Saturday, October 29, 2005

Fun with a purpose

Now that your correspondent is officially procrastinating on three term projects and a one-off, it's time to take a closer look at a burst of journalistic nonsense from last week's screed. Picking on a story this bad is fun, of course, but as the folks at Highlights For Children like to say, it's Fun With A Purpose. Three purposes, actually:

1) Copyeds will almost always lose arguments about whether ledes sound good or bad. They're more likely to win when they can point to specific errors of writing or reasoning.
2) There's a difference between treating sources with respect and courtesy, on the one hand, and sucking up to them on the other.
3) Experts don't get to make things up. It doesn't matter if the expert at hand is your "religion" "editor" and has been covering the subject for 15 years. It doesn't matter if the writer is the pope of Rome.* If the data don't support a conclusion, the conclusion is effectively fiction.

Ready? Here we go, editor's comments in italics:

The latest Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolinas Poll confirms what we've known for as long as packed sanctuaries have graced the Carolinas.
Ahem. As noted here last week, that's essentially the lede from the September 2001 take on this annual poll, except then it confirmed "what many believe." Now it's something "we" "know," which is worth some dissecting. Who's "we"? How long have there been packed sanctuaries in the Carolinas -- in other words, have "we" actually known this since the late 18th century? But painful illogic and smarmy self-plagiarism aside, there's a more worrisome point here, which is the writer's (and thus the paper's) belief that packed sanctuaries are unquestionably a good. Given the sorts of things that "packed sanctuaries" have tended to correlate with -- witch-burning, racial intolerance, blowing oneself up in crowds of civilians and the like -- that's a risky conclusion. Not to mention one that suggests an open bias on the part of the writer (and the paper).

This is a region whose residents take religion seriously:
Rule 1 of survey reporting: Polls measure only what they measure. This poll doesn't measure how seriously people take religion. It measures self-reported attendance at religious services. They are not the same thing. Ask a preacher.

• Forty-six percent said they attend a church or other house of worship very often. An additional 23 percent said they attend somewhat often and 22 percent not that often, with only 9 percent saying they never attend.

Though the question was worded differently, the Carolinas Poll in August 2001 found active devotion as well: Fifty-four percent said they attended a service within the past week.
Once again, the poll didn't measure "active devotion." It measured self-reported attendance at a service within the past week. RTFP.

• Worship attendance in 2005 varies little from county to county. Forty-eight percent of those living in the eight-county Mecklenburg region said they attend a house of worship very often, compared with 49 percent in the balance of South Carolina and 45 percent in the balance of North Carolina.
Here, a bit of overstretch turns a usable fact (there's no significant difference between self-reported attendance in the core region and either of the two states as a whole) into a false statement. There's no way of telling from the data whether worship attendance varies "from county to county" (this should be obvious, given a sample size of 923 and 146 counties total). County-by-county rates could vary drastically -- say, 10 percent in County A and 80 percent in same-sized County B -- and still yield an overall mean of 45 percent. You can't guess the range from the mean. Put another way, the normal temperature in St. Louis in October is 58 degrees: What should you wear this afternoon?

Moral: Never go beyond the data. No errors are good, but this one's particularly useless. The writer doesn't even get to ingratiate himself with his sources.

• Women generally worship more than men: Fifty percent of women said they attend a house of worship very often, compared with 43 percent of men.
Three faults here:
* First, sampling error for subgroups is larger than sampling error for the whole. Judging from the original n=923, this difference between subgroups isn't going to be statistically significant.
* Second, we're committing several sins against the numbers:
a) Confusing categorical data with continuous data. "Very often" is probably more often than "somewhat often," but not certainly: your "very" could be my "somewhat," but your "3" can't be my "2."
b) Ignoring the rest of the answers. What happens to the results above if 40 percent of women also report "not that often," but 40 percent of the men report "somewhat often"? Again, since there's no measure of the difference between "somewhat often" and "not that often," we don't know, but we'd at least want to scratch our heads.
* Third, back to Rule 1: The poll doesn't measure how much people worship. It measures (sort of) how much they say they worship. Again, if you can't tell the difference, go ask a preacher.
Here's a better way to state the result: "The survey found no significant difference between the proportions of men and women who report attending services very often." It doesn't sound as interesting, but it has the advantage of being true.

• African Americans worship more than whites: Fifty-four percent of blacks said they worship very often, compared with 46 percent of whites.
Same three offenses. Broken record time: It doesn't matter what your title is. You can't make the statistics say things they don't say. That's called "making stuff up."

• The older you are, the more you go to a church, mosque or synagogue: Fifty-eight percent of those ages 55 and over said they worship very often, compared with 47 percent of those 35 to 54, and 34 percent of those 18 to 34.
Our old friend the fallacy of division. "You" is a specific person, and you can't predict one person's behavior from a poll. Again, a properly reported poll would include margins of sampling error for subgroups, but these differences might be significant. If so, you could say "Respondents ages 55 and older were more likely to report worshipping 'very often' than younger respondents." In any case, please avoid addressing the reader directly (see below).

• The person beside you on the pew is more likely a Democrat or Republican than an independent: Fifty-two percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats said they worship very often, compared with 35 percent of independents.
Not to be tacky, but so is the "person beside you" at the Harris-Teeter or the football game or the cross-burning. In North Carolina, about four times as many voters are registered Republican or Democrat as are registered unaffiliated. It might be an interesting finding (depending on those subgroup stats!) if unaffiliated voters are less likely to report worshipping "very often" than party members. It'd be even more interesting to tease out views on political issues held by "very often," "somewhat often" and the like. But this datum in itself is about as interesting as saying the sun was likely to have risen in the East before you headed off to your church, mosque or synagogue.

Someone also should have protested the use of the second-person pronoun. Has it not occurred to the Observer that some of its readers might not attend services and might consider this particular bit of sucking-up to be, well, exclusionary? That respect and pandering are not the same thing?

The poll is based on 923 confidential telephone interviews conducted Aug. 25-Sept. 19. The maximum sampling error is 3.2 percent.
No it isn't. Margins of sampling error are expressed in percentage points, not "percent." That's a small amount of type, but it isn't a small thing. It's a building block, and if your doubts about the writer's ability to handle numbers had been growing all along, it's kind of the icing on the cake.

Taken together, what we have here is a chunk of marginally interesting data about self-reported religious behavior in the Carolinas. Under better circumstances, it might have added something to the sum of human knowledge. Instead, thanks to expert intervention, it makes the paper look not only stupid but biased. That's a bad outcome.

* Or the pope of Alexandria. HEADSUP-L is all about diversity.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Hyphen of the month

MU professors from various areas of expertise will discuss the historical and social impact of the 1925 Tennessee Scopes-Monkey Trial. (16A Sunday)

So when it reaches the federal appeals courts, it'll be the Monkey-Scopes Trial? Like Times v. Sullivan? Please, engage brain before handling hyphen key.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Why do the heathen rage?

Or, to get to the real question: Why is religion coverage so godawful?

Really. Those who were watching back in the mid-'90s will recall a lot of head-scratching and garment-rending about the generally vile state of religion coverage in the U.S. press. Everybody promised to do something about it, and a decade on, religion coverage is -- well, godawful.

Here are some examples from a paper that prides itself on the time and space it devotes to religion coverage. Little of it is specific to the intersection of religion and journalism. Of greater concern, I'd say, is how many of the routinely stupid things journalism does happen to converge on this one little section. Listen and attend:

One of the area's richest church traditions returns Thursday with barbecue, politicians, charity and fellowship.
What's wrong with that? Not much, unless it strikes you as uncomfortably close to this lede from July: One of the nation's largest and most eclectic religious events returns to downtown Atlanta on Aug. 3-6. And unless that gets you to thinking about the untold scores of other times the same lede has appeared in recent years. Which could at least keep you from wondering why the writer's judgment of the relative richness of church traditions is of import here.

The latest Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolinas Poll confirms what we've known for as long as packed sanctuaries have graced the Carolinas. This is a region whose residents take religion seriously.
And what's wrong with that? For starters, again, perhaps not much, unless it should remind you of this lede from September 2001: The 2001 Carolinas Poll confirms what many believe about the Charlotte region: This is a faithful community.

But this isn't just a recycled lede. It's recycled nonsense. Such nonsense, indeed, that one could fairly conclude that more or less every word in the story is a lie -- down to and including a, an and the (as a less polite writer once put it). Full dissection of the tale follows if time permits, but meanwhile, have a look at the original file and see how many unsupported statements you can find presented as facts! (Here's a hint. Follow just a few links from the same page to find this statement from a Real Peer-Reviewed Journal: "Self-reported rates of religious attendance and practice may be significantly higher than actual rates.")

Again, keeping a running tally of statistical fabrications at least distracts the reader from wondering why the writer's belief that full churches "grace" a region is worth mentioning. Or why a paper that so relentlessly beats the diversity drum allows such patently divisive "we" and "you" judgments in its news reports. But we digress.

Are secular nations healthier?
Religion seems to lead to societal woes, says study in respected journal
The article is long, laced with academic terms and written for sociologists, but the message is clear: More religion seems to mean more troubles, not less, for nations and regions worldwide.
My, my, my. Where to start?
1) Never put a question hed on a story about an assertion.
2) If you insist on violating that rule, at least report the same assertion as the story. This isn't about "health." It's about a construct called "societal health," which isn't the same thing.
3) Don't make stuff up. "Seems to lead to societal woes" directly contradicts the study itself, which rather clearly says "The primary intent is to present basic correlations of the elemental
data. ... This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health." Emphasis added, and will continue to be until each of you writes "Correlation is not cause" 100 times on the blackboard. Get going.
4) Never extend a study (survey, experiment, content analysis, whatever) beyond what it studies. This isn't a study of "nations and regions worldwide." It's a study of data from "prosperous developed democracies," and that's the only pool of nations it says anything about.
5) The Religion News Service needs to get a grip. The article isn't particularly long by the standards of peer-reviewed journals, and length isn't a correlate of message clarity anyway. It isn't especially "laced with academic terms," unless you think "hypothesis" is an academic term. And there's no indication it's "written for sociologists." For more on this, skip to the next item, but first ...
6) When you have a link to the source article in question, do yourself a favor and read it. That's the best way to challenge repertorial cluelessness.

For three hours a day, every day for four years, young Asahn Kadeer has practiced memorizing the Quran, its curvy Arabic letters, dots and dashes dancing in his head.
Another case of Stranger in a Strange Land Syndrome from Religion News Service. Above, the writer invokes the length of an article to suggest that the land of social science (not the same thing as "sociology") is a pretty foreign place. Here, the writer conjures up a Disney's Aladdin vision of Arabic to imply the same thing about the world of Islam (for the long-range implications of this, start with Said's "Orientalism" and work your way north). A comparison of alphabets -- let's say Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic -- might suggest that they have several elements in common:
1) Curves!
2) Straight lines!
3) Dots!
Whence the dashes, G-d only knows. If the writer is thinking of the short-A vowel point, it's no more a "dash" than an accent aigu is.

Maybe religion coverage isn't uniquely plagued. Maybe all of journalism really is that dumb, all the time, about everything. But it's still nice to hold out hope that we can fix some of this.

Friday, October 21, 2005

More dreadful writing from the stars

The problem with the soi-disant "writer's papers" is not that writers are given more leeway to write well. It's that writers are exempted from any critical assessment of how good -- more to the point, how awful -- their high-flown writing might be. Here's another example from the Miami Herald's designated Big Story wordsmith:

Hurricane Wilma prowled closer Thursday to a collision with Mexico, edged a bit farther from Florida, and slowed down again.

Time for some bold editor (and since nobody at the Herald seems willing to do so, it looks like a job for rimsters at other K-R papers who have to wade through this slop) to put on his/her sunglasses, shade his/her eyes against the refulgent brilliance of the prose, and point out, uh, that a hurricane and a country can't collide unless the country is moving too.

And this just in from a major southeastern daily's shameless feel-good guy:

Comedy, music, running -- it's all part of the continuing effort to help those devastated by Katrina, even as Americans wait to see who needs help after Wilma.

Not much point in expecting this scribe to be embarrassed at claiming a byline for yet another tripe lede and some bullet items, but perhaps some assigning editors might be.

Return of the stupid question

Diabetes drug dangerous?
Medication doubles risk of heart problems, data analysis shows

For those who have forgotten, these are the rules:
1) Never use a question mark as a form of attribution.
2) Never put a question hed on a story that's about an assertion. This story isn't about a question. It's about a review study that says the relevant data from five clinical studies point to a particular set of dangers from this drug. If you don't have enough room to write a hed that accurately summarizes the story, go back to the design desk and shout until you do.
3) Come to think of it, never use question heds on news stories.
4) Period.
5) Any questions?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Hed of the day: That had to hurt

Missouri survives sloppy execution (1B Thursday)

Don't we have the Eighth Amendment for cases like that?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

An awful compound modifier

Right. So in case you were thinking your correspondent had gone completely troppo-descriptive, herewith a really bad hed that illustrates why we do need a punctuation mark that clarifies compound modification:

Governor's race ads invoke Hitler

Without some help, it's impossible to know what the writer* meant. Is race supposed to be acting as a noun -- "Ads in governor's race invoke Hitler" -- or as an attributive modifier -- "Governor's ads about race invoke Hitler" (which, since this is the AG's campaign for governor, is even worse)?

The quick cure, a hyphen between "governor's" and "race," illustrates why obsessive hyphenation is so much fun to complain about. "Governor's-race ads invoke Hitler" looks really, really dumb. Solution: Spend the extra space (which you have) and unstack the modifiers:

Ads in governor's race invoke Hitler

That way, at least, "governor's" isn't modifying "ads." Or use a less ambiguous attributive noun:

Virginia campaign ads invoke Hitler

Either way, stop thinking subscribers/customers/"consumers" (I'm really getting to hate that term) can read your mind. They can't.

* If the anonymous perp at wants to confess, we'll see what we can do about some form of intercession. Intersession, of course, is somebody else's problem.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

But enough about me. Let's ...

Oct. 15: So a bunch of religion writers walk into a Miami Beach hotel and run into a Jewish rocker, a Christian hip-hop artist and a media mogul whose products target the 18-to-34-year-old crowd.

Oct. 11: We faith and values writers from across the country gathered near South Beach last weekend to hear preachers, scholars, a Christian hip-hop artist and a Jewish rocker share their opinions on a variety of trends and topics.

Oct. 8: But while you could tune out the 100-mph shtick of an old roomie, there's no ignoring the pastor/author who came to address a gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association in a blue Hawaiian shirt adorned with pineapples.

OK. We get why you were out of town and where you were. And we thank the Intelligent Designer* that a certain other guest didn't show up, or we'd have three or four more days of ledes about a mountain, trees and a midget.

* Could we get the hed spex on the centerpiece sometime this dispensation, pleez??

Friday, October 14, 2005

Ledewise, these are trying times

Let's see: One graf of sturdy feel-good cliche followed by bullet items. And we give a byline for this? At long last, have we no shame?

Carolinians won't stop helping the needy -- victims of Katrina and now those struck by the earthquake in Pakistan.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Sentence of the week

To swim the Individual Medley, which consists of all four strokes, a swimmer has to be extremely versatile in its ability.

This really doesn't need much comment, does it? Jeez, even Rover the dog gets a personal pronoun in the stylebook. The easy solution, of course, is just to end the sentence after "versatile." Then it's just a mediocre lede.

One can still wonder when "Individual Medley" became a proper noun, or when "Breastroke" became a proper noun, or when "breastroke" itself became a noun of any sort (especially since it's "breaststroke" later in the tale).

No further questions, Your Honor. Well, there is the series comma rule. And the insistence on specifying that eight events means "eight different events." And the profusion of needless "said of" constructions. One is tempted to ask whether the copy desk was awake for this one.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Stamp out "Police responded to ..."

Here's this week's example of why any paragraph containing "Police responded to..." should be boiled until the offending words disappear:

Police responded to a call from a motorist at about 8 p.m. Wednesday reporting that a person in a gray truck had tried to run the driver off the road in the area of Stadium and Forum boulevards.

Let your readers infer from the lede, which says there was a high-speed police chase, that the cops must have responded to something:

A driver called police about 8 p.m. Wednesday to say someone in a gray truck had tried to run the driver off the road in the area of Stadium and Forum boulevards.

It's not a lot shorter, but it would save a line (and eight lines is an inch, and an inch less foam is an inch more beer). And it puts the emphasis on the events, rather than on the routine of the cops' doing their jobs.

Some autopilot writing in the lede needs attention too. When the story begins "Columbia police ended a high-speed chase," you've provided what amounts to a first reference to the jurisdiction. That means you can save two more words (and another line) by identifying the officer as "Sgt. Dan Beckman," rather than "Columbia police Sgt. Dan Beckman."

Regular readers will recall that the best prescription for a cops lede is often the passive voice -- again, on grounds that in nearly every case, the events are more interesting than the fact of a police response. In this case, you can keep the sentence active and still shift the focus from cops to events. Start the sentence with "A high-speed chase ended" and end it with "Columbia police said"; you have a stronger lede and at least one, maybe two, more lines of type to play with.

Go forth and stamp out robot cop writing.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why they don't trust The Meedja

The other day in J8000-nee-401, the Inimitable GK offered one of those light-bulb propositions that sound simple but can organize a lot of thoughts about a lot of things: News tends to sound bad because news is about the surprising -- the unusual, not the usual. That's why it seems to have a bias toward the depressing.

That's worth extending down the alley of whether and why The Meedja are irredeemably biased toward The Left. Needless too say, a good weight of evidence suggests that they're no such thing. But that bias of news toward what looks like The Unusual certainly does make them seem like it, especially if you're a bit out of step with the prevailing values of newsroom culture.

There ought to be a point to that, of course, and there is, from an AP lede in today's Missourian:

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers' footprints on contentious social issues suggest a moderate position on gay rights, an interest in advancing women and minorities and sympathy for anti-abortion efforts. Judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed, she favors gun rights, too.

The point of interest is the last sentence, and the first thing to note about it is that it goes a long way beyond anything the story supports. "Once owned a .45-caliber revolver" is quite a way from "judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed." Here's the relevant definition from the OED:

(orig. U.S.). a. To carry or wear (an object), esp. as part of one's regular equipment. In later use chiefly: to carry (a weapon, esp. a gun)

I'm not one to contend that meanings are set in stone forever once they're printed in a dictionary, but this one seems pretty clear. We're not just saying that she owned a gun. We're saying she carried it. Would the AP offer up the evidence, please?

That's a regrettably common occurrence in news language -- letting the lure of a terse, vivid, emotional word pull a story beyond the factual limits of what it can support. Indeed, you don't have to work very hard to find journalism textbooks that tell you, in effect, exactly that: Better a short, lively, specific word (even if incorrect) than a long, ambiguous one that has the misfortune of being accurate.

The phenomenon would still be regrettable if it were evenly distributed among the population. But from, erm, certain viewpoints, it isn't. Look at the relevant sentence again:

Judging from the Smith & Wesson she once packed, she favors gun rights, too.

"Favors gun rights" is pretty vague. Unlike, say, "First Amendment rights," which are clearly enumerated, we have nothing to go on here but the vaguely scary idea that it has something to do with guns. Does it mean she's not bothered by the idea that people are generally allowed to own guns, depending on the applicable registration rules in their areas? That's about as lede-worthy as being pro-Wheaties. Does it mean she wants to repeal the longstanding federal ban on civilian ownership of automatic weapons? That'd be a bit of a different story, but once The AP has brought in "gun rights," it apparently sees no need to suggest whether they're within or way outside a fairly well established mainstream.

And how did The AP reach this conclusion, whatever it might be? Well, a friend says she used to have a handgun and fired it at least once; doesn't that tell you everything you need to know about what she thinks? (And compared with a pesky trip to the sheriff's office, or wherever registration records -- should Texas have such things for handguns -- might be kept, it's a lot easier on the reporters too.)

That's where the surprise factor comes in. The AP knows how gun owners think; it's so not-news it can be put in a lede with no support whatsoever. It'd only be a surprise if, say, she were to say that she favored handgun registration. Then she'd be a "not your typical former gun owner."

But the things about gun owners (or evangelicals, or Republicans) that seem so strange to reporters -- that call forth the "not your typical" lede, or the WashPost's legendary newspage description of evangelicals as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command" -- tend to look fairly normal among other gun owners, or evangelicals, or Republicans. We're given away by our surprise. No wonder they don't trust us.

This one's the AP's fault, and I'd like to hear the AP's explanation. But challenging a patently stupid lede off the wires is good practice for copyeds at small Midwestern dailies, too. That's a hint, by the way.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Forbidden heds: Paging Dr. Missourian

Ever wonder why "could" and "might" heds are on the forbidden list?

Twins joined at skull
could survive surgery

1) Well, yeah. It's generally acknowledged that every now and then, patients actually survive medical procedures. And sometimes they don't. Any hed that's just as true when negated ("Twins might not survive,"or, higher in the column, "Capsized* boat might not result in $25 fine") is automatically a bad hed.
2) If we're going to offer medical opinions in big type, shouldn't we tell readers where we got our medical degrees?
3) This story's not in the paper because of the possibility that patients sometimes survive treatment. It's in the paper because the doc who's apparently going to make the call about the operation thinks it might work. That's what the hed needs to reflect.

*While we're on this one: Rimsters, pls try to give the story a fighting chance. Is this one about a boat that capsized or about an accident that killed 20 people?

This particular story has been an object lesson in stuff not to do from the outset: had the desk taken the story that moved at 2:50 p.m. Sunday, sted the one that moved at 2:20, first-day coverage could have said that 19 people were reported dead, rather than "broadcast reports said some of the people died." That should have been an easy fix at the rim, slot or page-proof stages. If we're going to spend space on wire news, let's maximize bang-per-buck whenever possible.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bizarre lede of the (still-young) day

One day in the foreseeable future, people will be able to stop at businesses south of Columbia to buy soybeans genetically altered to help prevent cancer and ice that can freeze at 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Maybe there will also be artificial or cultured limbs and skin. Maybe there will be non-toxic anti-freeze.

"Where are you going, dear?"

"Down to the hardware store to pick up some artificial skin. Can I get you anything?"

"Hmm. Some soybeans and cultured limbs for the dinner party. And some ice to keep the beer tepid."

If this is the foreseeable future of shopping in south Columbia, you can see why HEADSUP-L wants to bring back the 8-track. Copyeds, pls read the ledes before you wave them along.

Dumb hed of the (still-young) day

From a major Southeastern daily:

Boat passengers slid first

Raising the musical question: Is this a tale of a grisly accident involving a couple dozen deaths or a sliding contest? ("I slid first!" "No, I slid first!")

Rim rats, a reminder: Generally, readers tackle the hed before the story. Save the word puzzles for the funny pages.