Monday, July 31, 2006

And the scorpion said ...

... well, enough with the well-worn conventional wisdom of the Near East.* But it's a handy reminder of why heds need to avoid confusing the word with the deed, no matter how tight the count, and no matter how urgent the pressure to be perky:

Israel halts bombings
But Lebanon ground campaign continues
JERUSALEM - Israel agreed late Sunday to suspend its aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon for 48 hours after an attack on a house in the village of Qana killed at least 54 civilians, most of them children.

U.S. State Department officials announced the suspension after a tense day in which U.S. officials for the first time appeared unhappy over the turn of events in Lebanon.

Agreeing to do something, it should go without saying by now, is not the same thing as doing it (why a Washington writer covering a State Department story gets a Jerusalem dateline is another issue). The NYT stayed on safer ground by using the participial form:

Israel Suspending Lebanon Air Raids After Dozens Die
Israel agreed to suspend its airstrikes for 48 hours while it investigates an air raid on a Lebanese town that killed dozens, many of them children.

the traditional wisdom being that "is suspending" leaves you more wiggle room: It describes a process (declaration through deed) rather than an outcome (deed). It's not the revealed gospel, but it certainly looks more cautious in light of this from the Beeb's most recent update:

But less than a day after the agreement, Israeli planes bombed parts of southern Lebanon.

Suffice it to say that there's not much point in even starting the media bias debate -- being handled ineptly at many or most major news outlets, if you're in a shopping mood -- if we can't get the 1A heds in tune with events.

* The scorpion's punch line being "It's the Middle East." You can make it a Northern Ireland joke too, but i forget which sort of fauna you need to involve.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Engage brain before editing

Strap on the pith helmet and fill the pocket flask with Pimm's No. 1 Cup: It's Kipling Day here at the HEADSUP-L Foreign Desk!

Another front in war on terror
For Powell, Guard's border mission similar to one in Middle East

You've got our attention. Which border? Somewhere in the trackless wastes of the Rub al-Khali? The wild tribal regions of Kashmir? The barren heights of the Siachen?

SAN LUIS, Ariz. - As commander of the N.C. Army National Guard's work on the border in Arizona, Lt. Col. Randy Powell is getting the chance to see the beginning of the journey immigrants take into his police district in Charlotte.


"Like everywhere else, you're seeing more and more interaction with illegal immigrants," said Powell, a 38-year-old sergeant in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

The 200 troops from the 252nd Combine Arms Battalion out of Fayetteville began patrolling the border late Wednesday in an attempt to stem the human tide pouring into the country from Mexico. They're among the first of what will become 6,000 Guard troops in Operation Jump Start, announced by President Bush in May.

And this "human tide" is related to the WAR ON TERROR exactly how?

North Carolina has one of the fastest-growing illegal immigrant populations in the country, and Powell sees the troops' mission of protecting the border as another front in the war on terrorism.

Well, that clears that up. Copyeds, pls remember: When you turn a proclamation into a hed, you assume all responsibility for its accuracy, not to mention its political implications. The colonel's welcome to his opinions. Whether he gets to write yours is a different matter. (Did we ask him, by the way, if that battalion of his ought to be "Combined Arms" rather than "Combine Arms," or are we planning to rewrite the rules of grammar and mechanized warfare all at once?)

Seriously. This much-touted merger of Washburo firepower is looking less attractive by the day. McClatchy gets writers who think history began sometime in late May, and K-R gets writers who think the Khyber Pass is in northern Mexico.

One more thing:
U.N. chief calls for 3-day truce
UNITED NATIONS -- Just take a break, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Friday.

No, one rather doubts it. One suspects he might have said something a bit more grown-up, and perhaps your readers should be let in on the secret.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A bit ahead of the curve

The WAR AND TERROR DIGEST has long been a bad answer to a good question. The good question is "What kind of propaganda statement would we be making if we declared Iraq part of the 'war on terror'?" The bad answer is "Well, it'll be OK as long as we make sure the label says they're two different things."

Which works, sort of, up to a point -- as long as you stick to talking about the two unrelated things you said you'd stick to talking about. It becomes a worse idea when you introduce a new concept:

Militia leader says no to peace talks
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The leader of the Islamic militia that has taken hold of southern Somalia on Tuesday rebuffed a U.N. plan for peace talks with the government, saying he will not negotiate until the government expels all foreign troops."Until Ethiopian troops leave Somali soil, we will never negotiate with the government," said Islamic militia leader Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys.

Hmm, the reader might hmm, scratching his or her head. Can't be WAR, since it doesn't involve Americans and Iraq, so it must be TERROR. Makes sense. Indeed, it's the only conclusion you can reach, unless you change the package label to WAR, TERROR, SOFTBALL AND OTHER UNRELATED STUFF DIGEST.

From that, it's awfully easy to conclude that the originating paper has decided that anything involving Islamist militias is by definition TERROR. And that makes the paper sound significantly more like Ann Coulter than it probably wants to.

Ah, you say, but consider the fourth graf:
While Aweys -- who has been accused by Somali secular leaders and the West of links to al-Qaida -- ruled out any talks, a more moderate member of his Supreme Islamic Courts Council left open the possibility.

"Accused of links to al-Qaida" -- doesn't that settle it? Well, cast your mind back a few years. See if you can think of a case in which a certain administration managed to convince big sectors of The Meedja that being "accused of links to al-Qaida" meant having Osama over for a couple of beers and terror plotting every Thursday. And when your own State Department's official line is that Aweys' folks ought to be part of "a process of positive and peaceful dialogue," it sounds as if you're ahead of both Fox News and the real policymakers when you cast them into the outer darkness.

Moral for the desk: When you see somebody muddying the lines, ask for justification. You might not mean it to be propaganda, but readers can't tell what you mean. They can only see what you publish.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Look out! He's got a gub!

Western Civ continues to circle the drain at some major newspapers:

'God' sighted on pet alligator
Letter-shaped markings amaze owner, who feels need to spread word

Chicago Tribune
SALEM, Wis. - Michael Wilk was tossing back a few beers with friends when he saw God on the side of his 4-foot-long pet alligator.

Without even squinting, Wilk noticed white markings pop out against a backdrop of black scales to form the letters G-O-D.

"When I first saw it, my jaw dropped," said Wilk, 25. "It's just sort of like a phenomenon on it."

Where to start?
1) When you're holding down the night city desk at your average major metropolitan daily and some guy from Wisconsin with a Category 3 buzz calls in to announce that he's just seen the Divine Name on his alligator, what do you figure your response ought to be?
2) And if you're on the wires when you notice that some other Fount O'Knowledge forgot the answer to Rule 1, what do you suppose you ought to do with the resulting tale?
3) We report, you decide, but ... Bubba, are you sure your gator doesn't spell G-U-D?

That's been the reaction of almost everyone who has seen the gator. They liken its markings to images resembling the Virgin Mary that have appeared on everything from a grilled cheese sandwich to a viaduct under the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago.

They do, huh?

Wilk said he and a friend, who houses the alligator, wanted to rehabilitate the reptile, which was skinny and small despite being 12 years old.

Then a couple of weeks later, when they were hanging out in Wilk's basement, the letters jumped out at them.

"It's not Wite-Out or anything; it's real," Wilk said.

(You think newspapers have cut back on news-gathering resources? Not the Tribune! Just watch!)

Alligators have naturally occurring, unique striping patterns that help camouflage them in the wild, said Harry Dutton, an alligator biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The markings appear to be legitimate and not done with a marker or by scratching the hide, Dutton said after reviewing pictures of Wilk's alligator.

Kent Vliet, an alligator biologist at the University of Florida, agreed. "That looks natural to me," Vliet said after looking at the photos. "I would suspect that's not been altered."

Genuine Florida alligator experts agree: That gator has G-U-D written on him by the hand of nature, not man. If either of the biologists commented on the divine origins of the marking, or on the journalistic capacities of the sort of guddamb J-school refugee who would double-source a question of this sort, we are not privy to the results. Alas.

Well, enough of that. Except for this:

"We just thought it should be out there," Wilk said of telling people about the reptile's markings.

Which at the originating paper is the simpler and vastly preferable

"We just thought it should be out there," Wilk said.

Oh, great. Just the right amount of inane overediting. For a minute there, we thought you guys weren't taking this one seriously.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Wailing, gnashing of teeth

Let the games begin
Columbia is hosting the 22nd Annual Show-Me State Games, a sports festival that allows Missourians to compete in events ranging from kickball to swimming. (1A Sunday)

Every time a sporting event is hedded "Let the games begin," an angel walks blithely under a falling grand piano and is turned into a puddle of seraphic goo. Never, never, never, never, never use this one.

Neither shalt thou allow false ranges ("from kickball to swimming"*), nor heds that refer to "our kids" ("Sex ed: A lesson in what our kids are learning," ibid). These too are forbidden, though they don't cause nearly the level of mayhem among the heavenly host as the Great Cliches.

(The Baghdad buro chief once managed to work "Wailing, gnashing of teeth" into a Scotus hed. Oh, for the days of the 3/36/2.)

*E-Z test: Can you identify the continuum on which these two items are the anchors? If not, don't use "from ... to."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Stupid Question, with a twist

Regular readers will recall that using the question mark as a form of hed attribution is high on the list of untenable evils in these parts. Some question heds, though, are drastically dumber than others. As in:

Helping pregnant teen a criminal act?
WASHINGTON -- The Senate reopened the abortion debate Friday in advance of the midterm elections, this time over a bill that would make it a federal crime to take a teenager across state lines to end a pregnancy without a parent's knowledge.

There's a short answer, and it's "no." That seems to be why the World's Baddest Deliberative Body is having the debate. So the hed's more misleading than the usual Stupid Question, in that it doesn't even have the minimum two choices.

The bigger point is that although "help" is a multitalented verb, the direct object "teen" assigns it a specific role (door No. 2 below),* which happens to be the wrong one:

I'd like to help.
I'd like to help the pregnant teen.
I'd like to help the pregnant teen (find a shady place to sit).
I'd like to help the pregnant teen (cross the state line to get an abortion).

A little bit of grammatical footwork can make quite a difference:

It's illegal to feed your kids.
It's illegal to feed your kids arsenic.
It's illegal to feed your kids to the piranha.

In the real-life example, because the grammatical distortion conforms so neatly with the paper's editorial stance, the hed is particularly vulnerable to charges of deliberate dishonesty. I'd prefer to think it's just another Stupid Question, but I doubt I could convince an angry reader.

* Dr. HEADSUP-L and Your Correspondent have been trying to assign everything in this effort to its proper grammatical slot for half an hour now, and we're still not entirely in agreement. Details may or may not follow.

Weather story!

The vigilant Trackless Northwest Buro onpasses this excellent summation of life on the weather feature beat, of which this spillage of proprietary trade secrets is the best:

Forever sidebars
In addition to telling you it was hot yesterday, we can also tell you many interesting tidbits about the heat. We call these sidebars.

For instance, we sent reporters out the other day to find the places in the region that smelled the worst because of the heat. Get it? That's a sidebar.

Tomorrow, if it stays hot, we will think of other sidebars. Maybe we will go out and ask people how they are coping with the heat. Once the editors put their minds to it, the sidebar possibilities are endless.

Did you know that heat waves are a major cause of back injuries among reporters? It comes from hiding under their desks for hours at a time, trying to avoid sidebars.

Now back to your regularly scheduled complaining about the Fractious Near East.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lede inflation alert

Desk hands, stand by to ruthlessly enforce the First-Biggest-Only Rule of international reportage, which goes like this:

Whenever a lede declares some event to be the first, biggest or only of its kind, the originating desk is required to provide an explanation of the scoring and a list of the three runners-up or the three closest similar events.

Why do journalists need a rule like this? Because, um, well, some agencies are in the habit of trying to get good play by generating exclusives, and one of the best ways to get an exclusive-sounding lede is to announce loudly that you have a First, Biggest or Only. And if you simply proclaim it, there's no need to do all the pesky research that goes with supporting it.

This sort of thing doesn't happen in real life, does it? Hoo hah:

Americans ship out from Lebanon chaos
1,000 reach Cyprus as evacuation gains steam; thousands remain
McClatchy Newspapers
LARNACA, Cyprus -- In the first mass evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago, a cruise ship with nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon arrived at this small, muggy Mediterranean island early today.

(Oops! Somebody forgot to warn McClatchy that Knight-Ridder was especially prone to fact inflation when it came to covering the world.)

Some papers had the good sense to wave the caution flag a bit:

Evacuation gears up as military steps in
About 6,000 Americans and thousands of other foreigners will leave Lebanon by weekend.
McClatchy Newspapers
LARNACA, Cyprus -- A cruise ship brought nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Mideast violence to this small, muggy Mediterranean island early today.

It was thought to be the biggest evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago.

Which is certainly better,* though it raises the obvious question: Thought by whom? That's why we have to have a rule. Somebody needed to ask the originating bureau some basic questions: What's a "mass evacuation"? What are some from the past 30 years that don't qualify? If it's only "thought" to be the "biggest," what did it displace? In other words, where's the scorebook and what are the runners-up?

A little time in the files (by which your adviser here, a practical sort when it comes to desk resources, means 10 minutes or less) would have strongly suggested that the writers are purely and simply blowing smoke. Would 300 people or so count as a "mass evacuation"? If so, it seems to have happened every few years since Saigon changed its name: Ethiopia, 1977; Pakistan, 1979, Sudan, 1986; El Salvador, 1989; Kuwait, 1990; Sierra Leone, 1992; Albania, 1997.

Or do we have to get into four figures? Here's the Post from Tehran in February 1979: Nearly 900 Americans left here today for Western Europe to begin a massive U.S.-government-organized evacuation of its nationals.

And from Angeles in June '91: The United States announced today that it will evacuate all of the more than 20,000 dependents of U.S. service personnel in the Philippines because of an erupting volcano, and an aircraft carrier battle group was dispatched to the islands to assist in the evacuation.

First mass evacuation since Vietnam, eh?

There is sort of a bottom line here, and it seems kind of embarrassing to have to repeat in the broad sunny uplands of 2006, but: Don't make stuff up. It's not worth it. Some readers might be impressed. Others might ask: Do you make everything else up too, or do you just not bother with details?

By the way? In the sweat-the-small-stuff department, that thing in 1975 was the fall of Saigon or the fall of South Vietnam, not the "fall of Vietnam." Vietnam can justifiably claim that it won.

* One does wonder if the Star really thinks all "Mideast violence" is interchangeable.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Five golden rings

... or: Why you can never have too many copy editors. This just in from the American Journal of Political Science:

attitude strength (recorded on 100 point-sliding response scales).

I can't tell you guys how badly I want a point-sliding response scale before grades are due.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Local anesthesia

One would have hoped the message was clear: If you can't add meaning to an international story, don't localize it. Especially don't let an out-of-field writer wander over and dump conventional wisdom all over it. Copyeds, when you see these, don't just slap a hed on and spellcheck. Make sure that localizations live up to their billing.

There is, of course, an example:

Crisis hits home in Carolinas
Many waiting for word from loved ones caught in midst of violence

Carolinians on either side of the Middle East conflict share common ground today.
Dive! Dive! Kum-ba-ya alert! While you're wondering whence the extrapolation from a Charlotte-Concord sample to "Carolinas" and "Carolinians," ponder for a second the relevance of the lede and how it's going to be supported.

As bombs fly back and forth between Israel and Lebanon, many worry about loved ones in harm's way. While they hold different views of how to resolve a conflict seemingly without end, they're putting aside politics and religion while awaiting calls and text messages from the region.
Of our five-person sample, none mention politics, one mentions religion, and none mention their "views of how to resolve a conflict seemingly without end." On the evidence, then, how does the writer infer that they're putting politics and religion aside? Or do you think maybe the writer wrote the story before talking to any of the people involved?

Those with ties to Israel share the same worries.
Let's briefly compare worry-sets presented above and below this linking graf. In one case, a teenager appears to have been more or less directly under the action and is preparing to leave overland for Syria -- which, per the Post, the State Department is advising Americans not to do because of the risk of attack. In the second, the letter home says "Jerusalem is far enough away from the Lebanese border for us to feel confident and safe." Again, does this transition follow from the reporting, or did the writer come up with a transition to support the "common ground" lede, regardless of what the reporting might say?

Many international crises do produce legitimate local stories, but not all localizations are equal. If the Local Angle doesn't meet minimal journalistic standards, hold it or kill it. There's always some real news ready to take its place.

Needless to say, this wasn't it:

Bush voices frustration with Mideast conflict
Recording of lunchtime chatter captures some undiplomatic language

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- President Bush used an expletive Monday to describe his frustration with violence in the Middle East.

Once again: What Bush thinks about the U.N. and its attitude is relevant. What, if anything, he has in mind for a Cabinet-level intervention is relevant. What international actors think about a peacekeeping mission is relevant. Whether Bush used an expletive, and whether newspapers use dashes or asterisks or the naughty letters themselves to represent it, is sublimely off topic.

Little words can be a big deal in the Middle East. Resolution 242 is a classic example. The G-8 wrangling, per this actual news story, provides current ones. But this obsession with the trivial only reinforces the impression that American journalism can't tell noise from substance. Please stop it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Please keep this out of my paper

I'm going to part company with some of my colleagues here, but I'd appreciate it if y'all -- that's all of you in the great wide media world out there -- don't waste my time tomorrow morning with stories about The President and his choice of off-mike language.

Trust me. Whether newspapers write "s***" as "s---" or "s--t" or whatever isn't an issue, because Mr. Bush's use of a naughty word has no bearing whatsoever on what Middle East actors do or how U.S. policy is formed. There's real news out there to cover, and some of you have some homework to do before you start covering even that (Doug has an appalling example laid out on the dissecting table, in case you had any doubts).

There's only one variable of any interest at all in the open-mike debate, and that's why Bush said "what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s---" when his whole armed propaganda wing is trying to say it's Iran's fault. (Somebody needs to get on message, you think?) Well, that and whether the Guardian violated its own style mandate, which calls for using the naughty words in all their glory.

Oh, and whoever wrote "Bush curses Hezbollah during G-8 luncheon"? Take a lap. He did no such thing. Please, read story before writing hed. Better, read transcript. You might see something interesting.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Humm batter batter batter

What can a poor boy do when Bill Safire's on vacation? Pick on the substitutes, I guess:

Jack Rosenthal is president of The New York Times Company Foundation. This is his 25th year as a pinch-hitter for William Safire, who is on vacation.

This may be his 25th year of being called up for a week in the majors to fill in for Safire, but he is not a pinch-hitter. Pinch-hitting for Safire would be, oh, bringing Perlman in to face a left-handed grammar question, since Safire is about .130 lifetime on grammar questions and Perlman hits them all over the lot.

Our guest, on the other hand, looks ready to swing at most of the same stuff Bill does:

National Public Radio describes responses from listeners as either “Bouquets” or “Brickbats.” Brickbats? When bricks were dumped out of wheelbarrows, broken fragments were as common as apple cores. In this era of forklift trucks, hardly anyone ever sees a brickbat, yet everyone understands the word to mean an unfavorable or critical remark.

Yes, and one reason might be that the "unfavorable or critical remark" meaning dates to Milton.

What’s a drove? Many readers probably think twice to recall that it refers to animals driven in a herd yet would have had no doubt about what the Times columnist Bob Herbert meant when he wrote, “No wonder potential [military] recruits are staying away in droves.”

Hypercorrective readers might bemoan such terms as trite. But that would ignore a prime principle of the living language. Just as new needs and the desire for novelty pump new words into popular usage, old expressions, instantly understood, long outlive their progenitors. Progenitives, one might call them.

Couple of points here. One, hypercorrection has several meanings, of which that is none. (The kind we worry about on the copy desk is using the wrong form because it sounds more like "grammar," as in "give it to whomever asks.") Two, whatever they're doing, they aren't bemoaning "droves" as trite. They might be complaining about the oxymoron "staying away in droves," but that's not an old expression that's outlived its progenitors. It's more a neo-Berra-ism, and for all its colorfulness, it's a bit of a cliche as well.

Even in this digital era, consider how many farm terms color everyday speech: roll in the hay, no spring chicken, barnstorming, horse of a different color, eating our seed corn, cow-eyed, ’til the cows come home.

Hmm. Suppose we should ask our columnist what "roll in the hay" means when it colors his everyday speech? Copyeds, if you let that one through because you didn't notice, you were careless. If you let it through because you did notice, you were very, very naughty. Go to your rooms without dinner.

Stamp out News 2 Use

It's impossible to tell from here whether this is a sign of bad things to come under McClatchy or just a flashback to K-R's general sloppiness with international issues. Informed observations shedding light on that issue would be welcome. But meanwhile, somebody ought to be embarrassed:

Conflict affects U.S. gas prices
Investors fear violence in Mideast will spread to areas where the oil is
McClatchy Newspapers
Q. Israel and its neighbors are fighting again. Why should Americans care?
The most obvious reason is the economy. The latest fighting, which began when militants in Lebanon took two Israeli soldiers hostage on Wednesday, already has driven global oil prices to record highs, and they're likely to go even higher. That could kick the U.S. economy, and the world's, into a recession.

Let's try to get this straight. One of the responsibilities of being a grown-up newspaper is reminding people that there is more to life than the cost of filling their SUVs. Some of your readers might perceive a personal or cultural connection to the areas in question. Others might consider this edge of the Med to be a particularly relevant crossroads of world politics and a likely influence on events elsewhere. Still others might simply think it's important for adults to have some basic stock of information about human events beyond the price of gasoline.

Maybe this is merely mislabeled -- it's not "why should Americans care" but "what's the impact on energy prices." Honesty in packaging would be a start, but only a start. We'd have to sketch out the bridge from week-on-week oil prices to global recession, for example. That means explaining how long prices would have to remain at some level X before the effects took hold. And it probably also means explaining why you consider some actions more likely than others:

Q. What would happen if Israel attacked the Hezbollah office or other targets in Syria?
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that his country would retaliate against any Israeli attack on Syria, though he didn't say how. The sinking of a tanker in the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf or an attack on other oil-related targets would send oil and gasoline prices still higher. That alone could cause a global recession.

Sure could, but you seem to have left out something important: Who is it that would be sinking the aforesaid tanker -- the Iranians? And they'd consider that move to be in their interests for exactly what reasons again?

There are plenty of places in the paper to play Consumer Watchdog. There are fewer all the time to play Distributor of News. Let's try to do a bit better at keeping the two apart.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Don't bogart that air of false precision

Today's discussion topic is "street value," and the part that's going to be on the final is "file it with the horoscope." Let's look at some real-life examples of why copyeds need to wave the warning flag whenever this bogus construct gets anywhere near publication.

Residents in the North Springs subdivision are adamant that the person involved in planting an estimated $7 million worth of marijuana plants next to their Northeast Richland community is not one of them.

“I want it stressed that this is not North Springs property,” said Indignant Richwoman, a North Springs resident and former North Springs Property Owners Association president.

(To which the reporter's response appears to have been: "Yes, ma'am!" But let's keep our eyes on that tempting "$7 million" in the lede.)

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is looking for individuals responsible for growing the 3,500 marijuana plants discovered Wednesday night on private property between the North Springs, Candlewood, Rainsborough and Fisher’s Wood subdivisions.

The plants, estimated by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to have a street value of $2,000 each, were found in a densely wooded area behind the North Springs tennis courts. The plants range in height from 12 inches to more than 4 feet, according to Lt. Chris Cowan, spokesman for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

Thanks for saving us the long division there. A pot plant's "street value" is $2,000. Even if the poor scraggly thing, fighting for its share of sunlight in this "densely wooded area," is somewhat short of knee-high.

Now we're going to extrapolate a bit. There's a restaurant over in St. Louis that sells a thing it calls the "Whole Missouri Tomato Appetizer" (henceforth WoMoTo) for $7 -- well, last time we were there was three years ago, so let's call it $8 for inflation. The said WoMoTo comprises a tomato and some basil and oil.

A quick check of the HEADSUP-L North Forty finds some pretty heavy between-subjects variation among the tomato plants, but the spunkiest has about a dozen berries, blossoms or blossom precursors. Tomatoes like hot weather, and it's supposed to be in the mid-90s for the next few days, so let's round that up to 15. Times 12 (all the ones in the backyard and the pear varieties on the front veranda) is 180 Missouri tomatoes, times $8 is $1,440 -- in other words, the "street value" of the HEADSUP-L tomato crop on WoMoTo terms is nearly $1,500!* But let's continue:

A North Springs resident walking his dog reportedly called the authorities after finding the plants, said Watchful Security, North Springs neighborhood watch security chairman.

I bet he didn't say the guy "reportedly called" the authorities. I bet he said the guy "called" the authorities. But double attribution is a later topic.

The marijuana find comes in the same week as two smaller drug busts in Lexington County.
Three men were arrested at a West Columbia motel room Wednesday after they were found with 32 pounds, about $35,000 worth, of marijuana, police said.

Three other men and a woman were arrested Thursday after 25 pounds of marijuana were seized at a Gilbert home, according to police reports. The street value for 25 pounds of marijuana is about $27,500.

The marijuana’s street value can vary from county to county, based on the street sale price, said Maj. John Allard, spokesman for the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.

Allard said the street value for marijuana in Lexington County is $1,100 per pound and $1,000 per plant.

Well, thanks for clearing all that up. But you Econ 5 survivors might be wondering at this point: Why would any rational consumer buy marijuana in Richland County? And why would any rational entrepreneur sell it in Lexington? Or whether the whole thing is sort of like eyeballing a field of wheat seedlings and multiplying by the shelf price of the individual Wheatie.

Alternatively, you could wonder why newspapers keep running gee-whiz numbers based on multiplying one guess by another. Made-up stats are like zeroes. The product of any number and a made-up number is another made-up number.

Thoughts, comments and reflections, you ex-cops-beat reporters?

* Do not get any ideas out there. This is a significant part of the HEADSUP-L retirement plan, and we will defend it accordingly.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Demons are often summoned ...

... by the mention of their names, as Conan the Unitarian tells us. Such is clearly the case with "stands" cutlines. Whinge about 'em once, and the jaws of heck gape open to send forth another one to trouble the peaceful:

Harold Carw stands in front of the “Newcomer School” replica in Shelter Gardens on Thursday. He works as a security guard in the gardens.

We may have to resort to nailing a doubloon to the mast for the first brave soul who produces a cutline, anywhere, that was improved by "stands." (And we're trusting the mile-high CQs after 'Carw' spoke for themselves.)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't bogart that weekday

George Boozer smokes Monday outside Adriana’s Cafe & Gelateria in Five Points.

Time again for the cutline sermon. The real estate under photos is valuable stuff. If you just sit there and type in stuff that came with the photo, the odds are good you're wasting it.

Granted, you'd have to be more than a bit of an annoying pedant to insist that "Monday" was legally, definitively, invariably the object of "smokes" in the example above (though as noted here, we're all likely to stumble just for a moment on it). But since it accompanies a picture of a guy smoking, you're within bounds to ask not only why the cutline begins by telling me that someone's smoking but why the date is important. You can make a bit of headway with the succeeding sentence:

Boozer, 61, says he's been smoking since he was 12 but would abide by whatever smoking rules the city imposes.

... but you're not done yet (what's the logic behind the "but" clause -- do people who started smoking at age 12 usually get to defy city ordinances?). Time to push the photo desk for some more information. What's this place we're looking at? Is it nonsmoking inside? The closer you can get to saying why you're seeing an image, the closer you are to a good cutline.

Asking about the date is a good thing. If the precise date doesn't bear on why the photo's in the paper, consider leaving out the date. Another step is to get rid of empty verbs that repeat the action from the frame:

Debbie Sheals and Carrie Gartner stand outside Tellers Gallery and Bar where the concrete canopies along Broadway are being removed.

If you think you've seen it before, you have:
Irv Cockriel stands before his sunflowers, which are more than 13 feet tall, Sunday.

Charles Estill stands in Bethel Cemetery, where many of his relatives are buried, for the first time this year on Wednesday.

Fatten the cutline with details from the text: Estill says efforts to tend the cemetery used to be better organized. Slip into the past tense if it helps: This visit was his first to the cemetery this year. Cockriel started planting sunflowers 15 years ago.

Don't tell readers what they can see, which is people standing. Tell then what they can't see -- particularly, which of two named (and local, and identifiable in the photo) people is which. Don't feel obliged to drown readers in details:
A South Korea student passes a mock North Korean Scud-B missile, second from the right, and other South Korean missiles outside the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul on Sunday.

As fate would have it, this is in the same issue as the local preservationists standing at the restaurant and the retired prof standing before his flowers.

The Forbidden Verbs, of course, are in a category by themselves. Having two appear in the same package should make clear why they're forbidden (though, come to think of it, so would paying attention in class):

Italian fans celebrate in Rome’s ancient Circus Maximus after watching Italy defeat France.

From left, Italy’s Simone Perrotta, Marco Materazzi, Gianluca Zambrotta and Francesco Totti celebrate Materazzi’s goal.

To repeat: Never, never, never use any tense of the verb "celebrate" in any cutline. Some Monday-smoking copy chief is likely to "react" by belaboring you about the ears with a pica pole.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

And the foreign desk strikes again

Maybe it's just too long since we moved away from NASCAR country (though if you've done the same of late, you've noticed NASCAR country has a habit of catching up with you). Or maybe I just expect the worst when the crack NYT foreign desk dons the pith helmet and ventures down toward the homeland. But did this cross-cultural gem from the Times catch anybody else's eye?

Beers of The Times
It’s Hot. Drink Your Wheat.
WHEAT beer. It sounds healthy and almost bready, like something you might find in a New Age fantasy.

Imagine the wheat beer arriving as you complete your mud bath and aromatherapy, hypnotic music in the background, something to sip as you slip into your Birkenstocks and float away. Not to harsh the mellow, but aargh!

Regardless of how it sounds, wheat beer has brewski credentials. It is the quintessential summer quencher, just right for Nascar races and baseball games.

In no particular order:
1) Yeah. It sounds "almost bready." As does beer in general, since beer is ... almost bread.
2) No, thanks. But I'll be happy to imagine the Heidelberg, if that'd help.
3) Spent a lot of time in the old infield of late, have we? (No, not the Tinker to Evers to Chance variety.)

Dear desk: It's OK to raise questions about substance. Even in twee tales from featureland.

(Footnote: It's also all right to follow standard American English punctuation, which calls for a comma before the coordinating conjunction in Oats are used in stout and rye is used in Eastern Europe to make kvass. That's how you tell us poor Birkenstock-free proles that you're beginning another independent clause, not completing a pretty plausible compound object: Oats are used in stout and rye.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Dial N for ...

Japan N-crisis draft under attack
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China has described Japanese efforts to pass a U.N. resolution that would impose sanctions on North Korea for conducting missile tests an "overreaction," recommending the draft be revised.

Uh, guys? Last time I looked, "missile" begins with "m," not "n."

Couple of factors could be in play here. The hed writer could have been trying for "m-crisis" and slipped. That wouldn't have been a very good stretch, even it it had worked. Or the hed writer could have mistaken the missile crisis for a nuclear crisis, which is making things a few dozen kilotons scarier than they need to be. Either way -- and this does seem to be starting to sound like a broken record -- let's try to be extra cautious about whom we impute the nukeler firecracker to. Especially when the Axis of Evil is involved.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Yeah, right

Here's an unusually clear example of why newspapers need to be cautious about the gratuitous use of race or ethnicity as physical description in crime stories:

A 22-year-old Columbia man was arrested late Monday night on suspicion of first-degree robbery, armed criminal action and second-degree assault after he allegedly brandished a handgun and demanded money from a man at Eighth and Alton streets.

Local Resident was taken into custody in the 900 block of Range Line Street shortly after the alleged crime was reported at 10:18 p.m. The victim told police a black man approached him, produced a handgun and demanded money. The suspect then fled on foot.

Based on the victim’s description of the suspect, police found Resident and took him to the Boone County Jail.

First off, since the suspect has already been caught, the idea that running a description of him is relevant is several degrees left of silly. Which is a good thing, given that the causal link that opens the third graf is preposterous on its face:
1) Victim (since it's only an "alleged crime," should he be an "alleged victim"?) says "It was a black man!"
2) Armed with that, Dogberry & Co. focus in like a laser beam and get their suspect. (Though since the writer has already declared that the suspect and the criminal are the same person, maybe we should make it "alleged suspect." Or "swarthy gun-wielding fiend." Whatever.)

To which one can only say: Yeah, right. And how many suns shine down on your home planet?

None of the usual flimsy excuses help here. You haven't helped the cops. You haven't armed the citizenry with useful wisdom. All you've done is reinforce the impression that The Meedja are still stuck in the 1930s: We only mention race when it's black.

Those of us who have tried to dispel that misimpression over the past few decades would appreciate it if you guys would stop trying to hold us back.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Feather-footed through the plashy fen

Pending an explanation from the originating paper, one is inclined to view this as the sort of foreign correspondence that would have made Evelyn Waugh proud:

The young woman at the heart of an alleged atrocity by members of the U.S. military knew she had attracted the attention of the soldiers who manned the checkpoint near her home, neighbors say. And she didn't like it.
(Always glad to see some on-scene reporting)

Neither did her family, and they made a plan to protect her, their neighbors told reporters over the weekend.

But it wasn't enough.

Abeer Qasim Hamza is the young woman identified in news reports as the alleged target of Steven D. Green, the former Army private who was charged Monday with her rape and the killing of her and three other family members in March.
("News reports" and "told reporters"? Where's Staff Writer's part in this?)

A U.S. military official has described the attack on the family's home south of Baghdad as "totally premeditated," telling The Associated Press that the soldiers apparently "studied" the family for about a week before carrying out the raid.

The affidavit detailing the allegations against Green doesn't name his alleged victims, but it says the woman he's accused of raping was estimated by her attackers to be about 25.

People in her town, including the mayor of Mahmoudiya, tell reporters she was actually a teenager. A death certificate viewed by The Washington Post puts Abeer at 15.
(Hmm. So far, the AP and the Post seem to be doing all the work. Except the breathless narrative and the bizarre constructions like "People in her town, including the mayor of Mahmoudiya." Glad we seem to have settled on a transliteration, though.)

... Army investigators outlined their evidence against Green and several other soldiers to an FBI agent, who described their case in a federal affidavit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Charlotte.

OK. The reader can be forgiven at this point for assuming that Writer got the byline because he read the affidavit. Fine. But in that case, why isn't that the lede, with the on-scene impressions credited to the writers who ran the risks involved in getting them?

We aren't suggesting that this sort of byline padding rises to the level of plagiarism. But it's hard to see it rising above the level of fiction.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Forbidden verb

Q: Why does the careful copy editor never write 1B cutlines like "The Royals' Mark Teahan celebrates with teammate Doug Mientkiewicz and others after hitting a solo home run in the 11th inning to beat the Cardinals on Saturday night"?

A: Because a colleague is likely to have written "Tony Stewart waves the checkered flag as he celebrates after winning his second consecutive Pepsi 400" (2B). Or "Pat Hurst celebrates a birdie put on the eighth hole" (4B, and sic).

Plenty of other stuff to wonder about in Sports today, but duty calls.

Well, there is one thing. The Cup coverage is long on what Brazil did -- more thoroughly, what Ronaldo and Ronaldinho didn't -- in the course of losing 1-0 to France. Odd there's no room to mention what France did. Your Gooners fans shouldn't have to look elsewhere to find Henry's name in lights.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Those anytime minutes add up

Youth doing God's work in distant lands
In a summer season of Carolinas congregations taking youth mission trips, here's one that stands out.

Point(s) the lesser: Even brand-name writers have to play by the rules. The standard plural of "youth" is "youths"; since the object of "of" is "taking youth mission trips," "congregations" needs to be possessive; and could we see some justification for the logic, pls? Youth mission trips aren't particularly new (as the lede makes abundantly clear). Is going to Malawi actually a bigger deal than, say, going to Ukraine? Or does it just seem that way because in Religion Editor World, missionaries to Africa are still at high risk of being boiled in kettles and served with cassava and a salad?

Point the greater: Newspapers are creatures of the empirical world. It is not ours to know what constitutes "God's work." If we rang Him up for comment, let's get some attribution into the hed (and a reefer to the AL East scores, the latest from the Fractious Near East, &c &c &c). If we didn't, let's keep our opinions about the righteousness of assorted summer tasks -- particularly when they involve, say, lecturing adults about abstinence -- to ourselves.