Monday, January 01, 2007


So what do you figure was the most common hed phrase on front pages across the land, aside from "Happy New Year"? How about ...

At grim milestone for U.S. deaths in Iraq war, a time to reflect
Decatur Daily News

Grim milestone for U.S troops in Iraq
Rocky Mountain News (the competition got "grim milestone" into a C-deck)

At grim Iraq milestone, a time to reflect
Bradenton Herald

U.S. casualties reach a grim milestone in the final days of 2006
Lakeland Ledger

The military reaches a grim milestone on the last day of 2006
The News & Observer (mistaking the report for the milestone itself)

U.S. death toll in Iraq war hits grim milestone
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Iraq war's U.S. death toll hits grim milestone
Lincoln Journal-Star

U.S. forces in Iraq reach grim milestone on day Hussein is buried
Akron Beacon Journal

The grim milestone coincides with the burial of the dictator U.S. forces brought down
Roanoke Times

U.S. deaths in Iraq war reach grim milestone
Lynchburg News & Advance

Then there are the merely silly:
Soldier's death ends '06 on grim number
The Olympian
Numbers aren't "grim." You can contrast grim milestones (e.g., deaths) with perky ones (schools opened), but 3,000 isn't any grimmer than 2,461

U.S. dead in Iraq reaches 3,000
Anchorage Daily News
They does? I mean, it do?

Iraq war U.S. casualties reach 3,000
Chicago Tribune
For the first, but almost certainly not the last, time this year, "casualties" does not mean "deaths." It means "losses to active strength." U.S. casualties, dead and wounded, in this war are in the neighborhood of 25,000, and if that's a story that got held out again for the allure of a Big Round Number, then we're still missing the boat.

Which almost gets to the point: If you're going to proclaim a number is important -- which, needless to say, you're doing when you put it at the top of the front page, or dress it up as a centerpiece, or whatever -- you need to know what the number means and why it's a significant change from the status quo. Here's an example that suggests what might have been going on in the editorial mind:

In Iraq, a grim milestone
As U.S. marks 3,000th military death, Americans more aware of toll
Charlotte Observer
Sorry, but that's just wishful thinking. There's nothing in the story to support the main clause in the deck and its "as" link to the event. We might hope there's some such link, but absent some evidence, it's a guess.

U.S. war deaths go beyond numbers
Give doubters voice as tally hits 3,000

West Paterson (NJ) Herald News (clearly a candidate to watch in the Worst Hed of '07 competition)

Again, retrospective guesswork. Show me some -- any -- doubters who needed an artificial milestone (however grim) to find their voices.

To generalize (and, as pollster William Blake was fond of pointing out, to generalize is to be an idiot), it looks as if a lot of papers are trying to get on this bandwagon as eagerly as they got on the war wagon. Assuming a public obsession with round numbers that equals the newsroom's obsession doesn't really get it, and it obscures some of the larger and better points that some of the experts and pollsters might be able to make if we let them. There are plenty of stories still out there by way of reminding people that Nos. 3,001 and 3,002 (which "All Things Considered" was reporting earlier this evening) are every bit as relevant as the one that happens to end in three zeroes.

Assignment for everybody who thought "grim milestone" would make an original hed: Go find an article published in 2006 by any of the scholars mentioned in the AP article Charlotte ran and write a 150-word precis. It's that or a dozen laps.


Blogger Chance said...

Terrific points, as always.

11:09 PM, January 01, 2007  
Anonymous Denise C. said...

We had grim milestone. But that's not the half of it. Those "local ties" I mentioned in another comment? On 1A they are "Our local victims."



1:11 PM, January 02, 2007  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

Well, were they actually "local" folks?

Here in NC, anyone who was at any time based for any reason at one of our many fine military bases qualifies as a "local" serviceman. I could see that for the papers in Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Havelock, etc, but there's no real excuse for the Raleigh paper to do this.

3:09 PM, January 02, 2007  
Anonymous Denise said...

"Local ties" in at least one instance meant that they spent their whole lives elsewhere, but when their mom got divorced she moved into our coverage area. It gets more and more problematic when it seems everyone in the country has at least one relative that lives in Florida. . .

10:27 AM, January 03, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

How'd the guy who was killed in Afghanistan get in with the Grim Milestone stuff?

5:53 PM, January 03, 2007  

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