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.


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