Thursday, September 14, 2006

This should be embarrassing

There's exactly one thing to like about the page at right, and that's the secondary hed on the lede story. It looks as if some lone copy editor stood on the burning deck and got off at least one good shot before the guns flooded out. Here it is:

Suspect in patient's death said victim stole her boyfriend, woman says detective told her

Which isn't going to win any prizes for Most Elegant Sentence (and if any of our linguist friends want to check in on whether it's even legal to stack up that many complementizer phrases in that order, go ahead). But it does make painfully clear that the story beneath is not just hearsay, but third-hand hearsay. Whence the speculation in the main hed? Well, somebody says a cop told her two people told him they overheard somebody say something (quick, ring up the Pulitzer committee). At least readers can't say they weren't warned.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the story's awful enough that everybody can be embarrassed and quite a few folks can have seconds. Let's start with the main hed:

Was grudge factor in death?

Maybe people will listen now that Jon Stewart has said it, but -- No, no and no again. The question mark is not a form of attribution. If our hope was to put the weight of this judgment on someone else, we failed.

Now, unlike the other question hed on the page, this one at least is grammatical, even if the syntax leads you to wonder what a "grudge factor" is. But it's also a "complex" question, meaning that any answer to it assumes the underlying truth of the embedded facts (as in: "Do you guys still do your ethics training at the National Enquirer?"). How do we know there's a grudge? Well, a source (by the time this strange bit of palmistry ran, it was "sources," but what the heck) said so.

Who doesn't seem to be the source for this lede, though. What the source here says the detective says two people said they overheard was "N is the woman who stole my boyfriend." How many ways can you complete that sentence?

"... and I hate her to this day."
"... and she saved me a lot of trouble, too."
"... 30 years ago. Good thing we got over that phase, huh?"

Could that be the grudge that the anonymous source (one hates to keep saying stuff like "This isn't Watergate," but: Constitutional crisis! High school grudge! You make the call!) said "has been festering for years"? It it is, we don't say. And if we want people to think we have some reason for implying it is, that's a really bad idea.

The story does appear to be, as proclaimed, "exclusive." But after you get past that juicy bit of context-free hearsay-hearsay-hearsay, there's not much but a rehash of the juicier allegations. Which rather strongly suggests that the paper has settled on the facts of the story -- HIGH SCHOOL GRUDGE LEADS TO MURDER 3 DECADES LATER! -- and can't be bothered with tawdry stuff like "news standards" or "presumption of innocence."

There was actually a lesson in the JonBenet Ramsey flap of a few weeks ago: When lurid accusations start flying, put the bar higher, not lower. Ask sharper questions of a story, not softer ones. Never let assumptions turn into facts.

As for the rest of the page: Hard to see how that pesky war in Iraq even rated a photo reefer with all the news going on. Nieman-Marcus opening here! Old-school rappers turn to Jesus! And the World's Baddest Homework Researcher says HOMEWORK BAD!

That hed, by the way, is not just wildly, flagrantly, skip-hop-and-wobbly ungrammatical. ("Homework: Helps mind or wastes time?") It's also a gross distortion of the story. It isn't even the non-question that the World's Baddest Homework Researcher -- did we just take the Post's word for that, or have the 2006 ratings been released already? -- didn't ask. His point seems to be that there are limits beyond which homework doesn't seem to help.

Try to do a bit better. Folks who are paying cash money for the thing might insist someday.


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