Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How to turn PR into news

Tom Baker was the real Dr. Who, a good clock radio is one that's tuned to Radio 4, and the kitties will actually get up and march around the room to the strains of "Lilliburlero."* We're fond of the BBC around here. And we'd sort of like to know who was, erm, asleep at the switch over at Broadcasting House when somebody decided there was a news story to be found in a press release:

Airline bans A380 mile-high club
Singapore Airlines has taken the unusual step of publicly asking passengers on its new Airbus A380 plane not to engage in any sexual activities.

And why might that be?

The potential problem has arisen because the first class area of its giant superjumbo contains 12 private suites complete with double beds. (Clearly setting it apart from your ordinary-sized superjumbos.)

Singapore, which is the first airline to start flying the A380, said the suites were not sound-proofed. ... Singapore added that while the suites were private, they were also not completely sealed.

... "All we ask of customers, wherever they are on our aircraft, is to observe standards that don't cause offence to other customers and crew," the airline said in a statement.

Gee! Since "Call your doctor at once if you wake up with any particular attributes of classical statuary lasting more than four hours at a stretch"** seems to be taken, is there some other way we can use the cover of journalism to persuade people to pay attention to our product? I know! We'll get the BBC to remind them that no matter how private those superjumbo first-class cabins seem, some levels of friskiness simply will not do.

Really. The job of the PR professional is to get stuff to the door. The job of the journalist is to read it, nod sagely, and throw it in the rubbish bin. It's called a "BS detector" for a reason: Throw the switch, run it across some stuff, and it beeps when you hit certain palpable, you know, BS levels. Go ahead and change the batteries and try it again. Lord Reith would be so pleased.

* Just kidding. They're cats. They march around the room to whatever they please.
** World Series advertising ain't what it used to be, is it?

Keep opinion to self

Among the ongoing signs of the Apocalypse is the utter inability of anybody in U.S. broadcast news to give the weather -- meaning to offer expected high and low temperatures within a range of 5 degrees F, chance of precipitation and what kind, and wind conditions -- without giving some sort of opinion about it. Honest. I don't care if you think it's going to be "just great" or "beeyoutiful" or "kinda icky" or whatever. I don't need help in deciding whether a nice day is nice. All I want is some data.

Is this just another pointless whinge from the old-media-dinosaur camp? I'd like to think not, and here's why:

Forecast: Great weather for Halloween
Here's one less headache for parents planning to take (or send) their children out for Halloween trick-or-treating this evening.

The weather will be nearly perfect.

Forecasters expect temperatures to be cool enough that children won't get too warm in their costumes, yet not too chilly. And there is no chance of rain.

Note, at upper right, the 1A lede story: "Drought crisis possible in March." Go have a look at the bottom of the front page for the fourth part of an eight-part water series: Sitting in the bow of a motorboat anchored near a cove in Charlotte's reservoir, I could easily imagine how we might one day run out of clean water.* Now try to imagine a more blinkingly stupid headline than "Great weather" for a forecast with no chance of rain. (Meaning, inter alia, that anybody who describes such a forecast as "nearly perfect" should be relieved of weather duties forthwith.)

Please. Give me data and spare me your opinion. Especially if your opinion is, like, clueless.

* No, I don't know why someone thought this would be a good idea to write in the first person. It isn't.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More fun framing fibs from Fox

It's just too easy sometimes, isn't it?

Anyway. What's fun about this one is not that the frontpage presence is false. In the sense that 12 solons are seeking to overturn something, it's literally quite true. But it illustrates another one of those first-week-of-spring-training tricks of the propagandist's trade: The quicker you can move from event to reaction, the easier it is to bury the original untruth.

Here's the hed and story you get to when you click from the front:

Furor After Flag-Folding Ceremony Pulled From Cemeteries
A group of congressmen has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider its ban on the flag-folding ceremony at military funerals after the agency decided last month to streamline burials at federal cemeteries.

Legitimate hed truncation or clever hed fake? That one's hard to say. The lede, on the other hand, embeds a series of out-and-out lies. There is no ban on "the flag-folding ceremony"; there's apparently a ban on this one particular recitation. And it's not a ban at "military funerals"; it covers federal cemeteries. And, if the reporter whose tale appears to have triggered this is to be trusted, it isn't even a "ban": He [the Cemetery Administration spokesman] said the flag-folding narrative can be read but only if families make arrangements on their own and do not use cemetery workers, which include volunteers.

Or as the AP, which has an interest in seeing that stuff is true before it's shipped, put it: Flag-folding recitations by Memorial Honor Detail volunteers are now banned at the nation's 125 veterans graveyards because of a complaint about the ceremony at Riverside National Cemetery. Catch the distinctions? But for Fox's purposes, now that we have a "furor," who's going to go back and read the fine print? Certainly not the protagonists:

"The flag folding recitation is a longstanding tradition which brings comfort to the living and honor to the deceased," Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., writes in his letter Tuesday signed by 11 other congressmen. "The recitations accompanying each fold pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our veterans and their families, the nation they proudly serve, and the beliefs that they hold dear."

Veterans Affairs made the new policy decision last month, after a complaint was filed to the White House, said Rees Lloyd, a member of the American Legion's Memorial Honor Detail for services at Riverside National Cemetery in California.

"To me, it's a slap in the face for every veteran, every member of the Memorial Honor Detail and every family of the deceased veteran," Lloyd said.

One is inclined to suggest that Mr. Lloyd speak for himself. But more in a second.

At issue are secondary meanings attached to the folding of the flag. As the honor guard makes the 13 folds — traditionally representing the original colonies — they recite "the first fold of our flag is a symbol of life, the second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life, etc."

Nah, I'm betting they don't say "our belief in the eternal life, etc."

A complaint about the recitation for the 11th fold — "in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" — garnered a complaint and prompted the ban.
In a Sept. 27 memo, the National Cemetery Administration halted the ceremony. It was an effort to create uniform services throughout the military graveyard system, spokesman Mike Nacincik said.

No word on who entered the complaint (though the fairly predictable comments about his/her patriotism, humanity &c are getting a bit widespread). Did somebody think it was too religious? Not religious enough? A little too Knights Templar Lite for general use?

But it's caused a furor among veterans. Members of the American Legion have been flooding national headquarters since the decision, according to Ramona Joyce, an organization spokeswoman.

"We definitely think is a matter left up to the families," she said. "It's a nice ceremony; we've been doing it for years. Our honor guards have been doing it."

OK. I've been wondering why I never heard of the thing, "never" including two funerals of World War II-era veterans, some decades apart (and for the record, no: I don't feel slapped in the face, and neither does the doc). It's something the Legion has been doing for "years." And where did it start? Hard to say. But as the nice folks over at the Military Salute Project suggest, it was somewhere over in Choking Doberman territory. Indeed, one of the moderators seems to have tried to debunk myths about the secret meanings of flag-folding -- why, two years ago today! Right under the one about "boot camp food is laced with saltpeter," if you're scoring along at home. Snopes walks it back a little farther, to an anonymous chaplain at the Air Force Academy.

But that's water under the bridge. We're past the "check the facts" stage and on to the outraged reaction. O'Reilly and Hannity will have it next, and it'll go in the books as another battle in the War Against America. Why mess with a good thing?

As a framing question, because we're all about framing here, let's ask some Entman-inspired questions, meaning ones about how frames categorize problems, help divide the cast into good guys and bad guys, and define the solution set. What if this one was categorized a bit differently -- say, as a matter of who's claiming a right to subject families to pseudo-historical private-sector mumbo-jumbo at an emotionally difficult time to begin with?

These things don't always go smoothly. The idea of taps on a boombox is jarring. And I expect the Navy detail that couldn't get the flag folded right the first time was embarrassed (they asked for it back after the ceremony and redid it). But when they presented it to a fellow sailor's widow on behalf of the president and country, they meant it. And nobody seemed to miss the bit about the lower half of the Shield of Kings.

For you readers who are veterans, or relatives or survivors of veterans, or are still on active or reserve duty: Have you heard the story of the folds? Thoughts or comments?

[UPDATE: Unknow when it was posted, but as of this writing -- 7:51p -- the story has a new hed and lede:
Furor After Ceremonial Flag-Folding Readings Pulled From Military Funerals
A group of congressmen has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to retain the tradition of reciting the significance of each fold in the flag-folding ceremony at military funerals.
Still no explanation of how or when this particular set of ex post fictions became a "tradition"; again, comments from those who've seen it done or can address the "furor" are welcome. And the hed on the frontpage has gotten a bit perkier:
Lawmakers target ban on ceremonial flag-folding
Sigh. Once again, there's no ban, and it's not on flag-folding. Do the Foxsters know that you can, like, fail a hed exercise for making stuff up?]

[UPDATE THE SECOND: I've run across some earlier comments on last week's shenanigans in California and on the roots of the fold thing. Well, that's framing for you. Late to the party as usual, but we try to bring something decent to drink.]

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Correction of the (still-young) week

Here's an interesting case of a correction that really isn't, quite:
A story in Sunday's Travel section about a new wind tunnel in Raeford incorrectly said the route from Charlotte to the facility would go through Siler City.
Left feeling somehow ... incomplete by this? You should be. The point of corrections, after all, is not just to acknowledge that you screwed up, but to put the correct information into circulation in hopes of driving out the bad information. (Indeed, that's why it's usually a good idea not to repeat the error directly -- a better-written correction will generally say "Misstated the route of ..." rather than "incorrectly said 'went to LA via Omaha.'") So where's the real "route from Charlotte to the facility"? Inquiring minds, and all that, eh?
Here's how the original looked (and yes, you can cut past the treacly first-person prose and get right to the error; all in a day's work here at HEADSUP-L):
From Charlotte, take U.S. 74 East to U.S. 401 (in Laurinburg); follow U.S. 401 north through Siler City and downtown Raeford. Turn left on Brock Road; you'll see Paraclete XP SkyVenture, at 190 Paraclete Drive. It's about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Charlotte.
As you can see from the map (of which there should be several on the desk for those of us who don't trust Google), the directions aren't that far off, except for the bizarre relocation of Siler City (it's east of Asheboro for you out-of-towners). Leaving the inquiring mind to wonder: How did that happen? Why didn't it get caught? And can't anybody here play this game?
After all, you can get to Raeford from Charlotte by going through Siler City. It's just that absent some compelling reason, like family or obscure but not especially good taste in barbecue, there's no reason to. So the correction's not even really about something wrong. And since we don't add any corrected information to the mix, or even leaven the Monday paper with the candor and sometimes witty directness of the Grauniad's corrections, is there a point?
Stifling, at some effort, the urge to complain yet again about the Great State of Mecklenburg and its bizarre belief that everything east of Greensboro is foreign territory, I'm inclined to say: Not enough of one. I'd like to think The Rules are being reviewed for the desks concerned:
1) Always look at the map when you're reviewing the directions. It's like looking at the photo when you write a cutline. It's how we do things.
2) It doesn't matter how well you think you know the terrain. Look at the damn map again.
3) Especially if it's a travel piece, the purpose of which is to enable this pastime called "travel," not to screw it up.
4) Especially if it's from a freelancer.
5) Not that you should trust a staffer as far as you can dropkick him/her into a stiff breeze either. RTFM, we say; encore RTFM and toujours RTFM.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Want proof? Go to seminary

It's the end of October, so a couple of reminders:

1) No "Don't believe in ghosts?" heds on the front page. Or anywhere.
2) No polls about whether people do or don't believe in ghosts. And, while we're at it ...
3) No baking the poll data! As the Herald-Leader demonstrates in great detail at the top of today's 1A:

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's popularity has continued to slip, suggesting vulnerability in his 2008 re-election bid. But he would still defeat any of four potential Democratic challengers if the race ended today, a new poll shows.

The mixture of conjecture and out-and-out misstatement isn't unusual. It's depressingly common, in pretty good newspapers and pretty bad ones alike, which is why it's worth exploring in some detail here. (Warning: Mildly lengthy screed about survey research, newsroom culture and epistemology follows.) Journalism about social science -- and don't kid yourselves; that's what polling is -- can go wrong in any of several domains, sequentially or all at once. Let's look at a couple before we get back to why Lexington's article above is so thoroughly wrong. (And, yes, there's a lesson for editors: If something's wrong, fix it or spike it.)

Newsroom discussions about ledes of this sort tend to be resolved in nonproductive ways: The person with more status and/or power says "Let's go with the writer on this one" or "well, I guess we just have a difference of opinion on that." Those are adequate answers in some cases, much less so in others. They come about because journalism generally does a bad job at levels-of-analysis issues. Let's take a made-up, but only slightly made-up, example.

Days have been getting longer and we've reached the point in the year at which "day" and "night" are of equal length (assuming we have an agreed definition of "day" and "night"). You say "It's 'spring'! Let's throw some virgins in the river to assure a good planting season!" I say "No, let's go to this drafty stone building, sing some cool songs and listen to a dude in a dress for a while." We have different beliefs about what makes for a good planting season, and that dispute can't be settled by the tools available to journalism; for our purposes, it isn't really a debate.

Or you could say "It's too early to plant" and I could say "No, we can probably get away with it, and we'd get more tomatoes." This is an argument about risk assessment -- more or less the equivalent of real political debate. One side thinks a particular course involves too much risk, and the other thinks the risk-benefit level is appropriate. That's the sort of discussion "objective" journalism, at least in the ideal world, is especially suited for: Evenhanded, impartial presentation of evidence. It's what editors mean when they say stuff like "We just give both sides and let people make up their own minds."

That's a comforting bit of belief and professional ritual, but it's usually a crock, because journalism applies it to too many types of question. Take a third alternative: You say it's the equinox, and I say "no it isn't." The "give both sides" conceit falls apart there. It doesn't work for issues of fact, because issues of fact aren't debatable (that's the "green cheese fallacy"; you can't "give both sides" in a dispute about whether the moon is made of green cheese because the pro-cheese side is fiction). It doesn't work for belief questions. And it doesn't work at all when you start at one level and hop to another.

What does that mean for this poll? Well, some of the story's assertions boil down to risk management issues. You can say a 2-point difference is a "lead" if you want to, but you need to know that you have a much higher risk of error. The reason we talk about "standards customarily used by statisticians" is that "one chance in three we're wrong" isn't one of them.

That's one level of analysis. The bigger one is found in the lede, which declares that the poll says McConnell would beat any of four Democrats if the race ended today. And as a blunt issue of fact (a green cheese issue), that ain't so. The poll says no such thing, and there are a lot of reasons why. But first, this commercial for newsroom sociology.

Journalism doesn't do probability very well. Part of that's down to lack of training (and yes, every journalism curriculum should require at least one course in statistical reasoning, quantitative research methods or something like that). But more to the point, journalism tries to be about certainty, and social science isn't in that realm. It's in the probability business. Hence the saying: If you want proof, go to seminary. In the mundane realm, we're stuck at 95%.

But even if everybody on the desk could crunch numbers like a maniac, we'd still have issues. Hedges and qualifications are inherently uninteresting, which helps drive Mark Liberman's astute observation last week that heds are subject to a Gresham's law of their own. Put another way, "CARTOONS MAKE KIDS VIOLENT!" is a more hed-like hed than "Some cartoon violence, in some situations, seems to make some kids act in ways that we think might translate into violent behavior outside the artificial setting in which we measured this effect."

That's not simply a matter of selling more papers (to Mark's credit, he didn't suggest that it was). It's tied in deeply with a cultural value that's even more thoroughly ingrained than competition: The "watchdog" function of the press. If Saturday morning cartoons do threaten to turn your poppet into Mad Max on a tricycle, we're going to err on the side of Saving Our Kids and slap the story on the front page. Questions of effect size or construct validity aren't at the table for that discussion because they aren't part of how journalism judges its role in societal well-being.* Selling more papers is always nice, but it's not necessary to the watchdog function.

One more extrinsic concern to throw in, which we'll call the Fallacy of the Remote Truck. Why is EyeWitlessActionNews5 broadcasting live from the courthouse at 11 p.m.? Because the truck cost a pile of money and it's not going to sit in the garage if we can use it, even if the only thing moving in the courthouse is the cockroaches. A good poll costs a lot, and by all appearances the Herald-Leader poll was done right. The Remote Truck fallacy doesn't guarantee it a spot on the front page, but it does suggest that a poll doesn't have to have a lot of "news" to be Big News at the organization that paid for it.

Which of those factors might be at play in the Herald story? Any to a lot of them. Power issues, lack of statistical training, misunderstanding of what different kinds of "error" look and act like, desire to satisfy professional norms, and the urge to say what stuff "means," rather than listing all the limits on the conditions under which it might mean something. So let's have a look:

McConnell still leads the pack
But poll suggests vulnerability

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's popularity has continued to slip, suggesting vulnerability in his 2008 re-election bid. But he would still defeat any of four potential Democratic challengers if the race ended today, a new poll shows.

Hold on to "continued to slip" and "suggesting vulnerability" for a second. The issue here is the fact claim in the second sentence -- that the poll shows that McConnell would defeat any of the four Democrats. It isn't true. There are two broad reasons why.

One is practical. "Who would you vote for today?" doesn't answer questions about a future election very well. McConnell won't face four Democrats; he'll face one. Voters (13% to 21% for this question, depending on the Democrat) don't get to say "undecided" in the voting booth. We don't know how many "undecided" voters are telling the truth and how many just don't want to say. And, of course, preelection polls measure what people say they'll do -- not what they will do.
Could we just disagree about that -- is it a question about journalistic risk? Maybe. But the second issue is the stats themselves, and that's a green cheese issue. The numbers the study presents do not show that McConnell "would still defeat any of four potential Democratic challengers." Here's the boring way to say what they do show:

In two cases (Stumbo and Horne), significantly more voters say they would choose McConnell than the Democrat. Thus, we're 95% confident that if all "likely voters who vote regularly in statewide elections" were surveyed, McConnell would be ahead on this question. So he'd "win," as long as you don't count those pesky undecideds or worry about that 5% of cases in which our sample isn't an accurate reflection of the population. (Want "proof" rather than probability? Get those seminary applications ready.)

For Luallen and Chandler, it's a different story. In either case, the poll could be a perfectly accurate reflection of a lead for the Democrat in the whole population (again, ignoring the undecideds). The results don't represent a "statistical tie"; McConnell is likely to have a lead in the entire non-undecided population, but it's likely in the sense that it has about one chance in four of not being true.

... Fewer than half said they had a favorable impression of McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.

Still, the 47 percent who said they had a positive view of McConnell is higher than the 46 who don't.

"It's a mixed bag," said Del Ali, president of the Olney, Md.-based firm Research 2000 that conducted the poll. "He can rightly say 'I could be one of the higher-rated Republicans in the country, and I'm more of a target. In spite of that and the kitchen sink being thrown at me, there's a plurality who still think favorably of me.'"

Among the worst news for McConnell was that 46 percent of respondents disapproved of his performance compared to 45 percent who said they like what he's done -- the first time an independent media poll has shown the senator with a higher percentage of disapproval.

And any incumbent should be worried when his or her popularity and job approval ratings are under the 50 percent threshold, Ali said.

The reporter's interpretations are interspersed with the pollster's, and the reporter comes out second best. The reporter's making a lot out of two 1-point gaps, which are highly unlikely to represent meaningful differences (and thus unlikely to represent the sort of change that could be "worst news"). The pollster actually makes some relevant comments, partly because he sticks to generalities: The results are a mixed bag, and popularity/approval ratings under 50 percent are never a good sign for incumbents.

So how worrisome are the numbers in the lede? We don't know; there's nothing in the story to support the idea that there's been any movement at all.

On the positive side for McConnell, the poll showed he'd have at least a 5-percentage-point lead over each of four potential Democratic challengers. ... "The headline should be that McConnell beats all comers, which is remarkable given the fact that your paper as well as several D.C.-based liberal groups have waged an unrelenting attack on the (GOP Senate) Leader for the past several months," said Billy Piper, McConnell's chief of staff, in a statement.

Here we have a difference of opinion. That's more or less what the headline is, whereas it ought to say something like "Billy Piper is a moron." Unfortunately, we can't switch standards in midseason. We can't say a one-point gap in approval ratings is a big deal, then turn around and tell the chief of staff for the Senate Republican leader that a five-point gap doesn't represent a significant difference at traditionally accepted confidence levels.

We seem to have painted ourselves into a lot of corners here, none of them necessary. Some of the needed changes can be introduced at the training level (as in, reporters who can't explain confidence levels and confidence intervals aren't allowed to write about survey research). Some of them need fixing at the level of how newsrooms work. Those might be a bit, um, tricky.

* That's broadly true of journalistic interpretations of media effects in general. Think of the one justification that's offered every time there's an adverse public reaction to, say, a photo of a teenager's body after a car crash: "If it keeps even one kid from doing something stupid, it's worth it." Which is certainly a reassuring thing to think; it just doesn't have any known relationship to reality.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Zombie editor stalks Arkansas

How should you not put together your 1A column of doings of the notable and weird? Well, you could start by assuming it's not the cop blotter:

Laura Bush, 60, visited about 700 servicemen at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, telling them that the American people stand by them in the Iraq war.

The thing about narrowing down the focus of an immediate-identity lede (as, ahem, the writer might have internalized if he or she had continued paying attention in that all-important first week of J2100) is that we want to focus in a relevant direction. We don't need to distinguish the abovementioned Laura Bush from all the 58-, 59- or 61-year-old Laura Bushes wandering around Kuwait and the other gulf littoral states. We want to distinguish her from all the ones who aren't married to the president of the US of A.

Instead, we send an immediate signal to all our readers (of a paper that, kaff-kaff, charges five clams a month for online readers who aren't already victims of the dead-pine-tree edition) that we're mildly bereft of clues. The approach works, sorta, when you're dealing with people your readers have never heard of, as in the first two of these examples:

But "Laura Bush, 60"? Why not just call her "Laura Bush of Washington" and have done with it?

(OK, you hate to pick on the DemGaz, which is still putting international news on its front page just on grounds that it's interesting and important, unlike some big-city dailies we could name. But let's try to cut out the zombie editing, OK?)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Of fallacies and mushroom clouds

Here's a nice way to end Informal Fallacies Week: What would we be illustrating if we asked the New York Times something like: "Hey, do you guys still eat those happy mushrooms before writing analyses and editorials about countries along the Persian Gulf that start with I?"

If you answered "the fallacy of many questions," you'd be right! Either of the two leading answers -- "Wouldn't write an editorial without 'em" and "No, we gave that up, oh, four or five months ago" -- assumes the truth of the underlying assertion. Which is kind of what the Times is up to with this sentence, from the third graf of today's analysis of Thursday's actions aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps:

The decision thus raised the temperature in American’s ongoing confrontation with Iran over terrorism and nuclear weapons.

Which is interesting, because -- pass the mushroom clouds,* please -- it'd kind of seem that for there to be a confrontation over nuclear weapons, as the sentence plainly declares there is, there would have to be some nuclear weapons. So has the Times simply neglected to run a pretty significant story (another proven member of the nuclear club in the Fractious Near East), or is it making stuff up?

Probably neither. At a guess, the writer is just ignoring (and for the purposes of this little corner of cyberspace, editors are failing in the task of holding writers to account for the accuracy of what they write) a couple of very significant chunks of meaning. As in, "confrontation with Iran over terrorism and what Washington alleges is Iran's effort to produce nuclear weapons." It's the sort of carelessness that just raises an eyebrow or two in most coverage. When it happens in a sector of the international arena where media gullibility has been, y'know, sort of an issue in recent years, it kind of goes beyond careless and into irresponsible.

The Times's agenda-setting effect isn't insignificant by any means. Networks read it. News agencies and other big papers read it. Smaller papers wait for it to send its frontpage selections over the wire every night (I first saw this analysis on the Web site of a big regional daily, which led 1A with it). It's not that surprising when the provincial papers miss a distinction of this sort. The Times ought to know better.

* For bonus points: "We can't afford to let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud" represents a different informal fallacy. Which one?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Everybody PANIC! No, let's not

Fox News's coverage of the California fires gets a nice slapping-around over at CJR (brought to the world through Romenesko's vigilance). Here's the punch line, though the setup is even more fun:

So, to recap Fox News’ analysis:

A 2003 memo from FBI’s Denver office + suggestion made by a commentor on a blog + “guy” spotted in California by “hovering helicopter” and picked up on suspicion of arson = Al Qaeda set fire to California!

Yep. That's about it. But the fun continues, as you'll note from the first reefer item below the main hed here: "Suspected Wildfire Arsonist Killed Fleeing Cops."

Well, that's a relief, innit? Here's the whole story:

Suspected CA Wildfire Arsonist Killed While Fleeing Police
PHOENIX, Arizona — A California coroner has identified an Arizona man shot and killed by police who chased him because they thought he was a possible arsonist.

The San Bernardino County coroner says the man was 27-year-old Russell Lane Daves of Topock, a small town along the Arizona-Nevada border.

Daves was shot Tuesday night following a chase that ended when he backed his car into a police cruiser and an officer opened fire.

The chase started after campus security officers at California State University, San Bernardino, found Daves inside a car in a brushy area near campus. Police say the officers were concerned and wanted to make sure he wasn't trying to start a fire. When they approached, he drove off.

Wow, that balloon went flat in a hurry, didn't it? One problem, of course, is the sleight-of-hand with hedlinese. Since heds don't usually use articles, we're free to infer "the" arsonist just as readily as "an" arsonist. Of course, Fox is careful to call him a (or the) "suspected" arsonist. But the cops -- um, found him in a car in a brushy area! From which he drove off! Wonder if we can get any more details?

Over at the LA Times, he's an "arson suspect," but at least we get this from Dogberry & Co.:

"We don't know whether he was an arsonist," Patterson said. "What was related by the Cal State police was that they tried to contact him as a suspicious person in a brush area. Things being how they are, there was a suspicion that he could be an arsonist."

Still not much hint on how he could a "suspect" in a crime that, at least by the cops' account, seems not to have been committed. Be sure you all hold your breath for the update, there.

'Pushing accountability down'

A couple of examples from today's trawling bring to mind this rather scary excerpt from an AJR piece last month:

Some stories get fewer reads. "We have less of a safety net," she [Julia Wallace, editor of the AJ-C] acknowledges. "But it's also about pushing accountability down."

Add "pushing accountability down" to the list of phrases that define a news executive as a weasel on sight (the "it's about" thing is an issue of annoying usage, not of evil management). It's not "pushing accountability down" when you give people 10 feet of "safety net" to cover a 15-foot gap. It's washing your own hands of responsibility that -- surprise -- drifts downstream to people who don't get a respectful hearing in the pages of the AJR.

What does it look like in real life?

Santorum, Curry to write columns for Inquirer
... Santorum was a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2007. ... He is the author of It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. He is writing a second book on the war against a radical, Islamic fascist enemy and its growing global alliances.

This is marked " staff," meaning it can't be blamed on some outside PR satan. It's written and -- to at least some extent, we trust -- edited by the Philly news staff. What stands out? Well, if Rick Santorum was writing a second book about the War with the Newts, we'd presumably let you know that the said war existed primarily in his own mind (or that of the real author he channeled it from). Or if he was writing about the war of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne ... OK, you get the idea. This is sort of a once-removed declarative version of question-begging (sorry, Ridger): Santorum isn't the one who has to show that his global Islamic fascist octopus is real. has done his work for him. That's the sort of thing that safety nets are meant to catch.

As is this:
Man who tried to hit detective arrested
Huntersville police Wednesday arrested a man who tried to run over a detective after police spotted him breaking into parked cars.

Thanks again, Judge Observer, for sparing us the expense of putting the guilty miscreant on trial! The relative clauses in the hed and lede don't say he's accused of trying to assault a cop with an auto. They flat-out say he did. Guilty, guilty, guilty, as the pro-safety-net gang at Doonesbury used to have it.

One more thing?

"It's surprising, we find a lot of people leave their cars unlocked with valuables in site," Kee said.

Got that right, officer! Around here, they usually leave their valuables in sight! Unless they're distracted by comma splices or rampaging newts or something.

Journalism is done in a hurry. Reporters aren't perfect. Neither are copy editors (though some of them walk on water). The safety nets are there for a reason. People who pull them down and blame the resulting accidents on some notional lack of effort or accountability on the part of the people who absorb the extra work ... well, they certainly don't make it any easier to suggest to journalists-in-training that this is an honorable profession.

One refreshing exception to the usual wash of smarter-not-harder pap from the glass offices came in a sad memo that Romenesko posted this week. It's not good news, and my sympathies are with the folks in Spokane who are waiting to hear the ugly details. But a couple of points stand out for their candor:

I fear we may be looking at involuntary layoffs in excess of 10 positions, maybe substantially more than 10. That is terrible news and I am saddened and embarrassed to have to deliver it to you.

Let me restate my comments from last August: These cuts will mean a lesser paper. Some things we do now, important things, will be eliminated. Our readers will notice.

It isn't pretty. But it's in English -- with a lot of active clauses, too -- and it doesn't tap-dance around the obvious. Here's the sweetness-n-light version from the local fishwrap:

The staff cuts, though, will be spread throughout much of the organization, including advertising, circulation and newsroom employees, Ellwood said. The targeted reductions for newsroom employees is 22 – 16 for the Free Press and six at the News, she said.

The cuts should not affect news coverage, Ellwood said. “Something we’re not going to change is our commitment to providing the right amount of coverage,” she said.

It's hard to call that anything but bullshit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The magic of framing

Buffy from Farmington Hills writes:

Dear HEADSUP-L: This "framing" sounds like an awesome magic tool in the right hands. I sure hope nobody ever uses their his or her framing powers for evil ends! Because that would be like in that movie? When they were fighting? With wands? On the table? In the cafeteria? Except people would go through life with these confusing ...

Thanks for writing, Buffy. I'm sorry to tell you that some people do use their framing powers to advance their own unholy agendas. And the result is exactly what you predicted. The villagers' minds are clouded. They get correlations confused with causes. They march up to the castle and leave their habeas corpuses in the moat, because it's a mean, scary world* out there.

Here's what can happen. The nice wizard "Al" at the Poynter Institute saw a frame in a great big newspaper and hurried to tell his friends all about it. But it was a clever trap set by orcs! So this is what Al told his friends:

Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs as they are called in Iraq, pose a larger risk in the United States than you might think.

And all his friends were very scared and ran right to the elvish polling places and voted for the Party of Orcs and Balrogs Lincoln two, maybe three times each. When they found out, they fed Al to piping plovers. All because Al didn't check the frame for suspicious wires and lights before he shared it!

Safety first, kids. Wear eye protection and gloves when you're using any media effects theory, and never borrow other people's frames unless you read the label carefully. Remember what happened to Al.

*This is actually a whole nother theory, so put it back when you're done, OK?


Secure from general quarters

STOP THE PRESS: Bin Laden just got on a 52 bus at Albert Hall and he's headed for the Sun in Splendour!

Or, um, not. As the Times lede notes, "FBI agents searching for one of the world's most wanted fugitives were in London talking to Scotland Yard after a man resembling him was videoed in Europe." That'll be James Bulger, who might or might not have been videotaped six months ago in Sicily. Not quite as exciting as it sounds the Fox way, is it?
Hence tonight's Fox Hed Lesson: When qualification is part of the story, it needs to be part of the hed. No exceptions.

Big picture, little picture

Hey, what better way to celebrate Midterm Day* than by having a look at the array of stuff that confronts a copy editor dealing with a 1A story? Here's the top of a big profile that could have benefited from a harder look on several levels:

LANSING -- In the final 18 days it took to disgorge a state budget deal with a major tax increase, House Speaker Andy Dillon lost nearly 15 pounds, a lot of sleep and maybe some friends.

Here's a straight-up usage question. It's not a "grammar" issue (yes, there are folks who can't tell the difference); the verb's installed right-side-up and has wires going to all the proper terminals and everything. "Disgorge" is just the wrong verb. It means "to give up on request or under pressure," says the 9th New Collegiate -- especially, as the OED adds, "to give up what has been wrongfully appropriated" (it quotes the Iron Duke: "to make the French Generals disgorge the church plate which they have stolen").

[Does that mean "disgorge" is a wrong verb for all news writing? No. Here's Time from August 1990: "President Bush vowed not only to defend the Persian Gulf but also to force Saddam to disgorge Kuwait." It's not a usage issue in such a case, though it is a framing issue: whether international relations should be discussed in mythical terms, for one, and how and to what effect nation-states are personalized as their leaders. Go ahead and read the whole thing for a sobering look back at how news readers learn about the world. But back to the legislature!]

Some days he lived on protein drinks, unable from stress to eat.

Now, Dillon and at least nine other legislators are targets of recall campaigns by antitax crusaders. And the novice House speaker enters another pressure cooker as the Legislature approaches an Oct. 31 deadline to slash $435 million in spending.

The home of the World's Largest Stove and the World's Largest Tire now has the World's Largest Pressure Cooker too? I think we're straying into mixed-metaphor territory here.

The $1.3-billion tax increase approved last month has roiled the public. It brought torrents of invective on talk radio and editorial pages aimed at Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislative leaders like Dillon.

Let's shift levels of analysis for a second. The concern raised by this graf isn't about writing; it's about how we know what we know -- specifically, how we "know" the stuff that we claim is objective, empirical knowledge. It's essentially a polling question, meaning it's about validity and reliability. And come to that, "how roiled is the public over this tax increase?" is an ideal question for survey research. But if there is such a poll, neither this paper nor its purported rival has carried anything about it. That leaves us with talk radio and editorial pages, neither of which can be assumed to be an accurate reflection of public opinion.

That's sort of the fun thing about being a copy editor. You get to engage with stuff at all sorts of levels: reasoning, epistemology, usage, framing, whatever. I hope editors always have the time to engage in at least a few of those, and I hope the problem downtown isn't a bad case of "work smarter, not harder." Because that's what it's starting to sound like.

* What, you mean it's not a holiday on your planet?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Journalism, science, grammar

An interesting but annoying column in the NYT's Style section on Sunday sheds some light on the odd little Twilight Zone where journalists decide how to talk about the empirical world (thanks to Pam for the steer-in, but: Pam, what is this "trouble" business?). One Bob Morris, who apparently writes something weekly called "The Age of Dissonance," has found him a Trend, and it's Young People Taking Up For Grammar. In a way, he's actually talking about the great journalism-and-science question, but it's almost Halloween, so let's let him dig his own ghastly hole:

Not long ago, an elderly friend and grammar stickler stopped me midsentence. I had just said, “They gave it to him and I,” when it should have been “him and me.”

“You have to keep in mind the object of the preposition,” she gently told me.

I felt ashamed, but also grateful to be corrected.

“And now you won’t embarrass yourself in front of someone else,” she said. (Don't touch that dial, Elderly Friend! He's fixin' to, whether he gets his cases confused or not!)

She isn’t the only one wagging a finger or a pencil these days. Bring up the topic of grammar at any party and you’re likely to be hit with a tirade. (Which is your first signal of how much original thinking and footwork went into this column.)

But then, this is a time when e-mail messages, hip-hop slang, and a “decider” president who said that “childrens do learn” are chipping away at good grammar.

OK, stop the tape. By this point, Bob has covered the spectrum of Meedja Bias. He's managed to capture both the barely veiled racism of the knuckle-dragging right ("hip-hop slang" is coming right at your white girls grammar!) and the twee self-righteousness of the Salon Set left. As in, does the Times no longer stock dictionaries, or does it just not keep the sort that would tell you that "decider" has been hanging around as an English noun for four centuries now, or do Style columnists simply not have to have the faintest freaking idea what they're talking about? Or how English forms nouns from verbs? Like, if you had to call a columnist a really, really bad name and your dialect didn't yet have a noun for, like, when this dude and this goat ... fine, you get the idea.

But that's not the point. This is the point:
“Unfortunately, using poor grammar comes off as less pretentious,” said Sharon Nichols, a 22-year-old law student. “Everything is just so calculated in politics.”

Ms. Nichols is one of many young people throwing off her generation’s reputation for slovenly language, and taking up the gauntlet for good grammar.

Hold that thought. No, not the one about the comma before the coordinating conjunction in a compound of two, which for future reference we'll call the "ham, and eggs" comma. The one about the inevitable next sentence:

Last year, after seeing a sign on a restaurant window that said “Applications Excepted,” she started a grammar vigilante group on Facebook, the social networking site, and called it “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.”

That's why we call it "shoe-leather reporting," kids. When you read a column that appears to result from one possibly apocryphal encounter with an elderly acquaintance, one hypothetical party and one afternoon on Facebook, you take off a shoe and hit yourself on the head until shards of leather form a pile at your desk.

Rather than looking for all the inanities in of this column (what kind of world would we have if everyone let grammar continue its drunken, downhill slide?), let's try to put them into some sort of context. Bob's making a lot of statements about how the world is. Grammar's going downhill. It's worse than it was. It's threatened by technology, colored people contemporary dialect, Republicans and wh0 knows what-all. But young people are standing up! They're taking up our quarrel with the foe! All of which are things we can isolate and measure and discuss, should we be interested. But we don't seem to be. We'd rather proclaim.

Here's an item for contrast: Mark Liberman over to the Log, checking in at last on the "workplace cussing is good for you!" study. And he has a good trick that we might ought to consider adopting on the desk: Read the methods section and see what the study actually did:

... The data collection for this study was conducted while the second author was employed in a temporary position in a mail-order warehouse.

Mark's translation into the active voice: In other words, Jenkins had a part-time job, and made some observations about cussing in that context.

Yep. And is there a lesson for the people who wrote the stories, or slapped them on the front, or had to write heds for them?

The ironic thing is that pretty much all the reporters writing stories about this research, and most of the people reading those stories, have had at least this wide a range of experience of cussing in the workplace, and probably almost as much experience of swapping stories about cussing among different groups.

Thus they have roughly as much empirical basis as Baruch and Jenkins for evaluating hypotheses about how workplace swearing works and what its positive and negative impacts might be. But because this is a "study" presenting the results of "research", the journalists and their readers are all solemnly considering it as testimony of a qualitatively different character from their own life experience.

So how do we bring this all together? Maybe when we write about stuff in the observable world, we should assume that people are going to ask us how we know it. And we could assign different values to different sorts of claims about truth. And people who had more evidence to support what they said would get better play, and people who were just blowing smoke would be consigned to the far outer circles of hell. Or something.

Think it'll work? Or do "Grammar! You Kids Are Ruining It!" and "Cussing! It's Better For You Than You Thought!" just have so much appeal that we'll never stop them?

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Fingernails on the blackboard

But first, this message from the Stories I Won't Be Reading This Century, Thanks category:
Now back to your regularly scheduled program.
Here's a bit of run-of-the-mill cop reporting made worse by what appears to be drastically bad editing at the MCT stablemate that picked it up.* If there's a suggestion for the desk here, it's something along the lines of: It's not really a lot of fun to read about infant death. Try not to make it any worse.
When investigators found the remains of baby Harmony Jade Creech's body this weekend, she was inside a diaper box in the family's attic, said Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins.
The statewide Amber Alert for the 11-month-old baby girl was canceled and Harmony's mother, Johni Michelle Heuser, 25, is being held without bail in the Harnett County jail on a charge of first-degree murder.
Notice how little new information there is in "11-month-old baby girl"? In that we already know both "baby" and "girl"? Think we're being tugged upon a bit here?
The baby's father, Ronald Earl Creech II, just returned from a 15-month deployment in Iraq. Now, he must bury his first daughter, whom he had seen just once during a leave shortly after her birth in January.
It'd be nice to see some editing time spent here -- say, moving "in January" to the left a bit so it can more reasonably modify "a leave," rather than "her birth." If she was born in January, of course, she wasn't an "11-month-old." And since it seems unclear when she died, it might be time to drop "11-month-old" anyway; that phrase seems to have entered the ongoing story when she was first reported missing. Arithmetic is the sort of thing editors can always pay attention to.
Heuser's mother, Brenda Irizarry, picked Creech up at Pope Air Force Base on Friday and drove him to the home he shared with Heuser, Harmony and Heuser's three children from a previous marriage.
But Harmony was gone -- the window near her crib open, clothes and blankets missing as well.
Somebody is doing some editing (the original has another "and": the window near her crib open, and clothes and blankets missing as well), but it's hard to tell to what end.
An investigator searched the house, including its attic, but they didn't find the baby girl.
Evidently not to smooth out glitches in pronoun-antecedent agreement.
Stuffed in a back corner, reachable only with a golf club from an old set stored in the attic, investigators were able to grab a Pampers diaper box so light it could have been empty, Rollins said.
Aha! It's to edit in annoying offenses against standard desk grammar! We've taken the original (They discovered, stuffed in a back corner and reachable only with a golf club from an old set stored up in the attic, a Pampers diaper box so light that it could have been empty, Rollins said) and turned it into a dangling participle! But there's more:
In there they found little Harmony Creech's decomposing baby body wrapped in a plastic bag, he said. Investigators are waiting for a medical examiner's report to provide a better time and cause of death.
Little Harmony's decomposing baby body! Do people actually write that badly? Well, not in this case. Here's the original: Inside they found Harmony's decomposing body wrapped in a plastic bag, he said. And "a better time" isn't original either (as if you weren't having a good time already); in the source paper, it's a more exact time.
Seriously. Editors, if you feel the need to do something to prove you're there, why don't you just make the guacamole or something?
* I'm sort of inferring from past practice here, and it's a bit rusty; it may be that the copy went out raw and actually got cleaned up at the source paper. Delighted if any hands at either paper could advise.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Funday Framing Foxtacular!

Back in the days before newsroom culture got the attention of real sociologists, like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman, we had to grow our own. Lots of the early work was done by old news hands, generally under the influence of the Chicago school, who went to PhD camp and came back to try to explain to the outside world what sorts of things went on between the occurrence of "news" and its appearance on newspaper pages. And lots of it holds up well today -- David Whyte's "The Gate Keeper," for example, and Warren Breed's "Social Control in the Newsroom," to which we turn for today's lesson.

When you look at how "bias" can be expected to filter down from the boardroom to what you see or read, it's tempting to think of a diabolical publisher with his (for male is what he almost always is) finger in every decision and his touch on every headline. Fat chance. Few publishers can write even one headline,* let alone the dozens a rimster will knock out in a shift, and they have other stuff to do besides intervening in the multiple scores of decisions made around the newsroom.

More to the point, as Breed** explains in detail, intervention isn't necessary. Journalists learn what's supposed to go in the paper -- what "news" looks and sounds like, and how "policy" shapes its presence or absence, at their particular shops -- through a complex system of nods, nudges, winks, and implications. So if your question is "Wow, did Murdoch himself order that Hillary hed onto the front page this morning?" the answer is "No. Inept, patently fabricated stories get to the Fox front page of their own accord!" Staffers learn by imitation. They learn by watching news budget meetings -- not because the policy line is laid down there, but because it's implied in the discussions of "reliability of information, newsworthiness, possible 'angles' and other news tactics" (1955, p. 329). They learn by seeing what gets in and what doesn't. Murdoch can sleep in on Sundays because the folks unlucky or junior enough to draw that shift know what looks like news through Fox-colored glasses.

In other words, it didn't take much thought for someone to green-light the Hillary story mentioned here. It's somebody else's, so we can say "Report says" instead of "We say." It has that respectable international patina (despite the occasional charming tendency of the British press to, oh, make stuff up when there's nothing interesting to report). And it's "campaign" news -- or at least, it looks enough like campaign news to get past the checkpoint.

Needless to say, "Report: Dumped Cat Could Come Back to Haunt Hillary Clinton Campaign" is a crock from start to finish. There is no "report." There's a commentary in the Sunday Times, a Murdoch property that has longer sentences and fewer Page Three Girls than the Sun. The "some" who "believe" the Socks tale could thwart Clinton don't exist; that's spun from one commentary in the Atlantic. Mostly, the Times article used some rented snark to hang a week's worth of anti-Hillary laundry. Somebody at Fox has learned the lessons well.

* Rolfe Neill of Charlotte, whom Charles Kuralt pointed out in one of his books as the guy who taught him how to draw a page, is an honorable exception.
** Breed, W. (1955). Social control in the newsroom: A functional analysis. Social Forces, 33, 326-335.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fear factor

The last thing a competent propagandist wants to do is lie to you. He (or she) is much happier to sit back and let you deceive yourself. (Less work, for one thing, and less chance of getting called out.) Today's example suggests how easy it is for the skilled craftsman to plant a seed and let the reporter do the heavy attitudinal lifting. It's worth discussing among editors because aggressive editors could have flagged it before it hit print -- or the wires (which is how it cropped in an over-credulous fishwrap hundreds of miles from the point of origin). Ready? Here we go:

Chertoff working to stop IED attacks at home
WASHINGTON - The ingredients can be purchased from Home Depot. They are cheap and easy to assemble. And they can be combined to lethal effect.
(High school. Laundry lists. Menus. That's where we learn to stop writing ledes like that and what they look like when we don't).

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs as they are commonly called, have become the weapon of choice of today's terrorists, whether on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, or on public transit systems in Britain, Spain and India.
(Two concepts here are badly in need of defining.)

And increasingly, they are a threat in America, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told members of a think tank Friday.

OK. Let's stop for a second here and ask Secretary Chertoff what he means by ... no, let's ask the reporter, who after all is the one who introduced the terms. What's an IED, and what's a terrorist? Those might seem like annoying questions, but they aren't idle ones, because they have a lot to do with how we categorize this information and pull it out later to make political judgments or help understand new information.

First off, what's an IED? Is it something you put together from a Saturday jaunt to the Home Depot, or is it -- well, let's have a look at how it's been used in news language so far. The earliest plausible hit in the New York Times is from Oct. 19, 2003 (you'd have to be really paranoid to see a connection in those dates, wouldn't you?). Quoting an unclassified but "official use only" document prepared for Jerry Bremer's Occupation Authority, the Times has this:

As the document puts it, most ambushes "are initiated by a combination of RPG or IED attacks and immediately followed by small-arms fire." RPG refers to rocket-propelled grenades and IED is the term for improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs the guerrillas assemble by drawing on unguarded caches of weapons or explosives they hid during the war.

The Washington Post has one pre-9/11 hit (January 2001, referring to Lockerbie); its first Iraq reference is from Tom Ricks in July 2003:

"They've gone to standoff weapons -- mines and mortars, and IEDs" -- improvised explosive devices, or bombs -- said Capt. John Taylor, the intelligence officer for the base near Bayji.

The AP has two prewar hits (one Lockerbie, one from a 1989 warning about explosive marzipan) and otherwise first mentions the term in September 2003:

"At 9 this morning an American patrol was ambushed by IEDs (roadside bombs), RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small arms fire. The patrol returned fire and support was called in," Swisher said.

So if you thought an IED was pretty much what you'd thought from reading media accounts these past four years, you had reason to. As the nice folks at the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service put it, the IED is the "weapon of choice of the enemy. They plant these devices on the sides of roads and as targets go by, they use remote devices to explode the charges. IEDs can be anything from hand grenades rigged to garage-door openers to artillery shells wired to the cell phones. One blast was so powerful it overturned an Abrams main battle tank."

Not, in other words, something you pick up at the Wal-Mart. Our prototype bird here -- in the writer's own phrase, what is "commonly called" an IED -- is something made from discarded or stolen military components, probably remotely triggered, and aimed at a U.S. or allied military target. If that's a rising threat here in the Contiguous 48, Mr. Secretary, could we have some details?

Over at the Washington Post, the panic button is pushed a bit differently. We get the scare hed and lede on 1A:

IEDs Seen As Rising Threat in The U.S.
As Preparedness Is Criticized, Bush Works on a Plan

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI agree that the homemade explosive devices that have wreaked havoc in Iraq pose a rising threat to the United States.

Same IEDs! The Mahdists are coming for our traffic jams! Or are they?

While roadside bombs and armor-piercing charges have become the signature weapons of the Iraqi insurgency, U.S. officials define the domestic IED threat across a wide spectrum, including a block of TNT with a remote-controlled detonator; a fertilizer bomb delivered by a car, truck or plane; and a suicide runner carrying a peroxide-based explosive.

Oh. In other words -- with all due respect to Newsday's breathless "weapon of choice of today's terrorists," they're pretty much what terrorists have used for quite some decades now. (That's "terrorist" in the narrow, and definitionally useful, sense of "a nonstate actor who uses violence against primarily civilian targets to influence government actions or civilian attitudes.") It's sort of how the federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up, and the King David Hotel, and you can add your own examples from dozens of other choices.

So what are Chertoff and the Homeland Security people bringing up the idea now? Dunno. My concern is with why it's a story now -- more specifically, why it's a story in which nobody asks "why is this a story now?" What's new about the threat, and how does it affect the way we tell people to interpret risk?

And, at bottom, why is it a story in which nobody challenges a pretty blatant game of semantic three-card monte? It doesn't look like Chertoff had to ask anybody to play. Why should he, when they're tripping over themselves to get into the game without any prompting?

Random nouns and adjectives

Hard to imagine missing the ball much more completely than this:

"Accidental" B-52 flight? Somebody left the keys in the thing and it started itself? Grandma fell asleep on the sofa and 6-year-old grandson flew it to downtown Minot for some Burger King? Two lovable comic hoboes think they've hitched a ride on the slow freight to Little Rock and wake up to find themselves at the initial point of a bombing run over Moscow? Somehow, one is inclined to think this was a very deliberate flight of a B-52, off the wings of which somebody accidentally left a bunch of nuclear warheads dangling.

Try to glue the modifiers onto the right parts in the future. And try to get some hint in the hed of why people might be interested in the story.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I been Norman Mailered ...

... Maxwell Taylored, and tagged with the Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme! And because this time there isn't a fire-breathing dissertation threatening to burninate the village, I'm going to join in. (Besides, mutation is always on topic if you're interested in stuff like what happens to messages between the source and the receiver.) The rules, as onpassed by The Ridger:

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

* You can leave them exactly as is.
* You can delete any one question.
* You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
* You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
* You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

So the ancestry of this post is:
Great-great-great-grandparent, Flying Trilobite
Great-great-grandparent, A Blog Around the Clock
Great-grandparent, The Primate Diaries
Grandparent, Laelaps
Parent, The Greenbelt

And the questions:

The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is:
"Ranks of Bronze," David Drake

The best scary movie in the monster genre is:

The best novel in non-U.S. noir thrillers is:
"Because of the Cats," Nicolas Freeling

The best romantic song in musical theater is:
"A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," from "Swingtime Canteen"*

The best instrumental album in bluegrass is:
"Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe"

And I tag:
Common Sense Journalism
You Don't Say
The Editor's Desk
Old Word Wolf
Language Czarina

The rest of you will all be gotten sooner or later, no doubt.

* I know it's not original to "Swingtime." Nothing is original to "Swingtime." But it's all good, except that damn "Rocking Horse" song.

More stuff not to do in heds

Sigh. Another free hed lesson for Fox. (Guys? At some point we're going to have to start charging for this.)

There are a couple of really dumb things you can do with tropical weather systems:
1) Own expensive property directly in the path of a big angry one
2) Proclaim what they'll do the following day
Tropical storms are more predictable than they used to be, but that's not the same as saying they're predictable. (Remember the adjective lesson? "Big budget" is a value judgment; "bigger budget" is a fact?) You can say what the storm "is expected" to do, or what "forecasters predict" it will do. Those are verifiable statements from our own empirical world. But you're setting yourself up for trouble if you try to say what "will" happen. If Magic 8-Balls worked that well, they wouldn't be street-legal.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bet on the tax

Heds from this morning's sweep:

Sounds like a pretty tedious debate. Unless he's going to do the Woody Allen thing and cross-examine himself.

The thing about Fox is that you never can tell whether any particular specimen is a result of house ideology or of Fox's well-demonstrated ineptitude at the basics. What basics? Well, RTFS, for example -- a precept that would quickly indicate that the hed is false. A federal advisory panel wants the State Department to nudge the Saudis into closing the school until various materials and practices are reviewed, but that's not the same as closing it.

As we try to point out early in the curriculum, the phone call you hate to get is the one that asks "Which are you, biased or stupid?" The nice thing about being Fox is that you can always answer "Yes!"


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I'm confessin'

It's been a while -- more than a month, but who's counting? -- since we checked in on the case of the Lansing Serial Spree Suspect, so let's have a look.

As you'll recall from our last thrilling installment, the cops had declared their suspect to be a serial killer and were expecting those charges, um, Thursday or Friday or really any day now. And truth be told, charges were filed in one of those five killings the cops declared him guilty of. But the case has been in the news of late for other reasons, namely official backtracking on the alleged guilt of a man imprisoned in the killing of a college teacher in Lansing in 2005. Lansing, we were told, was "abuzz" with talk of the purported connection between the new purported perp and the older killing.

Today's story brings us up to date, sort of, but it also reminds us of the perils of corner-cutting in cop reporting:

1 man freed as 1 confesses
Parolee says he killed prof in 2005

Two core violations of best practices before we're even out of the display type. One, it's not a "confession" until it's admitted in the guy's trial. (Yes, pace the text, that means a cop can't "confirm" the "confession," particularly when the best you can do is lift the alleged "confirmation" from another paper.) Two, we have no idea what the parolee "says." All we know is what the cops say he said, and if you can't tell the difference, you're in the wrong sport. And hold that thought, because we're going to come back to it.

Now for the update on any-day-now suspect Matthew Macon, who the cops now say has confessed to the 2005 slaying. He "also has been linked to the deaths this summer of five women and another woman in 2004." And what has the justice system done about these links? "Macon, 28, so far has been charged in only one of the five slayings" (if you thought five plus one made six, you were right, but don't hold your breath waiting for a resolution).

Given that even the prosecutor has asked for a new trial for the guy originally convicted in the 2005 killing, it's good to hear that he's out of prison. Let's have a look, though, at how the paper reports on some of the doubts raised about that case (which I can't find in the archives; murder in Lansing classrooms must not have been a big deal that year):

McCollum was convicted despite questions of DNA evidence that did not match him. His attorney, Hugh Clarke Jr., said new evidence -- videotapes from Lansing Community College -- may show McCollum could not have been at the scene of the crime.

Also, McCollum's statements to police, used as a confession in his trial, came under fire as having been manipulated evidence.

Dive! Dive! The "statements ... used as a confession in his trial" were questioned as "manipulated evidence." You figure that ought to trigger just a tad bit of skepticism about pretrial claims of "confessions" in general? And about the new "confession" in the current case? And the degree to which a cop can "confirm" it to the Lansing paper?

Sigh. This is the stuff people were supposed to learn from crusty old editors in their first tank-town newspaper job. It's stuff we harp on in undergrad skills classes today, and for a reason: You are not the cops' stenographer. You are not an auxiliary detective. You're a reporter. You provide an accurate account of events in a context that gives them meaning (thank you, Hutchins Commission). You live and work in the empirical world. Write about what's known, not about what might be.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On lookin' into eyes and stuff

If you're fond of framing and propa- ganda and stuff, you're probably a regular visitor to the commentators at the bottom of the Fox News Web page. Predictably, O'Reilly, Hannity and Hume are all weighing in on the weekend's top discovery by the news side: Those craven, hate-spewing media all reported that Gen. Ricardo Sanchez slagged the entirety of the Iraq effort after mid-2003, but nobody reported his comments on how dreadful the media are!
That's a discussion for another time (the address and subsequent Q&A are online at C-SPAN). Today's real fun is Hannity's divergence into the heretical suggestion that when the general says "The death knell of your ethics has been enabled by your parent organizations who have chosen to align themselves with political agendas," maybe he's talking about -- oh, parent organizations that are clearly aligned with political agendas. (A reporter from the hatemongers of Times Square was among those Sanchez singled out for good work, and a reporter for the Scaife paper in Pittsburgh asked Sanchez the hardest question of the day, but that's digressing.)
Hannity: Brent Bozell, show me where that Rupert Murdoch, my boss here at FOX and the owner of the FOX News Channel, how did he influence Hillary Clinton to vote to authorize that war? Or John Kerry or any of the Democratic senators? I'd like to know where that influence and where is there evidence of that?
... Bozell (addressing another librul comment by the other guest): OK. Stop right there. Stop right there. Give me an example of Rupert Murdoch influencing this war. I'm sick and tired of hearing liberals make these kind of statements. Give me an example.
You guys want to know how it works? OK. I'll try to spell it out. Flip back to the top and "Putin: Lay off my buddy," representing Fox's coverage of Putin's visit to Iran. The only suggestion that he and Ahmadinejad are "buddies" is -- well, the earlier Fox headline that said "buddy, buddy." In other words, you sort of just made it up. Nobody's claiming to look into anybody's eyes and see anybody's soul or anything like that.
Check out the rest of the coverage. Putin and Ahmadinejad are warning against third countries' using the Caspian littoral to launch interstate wars against Caspian littoral states. (I'm Tasered! Tasered! to find gambling going on here.) And Robert Gates is telling his audience that Iran "seems increasingly willing to act contrary to its own interests." (The nice thing about realism, as Condi Rice could have told him before she took the devil's sixpence, is that realists don't give a poop what Secretary Gates thinks Iran's interests are. They're interested in what Iran thinks Iran's interests are.)
Thing is, Fox's coverage of Iran isn't accidental, and it isn't a one-off. It looks pretty much the same week to week. Why is that important? Here's a theoretical proposition. Let's say there are two general ways of reporting about "security" issues:
1) As the sorts of challenges that governmental and societal structures are designed to cope with. Even at the extremes, they represent events that fall into known mechanisms.
2) As "existential" threats to the very fabric of nationhood or culture, requiring extraordinary measures for an unspecified period of time.*
We can think of them as "war on terror" stories and War On Terror® stories to make things easier. If you're the political leader who can make the case for (2), you get a say in saying what kind of measures and how quickly (or slowly) things ought to return to normal. Make sense so far?
The way Fox talks about Iran is similar to the way it talked about Iraq, and it's similar to the way other Murdoch products talk about Iran and Iraq (and immigration, to name another security issue). Those similarities are measurable and can be compared with what other news outlets do: Fox is increasingly War On Terror®, and grownup news organizations are increasingly "war on terror." Next question, does that make a difference? Two propositions:
1) People who don't see themselves as aligned very closely with the government will be inclined to listen less closely to reports that suggest that Mexico's northern border is the next front in the War On Terror®, or even to reports that suggest the country is involved in a War On Terror® rather than a "war on terror."
2) People who do see themselves as aligned with government are already more inclined to hand over their civil liberties. War On Terror® framing of a news event makes them even more willing to do so.
Murdoch doesn't have to "influence the war." He can influence opinion about national security and civil liberties, and he can influence attention to coverage of the war (if you stop paying attention at the eighth graf and the latest about Blackwater is in the 12th, too bad for you). At least, that's the implication here. Coming soon to some sort of forum somewhere.
*Credit where it's due: The concept of "securitization" that this project is based on was developed by Barry Buzan and colleagues, aka the Copenhagen School. The tests and stuff, and the link to news framing, I hope, are original.


The Red Queen's 'off with her prefix'

On the model of the scholars over at the Log, perhaps we should just call these WTF heds, for such is the sentiment they summon:

Aw, c'mon. As long as we're turning trademarks into verbs ("he Kleenexed his nose after the editor Louisville Sluggered his anecdotal lede"), at least let the poor mutant form repose in front of the noun it allegedly now modifies. Or is another cell of the Unseen Hand Club at work here?

SooEEEEEY! The verb you want is "recall." Not "call." Much as "to remember" doesn't mean "to member again," "recall" isn't some redundant form of "call" that the hed writer can dismember at will. A note from the OED suggests the boundaries:
In English formations, whether on native or Latin bases, re- is almost exclusively employed in the sense of ‘again’; the few exceptions to this have been directly suggested by existing Latin compounds, as recall after L. revocare.
Once again: No playing Red Queen with the big type. You can't toss in a word and declare that it means what you want it to. Some of your poor readers might think that decision has already been made.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Stupid Questions of the (still-young) week

1) Dunno. When exactly was it that sex with robots became illegal? (Yeah, yeah. The answer Fox wants is: "Massa- chusetts: Who else?" But I'd bet on South Carolina if I were the betting sort.)
2) No. But thanks for asking.

Just another busy day of saving the republic over at the Fair-n-Balanced Network. Long as we aren't talkin' any wide-stance android blue-on-blue in the little robots' room, I suppose.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

What we have here ...

... is a failure to coordinate. Hence, today's lesson in hed writing.
A theme of Hed Week has been: Don't yank readers' chains. They're busy and coffee-deprived, and they may not have time to figure you what you're trying to mean amid the welter of stuff that you say. Today's examples exemplify the lost art of parallel structure.
First up is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which moves its pivot foot in the deck by shifting verb voice. What the hed seems to be trying to say (the bulk of the story, meaning whatever substance there might be after the 5-graf anecdotal lede, is subscribers-only) is that the ex-comptroller's history was overlooked (passive: by whom, we don't know) and that the said history also foreshadowed his behavior. At a glance (news flash! that's how heds are read), though, both verbs look active: His history overlooked and foreshadowed his behavior. Possible cures: Bring back the missing auxiliary verbs or look for something that could modify "history." I don't think "Quillin's overlooked history foreshadowed ..." would quite do it, but it's a start.
Now to the home folks. Along with the sin of leading the paper with a question (and one the story can't really address, at that), the hed overlooks another principle of coordination: The more complex parts of a compound should go nearer the end. Otherwise, you risk confusing what goes in what part of the compound.
The hed's suggesting two things that might hamper the Obama effort in Michigan: Joining the flight from the early primary and saying less-than-worshipful things about the Big Three automakers. But with the larger of those two coming first, "fuel challenge" looks like something else Obama pulled his name off of. Fix: Put the shorter element first and reduce the longer one as far as possible. "Decision on primary" would at least get it down to two chunks of grammar, rather than three, and we could try "Fuel challenge, decision on primary may work against him."
Who knows? We might even have room to indicate whose speculation that is, rather than putting the burden on the paper's own crystal ball.

Column of the Year: Nominees sought

Loyal (and disloyal; we know you're out there) readers are invited to submit nominees in all the categories of bad writing covered here: Spot news, features, ledes, heds, cutlines, what-have-you. To get the ball rolling, here's a candidate for Clueless Newspage Column of the Year, and the bad news is it's already a presumptive favorite (given the competition within its own shop, that's saying a lot). Take a bow, Mitch Albom:

What lies behind a shooter's bullet?
In Cleveland last week, a 14-year-old went on a shooting rampage at his school, wounding two teachers and two students, then turning the gun on himself. Grieving children and parents were left wondering: How on earth can something like this happen?
Microsoft's Halo 3 video game -- a first-person shooter experience using guns, grenades and other weapons -- earned $170 million in sales on its first day of availability, making it the hottest-selling title in video game history.

(If you think this one's going to write itself from here, you're right. Mitch is going to alternate paragraphs of news from the week's wires with italicized speculations about the sources of murderous violence. So when the next graf tells us the Cleveland perp styled himself a Goth, "claimed to be an atheist" and wore a Marilyn Manson T-shirt on the fateful day ("though many were quick to deny any connection between the music and the shootings"), you can guess the next set of itals pretty easily):

I throw a little fit, I slit my teenage wrist
The most I can learn, is in records that you burn
Get your gunn, get your gunn
-- Marilyn Manson lyrics

(Mitch? One reason "many" are "quick to deny" any connection between what people listen to and how many people they shoot is that both mayhem and mediated violence have been around for a long time. And to the dismay of people who like to turn a single correlation into the indisputable cause of a complicated event -- nah. Young Baldrick the Elizabethan Goth Teen wasn't driven to kill his stepdad by repeated viewings of "Hamlet," no matter what they said on Fox Newes at XI. But onward!)

In Pennsylvania last week, another possible Columbine-type attack was thwarted when a 14-year-old was taken into custody. He had, in his bedroom, a 9mm semiautomatic rifle, homemade grenades, swords, knives and 30 air-powered guns made up to look like real weapons. People were shocked that a child this young could be harboring such an arsenal.

(Good thing the poppet didn't have a few more weeks and a junior chemistry/physics set, isn't it? Because if we'd waited, another Hiroshima might have been thwarted too! But you sort of get the idea: Mitch is going to give you a graf that ends with something "people were shocked" about, then some facts gathered in a quick search of the Web. As in?)

... Also in the teenager's room, police found notebooks detailing acts of violence, a hand-painted Nazi flag and DVDs, including one titled "Game Over in Littleton," the town where Columbine High School is. People were shocked that a teen this young could show such fascination with violence.
A Google search for the words "Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold," the Columbine killers, returned 78,300 possible references.

(Post Google ergo propter Google, as young Cassius said when the vigiles confiscated two daggers and a copy of the popular board game "Et Tu, M****f*t*t*r III" from his bedroom. But we digress; there's a subhed coming!)

The numbers don't lie

(Yep. They're honest little suckers. As John McCain suggested, though, once the torture starts, they might be giving you the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line rather than those of their fellow evildoers. But let's have some more Mitch!)

Everywhere you look, people are wondering where these crazy people are coming from.

Up to 50% of first marriages, 67% of second marriages and 74% of third marriages end in divorce, U.S. statistics show.

Thirty-one percent of American teenagers believe they'll become famous one day, according to Psychology Today.

A recent survey, "The Decline of Religious Identity in the United States," found that 16% surveyed declined to identify with a particular faith, up from less than 10% in the early '90s.

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in four children is bullied and 87% of teens say school shooters operate from a desire to "get back at those who have hurt them."

"How can these shootings happen?" we ask.

How can we ask that question?

(Guess that answers the hed's original question: Divorced atheist bullies with a burning desire for fame, buying antitank missiles and video games for teenagers. We leave anybody out?)

Honest. If you see a more clueless column, send it in. But from here, Albom looks like a champion.