to believe that Felt's information brought Nixon down if we want, but that's sort of like arguing that Ronnie Reagan won the Cold War single-handedly: A narrow view that overlooks a bunch of other evidence and strongly suggests the sort of ideological bias that would call into question the holder's ability to select and present facts. Put another way, if you want people to believe your science reporting, don't put MOON MADE OF GREEN CHEESE on the #$^#^&%$ front page.

2) Win some, lose some: Nice work by the Thursday night guest crew, catching the misspelling of the US ambassador to Lebanon's family name. Alas, in the process of correcting that, we managed to un-spell his first name. Two plays for a net gain of zero yards. At the end of the sequence, there's still a misspelled name in the paper. Urk.

3) Get to the point: People aren't going to nod off and forget that they're reading a correction just because we blitz 'em with needless words. Case in point:

"An obituary on page 2A Thursday included an incorrect spelling of the last name of Carol Jean McClanahan."

What's wrong with:
"An obituary on page 2A Thursday misspelled Carol Jean McClanahan's name"
"Carol Jean McClanahan's name was misspelled in an obituary on page 2A Thursday"?

Let's not have too much nitpicking about whether an obit can misspell on its own. If the Washington Post can "say" (1A Thursday), an obit can spell. Well, some obits can spell.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Ah, journalism

It may be true, as the Missourian hed proclaims, that "Watergate gave journalism a boost." Too bad it didn't teach journalism to look stuff up. Nixon was not, as the AP reports in the story above the said hed, impeached. Whether Deep Throat's information is what led to Tricky's resignation, as the lede also alleges, is a matter of opinion. I think it's a dumb opinion, but that's partly because I dislike single-cause explanations of complicated issues. But at least it's an opinion, which can't be false, rather than an assertion of fact, which can.

The aforementioned brief, high-intensity burst of nonsense is worth some detailed whingeing for several reasons:

1) Mutually exclusive facts can't both be true. If the lede story says Nixon was impeached and the timeline says he resigned "facing impeachment," somebody needed to determine which one was right.
2) Keep an eye on the wires (particularly when you're a morning paper leading with a story that moved at 2:30 in the freakin' afternoon). The AP corrected this blunder -- albeit sloppily -- within five minutes of moving the lede we used, and subsequent stories don't appear to have repeated it.
3) If a story is worth three-fourths of the front page, it's worth five minutes of copyed time in the World Almanac, the encyclopedia, or some other printed source that would have set the matter straight. Again, pls, a printed source. G*d knows where Google would take you, but my first guess would be some other site that didn't bother to look up the details.
4) When you see single-cause assertions about complicated events, kick the damn tires.