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.


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