Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dr. Presumption, I presume?

Today's News Judgment Week entry offers some insight into how our presumptions shape the way we make news. That's not always a bad thing, but it's interesting to note how little distance there is between the innocent cases and their malevolent counterparts. Thus this hed from the "News Flashes" table of updates over at the Obs:

Sean May misunderstood recruiting rules

Your first question (aside from "who decided to use that picture?") might well be "Why are you telling me this?" It's a little bit clearer (the hed looks as if somebody's trying to second-cycle a first-day story) if you click to the story proper:

May says he misunderstood rules

Charlotte Bobcats forward Sean May said Monday he didn't realize he might be violating NCAA rules by speaking with North Carolina basketball recruit Iman Shumpert during an official visit to Chapel Hill in September.

Aha! So the story's about a potential recruiting violation by a former UNC star. May's defense, quite reasonably, is that he didn't know he might have been overstepping the NCAA's nearly incomprehensible rules about what you can and can't say on alternate Tuesdays with your pivot foot planted if you're a part-time student talking to a recruit. But in the frontpage hed, he isn't offering a defense. It's being offered for him.

How does that come about? Silly mortal! May played for Carolina,* meaning he's from one of those clean programs, and his good intentions are to be presumed by all you lowlifes in the pressbox there. The leap from "May says he made innocent mistake" (which, again, is perfectly plausible) to "May made innocent mistake" is so short it barely has to be made.

There's a more interesting question, though: How would the hed look if May had played at UNLV or Texas Tech? Or, heaven forfend, if he'd knocked off a mere 30 credit-hours one summer and gone to play for Missouri? Or if he'd played, um, lacrosse at Duke?

Or, to get back to the real purpose of this post, if he were a Middle Eastern country whose first name was I-R-A and he had a nuclear program? That's a good starting point for explaining how the same paper managed to refer in a headline last year to the Iran nuclear issues as a "standoff over weapons." Iran is the sort of actor whose denials, in the heat of the deadline moment, don't make the intuitive sense of a Carolina gentleman's. The overt question of whether it's lying doesn't even have to come up. The presumption writes the hed for you.

It's worth being more careful when you're basing your hed on an unspoken assumption. The bad actors on the political scene know they don't have to lie to journalists when journalists are ready and willing to deceive themselves.

* Yes, the HEADSUP-L alma mater. And if you know which almost-championship year your editor graduated in, just put a sock on it, all right?


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