Tuesday, June 26, 2007

RTFS-plus

It's time to play "Anatomy of an Error" again. There's a cure for this sort of hed inaccuracy, but it requires a little more work than usual. Here we go:

And here's the lede from the story:

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt --Middle East leaders looking to contain and weaken Hamas forces now controlling the Gaza Strip converged at this Red Sea resort Monday.

But Hamas upstaged them by releasing the first recording of an Israeli soldier they captured a year ago, which had touched off a major Israeli intervention in Gaza.

So far, so goodish (though the Team Is An It Department is pained to see "Hamas" getting a plural pronoun). Where's the error?

The audiotape of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, along with the release of a new video from the Gaza Strip showing abducted BBC correspondent Alan Johnston wearing an explosive vest, overshadowed the modest Egyptian summit, which was meant to demonstrate support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A good way to put the RTFS rule into practice is to isolate any fact claim in the hed and ensure that you can put your finger on the corresponding fact in the story. The main hed is pretty easy: Hamas is the actor, and upstaging (OK, it's the reporter's opinion, but for purposes of making the hed correspond with the story, it's going to count as a fact) is what Hamas did.

The deck is more of a challenge, because the copy editor has to assemble a couple of disparate fact claims into clauses to test the assertion "Group releases recordings of prisoners." Graf 2 gives us one clause: Hamas released a recording of a prisoner. But the fact claim is about recordings of prisoners, so on to graf 3: The tape (released by Hamas) and a video of the captive BBC reporter are what did the overshadowing. In effect, we have an active clause and a passive one:

Hamas releases tape of soldier
Tape of reporter released

See where the error comes from? The hed assumes that Hamas is the subject of both, and that's farther than the first three grafs allow. That's a cue to hunt through the rest of the story for the missing subject of the second clause. It isn't there (it's in the full story at the McClatchy Washburo site but appears to have been end-cut from the versions appearing in Charlotte and Miami), but that's not a clue to guess. It's a clue to visit the originating desk and ask who did the releasing of the videotape.

Turns out it wasn't Hamas; it's a different group whose agenda appears to include yanking Hamas's chain. So the hed's claim -- "Group releases recordings" -- is false.

Now, the reaction from the glass offices is likely to be a big yawn. "If you see an error, write us," the paper's Web site implores, but it needs a footnote: "Unless it's about the Middle East or something somebody from the Washburo did." That's unfortunate, because how clearly a news organization reports a topic is a reflection of how clearly it understands that topic. Hamas has been playing up its efforts to win the reporter's release, which says something about how Hamas wants to be seen by the outside world. Whatever your views on this part of the world, if you want to know what a group is up to, the group's perception of its interests is a really good place to start.

OK, end commercial for the Virtues of Realism. If this paper is the place you get your news about the fractious Near East, you could end up misinformed. Or you might just roll your eyes and turn to some source that gets the structure right.

Why is this sort of error more common in news than in sports? Sports deskers are expected to have a pretty high level of subject knowledge and to pay attention to developing stories they're likely to handle. News desks need to catch up -- especially if "credibility" is one of those things we're going to make central to our claim on audience time and attention.

Several papers that used the MCT article took approaches that avoided the assumption that fed the error. Fort Worth went with "Tapes of captured soldier, journalist mar summit." Miami used "Tape of missing Israeli soldier aired" (I'd quibble with "aired" to mean "posted on a Web site," but at least the hed stays away from the initial goof).

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