Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Q&A

As a special reader service -- don't start asking for it every year, now -- we're going to pull out the Official HEADSUP-L Ouija Board and see if we can answer a few of the pressing questions raised by America's Newspapers on this day of wrath and terror looming:

Q: Silly, spooky imaginings -- or signs of an unseen power?
A: Silly, spooky imaginings.

Q: Do ghosts patrol some of the state’s high school sports’ sites or are these stories just urban myths to frighten the competition?
A: These stories are just urban myths to frighten the competition.

Q: So what makes you think your local high school doesn’t have a bat in its belfry?
A: No belfry.

Q: Should all these stories be written off, their veracity in doubt, their claims too dubious?
A: Yes.

Q: Still not convinced?
A: That's correct.

Readers are invited to submit more questions and answers. Any question appearing in big type or body copy from a Halloween story over the past week is eligible.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Help stamp out language fraud

Judging from the play it got around the nation, it's too late to do anything about it this year, but let's put this one in the tickler file. When it comes around in 2007, ignore it. And cudgel anybody who wants to featurize it.

We're talking about the annual smoke-and-mirror job by the Morgan Quitno Press of Lawrence, Kan., which managed -- again -- to get a numbers of newspapers to fall for its alleged ranking of "America's Safest (and Most Dangerous) Cities." A few colorfully stupid examples -- Cleveland ranks 7th for danger! Safety in St. Louis reaches new lows! -- are shown at right, but they're hardly the only ones who fronted the thing:

City ranked slightly safer
(The Sun of San Bernardino, Calif.)

Is your city safe?
Torrance is ranked 2nd safest in LA County on list of largest cities
(The Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., which gets bonus points for this lede: Take a deep breath, Torrance: You are the nation's 43rd-safest city.)

We seem to have something that struck a chord in newsrooms. Unfortunately, it's not the chord the rest of the band is playing. No, it's a publishing company that's found a way to manipulate some readily available numbers into a bogus ranking that gets it some free publicity every year. Here's the hed and top from a paper that localized it:

Charlotte ranked as dangerous big city
Sometimes-criticized report puts it at No. 8
Charlotte ranks among the 10 most dangerous big cities in the country, according to a national crime report released today.
And the compilation calls the Queen City even more dangerous in 2005 than in the prior year.

The Lawrence, Kan.-based Morgan Quitno Press ranked Charlotte the eighth-most dangerous among cities with a population of at least 500,000. Overall, the city ranked 43rd among 371 cities.

That's worse than 2004, when the city ranked 10th among large cities and 57th overall.

It sounds a lot sexier to say "most dangerous" and "safest" rather than "highest per capita on the limited number of crimes we measured" and so on, but that's the problem. This isn't in any remotely valid way a measure of how "safe" or "dangerous" cities are. That's sort of, well, a "lie."

What does it mean for a city to be "safe"? Well, the per capita rates of murder, rape and car theft probably figure into it, although it's worth noting that these aren't evenly distributed in the population. (A good way to avoid being killed in a drug deal is, erm, to not sell drugs to people with guns.) But what about, say, the prevalence of auto accidents? Or the average time it would take to reach an emergency room from one? Or the likelihood that the other drivers you encounter along the way are drunk and uninsured?

Or, speaking of which, the proportion of people in the population -- when newspapers say "you" or "we," they usually mean "people who look like the reporter" -- who carry health insurance? Or the position of your water treatment plant relative to your major industrial employer's outflow pipes? Or -- well, since we mentioned Charlotte, the number of nuclear power plants within 30 miles either way? Did Cleveland pip Charlotte for a spot in the coveted Top 7 because of the chance you'll push off from a heart attack while shoveling all the snow? Or what?

Declaring safety and danger to be functions of a small set of crimes is cute, in other words, but it's narrow-minded and short-sighted in a way that ought to make newspapers suspicious. (Yes, that's next door to saying that at the least, it's overtly class-bound.) It lets us say DANGER in big type, but it doesn't help people understand anything about risk. Next time this one comes around, laugh it out of the newsroom. Morgan Quitno can buy an ad if it wants the publicity that badly.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Chicken Little beat

Today's lesson is about a shaky idea made worse in presentation. For copyeds, the lesson is: When a story says the sky is falling, Job One is not producing a hed on the order of IS SKY FALLING? Job One is assuring that there's a reason to be talking about the imminent collapse of the sky. If there isn't, Chicken Little needs to get pushed a bit -- probably a lot -- farther down the story.

Without further ado:
Event won't end Halloween hazards

(Always nice when we're sure of ourselves, isn't it? But you certainly have my attention)

Mandatory program draws small number of registered sex offenders

A couple of things are clear from these heds, primarily that we must think there's a significant negative correlation between the number of registered sex offenders drawn to this event and the amount of Halloween peril looming over Our Children (fewer sex offenders, more hazards). Second, that this program by itself could have ended all "Halloween hazards," but it won't. That's clear because, well, that's how discourse tends to work. A hed declares the subject of the conversation, and readers expect the subsequent material to be relevant to that subject, more or less true, and thorough enough to address any questions it raises.

(Did we forget to cover that in J-school? Sorry. When HEADSUP-L becomes pope of journalism education, anybody who says "What Gricean maxims?" will automatically fail the entrance exam.)

Anyway: Gaston County authorities have touted a program to round up sex offenders on Halloween as a way to keep children safe.

But the 60 offenders who will gather at the courthouse next Tuesday represent just 13 percent of the registered sex offenders in the county, according to an Observer analysis. Another 250 will not be monitored.

Leaving aside the thorny question of when long division came to represent "analysis," why was it exactly that we believed the Gaston County authorities on this one?

... The disconnect worries children's advocates who say the Gaston County program and others efforts to check on sex offenders on Halloween might give parents a false sense of security.

"We're concerned that rounding up a certain segment of the sex offenders who are known in that community might lead parents to have false hope that the problems are taken care of," said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow with Action for Children North Carolina.

True enough. Nobody's yet had to pass an intelligence test to qualify for parenthood. But do you get the idea that if parents are clinging to that particular false hope, it's because Deputy Dawgberry and his friends created it and their publicity branch -- that'll be the Liberal Media, if you're scoring along at home -- spread and amplified it?

Here's where the principles of relation and sufficiency* come in. We've made clear that we think the mandatory sex-offender fest at the Gaston hoosegow is related to the safety of Our Children. Time to either back that up or knock it down. And we've made clear that we're explaining most of the variance. Again, that means it's time to put forth enough evidence to support the point.

We wouldn't, in short, be proclaiming that the party WON'T END HALLOWEEN HAZARDS unless a credible assertion was afoot that it WOULD. And that would be pretty silly. It doesn't do anything about the guy in the hockey mask lurking behind the garbage cans with a chainsaw. It doesn't do anything about the atheist (or was it Communist?) couple that puts the razor blades in the apples. Or about the generalized risks of walking around after dark. Or about the likelihood that your little darlings will go home, eat all the candy, turn into buttertubs over the next decade, miscalculate their fuel consumption,** run out of gas on the interstate and die of heart attacks staggering to the nearest exit.

Instead of playing along with the mythology du jour here, maybe the Free and Independent Press could be spending its time on other stuff. Say, this graf:

Across the state, the N.C. Division of Adult Probation and Parole is requiring all sex offenders on parole or probation to stay home after 5 p.m. (or when they arrive home from work) and turn off their porch lights on Halloween. They are prohibited from participating in Halloween activities at or outside their homes.

What's scarier, that the Probation Division thinks it can enforce this, or that it might try? Joe (or Jane) Sex Offender gets home at 4:55p, makes sure the porch light is turned off, pops a bowl of popcorn, settles in to watch a Vincent Price movie, and the cops kick the door down right when Price's wife is getting up out of the coffin?

That sounds like a particularly shameless waste of public resources fueled by cynical exploitation of manufactured fears. But it's up to the editorial page to formally hold officialdom's feet to the fire over it. At the copy desk, all we can do is try to keep text within the basic bounds of discourse -- and by all means not to shout SKY IS FALLING in big type unless the lawn is actually ankle-deep in sky.

* Maybe an Arkansas Traveler story will help:
Hello, neighbor.
Hello there, neighbor.
What'd you give your mule when he had the colic?

[two weeks later]
Hello, neighbor.
Hello there, neighbor.

I gave my mule turpentine and he died!
So'd mine.

** This isn't the time or place for another rant about featurized science reporting, but if you let this sentence go by, shame on you: Jacobson said the typical driver — someone who records less than 12,000 miles annually — would use roughly 18 fewer gallons of gas over the course of a year by losing 100 pounds.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Local dog chases local cat over local fence

For those of you out there who think journalism hasn't been the same since the Dacron Republican-Democrat bought out the Frostbite Falls Gazette, this just in from America's Newspapers (in case you can't read the tale at left under the banner, here it is):

Paul Ficara, 37, of Lebanon wanted to know Wednesday why President Bush would "sacrifice American soldiers for the sake of saying we didn't quit."

"It's better to take 'defeat,' if that's what the president calls it, and safe lives than it is to stay (in Iraq)," Ficara said.

Ficara reacted to Bush's speech Wednesday in which he described a fixed timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq as a defeat.

Inside: Snakes, spiders on ceiling!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

National Lying with Statistics Day

Well, speak of the devil, and he will surely sneak over and put his beer bottles in with your recycling. Or worm his way into America's newsrooms and work his malevolent will on the desk:


Normally we'd ask something like "since you have the poll data, how about telling us?" But somebody's about to:

New poll gives Crist a negligible lead over Davis, bringing added importance to tonight's debate

Seems that would kind of render the Stupid Question moot, but for the annoying fact of the lede:

Florida's lopsided contest for governor has suddenly become a dead heat, according to a new poll that boosts the stakes for tonight's first televised debate between Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat Jim Davis.

The surprising results energized the longtime underdog, Davis, now trailing by only two percentage points in the Quinnipiac University survey, and put Crist on the defensive. Nearly every other poll has showed a double-digit gap.

The main centerpiece hed asks if they're tied, the deck says they aren't, the lede says that they are. Looks like the prisoners are toying with the guards a little down at the Herald. Or else the Evil One was beclouding minds across the nation -- his craft and power are great -- because Tuesday was a day of strikingly widespread offenses against the crafts of polling and journalism.

The worst and most consistent were in the outposts of the old K-R (now McClatchy) empire, emanating from the K-R side of the now-consolidated McClatchy Washburo. This suggests that someone needs to give that buro a good talking-to. If your claim to exclusivity and authority is that you can't be bothered to play by the rules, you're not doing your member papers (or those who, ahem, have your stock in their retirement portfolios) any favors.

Here's the offending lede and some of the heds it produced:

WASHINGTON - Republican Senate candidates have fought back to regain an edge in two key races, pivotal battlegrounds that could determine which party controls the Senate, according to a series of new McClatchy-MSNBC polls.

Virginia, Tennessee called key to Senate control
Polls find GOP leads in both of the states; Dems need to win at least one

There's a particular editing sin in this version; the story (at least, as it appears on the Web) never says what the numbers are for these states. Good thing, too, since the polls don't actually find the GOP leading in either one. Slick, huh?

Wichita fell for the same snake oil:
GOP gains in two key races

And the Strib managed the cognitive dissonance centerpiece trick again (doncha love the dainty grammar of the lede-in?):

To which party will the Senate tilt? The answer depends on nine key races, with many ...

Exactly right! Go team! Too bad the big type with the photos highlights the percentages in the Virginia and Tennessee races, and the lede repeats the "fought back to regain an edge" assertion. Which, at bottom, amounts to Lying with Statistics, to steal somebody else's title.

Let's try some analogies, since sweet reason obviously hasn't worked so far. You can't play by half the rules. You can't put 11 guys on the field and say the other side is limited to five. If you're going to rely on the laws of probability, you can't throw them out when they get in the way of your thrilling, authoritative, edge-of-the-seat lede.

Now. Let's imagine a giant barrel -- we'll call it "Tennessee" -- holding 10,000 pingpong balls. Some of those pingpong balls are marked "Ford," some are marked "Corker" and some are marked "undecided" (we think most of them are lying -- they have too decided, but they aren't saying -- but polling is about what we know, not what we guess).

Here's how the K-R expert put it: Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, led Democrat Rep. Harold Ford Jr. by 45-43 percent. Three weeks ago, Ford led by 43-42 percent.

Let's do the same thing. We're going to pick some pingpong balls out at random every few weeks and see if we can guess the makeup of the whole population of "Tennessee." We know a couple of things:
1) The more pingpong balls we draw every week, the more likely we are to get closer to an accurate representation.
2) Random samples themselves will end up following a normal distribution. This is the magic part. It lets us draw some conclusions about where stuff lies in relation to other stuff. And once we decide how confident we want to be -- one chance in three, or 20, or 100, of being wrong -- and how many pingpong balls we'll pick, we know a lot about where other cases will lie on the normal distribution curve.

Based on the number of pingpong balls McClatchy picked (Charlotte cut the confidence level, which is bad editing), we know that "Ford 43" means Ford's support in "Tennessee" is probably somewhere between 39% and 47%. How probably? There's a 5% chance that "Ford 43" is actually "Ford 20" or "Ford 57" or something else outside that range. And "Corker 42" means that anything between "Corker 46" and "Corker 38" is likely at the same level.

So when one week's draw is Ford 43, Corker 42 and the next week's is Corker 45, Ford 43, what should we conclude? We ought to be pretty happy. We're making pretty good guesses about the population. Both candidates are pretty much somewhere between 40% and the mid- to upper 40s in support. No reason to stop the press for it, but it isn't uninteresting.

What we shouldn't conclude -- and to be blunt, which more McClatchy editors need to start being, we're either dishonest or stupid to conclude -- is that Satan snuck into the barrel and magically changed the ratio of pingpong balls. This survey has detected no change in the population. That's a pretty good finding. It's not a very exciting story, but it has the advantage of being true -- unlike the preposterous claim that Corker has clawed, or fought, or suplexed his way back into a race that was in essence tied the last time we looked.

Editors, I'm serious. You guys have to call an end to this stuff. Let me quote an old foreign-desk hand in a wake-up memo to overseas buros:

If you file shit and the AP files spun gold, you go on the spike. And the AP goes in the paper.

Monday, October 23, 2006


In a tale from today's Post that might have been interesting in better hands, this stands out:

Grammarians are regarded as a rather grumpy lot. They decorate their classrooms with quotation marks rather than quotations, brood for hours over the staff memo that misuses the contraction "it's" and ply students with unpardonable puns.

And math teachers are all absent-minded! And the football coach is a closet fascist! And the drama ... uh, think we've drug enough clueless stereotypes out of our yearbook for today's front-page feature there, Pinto?

It's interesting, though, in the ongoing discussion of how journalism handles other people's science, to consider this:

Several factors -- most notably, the addition of a writing section to the SAT college entrance exam in 2005 -- have reawakened interest in Greiner's methods.

You'd think there might be some mention -- this is, after all, a 1A trender -- of what these methods are. The closest we get is a hint of what they aren't: Greiner, it should be noted, does not diagram; he prefers livelier methods.

And those might be? Well, students spend half an hour repairing broken sentences at one point.

Not much for us here. Time to go brood over apostrophes for a bit, one supposes.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

How not to screw up poll reporting

This 1A tale from a favorite major metropolitan daily brings a few immediate thoughts to mind:

Polls: Democrats
have real shot of

winning Senate

1) Gee, isn't this more or less the exact same story you ran three weeks ago? The one on 8A Oct. 2 that began "Democrats are within striking distance of taking control of the U.S. Senate on Election Day, a series of new polls for McClatchy Newspapers and MSNBC showed today"? Are you just going to keep running it until you get it right?
2) At least this iteration doesn't openly ignore all the rules -- like, say, sampling error -- that make legitimate polls legitimate (and made the previous story a crock, as Doug so deftly noted).
3) But since it doesn't bother to give us any of the statistics that would demonstrate that it might be playing by the rules, it's hard to tell whether there's been any improvement at all.
(OK, 4, that hed preposition: You have a shot "at" winning something. You have a shot "of" something potent that makes you forget how teemortal dumb newspapers can get around election season. But we digress.)

Any second now our good buddy Strayhorn (with whom we started playing journalism back when baseball had the good sense to be done by now) is going to suggest that polls, being in essence horoscopes with better creditlines, aren't news. He has a point, sort of. A badly run or badly reported poll is the moral equivalent of a horoscope. So to cut down on the number of copy editors burned at the stake for witchery, here are some suggestions -- and some out-and-out rules -- for proper coverage.

First, the principles:

I) Only polls based on legitimate probability samples can be generalized to any form of public opinion. All others, including but not limited to call-in, click-to-vote and man-on-the-street, are crap by definition and must be ignored or ridiculed. If you don't want to say "crap" in the newspaper, you can say "nonprobability (convenience or self-selecting) samples."

II) A poll can only be generalized to the population that is sampled. Residents of the capital cannot be assumed to stand for residents of the whole state. "Registered voters" and "likely voters" are not the same thing. Undergraduates do not represent the entire adult population. &c &c &c.

III) Polls measure only what they measure and answer only the questions that they ask. A question about attendance at religious services can provide a reliable measure of self-reported attendance at religious services. It can't, doesn't and never will say anything about whether the population in question is "faithful" or "takes religion seriously." "Do you approve or disapprove of how the president is doing his job?" is not the same question as "How do you intend to vote?"

IV) Polls do not "prove" or "confirm." They do not say what's going to happen. They provide a snapshot of a population at a specific time. That's all.

V) Don't draw inferences by comparing separate polls unless they ask the same questions of samples drawn from the same population.

VI) A minimally accurate report on a poll will say how many people were interviewed and when, what population they represent, who conducted the poll (and/or who paid for it), and the margin of sampling error and confidence level.

Now at this point, some reader-friendly [insert your favorite term here] is going to emerge from its glass office and complain that we're letting the numbers get in the way of the story. Not so. The numbers are the story; they're what distinguish polls from horoscopes. Here's how to use them and how not to misuse them.

What we're measuring here is the accuracy with which a randomly drawn sample (everything in the population has an equal chance of being chosen) is likely to represent the whole population -- say, 500 registered voters (sample) against all registered voters (population). The conventional, and entirely arbitrary, confidence level we use is 95%, meaning that 19 times out of 20, a number falling within our confidence interval (the other name for "margin of sampling error") will accurately reflect the population.

Say we interview 500 registered voters in the hotly contested Crook vs. Liar Senate race. Our handy table* tells us that the margin of sampling error for a sample of 500 is 4.4 points (not, despite what the youth of South Carolina** are told, "percent"). If 47 percent say they plan to vote for Crook, we can say we're 95 percent sure his (or her) support among registered voters is somewhere between 42.6 percent and 51.4 percent.

Put another way, a poll that finds Crook at 47 and Liar at 53 could reflect a population that favors Liar. It could also accurately reflect a population that favors Crook 51-49. And 5 percent of the time, it could be reflecting something like a 60-40 Liar lead.

Does the 53-47 result show a solid lead? Sure, if you don't mind, oh, a one-in-three chance of being wrong. Just set your confidence level at about 67 percent and the margin of sampling error falls to 2.2 points.

Does the 53-47 result show that Liar has gained ground since last month's (Liar 51, Crook 49)poll? You do the arithmetic.

Some takeaway points:
1) The size of the population has nothing to do with the confidence interval. A random sample of 500 can represent a city; another can represent the state with the same accuracy.
2) Changes in sample size, though, are hugely important. Sampling error for subgroups is always larger for the group as a whole, meaning a gap that's significant in a sample of registered voters might not be significant for male or female registered voters.
3) "Sampling error" is only one kind of error. Question wording, question order and other factors can bias a sample; a classic example is the infamous double-negative Roper question that purportedly found a fifth of Americans ready to believe that the Holocaust hadn't happened. And don't even get started on social desirability bias.
4) The numbers say what they say. If the gap between Crook and Liar isn't significant, it doesn't become so just because the Washington Post or the New York Times declares it so. Period, end graf.
5) A story that doesn't provide the tools by which the poll's legitimacy can be judged is incomplete. It's as bad as leaving the attribution out of a cop story.
5a) It ain't that complicated. "The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted Oct. 18-20 by the Gallup Organization for the Daily Blatt. It has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level" will do. Don't tell me readers won't understand it; you run earned-run averages every day.
6) "Polls" and "experts" are not the same thing. The hed above is misleading because of the attribution; the supporting evidence comes from political observers, not numbers.

Surveys are valid and useful tools as long as you keep them within their boundaries. But if you don't use the rules, the rules will have an annoying way of using you. Meaning you might end up looking dumb. Or biased. Or both.

* Many stats or methods texts will have such a table. If you don't have such handy, here's a formula for the 95% confidence level: 1.96√(.25/n), where n=sample size. Note that the population size doesn't enter into it.
** Oh, the humanity.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dow reminder

If this is the first place you check in the morning for news of the deskly world, there's still time. Head downtown, dodge Homecoming traffic, cross between floats, get there by 10 for the DJNF internship exam.

We can go ahead and collapse come basketball season, but at this time of year, the Lesser Schools -- your Carolinas, your South Carolinas, your Kansi -- eat the dust of the upper Hinkson Valley. Go forth and punctuate.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Someone evidently felt the hot breath of the J4400 workbook on (his or her) (their) neck and ended up writing the opposite of what (he or she) (they) meant:

Bill Bondeson, a philosophy professor at MU who has taught medical ethics courses, said a pharmacist should provide customers with any medication he or she wants or needs, within the realm of the law.

What Bondeson meant, one gathers, is that the pharmacist is supposed to give customers what they want or need, not what the pharmacist -- he or she -- thinks is morally appropriate. Grammar's kind of relentless about that. "He or she" has a pretty clear antecedent, and it ain't "customers."

This sort of thing gives inclusive language a bad name. Be alert for it.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reporter plays scientist. Bummer.

Other People's Science isn't the only place where journalists can put their feet wrong. A writer who decides to count stuff and draw inferences is asking to be judged by a different standard, and he (or she) might not be ready to play in that league.

There's a risk for the writer over and above having us in readerland think he (or she) is a freaking dimbulb. In a case like the one at hand, we've gone down to the Wal-Mart BiasCenter and bought us a big old box of hollowpoints for the clowns who like to snipe at the Librul Media. So without further ado, let's introduce psycholinguist R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post (10A Friday if you're scoring along at home).

Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'
President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs

The inept heds are the copydesk's fault. By leaving out the story's minimal attribution, they turn the speculations of "some presidential scholars and psychologists" into established facts. And the "confounded," well ... But stand back; the writer's about to come into his own.

President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable."

In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems "unacceptable," including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent.

Hang on to "decision," "blunt new markers" and "odd time."

But a survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

Time for a couple of basic methodology points. First, content analysis isn't the sort of tool that measures the "stoking" of "desire" (OK, maybe for Harlequin Throbbing Desire novels, but not for political speech). Inferences about what the president's frustration did to his throbbing desire don't reflect the data. They reflect the writer's opinions. One is tempted to call them "fabrications." They sort of are.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.

Second -- oh, it's the Post, so let's play Watergate: What did you count and how did you count it? That's a "reliability" question, and it's the moral equivalent of identifying your sources. Where'd you get your numbers, and what ensures anyone that your sample is an accurate representation of presidential speech? If you don't tell me, I'm liable to think you're making it up.

("Validity," of course, is a different issue. The writer needs to explain why this word by itself is an accurate index of presidential frustration and confoundment. But let's wait and see how the writer does on the midterm before we get into validity.)

Having a president call something "unacceptable" is not the same as having him order U.S. troops into action. (Bear, woods, Charmin.) But foreign policy experts say the word is one of the strongest any leader can deploy, since it both broadcasts a national position and conveys an implicit threat to take action if his warnings are disregarded. (Mind quoting or identifying any of these experts?)

Bush's use of the term "reflects in some ways his frustration with a world that doesn't seem as amenable to his policies as he would like them to be," said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York.

You think they're pitching a hizzy over to the Post copydesk? A professor -- a professor! -- using "them" with a singular antecedent! Hope they're not so upset they overlook the, um, content.

... As such, charting the ebbs and flows of Bush's proclamations of "unacceptability" provides clues to trends in presidential irritations. It also demonstrates that Bush's most intense grievances -- like his attention -- have moved offshore, as evidenced this year by his eight declarations about "unacceptable" events in Iraq, and his 11 declarations about unacceptable behavior by Iran.

You can proclaim whatever you want, but you aren't a lot closer to making your case. If you're suggesting that international issues have been a bigger deal of late than domestic ones, the principle of parsimony suggests you not waste time with content analysis. You could, like, turn on the TV.

... Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

I missed something. How "strident and extreme" did we decide "unacceptable" was?

... Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.

OK. At this point, anybody who wants to allege that the Post's national section will run any sort of fictional anti-Bush propaganda that comes down the pike can go right ahead. Is there something unusual about that "favorite verbal tic"? Never heard anybody begin a sentence with "look"? Never heard Violeta Chamorro (you remember her; we had a proxy war with her country for much of the 1980s) begin an answer with "Mira"? How do you propose to demonstrate that this is a sign of "mounting frustrations" (see "throbbing desire," above")? What makes it a sign that "he hasn't given up hope it might work"?

Maybe the Post copydesk doesn't have the firepower to stop a star writer when he's in Make Stuff Up mode. That'd be a shame, though most of us have been there. But this one still ought to be embarrassing.

Science Saturday: Quiz folo

Tnx to all who participated in and helped publicize last week's science journalism quiz. (Are you listening out there, search committees?) A few comments on the questions, then on to the real point, which is along the lines of What Is To Be Done?

First, yeah, there are a few trick questions and a few design issues. Quizzes always get better the second time you give 'em (except J4400 current-events quizzes, which are infallible). Some things can't be answered without looking at the study itself. Which is kind of the point. That ought to be the writer's job, but if writers aren't going to do it, step forward the copy editors.

What do you do when the article costs $12.95 a pop? Read the abstract and vow to make friends with somebody at a nearby research library who can be persuaded to drop you a PDF of the fulltext next time you need one. Hey, Marlowe got information out of librarians (OK, booksellers, but the effect is much the same).

First question. Does the study measure "self-esteem in men"? We were looking for "no," on grounds that "body esteem" is a newer and narrower concept, but may give partial credit on this one. The point is that the headline is wrong about everything it touches, and the AP text at least hints at most of the points that should have been gotten right.

The main sin is overgeneralizing. The study looked at a very small portion of "media," with different effects from the TV and magazine constructs, and a hugely unrepresentative convenience sample of "men" (guys from psyc survey classes who participated for extra credit, with self-identified gays dropped from the results). The authors specifically note the former -- what, no Internet? -- as a shortcoming, but you didn't really need the "discussion" section to figure that out.

A cross-sectional survey can't establish cause-and-effect relationships, so even if "self-esteem" is the target, this study wouldn't show a monotonic "erosion" (even if it had found it). And if you didn't crunch the numbers yourself, at least put some attribution in the hed.

In all, as the Estimable GK used to put it, we seem to have actually subtracted from the sum of human knowledge. Urk.

The second question goes to the sin of featurizing the data. As it turns out, the Abercrombie ad is the sort of image that isn't associated with bad feelings (Mark appears to have found his copy of the AP tale elsewhere; this paper chopped out the references to Michelangelo's David, who at least -- being a statue and hairless -- hints at the "real body" measure). Even if this study had surveyed the "average guy" mentioned in graf 2, the personalized touch in the first few grafs takes us way outside the limits of the data.

Back to the big type. Everybody who said "none" for Question 3, take a bow. Here, the deck hed simply repeats the writer's error in deciding that "sexual assertiveness," discussed in the study, must mean "sexual aggressiveness." That's an inexcusable blunder, but you can't blame the desk for assuming that the reporter got things right. More on this below, but meanwhile: (a) assertiveness seems rather a good thing in this study, and (b) "own body comfort" predicts more assertiveness but no increase in risk-taking. Kind of a sloppily worded question, but there's still nothing like having the regression results themselves at hand.

This seems like a good time to point out that "significance" and "substance" aren't the same thing. So Mark gets extra credit (sorry about the deadline; it's a desk thing) for noting that the significant predictors don't explain much of the variance at all.

The true-false stuff is mostly intended to underscore a couple of common flaws. One, correlation isn't cause. Surveys don't establish that sort of relationship. Two, there's a huge difference between "study says" and "researcher says." Schooler may have a point about what really concerns men. She's certainly raised a provocative question and found a way to start investigating it. But the True Concerns of Men (even of undergraduates in survey classes) are not where this study goes. (And, as she points out in the discussion, the whole construct is pretty new and not yet widely validated.)

OK, errand time. Back soon with actual prescriptions for the future.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Those nuclear hed awards

Time for a look at how America's Newspapers performed with Sunday night's news that North Korea claimed to have joined the Atomic Candle Club.

Grand Champion:
Is N. Korea nuclear?
The Record (Stockton, Calif.)
Umm... tell you what. If you're going to ask me, how about you give me the 50 cents and I give you some dead pine trees with advertising on 'em?

First runner-up in the Please Read The Wires After 7 category:
No nuke test, China, Japan tell N. Korea
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
The judges singled out for particular commendation the lede, which reminds us that "Pyongyang appeared to back down from its threat."

Special recognition in the Crosstown Echo Effect Echo Effect Category:
North Korea tests nuke
Step forward, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. On tiebreakers, the Post wins for its deck: "Defiance or defense?" (Answer: Yes!)

And in the World? What world? category, the champion is Fort Myers, Fla., leading with:
Golf course labor scarce
This isn't the only paper that couldn't be bothered to find frontpage space for the event. Or the only one that managed to tease to football and baseball. Belleville (Ill.) and the Detroit News both led with baseball (not the same team, of course). And Greensboro gets a special nod for not only leading with golf, but for providing relentlessly clueless hyphenation in its top Actual News hed:

Duke-case prosecutor undeterred by critics

Enough of sermon, pretty much. Though it's worth asking whether the claim at hand should be attributed -- hey, take a bow, the Missourian! -- or stated as a fact, as in the Denver examples above and a few score others. That one doesn't have an exact answer, which makes it more rather than less interesting to discuss.

Certainly, an official stamp from the White House isn't the highest and best way of verifying international events. Nor are "rogue" states' claims presumptively false, nor claims about nuclear testing invariably true. In this case, we're stuck with weighing North Korea's interest in wanting to be known as a nuclear power against access (pretty late on a Sunday) to people with the technical means to add credibility to the event and a vested interest in having an honest answer on the frontpage. I'd go with the attribution.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Science journalism contest!

Hey, I know. Let's have a quiz! Here's a story, with heds, as it appeared today on the Web site of a major metropolitan daily. There's a brief quiz (true-false and multiple guess) at the end. Post your answers as comments or send 'em to the address at right.

Extra credit: One point for finding a copy of the abstract by first-edn deadline (let's say that's 9 p.m. Saturday in whatever time zone you're in). Two points for finding the article itself by that deadline.

I'll post answers when I'm done pounding nails into my skull.

Media erode men's self-esteem
Study links TV to risky behavior, aggression

NEW YORK -- That guy in the Abercrombie & Fitch ad has an upper body that's all chiseled muscle and washboard abs.

On billboards and in magazines everywhere, it seems, there's a male Adonis -- buff, sleek, hairless. But how does it make the average guy feel?

Maybe not so great.

"Body image is not just a concern for women," says researcher Deborah Schooler, who's looked into the adverse effects such media images can have on male self-esteem.

In the past, when looking at men, researchers asked the wrong questions, Schooler argues.

"Asking men about just weight or size misses the boat," said Schooler, a research associate at Brown University. What men are more concerned about, she says, are other "real-body" factors, like sweat, body hair and body odor.

In a study published last spring , Schooler, then at San Francisco State University, and a colleague looked at 184 male college students. The more media these young men "consumed" -- especially music videos and prime-time TV -- the worse they felt about those "real" aspects of their bodies, researchers found.

Further, such negative feelings impacted their sexual well-being, in some cases leading to more aggressive and risky sexual behavior. (The study appeared in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.)

Ready, steady, go:
1) This study measures "self-esteem" in men.
a) True
b) False

2) Consider the image in the lede. Did the study find that men who read lots of fitness and porn magazines have:
a) More positive body esteem?
b) Less positive body esteem?

3) How many times would you estimate the words "aggression" or "aggressive" appear in the study?
a) None
b) 2-5
c) 6-10
d) 11 or more

4) Findings from this study can confidently be generalized to:
a) Men
b) Men aged 18 to 35
c) Straight male undergraduates in introductory and general psyc classes at Michigan State
d) None of the above; generalizing from convenience samples is inappropriate

5) How would the researchers characterize the "real body comfort" measure used here?
a) Well established in a number of social science fields
b) New and not yet broadly established as valid
c) Well known in experimental psychology but new elsewhere
d) Hypothetical and used here for the first time

6) Among subjects in this study, comfort with "real body" factors predicts:
a) More sexual assertiveness and less sexual risk-taking
b) Less sexual assertiveness and less sexual risk-taking
c) Less sexual assertiveness and more sexual risk-taking
d) More sexual assertiveness and more sexual risk-taking

7) The only significant demographic predictor of risky sexual behavior in this study is:
a) Religiosity
b) Being Asian
c) Own body comfort
d) Comfort with women's bodies

8) The study found a causal relationship between negative feelings about the "real body" and aggressive sexual behavior.
a) True
b) False

9) The study found that men are more concerned about "real body" factors than about weight or size.
a) True
b) False

10) The strongest predictor of whether men in the study were comfortable with their own bodies was body-mass index.
a) True
b) False

Hed ambiguity and other sins

It's nice when heds are true (it's sort of the least they can do, and one that manifestly isn't is up for discussion later), but it's nicer when they're clear about what they're being true about. Copyeds, that means no closing your eyes and wishing the ambiguity of English would go away. It won't. As in:

Mexican hopes for
border met by fence
This could easily refer to three states of affairs. In one, "Mexican" is the subject, "hopes for" the verb," and "border met by fence" the direct object: A Mexican hopes for a border met by a fence -- sort of like a home where the buffalo roam, only there's a built-in buffalo-stop at the border. (The easy solution is a nice, unambiguous genitive modifer: "Mexico's hopes for ...")

That clears up one bit of confusion but leaves two other potential meanings. In both, "hopes" is the subject, "Mexican" modifies it, and "met" is a passive verb (unlike "Player helps blind woman," the truncation doesn't create any ambiguity). Trouble is, "meet" has a number of meanings, some of them directly contradicting each other. In one perfectly good reading, the fence satisfies or fulfills Mexico's hopes for the border. In another, which seems to be the one the story intended, the hopes are countered or opposed by the fence.

Which leaves us, of course, with a perfectly true hed. But since it could be true about so many things, throw it out and start over.

Barbecue wins
stoke up family
isn't as bad; the first line might cause a little temporary disorientation, but it'll clear up when the brain tries to make "stoke up family" an object. Still, why make readers work harder than they have to?

We'd mentioned "other sins" above, so ...
Are you ready for some football?

No, no, no. Never, never, never. File it with "Let the games begin" and "It's official." Friends don't let friends put cliches in big type on the front page.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Heds not to write

A quick (and not scientifically sampled) set of reminders of Stuff Not To Do:

Scandal turns off voters, GOP fears
(South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
Too many ideas, not enough tenses (and one too many potential direct objects). We need a progressive or a future to distinguish what the scandal is doing or might do from what the GOP fears it might do. And with the first verb in the hed-traditional present tense, the poor coffee-deprived brain has an extra reason to read "fears" as a noun at first glance.

There are a couple different ways to help:
1) Leave the structure as is, make the main-clause verb progressive. Still leaves the emphasis on the supposition, rather than who's supposing it. Not always a bad idea, but it is here.
2) Splitting the phrasal verb ("turns voters off").
3) Put the GOP into the main clause.

Corp of Engineers unable to predict timetable, cost to upgrade levee
It's a Corps, not a Corp (and in yet another big-type element, an it, not a they). Hate to think South Florida's spending all its time on writing all the decorative stuff called for by that new redesign and not leaving time to read the words on 1A.

Subpoenas approved in page probe
Hastert apologizes for failures to investigate Foley's messages but won't step down
The NYT fell for the same construction, which makes it a bad idea that happened to get on the front page of the Times. We have no idea whether Hastert will or won't step down. All we know for the Friday front is what he said Thursday: He says he won't step down. Stick to what you know and you'll never be sandbagged when, oh, some politician who backed his running mate a million billion percent turns around and dumps the loser three days later.