Thursday, March 23, 2006

Dumb editing: Gold medal contender

"First, do no harm" means exactly that. It means no chopping the legs off and reattaching them at the earholes. No dropping patients off a 10-story building to test their rebounding abilities. &c &c &c. In short, no practicing your skills of a Frankenstein on a story just to prove that you can. Get it?

Here's today's example, in which a reasonably informative -- not to mention interesting -- AP tale becomes a bizarre, pointless headscratcher after being subjected to the "editing" "process."

Two, three, four:

Settlement may have big impact
1911 British law cited in family's lawsuit affects a third of world
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The story surrounding the song that never seems to go out of date amounts to a rags-to-riches tale, replete with racial overtones.

No one is saying how many millions will go to the daughters of the late composer Solomon Linda, who died in poverty from kidney disease in 1962 at age 53. But the family's settlement last month with New York-based Abilene Music gives Linda's heirs 25 percent of past and future royalties and has broad implications.

Linda composed his now-famous song in 1939 in one of the squalid hostels that housed black migrant workers in Johannesburg. According to family lore, he wrote the song in minutes, inspired by his childhood tasks of chasing prowling lions from the cattle he herded. He called the song Mbube, Zulu for lion.

By now you might be wondering, and rightly so, what "the song that never seems to go out of date" might be. "Happy Birthday"? "Purple Haze"? "Mandy"? Well, too bad for you. You can read on and on and on -- indeed, through the whole story -- and never find out.

Had the editor simply left the original AP lede in place, how simple your job would have been:

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Three impoverished South African women, whose father wrote the song known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," have won a six-year battle for royalties in a case that could affect other musicians.

An explanation might be useful (or maybe just scary). If I were guessing, I'd say it was a case of "second-cycling" -- downplaying the "what" (presuming that everybody's heard it) to emphasize the "so what" or "now what." That's often a good idea, but it's not a mandate. It's a decision based on several essential conditions, including:
1) Everybody has heard the news in question. Often a good guess, but doubtful here.
2) You keep at least some mention of all the relevant facts. Like, say, the title of the "song that never seems to go out of date" (or those "racial overtones" that the paper seems to think need no explanation).

Not that there isn't enough embarrassment to go around on this one already, but by the way: Don't write "may" heds on stories about legal decisions. Come to that, don't write "may" heds, period, unless you have room for a deck that says "then again, may not."


Anonymous Tom said...

Good catch. The mainbar didn't post online (and because the main isn't an AP story, it likely cannot be posted.) We'll see if can can restore some info, although it still won't include everything the main did.

6:37 PM, March 23, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Glad to have you join us, and tnx for the online tweak. The AP original, as you noticed isn't Shakespeare, but at least it gets the relevant goodies in place.

Whose story was the mainbar?

11:20 AM, March 24, 2006  
Anonymous Tom said...


4:24 PM, March 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and I was making no comment on the quality. After all, ain't none of us Shakespeare.

4:26 PM, March 25, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Shakespeare's dead, throw strikes -- I found the AP's take kind of ungraceful. "That could affect other musicians" seems a particularly vague way of getting at the substance of the case. And while the tune in question might be "a" song that never seems to go out of date, the false restrictive in "the song that never seems to go out of date" is annoying.

That was kind of my point, tho - the cure for a splintery lede is sandpaper, not (necessarily) the circular saw.

6:43 PM, March 25, 2006  
Blogger aparker54 said...

I can't buy an absolute ban on "may" headlines. I lived through superiors who did ban them but who didn't object when we used "could" instead. As we did, despite the added length, when stuck.

1:44 AM, March 30, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

(and a big welcome to aparker, a TCE stalwart).

I can see a theoretical situation in which a "may" -- for my $$, indistinguishable from "might" and "could" -- hed might actually distinguish what's new from what's old. This one's a classic of the bad genre, though, in that it's no newer (or truer) today than it was a month ago and thus has nothing to do with why the story's in the paper.

And again, since the story's about why the predicted event is unlikely, it's an especially bad decision here.

So with my pedagogic hat on, I tend to frame it as a rule: Never say what might be when you can say what is.

1:08 PM, April 03, 2006  

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