Friday, June 30, 2006


A couple of gems lurk among the batty Whorfisms of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," among them this:

From to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin where it belongs.

Which grows from the first of his six Rules for Writing Not Awfully, "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Attention to same would have headed off Thursday's "Up, up and away,"* and it would have raised some questions about this lede from today as well:

Health professionals need the help of parents to counter the obesity epidemic, a federal health official said yesterday at a statewide conference focused on battling the bulge.

Struck by the originality of the battle/bulge thing? So's every other writer across this great land of ours:

The reports are the city's latest weapon in the battle of the bulge among schoolchildren -- one in four of whom is considered obese. (New York Post, June 23)

"I challenged all my brothers and sisters to do it. They're all kind of fighting the battle of the bulge, too," she said. (AP, June 22)

"I'm looking for someone who's ready to join my side and win the battle of the bulge,'' wrote one chubby slacker from Denver on Craigslist. (Seattle P-I, June 15)

Restaurants could become an important ally in this contemporary battle of the bulge. (Columbus Dispatch, June 10)

In between the battles of the bulge and the bizarre behavior he exhibited on the bayou - Sullivan was de-activated for a game in Atlanta in 2004 when he crashed the press box buffet before kickoff - New Orleans' coaches continued to be smitten by his potential. (The Patriot Ledger, June 6)

Exercise is far more crucial than eating less to winning the battle of the bulge, a leading obesity researcher told a national convention of health experts in Denver last week. (Denver Post, June 6)

The nonbinding recommendations, part of a 134-page report by the nonprofit Keystone Center in Colorado, are designed to get the government more help from the food industry in the battle of the bulge. (Dallas Morning News, June 3)

In books, lectures, and personal crusades, Nestle has positioned herself in the forefront of America's battle with the bulge. (Christian Science Monitor, June 1)

It's in heds too:

Center to fight battle of bulge (KC Star, June 20)

Battle of bulge (New York Post, June 5)

FDA drafting eateries to win battle of bulge (Rocky Mountain News, June 3)

Castillo fighting battle of the bulge (Boston Globe, June 1)

And how bad is it on the other side of the planet? The cousins in Hobart apparently have a quota to get rid of by the end of the fiscal year:

Crime fighters take on battle of bulge (Hobart Mercury, June 29)

In a union that spans the battle of the bulge, Swiss food giant and snack maker Nestle is buying weight-loss company Jenny Craig. (Hobart Mercury, June 20).

The company is in a battle of the bulge with unions and health experts over a national recruitment campaign that expressly excludes those on the weighty side. (Hobart Mercury, June 19).

Let's give old Orwell his meed on this one. Save "Battle of the Bulge" for when you need it (copyeds, your task here is the Bidding unto the Good), and that won't be a diet story.

* For a review of an exhibit on Dadaism in the Sunday funnies, of course, "Oop, Arp and Away" will do just fine.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


This sermon's been given before, but apparently it didn't take, so:

Up, up & Away
Hot air balloon rides provide light-hearted fun for young campers with diabetes

No, no, no. This is a matter of settled law (indeed, it's one of the few successful prior restraint cases in U.S. jurisprudence). It is a violation of state and federal law to use "Up, up and away" within 500 yards of any photo, drawing, electronic image, mechanical reproduction, or fanciful semantic reference to any hot-air balloon, helium balloon, blimp, dirigible, zeppelin or origami-like thingy held over candle at the Twilight Festival. Period. That is all.

Well, there is one more thing. Whenever you use "Up, up and away" with a balloon story, an angel is accidentally sucked into a hay baler and fed to cattle.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Diagramming party to action stations

AP sentence of the afternoon:

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Air defenses fired on Israeli warplanes that entered Syrian airspace early Wednesday and forced them to flee, state TV said as Mideast tensions escalated over the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants.

Grammar question: Where's the compound? Is it in the main clause (air defenses fired on Israeli warplanes and forced them to flee) or in the complementizer phrase (warplanes that entered Syrian airspace and forced them -- the air defenses -- to flee)?

Logic question: What's going on here? There's nothing to connect the firing, entering and fleeing to the subordinate clause: "as Mideast tensions escalated." The poor reader is left to conclude that it's just those damn Mideast tensions escalating at random again, as so often they do.

Hence the occasional argument against the Tyranny of the New. If we go back one step in the chronology and do our causal connecting there -- the Israelis were buzzing Bashir's summer digs as a message to Syria and the Damascus chunk of Hamas -- it starts to make sense. The BBC chose a less inverted-pyramid-oriented structure and got better sense out of it:

Israeli warplanes flew warning sorties over the summer residence of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad early on Wednesday morning. Syria said it had responded with anti-aircraft fire.

Moral: It's hard to make a sentence better by tacking new facts on the front end. It's almost impossible to make one better by jamming stuff in at random.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In case you thought ...

... your friendly neighborhood J4400 coven sat around on weekends and made up fiendish sentences and errors that could never possibly occur in real life, just to make the quizzes difficult:

President Kennedy was shot and killed in 1963. An article on page D1 of Friday's Herald about author Harry Livingstone incorrectly identified the year of the president's assassination.

Why make stuff up when all you have to do is read the papers? (Tnx and a hatlo to Regret the Error, another invaluable source.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Felony cluelessness: Aiding and abetting

Here's another grievous offense against journalism that isn't -- originally -- the copydesk's fault. It'd be nice if reporters didn't turn in this sort of crap, and if metro editors would say "no" to it, rather than "well, it could be true" or "great centerpiece" or "hey, it's a good read." But the desk can always challenge it, and upon losing, take some middling satisfaction in having done its job.

Here, though, the desk apparently didn't even put up a fight. Worse, it played along, amplifying the story's worst points rather than trying to fix them -- or at least hide them or create a distraction or something. Hence the desk is guilty of aiding and abetting journalistic cluelessness. Sentence pending, but it'd be a good idea to pack your toothbrush.

Let's start with the centerpiece-slash-reefer on the reefers-only front. Notice the way a little lie -- or in some cases, an obvious hole that the originating desk didn't bother to fill -- turns into a big lie. Start with the breakout of "opposing theories":

"It may have been a mooring stone. The Romans used circles set this way. ... The size ... might make it ancient."

"Stone anchors have not been discovered in Florida. ... I'm not surprised at all what might turn up, though."

Cripes. Not only are these not opposing, they aren't even theories. One guy says it might be something. The other guy says stuff similar to that something hasn't been found in Florida. That's observing and speculating, not theorizing -- or contradicting. But it's not the scariest of the lot. Here's the lede of the 1A tease:

A local bicycle mechanic and bartender says stones found near the Gulf Coast are ancient anchors from biblical times. Archaeologists have mocked his theories -- until now.

Skip the adjectival piling-on (what, no modern anchors from biblical times?) and concentrate on the second sentence, from which it's pretty clear that "archaeologists" must no longer mock these "theories." Which is a long way from what the story says. One archaeologists talks politely of "interesting people" and another more directly of "nut balls." And the one pictured on the front page plans to return -- but if it's because he now believes the "theories," the reporter either forgot to ask him or didn't think the point was relevant.

John Saxer had a revelation 18 months ago: Many of the stones, big and small, that he studied around Pinellas and Pasco counties were ark anchors dating back thousands of years. Think Noah's Ark or massive ships from Atlantis.

OK, I'm thinking. And I'm thinking it's been a long time since Sunday school, but aren't Atlantis and Noah's Ark kind of -- well, contradictory?

The amateur archaeologist took his theories to the scientific community, which brushed him off as a kook. Undaunted by the rejection, Saxer, 55, pressed on.

Now he has found some acceptance. A California archaeologist is studying the stones. And he's impressed by the find.

And the eager reader is referred to the Metro front, where presumably support for all this awaits. Starting with the hed:

Discovery Could Rock Archaeology

Yep. Sure could. And then again, hed writer could be laughed out of the profession. Even by the standards of "could" heds, this one's abysmally dumb. But it gets worse in a hurry:

NEW PORT RICHEY - A tireless prophet with a salt-and-pepper beard and an inviting grin, John Saxer knows that mainstream archaeologists, journalists and folks in Tarpon Springs think he's nuts.

They reject his Greek mythology- and archaeology-based theories that Tarpon Springs is the center of the biblical Garden of Eden and the Tampa Bay area coastline was the seaport of Atlantis.

It's been a tough sell, acknowledges Saxer, a 55-year-old bicycle mechanic and bartender who was homeless for much of 2004.

Saxer has been ignored by archaeologists nationwide for the past 18 months, despite offering evidence of what he claims are 6,500-year-old stone ark anchors abundant on land near shorelines in New Port Richey, Holiday and Tarpon Springs. (This is one of the worst things about journalism's perverse relationship to science. Not all evidence is equal. Not all evidence should be treated as equal. Especially not "evidence" of stone anchors from Genesis or Atlantean times. Get it?)

"It gets scary when you're in front of the field," said Saxer.

I'm sure it does. But the real fun is about to begin. Here's the bait-n-switch:

Last week, Saxer had a breakthrough. He found a believer, the type he had sought for years, an archaeologist with credentials and financial backing.

This must be the guy in the tease, right? The "acceptance" that's finally reached the front of the field? Let's give the guy a listen:

"I don't believe any of the Garden of Eden theories, or most of John's views of Atlantis, which I did my master's thesis on," Donato said before his trip here. "I'm interested because the pictures are similar to anchors found at Bimini last year and to [5,000-year-old] finds in the Middle East."

Uh, OK. So no Eden, and not much Atlantis (how much, of course, we aren't told, which may in itself be a good thing). And, by the way, the 1A cutline is starting to have a distinct ring of fiction about it as well -- unless the assertion that the rock in question, rather than the unspecific photos, looks like the Bimini ones is something else the reporter left out in his haste.

Thus, the big question goes either unasked or unanswered: What is it the visiting maverick archaeologist is impressed by? What does he believe? That there might be an interesting find here? (Certainly possible, but hardly something that would rock the world of archaeology.) Or that it's time to put away the foil helmets and welcome back our Atlantean insect-robot masters? Without that, the readers can't tell the paper is (a) wasting their time with an annoying practical joke or (b) actually as dumb as it looks.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The bizarre world of the featurized lede

Submitted for your consideration: Perhaps the strangest bit of cop-shop featurizing to barrel down the pike so far this millennium. At a guess, it's an editing failure, meaning someone, or some two people, obviously thought it was a good idea, and nobody had the time, rank or inclination to stop it before it hit the dead pine trees. Prosit!

Cell phone signal helps nab suspect
Ohio man traced to Boonville.
Although many will debate the ethical dilemma of using cell phones to track their users, Area Woman would toss the arguments out the window if she’s in trouble.

"If I’m stolen or kidnapped or something, I want someone to come find me," said Woman, a Columbia resident. "I think to find a criminal," cell phone tracking "is the greatest thing."

Let's ignore (to the extent we can) the "nab" hed and the clanky grammar in the lede's main clause. Have we perhaps a feature on what local residents think of the merits of tracking cell phones?

A cell phone was used to track down a 37-year-old man in Missouri who is accused of abducting and raping a woman before stealing her car.

Uh, guess not. It's a news story. So -- was Area Woman a witness or a bystander? Is she some sort of expert on the legal or ethical issues in play? Relieved relative of the unnamed accuser? If any of the above, we can't tell from the text, leading one to speculate that her role in the story was Walking Down The Sidewalk Past The Trib. Indeed, she now disappears from the stage, unless you count this sideswipe in the penultimate graf:

Local Man, like Woman, agreed that tracking a cell phone to help someone is a good idea, but the 43-year-old Columbia resident worried how far such cutting-edge technology could be taken.

"Tracking a criminal is one thing, but where’s the privacy come in?" Man said. "There’s too much gray area in my opinion. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?"

Well, that certainly clears things up.

Let's see if we can find some usable suggestions for the future here (other than Fix That Bizarre Stylebook; as you'll notice if you read the thing regularly, the paper in question has limits on the sorts of proper nouns it capitalizes and won't use parenthetical qualifiers in quotes -- even inane ones). Copyeds, to the barricades. The paper you save from embarrassment could be your own.

One, people in news stories should comment on stuff they can shed some light on. A man-in-the-street about Friday the 13th, teeth-grating as it is, at least stays within the limits of man-in-the-street expertise. Hypothetical speculation is right out.

Two, for the vast bulk of the population, this question raises some tautology issues. Put simply, if you ask your street intercepts whether they'd like to be tracked down if they're kidnapped, what the hell do you expect them to say? Try it this way:

Many people would have second thoughts about masked ninjas stalking the streets and snicking heads off at random, but Buffy Resident would be happy to see one if she was in trouble.

"Like, if I'm being held at gunpoint by some ravening Satanist crackhead and all of a sudden he goes down with a throwing star in his eye, I'm totally OK with that," Resident said.

Three, "many people would..." ledes in all their flavors are permantly disbarred anyway. But let's get the big stuff first. Spread light, not hilarity.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Potpourri of hed sins

Today's post brings a variety of headline evils, each illustrating a different way a hed writer can be lured to perdition by the Slinking Whisperer:

Mistrial declared in death via tainted breast milk
A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in the case of a woman accused of killing her baby by nursing with methamphetamine-contaminated breast milk, a district attorney's spokeswoman said.
If the jury doesn't convict, the copydesk shouldn't either. The hed rules that the death was caused by tainted breast milk, as the state appears to have alleged. But the defense disagrees ("One of her lawyers said Thursday in a phone interview that the baby's death was caused by pneumonia and not drugs"), and it looks as if the legal system does too. Moral: No long-distance diagnosis. You can't complain about Bill Frist's doing it if you turn around and do it yourselves.

Soldiers may have died in gunfight
BROWNSVILLE, Texas - A relative of one of the two U.S. soldiers who may have been tortured to death in Iraq last week said Thursday that military officials told his family that the men probably died in a gunfight and the abuse of their bodies happened later.
Two points. First, don't use "may" heds for stories about assertions, and second, if you do, try to stick to one "may" per news unit (for these purposes, hed and text). The hed says the soldiers "may" have died in a gun battle, meaning one relative says the military told him that was likely. The lede says they "may" have been tortured to death, apparently meaning that's been the official story to date. Rather than bouncing back and forth between two bits of apparently contradictory (but still both equally true) speculation, get to the point: One relative says the military is contradicting its official line.
(While we're at it, let's get rid of the whole WAR & TERROR DIGEST concept -- not to mention the logo. If you don't want readers to think you can't tell the concepts apart, a good place to start is by telling the concepts apart.)

Senate rejects moves to end action in Iraq
The GOP-controlled Senate gave an election-year endorsement to President Bush's Iraq policy on Thursday, soundly rejecting Democratic demands to withdraw troops from the three-year-old war that has grown increasingly unpopular.
This one's called "overscope": An assertion that's true about part of the predicate is extended to all of it, and the hed fails. There's no category of "kind of true" for heds; "true" and "false" are the only choices. For the hed to be true, more than one "move" would have to have been rejected, and all the rejected moves would have been to "end action in Iraq." One of them would have, sort of, but the other "would not have set a deadline for the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq" (at least if we're to believe the story under the hed).

The hed would have been fine if it had said two moves to withdraw troops had been rejected; as Resolution 242 reminds us, failing to specify how much withdrawal you mean is a really useful fig leaf. But an out-and-out end to action has no such cover.

Cardinals' offense keeps on Rolen
OK. For those who missed the sermon in J4400, heds that play off athletes' names are forbidden under all circumstances. Why? Well, for lots of reasons, but mostly because they're meaningless. A hed like "Cardinals' offense keeps on Rolen" could be trotted out at any point in Mr. Rolen's career with the Birds of Satan, regardless of what the story beneath might say. Skeptics out there might wish to consider, for example, how the two papers in town handled his arrival some years back:

Missourian: Cardinals are Rolen
Trib: Cards keep Rolen along

If you aren't tired of this one -- or "Wright Stuff," or any of the millions of others the Whisperer might tempt you with -- yet, trust Uncle HEADSUP-L: Your readers are.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fußballfieber and all that

DRESDEN -- OK, we had to do the dateline thing.

Your editor is wandering around and absorbing the zeitgeist as we all await the opening of the ICA conference. Regular transmissions will resume at some point. If you wrote and didn´t get an answer, forbear. One will come along directly.

There are, of course, still non sequiturs stalking the earth:

Seeing how this was a religious body that once boycotted Disney over some of its programs and policies, the consensus building among many Southern Baptists this week seems remarkable.

All for now. Leave notes and/or keep talking.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Baghdad buro

This item from the Baghdad buro seemed worth highlighting:

I have been honestly shocked at the number of people who have emailed to let me know that JJ Reddick has been arrested on the same charge. As I sat up on the roof last night watching a firefight between IPs and the Sadr Militia, I was glad to be informed of this important issue.

Sports is nice, but news pays the rent. Let's not get 'em mixed up when we're calculating that 1A mix, OK?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This is not right

There are certain papers that get picked on around here more than others for their annoying habits. But when such a daily gets buzzed up by the Pentagon for the moral equivalent of Driving While Journalistic, it becomes incumbent on all good persons and true to stand up and take its side. Case in point here:

UPDATE: Pentagon Orders U.S. Reporters to Exit Guantanamo
Good thing we won the space race when we did, huh? Because if our response to a bad turn of events is "first thing, let's expel all the journalists," we are slam freaking out of rocket scientists.

Long story short, two reporters on site for planned tribunals were kicked out. A reporter and a shooter from the Observer, down for a profile on the commander, were apparently given a few more days' leeway -- though without access -- and then put on the northbound plane anyway. A profoundly clueless move, compounded by the brilliance of the Man Who Would Be Assistant City Editor, disguised as a Pentagon flack:

"He was doing a hometowner, a hometowner takes one day," J.D. Gordon, the Pentagon's press officer, said. "You would think that a man allowed down for a whole week would be a bit more gracious about it. Have the good grace and class to leave."

This from the graceful and classy character who was earlier quoted thus: "All three have been screaming [about the order to leave] like it is going out of style," he said. (Photographers apparently resort to mime or interpretive dance or something.)

There are reasons, of course. There's, um, security. Oh, and all those news organizations threatening to sue! That's it! "The other media started to have a mini-phone riot," he told E&P. "'Hey, why are they there?' We had a major issue on our hands for other media to 'either get them in there or we have to see you in court.'"

Like who? Well, AP and Fox are mentioned. But AP says it didn't threaten to sue, and Bill O'Reilly has already been by to lick between everybody's toes. What's the issue exactly? At least we're assured it wasn't anything anybody wrote -- though we're also assured that the Observer reporting spurred some "controversy," and it seems from the latest that the Pentagon would rather that some things hadn't been seen.

Much as in the days when Europe wasn't a story unless Billy Graham was crusading there, it's easy to fault the paper for waiting to cover the world until somebody from the inner circulation area is involved. Otherwise, it's hard to see what ails the coverage in question. If you see the writer stepping over the line -- certainly the line as it was explained on the scene -- leave a note, because the research associates here haven't seen it. This isn't scatter-the-cockroaches investigative stuff, but it is pretty decent spot news writing.

It's a pity the editor gave up the high ground so quickly. "The Pentagon appears to have panicked when it discovered it couldn't manipulate a first-class reporter" has some probability of being true, but it's speculation, and self-righteous speculation isn't a good complement to bona fide reporting. But it's a pity mostly because those responsible for this blunder have no excuses at all, and anything that gives them a hint of a fig leaf needs to be discouraged at once.

Sorry, not much copydesk content here. But the stuff that editors do below the waterline is journalism too, and if the least we can do is be cheesed off about this belligerently anti-democratic behavior, let's go ahead and do that.

That was some nice journalism, guys. Now: Throw out the Brangelina stuff and bring us some more of it.

Monday, June 12, 2006

19th-century editorial of the year

We've been glancing back at this one for a couple of days and wondering whether to work in a comment. It's sort of like what happens when the neighbors paint their house purple: You look at it in the evening and wonder if you're really seeing it, then you look at it again in the morning to see if it somehow went back to normal overnight. Usually it hasn't.

So here's the best imitation of 19th-century thinking that's reached the manor in this still-young century, presented in its entirety (if you want to check the link, ignore the other edits and scroll down, unless it hadn't already occurred to you that Zarqawi was a pretty bad character*):

Not all sex offenders look as mean as Jerry Inman
If you tried to imagine what a convicted sex offender looks like, you might well come up with a mental image of someone like Jerry Buck Inman. He's the registered sex offender charged with strangling 20-year-old Clemson University student Tiffany Marie Souers of Ladue, Mo.

He's skin-headed, beetle-browed, thin-lipped and covered in tattoos. In his police mug shot, he stares at the camera with what looks like defiance. His record: a lifetime of crime.

But don't be misled into thinking a sex offender who doesn't look like Mr. Inman can't possibly be a sex offender. The sad truth is that molesters and rapists tend to look like everyday people. They can be bankers or construction workers, coaches or Sunday School teachers. Some are parents or relatives of their victims.

Just as the justice system warns us not to assume anyone who looks guilty is (although police do say Mr. Inman admitted the murder), we should also remember the reverse: Not looking like someone's idea of a criminal is no proof of innocence.

That's really so remarkably stupid it doesn't need commentary. But just in case:
1) Let's close our eyes and imagine what a "convicted sex offender" might have looked like if an editorial writer at this paper imagined him 50 or 60 or 70 years ago (BIG HINT: Think of the "sex offender" in Birth of a Nation). Now read the lede again. Now read the second graf, substituting your own modifiers as suggested by your experience with antediluvianism** -- "thick-lipped" for "thin-lipped," for example.
2) Write a brief summary of the paper's attitude toward stereotypes. You've probably noticed that the paper thinks cultural stereotypes based on appearance are a pretty good idea, and you're right! But there's more!
3) Right. Stereotypes are good, but they aren't enough! (Ignore the logic of the sentence for a second. It's warning us not to think that a sex offender can't be a sex offender, but copy editors are trained to look past ineptly applied modifying phrases and into a sentence's soul.) "The sad truth is that molesters and rapists tend to look like everyday people. They can be bankers or construction workers, coaches or Sunday School teachers." Or, in English: "Everyday people" look like Observer editorial writers. Bankers and Sunday school teachers never have shaved heads; construction workers and coaches never have tattoos. And they certainly wouldn't have a hint of defiance when looking at the jailhouse camera, no sir.

And that distinguishes our editorial from D.W Griffith in which specific ways again?

OK, let's be fair. Our editorial grants that a crime suspect might, maybe, sometimes be innocent even if he "looks guilty" (though if the cops say he's confessed, no problem). But the real point comes at the end: Not looking like someone's idea of a criminal is no proof of innocence.

How should we break it to these guys? (More to the point, how do we prove it to foamy-mouthed readers who sometimes mistake this paper for one with a lingering interest in civil liberties?). Erm, news flash. This is America. Innocence isn't something you have to prove. Even if you look a little different from an Observer editorial writer.

It'd be nice if there was an encouraging lesson for copyeds in here, but I doubt it. Still, somebody ought to be embarrassed. A lot.

* Right. And if your next question is why we have editorials if they're generally not much smarter than unusually bright garden slugs, you have a good question.
** Thank you, Central Ohio Bureau.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

There'll always be an ...

Yes, quicker than you can say "Reithian tradition of journalism in the public service," the gold standard of international news weighs in with

10 songs that won't upset the Germans
England fans are being urged not to sing offensive songs at the World Cup, but instead to consider jovial chants in German and display a more peaceful demeanour. The Magazine suggests a few songs that could be construed as more positive.

Plenty more of the usual footie fare, too. And -- what do you know? -- some news too:

Questions over London terror raid

Given a slightly sharper point across town:

Yard told MI5 of terror tip doubt

Amazing how many thought balloons The Meedja seem capable of floating at the same time when given a chance, innit?

Desk gets late story, grabs random words, cuts, pastes, leaves

When you're trying to get a hed out a multi-element tale and the dear old deadline clock is running, the trick isn't to try to jam in a whole sequence of events. It's to pick out a highlight and -- following the rules -- build a nice, simple structure pointing to it. Not, in other words, like this:

Man barricades himself, fires shots, holds police at bay
Police were negotiating late Friday with an armed man who had barricaded himself behind a fence in an outdoor area near a park on N.C. 115.

Close to 20 officers from Huntersville, Cornelius and Charlotte-Mecklenburg were trying at 11:15 p.m. to get the man to surrender, said Huntersville police Lt. Kurt Marcus.

Officers responded to a call regarding an armed man a little after 7 p.m., Marcus said. When they approached, the man barricaded himself behind the fence. That's when officers called the department's SWAT team and negotiators.

The man fired shots but did not appear to be aiming at people, Marcus said.

First off, where's the "holding at bay"? If it isn't in the story, don't infer it into the hed. Second, let grammar be grammar. "Barricade" needs two complements in this sense. You can barricade a street, but you can't barricade yourself (at least not without a prepositional phrase: "behind a fence," as in the lede, or "in the fortalice," or whatever). So imagine grammar waving a big red sign warning you that a correct hed using "barricade" will be really long and boring.

Conveniently, if we're trying to get down to a single verb phrase (not a bad hed principle itself), gunplay has a lot to recommend it. That leaves room to work in lots of other stuff in other grammatical structure. Turn "barricades" and "at bay" into a noun, give it a preposition, and you have "during standoff." Even in a little bitty county like Meck, "behind a fence" isn't a very informative location, but "near N.C. 115" -- hmm, figure that might help get people's attention?

So, passive VP and two prepositional phrases: "Shots fired during standoff near N.C. 115." Another in the long list of heds that weren't declaimed vpon the boards of the Globe, but the grammar's in order, the location's better, and at least it sounds like a hed, not like the instructions on a tube of toothpaste.

Oh, and by the way? Friends don't let friends say "Officers responded to." No matter your circulation. No matter how close to deadline.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Nice idea. Now throw it out.

Every now and then one of your originating desks gets .... well, original, and tries to "add" "value" to something it isn't set up to add value to. That's the problem with this enterprising centerpiece. Steering away from the who-what-where approach on a story that's been in play since 3 the previous morning is the right idea. But not all such efforts are equal, and this one should have been thrown back. It subtracts more from the sum of human knowledge than it adds.

The problem is the "Five to Fear" package down the gut. Put as politely as possible, it's simply silly. The assemblers of the package are assuming (and offering you advice on how to order your thinking about the world on that basis) that any and all forms of international mayhem are interchangeable. How scared you should be of any set of "people suspected of terror and murder on international most-wanted lists," then, can be sort of represented by this equation: f = Σtm/n

where f is your fear, t and m are the amounts of terror and murder suspected, and n is the number of suspected terrorists and murderers. All mayhem is equal, therefore all fear is proportionate.

Which has the misfortune of ignoring many if not most known characteristics of international mayhem and political violence. How much do you -- reaching for your second cup of coffee in beautiful Columbia, S.C. -- have to fear from Ratko Mladic? Roughly the square root of zero! If not less! Why would he come after you -- even assuming he could get across any of the intervening borders without winning a free ticket to The Hague? His bit of murderous business had its specific goals, and dragging South Carolinians into it wasn't any of them. If anything, it would only have risked getting the administration off the dime -- bad idea if you're a mediocre army that wants to kill civilians in peace and quiet.

Joseph Kony? Once again, he has his interests, and you're unlikely to be among them. Basayev? As long as you have your atlas out, look up Chechnya. The threat of insurgent violence tends to be specific and local. It is not normally distributed. And in the case of the Abu Sayyaf, there seems to be some ongoing debate about whether the loyalists are in it for the cause or the money.

Now. Obviously, there are folks out there who would like to trash Columbia and environs before moving up the road and getting Charlotte in the bargain. I'd be happy to assume the Khobar plotter shown here is of that sort and to agree that he and his kind are an unusual -- if not unique -- threat that needs to be dealt with accordingly. But the place to start is not by assuming that every single bit of political violence in the world Hates America Because It Hates Our Freedom. That's the sort of long-range brainlessness this centerpiece feeds, and the grownup press needs to stop feeding it. In a hurry.

In a roundabout way, that's why the hed -- "One Less Merchant of Death" -- is a bad choice too. I don't mind if you call Zarqawi names, and I don't mind that much if you say "less" for "fewer" with count nouns in colloquial big-type gloating. But* again, derogatory terms often have pretty specific connotations and can't be used interchangeably. A "merchant of death" isn't somebody who kills a lot of people. It's someone who makes the wherewithal of death available -- usually used for arms merchants,** also sometimes for people who flog cigarettes to preadolescents and the like. Call him a vicious terrorist all you want, but why confuse matters by introducing a term that already has an unrelated, and thus confusing, meaning?

To make a long story short: Nice idea, gang. Now throw it out and start over.

* there's an echo of this discussion over on Testy Copy Eds, q.v.
** Per the OED, "merchant of death, a person who makes a profession of war; spec. an arms dealer or a mercenary soldier." I'd like to see better and more current cites on the latter, though again, I wouldn't have called Zarqawi a mercenary.

Think it through

We'd like to think all assertions in stories are true, but that doesn't mean they're all equal when it comes to abstracting out goodies for headlines. Today's case in point:

Site fills growing need
Rising number of aging baby boomers sparks more interest in services

Easiest things first: If you start with a general assertion in the main hed, you need to sharpen it in the deck. Go from vague to specific, not vague ("site," "need") to vague ("services").

How do you get the space for that? (Not that "adult day care" is all that much longer than "services," but...) That leads us to the causal assertion in the deck. The growing need, or the increased interest, or whatever, is sparked (ack!) by the rising number of aging baby boomers. Is it? Here's the eighth graf:

The increase in demand is driven by several factors: the aging of the baby boom generation, more retirees in town and more awareness of adult day care as an option to the traditional nursing home.

That's the writer's summary, not a source's. How good is the ground it rests on?

Data from the U.S. Census also show that the number of Columbians older than 65 rose fairly dramatically between 1990 and 2000, from 9,392 to 11,644, a 24 percent increase. As that population continues to age, it can put an unexpected strain on services such as Adult Day Connection.

“This is the baby boom,” said Sonja Barnes, director of programming for Adult Day Connection at The Intersection. “That population is getting older. The need for adult day care in Columbia is only beginning to be addressed.”

No, that's not the baby boom. The folks in the cohort she's describing are on the other side of 70 now, and the oldest of the boomers are just turning 61. The post-WWII boom will indeed affect adult day care in the future, but as the driving force behind events in 2006, it looks like a bad choice by the copy desk.

While we're neatening up, watdh out for adverb overload:

the number of Columbians older than 65 rose fairly dramatically between 1990 and 2000

What makes this only "fairly" dramatic? Could we publish the scale we use for those decisions? Or could we just let the 24 percent speak for itself?

“I think it’s great,” she said. “Great for people my age.”

OK, not to be rude, but -- what is her age? She's the lede, she's the conclusion, she's attending adult day care. How old is she?

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Hey, just so you don't think we're nothing but doom and gloom here at HEADSUP-L Manor, here's a hearty pat on the back and Job Well Done to all you desks that spurned or otherwise rejected this San Jose-dated item from the Associated Press:

Undergraduate survey: iPods more popular than beer
Move over Bud. College life is not just about drinking beer.

In a rare instance, Apple Computer Inc.'s iconic iPod music player surpassed beer drinking as the most "in" thing among undergraduate college students, according to the latest biannual market research study by Ridgewood, New Jersey-based Student Monitor.

Nearly three quarters, or 73 percent, of 1,200 students surveyed said iPods were "in" more than any other item in a list that also included text messaging, bar hopping and downloading music.

In the year-ago study, only 59 percent of students named the iPod as "in," putting the gadget well below alcohol-related activities.

This took some serious, genuine, hit-behind-the-runner, out-and-out clutch copyediting. You couldn't settle for stopping the silly lede sentence with its missing comma of address. You couldn't just say "rare instance of what?" You had to go for the kill. Of a trend story! That uses the term iPod! And is about young people! You had to sit there, heedless of the threat to your personal safety, repeating over and over:

"Would you like a beer?" is not the same question as "Would you like an iPod?" This is a silly comparison of unrelated concepts that doesn't belong in a real newspaper. Calling it "apples and oranges" is unfair to the fruit kingdom. It's more like apples and light opera. Don't we have some news, please?

(If you calculated the margin of sampling error on your own, good for you. I can't get the same figure the marketing company got, but that could be why I'm doing qualitative this summer.)

Anyway, those of you who faced this one down and won, congratulations. The world is -- fractionally but measurably -- a better place for your efforts. And tnx to the fine young journalists at Fine Young Journalist who first sounded the alarm.

Style zombies stalk earth

Today's topic is a grammar issue -- not (necessarily) "bad" grammar, but grammar that's so badly marked you can't tell who's supposed to yield and who's supposed to barrel ahead:

911 operators charged after 5-year-old ignored
Two 911 operators who authorities say wrongly assumed it was a prank when a 5-year-old boy called to report that his mother had collapsed have been charged with neglect of duty.

Looks as if the style zombies have come through in search of human flesh and auxiliary verbs. Trouble is, news "style" doesn't require that heds be written without auxiliaries. Indeed, when an auxiliary is the only way to tell what verb goes with what noun, you're sort of duty-bound to use it. Which is exactly the sort of issue we face above. Is "charged" active (the operators charged after the 5-year-old) or passive (the operators were charged)? Who was ignored, the 5-year-old or the operators?

Short version: Be clear. Whenever you think a style rule, or a bit of journalistic custom, or any other form of that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it-ism is causing you to write like a zombie, stop. Back up. Think again. It ain't.

Longer version: Parallel structure extends his sunny beams over elided elements too. The auxiliaries ought to be in different tenses: Operators ARE charged after 6-year-old WAS ignored (would have been hard to charge them BEFORE he was ignored, but that's a different issue).

Best idea: With this many warning lights, it's time to throw out the hed structure and start over. Play with a few ideas that don't require the passive clause object:
911 operators accused of ignoring 5-year-old
911 operators accused after woman's death

One could go on and on, but one has places to go.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Me and Henry, again

Self-fulfilling prophecy time. The reason we here at HEADSUP-L get exercised about journalism predictions on the order of "News will be framed according to your social networks, your age and your tribe" (infra) is twofold:

1) With the possible exception of age, it already is. "News" is a social and tribal construction, not a set of standards kept next to the official metre and kilogram at the Royal Institute of Measures and Stuff. It's as true of "man bites dog" as it is of "dog bites man."
2) That's pretty unexceptional in most cases (my tribe prefers baseball to cricket and buzkashi, and I'm glad the local dailies reflect that). But it's not universally good. And in those cases where it traditionally tends to get out of control -- as in, Man Bites Dogs of War -- it's something journalism needs to actively work against, rather than celebrating it in a race with our friends at Fox to the bottom of the drain.

It's no surprise, then to awaken to Sunday morning tales along the lines of

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Sunday that oil shipments from the Gulf region would be disrupted if the United States attacked his nation, but his threat was dismissed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran's supreme leader, has warned the United States that any "misbehavior" directed at Iran would serve to disrupt Gulf energy shipments.

You can see how that's an appealing social and tribal frame in a land where much of the tribe drives SUVs and looks on the Middle East as basically a bunch of indifferentiated America-hating nutcases. First he warns! Then he threatens! (Then -- cunning foreigner! -- he monophthongizes the end of his family name, but that's probably CNN's fault; the copy desk looks to have been pretty sound asleep when this one went by.)

What's he really up to? Well, over at the Realist Bar and Grill, me and Kissinger (Condi Rice used to be a member too, until she fell in with the wrong kids) are inclined to call it "stating the blindingly obvious." Gosh -- you figure a war along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf might have some impact on oil shipments? As it usually seems to?

By itself, of course, this is nothing but a little comforting tribal Us-vs.-Them-ism: They're nuts, we're minding our own business. Or to borrow a social-psyc/persuasion cliche: I say, you warn, he threatens. But if you've been watching this particular dance for the past few months, you'll notice a familiar pattern: Iran says "If you punch us, we'll punch back," and the hed becomes "AYATOLLAH THREATENS U.S."

Or -- here's a direct quote -- "The United States may have the power to cause harm and pain but it is also susceptible to harm and pain." See below under bear, woods, Charmin (your round, Henry). Somehow this went from the obvious-if-unspecific to outright doomsday at the hands of the Knight-Ridder Washburo:

The war of words over Iran's nuclear program grew harsher Wednesday, as Iran threatened to inflict "harm and pain" on the United States in retaliation for any U.S.-led effort to force the Islamic republic to abandon its uranium enrichment work.

Alert readers will have noticed that the lede's explicit quid pro quo is nowhere present in the prepared statement the Iranians offered. And they might have wondered how this became "Iran fires threat at U.S." on the front of a daily that's big enough* to know better. Combine that with a good diplomatic forgery or two -- say, this month's tale about religious minorities and yellow badges -- and even a third-rate demagogue can make a compliant press sing along.

The point, measured in mega-duhs, is not that the Iranian regime is cuddly and friendly. It isn't. It's a pretty nasty lot. But it can be counted on to act in what it perceives as its appropriate interests (Henry, are you sure you don't have to drive?). The job of journalism is not to whip the tribe into a frothy-lipped frenzy every time Tehran clears its throat. If we can persuade the tribe to zip it while we try to explain the difference between realist rhetoric and the truly dangerous stuff, we'll actually be doing some sort of public service.

End of sermon. Yes, comps are next month. Why do you ask?

* Its smaller cousin at Myrtle ran the same lede but managed a much more sophisticated hed: "Iran, U.S. sling heated threats, rhetoric on nuclear program."

Magic beans and snake oil

Water flows downhill, the sun rises in the East, and the pope is rumored to have risen from the ranks of a secretive organization called the "College of Cardinals." Thus we shouldn't be surprised when consultancies visit towns peddling ideas like "visioning," or when towns shake the piggy bank and come across with some public cash to buy a few such magic beans.

Newspapers need to report on these goings-on, but they need to be careful to stay on the sidelines -- and away from the cheerleaders. As in:

The results are in from May’s visioning forum, and according to a report by ACP Visioning and Planning, residents strongly support creating a vision for Columbia’s future.

Put away the tar and feathers. The report doesn't appear to really say that -- but when the story says it does, the newspaper is planting a thumb on the "visioning" scales nonetheless. You cannot generalize about what "residents" think from a group of people who attended a "visioning forum." It's not allowed.

Roughly 89 percent of the meeting’s respondents thought visioning would benefit Columbia. Visioning is a citizen-driven process to formulate long-range goals for communities. One table of respondents wrote visioning could produce “sustained, controlled growth.” Another said the process might include “new ideas that may not have been brought up before.”

That's as opposed to new ideas that have been brought up before. Bear disappears into woods with roll of Charmin. If we're going to include the tautological views of the sorts of folks who attend visioning meetings, can we at least de-Igor them a little? Maybe by explaining "visioning" in a separate syntactic unit from the one where we talk about what the attendees think?

The deck hed should have been a clue to the main problem here:

Report from first forum reveals obstacles in involving the entire community in process.

If the report reveals any such obstacles, we don't recount them. Which is too bad, because that seems to be sort of Topic 1 to be discussed before we hop any more firmly on this bandwagon.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Voices from the future, part II

With the summer editing season officially upon us, a few more comments from the Thin Red Line of the future. These are from essays reflecting on one of the semester's final requirements, a two-hour shift on an actual copydesk:

I think the copy editor role is similar to that of an offensive lineman -- people only notice them when they screw up, but try winning a game without them.

The fact that the man had killed himself simplified matters in the libel situation, but the story did make me realize that we are working real stuff, not just workbook exercises anymore.

My high school English teacher, a self-described "word nerd," would have loved the company of the desk. It's a work environment I could get used to, though I felt a twinge of traitorous guilt when I laughed at a joke about some reporter's mistake.

It was no longer an abstraction or something to learn just to get through another homework exercise, but was information that will be useful in my daily work in a newsroom, regardless of my position (unless I am a janitor).

I'm a dork, and I think copyediting is pretty nifty.

Copyediting is hard work. I appreciate this more now, but this just showed me how much more enjoyable writing is.

Some of the words from my C-deck on that Thai chicken story appeared to have made the final version. Add one more item to the category of things that taste like chicken: small editorial victories.

I really wasn't sure how I was supposed to come up with a creative headline for a story that was so short and unexciting.

I trust I am learning to become distrustful.

Some of you out there did the same assignment last year, or five years ago, or six years ago. (Yes. In a box. In the attic.) How does desk life look now, compared to what you thought then?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

OK, enough $#@^%$^%&* alliteration

Here's a tone- and taste-challenged 1A CP hed from a major southeastern daily. Try not to drive that K-R stock any farther down before the sale goes through, OK?

'Unbelievable' finds
in death of student

Friend says woman who worked with a charitable group was focused on ‘not messing her life up’

With a mere 7 grafs on the front, the anecdotal lede is barely clearing its throat (although at least it's clear that "student" and "woman who worked with a charitable group" are the same person). We know that the friend says the victim wasn't a partier but had to be nagged about it. All of which leaves us with some sense of confusion -- but a healthy dose of anticipation -- when we get to the jump. Unbelievable how?

Here are the succeeding grafs:
On Wednesday, prosecutor Bob Ariail said authorities are searching Souers’ computer and have developed a timeline of her whereabouts until 12:03 a.m. Friday, which was after she was dropped off at her apartment.

“There are certainly things that have taken place in this investigation that have led it in a different direction,” Ariail said, adding some of the discoveries have been “unbelievable.”

Ariail said investigators hope to have a DNA profile of the attacker today and say whether there was a sexual assault.

The State Law Enforcement Division has sent specialized investigators to analyze forensic evidence.

And that's about that on the "unbelievable" front. We're teased by the out-of-context quote, but when we get there, there's nothing to hold us up. Perhaps worse, there's nothing to tell us which sort of "unbelievable" light they might cast.

Copyeds, it's as true at your state capital dailies as it is in your beginning editing class: If the reporter can't explain the quote or put it into context, the answer is not to amplify the paper's ignorance by blowing the thing up on the front page.

Tone, taste, timing

Defining "tone" in heds is sort of like nailing Jell-O® to a herd of cats. It doesn't produce a lot of generalizable rules, and the rules it does produce look a lot like the whims of the person doing the nailing. But a few examples from recent days offer a bit of insight on when and why particuular tricks might or might not work:

Hey, customer: Hang up and order!
Restaurants and shops adopt different policies to deal with patrons using cell phones.
It was the day a customer threw a sandwich in her face that Subway manager Rachel Grimes knew she had to do something about people who try to order while talking on their cell phones.

The story wants a hed that gets in your face and yells a little, and this one captures the sense of it perfectly. At the same time, it tells you everything the story's about: Customers, telephones and failed interactions. The deck stumbles a bit, but not because of tone. "Adopt different policies" is overliteral for a story that isn't about policies (note that at one of the three businesses in the story, the sign represents "a courtesy, not a store policy"). Better to try for a bit of the broader picture painted by the expert's comments about the cell phone in modern life.

Is it the insurance?
Maybe the Molson's?
A Harvard study finds Canadians are healthier than Americans.
Add Canadians to the list of foreigners who are healthier than Americans.

This one, on the other hand, misses the target, for a couple of reasons. One, not to be literalist or anything, but there's nothing in the story about Molson's (or Labatt's, or all the beer taverns all down along Yonge Street, or whatever). The hed isn't a signal about the content, but a signal about the copydesk, and our job is to stay off the stage. Two: Can't you take a joke? Answer: Sure. Can you tell a public health issue from a joke? There's plenty of room in the paper to be funny; this is a story I'd actually like to know something about because of its importance. (See below* for routine science-journalism whinge.)

MU student wins trip to Africa
Last-second essay sends Casey Parks with NY Times scribe.

Quick show of hands: How many of you have used the word "scribe" since junior high history classes? Right. There's room for "columnist" or "journalist" or "Pulitzer winner" -- and no need at all to lapse into 1940s Variety-speak.

There's lots more to be said about recent heds, but it's on different topics. Well, maybe just one ...

United States could join talks with Iran
This is why "could" and "might" heds are banned -- not because they're false, but because they're no truer, and thus no more an indication of why the story is in the paper, today than they would have been yesterday. This story's not about what might happen but about what happened Wednesday: Washington set out the conditions under which it would join the talks. Talk about what is, not what might be. (And be sure to check out the discussion at Common Sense Journalism of why the state of a paper's briefs packages is a good indicator of the overall state of its editing.)

* The study's interesting, but the AP take is so awful that its value is at best marginal. To reiterate a favorite point: When you're editing a "study says" tale, the first thing you should do is find the study. I'm having trouble getting to a full text, but the abstract is easy, and it suggests that the study's "about" something far different from what the AP thinks: "Access to Care, Health Status, and Health Disparities in the United States and Canada: Results of a Cross-National Population-Based Survey." As befits a survey story, it's as much -- or more -- about reported access as it is about reported health. And "Americans report a higher incidence of A, B and C" is not the same thing as "Canadians are healthier." Quoting the RAND guy who did an unrelated study turns research into -- literally and unfortunately -- a he-said/she-said matter. There are lots of ways to critique logistic regression. "That's unlikely" isn't much of one.

Dares, diagrams, danglers

Man found dead with bullet wound in crashed car after fleeing Miami hotel

"I dare you to diagram that," says the Florida buro. Looks like good practice to me. Who'd like to step up?

And on the It Never Goes Away front, this from the far distant coast:

A witness reported that a portion of the tail of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer’s plane hit the ground during takeoff before crashing into a creek bed, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday.