Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Bomb kills five Turks in U.S. air base city
A bomb exploded Monday at a Turkish-American friendship association in a southern city that hosts a U.S. air base, wounding five Turkish citizens, authorities said.

Abandoned baby wanted by hundreds
The Odilion Behrens Municipal Hospital had received more than 100 offers to adopt the infant, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Please, read the story before you write the hed. Questions?

Monday, January 30, 2006

How to lie with statistics, ch. LXXVII

As tallies of this particularly vexing measure pour in from around the land, it's time for another contest. In as few words as possible: What's wrong with this hed? (And, to an extent, with the column, but let's start with the hed.) Usual suspects encouraged to answer. Unusual suspects encouraged to answer. But as you heap vitriol on the hed writer, take a moment to ask your alleged* conscience whether it has any similar sins to confess.

Accuracy improving, but we can do better
A typical Sunday edition of The Indianapolis Star contains close to 480 information elements prepared by our newsroom. These include stories, "breakout" information segments, lists, opinion page commentaries and other items.

In handling that amount of information, errors inevitably occur.

Last year, under our daily "CORRECTIONS & CLARIFICATIONS" heading on Page A2 of the newspaper, we ran corrections for 508 errors.

I take some comfort from knowing that figure is down 15 percent from the 600 errors we corrected in 2004. But the fact that we seem to be improving is little comfort, I'm sure, to the people affected when we sent them to an event at the wrong time, or when we misspelled their name, or when we ran somebody else's photograph above their name.

* OK, if you must: Your arrested-on-suspicion-of conscience. Are you happy now?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

More elephant nightwear

Support builds for National Stand-Down for Diagramming Day:

The nursing home where an Alzheimer's patient was missing for four days and who died after she was found in a storage room had more health violations than any of the 21 other such centers in Mecklenburg County, a federal report shows.

This sentence isn't ambiguous; it's out-and-out wrong. The nursing home died after she was found in a storage room? (Missourian hands, take heart. This one comes from the top of the front page of a major regional daily whose reporters and editors are paid real money.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

I shot an elephant in my pajamas last night

Is there a groundswell of support brewing out there for an intensive workshop in sentence diagramming?

A man being pursued by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and a deputy from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department were injured in a high- speed car chase Friday afternoon on Highway 63.

Right. And while you're waiting to figure out what the sentence means, you could look up the house style for U.S. 63.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

And what do YOU call it?

Many Palestinians in Charlotte sat glued to their televisions and computers Wednesday for news on the historic Palestinian election.

Feelings were mixed on the expected impact: Some called the Palestinians' first truly competitive vote a monumental sign of future democracy. Others considered it a meritless maneuver when some areas are still under what some call Israeli occupation.

Hmm. And exactly what might the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas call it?

If you're going to turn cityside loose on an international story, you should make sure it can pass a simple qualifying test first. And if you're going to smoke reefer before writing stories, you shouldn't buy it from Bill Safire.

Return of the stupid question

Lethal dosage still too painful?
Top court grants last-minute stay to examine options
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Wednesday it will hear arguments from a death-row inmate whose execution the court stayed Tuesday after he was already strapped to the gurney.

I suppose it's theoretically possible to find a more clue-deprived approach (no, just painful enough!) to this hed, but I'm not going to venture one. Part of the problem is that "lethal dosage" isn't the same thing as "lethal injection."* The 4th New World notes that the latter is particularly used for the death penalty; a "lethal dosage" could be of a prescribed medication, a recreational drug, brainless Super Bowl prose ... almost anything.

Junk or RFK mementos?

* Burn the thesaurus!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What's wrong with this picture?

Columbia is experiencing an increased number of homeless people, and with few options for shelter, many will find themselves left out in the cold.
... Though there are no accurate figures as to the number of people who are forced to sleep outside, the shelters say they regularly have to turn people away.

Thoughts or comments? I admit to being a bit puzzled by this graf too:

There are only three shelters in the city serving the homeless and, at any given time, they are all full.

As I read it, this means all three shelters are always full. If that's what we meant, shouldn't we have said it?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cluefulness quiz

There are two flavors of "style" error in this example: one small and irritating, one large and out-and-out harmful. Identify them and explain why one is worse than the other:

The man, who uses the alias of both Mike and Mark Post, looks to be in his 40s. He is 5’8” or 5’9” and heavyset, between 200 and 225 pounds and drives a dark blue Ford Expedition.

(Answer to follow in the subscribers-only edn, but everyone's welcome to play in the meantime)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Stamp out cutline literalism

The rosy-fingered dawn of a new semester seems the ideal time to launch a crusade against AP-style literalism in cutlines. The space under photos is some of the most valuable real estate you'll get to work with, and you need to invest in it wisely.

The AP's job is to tell you what you're looking at and -- with an eye on the archives -- when. Thus it tends to take a painfully literal approach to cutline writing. If two people are walking through the snow in Yerevan, for example, it might* write:

Local residents walk in snow in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Or if two people are walking down a snowy street in Yerevan, it might** write:

Local residents walk in snow in a street in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Thus, a number of the more common cutline verbs are on the forbidden list. Chief among them is "celebrate," as in

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck celebrates a touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens in the first quarter of the Seahawks' 34-14 victory on Sunday at Qwest Field in Seattle. (1B Monday, and packed with two or three too many prepositional phrases for comfortable reading).

But there are others,*** notably "gestures":
French President Jacques Chirac gestures as he speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meeting in Versailles, west of Paris, Monday Jan. 23, 2006.

Brazil's Minister for Culture Gilberto Gil gestures as he addresses the media at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Monday Jan. 23, 2006.

Germany's Tommy Haas gestures to the chair umpire as he reacts to a line call during his fourth round match against Switzerland's Roger Federer at the Australian Open Tennis Tournament in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan 23, 2006. (Tennis fans will note that the same cutline appears with two different photos of two different gestures.)

Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, head of the United States Forces in Japan, gestures during a speech at a professional luncheon at Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.

Our job, on the other hand, is not to tell people what they're looking at. That's what their eyes are for. Our job is to take the cutline data and any accompanying stories (if you're writing a cutline for a standalone, ask for the latest versions of any stories that go with it) and tell people why they're looking at the photo in question. We do that best by:
1) Placing the visible actions into context.
2) Complementing the other big type (hed, decks, pullouts and the like).

Here's a nicely done example from 1B Tuesday. I can see a guy in blue who's probably at the free-throw line, and I can see some fans waving orange stuff, but I can't see the context:

Christian Moody faced a frenzied student section while he missed two free throws with 0.4 seconds left in a tied game.

And an overly literal one from today's Second Front:

Elizabeth Bayless, left, and Heather Lundholm, right, enjoy the unseasonably warm weather as they lean against one of the MU Columns on Thursday.

See the problem? The photo shows two people leaning on a column, so don't waste time and space telling me that two people are leaning on a column. Leave out the beginning of the "as they" clause and you're left with context and explanation: ... enjoy the unseasonably warm weather Thursday at the MU Columns. (And yes, once you've identified one of a pair as "left," you don't need to say the other is "right.")

Got it? So don't tell me someone who's smiling "smiles" (1A Wednesday), or that people running in the streets "run in the streets" (3A Thursday). Stick with stuff I can't see.

If you've been keeping up with the discussion over at Bill Walsh's Blogslot, by the way, this approach is the sure cure for cutlines that say "Firefighters battle a blaze ..."

* Might, hell. That's exactly what it did.
** Ibid.
*** And you can look it up.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The streak continues

Q: Do readers notice when you do the same thing over and over and over again?
A: Yes:

One of the faith community's biggest charitable efforts is poised to kick off again -- and Carolinas backers hope the NFL's Panthers will be there to help celebrate.

Two of Charlotte's best-known pastors -- the Rev. Claude Alexander Jr. of The Park Ministries and the Rev. Joe Brown of Hickory Grove Baptist -- will speak at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St. uptown.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Do the math

Not to worry. There's less here than meets the eye. "Do the math" really means "do the arithmetic," which in most cases is no scarier than "do some addition and subtraction and compare the results to known and alleged facts."

Everyone should be well drilled by now on the need to subtract birth date from death date in obits to make sure the decedent's age is reported correctly (yes, incoming J4400 students should consider this a massive hint). Don't stop there, though. Doublecheck any two numbers that purport to yield a third number. Don't assume the reporter did, and don't assume the reporter gave the results a reality check. That's how we manage to have 4-year-olds fighting in the Korean War.

There should be a point under all that sermon, and there is. Today's contest: What doesn't add up in this obit?

Mr. Stone was the oldest of six children, born on Dec. 26, 1913, to John P. and Ethel Stone.
... Mr. Stone worked for the naval shipyards during World War II. After the war, he moved to Mexico, Mo., and opened a restaurant. Two years later, he sold the business and began working as a salesman at Columbia Auto Parts — a job he held for 45 years before retiring at 72.

It may seem a little early to begin thinking about farm fresh produce, but Guy Clark is ready to sell you the promise of a juicy tomato (1A Friday).

It may seem odd to open this type of school in a town much safer than most the big cities (1A Friday).

When you think about hurricane relief, an army of civic-minded law students probably isn’t what comes to mind (11A Wednesday).

It was every dog owner’s nightmare (5A Thursday).

NON SEQUITUR WATCH: "If paying almost $700 for your family’s vegetables seems steep, consider this: A national survey of such programs across the U.S. in 1999 found the median gross income of 316 programs in 41 states was $15,000" (1A Friday). Is there any connection between these clauses, or am I just missing it?

IN THE SUBSCRIBERS-ONLY EDITION: Kudos, housecleaning, preseason tune-ups AND MUCH MORE!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Another wave of the Magic Cop-Shop Wand

Shooting suspect turns himself into police

No comment. But go forth and don't likewise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Grammar gripes

Familiar sermon time again: Copyeds don't generally decide what writers are going to say. We help them make sure they're saying it effectively. Sometimes that means walking them through some grammar points -- not whacking them upside the head for inverting subjects and verbs or putting adverbs after auxiliaries, but pointing out what the blocks of meaning in their stories are trying to do to each other. A few examples from today, starting at the top:

Dandridge stepping up
Sophomore’s role could be expanding with the Missouri baskeball team.

Prepositional phrases can modify lots of things, and the one in the deck -- "with the Missouri basketball team" -- is going to look for the closest reasonable target. That's the verb phrase "could be expanding." The result is perfectly good "grammar." The house dictionary gives a bunch of meanings for "with": in the company of, alongside, in the same degree as ("I was learning with my classmates"). Trouble is, they aren't what we want here. We want it to modify the noun "role" and to take the meaning "as a member of," and the right way to do that is to put it directly after the noun:

Sophomore’s role with the Missouri baskeball team could be expanding.

See? The split-infinitive thing is a myth, but there are rules that really do make a difference. On to the story:

Walk into the Missouri Tigers basketball locker room after a game and many trends are noticeable.

Using the second person in the lede, again, isn't our call. Our job is to point out the shift from second-person active ("walk") to third-person linking ("are") and to suggest that once you've decided to use the second person, you should stick to it. The next point is order of cumulative adjectives. The lede isn't describing the Tigers' basketball locker room but the basketball Tigers' locker room. Quick solution: Let the adjectives modify "game":

Walk into the locker room after a Missouri basketball game and you'll notice many trends.

That gets around the Random Sports Apostrophe problem (quick, punctuation fans: Was the possessive correct above?), but it underlines the flabbiness of "many trends." But the writer can work on the fine-tuning; the grammar issues are fixed.

“It was a time to reflect and just think (about what he needs to do to play),” Dandridge said.

First point: This quote is as much the writer's as the source's. Never use an eight-word parenthetical insert to clarify a quote (there isn't a hard and fast rule, but a good cutoff would be three). And that puts the spotlight on the grammar problem: Dandridge appears to be talking about himself, but that's not what third-person pronouns in direct quotes do. We've created a parallelism fault. Borrow some tissue from the preceding graf and turn on the surgery lamp:

Dandridge, who didn't play in four of the Tigers' first seven games, said the postgame time in the lounge is a chance "to reflect and just think" about what he needs to do to play more.

All the ideas are there and we've kept him from referring to himself in the third person. We've had to trim the quote a bit, but better a partial quote that's all his than a full quote that's half yours.

Desk Q&A
Q: Is the sports department still using that random apostrophe generator it got for Christmas?
A: You make the call!
At some point, Kevin Young’s corner of the locker room becomes livelier as reporters’ laugh at another candid response from the Tigers senior center.

Q: Well, how about the New York Times? Is it generating random story links on its diabetes series?
A: See No. 5
Bad Blood: Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis
An estimated 800,000 adult New Yorkers now have diabetes, and city health officials describe the problem as an epidemic.
1. Bad Blood: Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis
2. Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny
3. More Companies Ending Promises for Retirement
4. Bad Blood: Living at an Epicenter of Diabetes, Defiance and Despair
5. Recipe: Crusty Macaroni and Cheese

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Weekend notes

It would have been nice if someone had paid a bit more attention to this curious bit of writing from Sunday's 4A:

But, in Missouri, anyone who helps a woman give birth at home could face criminal charges.

"Anyone" is a pretty sweeping condition, and from the next few sentences, it doesn't sound like a very accurate one:

Only state-certified nurse-midwives, governed by the state Board of Nursing, may legally attend to home births in Missouri. Nurse-midwives must graduate from a nurse-midwifery program accredited by the American College of Nurse Midwives and pass a national certification exam.

They also must have an agreement with a physician located within 30 miles of the birth in case something goes wrong.

So which is it? Can "anyone" who helps a woman give birth at home face charges, or is it perfectly legal as long you jump the nurse-midwife hoops? (Or, as the story strongly implies, if you're an MD?)

Sunday's 1A manages to use two Forbidden Cutline Verbs:
MU's Glen Dandridge, left, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence celebrate the Tigers' 69-61 win over Oklahoma State.

Amadeus Zhu, 12, reacts after a correct answer during the Geographic Bee's first round Friday.

Notwithstanding the Verbs of Satan, two questions:
1) Did we mean "from left," rather than just "left"? Or do all Missourian readers know Lyons from Lawrence?
2) Did Mr. Zhu give the correct answer we describe, or is he reacting to someone else's?

Please, please, please: Write cutlines. Don't just type the damn things.

[Good thing that war in Iraq is over, though. How long has it been since the Missourian carried anything on that?]

Anyway, on a lighter note, this sports hed seemed a nice break from the ordinary:

Minnows Burton hold Man Utd

Aside from the delightful result (Heels do State, Spurs fall to Leicester, and now this) -- how often do you get to call somebody "minnows" in a hed?

(4400 quiz: Do "minnows," "Burton" and "hold" agree?)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Olmert Report

Another interesting case of hyperforeignizing* showed up on NPR this morning, and given NPR's self-assigned role as Arbiter of All That's Correct and Good in American English, it's worth a tiny bit of discussion.

A bunch of times in the lede story on Ariel Sharon's health and the resultant political back-and-forth in Israel, Scott Simon referred to acting PM Ehud Olmert as "ohl-MEHR" (official AP pronouncer system, best I can render it), more or less the same as in the "The Colbert Report." That'd be fine if the parliament at issue had been the French one,** but it isn't. It's the Israeli one, and Olmert is a native. What does he sound like at home?

Until the new travel budget comes through, we're sort of stuck with the Miracle of the Internet, but as it turns out, you can find the home folks discussing the same issue in several languages. The English announcer has him something like "OHL-mehrt" or "OHL-murt"; the 6 p.m. Hebrew bulletin has him "ohl-mehrt," but it's harder to tell where the stress is supposed to go. The final "t," though, is clearly there, even if it does seem to fall out a time or two in rapid speech during the call-in part of the Channel B program. One is inclined to conclude that Simon was reaching for the nearest codebook he had for "foreign names ending in -ert," and the one that came to hand was French. Or Truthois.

I suppose it's no real big deal in the long run -- certainly not compared with the utterly vacuous "news" "analysis" that Dan Schorr foisted on viewers a few minutes later. But it'll be worth watching how Mr. Olmert's name is rendered in the coming weeks. I'm still convinced that how news reports render people's language is an important window into how news reports render people.***

* Hyperforeignization is the tendency to make sure that a foreign-looking word sounds foreign, even if the result is farther from an "accurate" pronunciation than you'd get by just sounding the thing out in your own language. Usually, it borrows rules from an unrelated language that makes recognizably "foreign" noises -- hence, the tendency for "bin Laden" to sound more Spanish than Arabic on American TV. A similar process can happen in print; words that are more accurately rendered with a "k" can end up with "kh" or "q" just because it looks more foreign that way.
** I don't have the documentation around, but I seem to recall that the first hyperforeignization study was about making Hebrew names sound French.
*** Or, why is it that Harlequin sheikh-meets-blonde novels are at great pains to look really cool by distinguishing Arabic pharyngeal consonants but can't be bothered to inflect the nouns they occur in for gender?****
**** This is a research topic. Honest.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

You talkin' to me?

Head into Walgreens to pick up routine sundries these days, and your shopping list could read like this: deodorant, cough drops, vibrator.

No, somehow I really don't think it could.

(to Mike, thanks for the tip, and to one of the biggest dailies on this stretch of I-70, what were you thinking?)

Good, bad, ugly, &c

The good: Sports cutline spells EeTisha Riddle's given name correctly (1B Thursday).
The bad: Would the "Lotoya Bond" in the antepenultimate graf be the LaToya Bond mentioned at the MU athletics Web site and in countless Missourian and Trib tales during her four years on the basketball team?
The ugly: "... celebrates Missouri’s victory over Baylor." Three consecutive days and counting for "celebrate" cutlines. When will it end, O Lord?

The silly: Three examples from the 1A Thursday centerpiece:
Harris explained that some of the important issues span from securing the state in terms of natural disasters to denying bonds for sex offenders on appeal to prohibiting the sale of violent or explicit video games to minors.
He explained that Democrats think Missouri companies should have preference in state and government contracts.
Representative Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, explained eminent domain would be one of his most important issues.
Copyeds, change these to "said." At once. Use "explain" only for direct objects ("She explained the principles of nuclear fusion"). Use "said" for routine attribution. What isn't clear about that?

The painted into a grammatical corner (1A Wednesday):
Life from the roadside
It’s dirty, stinky, rude, incredibly cold, fulfilling, traditional and sometimes just heart-rending to adopt a highway

Read the deck as a separate sentence for some of the predicate adjectives and you'll see the parallelism problem:

It’s fulfilling to adopt a highway
It’s sometimes just heart-rending to adopt a highway
It’s rude to adopt a highway

It's easy to see how it could be fulfilling or heart-rending to adopt a highway. But how is it "rude"? I expect the writer meant something on the order of "it's a rude experience," meaning people might be rude to you without much if any provocation, but that's not what "it's rude to ..." means in English. Compare the hed to

It's rude to make fun of people's headlines

... and it's clearer. Remember, readers can't know what the writer meant. They only know what the writer said.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The mine disaster: Attribution's your friend

There's an instructive turning point in the AP's coverage of the West Virginia mine disaster. It reminds us, or ought to remind us, of a few phrases that ought to be translated into Latin and etched in stone above the copy desk, so we can point to them when needed:

1) If attribution is part of the story, it's part of the hed.
2) Speculation isn't confirmation.
3) Repetition isn't confirmation.

You can trace the event in more detail elsewhere, so let's concentrate here on matters of importance to desk hands and other nightwalkers (and yes, this is your invitation to join in the discussion and/or recount what went on at your paper).

Here's the AP at 10:16p:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- Rescue crews found one body late Tuesday in a West Virginia mine where 13 miners were trapped after an explosion, but they held out hope that the others were still alive, even as precious time continued to slip away.

And the 26th lede, at 10:56p:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. --Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said.

This graf is one of four added in the 27th lede, at 11:01:
Neither the company nor the governor's office immediately confirmed the news.

... and this in the 28th lede, which moved four minutes later with a change in byline:
A relative at the church said a mine foreman called relatives there, saying the miners had been found.

At 11:15p the story's written through, with the no-confirmation warning and the attribution still in place. At 11:25p comes the 30th lede and the big change:
TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- In an extraordinary twist of fate, 12 miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive late Tuesday, more than 41 hours after the blast.

Here's the ednote from the top of the story and the new fourth graf supporting it:
Eds: UPDATES with governor confirming miners are alive, other details.
"They told us they have 12 alive," Gov. Joe Manchin said. "We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."

If your mind is flashing back to September, it should be:
A major American city all but disintegrated yesterday, and the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands.

...Nagin confirmed what many knew in their hearts, but could not bring themselves to say.

"Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands," he said when asked how many perished just in New Orleans in this week's natural assault on what had been one of the nation's largest, most popular, most carefree of cities.

It's pretty clear (and was pretty clear then) that what the mayor is doing is "speculating" -- not "confirming." There's nothing wrong with that (we don't have much room to complain, since we seem to have asked him to speculate), but we need to not get the two domains mixed up.

In the AP's case, somebody should have asked a nice, simple grammar question: "What's the antecedent of 'they'?" And until the governor clarified whether "they" was the people in touch with the rescue crews or the folks at the church who got the bad phone call, the attribution, and the caution, needed to stay. Bad information doesn't get better by repetition. But by now, the prose train has left the station:

Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, sending family members streaming from the church where they had gathered during the nearly two-day ordeal.

... and heds like "Miner Miracle"* are the predictably ugly result.

Some cooler heads are making good points out of this. Scott Libin at Poynter encourages "maintaining newsrooms that encourage contrarians." Which all newsrooms do, until there's a story too good to listen to the contrarians on. Tommy this and Tommy that.

The nearby contention that overstating heds is really a pretty good idea seems silly and contradictory: "The phrase I've always used is 'If we're going to be hung, let's be hung for sheep, not lambs.' I mean, you might as well state the full text of what you've got and if you've got it wrong, you correct it the next day."

Last point first: The "full text of what you've got here" is, or ought to be, "Some people say somebody at the mine, whom they couldn't identify, told them all the miners were safe." Meaning that if you stick to what you know, there's no need to be hung (I think he meant "hanged," but we all slip up in speech) for anything (and you have to wonder if he meant wolf and sheep, rather than sheep and lamb, as his metaphors). Grrrr. I mean baaaaaa.

There's a favorite sermon in all this: Rules (or policies, or SOPs, or whatever you want to call them) are for big stories as well as little ones. An alleged "miracle" is the time to insist on attribution, not to throw it away like so many crutches at Lourdes. If you're going to boast about your contrarians, encourage them when they really are the only voice for caution.

Anybody got a tale from the front to share?

* Oh, for pity's sake.

Don't say we didn't warn you

Q: Is there a hed that causes even more dismay among the heavenly host than "'Tis the season" or "Bowled over"?
A: Yes, and thanks for bringing that up. It is this:

Let the Games begin

Look on it well. It is the Balrog-meets-Cthulhu-meets-Trogdor of forbidden heds, and if you see it over the next few weeks, tarry not but slay it.

Q: Well, suppose the whole journalism world stopped using "Let the games begin" for XIII or IX Olympic cycles or so. Would it be OK then?
A: That's sort of like knocking on the CDC's door and asking Mrs. Smallpox if her kid can come out and play yet. There is no safe waiting period. The great hed cliches are always hazardous to your clip file.

On the Banned Wagon

A few more forbidden usages from recent edns. Take heed, ye sinners:

Bowled over (1B Tuesday).
"Bowled over" is the "'Tis the season" of sports heds. Never write it. Never allow it to appear in print.

Penn State's Alam Zemaitis (21) celebraated his first quarter interception in Tuesday's Orange Bowl win. (1B Wednesday).
At least we got him on the right team. But otherwise: Would this be the Alan Zemaitis listed on the Penn State Web site? Since he's the only person in the picture, is there any reason to remind us that he's wearing No. 21? Since the cutline refers to the action in the frame, is there some reason it's in the past tense? Is the clever spelling meaant to taake our minds off the forbidden verb "celebrate"? (Yes, and hyphenaate preposed number compounds: "first-quarter interception.")

If you're still wondering why "celebrate" (along with "react") is on the forbidden list:

OSU's Santonio Holmes, front, celebrates his 85-yard touchdown catch with Ted Ginn. (4B Tuesday)
Memphis' Antonio Anderson, left, and Darius Washington celebrate their victory over Gonzaga on Tuesday. (3B Dec. 28)

Afghan said to need more aid in drug war (3A Tuesday)
Never use the adjectival form of a country as a noun. Don't call Afghanistan "Afghan"; don't call Saudi Arabia "Saudi" (hidden among a welter of errors on 15A in the Dec. 18 issue). In a pinch, you can use the plural of the personal form ("Afghans" or "Saudis"), but adjectives aren't nouns.

N. Korea won't negotiate unless United States lifts sanctions (1A Tuesday)
We don't know what North Korea will or won't do. All we know is what North Korea says. All sorts of countries -- not just members of the various Axes of Evil -- sometimes negotiate with their fingers crossed. Stick to what you know.

Q: So, how's that sports department punctuation coming along?
A: You make the call!
Throughout the year Snyder has been outspoken about Lyons lack of effort in practice. (1B Tuesday)
"Its good to see him respond the way he did.” (1B Tuesday)
Shooting guards Glen Dandridge, Matt Lawrence, and Thomas Gardner joined point guard Jason Horton and center Kalen Grimes. (1B Tuesday)
Marilyn Roche worked with the Kasmann’s neighbor, and after hearing tales of one another, the two deduced whom each other was. (3B Tuesday; them did?)

Q: Well, how about that parallel structure?
A: Glad you asked:
Lyons played like a player who was responding to a challenge, hustling on both ends of the floor getting a couple steals and a block on defense and was the Tigers’ second leading rebounder with seven. (1B Tuesday)
Kewpies head coach Jim Sutherland said the game was ragged, had a lot of turnovers and that the Kewpies were lucky to win it. (1B Wednesday)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Brief usage plea

Re: "Build site will be inspected" (Monday 8A).

It could be another case of you-see-what-you-look-for, but I'm seeing far too many verbs used as nouns these days for my taste. Witness this from the Flat Branch on its temporary shutdown: "We are doing a small remodel for the pub after New Year’s Day."

The HEADSUP-L Accounting Division might be doing a breathe of relief, but the rest of us are doing a pound of the head into the wall. Please, let's put a sock on this one before the younguns start to think it's a good idea. That's a "building site" (and it'd fit just fine as "Building site to be inspected"). Verbs don't need a lot of work to become nouns -- "shut down" to "shutdown," for example -- but what they need, they need.

Q: So, how's the punctuation on the sports pages coming along?
A: You make the call!
... leaving a sour taste in the mouth's of many fans. (7B Sunday)
"Whether it was offense, defense or special teams, it didn't matter we just needed to stop them". (6B Sunday)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

This just in: Heathen still rage

OK, copyeds, time to look ahead to the tournament and start polishing up those story-dissecting skills. Today's patient: The Religion Newswriters Association's list of the top religion stories of 2005.

It's fun to sit around and complain about how bad religion coverage is, but at some point we (that being journalism as a whole, but desk hands are included) really ought to do something about it. As things stand, we seem to be taking more away from the sum of human knowledge than we're adding to it. Hence a few general observations from the tale that can lead us to offer specific criticisms or, in the ideal world, to demand specific improvements:

1) Religion writers have trouble figuring out what a news story is.
2) Religion writers have trouble figuring out what a religion story is.
3) It doesn't matter how many times you say "faith-based groups" or talk about "faith and values" coverage; the faith page is still basically the church page.

Excerpts from the list, with annotations, as it appeared in one paper under the flag of the Religion News Service (you pays your money and you takes your choice, but agencies that provide ledes like "Millennia have passed since biblical times" aren't at much risk of overtaxing the brain):

1. The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II.
2. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is elected to succeed him. He's now Pope Benedict XVI.
Erm, point one: "The world" is not coterminous with "the Roman Catholic Church." One of the basics of the craft is being able to convey the magnitude of a story without overextending it -- in this case, turning a major story into a universal. Point two (and we'll spend some time with this later), is this two stories or one story? Point three, even if you're reporting the most super-important story in the history of the free world, pay attention to your pronoun antecedence. When "he" directly follows "him," it really ought to refer to the same person.

4. Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Katrina and other hurricanes. Earlier, they responded to the tsunami in Asia, and, later, to the earthquake in Pakistan. The hurricanes also spur discussions about the role of God and environmental shortcomings in such disasters.
This gets us into the question of what is and what isn't a religion story. The philosophy here appears to be that you can make any event a "religion story" by putting "churches respond to..." in front of it, and that really means our distinction is no distinction at all (No. 5: Johnny Damon joins the Yankees as God continues to turn His face away from America). A collection of top religion stories needs to concentrate on stories unique to its domain or the ones on which it can shed a unique light.

What the "environmental shortcomings" have to do with religion is a mystery. If there had been any "discussions about the role of God" (I'm feeling kind of narrow-minded and OED-y today: "argument or debate with a view to elicit truth or establish a point"), as opposed to foamy-mouthed ranting, I suppose that might have been news, but I don't recall any. And the occasional revelation that people believe the same stuff they've always believed doesn't make a disaster story a religion story.

5. Debate over homosexuality continues to divide mainline denominations.
6. Debate on evolution vs. intelligent design intensifies.
16. Debate on stem-cell research continues in Congress and two-thirds of the state legislatures.
I'd be happier with these if the sidebar contained a scorecard on how to tell whether a debate is intensifying or merely continuing. I expect the writers don't really know, and that suggests that we could swap the verbs in these with no change in meaning, and that's a portent of a bad story as certain as frogs-n-locusts in the Power Doppler 8 forecast.

11. Withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza strip is hailed by varied faith-based groups as a major step to peace in the Middle East.
First, let's straighten out what we mean by "faith-based groups": Salvation Army? Luther League? Knights of Columbus? Then let's figure out why this is even a story (put it in the active -- various faith-based groups hail, etc. -- for a better idea of how weak it is).

The Gaza pullout was a big deal, no question. Whether it's a "major step to peace in the Middle East" is different, and distinctly more debatable, and generally the province of someone other than "varied faith-based groups." To return to the general points above, what we have here is either a big story that isn't a religion story or a religion story that's no story at all. Be wary of assuming, or letting your religion writer assume, that every story from the Middle East, let alone every Israeli-Palestinian story, is a religion story. That's not the case, and newspapers that suggest otherwise are misleading their readers and severely hindering their own ability to present the issue sensibly.

12. Some church leaders join in the call for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Report of Quaran-trashing by U.S. troops, later found inaccurate, spurs riots in Afghanistan. Hate crimes rise in Britain after terrorist bombings in London.
The flip side of problem 1 above. This isn't one story, it's three entirely unrelated ones. If you can't tell the difference, why should I trust your judgment on any other story? (Thanks for the interesting new transliteration of Quran, by the way -- had the copydesk been lulled into a false sense of security by this point?)

13. Canada approves same-sex marriages, an issue that flares across the United States.
The British move isn't a big deal, though? Even with Elton John? Should this be lumped in with the "debate over homosexuality," above, or would that mean it was intensifying rather than continuing?

14. California pastor Rick Warren takes spotlight with the continued appeal of his "The Purpose Driven Life," his attempts to combat AIDS in Africa, and the use of his book by Ashley Smith to help her escape from an accused killer in Atlanta.
Did I just spend too long in PTL-land? Or is this a gross overestimate of the importance of one more pulpit star?

Sounds like a lot of complaints with no concrete suggestions? Fine. Here's one. The Hamas movement (which, last we looked, was overtly religious) is likely to do pretty well in the upcoming Palestinian elections; how's the thinking on what a share in power might do to its ideology and practice? How about a folo on that piece in Terrorism and Political Violence a few months back on whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become Islamicized? (One sentence from the author's conclusion: "As in the case of Fatah, Islamization should be perceived more as a means of cushioning fundamentalist blows rather than a true change of heart.")

And since it's the time of year when Bethlehem is on the mind, how about another one from the neighborhood: The conference in Jordan on Islam and modern society. The Azhar folks, the Sistani folks and the Qaradawi folks hashing stuff out, and this doesn't rate as a religion story? Suppose maybe Rick Warren could take a hike? If, that is, you're interested in coverage of any religion whose last name isn't "church"?

Familiar sermon again before we pass the offering plate. Religion coverage is important. It's important enough to do well.

Knock it off and get back to work

All good wishes to the far-flung outposts for another year of good editing and triumph over weaseldom. Best from all at HEADSUP-L.