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.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

One of the best and the brightest

Today's installment in the Help the Writer series: Letting the evidence speak for itself. Has this writer's favorite lede worn out its welcome?

July 23: One of the nation's largest and most eclectic religious events returns to downtown Atlanta on Aug. 3-6.

June 11: The central figure in one of South Carolina's most fascinating sagas will speak at 3 p.m. next Saturday in Rock Hill.

May 21: One of the biggest names in sports will share his strong Christian faith at the 9:30 and 11 a.m. services Sunday at Lake Norman Baptist Church.

April 9: One of Charlotte's newest ministries welcomes our support.

March 19: One of Charlotte's best-known churches has withdrawn support for a food pantry that serves the needy because the pantry works with Roman Catholics.

Feb. 16: One of the Charlotte area's biggest institutions formally announced plans Tuesday to get even bigger

Feb. 12: One of the nation's largest prayer breakfasts is set again for Charlotte - the 18th annual YMCA of Greater Charlotte gathering at 7:15 a.m. March 23 at the Convention Center uptown.

Feb. 8: One of the largest conventions to hit town this year is expected to bring some 15,000 Baptists to Charlotte in June for study, prayer, worship and fun.

Feb. 5: One of the area's oldest churches is celebrating its 250th anniversary with events throughout the year.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Grammar quiz!

OK, grammar fans: Diagram this Missourian sentence and be prepared for tomorrow's discussion, which is about how to worry about grammar like a pro.

Ready, steady, go:
A “couple thousand dollars” were seized in what police officers say are drug profits and a small amount of marijuana from a central Columbia residence Tuesday evening after serving a search warrant for cocaine.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Stop the press: Good science!

Because it's instructive -- not to mention E-Z AND FUN! -- to pick on bad science in newspapers, an appearance of actual good science is worth some recognition. Note how much is going on in this tale: What the studies actually say. What the other studies say. Why they might be less conclusive than they appear. Where the money comes from. The difference between what the science says and what commercial interests say it says.

The only flaw in this picture is the +}#%&^*#)$(^* headline, which has you have probably guessed by now reads:
Do milk claims hold water?

I'd much rather we just got to the point, which is summed up in this graf:

Barry Popkin, an obesity expert at UNC Chapel Hill, praised Zemel as a good scientist, but said the dairy industry has overreached. "We have too many contradictions and nobody's decided what the truth is," he says.

If we're going to do service journalism, let's do some damn service journalism:
Science sound, ads are dubious

Then, alas, there's this:
Why many of us don't go to church
Reasons range from desire to relax, to preference for privacy
Sunday morning, when roughly half of us were in church, the other half had their say.

Think "we" made it clear enough to Some People that they aren't welcome in these parts?

(FOOTNOTE: Do any hands at this fount o'knowledge have data bearing on the query posted a few items down?)

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Res ipsa loquitur

Much as the Language Logsters suggested, almost any bit of public huffing about language, even if "deeply and bizarrely confused," will generate approving keep-up-the-fight replies. So it seems here in Collegetown as well, where the plaudits for an earlier column in one of the two dominant Sunday papers have now given rise to a second column.

There's not really much new in here, but one point is worth noting.

I have received dozens of e-mails from disgruntled language buffs each voicing disdain regarding one or more linguistic sins committed by the unknowing or uncaring people in this country.

My problem is with "sins," because the complaints that follow -- speech habits, regional and cultural variants in pronunciation, even regularizing irregular verbs -- hardly seem to reach that level. Not that I don't believe in linguistic sins; I do. But I tend to score them differently.

Not being able to tell pronunciation from grammar and usage, for one. "Git" is not a "misuse of the word 'get'"; it's a fairly common vowel variant. It has nothing to do with the personal dative "git me a new car." And those who would spend too much time on the high horse about others' vowel variants had best be careful, lest the One Great Scorer plunk them down in a region where their version of "aunt" is low-class rather than high-class. It's not just rude, it's risky.

I'm tempted to call the pseudo-science of "I agree with her, but I thought that pronunciation ["git"] was only prevalent in the Midwest" a linguistic sin too. No. Get/git is an example of what's often called a "pen/pin merger"; it's most likely before nasals (hence "pen/pin") and an introductory textbook will suggest it's Southern in origin*. You want a Midwesternism, here's one from today's Missourian: "It’s kind of a standard thing, anymore,” he said. The point is that there are ways to talk rationally about how language works, and to learn cool stuff therefrom, but bitching about vowel mergers with your friends ain't one of them.

Dangling modifiers? I wouldn't call those a "linguistic sin." Grammatical sin, fine. They're on the J4400-nee-110 list of deadly sins, and they're going to stay there. But not linguistic sin. Unless, that is, somebody catches you at it, and you note the catch approvingly, and you turn right around and do it again:
One reader’s skin crawls when hearing, “I could have went …”
That's a different category of sin, and you aren't going to find any indulgences here.

Bill Safire. I think he's a linguistic sin, but that's because he makes stuff up. See "Nomicsnomics" in his June 5 column:

Here's my advice to White House aides of all stripes: If your president's name ends with an n, brace yourself for an -omics branding. Thus did we have Nixonomics, Reaganomics and Clintonomics. We did not have Fordonomics or Carternomics or Bushonomics, nor would we have had Dukakisonomics or Gorenomics or Kerrynomics. It has nothing to do with politics; it's the elision quality of the last letter of the president's last name.

Criminentlies. We did too have Carternomics, though a few minutes in a database would make clear that we didn't have nearly as much of that as New Zealand did of "Rogernomics." And "Bushonomics" seems to have a good bit of currency. Safire's passing off a WAG as if it were a law with some basis in either observation or phonology. A cat with a search engine and an OED could do better.

If I were in the business of testing linguistic hypotheses (as opposed to spouting self-serving ex cathedra bilge), I'd start with the idea that what makes a good "-nomics" word is not the final consonant but the trochaic dimeter. That's why "Rogernomics" works, why "Bushonomics" needs an extra syllable, why "Kerrynomics" would have been fine and why -- to pick a really good potential president -- "Yossarianomics" would never happen, despite the final nasal.

Well, enough of that. Let's give the last word to the eloquent Mark Liberman:

It's a bit depressing that so few people ever pay careful attention to the language that they've heard all their lives. It's nothing short of outrageous that those who can't spare the time to listen to how people talk are nevertheless so happy to carry on at length in public about it.

This is not an appeal for deference to experts. On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the many people who are so passionately interested in speech and language should be offered a basic education in the methods of linguistic description and the habits of analytic observation, so that they can explore and express their passion in an informed way.

* Wolfram, W., and Schilling-Estes, N. (1998) American English, is terrific reading, by the way

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Spotting the bogus story

Yet another in the Occasional Series series, this time devoted to how the busy copy editor can spot a bogus story and call in enough firepower to stop it before it becomes an embarrassment to the paper.

To repeat a previous theme: Since a newspaper copy desk doesn't have folks detailed to look up every single assertion that crosses its screens, editors need to rely on well-informed instincts and a checklist of practiced suspicions. Here's a look at how you can apply those habits to a real-life story -- and, conveniently, to any other story of its type. Because (here's the punch line) you will see another story that fibs with numbers. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your career.

Our candidate is "Missouri is No. 1 in wasted time" (1A Tuesday). It's easy to see from the second and third grafs why it made the cut in budget meeting: Workers waste time on the job! A lot! It costs business billions! And Missourians are the worst fork-offs of all! Your job as a news cop is to follow this one long enough to see if it starts weaving. It does in the second graf, in that sentence ending with "... according to a new Web survey by America Online and"

"Web survey" is a polite way of saying "b*lls**t." Whenever you see it, assume the content of the story to be false until you see a graf explaining the methodology. There are some rigid ways of collecting good data on the Net, as there are ways of collecting good data on the phone. Any story that's done the work will explain it. Any story that doesn't is a fake until proven otherwise.

In this case, the story doesn't, but if you poke around a bit at the originating sites, you get an idea of how the data were collected: Visitors to an AOL job site and could fill out the survey if they found it. And that means the third graf -- "The No. 1 state for wasting time was Missouri, where workers who responded to the survey resported slacking off 3 hours and 12 minutes a day" -- is crap by definition. The numbers themselves might be true, but we have no reason whatever to believe them. Any numbers pulled out of the air have an equal chance of being true.

"Visitors to AOL's job-search site can click on the survey" is, in short, the same thing as going to the mall and asking the first 10 non-scary people you meet. It's a convenience sample, and you can't draw conclusions about the population from it. It doesn't make any difference that 10,000 people allegedly responded. No generalization from that sample or any part of it -- the national average, the Missouri average, anything -- is worth reporting, because there's no reason to believe it's true.

End of screed, technically. The whole premise of the story is false. We have no way of knowing how much time workers waste anywhere. Any sub-conclusions are false too ("fruit of the poisoned tree," it's called). But many of the other dishonest things the story does might show up in other stories, so they're worth mention.

Here's one: Is Internet access equally distributed in the target population? Not if we're talking about "the average worker." It's lower in black and Latino populations, and it's lower in lower-socioeconomic-status populations. So even a random sample of the Internet population wouldn't allow you to say anything about the population as a whole. (Rule: You can only generalize from a random sample, and you can only generalize to the population you sampled. No exceptions.)

Here's another: What's the most common form of wasting time at work? Personal Internet use! So any group that doesn't have Internet access at work wouldn't count either. (You're getting the idea? There's more to the working world than upper-middle-class white yuppies?)

And that leads to another, which I'll admit I came to because Tuesday is trash pickup day at HEADSUP-L Manor, and I was tempted to run this one out and show it to the guys on the garbage truck, because I bet they weren't surfing over to ThighNoon.Com between houses. Lots of folks out there put in a pretty full workday, and some of them put in more: What in this "survey" accounts for time past 8 hours? Where does the time Wal-Mart steals from the hourly worker figure in?

Which gets us back to the second graf and that big, scary figure: Companies lose $759 billion a year to worker slacking-off! Again, when you see a figure that precise in a story of this nature, you should assume it's a lie until it's proven innocent.

How do we get that figure? An hourly number derived from a national salary average,* times the amount of screwing-off. And what's wrong with that? Again, is Internet access evenly distributed? No; it's skewed (particularly broadband) toward younger groups. Funny, they're the same groups that -- if we could trust the numbers in this "survey" -- report the most time-wasting. And we multiply that by a number that's usually skewed toward older populations? And pretend the result is some sort of national average? Excuse my calculator; it wants to hork on the carpet.

Should you happen to be working for a particular flavor of reader-friendly twinkie, there's a 48.2 percent chance the next comment will be something like: Oh, lighten up. It's a talker. I bet it's the most-read story in the paper. So who cares if it isn't run like a Gallup poll?

There are three answers to that.

One: I'm sure readers will love it. I'm sure they'd love
In Austrian lisp, 2-year-old demands 'lebenthraum'
too. But we're a newspaper. We don't run stories that we don't have some reason to believe are true. Do we?

Two: This particular stacking of the deck is racist, classist, and biased in favor of the powerful against the powerless. It comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted -- all those longstanding press traits that make serious readers guffaw when they hear about "liberal" "bias" in "the" "media." Do we want to take diversity seriously, or is it expendable for a good piece of 1A fiction?

Three: Won't be too long before there's another election around here. Do we want to have some credibility when we run poll stories, or would we rather have readers just assume we're too dumb to know a real poll from a bogus one?

The AP should have known better than this one. So should the Missourian. (Normally I'd bitch about an ayem paper's using an 11 a.m. story when a 3 p.m. version was available, but in this case we managed not to get in the governor's response -- an irrelevant actor offering a boilerplate comment about a story that wasn't true to begin with -- so I'd score that as a net gain.)

That's a lot of noise for a small story. Go forth and whack a dragon or two with it.

* We aren't told, of course, whether it's a mean or a median. For extra credit, work out for yourself why that would make a difference in this calculation.

How to write corrections

Here's the second installment in an occasional series on easy ways to handle the basics -- meaning, from the desk's point of view, how to tell whether routine journalism is doing its job at peak efficiency and whether we need to step in and help. Today's topic is corrections.

Corrections do two things:
1) Acknowledge that we did something wrong.
2) Fix what we did wrong.

Like the vast bulk of this craft, corrections need to be unambiguous, concise and easy to follow. The best way to maximize all these goals and values is this:

Say what we did wrong (and when and where -- enough detail to find it, but not enough to be misleading). Then give the correct information.

We've fallen into a couple of habits lately that don't work as well, so let's look at a couple of examples.

"A Sunday story about efforts to establish a life-sciences incubator at MU should have said that the facility would be built on 2.5 acres along Providence Road."

"An article Monday contained incorrect information about support for a permanent farmers market."

The first one is Tribune style -- fine for the Tribune, but there's no reason for us to adopt unless it works. The second one looks like a new habit (I can't find it in the files before May), so it should be easy to break. Try the two formulas with this sample data set and you'll see why they're ineffective:

"Carlton Fisk hit a home run in the 12th inning to win the sixth game of the 1975 World Series against the Reds. An article on page 1B Monday contained incorrect information."

Here, the reader has no idea what we got wrong: The player, the inning, the game, the year, the opponent? Whatever the mistake is, we're making people work to figure it out.

The Tribune way is even worse:
"An article on page 1B Monday should have said Carlton Fisk hit a home run in the 12th inning to win the sixth game of the 1975 World Series against the Reds."

Now we not only don't know the nature of the purported error, we don't know whether there's been a real error at all. Does "should have said" mean we got one of the facts wrong, or that some pinhead wrote an essay about great World Series moments and inexcusably left this one out -- an issue of judgment (and damn poor judgment, to be sure) but hardly one of fact?

Here's the shortest and most efficient route:
"An article on page 1B Monday misidentified the player whose home run won the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. He is Carlton Fisk."

It's usually better to announce the mistake before giving the correct information. That way, people don't wonder why you're dragging Mr. Fisk and the sixth game into the conversation. And in most cases, it cuts down on the potential for confusion if you don't repeat the incorrect information. There are exceptions to both guidelines, but they're exactly that: Exceptions. If you think you see one, start a conversation.

As in the discussion below about cops ledes, I'm not suggesting my approach isn't formulaic. I am suggesting it's a tighter, more effective formula than the approaches we've been using.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Some really awful heds

Dear copy editors, a reminder: Before you pull the trigger on a hed or set of heds, look at it in context and see what it -- and you -- are saying.

Today's object lesson is the so-called "terror digest" from a major southeastern fount o'knowledge. The label is a bit of a problem from the start: Is it a roundup of terror, of anti-terror, of stuff that might be tangentially related to "terror"? What qualifies as "terror," and whose agenda gets a free pass when an event becomes part of the "terror digest"?

But the real issue here is the heds beneath the label and what they, as a package, say. Let's dismiss the obligatory stupid question hed first:

Transit safety not federal burden?
Without the auxiliary verb, you can't even tell whether this is an editorial hed -- "Is transit safety not a federal burden?" being a rhetorical question after Shylock's "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" -- or an inept version of a news hed, based on the entirely unfounded belief that putting a question mark on a declarative sentence is somehow a form of attribution. In this case, the reader is justified in wondering not only "why are you asking me?" but "what are you asking me?" Please, stop the madness.

But the real problem is with the other three heds in the TERROR DIGEST (keep an eye on the label, because -- like a reader -- you need to have it sitting right over the heds):

Muslim support falls for bin Laden
Muslims condemn violence in TV ad
U.S. denies entry to British Muslim

On statistical grounds, I'd like to see the methodology that allegedly sustains a hed like the first one (and on grammatical grounds, whether the writer intended "falls" or "falls for" to be the verb). But that's a low-bore concern in light of the paper's evident belief that TERROR DIGEST and ISLAM DIGEST are pretty much the same thing. Didn't the buzzer go off for anybody when the page proofs came up?

Favorite sermon: Readers have no idea what you think. They only see what you say.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why we love the Beeb

"If I may leave our customary impartiality aside for a moment, the comments made on Fox News are beneath contempt."

Full tale here, and a good one it is.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Thirteen ways of looking at a cops lede

Well, that could be a slight exaggeration. Or one of those bursts of false precision ("78.2 percent of all polling stories contain at least one bit of basic statistical distortion") we use to draw you into a story. But the point is that there are usually a number of different ways of presenting the same basic chunks of data, and some (few) of them are better than others (most).

Conveniently, half a tabloid column in one issue of the Missourian (June 26, if you're scoring along at home) yields three distinct things you shouldn't do with the cops lede:

"On Friday, authorities released the names of all the people injured and killed in last Sunday's van accident on Interstate 70 west of Columbia."

"Columbia police arrested Ronald C. Harris, 25, on suspicion of discharging a weapon within city limits at 10:50 p.m. Friday night in the 1100 block of Jefferson Street."

"Verinda Ellis, 29, and Darrick Andre Higgs, 28, were arrested when police served a narcotics search warrant Friday evening in the 600 block of Worley Street."

In the first case, the writer compounds the problem of being late (and until there's a Saturday Missourian, we'll always be late with Friday news) by preposing it. All of a sudden, the focus of the lede is that something happened on Friday, rather than what it was that happened. The last victims of a gruesome crash have been identified.

This is getting to be a fairly common mistake, too. Here's one from July 3: "Early Saturday morning, a driver swerved off the road, knocked out three trees and struck a pole, cutting a transformer and causing a blackout around the East Campus area, said MU Police Captain Scott Richardson." And one from Friday: "On Thursday, Gov. Matt Blunt banned prescription drugs such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra for most of Missouri's Medicaid recipients."

Contrast those with this feature lede (19A, June 26): "At 6 a.m. on a Friday in early June, a small group of volunteers waited in line outside a classroom at Christian Fellowship Church." It works in part because one of the things the story is about is being up at 6 a.m. on a Friday in June. News ledes usually aren't. So as a rule, never start a news story with a time element (and if you do, don't make the denizens of East Campus wade through all that swerving, knocking, striking and cutting before they find out that some idiot knocked out their power).

The second lede, "Columbia police arrested," wastes space by using the active voice. How can the active voice, universally praised as more concise, end up wasting space? Because arrests are what we call a "single-actor" phenomenon. The Shriners don't make arrests. Toots and the Maytals don't make arrests. Cops are what make arrests. Prepose the object -- that's the beauty of the passive voice -- and you're automatically telling a better story. (The clumsy, confusing welter of prepositional phrases at the end of the lede speaks for itself. That's not writing, that's stenography. And haven't we been over the bit about "10:50 p.m. Friday night"?)

"Verinda Ellis, 29, and Darrick Andre Higgs, 28, were arrested ..." gets the verb voice right but makes a different assumption: Your readers must all care a lot about what Verinda and Darrick are up to. That seems unlikely. Being specific works against you here. Start general: "Two people were arrested ..."

You might correctly notice that this suggests a rather formulaic approach: Find the elements that are most important. Be general until you need to be specific. Use the passive voice when the grammatical object is the focus of interest:

"The remaining victims of a traffic accident last week that killed five people have been identified."

"A Columbia man was arrested Friday night on suspicion of discharging a firearm within city limits."

"Two people were arrested during a drug search Friday at..."

And that's the point. Nobody's saying cops ledes aren't formulaic. But why use a bad formula when you can use one that works?

More dispatches from the front

A columnist for one of the two largest dailies in town promises to check in Sunday with responses to a recent column on The Language and What Ails It. Here's some advance reading from the gang over at Language Log. Prosit.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Neff Hall kitties update

OK, here's an experiment with technology (and stop giggling out there). For any of you J-expats (or current inmates) who'd like to meet the kitties your colleagues brought in from beneath the Neff Hall shrubbery, here they are. That's Woodward (foreground) and Bernstein, the official HEADSUP-L research associates.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

What's wrong with this picture?

Quick, kids, what would you challenge in this once-upon-a-time lede from Vox?

Before the creation of film, American families gathered around the radio for entertainment. It’s a tradition that the folks at the Ragtag Cinemacafé are reintroducing to Columbia through a series of audio pieces entitled Listen Up!

Now please return to paying attention to news of the world.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

If you don't want to see it in the paper ...

... don't put it on the screen. Ever. Under any circumstances:

Editors' Note
The Op-Ed page in some copies of Wednesday's newspaper carried an incorrect version of the below article about military recruitment. The article also briefly appeared on before it was removed. The writer, an Army reserve officer, did not say, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," nor did he characterize his recent call-up to active duty as the precursor to a "surprise tour of Iraq." That language was added by an editor and was to have been removed before the article was published. Because of a production error, it was not. The Times regrets the error. A corrected version of the article appears below.


(thanks to the Rev. Strayhorn for the tippo)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The torture never stops

You guys are just determined to yank the Official HEADSUP-L Chain, aren't you?

Is TV bad for kids' brains?

Yeah, I know. It's not news, it's News 2 Use!

I hope you realize that my spirits 5 at the sight of another *(&*&%$# question hed. Indeed, I spewed 8ies all over the cats.