Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Sentence(s) of the day

Sir: Please do not ever mention George Bush. And Winston Churchill in the same sentence again, even if you must break all the rules of grammar to do so.

(From this week's letters to the Economist, and it immediately claimed sole second place on the HEADSUP-L All-Time Favorite Letters To The Editor List.)

One might grow tired of ideological mud-daubing, but never of a sharp thrust with the pointy end of a punctuation key.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A visit with the ombudsdudes

While we wait for the Nordic Affairs Bureau to check in on whether "ombudsman" was originally gendered or not, a few observations from the weekend's one-way conversation between reader-reps and readers. One's about two exits past dreadful, but the other shows some signs of hope.

First, this one:
Is news dead?

That was the question that journalists, in moments of paranoia and self-doubt, asked themselves the day after many newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal, felt the need to run the winner of the "American Idol" competition on the front page.

A couple of observations: One, if it bothers you that much, why don't you just -- oh, be the brave editor who decides not to put crap on the front page, or something? Two, have you been asleep for the past four decades, or however long (at a charitable guess) it's been that people have been arguing about which pop-culture trends go out front and which get ignored?And three ...

... These were some of the issues The Commercial Appeal's publisher, Joe Pepe, and I discussed with other editors and publishers a few days ago at a Poynter Institute for Media Studies conference on "The Future of News."

Copydesk, stand by for surface action to starboard. The editor almost certainly doesn't have to write about the junket to justify it for tax purposes, but that's not going to stop him. Anyway, we kind of go on -- and on, and on, and on, and on -- about some mildly apocalyptic ideas (heavily trimmed, but not nearly as heavily as it should have been before it ran):

The news brain no longer resides in newsrooms alone. Not when we have the Internet, and millions of blogs, and a rising generation of news consumers who say: It's not your news, but ours.

... But there is an alternate view that can and should be embraced instead of this nightmarish image. It is a vision of what news can be if we look ahead. ... A new sort of news ecology, if you will, could well be emerging right before our eyes. In this vision, the very definition of news, of its purpose and value to society, is undergoing a metamorphosis. This emerging ecology of news already appears to be changing the very DNA of news for the 21st century:

News will be generated by the people who are chosen, not the chosen people.

Copyeds? Next time the editor-in-chief decides to write that the Chosen People generate the news, just go ahead and hit him on the head with a keyboard, OK? He'll thank you when he comes to.

But let's assume the guy was writing in good faith; he just had a moment of breathtaking cultural stupidity, and no one had the time, or intra-office firepower, or inclination, to stop him. If "chosen people" didn't have a secondary meaning, what would be the difference between "the people who are chosen" and "the chosen people"? Is this a meaningless bombastic distinction, or a bombastic distinction that's meaningless?

But let's proceed:

News will be more a conversation about making sense of the world, less of a sermon from on high. (What the hell does that mean?)

News will rely on the wisdom of the many, not the insight of the few, with journalists being knowledge leaders. (For Mao's sake -- didn't we already figure out that the Cultural Revolution was a really, really bad idea?)

News will be multilayered, from very personal accounts to highly evolved overviews by real pros. (And that's going to distinguish it from today's newspaper in which particular ways? That don't involve the "experts" you just placed in dunce caps, I mean?)

News will be available anytime, from your phone, computer or new technologically advanced device. (It already is. It's also available anytime from a "newspaper" or a "television"; how do you propose to guarantee that you can either provide "new" news on demand or distinguish it from "relevant" news?)

News will be framed according to your social networks, your age and your tribe.
(OK, I'm scared now. Urgent, flash, bulletin: News already is! How do you think Iraq got to be part of the "war on terror" back in 2002? Fox has the decency to be open about appealing to tribal and social standards; are you going to offer an option -- you know, along the lines of "grownup" news by "people who know what the hell they're talking about" -- or just join in the race for the drain?)

"American Idol," in fact, may be a small example of this new ecology of news. (Great. I'll just go strangle a piping plover now, shall I?)

After all, the winner, Taylor Hicks, was voted on by the people.

His life will now be part of America's story. His politics, his religion, his music will all be wrapped into the definitions of what Americans think is important. (Please tell me you don't actually mean this.)

Self-preservation is a powerful instinct. To keep from becoming a dinosaur, I'm making two pledges to the cause of saving news:

First, to work as a translator for my news organization. To help my fellow journalists look ahead to the emerging news ecology and "take steps now" to adjust our daily work and planning to this new ecology.
(Whatever that is, it ain't translation.)

Second, to strive to be on the leading edge of the transformation. To keep learning about what roles, what jobs 21st-century news organizations are being asked to fill even as the core values of journalism are preserved. (Here's a better idea. Pledge One: Stop wasting my time and yours -- not to mention the newshole. Pledge Two: Do some of the work yourself and let the people who put the paper out do some of the learning.)

News isn't dead. It might be asking for a change of venue, but it isn't dead.

Anyway. That one was such a pinnacle of silliness it was hard to resist. Here's a sign of better cheer. The writer gets a lot of details wrong but manages to get pretty near the right conclusion all the same:

The News & Observer in 2005 published 663 corrections, up from 617 the year before. That puts the paper above the median (522) of eight similar-sized newspapers I surveyed, ranging from 409 at The San Antonio Express-News to 779 at The Orlando Sentinel.
Why the median without the mean? More to the point, what does "663" mean? What does it stand in relation to? Are you running more or less news from a year ago? More or less sports? More or less "American Idol"?

I think it's important that readers receive an accounting of our errors, although I'm not sure the numbers mean much. A paper with a low correction count probably is not as aggressive in its news coverage nor as honest with readers as a better paper with a high count. The Washington Post last year published 1,322 corrections, The New York Times about 3,700, according to editors at each. Those two papers, of course, serve larger markets and publish more stories annually than The N&O.
He's on to something -- almost. "The numbers" mean something, but not until they're couched amid some of the context you mention. More or less "aggressive" is a guess, but more or less formal about correcting stuff that's wrong is measurable. Market size isn't relevant; number of stories -- especially the proportion of staff to wire copy (and the willingness to run corrections on errors in wire copy) -- is.

Why was The N&O correction rate up last year? (We don't know whether it is. It's only a "rate" when you give it a denominator, and -- as your suggestions above make clear -- "year" probably isn't the right one. If there were a way to measure fact-claims per year, we'd be closer to a usable measure, though we'd still have to contend with issues of the error's size and relevance. "The," of course, should be lowercase; it's modifying "correction rate," not "N&O.")

I looked over a recent month's worth of corrections, 42 in all. What stood out is how many were not errors by N&O reporters. Some were from syndicated stories picked up in The N&O. Many were in photo captions, based on bad information submitted by photographers. A number were headlines that incorrectly described stories. (There's some real substance here, though I could do without the unsubtle implication that rimsters and photographers are some sort of lesser journalist than "reporters." Correcting agency copy is good, as is fixing busted cuts and heds. Let's hear more about how these come about -- too many 1/48/3s, maybe? -- and what we're going to do to stop them. "Focusing on headlines" doesn't help much if you don't make the tools available.)

What I like here -- and I might be projecting a bit -- is that this one is skating up to an unspoken TRVTH that ought to be spoken more often: It's better to be boring and right than perky and wrong. Which it appears the first editor doesn't get, and that casts any pledges of translation or leadership or whatever from that quarter into permanent doubt.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Fun with participles (and Stupid Questions)

General Motors Corp. will recall more than 30,000 Corvettes after customers complained that the roof flew off while driving the $45,000 sports car.

No doubt because some careless drivers misbuckled their participles. "While driving," alas, is pretty firmly attached to the subject of the complement, to wit "the roof."
(Funny, it takes eight grafs before the story mentions a recall that affects 10 times as many cars -- lowly Volkswagens, of course, but motor vehicles nonetheless. One can only hope the originating desk was distracted by the roar of engines on Tryon Street, not the top hats of the robber barons in charge of the business section.)

IT'S A BOY! Born on Friday, what did Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale name their first child?
If we're going to fill the paper with swill about "Survivor," Hilary Swank, "American Idol" and this happy couple, let's try to have modifiers go with subjects, OK?

On a rather more serious topic, though one apparently less amenable to correction:

Mass murder by Marines?
Photographs point to execution-style killings of up to 24 Iraqi civilians
WASHINGTON - Photographs taken by a Marine intelligence team have convinced investigators that a Marine unit killed up to 24 Iraqi civilians, some of them "execution style," in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha after a roadside bomb killed one American last November, officials close to the investigation said Friday.

Look. You guys are the ones running the story, presumably on the assumption that the reporting is true. If you're going to run an accusation, run the damned accusation. Don't pretend it's a question. If there isn't room for attribution, make room for attribution.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Hit ball! Throw ball! Catch ball!

We're a week into a new season, and apparently it's time for the This Is A Simple Game rant. So here goes. Grammar is a simple game! You take the red Lego(1)! You hook it to the blue Lego! You get a unit of meaning!

So this isn't a complaint about style, tone or news judgment (though today's paper has some instructive shortcomings in those areas as well). It's about grammar, and it has three main points:

1) Grammar is about how stuff goes together to make meaning. It has nothing to do with irrelevant matters of form, like split infinitives. Don't get false rules mixed up with real ones.
2) Too many decisions about "grammar" in news writing are based on the occurrence of particular forms rather than the mechanics of what those forms are doing. Be careful of false cues.
3) The right answer is the right answer -- not the one that looks as if it has more "grammar" in it.

Examples? Why, yes:
At Lay’s request, the chair was renamed The Kenneth L. Lay Chair in 2002 and has remained vacant since its creation. (1A)

There's nothing grammatically "wrong" with this sentence. It's unimpeachably clear in what it says, which is exactly the problem. The way English puts its Legos(2) together, "at Lay's request" modifies both verbs:
At Lay’s request, the chair was renamed The Kenneth L. Lay Chair in 2002.
At Lay’s request, the chair has remained vacant since its creation.

Make the second part of the predicate a separate clause and the problem is solved. That's how "rules" work. Use them, lest they use you.

Second point: Misread grammatical signals. The false subjunctive is a common one: “You would have gone straight through the window” if this were a real crash and you weren’t buckled in, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Ricks. (5A)

Writer sees "if," writer hears Zero Mostel singing in the background, writer opts for "were." Bad idea. The point of the "If I Were a Rich Man" example is that it's counterfactual. Teyve is never going to be a rich man. And in this case, whether you read it as a pure hypothetical or a statement about a possibility,(3) it'd take the past perfect: "... if this had been a real crash and you hadn't been buckled in." Evans and Evans, descriptive though they be, remind us that "subjunctive were should not be used in speaking about a past event."

Not quite off-topic: The first-person viewpoint in this story isn't the copydesk's call, but that doesn't mean it's anything-goes on the pronoun front. When the direct "you" quote ends, the pronoun needs to shift back to the story's main point of view. Try a third-person example:
He got out of the car. "You're under arrest," the officer told him.
* He got out of the car. "You're under arrest," the officer told you.

So this one should have been "if I hadn't been buckled in." But with a quote that strong, I'd suggest letting it stand and moving all the qualifiers to another sentence. (Have a look, by the way, at Bill Walsh's fine post today on interpreting the scriptures.)

Point the third, and a cousin of the one above: Avoid "hypercorrection," or the tendency to use a particular form because it looks more like grammar:
Her husband, whom she told police was also in the bathroom, faces trial on the same four charges next Wednesday. (5A)

Him was? We don't have a lot of case inflection left in English, but pronouns have it big time. The easiest test is just to un-transform the relative clause: start reading after the relative pronoun and plug it back in as a personal pronoun where appropriate:
She told police he was also in the bathroom
* She told police him was also in the bathroom

See? Hit ball, throw ball, catch ball! Ignore fake rules. Respect real ones.

1 For our trademark-obsessed readers: "You take the red Lego® brand plastic child health peril! You hook it to ..."
2 Want to see the dimmest trademark sentence of the day? One of the hottest topics on the water these day are(4) the use of jet skies,(5) or "personal watercraft," as they are sometimes called. (... legos, or "plastic toy blocks" as they are sometimes called.)
3 There's some debate about what the statement actually is, or at least there was some around the HEADSUP-L library this morning. (Usually, that means "the first author was wrong.")
4 One are?
5 Ski, skis. Sky, skies. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
(Anybody out there know how to do superscripts on this thing?)

And the style is ...?

A Charlotte mother who is a suspect in 15 Dilworth fires called 911 in late April to report a suspicious person walking in her neighborhood, a 911 recording shows.

A Charlotte woman admitted Thursday to stealing another woman's identity and using it to buy a Lincoln Continental.

So ... under what circumstances would a crime suspect be a "Charlotte father"? (Yeah, yeah, yeah. He or she would have to start by being a guy. We're looking at a slightly different social function of language here, please.)

(While we're here: These items seem to be credited to the same writer, but one's undated and the other is dated "Columbia." Are reporters piling up that much driving time, or are Some Newspapers playing fast and loose with datelines again?)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the latest shoe-drop from the K-R sale:

Local ownership by a group with diversified business and political interests could cast the papers' editorial independence into doubt, some observers have worried.

Raising a couple of small questions:
1) Compared to what?
2) Could we shed any light on who the "observers" are and how their worry was expressed?
3) Come to think of it, if anyone has his or her decoder ring set to "news waffle," could you post a rendition in English? 'Preciate it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Clue-deprived at the Wall Street Journal

Damn that agenda-setting function of the mass media! One little article in the NYT about journalism school enrollment, and all of a sudden every kid has to have one. A couple of examples from the past week came tumbling over the transom today, and in their own little ways, they're worth a look.

First up is a curious entry from the Wall Street Journal: "Schools for Scribblers," by Jonathan V. Last. It's not notable for its originality. If you've been within artillery range of a J-school in the centuries since Gutenberg invented the inverted pyramid*, you've heard Mr. Last's basic question: Does journalism education belong in the university or (as the mom of an older classmate unkindly put it, back in the second Nixon term) in trade school?

No, what makes this little screed stand out is its mastery of advanced op-ed technique: When the writer runs out of stuff to support his positions, he just makes some up. Even Jayson Blair had the decency to lift things that were more or less true. Opinions, of course, are a protected species, even when loopy. But when they're built on made-up stuff ... well, let's get started. There's the lede, for example:

Those of us saddened by the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry had hoped that shrinking newspaper staffs would have at least one salutary effect: fewer journalism-school graduates. This has not proved to be the case. In 2005, newspapers cut 2,000 jobs; this spring more people graduated from journalism schools than ever before.

We could ask him what proportion of journalism school graduates are interested in jobs on newspaper staffs, but then we'd have to ask whether he knows the difference between journalism -- as in news staff jobs -- and the broader study of communication (including advertising, PR, healthcomm and many other areas that are probably included in the category he seems to be alluding to). And that'd be a pretty short conversation.

On the education of young journalists, there has been much recent debate. There is one argument over whether or not journalists should aspire to objectivity and another about the liberal bias that permeates journalism programs.
Sounds as if our expert is buying into the David Horowitz eyewash here: Voting preferences equal classroom bias. Drop us a note when you have some evidence, will you? There's a good little robot. Meanwhile, ponder a few alternatives to Mr. Last's false dichotomy -- say, that journalism schools turn out a product meant to fit into mainstream journalism, the Fourth Estate of Conventional Wisdom, rather than a horde of wild-eyed liberals. But -- oh, hell, that'd be assuming actual weighing of the evidence at the Journal's opinion pages, wouldn't it? Sorry.

... So what do aspiring journalists learn in school? Undergraduate courses of study vary, but if you survey course catalogs, there's a heavy emphasis on process and theory. (Hold that thought)

At Ohio State, for instance, a student majoring in journalism might take some substantive core courses, such as introductory American history, math and microeconomics. But a large portion of his coursework will be taken up with classes such as Principles of Civic Journalism, Topics in Public Affairs Journalism or Industry Research Methods. ** An undergraduate at Missouri can take courses such as Cross-Cultural Journalism, The Creative Process, Women and the Media--there's even a class on High School Journalism.

OK. We'll assume that most, if not all, HEADSUP-L readers are familiar with the syntactic, pragmatic and cultural arguments about the generic masculine pronoun. So let's just point out that it's particularly brainless to use generic "his" in a field in which two-thirds of the bachelor's and master's degrees are awarded to women.*** The substance of Mr. Last's point here seems to be that math are good, but research methods are bad. Really? One can't speak for Ohio State, but the undergrad methods class at Missouri covers stuff like surveys, experiments and content analysis -- gosh, the very sort of stuff that lets journalists put accepted scientific methods to use in understanding and describing empirical research. It's full for Fall '06, but Mr. Last could ask about auditing.

Is there a class in high school journalism at Missouri? Yes, but it's for high school journalism teachers -- not undergraduates. And that doesn't take a methods class to figure out -- one could, for example, ask the advising office. Which gets us to some more substantive concerns about Mr. Last's tirade. He's using a research technique called "cherry-picking" -- running his finger down the catalog until he finds something he thinks is amusing, then inventing circumstances to go with it.

At the graduate level, Missouri students get courses that are less about the theoretical aspects**** of journalism and more about the tricks of the trade: Intermediate and Advanced Writing, Newspaper Reporting and Magazine Editing are all required.

Pop quiz: How many of the courses listed in that graf are required for an MA at Missouri?
a) 1
b) 2
c) 3
d) 4
e) 0

If you answered e) -- that'll be "none" -- you're right! Exactly the square root of ZERO of those courses are required! To examine that, we start with a complicated editing technique called the "sniff test" (known as "face validity" in graduate methods classes, but the idea is much the same). An MA program is more or less 36 hours including thesis or project, or 27 hours of classes. So if these four courses are required, that's 44% of the program right there. Hmm. Smells funny for a place where advertising/PR is the biggest undergraduate sequence, eh?

The sniff test leads us to check the catalog, which makes abundantly clear that Mr. Last is employing the ultra-sophisticated method called "out-and-out fabrication." In some models -- say, advertising, media management and StratCom -- those courses aren't even among the options listed. In more traditional journalism models, you can count one or several toward your degree. But even the reporting/writing model seems to require neither intermediate nor advanced writing (let's hear it for the method called "looking things up"). Others might have the student pondering -- wow, economics reporting, or science reporting, or international reporting to fulfill that notional news slot.***** Or you can just take the research tack and ignore the news-writing side altogether.

Of course, our expert has the cure:
Yet when it comes to learning about the style and craft of writing, an education can be had for much less. sells the complete archives of The New Yorker on DVD for $63--it's hard to see how a classroom discussion of story structure could be much more valuable than reading and studying the work of the greats, from Truman Capote to David Grann.

Well, what were we thinking with this whole education thing? Why have music school when, like, Bach is on CD? Why study engineering when all around us, we have bridges that are still standing! And, if we're lucky, some that are failing! And why stop there when the sciences await? The archives of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience are online; Mr. Last, care to run us a nice experiment on event-related potentials and gender-stereotype violations (syntactic or semantic)?

Wow. That's a lot of time to spend on one guy who makes stuff up for -- what is it, the Weekly Standard? But you'd think the Wall Street Journal might have some interest in whether its opinion writers have the faintest bloody idea what they're talking about. Perhaps that tells us something.

It's entirely possible -- indeed, that's one of the virtues of American journalism -- to practice reporting without a license. But one shouldn't practice it without a clue. J-schools aren't the sole and certain cure for such a problem, but they seem a bit farther down the path than Mr. Last.

* Or was it civic journalism? One forgets.
** Hmm. Three classes in four years, a "large proportion" -- which, again, was the planet on which you fulfilled your college math requirement? Just asking.
*** In the latest year for which stats are available, per the Becker et al study that seems to have set this whole trend off.
**** Are you wondering why the sixth graf complains that there's too much theory and this graf complains that there's too little? It's because the writer has mastered an editorial technique called "blathering." And you thought you weren't getting anything for your education dollar.
***** If you don't have enough undergrad economics or political science, you might have to take make-ups without credit. That actually is a requirement. But don't stop him -- he's on a roll.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday morning hed roundup

A few instructive headline errors from a stroll through the morning's news:

In Missouri, there is a death or injury caused by teen motorists every 25.4 minutes.

Alas, poor statistics: so full of life when they left the Highway Patrol Web site, so mangled beyond recognition by the time they reach the top of Sunday's 1A. Here's what the story says:

In 2004, 249 people died and 20,464 were injured in young-driver related crashes in Missouri, according to the Missouri Traffic Safety Compendium. That equals one injury or death from teen driving every 25.4 minutes.

Ignore the awful hyphenation* and apply the First Rule: When you see two numbers, do something to them. Then hold that thought and make sure the numbers are describing what they purport to.

As far as the hed goes, they aren't. As the Highway Patrol tallies it, these are cases in which "one or more drivers of motorized vehicles directly involved in the traffic crash were under the age of 21." So the hed's openly wrong on two counts: One, it invents a causal relationship that the source doesn't specify (unlike alcohol-related crashes, for which the definition says intoxication is believed to have been a factor). Two, it counts 20-year-olds as teens.

Back to Rule 1: Yes, the numbers check out (hey, the writer even remembered to count the leap day). Trouble is, they're brought to a rather pointless conclusion, which the hed then aggravates. If there are any clustering effects from time -- more crashes when teens are driving to or from school, more crashes on weekend nights than school nights, whatever -- the rate per X minutes ignores them. And turning a rate into a recurrence (going from "that equals one every X minutes" to "one happens every X minutes") is a silly idea. If you run 100 yards in 1o seconds, you're running at slightly over 20 mph, but that doesn't mean you can run 20 miles in an hour.

‘Da Vinci’ reviews mixed on if it’s a masterpiece (4A Sunday)
The rule for figurative language in big type is that it has to work literally as well. Here, the hed writer is just a bit too coy. "Masterpiece" is trying to send another "Da Vinci" signal, but it doesn't go with the text. Reviews aren't mixed on whether it's a masterpiece. They vary from "really liked the film" to "not as good as the book."

With vivid characters on the page, there is great interest to see how they will translate onto celluloid.
Is the reporter's judgment about renowned author Dan Brown's*** characterization skills really relevant to this tale? And does anybody have any idea what that introductory phrase is supposed to be modifying?****

Bill doesn't specify garb to identify minorities
Text of plan on clothes doesn't back up report
TEHRAN, Iran - A draft law moving through parliament encourages Iranians to wear Islamic clothing to protect the country's Muslim identity but does not mention special attire for religious minorities, according to a copy obtained Saturday by The Associated Press.
That's a lot of headline awfulness packed into a fairly compact space. Where to begin?

One, it's a classic form of big-type ambiguity. When something that looks like a causal statement follows a negated verb, it's hard to tell what's being negated:
Roscoe didn't eat because he was stoned.
Roscoe didn't eat (he was too busy watching the walls breathe).
Roscoe ate because it was lunchtime (not because he was stoned).

So what does the bill not do? Does it not specify garb, or does it specify garb for some other reason than identifying minorities? (If you're getting the idea that hed language often sounds clumsy in isolation, you're right.)

Now to the deck: "Text of plan on clothes doesn't back up report." Again, a good principle of big type is to talk about what is, rather than what ain't. So far we've taken two swings and come away with two mentions of what the bill (or plan) on garb (or clothes*****) doesn't do, but we have yet to mention why we're interested -- or which of the 190-odd nation-like places that have laws this story might have come from. (If you're getting the idea that decks shouldn't repeat the ideas of main heds, you're right again.)

It's not until well into the text that we get a chance at figuring out the relevance. A Canadian paper -- one gets the impression that it leans rightward, but assessments from Canadian readers would be most welcome -- seems to have run a made-up story about Iran that, quite naturally, drew immediate comparisons to Nazi Germany. It appears the law in question wouldn't require Jews to wear yellow (and Christians red, and Zoroastrians blue) after all.

Now, that doesn't make Iran a responsible player in the region. Nor does it make the Iranian president's comments about Israel any less odious. But given the volume of official and unofficial saber-rattling these days, do you figure it maybe means the big type should focus more on how fabricated tales of Hun (sorry, Iranian) barbarism get into national newspapers and less on what the garb bill doesn't do?

* It's not about "related crashes" that are "young driver"; it's about crashes that are "related to young drivers."** If you're going to be obsessive about hyphens, do it right.
** Though it isn't about what crashes are "related" to. It's about crashes in which one driver is younger than 21.
*** By the way -- run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore and demand a copy of "Far from the Madding Gerund," by renowned linguists Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll whack a prescriptivist upside the head.
**** p. 184.
***** Are we holding "attire" in reserve in case there's a cutline? Just wondering.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Put the pompoms away

When you start by asking the wrong questions -- even if you're the New York Times -- the odds are quite good that you'll end up with wrong answers. As in the case below, which is a bit late but still worth a caution for the journalism dodge : Don't buy into myths. Especially our own.

Here's the tale, and you can see why it was a big deal around here:

Times Are Tough for News Media,
but Journalism Schools Are Still Booming
COLUMBIA, Mo. — These are tough times for journalism.

The newspaper industry cut more than 2,000 jobs last year as it continued to lose readers and advertisers to the Internet. Network newscasts are being propped up by older viewers and continue to lose market share to cable. Regular reports of ethical breaches are undermining public trust in all news organizations, bloggers accuse the mainstream media of being arrogant and clueless, and Wall Street expresses little confidence in its financial future.

But there is one corner of the profession still enjoying a boom: journalism schools.

Demand for seats in the nation's journalism schools and programs remains robust, and those schools and programs are expanding. This month, they will churn out more graduates than ever into a job market that is perhaps more welcoming to entry-level multimedia-taskers than it is to veterans who began their careers hunting and pecking on Olivetti typewriters.

Amid the Parade of Cliches and the warmed-over conventional wisdom, there's plenty of stuff to make the tale popular. It quotes Diego, who's a pretty good reminder to the Lesser Schools of what they can expect should the national copyediting tournament ever take place, and lots of other cool folks besides. And it's heartwarming to know that younguns are still flocking to the underpaid ranks of dragon-slayers and truth-tellers, right?

Well, put away the pompoms. What we have here is the Research Intensive version of an Arkansas Traveler joke: Flatlander asks wrong question, gets perfectly correct answer, sets off for Little Rock by way of Fujian. And thereby hang some tales that are useful for the reporting dodge -- and not coincidentally for the Thin Red Line that is Your Copydesk.

Point I: A survey is only about what it's about (have we been over this one before?). This isn't a study of j-schools; it's a study of journalism AND MASSCOMM schools. That's not quite the same as the difference between Smokestack Lightning and Vincent Black Lightning, but it's close. Not until the 11th graf of the story do you find out that the study* might involve something other than, you know, meeting Deep Throat over at the Hitt Street parking deck.

Does that make a difference? Well, yeah. The biggest journalism/masscomm program in the country, Penn State, comprises departments of advertising/PR; film/video and media studies; journalism; and telecommunications. The runner-up, Michigan State, includes ad/PR/retailing; audiology and speech sciences; comm; journalism; and something called "telecomunication, information studies and media" -- but apparently the apparel and textile design majors are walking with the CommArts folks at commencement this spring. (Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite. No, make that Nordstrom's.)

What about straight-up J-schools? Glad you asked. At Missouri, the biggest share of diplomas this month went (again) to StratCom, which is the nice way of saying advertising and PR, at 34% (it's been between 30% and 36% the past four years). News-ed was at 18% and has varied from 16% to 20%.

How does that compare nationally? Well, there's nothing like reading the study for finding out. For Fall 2004, whence come the data for the latest installment in Prof. Becker's annual take on j-comm enrollment, 26% and change of students were in a "traditional journalism core" -- news-ed, broadcast or journalism (general). About 24% were in advertising or PR. For the 2003-04 year, 24% of degrees were in the traditional core, with 31% in advertising or PR. "Variation in these figures of a few percentage points has been quite common across time," Becker et al. note. So the correct answer to "Is enrollment in journalism growing?" is "We have no way of knowing."

But that's not going to stop your New York Times reporter on the trail of a Trend (give the Times credit for using an honest graphic with a zero baseline; you can see how small an increase the 1.4% really is). After all, we've got quotes!

"Students are interested in writing," he [Becker, the lead author] said. "They're interested in the broader sense of what the media are and what role they play in society, and those are the things that drive them, not hearing about Knight Ridder dealing with a stockholders' revolt."

I don't doubt him for a second. I can't walk across the street for lunch without running into a student (or eight) who has a deep and abiding interest in writing, media, society -- even editing, huzzah. But that's not what the study is about, which leads us to:

Point II: "Study says" and "researcher says" are not the same thing. This isn't a survey of what students are interested in. It's a survey of journalism/masscomm schools to see who's enrolled. Lee Becker's an astute guy, but he's not clairvoyant. We don't know the context in which those comments arose, but no matter how correct they are, they don't say anything about the motives of journalism/masscomm students as a whole.

But you have to admit: it just totally wants to fit in with the Myths and Legends of King Journalism's court, doesn't it? Like the good old days of Watergate? Step forward, Michael Schudson:**

Watergate did not initiate a wave of interest in journalism among students. The best available data show that the number of students majoring in programs in journalism and communication began shooting upward in the mid and late 1960s. Undergraduate degrees awarded in journalism doubled between 1967 and 1972. ... One can always argue that, without Watergate, it might have tailed off more quickly (enrollments plateaued in the late 1970s but picked up again in the 1980s). But Watergate clearly did not start the rush to journalism.

The Watergate Boom thing is a mistake, but as Schudson puts it, a "mythic mistake": Watergate can't be teased apart from all the other developments of the surrounding decades that it stands in for, in part because ... well, it had a movie, didn't it? Thus

Point III: Cultural myths are powerful things. Be careful of mistaking them for an accurate accounting of events.

We could go on at some length*** here about related topics -- specifically, what other sorts of artifacts are captured by rising enrollment. It's possible to get some big downrange effects from fairly small tweaks in the admissions process, but without a lot of careful groundwork -- and spending -- there are likely to be a lot of unintended consequences in the bargain.

Which might have been much more useful for the Times to ask about -- as would the data on female and minority enrollment (or, say the title of the article in question). But meanwhile, sure -- that road'll get you to Little Rock.

*Becker, L.B., Vlad, T., Coffey, A.J., & Tucker, M. (2005). Enrollment growth rate slows; fields's focus on undergraduate education at odds with university setting. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 60, 286-315.
** Schudson, M. (1995). The power of news. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (pp. 149-150)
*** Yeah, OK -- some more length.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Dumbest reader of the (still-young) century

Just so's you don't think we here at HEADSUP-L don't complain about anybody but journalists, a nominee is in for the coveted Here's Your Money Back, and Please Try Not To Be Seen Reading Our Product In Public Ever Again Award:

Durango woman sues Herald for 9/11 cover up
Plaintiff wants $7,500 compensation for research expenses
A Durango woman issued a court summons to The Durango Herald, its publisher and its chairman on Thursday, demanding the newspaper compensate her for her attempt to uncover what she believes is a conspiracy to suppress the truth about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Jane Pflaintiff, representing a group called Caring for Our Community, obtained a summons requiring the Herald to appear in La Plata County small-claims court on June 1.

Pflaintiff wants $7,500 compensation - the maximum allowed in small-claims court - for expenses incurred researching the attacks and publicizing her view of what happened.

Pflaintiff wrote in her petition, "The defendants are guilty of complicity in covering up the truth about the 9/11 tragedy, thus making every one of them accomplices in the greatest crime of this century."

Well, enough about her (though if you can actually sue the media for the hours you put in researching their limitless sins, the Official HEADSUP-L Mountain Chalet is a lot closer to reality than it appeared this morning). Let's remind the copy desk not to say "sues for"; let's be sure to look up our phrasal combinations (forgodsake, the noun was "cover-up" as far back as Chandler's Black Mask days), and .... well, let's fire up the scanning electron microscope so the publisher can find his hem-hem-hems and call the plaintiff out as the foil-helmed orclet of Betelgeuse that she appears, on the evidence, to be. "I don't think the Herald is withholding anything that pertains to a conspiracy" -- well, suppose you go and check, there's a good publisher.

Here are some convenient slogans to start with:
1) The customer is not always right.
2) When the customer is wrong, let's tell him or her that his or her poetry smells and kick him or her downstairs.
3) With boots.

Don't get us wrong here. Lots of goobers inside the media and out have some pretty hefty bills outstanding for their role in the general clogging of the public brain space -- particularly the part wherein we talk about the Fractious Near East. But let's try to keep the decks clear in case we have a chance to engage a real target, OK?

(Thanks to the irreplaceable Romenesko for the original posting.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stop this stuff. Right now.

Europe may offer Iran a nuke reactor
Light-water reactor seen as way to find path `of cooperation'

VIENNA, Austria - standoff over weapons European nations on Tuesday weighed adding a light-water reactor to incentives meant to persuade Tehran to give up uranium enrichment.

Whoever put the "standoff over weapons" in there after the dateline, stop it. Go to the back of the line. Hang your head in shame.

Here's the complicated part. You can't have a "standoff over weapons" unless you have some weapons. Real, actual, proven weapons. Otherwise, it's sort of like the "standoff over unicorns" going on even now over at Broadway and West Boulevard (jeez, that's a lot of blue lights). See, when you make stuff up about the Middle East, you're kind of like taking bread out of the mouths of paid professional liars. So you're not only a tool of the reactionary pond scum, you hate kids and Christmas too.

Seriously. Try to do better. Didn't we have an object lesson a couple of years ago in the sort of things that happen when news reports get careless about the difference between what's known and what's asserted about weapons programs?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Parade of headline silliness

Preliminary thoughts on the morning papers. Funny, both seem to be discussions we've had before:

1) Why do we avoid reaching for the first cliche in the Big Bag of Heds? As in this tennis tale on 1B Sunday?
Bruins serve up district win
How about: Because somebody probably reached into the same bag for a tennis story a week or so ago!
Bruins serve up Kewpies (1B May 3)
Moral: RTFP. And if you think your favorite cliche is new, it ain't.

2) Insurgents bomb holy Shiite shrine
Didn't this one come up last month? Whether we like it or not (and we probably ought to be welcoming readers anywhere we can find them), we have a certain proportion of Beaves and Buttheads among the readership -- enough, certainly, to make "Holy Shiite" a construction that we ought to avoid. We could have skipped the entire discussion, of course, if the hed writer had remembered that shrines are pretty much "holy" by definition and spent the space on something less redundant.

While we're at it, it's time to rethink the "WAR & TERROR DIGEST" flag under which this yarn appears. Let's make sure now that readers can keep the two concepts separate in case it, erm, becomes necessary on short notice in the near future.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Voices from the future

As threatened at one point or another, some thoughts from the future of copyediting, as embodied in 4400/3. These are from essays* in response to the topic "If I were king (or queen) of the stylebook":

From now on, "blonde" is always spelled with an "e." To have a separate spelling for male and female blondeness is outdated, mildly sexist and French.

The new rule for adding dateline cities is that if they've hosted the Olympics, they're in the club. There's no reason to coddle readers who haven't mastered eighth-grade geography.

The AP Stylebook would henceforth be called "The Outlaw Bible of Newspaper Editing: Replacing creative license with political correctness one copy at a time."

[AP's position on semicolons] "is awful and should be changed immediately. Semicolons are the pinnacle of English grammar; they should be used as much as possible."

More in store after grades** are done.

* The alternative for this assignment is to recite a poem to the class. A useful reminder that every now and then, the words are actually in the right order when we get 'em.
** Yes, even as we speak.***
*** No, you can't.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The great clue hunt

Why do people out there distrust The Meedja so? Is it ... because some City Council candidates get better treatment than others?

No, that can't be it. How about our sometimes cavalier attitude toward representatives of mainstream religions?

No, it must be something deeper than that.

Or is it because we can't even read a press release without bungling it like Chicken Little? As in this example from Poynter's daily roundup of "story ideas that you can localize and enterprise*":

Half of Americans Have Foot Pain
It's sort of interesting, isn't it, that the newest uncomfortable styles come just as the American Podiatric Medical Association says one-half of Americans already has aching feet.

OK. The head on the press release is wrong ("New Survey Finds Nearly Half of Americans Suffer From Foot Problems"), but didn't we already learn about not trusting the heds on press releases? The lede gives a slightly more clueful representation:

If you think you’re the only one that has to cover up ugly yellow toe nail fungus or skip a day at the gym because of pain in your feet, think again. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans will experience a foot ailment at some point in their lives, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA).

Well, that clears things up a little. The thing doesn't say half of us has aching feet now (gollum, gollum); it says half of us have had or will have foot problems at some point. Slight difference, wouldn't you say? Sort of like the difference between "half of Americans will have the flu at some point" and 150 MILLION STRICKEN; PANIC IN STREETS!

And if you read on a bit -- say, as if you were the sort of assigning editor who paid attention to stuff -- you might have wondered if "foot ailment" is the same thing as "aching feet." Take it away, podiatrists:

The most common foot conditions included: Sweaty feet/foot odor (25 percent)

So No. 1 on the hit parade of past, present or future foot issues (at 25%) isn't even pain. Hardly even seems fair to ask all the normal stuff you'd ask about the alleged poll's alleged methodology, does it?

* Not to tear off the benign descriptivist mask or anything, but -- has a trial date been set yet for the lackey of Satan who decided to verb "enterprise"?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Play it again, salmonella

Admit it. Aside from the sheer slipped-the-surly-bonds-of-earth fun you'd have with collective-noun concord, didn't you always want to put in just a couple shifts writing heds at a redtop?

Without further ado, the Sun:
Play it again salmonella
West Ham 2 Tottenham 1
TOTTENHAM are ready to demand that the Premier League let them play this fixture again.

Spurs will complain at being ‘pushed’ into the crunch clash at Upton Park after TEN of their players went down with food poisoning.

("Loodunnit," indeed)

And the Mirror:
Poisoned Spurs miss out on Champions League..and will sue hotel & League for £10M
SPURS are threatening to sue the Premier League and a London hotel for £10million in lost Champions League revenue after TEN players suffered from food poisoning before their defeat at West Ham.

I've always wanted to know exactly how much ink a multimillion-circ tab saves in a year by eliminating that pesky third stop in the ellipsis. Does it cover not knowing the difference between "are threatening to sue" and "will sue"?

(HEADSUP-L feels constrained to point out that dodgy lasagne is no weapon for gentlemen. Though he can't help but wonder if Chelsea have had dinner yet.)

Hypercorrect capital of the Lower 48

Last couple of weeks, the campus public radio station has been modifying the traditional don't-forget-to-give-us-money-next-time-we-ask line. Now it comes out:

"... and from listeners such as you."

Buros, pls check in. Is this a trend sweeping the nation? Or are they just drinking a little too deep of the powdered soft drink mix of batty prescriptivism upcampus?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

23 skidoo

Some days you just look at the crosstown competition and wonder which decade the time machine stopped in:

Aviatrix inspires Stephens crowd

Not a bad little tale, but -- "aviatrix"?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Tom Clancy with a scapular

Opinion columns get a lighter hand on the desk in part because, as a rule, there are no false opinions. That doesn't mean there are no dumb opinions, and it certainly doesn't mean opinion columns are free of lame reasoning and puerile writing. It might mean, though, that rather than keeping such a one out of the paper, we can do little but shake our heads in wonderment at its refulgent glory.

A few excerpts, lightly annotated:
Best works of art are gutsy, challenging
I went to see "United 93" for the same reason many of you will be drawn soon to "The Da Vinci Code."

(Hold this thought for a second; we're going to come back to it.)

You and I want to be challenged, inspired, provoked, occasionally offended and always moved to think harder and feel more deeply.

And you and I read potboilers for exactly which of those reasons?

Many of us don't seek out legitimate expressions of art -- or a gutsy preacher getting ready to unleash a stunner of a sermon -- to be entertained.

We seek them out to be changed.

Leaving aside the bizarre conflation of sermonizing and art, and the annoying deixis, this is a pretty narrow view of what "art" is supposed to do, innit? Even if we're restricting ourselves to "legitimate" art?

I slipped alone into "United 93" because my wife was one of the many who could not bring herself to relive that part of Sept. 11 again. Some bought popcorn. (One hates to break the poetic spell here, but ... some of whom bought popcorn? The many who could not bring herself* to relive that part of Sept. 11?) But when the lights dimmed, this felt more like a memorial gathering than a suburban Charlotte theater on a Saturday night. We were there, quietly, to honor the memory of a group of previously unknown passengers who came to embody ingenuity and sacrifice.

Think back to the lede a second. You went to this flick for the same reason we lemmings "will be drawn soon to 'The Da Vinci Code,'" and that's -- to honor the memory of a group of previously unknown passengers? OK, just wanted to clear that up.

Skip the next few grafs (hey, don't thank me), in which the author reminds us (twice) that he interviewed a relative of a Flight 93 victim, and, well, cut to the chase:

"The Da Vinci Code" will be the next movie to challenge our capacity to welcome all points of view.

Let's ponder a few of the implications of this sentence:
1) "United 93" challenged our capacity to welcome all points of view.
2) The more points of view we can welcome, the better.
3) All points of view are equally valid.
4) We'd better welcome all those challenges in "The Da Vinci Code."

To which one is inclined to say no, no, no and no. "Welcoming all points of view" is not in itself a virtue, nor is it a necessary (or sufficient) condition of a "legitimate" work of "art." Some points of view are stupid. Some are morally indefensible or culturally beyond the pale. "All points of view" about Flight 93 would include, at a minimum, "Hey! Bin Laden's a heck of a guy!" -- three for three.

An overweight melodrama about the agents of Rome is a different matter, but it raises some similar questions. As in: Whence the supposed virtue in "welcoming" its challenging "point of view?" (We're going to run out of quotation marks if this keeps up much longer.) Do I get into heaven quicklier for believing in popish plots? What's the columnist going to demand of us when someone makes a Tom Cruise version of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"?

OK, that's a stretch. But it's a kindred stretch to the one that insists we find moral meaning in the diverse "points of view" of "The Da Vinci Code." Dude! It isn't Nabokov! It's not even C.S. Lewis! It's Dan Brown! It's like Tom Clancy with a scapular! And a flashlight under his chin!

My, the places we draw our legitimate art from these days. Long and heavy? Yeah. Page-turnosity? Fairly high. Gutsy and challenging? Not on this planet. Sorry.

Anyway, to conclude, life once again imitates high school composition class:

Whether it's a film about a doomed flight, a novel about a grand church conspiracy or a weekly sermon from your faith leader, the most important expressions are the ones that rattle our cages.

* {Running fingernails down blackboard} The pronoun error is even more blatant when you rewrite the sentence.

Lying with statistics -- again

Haven't we been over this one before? When you report on public opinion surveys, you may only report on what is surveyed -- not what you think the questions should have said or might mean. Making stuff up is not permitted. Copyeds, that means you are allowed -- nay, required -- to challenge stories that violate Rule A up there and to hold them up until they are brought into conformity with reality.

Would this be inspired by one of the Carolinas' most irksome Saturday features? Funny you should ask:

Carolinas among most religious states
A Gallup Poll analysis found that South Carolina and North Carolina are among the eight most religiously active states in the nation.

Analyzing 68,000 interviews conducted during the past two years, Gallup found that 58 percent of those surveyed in South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana say they attend church or synagogue once a week or nearly every week. That's tops in the nation. North Carolina isn't far behind, with 53 percent saying they worship weekly or almost weekly.

No, no, no, no, no. Neither the lede nor the hed is true. This analysis does not measure how "religious" a state is. It does not measure how "religiously active" a state is. It does not even measure how often people go to services. It measures self-reported attendance at services. Even Gallup, which has its shameless moments, refers to the analysis as measuring "reported attendance."

It really seems that this paper owes its readers some answers. Why do you continue to allow this particular department to fictionalize news? And what other statistics are you lying with?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Whenever you see two numbers ...

Today's double play of J4400 bromides comes from Sunday's NYT front, an extended-cutline-and-reefer way of using display art to get into a big inside story. Under the hed "For Americans, more angst at the pump," the first graf concludes:

Who hasn't heard laments over a $50 fill-up for a 15-gallon tank?

(Raising hand tentatively) I haven't. The price was still hanging around $2.80 (about $42 for the notional 15-gallon tank) when I drove in this ayem. And even if the woman in the photo is going for the hi-test, there's a good chance she hasn't either. If her engine coughed out at the entrance to the station and she coasted bone-dry to the pumps, that fill-up would have cost slightly less than $49.

Those J4400 lessons, should you be studying for your final:
1) Whenever you see two numbers, do something to them.
2) Never assume that your audience sees things the way you do. Indeed, had the elite NYT reefer-writers read their own damn story (oops -- that'd be Lesson 3, wouldn't it?), they would have noticed that a Manhattan-centric generalization was a singularly bad fit for a national roundup.

Moral(s), in reverse order: RTFS. Don't generalize from n=your friends. Go forth and multiply.