Thursday, June 01, 2006

Tone, taste, timing

Defining "tone" in heds is sort of like nailing Jell-O® to a herd of cats. It doesn't produce a lot of generalizable rules, and the rules it does produce look a lot like the whims of the person doing the nailing. But a few examples from recent days offer a bit of insight on when and why particuular tricks might or might not work:

Hey, customer: Hang up and order!
Restaurants and shops adopt different policies to deal with patrons using cell phones.
It was the day a customer threw a sandwich in her face that Subway manager Rachel Grimes knew she had to do something about people who try to order while talking on their cell phones.

The story wants a hed that gets in your face and yells a little, and this one captures the sense of it perfectly. At the same time, it tells you everything the story's about: Customers, telephones and failed interactions. The deck stumbles a bit, but not because of tone. "Adopt different policies" is overliteral for a story that isn't about policies (note that at one of the three businesses in the story, the sign represents "a courtesy, not a store policy"). Better to try for a bit of the broader picture painted by the expert's comments about the cell phone in modern life.

Is it the insurance?
Maybe the Molson's?
A Harvard study finds Canadians are healthier than Americans.
Add Canadians to the list of foreigners who are healthier than Americans.

This one, on the other hand, misses the target, for a couple of reasons. One, not to be literalist or anything, but there's nothing in the story about Molson's (or Labatt's, or all the beer taverns all down along Yonge Street, or whatever). The hed isn't a signal about the content, but a signal about the copydesk, and our job is to stay off the stage. Two: Can't you take a joke? Answer: Sure. Can you tell a public health issue from a joke? There's plenty of room in the paper to be funny; this is a story I'd actually like to know something about because of its importance. (See below* for routine science-journalism whinge.)

MU student wins trip to Africa
Last-second essay sends Casey Parks with NY Times scribe.

Quick show of hands: How many of you have used the word "scribe" since junior high history classes? Right. There's room for "columnist" or "journalist" or "Pulitzer winner" -- and no need at all to lapse into 1940s Variety-speak.

There's lots more to be said about recent heds, but it's on different topics. Well, maybe just one ...

United States could join talks with Iran
This is why "could" and "might" heds are banned -- not because they're false, but because they're no truer, and thus no more an indication of why the story is in the paper, today than they would have been yesterday. This story's not about what might happen but about what happened Wednesday: Washington set out the conditions under which it would join the talks. Talk about what is, not what might be. (And be sure to check out the discussion at Common Sense Journalism of why the state of a paper's briefs packages is a good indicator of the overall state of its editing.)

* The study's interesting, but the AP take is so awful that its value is at best marginal. To reiterate a favorite point: When you're editing a "study says" tale, the first thing you should do is find the study. I'm having trouble getting to a full text, but the abstract is easy, and it suggests that the study's "about" something far different from what the AP thinks: "Access to Care, Health Status, and Health Disparities in the United States and Canada: Results of a Cross-National Population-Based Survey." As befits a survey story, it's as much -- or more -- about reported access as it is about reported health. And "Americans report a higher incidence of A, B and C" is not the same thing as "Canadians are healthier." Quoting the RAND guy who did an unrelated study turns research into -- literally and unfortunately -- a he-said/she-said matter. There are lots of ways to critique logistic regression. "That's unlikely" isn't much of one.


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