Thursday, November 30, 2006


Did this really appear in our favorite morning paper today, or (since the circulation department didn't hit its usual spot under the neighbors' truck) were we imagining things from the Web?

The big chill

No, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. This is one of the Great Cliches and must never be allowed out of its cell to wreak mayhem on an unsuspecting world.

Here's how a really good then-copy chief (and occasional visitor here -- hi, Kirk) put it in a note on the bulletin board in ... jeez, was it really 1986? "Enough 'Big Chill.' File it with 'white stuff.'" Good advice 20 years ago, and the darn thing hasn't gotten any fresher with the millennium.

While we're at it:
Street Department salt truck drivers wait on Wednesday to treat Columbia bridges. The department kept a five-man crew on duty to combat the winter forecast.

Not much point in combatting the forecast, which has been a done deal (and a high-decibel one at that) for some time now. Be nice if they combat the snow and freezing rain, though. And as for "wait on Wednesday" -- well, we all wait on something. The best way to not sound like a robot is to not write like one.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

That cultural divide, ch. LXXVII

Another minor addition to the pile of stuff suggesting that the big gap in Meedja Bias isn't some notional left vs. right thing but rather a Brie-vs.-Me thing.

Passport in hand, shots updated, cleft sticks at the ready, Noah Adams left NPR's foreign desk for tobacco country (burley, not brightleaf, but what the heck). Though his introduction to the art of tobacco stripping isn't online at this check, it sort of cut through the morning fog around here because of the simile he used for tobacco in the barn: It looks like "giant romaine lettuce leaves."

Hmm. We here at HEADSUP-L don't regret for a moment the steady disentangling of tobacco from American cultural life. (OK, maybe for just a moment; some parts of grammar teaching would be a lot easier if "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" and "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch" didn't draw such blank stares.) But do you figure part of the generalized distrust felt toward The Meedja in some sectors of the population stems from this tendency to explain tobacco in terms of romaine, rather than romaine in terms of tobacco?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hed of the (still-young) morning

Even by the abysmal standards of the question hed, this one reaches for -- and achieves! -- new lows:

Transitioning or unfairly judged?
Clanton Park residents question study that cites a drop in quality of life

One is tempted to answer a resounding "Yes!" Unfortunately, the label hed sort of takes the steam out of that one. Meaning, in part: If you already know the answer, why raise the question? And why staple a pair of grammatical antlers onto the innocent noun "transition" to fulfil your evil purposes?


There's your painful, irrelevant lede. There's your wrong-cliche lede. Then there's your painful, irrelevant lede that grabs the wrong cliche in the bargain. Step forward the competition:

It’s actual -- ABC Labs reports growth in sales
Shareholders of homegrown Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories must be singing "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" because everything seems to be going the company’s way.

Why, one wonders, must they be singing anything at all? (Like, what happened to the great tradition of shareholder mime?) And if stockholders are routinely bursting into song because everything's going their way, why isn't it "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" ("Everything's going my way") rather than "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" ("Wonderful feeling, wonderful day")?

It's hard to talk writers out of ledes like this -- at least, until after we've killed a perfectly good pine tree or two and printed the thing for all to see. And offering a lesser-known but apropos alternative (HEADSUP-L would have suggested "1983 ... A Merman I Should Turn to Be") doesn't butter a lot of parsnips either. But if you can whack 'em upside the head with the lyrics, you might be able to strangle the damnable thing before it escapes.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sweatin' to the Old Ones

This just in from the Rocky Mountain buro:

November 23, 2006
'At war with himself'
This story incorrectly stated that James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, believes people who don't practice what they preach should undergo an exorcism. His quote, in a TV interview about reaction to the firing of evangelical leader Ted Haggard for "sexual immorality," was: "Everybody gets exercised (worked up about it) when something like this happens, and for good reason."

This is a "telephone" error, so called from the grade-school game in which one sends a whisper around the room and compares the result with the original. And this example ranks with an all-time fave from 1990, in which a writer from the K-R Washington bureau interviewed a Mideast expert and came away with the pronouncement that Saddam Hussein wanted to be "the new Solomon of the Arab world." What the expert had said was "the new Saladin," but since Saladin wasn't the sort of concept that rang any bells at the Washburo, "Solomon" it was. Right up until the following week's correction.

What's a copy editor to do? Be suspicious. Sniff before you cook. In the case at hand, let your mind wander a bit. How long are the lines going to be if everybody has to get exorcised after any outbreak of sin and hypocrisy? Is exorcism sort of like getting a flu shot, or (hey, wasn't there a movie about this?) is it a little more complicated? Is there a general evangelical stance on exorcism, or do most evangelicals leave that up to the Pentecostals?

Well, Tommy this and Tommy that. Don't expect thanks for trying to keep errors out of the paper. Do it because it's the right thing. And not running corrections is so much more fun than running them, except for collectors.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Running short of polite hints

Mind if we make a policy suggestion for the nice folks at Eighth and Elm? How about: From now on, any obituary that mentions the decedent's military service will include a note from the reporter affirming that the dates of any battles and wars mentioned have been checked with a reliable (for beginners, that means "non-Internet") source and compared with the decedent's birth date and any service dates mentioned. Violations will result in the loss of a letter grade on first offense and failure of the course for the second offense.

A policy appears to be in order because sweet reason ain't working, viz. and e.g.: He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and because of his military career, he traveled all around the world.

Ahem. According to the birth date in the second graf, he was 12 years old when the Korean War ended. (HEADSUP-L is not particularly interested in contentions that the armistice of 1953 didn't end the "war" and will start by referring whingers to the timeline at the Army's own 50th anniversary site: The United States, North Korea and China sign an armistice, which ends the war but fails to bring about a permanent peace.) And as it did last week, when it invaded Okinawa two years ahead of schedule, the paper looks dumb.

Which is, of course, the writer's doing. But it's also another missed chance for a copy editor to drift back toward the wall, time the leap just right, and pluck the ball out of the stands. In the box score, it's an F-9 like any F-9; there's no mark to distinguish "routine story" from "editor saves lazy reporter from public embarrassment." But what we care about is whether the game goes in the win column, not who goes on the postgame show. Right?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Credit vs. content

Latest in a series on how to be an effective wire editor. Collect them all!

This one's going to be called the Fallacy of Proximity when the Official HEADSUP-L Big Book of Editing comes out:

Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES -- George Weller, who drove his car through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, killing 10, was sentenced Monday to five years' probation and will not serve time in prison.

This might be an adequate lede for Los Angeles readers. But if you're a few hours' drive from the beaches of the Atlantic (as is the major Southeastern daily whence this is drawn), you could be forgiven for wondering what a George Weller is and why you should care about him. Note how deeply the major elements of the story -- 10 people dead, no prison time -- are buried. If the paper is trying not to get my attention, it's doing a heck of a job.

The AP writes -- OK, it writes like the AP, but at least it has a national audience in mind:

An 89-year-old man whose car hurtled through a farmers market, killing 10 people, was let off on probation Monday by a judge who said he believed the defendant deserved to go prison but was too ill.

Why not use that or something like it? Because the paper in question (like many others) operates under a couple of wire-editing fallacies. One is that big papers are by definition better than general news services. Another is that variety in creditlines is by itself a virtue. A third is that the locals always know best. None are true, but the last is the point of today's sermon.

The very George Wellerishness of the story probably has some appeal for LA readers. That's a call for the LAT desk to make. But assuming the entire nation has been gathering 'round the old Philco every night for crackly updates on the Trial of the Century -- that's just dumb. As long as newspapers reward editors for using creditlines rather than judgment, though, it's going to continue.

(There's lots of good wire conversation going on these days, particularly as murmurs grow about centralizing or offshoring desk operations. Feel free to chime in here, of course, but keep an eye on the doings over at Doug's and Andy's.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ten miles of ground glass

Many of you Usual Suspects probably saw this, but in case you didn't (or if you're an Unusual Suspect in need of reading suggestions for the weekend), the NYT is carrying an obit for Nick Proffitt, correspondent turned novelist.

That's the sort of leap that everybody talks about but few, perhaps fortunately, make. It's built deeply enough into the cultural DNA that reporters in journalism novels have unfinished novels in their desk drawers too (I'm thinking of Philip Caputo's "DelCorso's Gallery," which also contains the greatest resignation-by-Telex line since Flavius Josephus). Nick made it well enough to turn out three of the things, each worth your attention.

Obligatory copydesk sermon? Sit on your hands first time through a story. Sometimes, the words are in the right order when they get to us.

I think I'll read a bit of "Gardens of Stone" tonight (I'd forgotten the female lead was up from the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas). Cheers.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Son of 'do the math'

The general rule on numbers is that when you see two or more of them in a story, do something to 'em. That doesn't mean "and put the results in the story" or "and change the presentation in the text." It means making two sets of comparisons:

1) Internal, to confirm that sums, products, differences and the like bear some (preferably quite close) resemblance to the ones we report.
2) External, to ensure that what we're reporting fits more or less into accepted historical timelines. That's how we avoid having people vote for candidates who died before they were born, serve in wars that ended when they were 4 years old, and the like.

Leading, of course, to today's lesson:

During World War II, he served in the Army in Okinawa, Japan, from April 1943 until 1945, said his sister, Willamina Laughner.

Neat trick for a lad from Pennsylvania. The rest of the Army didn't get to Okinawa until April 1945.

What this looks like (this is a hypothesis; I wasn't there) is the sort of error known as a 2+2=22. Reporter asks when decedent served. Sister says "April 1943 to 1945." Reporter asks where. Sister says "Okinawa." Reporter puts two and two together and gets 22.

That's a long way of saying this one isn't the desk's fault. But catching garden-variety heuristic errors like the 2+2 is how desks win friends and influence people (who, not coincidentally, might be the ones at some future newspaper deciding on whether to cut or strengthen the copydesk). Go ahead. Take a few minutes and hunt up some details. Wikipedia will never be a reliable main source, but it's useful and convenient for a ranging shot on matters like this.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

English with a hockey mask

Looks like the columnists are up on the high horse again about how You Kids are Murdering Our Language. And once again, English is acting like a hockey-mask-wearing loser with a chainsaw in a slasher movie: Better kill him a little harder, kids, because he's sneaking up on another cheerleader right now!

The pros have the requisite butt-kicking well in hand, so we'll just spend a moment on one idea in the abovementioned dreadful column, because it tends to crop up every now and then in the first week of class:

But the talent and appeal of good writers comes through knowing the rules and knowing how most effectively to break them.

Let's just go ahead and put that one out to pasture. You don't want to break the rules, which are your friends. When people tend to mean when they say "I want to learn the rules so I can break them" is ... oh, "I want to split me an infinitive!" Or "I want to use adjectives like nouns!" Or "I want to say [naughty word] so [naughty word]ing often your [mom][naughty word]ing eyes pop out!"

To which the rules say: Knock yourself out! Those situations aren't covered by "the rules." They can represent better or worse writing decisions, depending on your skill and the context you're writing in (say, a context in which you want to keep your newspaper job past those heady first 3.11 seconds). But we don't have a "rule" to spend 15 weeks teaching you just so's you can break free of it when the semester ends.

That doesn't mean there aren't rules. There are. If we didn't have rules, we'd have a hard time telling a "man eating blancmange" from a "man-eating blancmange."* They're the ones your self-respecting literary lion wouldn't be caught dead breaking. And they don't appreciate being mistaken for the sort of people who pick on sentence-final prepositions.

So be kind to the poor rules (they're not real happy about the adverb placement in the quoted sentence as it is). They're the things patiently making sure that the adjective you used as a noun is likely to be perceived as a noun. They're the tireless guys who make sure your attribution is pointing at the phrase you want to attribute, because if there's one rule you never, ever want to break, it's "Don't libel anybody unless you mean to."

Be wild, be carefree (except on my watch), be bold, but don't listen to some silly columnist who thinks you need to break "the rules" to be any good. It's a pretty good guess she doesn't know nearly enough of the things herself.

*Thanks, H.W.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fake news! Got your fake news here!

The yard signs are yellowing, the election analyses are growing mold, but the abuses of survey data haven't gone away. Here's a front-page tale an editor should have stopped because -- well, because it's made-up. It tortures some data until they admit to a few crimes they haven't been charged with, adds a touch of false dichotomy and garnishes with Chamber of Commerce cliche:

Carolinas newcomers find friendly reception

The majority of Carolinas newcomers say they're getting a friendly reception from the communities they're moving to.

Really? And we know that because?

That's according to this year's Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolinas Poll, which found that 1 in 5 of the Carolinians interviewed said they considered themselves newcomers.

Among those newcomers, 57 percent gave their communities high marks for being welcoming.

If your first instinct is to scan to the end of the story and find the numbers that support this, good for you. But don't hold your breath. They aren't there. You can politely ask somebody at the newspaper to provide them or try to dig 'em up yourself, but either way, that's strike one. Doesn't matter that the story's an acknowledged piece of fluff; if it's going to say the numbers support something, it has to provide the numbers. This is a rule. There are no exceptions.

What you want to know, of course, is how big a sample that "1 in 5" represents. Let's be generous and take one-fifth of the poll's total N (917). We'll round it up to 184. So our margin of sampling error -- let's not always see the same hands, now -- right, 7.2 points. So do we know what a "majority" of "newcomers" think? Maybe.

What exactly is a "Carolinas newcomer?" Hard to say. Sounds as if the poll asked people whether they considered themselves newcomers, but it doesn't say "new to what?" So let's see where our two Real People-type foreigners come from:

"Here, people definitely seem to have more manners. I'm finding it that way so far, anyway," said Heather Lazette, who moved to Rock Hill from Wilmington in June after living in New Jersey, Colorado, Texas and other states.

... Francois Brown, a newcomer to the Matthews area, lived in Charlotte for a few years following time in Fayetteville and his upbringing in New York.

One came from Wilmington. One's a "newcomer" to the Matthews area after living in Charlotte (that'll be the "Charlotte" on the nameplate, if you're scoring along at home) and Fayetteville. So is a "Carolinas newcomer" some sort of Yankee, not yet convinced that iced tea ought to come with so much endogenous sugar the spoon stands up straight, or somebody who's been living in the state for some unspecified number of years before moving to the World-Class City?

But even though the poll painted a positive picture of the welcome that new residents receive, another sentiment has come forth in recent anonymous postings on the Observer's blog for newcomers, New Around Town.

"Some natives don't have an appreciation for those from different parts of the world," one poster wrote. "... It was not until I started meeting people from other states that I started to make real friends."

[Villainous music up.] Is there a lazier form of reporting than quoting people from your blog? Any standards in place for when you use unnamed (and unknown) sources, or is Page 1A too news-free to worry about such trivia?

Tom Hanchett is the historian at Levine Museum of the New South, which holds occasional events for newcomers. He has found that those who believe the Charlotte area is unfriendly are in the minority.

Not that our poll found much to speak of either way, but how was it again that he "found" this?

Will the influx of newcomers dilute the native politeness and Southern hospitality? Hanchett thinks that's unlikely.

The Master Narrative comes to the rescue. You can go about your business.

Seriously, though. Was this bit of civic back-patting worth the 1A space?

Friday, November 10, 2006

And the short dude with a broom stands for ...

Here's another one that may have been left out of your j-education. Go ahead and write it into the margins of your stylebook:

If you need to spend cutline space explaining the symbolic content of a photo, kill the photo.

This reminder brought to you by the paper that ran this photo and its accompanying cutline:

Bill Ferguson answers questions outside the Boone County Courthouse yesterday. He displayed a spoon he said is symbolic of police feeding information to Chuck Erickson, whose testimony helped jurors convict his son, Ryan Ferguson, of killing Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt.

Take his picture outside the courthouse, fine. Run his comments, fine. But when the defense lawyer shows up with an OO-scale model of Edward the Blue Engine and says his client was railroaded, tell him to write a letter to the editor, OK?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Eskimo word for 'orientalism'

Some weeks (not more than four or five a month) you just don't get to the Book Review before Wednesday or thereabouts, so it's always good to find one of those got-to-read reviews of a got-to-read book: Hoo hah! Christopher Buckley reviewing Chris Miller's full-scale memoir of the real Delta House, model for the stuff that eventually ended up being funneled toward "Animal House."

The review's a bit disappointing, in that it doesn't tell you how Miller stitches together the Adelphian material that's already seen print. But it gets irritating when our reviewer takes his approach-avoidance thing a step too far:
I hereby take back everything I have said so far. It’s a disgusting, horrid, loathsome book. Miller should be ashamed. No — he should be executed. I issue a fatwa.

Betcha don't. You'd have to sort of be a recognized authority answering a specific question about religious law. Unless ... oh, damn. Unless the NYT still thinks it's somehow "literary" to use "fatwa" as if it meant "death sentence," rather than anything it really does mean?

How "fatwa" came to mean something it doesn't is a long and sometimes slightly entertaining tale,* if you find dumb stuff that newspapers do amusing. It happens because it's a convenient way of using other people's language -- particularly made-up facts about other people's language -- to traffic in cultural generalizations that you couldn't get away with otherwise. And anybody who would do that would ...

The Inuit language contains — what? — 17 different words for “snow”? The AD’s must have twice that many for “vomit.”

Yeah. The Inuit thing. Deskers, remember: When you see "fatwa" used to mean something it doesn't, fix it. Whack the writer on the head and/or send a polite note to the wire service. The Eskimos of the desert are counting on you.

* Told at excruciating length in the sort of article that produces an unlawful union of Edward Said and "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax." Soon to be a major motion picture!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What if it isn't news?

Romenesko points to an interesting tale this morning: "Star-News executive editor Tim Griggs admits his NYT Co.-owned paper 'dropped the ball' when it failed to publish a story last Wednesday about John Kerry's controversial comments." Let's give that a moment's thought, not just as a copydesk tale but as a chance to think about why "news" so often has that robotic feel to it.

Here's the top of the column in question:

In Wednesday's edition of the Star-News, we inadvertently omitted an important story.

But don't blame The New York Times.

He's one for three. New York had nothing to do with the decision. Pretty simple reason: There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and every one of them has something better to do than call up every NYTRNG paper and discuss which lede of which AP tale is going on which page at what length. Conspiracy theorists always give you credit for resources you don't have.

What did Tim miss? (We haven't met, but as an erstwhile news editor of the said fishwrap, I get to call him "Tim" anyway.) One, very little that goes on at a copydesk is inadvertent. It's highly routinized, but that doesn't mean the decisions aren't deliberate. Two, and bigger: Who says the Kerry speech was an important news story?

Yeah, I know how Kerry got played and where in the national media (I was at the S-N for the Miss North Carolina fumble, and I know from incessant phone calls, too). Evidently, a lot of people thought it was a big deal. But what if we started with the presumption that the desk's snap decision was right? That on closer examination, there's even less to the story than met the eye in the first place? It's meaningless and irrelevant, it has no bearing on the Iraq war or Republican foreign policy or the broader campaign; how 'bout we judge it on its merits and spike the damn thing?

That's sort of like opening a bag of Chocolate Snarkies. You can't stop with just one! You can ignore the natterings of renowned historical linguist Howard Kurtz! ("KURTZ: Macaca in some translations can mean a type of monkey.") You can put your feet up and relax when the dialect snobs find Deep Meaning in the president's particular forms of cluster reduction! You can yawn when candidates dig up the naughty bits in other candidates' works of fiction! Think of the fun you can have with independent news judgment!

I appreciate Tim's comments about his copydesk, and anybody who tries to tamp down the embers of conspiracy theory in SENCland has my sympathy. But I'd like the column a lot better if it began: "We deliberately left a meaningless story out of Wednesday's paper. The New York Times didn't tell us to. We did it on our own, and we might just do it with the next meaningless campaign story we see. So there."

There's starting to be a pretty good body of evidence that audiences don't mind a little attitude and judgment along with their raw data. Perhaps we could humbly suggest that there's more to "attitude" than letting your Angry Young Writers say "suck" in news copy. Perhaps "that ain't news on this planet" might pass.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Next stop: Rewrite!

Time for a quick spin through the front pages and their treatment of the big news from Iraq. See if you can see a pattern developing here.

First, a couple of awards. In the How Much Hed Space Can You Occupy and Still Say Nothing category, step forward the Montgomery Advertiser:
Saddam's fate may change nothing

And then again, it may, um ... change something! Would there be a fate we should be discussing here? Just wondering.

Runner-up on the "huh" front, the Modesto Bee:
Saddam's fate a further divide

Now, the coveted You Provide the Pictures Award for tabloid jingoism: the New York Daily News in a walk:

Guys? Remember? No travel bookings on behalf of the Unseen Powers? The copydesk never screws around with the supernatural. The supernatural might screw back.

Runner-up and recipient of the Roger Miller Prize, the Miami Herald:
saddam hussein verdict

Now the lesser awards, falling into a couple categories. One is mistaking intent for outcome, which we see often enough in local stories. Here it's kind of, well, guesswork:

Saddam bound for the gallows
Fresno Bee
Saddam to hang for killings
The Day (CT)
Saddam to hang
Columbus Dispatch

Then there's the usual irrelevant speculation:
Verdict could fuel civil strife in Iraq
Orlando Sentinel

... and timeless observation:
Ex-Iraqi dictator belligerent
Thanks, Denver Post! We've been waiting since, oh, September 1980 for the definitive word on that.

Raleigh sounds as if it's rewriting one of those Bonnie and Clyde poems:
For Saddam, death;
for Iraq, more strife
Sounds so heavy until you, like, read it. Side note, though:

Reactions from around the world:
In the U.S./In the Muslim world

Hmm. N&O having a little trouble figuring out the difference between Arabs and Muslims again? Let's work on that.

OK. Let's say a few nice things. Hats off to The State of Columbia; if you have to second-cycle, it's possible to do it right:
Saddam verdict hailed as milestone for Iraq

And congratulations to those papers that just wrote real grownup heds:
Saddam sentenced to hang
Long Beach Press-Telegram
Hussein sentenced to hang for killings
Indianapolis Star (though you have to work to find it)
Saddam sentenced to death
Austin American Statesman
Hussein sentenced to die by hanging
Lexington Herald-Leader

See? You can write a news hed and not turn to stone! Try it sometime!

[Should the event actually come about, do take to heart Cousin Strayhorn's admonition below about the distinction between 'hanged' and 'hung.']

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More polling delusions

Here's the flip side of newspapers' annoying obsession with insignificant fluctuations in public opinion surveys: the idea that all polls are fibs. It's worth noting because, from the editor's perspective, it underscores the same point. Polls aren't magic, but they're only useful if you know what they do and how they do it.

Today's entry, from a regular Sunday column in one of the two leading dailies:

The hundreds of polls floating around don't help me decide. Like statistics, polls can be spun to make any point the pollster is pushing -- it's all in the way the questions are posed.

In a word, no. It's not "all in the way the questions are posed." That's not to say it can't be. If you ask a question like "Did you know that my opponent enjoys congress with domestic pets and barnyard animals?" of a proper random sample and 90 percent say "no," you can report that "90 percent of Missourians don't know that my opponent enjoys congress with domestic pets and barnyard animals!" And you can even report a margin of sampling error!*

The way to make sure it's not "all in the questions" is to be sure the deck isn't stacked. Don't load presuppositions into yes-and-no questions. Make sure scale values are balanced. Make sure semantic differentials are different ("competent" to "incompetent," not "brilliant" to "competent"). Stick to questions that can't be spun: Did you vote in the last election? Are you registered to vote? Do you plan to vote in this election? Who do you plan to vote for: A, B, other, undecided?

When we say "polling isn't magic," that's exactly what we mean. Not "polling is bad magic," but "polling is mechanics." Maybe if we show people more of what goes on behind the curtain, they -- and we -- will be less obsessed with the damn things. (And no, by the way, polls aren't supposed to "help me decide.")

* For our J4950 customers: Name a formula that you think might make a return appearance on the next exam. What statistic represented there by "1.96" needs to be in every poll story,** without exception?***
** This doesn't include things like the 1A Thursday centerpiece. Fake polls don't have statistics.
*** Bonus: Would the margin of sampling error for our hypothetical question be larger or smaller if 50% had said "no"? Explain.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Periodic diversity rant: Soccer winos

Let's talk about something other than polling for a bit. Let's talk about diversity. And let's start by suggesting that diversity isn't measured by how many seminars you force your staff to attend, or how many mug shots of women you run in your A section, or how many faux-etymological memos you send out about the meanings of "refugee" and "evacuee." Diversity is a function of what you talk about, whom you talk to about it, and what you say. And featurizing is often an unfortunately direct indication of those things:

Big chill tonight and Saturday
Season's coldest temperatures so far are looming
Be sure to pack the extra blankets and gloves if you're headed to a Friday night high school football game or Saturday morning youth soccer match.

It will be very chilly.

Possibly the coldest temperatures so far this season are looming overnight, as a cold high pressure system builds over the region.

Not much interest among the spires uptown in ... oh, people whose houses aren't very well insulated, one supposes. Or who can't turn the heat up because most of the check is already gone.

It will be very cold Saturday morning for parents and children involved in youth soccer leagues, and sunshine will only slowly warm temperatures during the day.

But nice and warm for winos! And people who go outside and work for a living on weekends! When you address your audience in the second person, you're telling me a lot about the sort of readers you want. Usually, you're telling me even more about the sort you don't.

(File "Big chill" with "It's official," while we're at it, and issue another reminder about the number of times you can say "very" in one weather short.)

Before we leave, enjoy this early breakaway candidate for Sentence of the Month (underlined below, as it needs a bit of a setup):

Could there be anything cooler than young people devoting their time to a righteous cause, or a fallen friend?


Check out what Name Withheld helped pull off Saturday afternoon at the Parents Day football game at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. ... Rather than protesting the war in Iraq or the cafeteria food on campus, several hundred fans left the stands and walked around the track to honor cancer survivors.

That's right, girls! Don't worry your pretty little heads about those pesky international relations! Dean Wormer will look into that as soon as the Omegas take care of the Deltas.

Pretty much anybody can liken a war to cafeteria food, after all. But to belittle a gesture of genuine decency in the process -- dude, that's writing!

Leading with the earthquake

Any of the rest of y'all notice this phenomenon when the Paper O'Record writes about your home states? Or does it reserve its cluelessness for the Vale of Humility 'Tween Two Mountains of Conceit? From Sunday's NYT Magazine:

Snow graduated from Davidson College in Charlotte, N.C., with a degree in philosophy in 1977.

To which the proper copydesk reply is: Are we leading with the earthquake? Davidson College is in "Davidson." It's no more "in Charlotte" than Sing Sing is in Manhattan. And you can look it up! Many editors do just that sort of thing, using tools like "almanacs" and "maps." (Some of HEADSUP-L's younger colleagues speak of a thing called the "Internet"; perhaps you have one of those in New York?)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Misjudgment on the wires

One of the big challenges in putting together a coherent nation/world report from a bunch of supplemental wire services is the running situationer. Given actual spot news (your tornadoes, your explosions, your nonconfessions by the JonBenet nonsuspect), the agencies tend to dogpile pretty reliably. A story that develops a bit every day while its outcome remains unknown (whether the Senate will change hands, whether Iraq has crossed some arbitrary threshold of out-and-out civil war) requires more careful tending.

The easiest error to make is assuming that Iraq or Senate situationers are episodic -- that the appearance on consecutive days of stories saying Iraq is closer to civil war means Iraq is three equal-increment steps closer to civil war. It doesn't. More likely, it means each of your three agencies (NYT, Times-Post and K-R/McClatchy, say) has taken a swing at the same evidence and the same sources and told its version of the same story. It's often a good and important story, but if you signal that it's a measurably new development from yesterday, you're missing the point and misleading the readers.

That's the problem with the lead story shown above, "Critical Senate battles tighten," which the Post pulled off the LATimes/WashPost wire. The Times story itself is kind of careless. Both the lede and the Times' own hed, "Campaign fireworks fly as polls put Senate in play," imply that spot news (two developments at campaign events) and ongoing news (polling in Senate races) have the same time value. The Palm Beach desk introduced an error of its own by declaring that there's a significant tightening, which isn't supported in the text,* but the bigger problem is assuming that there was a story in the first place.

One more time, at the risk of turning this into Night of the Living Dead Horse: "A flurry of surveys showed the battle for a Senate majority heading for a photo finish that could focus on Missouri" ain't news. It could have been written at any time in the past six weeks; heck, most newspapers have already run it in two or three different disguises. The polls themselves are worth a note, but it's a note on the order of "Nationwide, polling indicated that a number of races considered key to control of the Senate remain close, with no clear leaders emerging." That's interesting and, if you keep up with this stuff, important. But on no planet with fewer than nine suns is it a 1A lead.

*Or anywhere else I can find. Even if the story doesn't get any more specific than calling the polls "new" and "recent,"** you can probably find the real data yourself.
** The technical journalistic term for sloppy reporting by the top national politics writers at the LA Times is "sloppy reporting." Any questions?

Stop picking on the poor numbers

One more backhand at the bogus Dangerous Cities tale, then it's off to look for some live horses to beat.

Danger city USA
Get Charlotte out of the top 10 crime cities in the nation
If your house has been burglarized or your neighbor robbed at gunpoint, you don't need statistics to know there's a crime problem here. That unfortunate reality is why most won't be surprised that our city ranks among the 10 most dangerous big cities in America.

Sigh. No, Virginia, that's exactly why you do need statistics. They're what keep you from making dumb generalizations from the proverbial N=1. Should we infer from this that if your neighbors haven't been robbed at gunpoint, there's no crime problem?

Statistics are what help you sample properly, decide what you're going to measure and compare, and draw actual, credible inferences about what a crime problem might look like and where you do or don't have one. Whether you need hoked-up stats from a publicity-hungry "research" company, that's another question.

Pay attention, Mr. Mayor and members of the City Council. This is an important benchmark.

It is not an important benchmark. It's a made-up benchmark. Feel free to ignore it. The most sensible comment you've run about it was the police chief's "pretty meaningless." He was being generous.

Moral: Statistics are your friends. Treat 'em right, and you won't be the mercy of yahoos every time you turn around.