Sunday, April 30, 2006

Process v. substance

Here's a real-life example (1A Friday, should you be scoring along at home) of what sometimes seems an abstract complaint from outside evaluators looking over Missourian reporters' work: We too often get caught up on the proceedings of what happened at the expense of what happened.

University Terrace Apartments residents were informed Thursday that UM System President Elson Floyd’s request to extend the relocation deadline from December 2006 to June 2007 was accepted by UM Health Care CEO Jim Ross.

(If you haven't been keeping up with the story, a set of apartments next to the hospital is about to be torn down to make room for expansion. Many of the tenants are international students and their families. We've done OK by the story, but we trip at this significant turn by concentrating on which bureaucrat did what rather than the end result.)

Look at the lede again. What were the residents told? That one official's request to extend a relocation deadline had been accepted by another official. (The substance of the story is even farther removed in the active: One official has accepted another official's request to extend a deadline.) The upshot, of course, is that residents found out they won't have to move themselves (and, in many cases, their school-age kids) in the middle of the next school year. We've accurately portrayed every twist in the story and completely missed the point.

Try putting the outcome, instead of the process, in the lede. You can even work in the active voice and cut the damn thing nearly in half without much effort:
University Terrace Apartments residents found out Thursday that their deadline for moving has been extended from the middle of next academic year until June 2007.

Spare the noble heroics of Floyd and Ross for a few grafs. They have their own publicity departments; they don't have to be in the lede. You'll generally get better ledes if you concentrate on what happened, rather than who did what.

Hed writers, this story is also a useful reminder of why heds never -- that's never, never, never -- say what "will" or "will not" happen. Wednesday's hed:

Petition will not change plan

takes an estimate from the lede:
... Kathy Scroggs, MU’s vice chancellor of Student Affairs, told residents Tuesday at an informational meeting that she doesn’t expect the decision to use the land for a parking garage to change.

and turns it into a fact. A pretty inaccurate fact, as later developments make clear, which is a good argument against pretending that estimates are facts. We'll leave for a different discussion whether "Kathy Scroggs" is the Cathy Scroggs we and the competition routinely identify as the holder of that title.

One more thing: Somebody who's suspected of having mumps is a suspected "mumps" case, not a "mump" case (4A Sunday). What were we thinking?

Well, two more things. Help celebrate HEADSUPTHEBLOG's 200th post (that's this one) and real anniversary (first post with any content was a year ago Saturday) with your suggestions and comments. What do you want to whinge about or see whinged about here?

Clueless story award of the month

This excellent candidate (provided by the ever-alert Florida buro) packs a near-incredible amount of ineptitude into a tight eight grafs. Hoo hah:

2 Kittens Born on Good Friday Bear Mysterious Markings in Their Fur
LeeAnn Jacobs says she doesn't think her two kittens, each born with a distinct cross on its back, are the handiwork of the Almighty.

Even though they were born on Good Friday, she doesn't think the crossed kitties have any connection to Christ.

Let's recap for a moment. The lede is, um, Woman Doesn't Think Marks Are A Sign. Nice twist on the usual Deity On A Frito tale, but Local Woman Doesn't See Things hardly seems to rise to that man-bites-dog level we kind of look for in a news story, does it?

But the writer's unwilling to let enough be enough: Even though the kittens were born on Good Friday, the cat-owning heathen doesn't think they "have any connection to Christ." Leaving us with two questions for the writer:
1) Since you had a choice of two this year, which Good Friday did you have in mind?
2) Why would kitties born on Good Friday have a connection to Christ -- rather than, say, Barabbas, Pilate, Emperor Constantine's mom, Judas or ... HILLARY?
(Sorry about that. Won't happen again.)

But back to our story. We spend another couple of grafs discussing how unusual these kitties are or aren't. Then we call in an expert:

Toni Van Pelt, executive director of the Center for Inquiry in Tampa, a group of skeptics who promote "science, reason and inquiry," said she fears others may not share Jacobs' secular view.

I think a lot of people will come to her house and worship at the altar of the kitty," Van Pelt said. "It could jeopardize their health and well-being."

Jacobs said she loves the kittens and won't let that happen.

To recap: A 1A centerpiece, with two photos, whose content may be summarized thus:
Nothing happened.
Expert agrees nothing happened.
But don't worry; nothing's going to happen.

Let's try to bear in mind that all sorts of things -- tacos, walls, rocks, cloud formations, kittens -- have funny-looking markings when you hold 'em in the right light and squint a bit. Here, for example, is Woodward, one of the Official HEADSUP-L Research Cats (say hi to the nice people, Woodchuck). Note the orange mark on his back shaped exactly like Iraq's restive Anbar province! Are we in touch with the DIA about this? No. Nor with the local papers. And it's going to stay that way.

By the time a centerpiece is rolling toward the front page, it's built up a lot of momentum. We're asking a lot of the copydesk when it's the only thing that can stand in front of that particular train. But Tommy this and Tommy that: If editors with big paychecks won't do it, somebody has to. Copyeds, you're nominated.

Dumb editing award of the week

Eye-opening lede time: Here's the rare case of a question hed that's justified:

Debate on 'Da Vinci': What's true, what's not?
Growing controversy adds to book's impact

Wasn't that easy? You can use a question hed if the story's about a question -- like, say, "how do the assertions of this novel compare with the generally accepted record?" (Yes, it's a bit silly to be asking whether a work of fiction is true, but let's not rain on the parade here.) So one reads on:

A line from Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" tells you why it's easily the most disputed religious novel of all time: "Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."

With 46 million copies in print, "Da Vinci" has long been a headache for Christian scholars and historians, who are worried about the influence on the faith from a single source they regard as wrong-headed.

So far, so good.

Now the controversy seems headed for a crescendo with the release of the movie version of "Da Vinci" May 17-19 around the world. Believers have released an extraordinary flood of material criticizing the story -- books, tracts, lectures and Internet sites among them.


The conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, portrayed as villainous in the story, is among those asking Sony Corp. to issue a disclaimer with the film.


Bart Ehrman, religion chair at UNC Chapel Hill, likens the phenomenon to the excitement in the 19th century when deluded masses thought Jesus would return in 1844.

The novel's impact on religious ideas in popular culture, he says, is "quite unlike anything we've experienced in our lifetimes."


For many, the problem is that "Da Vinci" is billed as more than mere fiction.

A senior Vatican official, Archbishop Angelo Amato, called for a boycott of the film Friday, saying it contained slanderous offenses against Christianity.

And? Well, that's it -- except for this quote, set off with its own subhed:

What Author Dan Brown says
"It's a book about big ideas. You can love them or you can hate them. But we're all talking about them, and that's really the point."

Tight, bright, reader-friendly and dumb as a post. We had the right hed for the story, but we no longer have the right story for the hed. Somebody apparently didn't notice that a 1,300-word account of Brown v. Board of Inquisition can't be cut down to 250 words without losing everything that made it worth attending to in the first place.

As in? As in three grafs on the earliest indications of belief in the divinity of Jesus. Six grafs about canonicity that would have come in handy a few weeks back when the religion editor was desperately cooking up a local buzz about the Gospel of Judas. Four grafs about the Magdalene thing. There's a story here, but it's not an inverted pyramid whackable to a glorified brief -- as anybody expecting to pass the final in J4400 next week (and that's everybody, right?) ought to be able to tell you. All the stuff that has any bearing on the hed -- and, conveniently, on the whole topic -- is gone.

In a way, that's the subtext for the slightly disingenuous debate being carried on between the editor and the readership about the amount and quality of international news in this paper. It's the difference between substance and the appearance of substance.

The problem isn't whether this Regional Newspaper (which, like all other Regional Newspapers, spends a disproportionate amount of space on national sports) does or doesn't have a certain number of international datelines per issue. It's what follows those datelines. DATELINE: NAMIBIA doesn't do much for your knowledge of democratization in sub-Saharan Africa if it only appears when celebrities are having babies there. Soi-disant explainers about the Middle East don't help anybody if they don't understand what they're explaining.

And then there's the fungibility issue -- the idea that all offerings from the national/international desk are interchangeable because they come from the same pot. Alert readers might recall the lazy days of August 1990, when the news arrived that Saddam Hussein (remember him?) considered his slant-drilling and grant-repayment issues with Kuwait serious enough to have moved three Republican Guards divisions down to the border. The US immediately announced a perfectly normal emergency joint air exercise with some of its friends in the neighborhood.

All of which was headed, quite reasonably, for the front page. Until the national/international desk declared that its regional fauna piece (FIRE ANTS: THREAT OR MENACE?) had been successfully localized, whereupon the fire ants went to the front page and the tedious old Middle East went back to the far bowels of the A section. And you can look it up.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Everybody loves light rail!

The Triangle buro raises a pointed question about this hed and lede from one of the local rags:

Poll: 70% of Triangle residents back rail
DURHAM -- As many as 70 percent of Triangle residents still support a commuter rail link between Durham and Raleigh, and 61 percent think the federal government should help pay for it, according to poll results released Wednesday.

Of the 811 randomly sampled Durham, Orange and Wake County residents questioned April 12 by OnPoint Polling and Research of Raleigh, 70 percent said a variety of transportation options -- including regional rail -- ought to be part of the solution to traffic congestion.

You might be wondering whether 70 percent back the rail link or whether, as the buro chief suggested, that "variety of transportation options" might include "a measure to provide free SUVs and gasoline to everyone in Durham." Well, the Herald-Sun (whose first named source -- funny old world -- is the publicist who presented the transit agency with the results of the poll it commissioned) doesn't say. But the competition has a hint:

Q. Best fix for congestion.
A. More roads only, 23%. Variety of options including roads, buses and regional rail, 70%.

Damn. No SUVs. But turning "variety of options" into "everybody loves light rail" is, to say the least, a stretch. As is:

The poll found 56 percent of people believing a rail system would spur economic development and 52 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supported regional rail, with 22 percent less likely and 25 percent unsure.

Again, while the competition's coverage isn't necessarily "good," it's measurably better. Here's what the question seems to look like from the N&O:

Q. Whether regional rail would stimulate economic development around the rail stations.

That pesky little prepositional phrase! All of a sudden we've gone from a regional development issue to ... well, to the sort of self-evident bilge seen in the finding that, erm, people in the Triangle want the federal gummint to help with the costs.

On the How Others See Us front, of course, is this:

I found it very difficult, during the telephone survey, to answer the questions in a way that would convey the fact that I don't support the rail system. Many questions were worded such that most answers would show at least some support.

Copyeds, this is why stories about polls that don't mention who ran (and, preferably, who paid for) the poll are always suspect. The true measure of a survey is what it asks and how it reports the findings, but this reader complaint is a good reminder of why we need to play by the rules, every time, without fail. And "playing by the rules" -- did we just mention this below, or am I imagining things? -- includes correcting reporters' blunders, not amplifying them in big type.

More from the science front

Couple thoughts occasioned by the morning's fishwrap* and its handling of the World of Empiricism:

One, cheering in the press box:

Vitamin study disappointing
C, E supplements don't give protection in pregnancy, experts say
A disappointing new study found that vitamin C and E supplements given to healthy pregnant women do not reduce their risk of developing preeclampsia, a complication that can be lethal to both expectant mother and child.

Unless you're in the vitamin supplement business and have just bought up a boatload of C and E supplements, it's hard to see why this study is "disappointing." (Yes, the judgment is the AP writer's fault, but the desk amplified it instead of deleting it.) That really isn't what the whole research thing is about. What happens, or what's supposed to happen, is that somebody develops a hypothesis, figures out a way to test it and reports the results. So we'd have a null hypothesis:

C and E supplements don't affect the risk of preeclampsia

and a unidirectional research hypothesis:

C and E supplements reduce the risk of preeclampsia

So women in their first pregnancies were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups, and the study found no significant differences on preeclampsia or several other risks. Is that disappointing? Yes and no. We know (or we have a pretty good idea; research can produce false negatives as well as false positives) that the treatment doesn't seem to affect this group positively. That might mean eliminating an unnecessary treatment with potential downsides of its own. We know something we didn't know before. And studies are continuing on other groups. Recommendation: Leave out the opinion and let the data speak for themselves.

Two, stories that aren't stories:
Oxford database hits 1 billion words
Research tool scours Internet, print sources for language trends
LONDON - A massive language research database responsible for bringing words such as "podcast" and "celebutante" to the pages of the Oxford dictionaries has officially hit a total of 1 billion words, researchers said Wednesday.

In its favor, you can say this isn't completely fabricated -- like, say, the algorithm that tells us English is going to hork up its millionth word ANY DAY NOW.** But it's right next door to meaningless. For one thing, a billion is a big number, but it's an easy one to reach if you pick the right units. If you drove from HEADSUP-L Manor to the in-laws', you'd hit the billion-millimeter mark somewhere southeast of Lansing.

At least that's a real measurement, though. A billion mm is twice as much of the distance to the northern marches of Detroit as half a billion mm. But as the story clearly notes, this milestone isn't the result of adding stuff like "celebutante" to the dictionary. It doesn't measure words in play. It measures all the words in sentences and examples that define the words in play. If all the usage examples for "inner child" and "gabfest" were a word or two shorter, we'd still be stuck God knows how many tens of millions short of this milestone.

Which brings us to the last complaint: Faux language magic. The only excuse for passages like

As hybrid words such as "geek-chic," "inner-child" or "gabfest" increase in usage, Pearsall said part of the research project's goal is to identify words that have lasting power.

is to let the reporter trot out some silly words. There's no reason to believe that "hybrid words" are on the upswing in usage; hell, "gabfest" has been around since the late 19th century, and even "inner child" is now an inner 43-year-old.*** Nor is there any logical link between the reporter's suppositions about compounds and the research project's goals.

Conclusion: This ain't a story. Don't waste space on it.

I still don't know quite what to make of the bird grammar story. I'd really like to like it, and I've read it half a dozen times in an effort to do so, and somebody still seems to have not quite figured out where the thing is supposed to be going. One of the pros has taken it apart pretty skilfully, and I'm delighted to refer you to him.

* I am seriously going to hate it when "fishwrap" goes the way of "broken record," by the way.
** H1: Journalists set the BS barrier significantly lower when the person offering the bogus story has a degree from Harvard. Design a study to test this hypothesis and explain the methods you would use to analyze the results.
*** With enough "lasting power" for the OED. Reporters who refuse to use the dictionary should be cudgeled with it. If you're getting to the dictionary online, use your keyboard.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Stupid Question rides again

Abu Ghraib case climbs ladder?
Army says it will charge officer who ran interrogation center
WASHINGTON -- The Army plans to charge Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, the former head of the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib prison, with dereliction of duty, lying to investigators and conduct unbecoming an officer, the officer's lawyer said Tuesday.

Two questions for the hed writer:
1) What's the hed supposed to mean?
2) Why do you think anyone would interpret it that way?

OK, maybe a third:
3) Do you really think the guy's lawyer is the Army?

Copyeds, stamp out the question hed. The free world is counting on you.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No comment needed ...

... so we won't, much, except to reiterate a few familiar themes: Please don't raise questions you can't address. Try not to make observations about things that can't be observed.

Power of prayer? Weston teen hurt in Israel bombing wakes from coma
One day after classmates held a special prayer service for Daniel Wultz at his Broward County school, the 16-year-old American tourist, critically wounded in last week's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv woke up on Tuesday in an Israeli hospital for the first time since the explosion.

One hopes certain papers are suitably chastened. And that they remember to put closing commas on nonrestrictive relative clauses.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mideast pinheadism alert

OK, you guys at a certain major southeastern newspaper: If "Laugh Attack" is about to become a regular feature, let's try to keep a better eye on it. As in last week's example:

Laugh attack
Humorists' comments on politics and public affairs:
"The bad news is Iran is capable of making a nuclear bomb. The good news is they have to drop it from a camel."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Drop it from a camel! Isn't that great? You hardly want to mention that the Iranians might, oh, drop it from one of the F-4s we sold 'em back when. Or mount it to a medium-range ballistic missile. Or stick it on one of the new torpedoes you guys were so breathlessly reporting about this month (hey, great idea if anybody you want to impress happens to have a lot of expensive shipping concentrated just across the creek).

Which leads, one supposes, to an obvious question: Can't you take a joke? To which one is likely to respond: Sure. I'd kind of prefer that it was, oh, original or funny or something. ("India has a nuclear bomb! But they have to drop it from a sacred cow!") And, well, maybe not overtly racist.

Yeah, that's the problem. Stupid and racist. Kind of a bad place to be for a paper that's on its moral high horse about the Jerseyoid pond scum over at Duke, innit?

The objectivity trap: Bridge for sale!

If you've gotten this far, you've almost certainly either raised your own serious concerns about the whole objectivity thing or at least been introduced to them in class or some dope den in the bad part of town.* In short, whether you believe our "objectivity" is objective or not (and a long strain of thinking** contends that we're not really talking about the same thing as other folks who use the term), you've noticed that it functions much better in some domains than in others.

Here's objectivity misbehaving in a faith-n-values feature that should have stayed on the runway. The story's quoting its expert du jour on how Christianity is really drawn from ancient Egypt:

One telling piece of evidence, Bargeman says, is the Christian use of the word “Amen,” which is a derivative of Amon, the Egyptian god of reproduction and life.

Well, no. It's from Hebrew, reaching the classical languages through the Septuagint. Our expert has stumbled into the time-honored field of "making stuff up" -- in this case, links to ancient Egypt based on surface similarities. It's been going on forever, and lots of people still indulge, whether their arguments are tangential or relevant:

“The reason for such denial is that Christianity is always presented as the only true religion, the only way to salvation, and as such, it could not have borrowed anything from a religion they have dubbed heathen or pagan,” Harrison Ola Akingbade, an Anglican Christian himself, wrote in the foreword of Bargeman’s book.

Mildly true -- religions do tend to present themselves as the only true path -- but beside the point. The reason for denying made-up connections to Egypt is that they're, well, made-up. As another source in the story suggests:

“This is actually quite a tiresome aspect of being a scholar in my field, that books keep appearing with the author and uninformed readers breathlessly announcing its radicality and novelty, when time after time it is simply a re-tread of an idea or claim refuted long ago,” Hurtado said.

Guess what? He's the one in the story who has a point. But somehow, the difference between somebody who appears to know the field and a self-proclaimed Egyptologist with a bachelor's in literature has been reduced to he-said, she-said.

That's the problem with objectivity, especially when we turn it away from discussing political goods (where it has some serious merits; I'm not suggesting we abandon it). In fields like science, journalism has a long track record of playing up the work of uncredentialed outsiders -- or worse, shills for folks like tobacco companies -- because of its bias toward the new, its refusal to acknowledge the weight of evidence, and its uncritical worship of the maverick who, for whatever reason, appears to be taking on conventional wisdom. (If you think you've seen similar themes -- lone scientist scorned by establishment proves right in the end -- in countless disaster movies, you have.) Missourians might think back a decade and more to the New Madrid hoax: A 50% chance that an apocalyptic earthquake was going to hit within three days of New Year's. Didn't matter that the guy predicting it had a PhD in biology, rather than anything to do with earthquakes. Everybody fell for it anyway.

Well, the world didn't end just because another small-town newspaper ran another silly story compiling a bunch of unfounded claims about how the ancient Egyptians started everything. But it's worth noting that when one side of an empirical debate says the moon is made of green cheese and the other that the moon is a lifeless, airless rock, only one of them is right. And a newspaper that presents the Green Cheese or Aztecs Invented The Vacation theories as legitimate grounds for debate needs to check its line of credit, because somebody out there almost certainly has another bridge for sale.

*If not, go get those plastic cards from mommy and daddy's wallet and type the 16-digit numbers and the expiration dates into the "comments" field. Thanks!
** For starters: Tuchman, G. (1972). Objectivity as strategic ritual: An examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-679.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hat trick of sin

Today's lesson is the humble headline and how he must never tread beyond the limits of those facts that gave him birth, for that way lies folly. Kudos to the first to identify three errors in this deck:

Research shows that distracted drivers cause eight of 10 car collisions.

Here's the graf it was drawn from:
Distracted drivers were involved in nearly eight out of 10 collisions or near-crashes, says a study released Thursday by the governnment.

One, two, three, go.

Silliest cause-and-effect statement of the (still-young) day

Lord knows there are too many college students for whom life begins and ends with beer and sex. That's why colleges hire chaplains. And campus cops.

Copyeds, it's worth remembering that even opinion columns are supposed to have at least some slight grounding in the empirical world. It's quite in-bounds to suggest here that the writer provide some evidence for his bizarre claim about what causes the hiring of chaplains and cops.

One doesn't quite to know what to make of "too many college students for whom life begins and ends with beer and sex." Is it from a driver's ed movie? Or a junior high sex ed class?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Amazingly dumb hed/proposed cure

OK. Thanks to a spate of examples in the past week, it looks as if we've finally figured out a way to describe and identify a particularly irritating sort of hed that the Missourian is far too fond of. And based on today's alarmingly dumb example, it's time to stop it entirely.

Here's the pattern, from today's 1A CP:

Poetic devotion
Religious writer receives Guggenheim Fellowship for prose, poetry

What we're trying to do (I'm digging through clips for some better examples, but this one will do for now) here is divorce words from their grammatical context. We don't have any idea if this guy's devotions are "poetic" or not in any sense of the term. The hed is using "poetic" as a flag to say the story is about a guy who writes poetry -- as if it can just carry that bit of meaning, without doing the grammatical stuff it actually does in that position, like modify "devotion."

That's the technical issue with the hed discussed below:

Gunmen take over Hamas building

The hed's trying to use "Hamas" to say "This is a story about Hamas," but "Hamas" doesn't care how it's being used. It's going to modify "building" whether we want it to or not. It's trying to cross too many boundaries -- like, from the arse end of a relative clause like "building that has become symbol of Hamas political power" -- to have the desired function.

Which gets us to today's dreadful example:

Pickled players
Brothers conquer dehydration

HAHAHAHAHA! Get it? Of course you don't. See, the story's about these two tennis players who combat dehydration and electrolyte loss by drinking pickle brine. But "pickle" can't move all that distance and still carry the meaning "who drink pickle brine." What it does is modify the noun, and there's a painfully good chance it does so in one of the ways prescribed by the OED:

1842 S. LOVER Handy Andy xxv, The poor pickled electors were driven back to their inn in dudgeon. 1865 Republican Banner (Nashville, Tennessee) 12 Oct. 3/2 The ‘caboose’ is neatly packed with ‘pickled’ offenders of municipal law. 1900 G. ADE More Fables 171 ‘It may be that I was a mite Polluted,’ he suggested. ‘You were a teeny bit Pickled about Two..,’ said Mr. Byrd. 1919 P. G. WODEHOUSE Damsel in Distress xx. 236 On that occasion a most rummy and extraordinary thing happened. I got pickled to the eyebrows. 1959 P. MOYES Dead Men don't Ski vii. 86 He gets the most extraordinary ideas sometimes, and he's pretty pickled, anyhow. 1994 New Yorker 19 Sept. 12/1 Within..staggering distance of both the White Horse Tavern..and St. Vincent's, the hospital in which he ended his pickled days.

We might have been trying to say "players who drink pickle brine." But readers don't know what we were trying to say. All they know is what we said:

Drunk players!

Usually when we close our eyes and pretend grammar has just gone away, the result is sort of irritating, but not really harmful. Sometimes it's misleading. And in cases like this, it's plainly and simply clueless. Let's never do this again, to which end I propose a ban on any hed that tries to use a word as a grammar-free flag.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

And another thing ...

Mostly a rehash of recent notes, inspired by the recurrence of certain themes:

Unpaid police block road, seize building
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -- In the first major sign of discontent with the Hamas-led government, dozens of masked Palestinian policemen blocked a main road in the Gaza Strip on Saturday and briefly seized a government building to protest a delay in paying their salaries.

One of the things we could take away from yesterday's discussion of Near East heds* is that it's easier to maximize hed value if you steer away from copying the lede's subject, verb and object. Here, the hed uses the same subject (note the clever compression of motive into the adj "unpaid," though) and compound predicate -- block road and seize building -- as the lede. As yesterday's correspondent noted, though, this approach leaves out something vital: Which of the 190-odd countries and territories that have police might this have happened in? Try dropping one of the predicates (say, the one reported in the previous day's paper) to squeeze in that angle:

Unpaid police block road in Gaza protest
Police block road to protest Hamas policies

Subject-verb-object is a nice, natural order. But you can often tell a better story if you go beyond the first subject, verb and object of the lede.

Iraqi forces armed illegally?

I don't know. Why don't you try telling me, rather than asking me?

On a hill, not too far, stands 3 new crosses

They does? Even when invert you the verb and subject, agree must they.

He is risen. He is risen indeed.
Those words, from clergy and then from congregations for emphasis, will resonate across the Christian world today as an exclamation point for Easter.

Last week's gentle hint apparently didn't sink in (well, to be fair, neither have repeated hints in that direction over the years). It is not Easter "across the Christian world." It is Easter in the Western Christian world. Lots of newspapers seem capable of telling this story without being deliberately wrong and exclusionary. Why can't this one put some effort into getting this fairly simple point right? Why can't it practice a bit of its own preaching about diversity? (And why can't it figure out that "clergy" isn't a plural noun?)

* Aside from the observation that copy editing is a strikingly difficult job whose practitioners deserve a lot more congratulations than they usually get. Which can hardly be said often enough.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Dumb hed of the day

Gunmen take over Hamas building
Group demands perks promised by Fatah
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian gunmen briefly took over the Cabinet building on Thursday, protesting the refusal of the new Hamas government to meet their demands for perks and promotions.

Uh, no. Buildings that house government organs don't become the property of the governing party. The White House is not a Republican building. The Houses of Parliament aren't a Labor building.

Single, sole, solitary: And don't forget it

Thanks to Vox for today's sermon topic, the valuable and charming word "unique." This is a good one to be a real hard-nosed prescriptivist about for two reasons: one, every editor in the world will expect you to, and two, it's nice to have a word that does this job. Without further ado, four examples from this week's special section:

The group is unique in the world of small labels, a young band with experienced members.

An entirely unique creature of a record store, Apop Records proclaims online that it is an "importer of obscuro music, aberrant publications, tracts, self-deluded manifestos and all else on the fringe of pop/unpop culture."

Among hip-hop groups, Thieves' Guild is unique because it sometimes performs live with a banjo, drums and even an acordion to produce an eclectic sound.

Martin's unique style, playing a right-handed guitar upside down with his left hand, gave the band an original sound.

We already have words that mean unusual and interesting ("unusual" and "interesting," to name two). "Unique" means something else: "Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary," as the OED puts it. So don't qualify it -- you can't be "somewhat unique," any more than you can be a little pregnant or sort of dead -- and don't use it to mean some lesser thing: interesting, unusual, new to the writer's experience, whatever. It's a big old world out there, with lots of college towns with lots of bands, record stores, hip-hop groups and the like. For bonus points, name some guitarists who played left-handed without restringing.

Moral: Keep "unique" in the drawer for cases in which you really need it and it'll still be sharp when the occasion arises.

While we're in Vox, "Soundtrack of the City" makes it pretty clear that we're talking about the music scene right here in beautiful Columbia comma Missouri. That means just about every occurrence of "local," already a candidate for Most Useless Word in Journalism, can be deleted. I thought about counting up the references to local guitarist, local artists, local band, local quartet, local bands, local musicians and the like, but it got rather tiresome. Imagine what readers thought. Remember, friends don't let friends say "local."

A genre that was born in western North Carolina in the '30s, bluegrass is flourishing in Columbia by way of Ironweed Bluegrass Band.
"Born in western North Carolina in the '30s" is a bit of a strange contention. One is hesitant to discard it entirely, but at the least it requires a complicated conceptual and practical (and/or remarkably banjocentric) definition of bluegrass. Anybody know the reasoning behind this one?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Good news, bad news, cop news

What's the good news about cop news? There's always the competition to show us how ineptly it can be done! Take it away, the Edna Buchanans of mid-Missouri:

Your Name Here wasn’t going to jail without a fight.

In the end, however, the 19-year-old Columbia man was arrested shortly after midnight this morning on suspicion of second-degree assault, two counts of felony resisting arrest, first-degree burglary, property damage and misdemeanor stealing. But not after he allegedly assaulted a security officer with a bottle, broke into a house, stole a cell phone and escaped from a hospital emergency room, the Columbia Police Department said in a news release.

Wow. Do you suppose we allegedly mean "not BEFORE" he allegedly did all that stuff he allegedly did? And did the cops allegedly say he allegedly did it, or just that he did it? At any rate, no matter how bleak it seems at Collegetown's top morning daily, someone across town will do his/her best to look worse:

Somebody Else's Name Here wouldn’t take no for answer.

For the second time in eight days, Columbia police last night caught the 41-year-old Columbian after business hours at Meineke Car Care Center. Each time, an alarm system at 1722 Paris Road gave him away.

Thanks, Judge Trib, for sparing us the hassle of putting the guilty sod on trial! Here's the home side on the same tale:

A Columbia man was arrested for the second time in eight days Monday on suspicion of burglarizing a Paris Road car wash.

Competent, newsy and not -- well, unlike the competition, not blatantly puerile. Vastly better. But while there's room to sigh in relief, there's also room for improvement. Start by resolutely striving to eliminate all traces of the Perfect Police Propaganda Phrase, whenever and wherever it appears.* We've gotten it out of the lede, but there's more work to be done:

Police arrested Somebody Else's Name Here, 41, on suspicion of second-degree burglary, second-degree property damage and possession of a controlled substance after responding to a burglar alarm at the Meineke Car Care Center at 1722 Paris Road.

Police responded to the alarm, located in business’ office area, at 8:34 p.m. and arrested Name after he tried to flee the scene, a Columbia Police Department news release said.

We've still managed to note twice in two grafs that the police responded to a burglar alarm. Since that's sort of their job, why not let the more relevant parts of the job imply the boring ones:

A burglar alarm sounded about 8:30 p.m. in the office area of the Meineke Car Care Center at 1722 Paris Road. Somebody Else's Name Here, 41, was caught trying to flee and was arrested on suspicion of second-degree burglary, second-degree property damage and possession of a controlled substance, police said.

We're a line to the good and all the facts (and relevant attribution) are still in place. We've said something important that the cops did (caught somebody fleeing), from which even pretty dense readers can infer that the cops must have responded to something. But there's more:

Officers quickly learned that Name had been arrested on suspicion of burglary and related charges on April 3 after police responded to an alarm at the same car wash. Name was brought to the Boone County Jail after the April 3 arrest but was released after posting a $14,000 bond on the same day.

Again, let stronger imply weaker (he can't have been released if he hadn't been in custody, right?). And "police responded to" can simply vanish:
Officers quickly learned that Name had been arrested on suspicion of burglary and related charges on April 3 after an alarm at the same car wash. He was released that day after posting a $14,000 bond.

Another line picked up at no cost. Amazing what can transpire when you talk about what happened, rather than the order in which people did their jobs.

Don't expect cop news to be Shakespeare. Most of it won't even be Marlowe, whichever Marlowe you prefer. But most of it can be tightened down with no loss of meaning if we wean ourselves from the tyranny of the press release bit by bit.

* That'll be this one, courtesy the fax machine in the competition's newsroom: Columbia police responded to the 3000 block of South Providence Road last night after witnesses said four armed men entered a home through an unlocked door and demanded money. One supposes it's technically possible to write a sillier lede, but why try?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Oh, the humanity: Optional lede

Sorry about the age on this one; it's from that massive stack of Official HEADSUP-L Unfinished Business. But it's worth a brief discussion because it's another take on the Spectre Haunting Journalism Today: What the hell are we supposed to do about news when "news" is just about the only thing newspapers can guarantee not to deliver? The case happens to be one that -- not to mix metaphors or anything -- kind of crashes and burns, but there's a lesson in that.

You can find a take or two on this matter everywhere you go. The Associated Press's "ASAP" is one. The Missourian's effort to use "undefined creative writing and design formats" to make local news interesting* is another. And, of course, the AP's optional ledes are a well-established way of addressing the assumption that everyone in the newspaper audience already knows as many W's as we care to throw at them.

Comes now the AP, covering the crash of a small plane in Branson. After a cycle's worth of straight-up reporting, it weighs in with this, which ends up leading the paper:

Plane crash kills four
The plane missed Branson’s busy main strip.
BRANSON — Texas pilot and dentist Paul Johnson may have saved scores of lives when he crashed his twin-engine plane into a self-storage unit Monday just off the main drag of this resort town, which was bustling at midday even in the offseason.

Johnson, 71, his wife and a befriended couple, all from Texas, died in the fiery crash after he radioed with mechanical trouble.

The small Piper Seneca, its fuel tanks filled before takeoff, exploded a safe distance from restaurants, motels, tourist attractions and lunchtime traffic that crowd two-lane Missouri 76, the main thoroughfare through town.

As HEADSUP-L's old friend Tun al-Kabir complained in suggesting that this topic be raised for discussion: "There's not an iota of information beyond the lead to suggest that this fellow did anything good or bad to avoid populations." Tun is right. The suggestion sneaks in to second-cycle the lede and goes nowhere else in a hurry. One guess about the pilot's intent is as good as another, and that's no good at all.

The news, in this case, is pretty compelling, if clunkily written:
A twin-engine plane crashed and burned Monday in a cluster of theaters near the heart of this resort city, not far from the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, killing all four people aboard.

The plane narrowly missed restaurants and attractions along the city's main entertainment strip after taking off from Point Lookout, Mo., for Lubbock, Texas, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.

If you don't like the original subject and verb, find another subject and verb. Find a Real Person to quote at the top of the story. But fiction isn't the way to help newspapers compete with TV.

Moral for copyeds: Not all new ideas work. A bad lede is a bad lede even when it's trying to save the day. Don't hesitate to be the one who points out that the new stuff still has to play by the old rules.

While we're at it: "... restaurants, motels, tourist attractions and lunchtime traffic that crowd two-lane Missouri 76": That, friends, is one crowded highway

* If what that means is "Let's use more adverbs and ignore the stylebook," let's not and say we did.

Monday, April 10, 2006

How not to write heds

Two things here:

Lawsuit planned over 911 call dismissed as play
5-year-old phoned to say his mother had collapsed; she died
DETROIT -- A lawyer said he plans a lawsuit over the death of a woman whose young son called 911 to report she had collapsed, only to be told he shouldn't be playing on the phone.

1) It's OK -- it's even outright encouraged -- to use auxiliaries and full relatives in heds to clarify which part is which. When you don't, as here, your poor readers have no idea what's supposed to be in the main clause. Is it:

Lawsuit dismissed (lawsuit that was planned over 911 call is dismissed)
Lawsuit planned (lawsuit is planned over 911 call that was dismissed)

If it's the latter, of course ...
2) Regular readers will recall the technical legal term for planned lawsuits. It is "hot air." A lawsuit requires very little in the way of burden-o-proof. Telling gullible reporters, or babble-show hosts, that you plan to file one requires the square root of no proof at all. Any story about a planned lawsuit should go on the spike unless and until the suit is filed and you have a copy in your hot little hand.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Holy Roman Empire

Silly us. Here's journalism circling the drain of history, and we're still stuck with that 19th-century empiricist mindset: Find data. Crunch data. Then interpret data.

Out there on the bold, reader-friendly cutting edge, meanwhile, some journalists are blowing up the old paradigm and trying a new one: Write the story first, then go out and find some facts for it. Trouble is, if you're not careful, you can end up with a Holy Roman Empire that's neither holy nor Roman nor empire. Let's have a look at the future, straight from the pages of a leading Southeastern daily.

Local buzz mixed over 'Gospel of Judas'
`Much ado about very little,' minister says

Religion Editor

Apparently it'll take more than a revelation that Judas might not have been as treacherous as Christians have long believed to shake the core beliefs of many Carolinas faithful on the verge of Holy Week.

The reaction of the Rev. Mike Macdonald of Broad Street United Methodist in Mooresville to the discovery of a lost manuscript involving history's ultimate traitor seemed to capture the mood that prevails on the verge of Palm Sunday:

"Much ado about very little."

Let's pause for a moment to dissect what's said and implied here (you there in the back, stop trying to think up another 'on the verge' phrase for the third graf). First, there's been a revelation. Even in their mundane sense, revelations are a pretty big deal: "striking" disclosures, sez the OED, of "something previously unknown." Something that needs to be qualified with a "might" is unlikely to count. Second, there's a known and ongoing likelihood that Christians' core beliefs are in danger of being shaken. (2A, that likelihood is affected in some way by the proximity of Holy Week.) Third, it appears from the evidence that this revelation about Judas won't qualify (even, or especially, on the verge of Palm Sunday).

But let's go on:

A discovery unveiled Thursday at a National Geographic news conference in Washington made front-page news across the country, including in the Observer. "The Gospel of Judas," an Egyptian manuscript written around A.D. 300, chronicles a secret interaction between Judas Iscariot and Jesus in which Jesus singles out Judas for special status and asks him for help in escaping his physical body and liberating his spiritual self.

Sigh. Part of this is the penalty for choosing wire stories for their sound, rather than the quality of their reporting. As most accounts of this event pointed out, the manuscript dates to around 300, but it's in all likelihood a copy of one from the second century -- the high tide of gnosticism. In repeating the "written around 3oo" from the previous day's tale, the present article also reinforces the misapprehension that apocryphal gospels generally (including gnostic gospels like this one) are new and different. They aren't. Indeed, the existence of this one appears to have been bruited about for some centuries now.

But Religion Editor doesn't seem interested in discussing canonicity or infancy gospels or anything interesting like that. He has a story to tell, and he's going to tell it:

Bart Ehrman, who teaches religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill, attended Thursday's news conference. He characterized the finding -- the papyrus manuscript was discovered buried along the Nile River -- as "one of the most unusual and contrary gospels written in Christian antiquity."
(Kids? That's a suggestion that the early centuries of Christianity produced lots of gospels, more than one of them unusual and contrary.)

Thursday's news conference, besides sharing the discovery, also served to promote "The Gospel of Judas," scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel, with a repeat at 10 p.m.

National Geographic spokeswoman Mary Jeanne Jacobsen said the news conference, TV special and exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington weren't rolled out now because Christian eyes are turned toward Holy Week and spiritual interest is high. Also: Two books, now out, and a DVD coming June 6.

Hate to put the prescriptivist hat on too hard, but the last fragment is inexcusably substandard. Meaning not that fragments per se are bad, but that it's impossible to tell what the hell this one refers to. The first sentence isn't much better. The "A didn't B because of X" construction is a common ambiguity of English. Does it mean
A didn't B, and X is the reason
A did B, but not because of X
We don't know. But we can guess where the graf is going: It's that Holy Week thing again. We're going to raise a loaded question (did you guys do this because it's Holy Week?) and make the bastards deny it. About which two complaints: 1) Deciding on your story before you write it is a dumb idea, and 2) Not all "Christian eyes" are on Holy Week because many Christians (they'd be the Orthodox ones) aren't on the verge of Holy Week. Grr.

"It was just the earliest date when the material was complete," Jacobsen said, reporting that 298 people came to see the exhibit in the first four hours Friday despite no advance fanfare.
(Please don't do the "reporting that" thing again, OK?)

Reaction Friday in and around Charlotte seemed to range from "I don't care" to "Hmm, that's interesting," at least among those who even noticed the story in newspapers or on radio or TV.
See a theme starting to surface? Move ahead a few grafs and it really jumps out:

...The Rev. Thomas Currie, dean of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in Charlotte, went back to read the newspaper article about the Judas find, then shared his reaction in an e-mail:

In other words, there is no local buzz. There's no local reaction at all. One of the ministers we call has to dig the damn thing out of the recycling bin before he can even "share his reaction." We set out to write a story about the new talk of the town: frantic local reaction to stunning revelation about a threat to the bedrock of Christianity on the verge of Holy Week. And it turns out there's no reaction, no revelation, no threat. And not necessarily a verge of Holy Week, but that's rubbing it in.

Anyway, the pastor gives us the chance to bring up the "Da Vinci Code," which always helps dress up the faith page. Then comes the capper:

People-on-the-street reaction was just as heartfelt.

Jane Caldwell of York, S.C., said she's fascinated by the news and doesn't discount that the Gospel of Judas could be true.

"Just as heartfelt" as what? You get the feeling that Religion Editor wrote this graf before anybody went out to get the person-on-the-street reaction? And since the speaker develops educational programs for yet another mainline Protestant church, do you start to get the feeling that there's no person-on-the-street reaction at all? And that there's no basis on God's green earth for any assertions about what "many Carolinas faithful" think about anything?

You'll notice, if you stagger through to the end, that three staffers contributed to the tale, though Religion Editor has the byline. That's less than one source per staffer.

This one's a challenge for copy editors. You can attack some of the surface buffoonery, but when this much good money has gone chasing after bad, the originating desk is likely to close ranks. Still, somebody needed to wave this embarrassing tale in the air and proclaim: No Holy. No Roman. And if there's an Empire in sight, the emperor is as nekkid as it gets.

Guilty, guilty, guilty

DNA solves
1985 killing

DNA linked to 20-year-old evidence prompted Jackson County prosecutors to accuse a homeless man Friday of stabbing a woman to death in June 1985.

Thank you, Judge Star, for sparing the good people of Kansas City the expense of actually putting the guy on trial.

Stupid juxtaposition funnies

Bush critic talk of town
Harry Taylor in the middle of a media storm after scolding the President.
* Harry celebrates at strip club
* Mandisa: 'I'm not a gay advocate'

Ah, the amusing things that arise when your Web page reefers combine your exciting local news with your usual irrelevant panting after the House of Windsor. A click here, a click there, and one might notice that the Harry of the first subhed isn't the same as the Harry of the second. Or one might not.

And while we're at it: The guy being chastized is the president, not the President. The stylebook spreads his beams of wisdom over the Web site too.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Your lying eyes

The old J4400 collection of Grisly Examples is undergoing refurbishment this year, because a lot of it is frankly a bit long in the tooth. And one of my favorite examples of visual deck-stacking, from the NYTimes Sunday Business front, has to come with a warning label because the Times (huzzah) stopping using that particular annoying trick.

Well, it's back, as in this graphic from Sunday's A section. On a quick glance, it looks as if the Iraqi and U.S. death counts have more or less changed places. If you pay a bit of attention to the Y axis, though, you'll notice something. The horizontal lines are increments of 20 for U.S. deaths and increments of 200 for Iraqis. Makes a bit of a difference when you consider that the entire U.S. side of the alleged graphic could fit in half of one tick on the Iraq side. So who are you going to believe: The numbers or your lying eyes?

Those of you who remember the good old days of British journalism ("One Englishman is a story. Ten Frenchmen are a story ...") may now insert your own jokes here. Those of you who want to do graphics for a living may silently renew your vows to be visually honest. And those who work for the Times, you can just hang your heads in shame.