Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Go away, you pesky readers

Today's sermon is about how to make sure readers know they aren't welcome at your fishwrap. One of the best ways to do that is to underline your ideological purity:

Otis Chandler, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times who transformed his family's provincial, conservative newspaper into a respected national media voice, died early Monday.

Newspapers can be situated, thus, along two axes:

Provincial to national
Conservative to respected

Can you think of a clearer way to tell your Republicano-American readers they aren't wanted? Do any of y'all still wonder why people bitch about the Librul Media?*

Woodcrest Chapel in Columbia, with more than 2,000 members, uses technology to spread the word of God in its services.

How many times do we have to go over this point? It isn't the newspaper's job to judge claims of divine revelation. We aren't qualified for it, and if we aren't careful, the archbishop of Canterbury is going to weigh in on the which/that rule or something. Newspapers have lots of ways of offending by accident; what's the point in being deliberately offensive?

* Example taken from an AP yarn in One Of America's Newspapers; I could swear I heard roughly the same thing on NPR Monday morning, but I can't find it on the Marketplace Web site.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Me and Kissinger

Henry's not going to mind having his name dropped just this once,* given that it's a good cause. Anyway, he and I have been thinking about the c-deck on 4A Wednesday:

The men recruited others to fight a holy war against the U.S., an indictment says.

... apparently drawing on the fifth graf:
The federal indictment does not specify whether any attacks were imminent but says the suspects recruited others as early as November 2004 to train for holy war against the United States and its allies in Iraq.

What yanks Henry's and my chains about this is the "holy war" bit. The nice thing about being a realist is that you don't have to worry about whether wars are holy or not. You don't have to worry about whether Bin Laden is good to his mom or not. You don't have to worry about whether the sucker is crazy as a bedbug or as sane as you and Henry. All you have to worry about is what he'd like to do and whether he thinks he can get away with it. (And when you think about it, that's quite enough.)

The crime in question isn't "holy war" (which sounds like the AP and the AG having a race to the bottom to figure out how to translate "jihad"**). The crimes are conspiring to kill and maim people and destroy property and threatening to kill the president. Doesn't matter whether the cause is holy, greedy, stupid or any combination of the above. You're just as dead when you're killed for a psychonationalist cause as a holy one.

Don't let the government try these guys on made-up charges, and don't let the AP turn its Scary Words amp up to 11 by way of carrying the government's water. At least, that's how Henry and I see it. (He's not a rim rat, so he's not going to point out that recruiting people to train isn't the same as recruiting people to fight, but I will.)

* Just let me know if you do, but don't use the campus e-mail address, OK?
** Wow. A two-way race with both guys finishing second.

Uphill (both ways) in the snow

Hmm. I see the scholars over to Language Log were already kicking old Bill Safire around by midafternoon. Somehow, Safire-bashing on Saturday seems sort of like -- well, opening your prezzies on Christmas Eve.

Things aren't what they used to be.

[UPDATE: Did I just hear an announcer on ESPN say "one man gathers what another man spills"?]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Not dramatic enough for you?

Today's (OK, Wednesday's) entry in the Words Mean Stuff category:

The changing face of black theater
Plays originally focused on racism, now on more dramatic, universal themes

Here's the graf from which the hed appears to have been drawn:
The evolution of black theater has had its fair share of cycles. What originally centered on racism and oppression has grown, changed, moved on and, with plays like “Intimate Apparel,” now encompasses more universal themes and characters — just as the rotating floor moves the play forward and onto the next scene.

The hed confuses two types of adjectives. In the text, the order is cumulative (squint a little and you can see the implied one): What kind of themes? Dramatic themes. What kind of dramatic themes? More universal ones.

In the hed, they're coordinate, meaning they have equal weight and modify the target noun equally. One good test for coordinate adjectives is whether you can switch them around and get the same meaning. And this set patently fails. In the text, again, it's the themes that are more universal; all themes are equally "dramatic," in that they're all themes in the craft of drama. In the hed, the themes are two things:

1) More dramatic
2) more universal

Leading to the obvious question: What, racism isn't dramatic enough for you?

Please, don't throw words around at random. They mean stuff.

By the way: Did I miss the announcement from the news bureau? When was the Missourian city desk appointed official arbiter of a genre's fair share of cycles?

Another Latin contest

Cave, Latin skolars;* time for another contest. Quid est pabulum:

Guare attended Georgetown University and Yale University. His education clearly paid off because in 1968 he won an Obie (Off-Broadway Theater) award for his one-act play Muzeeka.

What's going on in this paragraph that we'd rather not have going on in our pages?

*For bonus points: Name the 20th-century work of British fiction in which "Hogwarts" first appears.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Speak for yourself

A couple of the cardinal sins of column writing are on display here:

We need a hero
U.S. looks hopefully to skater Cohen
TURIN, Italy -- You know there's an American hero void when more than 100 American journalists go to a figure skating practice. But there we were Monday, sitting in the stands at the Palavela rink, watching Sasha Cohen rehearse her routine and asking each other what the heck was going on.

One, columns about what you and your fellow journalists are doing are boring. Period. What journalists see is often interesting. What they talk about with their fellow how-much-is-that-in-real-money Ugly Americans, no. Sorry.

Which gets us to Point Two: Don't invent voids or other national needs unless you can provide at least some shards of empirical evidence. When there's a void of such a scale as to make pampered sportswriters actually learn how to spell "Palavela," I expect at least -- I don't know, warning signs on Stewart Road or something (hell, I could have driven right into that thing).

[bad sportswriter dialogue omitted to spare the reader]

And so on. Later, there were so many American reporters stuffed into the mixed zone -- the kid's-lunchbox-sized area they have for journalists to interview Olympic athletes -- that Italians were taking pictures of the clowns-in-a-taxicab scene. Then, to each other, they said something that may have meant, "Hey, throw them some peanuts."

But, hey, we need a hero. We're holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night. There's an overwhelming feeling that Americans are doing awful here, but that's not exactly right. The U.S. is tied for the lead with Germany in gold medals. America has won 15 total medals, which is actually the second-best total in our Winter Olympic history.

That's the real Ugly American part. Cold War's over, dude. We don't have to do the "we need a hero" and "our Olympic history" bit. Let NBC hang out its own American flag lapel pins. If you can't find a story worth writing about, give it a rest for a day. But enough with the fictional invocations of the national consciousness.

(Congratulations, of course, to the hed writer who managed to slip a correct "hopefully" into the paper -- but again, could we have some evidence to support our bizarre assertions about what the whole damn country is yearning for?)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Journalism-speak for ...

The discussions all week after the accidental shooting of a hunting partner by Vice President Dick Cheney revealed one thing: what many Americans don't know about hunting could fill a book. Here is some of what they learned. (NYT Week in Review, Sunday, p. 2).

If you're one of those folks who've been held up to public scorn for having a "When most people think of ..." or "Most people don't ..." lede appear under your name in the Missourian, relax (well, keep on feeling awful, but relax a little). The big kids do it too. What Mr. NYT means by "what many Americans don't know" is something on the order of "what many people who fit my stereotype of an average Times reader don't know." I honestly don't know whether "most people" at the Times would be surprised to learn it or not, but "many Americans" already know stuff like what a choke does and how come a smaller number for "gauge" means a bigger barrel.

Moral, if there is one: Be careful of telling people how dumb you think they are. They might return the favor.

One regular visitor has long advocated that young rimsters should bookmark the "weapons" entry in the A&P scripture, so ... over to him, and anyone else who wants to join in.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heed no nightly noise

Let's put a bit of language mythology to rest once and for all:

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans this past fall, 31 students from Tulane and Loyola universities ended up in Columbia to finish their semester at MU.

What the writer meant, and what the writer should have said, and what would have saved a line,* is "last fall" (what the writer really should have said was "last summer," since that's when August comes, but that's for another chat). Not "this past fall." That's what "last fall" does in half the space. Listen and attend.

It's perfectly all right -- indeed, it's rather common -- for words to have more than one meaning. It's not surprising that "punk" means both Johnny Rotten and something you light your fireworks with. What is surprising is that native speakers of English, meaning people who grew up knowing exactly what "Last night upon the stair/I met a man who wasn't there" means, should all of a sudden think "last" isn't one of those words.

Your just-a-few-clicks-away monster etymological resource, the OED, makes the point in vast detail. "Last," meaning "following all others, coming at the end" or "belonging to the end or final stage," can be dated to around 1200. Meaning "next before a point of time expressed or implied in the sentence" or "of the period, season, etc., occurring next before the time of writing or speaking, as last Wednesday," it dates to the mid-14th century. That meaning was several hundred years old, in other words, when Shakespeare wrote "as they did last time" and "in this last tempest." The question isn't whether it's OK to use "last" when you mean "most recent in a recurring series." The question is why anyone ever contended that it isn't.

In the small group of cases for which there's a risk of ambiguity, of course, it's always better to be clear. "I saw the Stones' last concert" could mean you saw Mick and Keith and the lads on Saturday in Rio. But given that the Stones were playing Rio when dinosaurs roamed the earth, you might want to avoid implying that time's winged chariot has hurried too near:

I saw the Stones' most recent concert.

I saw the Stones last night in Rio.

Both are fine. "I saw the Stones this past night" would be silly -- almost as silly as believing that "last summer" means anything other than, well, "last summer." Addiction to false rules isn't a sign of good writing. It's more often a sign of not knowing the difference between rules and meaning.

* All together now: Inch less foam! Inch more beer!

Everybody PANIC! No, let's don't

Today's theme is the defensive lapse, because defense, in general, is what copydesks play. Occasionally those plays are spectacular, but more often they look routine -- usually because some smart editor was already moving into position when the play began. In that sense, we have primarily ourselves to blame for the classic desk complaint: People never talk about the good plays, only about the bad ones.

This one's worth a moment's notice because it looks like a question that didn't get asked in a deadline story (readers who were on hand are encouraged to check in with details). The defense put 2 and 2 together and got 2+2 when what it needed was 4, and a lapse got through.

Bomb scare at Charlotte bus station
Streets blocked after false alarm
Authorities evacuated the Charlotte Transportation Center Saturday night because of a bomb threat that turned out to be a false alarm, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

Police responded to the scene after bus station workers found a suspicious package in the terminal, according to CATS officials.

See the disconnect? First there's a bomb threat, then there's a suspicious package (which turns out to be an empty bag toward the end of the tale). That's the 2+2, but what's missing is someone to ask the "4" question: Which was it? A bomb threat (somebody on the phone saying "There's a bomb in your transit center") or a bomb scare (somebody seeing a Suspicious Package)?

As a consequence, the story rapidly plummets into Dangeresque territory:

The Charlotte Bobcats Arena, across the street from the station, was filled with Charlotte Checkers fans Saturday during the incident. About 12,000 to 14,000 spectators attended the hockey game, oblivious to the threat lurking next door.

What exactly was it that was "lurking" next door (or across the street), a threat or a scare? Being oblivious to a false alarm isn't the same thing as being oblivious to a threat.

It would have been nice if someone had ironed out the routine bad writing: Police respond! To the scene! On the scene! During the incident! And along with the laundry list of agencies that showed up, this perennial favorite:

The police bomb squad was called to investigate.

Honest, I didn't think they were called because we were running out of doughnuts.

Those are minor irritants in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things, though. The big deal is to figure out which of two distinct things is going on before you pull the trigger on a story. "Tell both sides and let readers puzzle it out" is OK for some events (fewer than you'd think). It doesn't work for bomb threats that might or might not be bomb scares.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

And, oh, lots of other stuff that frees up that pesky A-section space for the likes of:

Fla. woman perceives Virgin Mary on a chip
Passenger says she felt sensation before seeing image on her snack
Knight Ridder

Let's review the hierarchy of wrongdoing here a little:
1) No blame attaches to people who see supernatural images on foodstuffs or other inanimate objects. It's their inalienable right, and we make fun of them at our own risk. One, it's rude, and two, we're still getting a lot of mileage out of the Western Civ idea that some pattern of stars or another looks like a guy with a sheep. So lighten up.
2) Writing a news story about that person when she walks in with the chip, that's a bit of a different story. It's a duty to be polite, but at some point, newspapers should assert their fundamental responsibility to the earthly and empirical.
3) Running a four-day-old wire story from 600 miles away about somebody who walked into somebody else's newsroom with the Madonna on a Frito, on the other hand, is freaking inexcusable. Period, graf, get me rewrite.

But there's more to come, so reach for the garlic and silver and join in. (Copyeds, the lesson for our camp in this is: When people are trying to put crap in the paper, try to talk them out of it. No, harder.)

PALMETTO, Fla. - Elizabeth Gould said a strange sensation overwhelmed her while she was eating from a bag of potato chips during a flight from New York.
(Wouldn't be very nice to say "That's why they put those bags in the seatbacks," would it? Thought not.)

She paused, stopped eating and looked at the potato chip in her hand.

It looked familiar. The chip bears the image of the Virgin Mary, Gould said, and passengers on the flight agreed. (Some of them perhaps thinking very, very nice thoughts about the Homeland Security people for the first time.)

She spread out the remainder of the chips on her tray, but none looked like anything more than, well, a potato chip. So she wrapped the roughly quarter-sized chip in a napkin, tucked it in the bag and held on to it.

Well, the next couple of grafs don't do much except make you wonder who came up with the idea of narrative journalism in the first place. Then you get to:

This isn't the first story of claims of holy images appearing on food and other items, according to the Web site en.wikipedia.org.

Oh, for God's sake. The sun's going to rise in the East tomorrow; are you guys planning to attribute that to Wikipedia too? Can you, like, conceive of some form of reporting that doesn't involve a search engine?

Some recent reports include a Nebraska couple claiming to found a pretzel bearing the image of Mary holding baby Jesus. Another sighting of Mary's image was reported on an emergency turnoff underneath Chicago's Kennedy Expressway. Both occurred in 2005. Probably the most famous case happened about two years ago. GoldenPalace.com, an online casino, paid $28,000 for a grilled cheese sandwich allegedly bearing the image of Mary.

Hmm. "Probably the most famous case." Hey, here's a game we can play. See if you can name a city in Italy where a major international sporting event is taking place even as we speak. Now see if you can think of something with the same last name that's slightly more famous than a sodding grilled cheese sandwich.

Now at this point, you might be wondering how many steak knives come with an offer like this. In other words, can you shed any more clues and still be counted among the vertebrates? Well ...

Chip's holiness disputed
Herald Staff Writer
MANATEE -- Herald readers aren't convinced a Palmetto woman found the image of the Virgin Mary on a potato chip.

As of 10 p.m. Thursday, 137 readers cast votes on The Herald's online poll that asked the question, "Do you think the potato chip bears the image of the Virgin Mary?"

Our readers were skeptical.

Of the respondents, 120, or 88 percent, don't believe the potato chip found by Palmetto resident Elizabeth Gould bears the image of Jesus' mother. But 17, or 12 percent, do.

OK, that's about enough. There ought to be enough embarrassment to go around on this one. If people insist on writing this stuff, do them the kindness of keeping it out of the paper.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Words mean stuff

A reminder to the funnier-shaped of the two leading Sunday dailies in town: Words come with meanings. Don't use them at random, and don't expect people to ignore a word's meaning just because you want to use it as a signal.

Recycling's crushing costs (12A Sunday). If we were trying to say "cost of crushing," we failed. None of the numbers in the story suggest that the cost is "crushing."

Curb your recycling curiosity (13A Sunday). Are we trying to get people to read the stuff under headlines (in this case, a Q&A)? Telling them not to be curious is a pretty silly way to do that.

Pilot breaks world record
after emergency landing (9A Sunday)
Well, no. The record's for nonstop flight, so it's a good bet he broke it sometime before the emergency landing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Let's make fun of ... your correspondent!

[This has been modified from the original, so here's a brief explanation of the HEADSUP-L corrections policy. Wrong stuff will be left up intact if it only reflects badly on Your Editor. When stuff is modified, we'll try to take out the wrong parts while leaving enough room for gentle readers to decide for themselves how many box tops short of a secret decoder ring the said editor actually was. Let me know if that doesn't work, and I'll try to figure something else out.]

Which of the two leading dailies here in Collegetown do you figure ran this paragraph?

The woman told police the man had a red beard, was about 50, was 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed 160 pounds and wore a blue nylon jacket, blue jeans and a red ball cap.

You can see how the casual reader might wonder where the perp's race is in this rather detailed description. [ednote: The original post erroneously said it wasn't mentioned at all; the commentator below kindly pointed out where it was] As it turns out, it's a few grafs higher:

Police were dispatched at about 9:30 p.m. to the store, where the woman told them she had bought milk and gotten into her car before a white man approached.

Which seems fairly consonant, given this from last year:

The victim told police one of the black suspects was about 15 years old, about 5 feet, 4 inches and 120 pounds. He wore a red shirt. The other suspect was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighed about 160 pounds and wore a white bandana on his face, police said.

We can't infer from this that the paper in question isn't even-handed when it comes to race in crime stories. We can, though, ask what exactly the heck it thinks it's doing. Race is a remarkably sensitive issue in American journalism, particularly in crime coverage. It shouldn't look random, and it shouldn't be used in ways that let people read more into it than is there.

Latin contest!

Quick quiz, deskers: What's the term for this?

False alarm violations in Columbia have decreased by 64 percent in the past six years, because of an ordinance that levies a charge for excessive alarms.

Feel free to point out anything else that ails this lede (or the larger story, on Thursday's 5A but for some reason not on the Web site at this writing), but kudos to the first person to name that sin.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


[Drums and hautboys off] Benno the Talking Calendar points out that today is the first birthday* of Headsup-the-Blog, your online home for the sort of stuff you once had to wait days or weeks for IATS to dump in your mailbox. So we're just trying to get some schoolwork out of the way before the official festivities begin, though the prezzies are already pouring in. (I didn't know you could get a tanker that far up the Hinkson. Cool.)

What are we going to do for fun? Oh, sing some of the old diagramming chanteys, I suppose. Light the ritual Wicker Prescriptivist. Watch the neighborhood kids performing their logistic regressions. Dr. HEADSUP-L was going to make her traditional puree of publishers' souls, but the damn things take so long to scrub that we might just order out. Other ideas always welcome.

* Though the earth's crust still had to cool for a few months before regular transmissions began.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Anybody else have an ethics issue with this?

I'm interested in y'all's thoughts on whether this particular trend has gotten way out of hand. I'm reluctant to rag on the particular scribe (whom I don't know) too hard, since the host newspaper has a long track record of looking the other way when Some Writers put their name on other people's work, but I wonder if it isn't time to start cracking down on this pernicious habit:

ABC anchorman injured in ambush
TV/Radio Writer
Only a month after ascending to one of the top positions in journalism, ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff was seriously wounded Sunday in a fierce ambush near Baghdad.

Woodruff, 44, and cameraman Doug Vogt, 46, also wounded, had just boarded an Iraqi armored personnel carrier to get footage of convoy duty when a bomb buried in the roadside detonated as they rolled by. They were standing partially exposed out the back hatch making a video log of the trip when the attack occurred near Taji, about 30 miles north of Baghdad.
After the explosion, rebels opened fire on the convoy's eight vehicles -- mostly U.S. Army Humvees -- after the blast. At least one Iraqi officer was wounded in the attack.

Although Woodruff and Vogt were wearing helmets and armored vests, they were struck in the head by shrapnel. Woodruff was also hit in the extremities, ABC said Sunday.

Both were taken to a military hospital in Balad and then were flown overnight by the Air Force to the U.S. military complex in Landstuhl, Germany.

Woodruff is the best-known journalist wounded or killed in Iraq.

"World News Tonight" has a national audience of nearly 9 million and is the top-rated network news show in Charlotte, viewed in about 10 percent of the region's households.

Notice the level of detail: The scale of the fighting ("fierce ambush"), what they'd done ("just boarded an Iraqi armored personnel carrier to get footage of convoy duty"), what they were doing ("standing partially exposed out the back hatch making a video log of the trip"), what was in the convoy ("mostly U.S. Army Humvees"), what they were wearing ("helmets and armored vests") and where they were hit. Pretty impressive for somebody writing from, well, eight time zones away. All the more so when no agencies that might have been on the scene get any credit.

We're not getting much value added in the writing, after all: "After the explosion, rebels opened fire ... after the blast," and at least one Iraqi officer was wounded "in the attack." Sounds like standard breathless on-scene, on-deadline cop-shop babble. Except, again, the writer wasn't there. So what are we getting?

The only real "value added" is at the end: "Woodruff is the best-known journalist wounded or killed in Iraq." But again, when a writer states a superlative or absolute, the burden's on the writer to provide a list of the runners-up and a summary of the scoring system. On the one hand, we want the writer to tell us exactly what "best-known" means, so we can have a meaningful comparison with, say, Michael Kelly or any of the other prominent American journalists killed or wounded in Iraq. On the other, we could ask whether "best-known" means "best-known among other middle-class ethnocentric American white guys." Or do we actually have some way of measuring the well-knownness of the various European and Arab journalistic casualties of this war?

As a reader, I'd rather know that the stuff I'm reading is written by somebody with some sort of direct connection to the events described. For a rewrite, I'd like to know where the material came from. Putting NAMEBRAND WRITER's name on top of someone else's work doesn't do a lot for me. I'd rather the unnamed people who ran the risks and did the work got the credit, and I'd rather newspapers didn't presume they should lie to their readers by way of trying to build credibility and authority.

What do the rest of y'all think?

Anti-recruiting tool

Way to drive students over to Strategic Communications there, bubba:

Immediate opening for Copy Editor to read and edit press releases, original reporter stories and AP news copy to find and correct errors in grammar, spelling, syntax, facts and clarity. Writes headlines for articles. Must possess ability to work with photographs and design pages ready for pagination. Normal working hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 3:00 PM to 12:00AM; however, ability to work a flexible schedule is required.

OK. So assuming I got past the first of the job duties ("read and edit press releases" -- Thank you, sir, may I have another?), figured out what "original reporter stories" meant and diagrammed my way through the alleged sentence structure, I end up at:

Normal working hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 3:00 PM to 12:00 AM; however, ability to work a flexible schedule is required.

Oh, for God's sake. Wednesday through Sunday, 3 to midnight (not "12:00 AM," or even "12 a.m.," dammit), isn't flexible enough for you? Anybody out there still wonder newspapers have trouble getting and keeping good people?

One notes that this e-mail didn't include any contact information. What was it Freud said -- "there are no accidents"?