Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Alleged in his own time

It must be a laugh a minute at the Fount of Knowledge across town:

Alleged drunken driver slams into pole
Police arrested a Columbia man early yesterday on suspicion of driving while intoxicated after he allegedly struck a utility pole with his vehicle near downtown Columbia.

There are lots of reasons well-edited newspapers don't use the adjective "alleged" and the adverb "allegedly" in crime stories. There's that pesky fairness issue. There's the grammar thing (what's the "alleged killer" become after the not-guilty verdict -- an "acquitted killer"?). Then there's the whole wiring-diagram bit: If you just sort of smear the Magic Allegedly Ointment around without regard to where it goes, you're liable to get gunk all over your shirt and not end up with any on the gaping wound that needs it.

In the example given, two distinct offenses are being alleged (that's a verb, not an adj, if you're scoring along at home). One is utility-pole-slamming; the second is DWI. The hed writer apparently forgot that neither has been proved. "Alleged drunken driver slams into pole" gets at the second offense but declares the suspect guilty of the first (which is what the "allegedly" in the lede covers).

Moral: Potentially libelous allegations are like land mines. It doesn't do any good to avoid one if you tap-dance straight onto the next.

While we're at it? If you need an example of a case in which the active voice is wordier and duller than the passive, this is it. Cop ledes are born to be in the passive voice.

Dunno. What color is they?

Further to the occasional discussion on whether contractions are innately good or bad (or neither) in hed writing, and whether there is or isn't such a rule, and whether (if yes) such a rule is another sin visited by j-schools against the honest craft of editing.

The basic rule on contractions is easy: They're fine when appropriate. That means the hed writer -- surprise, surprise -- actually has to apply judgment in ambiguous or confusing cases. "He's" might technically be a contracted form of "he has," but it's so likely to land weirdly on readers' ears that "technically" isn't going to cut it. (Try doing a Google search for "he's a lot to be thankful for" compared with "he's a rebel.")

Sometimes, contractions are out of tune with the story (this can happen in text, too; it isn't limited to heds). And sometimes they're subject to Whim O'Slot. I used to ban "who're" on grounds that it looks too much like "whore," but that's not an argument from usage so much as an argument from having been an adolescent guy back in the Pleistocene or so.

So the rule comes down to this: Appropriate contractions are fine. Inappropriate ones aren't. When in doubt, use brain.

All of which has nothing to do with the correctness conditions that apply to contractions. "They's" is not a shortened version of "they are." So this one isn't a matter of tone, taste or timing as much as it is a matter of being able to count past one:

What color's my grassroots?

Wow. Hard to say. What color was they when you started?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Elite Republicans and other delights

A pair of diverse reminders of why editors can't just grab random nouns for headline use and expect to be understood -- or, more to the point, expect to not be ridiculed or taken to task for grossly slanting the news.

Exhibit A, from the leading local morning daily:
Vets plan challenge to protest judgment
A recent court ruling that upheld the right to protest at the Memorial Day air show will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a lawyer representing the Salute to Veterans Corp. said Wednesday.

The distal end of a prepositional phrase is a long way to go for the subject of a hed, isn't it? People who voted for Nixon aren't "Nixons." People who read vampire novels aren't "vampires." How did the people who run the Salute to Veterans Corp. get to be "vets"?

OK, granted, there are exceptions. Nixon probably voted for Nixon (hell, Pat probably did too). And after a long night of spreading horror among the innocent, many copy editors like to curl up with a warm glass of blood and read "Scoop"; why wouldn't vampires do something similar? The point is that these folks aren't in the story because of their service status (which isn't specified; the only person in the story I know to be a veteran is one of the protesters). They're people who put on an air show, and corporately they're known as "Salute to Veterans." That's far from the same thing, and the shortcut that gets you there needs to have a big "DANGER: BRIDGE OUT" sign posted at the exit.

The second one's not quite as silly but a bit more worrisome. It's sort of like referring to the Republican Guard's Hammurabi Division as "the Republicans." Before long, somebody's going to start thinking you're deliberately dishonest, rather than just clueless:

Fatah fighters defy warning

Militants at refugee camp told to surrender or face onslaught

No. "Fatah" (a reverse acronym for Palestine Liberation Movement that conveniently also means "opening") is a secular (though predominantly Sunni) Palestinian nationalist movement
that's busily duking it out with its own Islamists for political leadership in the Palestinian terrorities. The folks in this story seem to call themselves "Fatah al-Islam." Moving Fatah north (jeez, is it really 1982 again?) and declaring it "al-Qaida-inspired" is the sort of card-stacking that's best left for Fox and its ancillary bottom-feeders.

If the problem with U.S. Mideast policy is that we don't know the actors and can't be bothered to buy a scorecard, maybe journalism should stop being ... what do they call it, part of the problem? Yeah, that'd be nice.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Forget flood. Interview God.

Falwell spirit at graduation
At Liberty University event, Gingrich attacks `radical secularism'

You mean you guys saw a real live ghost and the best you could do was quote some bizarre fictions from a former House speaker?

Interesting that nowhere in the (rather generous) 15 grafs devoted to this tale does anyone actually mention seeing the said ghost. The closest we get is the lede:

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Liberty University's graduating class Saturday to honor the spirit of school founder Jerry Falwell by confronting "the growing culture of radical secularism" with Christian ideals.

Or does the copydesk just ... see things other mortals can't?

Fifteen grafs does suggest that this is a pretty important tale -- obviously not as important as PIRATES GO MAINSTREAM! (17 grafs) or CASTLE FOR SALE IN MASSACHUSETTS! (16 grafs), but a big deal by its own lights, at least. Compare it to poor Jimmy Carter, who rated a mere 12 grafs (three of them devoted to comments on his comments, and one to confirming to the AP that he actually said what he said) for calling the current administration the worst ever in foreign-policy terms.

"I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history," Carter told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a story that appeared in the newspaper's Saturday editions. "The overt reversal of America's basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including those of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me."

Gingrich can call for the forced conversion of the entire United States without challenge. And Carter?

"Apparently, Sunday mornings in Plains for former President Carter includes hurling reckless accusations at your fellow man," said Amber Wilkerson, Republican National Committee spokeswoman. She said it was hard to take Carter seriously because he also "challenged Ronald Reagan's strategy for the Cold War."

Quick, kiddies: Which two informal fallacies are in play in that paragraph? And which parts of the "Reagan" "strategy" did we have in mind -- lavishing state-of-the-art SAMs on the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? Selling weapons to Tehran by way of keeping those Sandinista armored divisions away from the Texas border?

Gotta love this objectivity stuff. News practice calls for sort of an automatic response to Carter's comments (not, alas, from Robert Jervis or John Mearsheimer or somebody who could assess an IR comment in IR terms), but the response itself doesn't have to make any sense at all. Young Amber might as well have said it's hard to take Carter seriously because the moon is made of green cheese. Wouldn't it be neat if we tried to reclaim some of that news space for reasoned discussion?

Friday, May 18, 2007

How not to write heds

This just in from our pals at Fox:

A bit different from the doc's actual quote, ya think?

"It's a little hard to know, but I think it's a fair statement to say this is not necessarily a fatal injury, he doesn't have to die," said Scalea, who will explain how Lincoln would have been treated at his center, the world's first dedicated trauma center.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cluelessness, macro- and micro-

One of the joys of copydesk life is the occasional need to shift from the little picture to the Great Big Picture and back again on short (to zero) notice. Here's a nice example from The State (which insists on capitalizing The Definite Article even though it looks like The Pits):

Television and radio talk show host Sean Hannity told state Republicans they will play a central role in choosing the next president and revitalizing the party to regain control of Congress in the next election.

Big picture: What's a story about Sean Hannity doing on the front page of a grownup newspaper?

Speaking to hundreds in Columbia at the state GOP’s annual Silver Elephant Dinner, Hannity said the country faces a crucial choice about its future, especially regarding how the United States deals with international terrorism.

Small picture: "The country faces a crucial choice regarding how the United States deals with international terrorism"? Big picture: I don't care if he's the keynote whateveritis. He's a mediocre TV personality with no independent thoughts worth wasting on a news page.

Look. If it was Voldemort or the Lord of the Nazgûl or the Prince of Darkness himself addressing the Republicans, that'd be one thing. But Hannity doesn't count. He's like the equipment manager for the satanic junior varsity. He's the pledge representative to the Delta Phi Nazgûl social committee (which means he gets to drive to the Food King!). Go ahead and front the dinner; just see if you can lede with somebody who doesn't actively subtract from the sum of human knowledge just by being in the room.

Small picture: Hannity focused on the war in Iraq, noting it was a critical first battle in a global war on terror. There is too much to lose, Hannity said, if a Democrat wins the next presidential race.

Two points about this noble burst of objectivity. One, we generally restrict "note" as a verb of attribution to stuff that's verifiably true. That's because ... well, because that's what it means. To note is to take note of or draw attention to something. You can "say" a thousand angels are dancing on the head of a pin if you want, but if you're going to "note" it, you need to whip out the magnifying glass. The desk's job here is to stop the writer from buying into the source's opinions.

Two, whatever Hannity is smoking, did he bring enough to share with the rest of the class? The idea of a U.S. "war on terror" can be traced to at least the Reagan administration. But if it's now official GOP policy that the War on Terror (as it's known over at Hannity's employer) didn't begin until -- what, a year and a half after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, then our reporter left dinner a little early, didn't he?

“These are transformative, consequential times. The enemy is waiting,” Hannity told the audience of more than 1,000.

Given that the crowd has gone from "hundreds" to "more than 1,000" in a mere three grafs, surely we could have found someone out there to help calibrate the meter. Is this the new party line? Everybody on board with this one? Or are Hannity and the reporter having a race to the bottom of the gene pool?

Really. Presidential politics has the potential to be serious business. Let's not get it mixed up with blowhards from cable TV. Covering Sean Hannity as news -- I mean, that'd be like covering Ann Coulter as a serious commentator, and nobody would dream of that. Right?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Random acts of nounage

Here's a rather unfortunate choice of noun, courtesy of the Post-Dispatch. Looks like the hed writer reached into the lede -- The insurgent coalition that includes al-Qaida in Iraq asserted responsibility on Sunday for the ambush south of Baghdad that left four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter dead and three other American soldiers missing -- without considering what the noun would look like without modifiers and articles.

The most available meaning for "coalition" in Iraq heds, alas, is the one in these recent tales from the AP:

Mixon has already received extra troops, but violence in Diyala is on the rise, he said, both because more militants have moved in and because coalition forces are taking the offensive. (May 12)

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. (Randy) Mixon, commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq, said morale generally remains good "in terms of staying focused on the mission." (May 11)

It allows U.S. and NATO troops to use its airspace as part of their Afghanistan missions and is the only Central Asian nation to have sent troops to participate in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. (May 10)

You always hate to encourage more "group" heds (if you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one hed, it'd probably be Group Mulls Plan), but as long as people insist on calling 9-count spex, "Group claims ..." would have been a far better choice. This isn't exactly the "Labels are not definitions" problem, but it does belong in a related conceptual category: The noun you see isn't always the noun to use.

The Obs gave the hed enough room to make sense (and for the day after Darlington, you have to admit, this is pretty good play for one of those darn international stories):

Friday, May 11, 2007

Fox isn't always the problem

As much fun as it is to sit around and make light of the agitpropsters over at Fox News, it's worth noting that Fox often doesn't have to do much to "real" news copy before it fits the mold. I'm not entirely sure what copyeds can do about that, but based on this, we might want to start making a little more noise in a few more of the right places.

Our case in point is this AP tale. Fox does a lot of routine ideological tweaking to AP copy: "suicide bomber" becomes "homicide bomber," militants become terrorists, and Quran is changed to Koran (reversing the style change AP made in 2000). So it's not unreasonable, at the outset, to hypothesize that something similar is afoot:

Cheney Issues Stern Warning to Iran: Keep Sea Lanes Open
Vice President Dick Cheney issued a warning to Iran while aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf on Friday, saying the United States would join allies to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons "and dominating the region."

With two U.S. carrier groups now in the region, the vice president declared, "We're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open."

Fox puts its thumb on the scale in the hed -- "stern" doesn't have any particular support in the text -- but the rest is straight-up AP. (If you're scoring along at home, this appears to be the first version of the story, which showed up here around 8 a.m.; AP tweaked it twice for afternoon papers before the ayems writethru appeared around 1 p.m.) That's the unnerving part, because warning Iran that you'll keep the sea lanes open -- the construction also shows up in AP's suggested hed -- isn't free of implication. It's sort of like holding a press conference outside your congressman's office and proclaiming that you'll keep schoolboys safe from predators. To paraphrase the immortal (or apocryphal) words of Lyndon Johnson: You don't have to say it to make the other sumbitch deny it.

Iran exerts considerable control over the narrow passageway that separates the Persian Gulf from the open waters of the Arabian Sea. Roughly a quarter of the world's oil supplies pass through the Straits of Hormuz.

It's the Strait (not Straits) of Hormuz, and it connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, not the Arabian Sea. Which is why desks have atlases and gazetteers and people who use them.

Iran loomed about 150 miles to the east as Cheney spoke aboard the USS John C. Stennis. The carrier was steaming about 20 miles off Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Uh, captain? Looming east of this position (unless the Stennis is playing Ship of the Desert) is more of the UAE. Followed by Oman, followed by the aforementioned Gulf of Oman. Iran is to the "north." But hiding among the geography is a bigger question: If Iran is "looming" (me and Webster are guessing the AP means "appear in an impressively great or exaggerated form" or "take shape as an impending occurrence"), then what do you figure two carrier battle groups are doing?

It was the latest shot in an escalating war of words, with both Tehran and Washington seeking to increase influence over states bordering Iraq. Cheney's visit comes just two days before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to visit Abu Dhabi.

"We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region," said Cheney.

Let's stipulate, for the future, that any claim of an "escalating war on words" be accompanied by at least three (3) examples clearly demonstrating an escalation. And -- did we mention reporters and maps? -- that reporters should look at maps. The Emirates don't border Iraq. Iran, on the other, rather does.

Both Shiite-dominated Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, are vying for influence among their respective ethnic factions in Iraq.

Those factions are confessional, not ethnic, and this is a good point to stop the tape and point out why some of this stuff happens. The story is from the White House beat (Fox usually cuts AP bylines), not from international. That explains a few of the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspects. And, to a degree, it explains why a generally unremarkable pep talk gets national circulation.

Which might be the bigger problem, and the real reason copy from the allegedly liberal media can be slapped up on Fox without changes. Wouldn't it be nice (and don't you expect at least some AP staffers with long memories would be happier?) if executive branch saber-rattling came with a bit of context? As in: What sorts of things tend to happen when Washington strolls around the Persian Gulf looking for a fight?

Well, sometimes our friends (Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in this case) will sort of accidentally-on-purpose put a missile into one of our ships. The attack on the Stark killed about twice as many Americans as the later attack on the USS Cole and caused people like Bob Dole to say things like: "We need to rethink exactly what it is we are doing in the Persian Gulf. What are our goals? What is our strategy? What are the risks? And how much cost are we willing to pay?"

(Yes, that's the Bob Dole who a couple of years later -- when Cheney was secretary of defense -- nuzzled up to Hussein in Mosul: "I think Saddam Hussein believes there is this capability by America, the British and Israel to tarnish the image of his country and to send out false statements.")

And sometimes ships hit mines. Ships and planes shoot at each other. And every now and then, things go really, really awry and people shoot down things they shouldn't -- like other people's civilian airliners.

Cheney didn't do Iran Air 655, and a story that tried to play cause-and-effect with any specific bit of tough talk would be silly. But we'd probably all be happier with international coverage if stories about White House policy didn't sound so much like the white-hatted sheriff had just walked into the Hormuz Saloon to stare down the bad guys. It's worth noting that this movie has been on before. A lot.

Monday, May 07, 2007

You-know-who in a chicken basket

These two occurrences have been noted elsewhere, and they're not related, except by the coincidence of showing up almost consecutively on the morning's reading list. But taken together, they do sort of suggest a question: If this is how you play in the big leagues, why do we even bother teaching ethics out in the provinces?

Here's Bob Woodward in the Post, reviewing George Tenet's new apologia:

Full disclosure: In discussions with Tenet as a reporter for this paper, I many times urged him to write his memoir, and, after he resigned from the CIA, I even spent a day with him and his co-writer, Bill Harlow, in late 2005 to suggest questions he should try to address. Foremost, I hoped that he would provide intimate portraits of the two presidents he had served as CIA director -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Instead, he has adhered to the rule of CIA directors: protect the president at all costs.

Gawd. OK, let's pretend for just a moment that the subtext for this isn't a war, in which things go boom and people die and the international order changes in unpredictable ways. Let's pretend it's just a new LP record album* or something. Does nobody at the Post cop to the idea that you simply do not ask a producer at one label to review the album he told another label's artist to record? "Full disclosure" isn't enough. This one should have gone on the spike, no questions asked.

If the Post still wants to make up for underplaying Walter Pincus's prewar reporting, why not let Pincus review the damn book? Or if Pincus also spent too much time with Tenet, find somebody who knows the terrain but isn't compromised -- and isn't going to spend a lot of review space playing he-said-I-said with an author who can't shoot back:

Tenet incorrectly suggests that I had one source for this report. There were at least four firsthand sources. When I interviewed President Bush in December 2003, he quoted the "slam dunk" phrase four times, and then in a fifth citation the president said, "And Tenet said, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.' And that was very important." I provided this portion of the transcript to Tenet.

Assuming Bush is only one of the "at least four firsthand sources" (which has precious little bearing on his or the other sources' credibility), doesn't this one still sound a bit like the guy who didn't believe what he read in the paper, so he went out and bought a dozen more copies to make sure?

Then comes this (hatlo: The invaluable Regret the Error):
A front-page article on Wednesday about an academic study that detected a racial bias in the foul calls of referees in the National Basketball Association noted that The New York Times had asked three independent experts to review the study and materials from a subsequent N.B.A. study that detected no bias.

The experts, whose names the authors of the two studies did not learn until after the article was published, all agreed that the study that detected bias was far more sound. That study was conducted by Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics.

After the article was published, The Times learned that one of the three experts, Larry Katz of Harvard University, was the chairman of Mr. Wolfers’s doctoral thesis committee, as Mr. Wolfers had acknowledged in previous studies. Because of this, Mr. Katz should not have been cited as an independent expert.

An updated version of the Wolfers-Price study added acknowledgments for Mr. Katz and a second expert The Times had contacted, David Berri of California State University-Bakersfield. They were thanked for brief “helpful comments” about the paper they made to Mr. Wolfers via e-mail messages after reviewing it for The Times. These later comments would have been mentioned in the article if editors had known about them.

Well, give the Times credit for acknowledging this sin (and, while we're at it, for linking out of the original article to the study itself). And it's hard to say from here how much due diligence would have been needed to spot this sort of academic logrolling. But it's not as if the Times isn't familiar with Prof. Wolfers' work. It's run his nonacademic writing. It's praised him as one of the young scholars who make up "the future of economics." It swallowed wholesale his assertions about point-shaving in college basketball. It's written fulsomely about how he brings his methods to the craft of calling political races ("Mr. Wolfers, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sitting in the comfort of his living room, had been a better pundit than most of the professionals on television, thanks to a Web site that is based in Ireland").

The issue here isn't necessarily Prof. Wolfers' data, though it'd be nice if the Times (and NPR) spent more time asking for details of what the results mean (does Chart 3 really show that the change in black-white foul ratio doesn't become significant until you get to an all-white refereeing team?) and less on asking for social comments. Nor is it whether science has a better chance of getting in the paper if the people who do it are young and hip and say slightly outrageous things about their results. It's something along the lines of how conventional wisdom gets to be so conventional, and it suggests that the place to start would have been in somebody else's stats department, with someone who reviews a lot of this sort of thing and doesn't have a stake in the outcome. In other words: Pick experts for their ability to knock a story off the front, not for their ability to grease the skids for it.

It wasn't the dissertation chairman's job to recuse himself. It was the Times's job not to put him in that position.


* "Coach, let's talk about your record." JUST KIDDING

Friday, May 04, 2007

A night on the rim

Welcome to the first annual* weekend e-forum here at the Manor. Here's how it'll work. We post some background information and an editing challenge. Then anybody who wants to can kick in suggestions, solutions, comments or what-have-you. If it works, we'll have more.

Ready? Here's the scene. The zombie/slasher/vampire court story of all court stories has just risen from the grave again. Now in its seventh big year, the case has everything: Rich people! Movers and shakers of local society! The sort of lawyer who can add three zeroes to the end of anything just by picking up a pen! NASCAR! (part of the fortune in question comes from owning the Charlotte Motor Speedway.) Divorce! And, erm, money! Lots of money. Some $19 million of it.

So nearly two years after you thought it was buried, the settlement in the Smith divorce case is back in the news. Here's the lede that lands in your basket:

It is a divorce case that never seems to go away, with as many turns as the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Your move?


Who borrowed my car key?

One problem with writing too many heds (and with hanging around other people who write too many heds, which otherwise is a Good Thing) is forgetting how strange hedspeak can sound to outsiders. As in this from the crosstown competition:

Borrowed car key in trial’s second day

We get so used to "key" as the three-count version of "pretty big deal," and to leaving out auxiliaries, that it's easy to forget that "car key" already means something.

Oddly, or perhaps reassuringly, it works far better in print than it does online, and the reason is that annoying stuff about hed phrasing that everybody nods along with in J4400 and then forgets as soon as the first real desk shift begins. If you try to keep related stuff on the same line, you increase the chance that people coming cold to your deathless prose will read "borrowed car," rather than "borrowed car key," as the noun phrase.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

At least we know what they call the decks

So "hedcontext" is the first deck, "hedexplain" is the c-deck and "storylabel" is the kicker?

You have to go to the Web site to find out that yesterday's "Tiger, Jordan" hed treatment has become today's "Tiger, Michael." ("It's a rare day you're on a first-name basis with the stars of the biggest show in town," the lede explains helpfully. "But you know Michael and you know Tiger.")

Nope. Can't say that I do. Nor do I know the Keyshawn mentioned in the skybox. But I'm starting to figure out the style rule: If you're a black guy and you play sports, house style is to call you by your first name in heds. That it?