Friday, November 30, 2007

Read past the lede

Another one of those "yes-but" heds. Iran missiles could reach key targets is technically true but misses the why-is-this-story-in-the-paper question, which is captured in the hed that runs inside with the full story:

Despite U.S. bluster, little known about Iran's missiles
There's no consensus on number or range of weapons, report says

It'd be nice to work in a third "no consensus" point, which is that not everyone starts from the assumption that Iran's sole -- and undeterrable -- purpose in developing extended-range missiles is to pop 'em at America's Heartland at the first opportunity. And it's a hair disingenuous to make Iran's current missile arsenal the lede without the qualifier found in the full story:

Yes, Iran has medium-range ballistic missiles that could reach U.S. air and naval bases in the Persian Gulf and possibly hit Israel or southern Europe.

The "Yes" helps soften the implication that all this is brand-new. Air and naval bases in the Persian Gulf, after all, are by definition "in the Persian Gulf," where Iran and Iraq fought a hugely destructive eight-year war back in the 1980s. And what the article is building up to is this:

The yes, no and maybes are about all international defense analysts can offer when it comes to separating proven capabilities from propaganda in the debate over Iran's ballistic missiles.

As noted earlier in the month, this sort of thing isn't particularly outstanding as far as journalistic enterprise goes (and it's badly let down by the careless hed in the 1A reefer). But it is an exceptionally welcome bit of routine journalism. It keeps the space for debate from being reduced to "bomb 'em now" and "no, bomb 'em yesterday," and over time, that's no small accomplishment.

Again, if this is the sort of stuff you'd like to see more of in your mainstream media, drop somebody a note and say you appreciate it. Some poor editor is probably just longing for an excuse to spike a Missing Pregnant Woman story and put some real news in the paper in its place.

You can help that editor. Or you can turn the page.


OK, we get the message

So: What do we all think of that looming 6% services tax?

Business groups lobbied intensely Thursday to kill a widely despised 6% tax on many services, approved Oct. 1 by the Legislature as one solution to bail the state out of a $1.8-billion deficit. (Freep, 1A Friday)

Negotiations broke down between the House and Senate over the widely despised service tax late Wednesday, boosting chances the unpopular levy* will go into effect on Saturday. (Detroit News, 1A Thursday)

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that businesses don't like the tax. If there's any survey research that sheds light on public opinion in general, the rival blatts appear to have ignored it (on public radio, which with typical brie-eating weenyness can barely muster a "widely disliked," somebody just acknowledged that the general public is "maybe not as engaged in this" as the advocates are). Until we can all agree to stop confusing business opinion with public opinion, then, it'd be nice if we can get some substitutes up off the bench and ready for those poor overworked adjectives. I propose:

"Saffron-colored service tax"
"War-torn service tax"

Other nominees? Send 'em in.

* Memo to the News: As a rule, it's better to go from the general to the specific, rather than the other way 'round.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A test for 'national' news

All categories of grownup news coverage in traditional mass media are under pressure these days: Space is declining, newsrooms are cutting back on original nonlocal reporting, "soft" (mostly celebrity) news is claiming a greater and greater share of resources, and news execs are increasingly likely to rationalize their decisions by noting that, well, anybody who really wants to know about the world at large can find it on the Internet somewhere.

That makes this case a particularly good one to watch if you want to know where "national" news is going. There's no shortage of stuff from around the nation, if by "national" you mean missing moms in Michigan, missing students in Kansas, missing pregnant women wherever, and assorted forms of gooey episodic death. What we tend not to have is a warning system that goes off loudly when some event in some distant state hits a bunch of substantive (i.e., non-missing-pregnant-mom) buttons at once. As in:

State science curriculum director resigns
Move comes months before comprehensive curriculum review

The state's director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.

OK, weak choice in the secondary display type (there's what you might, erm, call a much stronger angle in the third graf: In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation). But in all, a well displayed and nicely reported -- let's hear it for newspapers that think a state FOI law is for kicking open doors with, not for hanging on the wall -- first-day story.

The test is going to be how prominently it's played on the wires. The AP -- at least, the state wire in Texas -- has had the story since Thursday morning. But it has a number of hoops to jump at the agency before it even becomes a decision for your local paper. (If you think any of this is new, go back and read what A.J Liebling wrote 60 years ago about the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.) If your national news buffet over the next couple days is all Cop's Missing Wife and Missing Student's Secret Porn Life, with no hint of Creationists Sandbag Texas Education Official Who Stepped Out Of Line, you're justified in asking some questions.

Lede of the (aging) month

There's just ... no peak left for journalism to conquer after this, is there?

Sneed hears Stacy Peterson told a clergyman in August that her husband had claimed to have killed his former wife Kathleen Savio and made it look like an accident.
It's not just the three-layer attribution! It's not just the preposed third-person reference to the author by last name! It's the synergy!

A source close to the investigation tells Sneed the 23-year-old, who had been pregnant and living with Peterson when Savio was found dead in an empty bathtub in 2004, also told two other people close to her about her husband's statements regarding Savio's demise.

We don't really need to know who the husband is, after all. If Drew, Stacy and Kathleen are all hed names by now, it'd be picky to put on the brakes just when we're reaching full Sneed.

... Peterson has been declared a suspect in Stacy's disappearance. The case has been labeled a "potential homicide" and appears to be moving swiftly toward a homicide investigation.

"All we need now is the body," the source said.

Sneed knows all! Sneed sees all! But surely Sneed wouldn't ... make us rely on a one-source story, would Sneed?

Police are discussing salvage operations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in hopes they will bring in heavy equipment to dredge the area. "The police have already put down underwater cameras, which show it's cluttered with cars and truck trailers . . . and it needs to be cleared for divers," a source said.

Guess not.

The source offered this timeline for the day Stacy issued her ultimatum:

Good thing we don't have to figure out which source.

Yeah, yeah. The world of real journalism is tabloidizing as fast as it can. Nice to have a reminder sometimes of how far ahead the real tabloid pros are.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Waterboarding the numbers

Yet another marginally interesting survey that says something -- just not what the heds claim when they say "survey says." Here's how two papers treated it:

Black voters favor Clinton
But if Obama wins in mostly white Iowa, that might change minds

WASHINGTON --Black voters may be leaning toward supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination even though they prefer Barack Obama, because they're dubious that America is ready to elect a black president, a new survey suggests.
(Charlotte Observer)
Neither the hed nor the lede is strictly true. The survey doesn't suggest that black voters are leaning one way despite their underlying preference. That suggestion comes from an analyst at the outfit that conducted the study:
"I think there are a lot of black voters who think Hillary Clinton has a better chance of being elected president," said David Bositis, senior policy analyst for the center, which specializes in analyzing issues important to African-Americans. "They're basing this thought, this feeling, on their own experiences. African American voters think . . . 'there's no way in the world a black candidate is going to be elected president.'"

He's welcome to his opinion, and he might even have a point. What he doesn't have (or, at least, doesn't present here) is anything in the way of empirical evidence to support his opinion. So the deck needs to be attributed and the lede needs to be tied to the analyst's judgment, rather than the data. Which are also the main problems with the display treatment at the Free Press:

Iowa win vital for Obama, poll says
It could be proof for black voters

You can make a fair case that an Iowa win is equally "vital" for everyone (though if the news media that piously sign the Stop Me Before I Horserace Again pledge every year would just shut up about it, the silly thing might well recede in importance). It's possible, at a stretch, to assemble conclusion like that from a poll -- just not from this poll. And, of course, any "could" hed, like a "might," can be phrased as a "might not" with little or no loss in meaning.

Charlotte's main hed -- "Black voters favor Clinton" -- has a similar problem, and it also stems from ignoring the most important question you can ask about a poll: What did it measure?

The poll didn't ask a straight-up "whom would you vote for" question. Rather, those surveyed gave Clinton an 83 percent favorable rating and Obama a 74 percent favorable rating.

So we don't know who(m) black voters "favor"; all we know is how they respond when asked to rate candidates favorably or unfavorably. It's not a bad question, but it isn't the one claimed in the hed. Nor does it address proof, nor does it address the relevance of the Iowa festivities. The numbers aren't lying. They're just being gently told what might happen to their properties and families.

It's E-Z and fun to make fun of Fox's polling, because Fox and Opinion Dynamics jump through such tormented hoops to get to where the paymaster wants. But at the end of the day, fibbing with data is fibbing with data. Don't confuse "advocate says" with "numbers say." That's cheating, no matter whose side you're on.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

At the Fox Geography Bee

Report: Iran Produces New Missile
Capable of Reaching the Mideast

And if Fox readers aren't scared enough, they should probably know that Iranian students are being trained this very minute to fold paper airplanes equally capable of reaching the Mideast! Because to reach the Mideast from Iran, you just sort of have to, oh, drop the paper airplane at your feet. Or, if you really wanted to prove a point, you could pitch it across the border into Iraq. Or drop it in the gulf and float it to the Mideast.

Nice thing about a good fear appeal. Once you get it set properly, it'll just run by itself.

? מי זה

This one's technically Someone Else's Field, but since it's showing up in newspapers, it's worth a mention here:

GASTON --"Who you is?"

That's how a student greeted me years ago in a Miami classroom. I waited to see how the teacher would respond to this insult against grammar, but she did the last thing I expected: She answered the question, as if it had been posed in English.

Um, news flash for Leonard Pitts and his editors (that includes all you folks at America's Newspapers who wrote heds for it, read the copy and slapped it on the page). "Who you is?" is English. We can rule out Hebrew, or Arabic, or Spanish, or anything else they teach on the upper floors. It may be nonstandard English, but that's a whole different beast from being not-English. And considering its appearance in a paper that routinely forms question heds without inversion or auxiliary support, this is the sort of cheap shot that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones at.

If that sort of slur had showed up under the byline of Walter Williams or Cal Thomas or someone else from the oppressed right-wing minority that somehow manages to dominate America's op-ed pages, you'd hope somebody would call it out. But Pitts is a well-better-than-average op-ed columnist, and he's trying to make a well-intentioned point. (As he notes none too modestly, "This, by the way, is the latest installment in What Works, my series about programs that are tackling the challenges faced by black kids. ") Should he get a free pass?

I'd like to think not. It's easy to single out nonstandard features for ridicule, but it's a short skid from there to some pretty ugly territory (and depending on who gets to determine which dialect is dominant and which features are worser'n others, me and Pitts might find ourselves on the same unheated train to Siberia). It's already too easy for dialect to become a game of Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others. I'd prefer it if journalism was trying to fix that, rather than making it worse.


Let's see. Two weeks ago, the lede on that all-important Hannah Montana tickets story was:

Parents, Christmas just came early for you and your kids.

With the concert date approaching, can we top that for originality?

It's official for all you pre-teen girls out there. Hannah Montana has arrived.

Anybody want to start a pool on what the review itself might start with?

Cluelessness '08: Circling the drain

Q: Are there actually stupider ways to organize campaign coverage than by presidential candidates' home state?

A: Glad you asked! Yes, there are several. And one of the stupidest is organizing campaign coverage by the likely presence of talk-show hosts.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The man who would be suspect

Why pay such attention to cop reporting? Because so much can go so wrong in so few inches of it:
Robbery victim shoots suspect
Police say it was a robbery attempt gone bad Sunday night in east Charlotte, and they say a would-be suspect is hospitalized as a result.
Just a few questions, your honor. 1) What would a robbery attempt "gone good" look like, and under what circumstances would we describe it as such? 2) Since nothing in the hed is attributed or qualified, what do you expect to gain by qualifying anything in the text? Among other things, if there was a "robbery" for someone to be a victim of, how bad did it go? 3) Did anybody bother to look up the phrase "would-be" to see if was grotesquely out of tune? And perhaps find out that it means wishing to be, posing as? ("No, officer, I'm not the suspect. I'm just posing as a suspect.")

The incident happened about 11:20 p.m. in the parking lot of the McDonalds restaurant on Albemarle Road at Farm Pond Lane.
Leave the gun. Bring the cannoli apostrophe.

According to police, two armed men confronted another man in the parking lot and tried to rob him. The would-be victim, however, pulled out a gun and shot one of the suspects in the stomach. Police say the victim then ran off.
Now that we've decided what the suspect is, could we put some time into whether it's a "victim" or a "would-be victim"? And if we're going to attribute anything in this graf, should it be the sentence in which somebody actually shoots somebody?

The wounded suspect was taken by MEDIC to Carolinas Medical Center with wounds that police say are not life-threatening. Robbery detectives are investigating the case.
Glad they're not investigating the doughnut supply or anything.

Nothing in there is especially complicated. Most of it submits to some pretty routine fixes. Until somebody figures out that cop reports in the Brave New Online World still need a few extra sets of eyes too, this sort of thing is going to continue.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

And you could look it up

If you're tired of this refrain, go ahead and skip to another channel, but: Sports departments would rightly be wary of any news agency that declared that Boston won the '67 World Series on a field goal in double overtime. Until news desks start insisting on a similar level of routine attention to what actually happened in the recent past, newspapers will forever be doomed to run stuff like this:

The starting points for defining the border between Israel and a Palestinian state are the June 4, 1967, armistice lines that were set after Israel won control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.

Hard to tell exactly where that went off the rails, but since it's lying on its side in a particular cornfield, we can take a few guesses. The writer wanted to say that the starting points are the June '67 borders (though Golan and Sinai have nothing and almost nothing, respectively, to do with Palestinian borders) but knows they were technically armistice lines, not formal "borders." Then he tacks on a definition that should have set off alarm bells, or at least caused some editor to flip open a World Almanac or similar reference (even Wikipedia gets the dates right). The June 4 lines can't have been set "after" the Six-Day War because the Six-Day War didn't start until June 5. The armistice lines are the ones set after the 1948-49 war.

That's an easy one to fix, as long as you're in the habit of looking stuff up. And until the desks at major news services get into that habit, newspapers would do well to cultivate it themselves. Even if it looks like less fun than the celebrity watch.

While we're here, a macro concern about the concepts that show up when the story is reduced to bullet points:

Israelis are reluctant to accept a well-armed Palestinian nation next door.

True. But conceptualizing "security" as a concern for only one side in any struggle like this one is a good way to be perpetually surprised by the ordinary. That's not to suggest Israel's security concerns aren't real. They are. It is to suggest that if your readers are shocked to find that security is a Palestinian issue as well, part of the fault is yours.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Such as a rolling stone

As hobbies go, I suppose, being a Language Expert must not be all that harmful. But it does have a couple of down sides, as Jack ("at least I'm not Safire") Kilpatrick demonstrates for us here. One, people might take you seriously, even if you're spouting complete nonsense. Two, whenever editors concentrate on nonissues, they're almost certain to be missing genuinely serious issues in the prose they're trying to help. Raise your hand if you've heard this fight on your copydesk before:

What not to like about 'like'
It's no substitute for 'such as,' no matter what Merriam-Webster says
In The New York Times, the greatly gifted Gail Collins ducked away from a tough topic: "I would love to give you all the arguments about the virtues of the Law of the Sea Treaty, but it seems like a cruel thing to do."

Three weeks ago another Times writer, Carol Vogel, covered an auction of high-priced paintings. They were the work of "masters like Matisse, Signac and Pissarro."

In Time magazine, reporter Bill Saporito wrote about Wal-Mart: Most of its worst-performing stores were located "in big coastal cities like Boston and Los Angeles."

See if you can guess what four-letter word he's going to complain about!

Like, like, like! Properly employed, it's a lovable little word. The compliant Polonius saw a cloud "like" a weasel. Hamlet mourned his father: "I shall not look upon his like again." Martial confessed an irrational prejudice: "I do not like you, Sabidius!" Whether as noun, verb, adjective, adverb or preposition, "like" functions like a good Scout knife. (Hold this thought. We're about to see it again.) We may use it anywhere.

It's as a conjunction that "like" is most widely abused. (Which accounts for exactly none of the cases Kilpatrick cites.) Nine times out of 10, "such as" would better serve a writer's purpose. (In two of the cases at hand, it'd be acceptable; in the first -- "it seems such as a cruel thing to do" -- it would be as wrong as you can get.) In the Horrid Examples just cited, we're not learning about masters like Matisse or cities like Boston. (Speak for yourself, bubba.) "Like" doesn't work well in these constructions because the first, immediate understanding of "like" in context is as a comparative: Scott's love was "like a red, red rose." John Dos Passos wrote of "frail clouds like milkweed floss." The Yankees are like the Red Sox, only of course they weren't.

Let's stop the tape and untangle some of the facts, superstitions and biases in play here. One, Kilpo's correct(ish) to suggest that "like" is "most widely abused" as a conjunction. That's certainly the usage that gets the most complaints and (in cases like this, from today's Freep) look and sound the worst:

People flocked into the museum like it was a shopping mall with the best Black Friday deals in town.

Now that, Brother Kilpo, is a Horrid Example of "like" trying to coordinate two independent clauses. You're welcome to dislike it. I do too, and I'd agree that it's the site of the biggest battles -- which arise because the construction has been used not just by Huck Finn ("Seemed like I'd die if I couldn't scratch") but by Sir Winnie ("We are overrun by them, like the Australians were by rabbits") and quite a few others between and after, as the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage tells us. It's ugly, but it's "indisputably used widely in standard English prose" -- and the worst damage it does is probably from forcing people into preposterous hypercorrections, like "beaches do not naturally smell as rotten eggs."

That "like" is the one Kilpo is after, though it's among the usages that he says are fine. What is doing in "like 'beaches do not naturally smell as rotten eggs'"? Well, it could be an adjective. It could be a preposition (still known as an adj by "conservative grammarians," as Webster notes). It could be what the OED calls a "quasi-preposition." All are in bounds, but he's going after a whole different argument, on which opinion is even less settled than the "Winston tastes good" conjunction: Whether "like" is used for resemblance or for examples. Does "outfielders like Yastrzemski" mean others (but not Yaz) in a category of high-power, high-average lefthanded hitters who play the Monster well, or does it mean Yaz and others like him?

On the evidence (again, flip open your MWCDEU and see for yourself), it can mean both. And it's perfectly unexceptional either way. There's no chance of confusion, and no rational reader or speaker should insist that one is the more "exact" or "precise" meaning. Kilpo's welcome to prefer "such as" as a direct substitute, but you'll note he doesn't take himself literally:

A Washington Post stringer offered a splendid example a few weeks ago. She wrote of Democratic electoral victories "in such places as Arlington County and Alexandria." Not "places like"! Places "such as"!

No, she doesn't say "places such as." She says "such places as." You can't tell from this whether she's a good writer or not, but you can get an idea that she isn't a hypercorrecting goofbag. And those of us who have written an accurate "like" only to see it changed to "such as," or a "but" that turns into a "however," appreciate the difference.

OK, once again, Kilpo isn't Safire. He isn't coyly referring to himself in the third person, and he isn't fabricating data to serve the ends of his political allies. His first example is flatly ludicrous, and his second two can be tracked down under the OED's adj A1c: "introducing a particular example of a class respecting which something is predicated," but he's entitled to a good old prescriptivist whinge. What's so wrong with that?

Nothing, unless you take it too seriously -- meaning if you get so absorbed in non-problems that you're distracted when real ones go roaring by. And if you work in the news business, kiddies, serious problems are presenting themselves in their dozens every shift.

Were you arguing about an adjectival or quasi-prepositional "like" when this writer double-clutched in the 1A lede?

Despite putting up with freezing cold temperatures and people who tried to take cuts, they got what they came for 22 hours later: a laptop computer for $229. (Despite being patient, they got what they came for?)

Were you so caught up in debating conjunctive "like" that you forgot about the ways real coordinating conjunctions work?

Knowing no English, she came to Detroit in 1958 from the Italian village of Gagliano Aterno but was to reunite with her husband, Carmine, whom she had not seen for four years. (Carmine! Fancy meeting you here!)

Were you so convinced grammar is actually a form of magic that you thought the subject of one clause could supernaturally leap the terminal punctuation into another?

David Morrow, co-chairman of the Riverwalk Neighborhood Association, which adjoins the drag-strip site, said he's pleased Smith has decided to stay in the area. Keeping the speedway will be good for homeowners. (So much for keeping your opinion out of the news columns, eh?)

We could go on. Some mistakes are understandable. Mistakes that come about because you've been head-faked into chasing after ghosts are much less so.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Big scary world out there!

And one of the things a copydesk does to make it seem a fraction less weird and scary is, oh, to put matters into perspective. Here's just such a case, resulting in a blown save, reported by the alert St. Louis bureau:

Death is routine in Iraq. Not so here.

Death? Hmm. Quiet fella? Tall, black coat, carrying a scythe? Nope. Haven't seen him in these parts, stranger. You might try over to Belleville.

And this just in from the World's Most Bodacious J-School:

Christian groups bring the Bible
to thousands of countries
through unconventional means

Thousands, you say? Funny. Our own State Department is using all the fingers and toes it has and still comes up a little shy of 200. And -- funnier -- just such a reference in the text suggests that the article could have done with a harder eye at the Washington Post, whence it came:

David Hammond, who works in Nairobi for the British-based United Bible Societies, a network of agencies in 200 countries, said Bible formats are changing to suit a changing world.

Let's grant the writer a little casual rounding-up to the round 200. Even so, can these folks legitimately claim "agencies" in every country in the world? Seems a bit sweeping, even for a generally credulous fluff piece. Think we might have wanted to ask for some evidence? But stay tuned for a case of bad editing at the destination making things worse:

More than 9,000 miles away in Virginia, Christopher Deckert tracks where the Bible has gone — and where it has yet to travel. As children ride scooters and bicycles outside his single-family home in a leafy suburb of Richmond, Deckert works at his computer in his den. Paintings of people from around the globe surround him.

Makes you want to get out the old globe and see exactly how far it is from Nairobi to Richmond, doesn't it? It should. A whole section of the original feature, which took us back to Cambodia (from which the mileage sounds a bit more realistic), has been chopped out. Lesson: When you cut the patient apart, don't forget to put him/her/it/y'all/them back together.

Buzzers should have gone off on this one a lot earlier. Even so, it's a good reminder for the desk gang at the Missourian that articles from the wires aren't perfect. They're written and edited by actual human beings who, every now and then, bungle just like the rest of us. Treat wire copy like any other copy -- meaning, be suspicious about the same sorts of things you would in a staff-written story. Implausible claims don't become plausible just because they're made to the Post. Any article that tries three superlatives in five grafs:

Christian groups are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to make one of the world’s oldest books accessible in remote corners of the planet.

... An additional 1,600 translation projects are underway that will leave only about 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population without the best-selling book of all time available in their native language.

... Christian missionaries said new multimedia presentations in hundreds of languages are vastly expanding the Bible’s audience and spreading the influence of the world’s largest religion.

is probably up to something and should be pulled aside for further questioning. And whenever you see "saffron-robed monks":

Cambodia remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, with 4,000 gilded temples filled with saffron-robed monks.

... you should call and ask for photos just on general principles.


OK, here's the deal. If Xpesmas carols can flood the airwaves and the local blatt (along with its counterparts throughout the land) can sprinkle exclamation points all over the yearly demands to head for the mall today, I get to propose some New Year's resolutions a few weeks in advance too. Try these for starters:

1) No more "things I'm thankful for" columns. Especially the ones that complain about how hard it is to write a "things I'm thankful for" column:
There's a reason columnists make a list of things to be grateful for on Thanksgiving. It's not because it's easy to do.
(AHEM) Yes it is.
In fact, it would be much easier to concoct a rundown of gripes, things we want or wish we had: more time, fewer gray hairs, a bigger bank account.
Nah. If it really was easier, we'd see dozens of them every year.

2) No more cutlines that tell readers what they see:

Stop the press: You mean those people we see standing in line are ... standing in line? Note also the editing touches: using "wait" for "await" and booting style two ways on "5 a.m.," but nailing the double quotes on the "R" in Toys "R" Us. And we wonder why people think copy editors are a pain.

Stuff that surveys don't do

Pity the poor misunderstood public opinion survey. One set of people thinks survey research is Good Magic, a sort of cosmic GPS that allows, say, presidential candidates' progress to be tracked with astounding precision like so many off-road vehicles in some bizarre reality show. Another set thinks surveys are Evil Magic concocted by liberal professors from California who use trick questions so that when you say "I like Christmas," your answer comes out in the paper as "I spit on the flag." And it has your picture next to it with one of those Bin Laden hats on.

The truth is a lot more boring. A properly done survey gives a pretty good snapshot of what people say about what they do, or think, or might do. As does the survey discussed today. But not all its findings are equally relevant or useful, which is the problem with the the 1A lede treatment this particular finding got.

Dorothy Runyan and her husband are driving to visit their family in Virginia only twice this year instead of the usual three times.

... Runyan, 73, of Whitehall, said she and her husband try to keep the gas tanks filled on the pickup he drives and the SUV that she uses, but that they try to drive hers as much as possible because it gets better mileage.

They'll need it, polltakers say.

A whopping 82 percent foresee $4-a-gallon gasoline within a year.

That's the sort of conclusion polls don't allow. Whether people expect the price of gasoline to reach $4 a gallon has nothing to do with whether it actually gets there, and the findings of "polltakers" have nothing to do with whether our anecdotal family does or doesn't need better mileage. (And "a whopping 82 percent" overdramatizes the irrelevant, given that almost half those people say it's "somewhat" likely that they'll pay $4 a gallon "sometime in the next year.")

Too bad, because on the whole, this is a pretty well done survey with some moderately interesting results. People say they're driving less and shopping around for good gasoline prices, but in about the same proportions, they say they aren't changing holiday or other travel plans. There's an unusually high proportion (about one in five) of "don't know/refused" answers to a question about whether respondents have started carpooling or taking public transit. And the "yes" answer there is about the same as for a question about whether people have bought a car that gets better mileage. Hmm.

Interesting bunch of numbers about what people say about (leading to some entertaining inferences about what they don't say or what they lie about) how worried they are about the energy situation. It might or might not show that people are changing their energy habits, but it does suggest that some energy habits are easier to change -- or admit to not changing -- than others. Hard to see why that qualifies as a lede -- except that polls are expensive, and this one has a staff byline and a shirttail indicating that seven other staffers contributed, suggesting some pressure to get some mileage out of the thing.

Give this one a B+. It's not inherently evil, but it toots the wrong horns a bit too loudly about the wrong things.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Every one of 'em has a vote

There's an anecdote back somewhere in Greg "Pappy" Boyington's autobiography in which our protagonist finds himself forced to make a living as a wrestling referee (the real kind, with belts and folding chairs and foreign objects in the kneepads, not that stuff they do in the Olympics). As he's counting the bad guy out in one match, he happens to look up at the crowd and remark on its, erm, particular enthusiasm.

"Yeah, and you know what else?" the wrestler says. "Every one of 'em has got a vote."

So as twilight creeps in on this rainy Thanksgiving eve, let's pause for a moment and give thanks for Fox News, which reminds us every day of what some people want those votes to be thinking about when they make their myriad big and little political decisions.
You can discern quite a bit from the four (five, if there's a streamer; three if something's so breathtaking as to rate a spot on the left and the art position as well) stories that get pride of place at the top of the home page. The center of visual interest -- what we printosauruses would call the "centerpiece" -- is the prototype Missing Blonde case. The traditional "lede" is Left Coast anti-American ingratitude:
Seattle public schools want a side of political correctness served on your Thanksgiving table.
Washington state's largest school district sent letters to teachers and other employees suggesting Thanksgiving should be "a time of mourning" for its Native American students.
Does "stir furor" mean the peasants were out in the streets with torches and pitchforks? No, it's code for "we called one of the usual suspects and asked him to comment":
Nationally syndicated talk show host Michael Medved was more blunt.
"The notion that now you have a major school system sending out a message that, no, rather than expressing thanks we should emphasize guilt on this holiday — that is sick, it is destructive and it is anti-American."
The second story shows the out-of-control government caught in a reality show, and the third -- well, read it in all its five-graf glory:
A 3-year-old girl in Mesa, Ariz., escaped with several serious wounds after a trifecta of unfortunate accidents, reported Tuesday.
The girl was playing in her backyard Monday and was somehow able to climb to the top of a cinderblock fence, when she fell off the wall and landed on a neighbor’s cactus plant, reported. She was subjected to further bad luck when the neighbor’s two dogs bit her and dragged her across the yard.
Abby Trujillo Maestas, the girl’s neighbor who was not home at the time, feels awful.
“Our prayers, our hearts go out to the child and her family,” Maestas told
The girl’s mother had to jump the wall to rescue the girl from the canines. She was brought to a local hospital for treatment of various puncture wounds on her head, neck and back. She’s expected to make a full recovery, reported.
Oh, stop the press.
Looking downpage, we can find echoes of these and several other recurring Fox themes, organized for your convenience here by category and hed:
Missing White Women
Missing Mom's Cop Hubby Can Collect Pension
Breast-Baring Fan Chants Cause NFL Uproar
Swedish Women Go Topless To Protest Swimwear Rules
Love Gone Bad
He Went On TV To Marry Her: Did He Kill Her?
Wife Says No Beer; Hubby Replies By Shooting Goats
Liberals Are Coming To Get Your Family
Measure To Ban In-Office Romance Fails In San Francisco
San Francisco Approves Gender-Neutral ID Cards
Muslims Behaving Badly
Saudi Arabia's Judiciary Rape Victim Lashing Verdict
Episodic Disaster Lurks Everywhere
Cops: Drunk Man Sleeps On Train Tracks, Loses Arm
But the coolest thing about Fox World? There's so often a happy ending:
Chinese Girl to Undergo Operation to Remove Spare Arm From Back
Dude! Somebody's got a spare!


Words of One Syllable Dept.

Pause for a moment and think about the number of layers of editing the Stupid Question at right had to go through.

Somebody had to think it was a "By The Numbers" topic. Somebody had to dig up the numbers. Somebody had to set up the display type. Somebody had to come up with "Answered Prayers?" as a hed, and someone else had to approve it. And apparently nobody put on the Magic Science Hat for a second and tried to write these fact claims (this is, after all, the front page of a state capital daily; we'd like to think they're fact-based) out as testable statements.

From June 30 to July 7, Alabama residents were asked to pray for rain. They got it. In August, Birmingham received 4.8 inches of rain, about 1.4 inches more than usual. Totals for September and October were less than normal.

Our independent variable is whether Alabama residents were asked to pray for rain (we're in trouble, you might have noticed, if we try to measure prayer itself), and it has two levels: off and on. The dependent variable is whether prayer is answered, and it's measured by rainfall in a one-month period beginning three weeks after the experimental manipulation (we're hoping the lag is justified in the literature review, about which more in a second).

We're more or less stuck with the one-shot quasi-experimental design, owing to the problems of randomization, control and pretesting. (I mean, the ethical implications of praying for frogs and locusts in Mississippi, or of getting 300 guitarists together to play "Louie, Louie" for rain in Dale, Henry and Houston counties, are pretty obvious.) But even granting the basic "face validity"* of the outcome measure, we still need to quibble about how the DV is operationalized and interpreted. Where's the standard deviation for August rainfall? How are you going to report effect size? How significant are the mean differences for September and October? And let's go ahead and talk about the three-week lag. If that's your way of trying to factor out the confounding factors of death and destruction by tropical weather (just to take one example), it sounds like a bad case of Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.

Reviewer A, in short, votes to reject. And don't hold your breath waiting on B and C.

As the Georgia experiment has already been discussed here, let's just issue the standard warning and hope somebody pays attention this time. Journalism is about the empirical world. We're not going to run out of observable, measurable things to report any time soon. Please stick to them and leave the supernatural to its own domain.

That's not to say we don't report on the influence of belief on human behavior. We need to keep an eye on people like Bailey Smith who say things like "God does not hear the prayer of the Jew." But we don't do it by running 1A graphics that purport to compare the efficacy of Jewish prayer with Baptist prayer. If you can't tell the difference between stuff you can observe and stuff you can't, now's a good time to consider changing your major.

And next time somebody complains about the secular librul media opening a new front in the War on Xpesmas? Slap 'em across the face with a wet N&O.

* Means exactly what you'd think: On its face, it makes sense to measure rainfall in inches.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Making the desk look bad

Stumble a bit when you get to the end of this lede?

For decades, heart disease death rates have fallen. But a new study shows a troubling turn -- more women under 45 are dying of heart disease due to clogged arteries, and the death rate for men that age has leveled.

You should. That's an out-and-out error introduced by the desk. Have a look at the papers that fronted it (among them the Arizona Republic, Orlando and Palm Beach, the Strib and the PiPress, Eugene, and Austin and Fort Worth) and you'll see that the last clause is -- correctly -- "the death rate for men that age has leveled off."

This sort of violation of the first-do-no-harm rule is one of the reasons writers don't trust copy editors. First, it's an outright error. The verb that means "flatten out" is "level off." It's of the type sometimes called a "phrasal verb," one that gets its meaning from the combination of verb and preposition. You can't "correct" it by taking off the preposition, because that leaves you with a different verb (you can, and should, look it up). It's the difference between "some copy editor really screwed up" and "some copy editor really screwed." Writers hate it when we make them look dumb, and old Mother Tongue sheds a quiet tear at this deformity.

Second, editing resources are finite. This was true even before "work smarter, not harder" became management-speak for "do more work with fewer people and less time." Time you waste on "correcting" stuff that isn't wrong is time you can't spend on fixing things that are wrong or raising questions about stuff that might be wrong.

As in? This lede from Sunday raises interesting questions:

LAS VEGAS -- Hillary's back on top.

After the rockiest two weeks of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton regained her footing last week with a strong debate showing Thursday even as her two chief rivals may have hurt themselves.

One, under what circumstances are candidates identified by given-name-only on first reference? Is it because Clinton's of the female persuasion, or is there some nonsexist motive you can point to? Two, don't you get a better story if you simply delete the original lede and start with the second graf?

Third -- gee, what's this doing on the front page Tuesday?

Poll: Clinton losing ground to Obama in Iowa

Did public opinion change that fast? Is Washington Post brand survey data that much more magically better than anybody else's? Is generalizing from nonsignificant changes smarter or dumber than generalizing from focus groups? Are we just going to keep running this story until we get it right (and how will we know; if the New York Times moves a story tomorrow based on its own survey, where's that going to play?). Is the Democratic race getting more coverage than the Republican race because it's more important or because most of the people making news decisions are Democrats?

Oh, and a bonus: If the total sample for the poll is 500 and one-third of those rate Iraq the most important issue, what's the maximum margin of sampling error at 95% confidence for the preferences of voters who consider Iraq the most important issue?

We could ask lots more editing questions. Why, for example, does your religion editor follow one style on transliterating "Quran"* while the rest of the paper follows another? But we can't ask them if we're wasting our time editing errors into other people's copy. Grr.

* Like Fox News, the religion editor reverts to the style AP dropped early in the decade. Is that deliberate? How does it fit with your general policies toward transliteration and language sensitivity? Should you be asking questions like that in-house, before somebody of less generous spirit asks them for you?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nice work you might have missed

Here's a pretty standard reader comment on one of the ombud columns we discussed last week (since it's from the print side, not the Web side, there's not much spittle flying off it; editing has its virtues). It's worth noting because it suggests why some out-and-out good news from the journalism world is worth paying attention to:

Public Editor Ted Vaden's discussion of bias in campaign coverage ... was interesting but hardly new news to most of us. Everyone who cares knows that not only The N&O, but almost all of the mainstream media are biased toward liberalism. If Vaden or anyone else would objectively research news coverage, not only for political campaigns but across the board, including the war on terrorism, the economy and other important issues, I think they would find it very difficult to rationalize the obvious bias that exists.

With all due respect there, quite a few people "objectively research news coverage" (as well we should; nobody's ever gotten tenure just by making fun of Mitch Albom*). And we know quite a lot about it by now. U.S. newspaper endorsements have traditionally tilted heavily Republican. More people in newsrooms describe themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. News tends to reify not just status quo parties but status quo candidates within those parties. Chief executives get a rally effect from international adventures and misadventures alike. Presidential frames get a better ride in the press when there's a lot of consent at the top of the pyramid, compared with times of elite dissent. (That's why Iraq looked and sounded more like part of the "war on terror" in news accounts after Colin Powell went to the UN than it did before.)

For a lot of reasons, then, it's no surprise that when you ask about what the "war on terror" looks like in the mainstream press, a good place to start is "what does the administration want it to look like?" And since wars on terror are about as old as wars on drugs (both predating the Reagan administration), any such effect is likely to be independent of party affiliation.

Hence this particular small of ray of light, which calls for kudos for McClatchy, which filed it, and the subscriber or member papers who ran it (this version is from Charlotte, which ran it inside and pretty heavily cut; the PiPress fronted a longer version two days later). It's not an extraordinary piece of journalism. There's not much here in the way of complicated original reporting, or peril to life and limb, or anything like that. What makes it stand out is the sort of stuff it introduces into a debate that, so far, has been dominated by borderline nutjobs like John Bolton** and a bunch of folks who make Mr. Bolton look like the face of sweet reason. Here's some long-absent thinking to the contrary:

"Would I like Iran to have a nuclear bomb? No," said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor of international politics who has written widely on nuclear deterrence. But, "the fears (voiced) by the administration and a fair number of sensible people, as well, just are exaggerated. The idea that this will really make a big difference, I think is foolish."

And where has Nutty Professor Jervis been since the world changed in 9/11 -- smoking poppy in the Hindu Kush with Ward Churchill and Osama bin Laden? No, he's been hiding in the mainstream of international-relations scholars (aside from a year spent covering his tracks as president of the American Political Science Association), where he's been for the last couple decades. His view only looks weird if you've -- like, never heard of the Cold War or something. As might this:

Even some commentators in Israel, whose leaders see themselves in Iran's crosshairs, present a more nuanced view of the potential threat than the White House does.

An Iranian nuclear bomb could present Israel "with the real potential for an existential threat," Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv wrote in February.

But Kam noted that Israel has its own unacknowledged nuclear deterrent -- estimated at 100 to 200 warheads, larger than anything Iran could marshal for years to come.

So ... a nearly 40-year-old policy on the order of "We can neither confirm nor deny that your capital might look like a sheet of molten glass if you reach for that gun, pardner" might actually work? Shazam! Again, it doesn't sound crazy unless John Bolton is all you've heard:

Why do you think Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons? When you have a regime that would be happier in the afterlife than in this life, this is not a regime that is subject to classic theories of deterrence. Retaliation for them, which would obliterate their society, doesn’t have the same negative connotations for their leadership.***

That's why the McClatchy piece is an important bit of journalism. It widens the debate to include people who actually know something about "classic theories of deterrence," rather than people who lie about them in hopes that the audience will be scared stupid. It's not big-play "great" journalism; it's just good, routine, hit-the-cutoff-man sort of journalism. And big plays might be the ones that lead SportsCenter, but routine play in front of a small crowd in a boring August doubleheader is what wins pennants. At least, that's what Updike said.

Anyway, if you saw that one in your so-called "mainstream media," send somebody a thank-you note. People who hit the cutoff man like to know that the fans can tell. Maybe they'll think about it next time there's a discussion about whether the front page needs a little more News2Use and a little less of that annoying international trivia.

* Hey, it could happen. Hope springs eternal.
** Seriously. Having your country represented internationally by John Bolton is like having Miller Lite as the U.S. entry in the World Beer Festival, if Miller Lite was heavily armed, psychotic and well financed.
*** I've been trying for two weeks to figure out what this means: Only godless commies can be deterred? Christians are all happier in this life than the next? Is anybody in India's nuclear command hierarchy expecting to come back as a cockroach on the next turn of the kozmik wheel? Or that you can dummy-code "religion" as a variable several different ways and actually continue to ask empirical questions about deterrence?


Sunday news: By the numbers

All the other kids are doing it, so -- have some Sunday Freep By The Numbers!

Number of sports cutlines using the verb "celebrate"

Words into Mitch Albom's lede (the one in sports; he has two on Sundays) you have to dig before finding an antecedent for the subject of the first sentence.

Days in a row a major international disaster has been covered with standalone
art (or "lines only," if you needed some new insider vocabulary).

For the record:

Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp, right, celebrates one of his three goals in the third period on Saturday. (3D, and sharp-eyed readers are right: Anarthrous "Blackhawks" here is standard in British Sports English, but not in American)

Jenison players celebrate a point against Birmingham Marian during the Class A Volleyball Finals at Kellogg Arena on Saturday. (5D)

Ohio State players celebrate with their fans o the Michigan Stadium field after the Buckeyes' 14-3 win over Michigan on Saturday. (3E)

MSU receiver Devin Thomas (5) celebrates his 26-yard touchdown pass with QB Brian Hoyer on Saturday (6E).

Michigan State safety Nehemiah Warrick celebrates the Spartans' 35-31 victory with the fans at Spartan Stadium on Saturday (7E).

A Gatorade-soaked coach Mark Dantonio celebrates Michigan State's comeback win Saturday against Penn State (8E).

Six in a day is just ... Gehrigesque. Ruthian. DiMaggioid. Angels dine at the Ritzy.


Friday, November 16, 2007

C'mon back. C'mon back. C'mon [PRANG] ... OK, that's good

Today's reminder of the virtues of sticking to the empirical world:

Rain follows Capitol prayer
Precipitation with storms not enough to make dent in drought
... The showers began a day after Gov. Sonny Perdue led a prayer service on the steps of the state Capitol to beg the heavens to end the drought.

"Certainly, we're not gloating about it," Perdue said from a trade mission in Canada. "We're thankful for the rain and hopefully it's the beginning of more. ...Frankly, it's great affirmation of what we asked for."

Well, thanks for giving credit where it's due there, governor. (Even though, as the lede notes, "forecasters said the storm likely did little to ease the state's historic drought.") But did you give any thought to what might happen if the cosmic aim was a little off?

...Storms hit elsewhere in the Southeast, injuring at least nine in Tennessee.

In Kentucky, a tornado hit a rural stretch of the southeastern part of the state Wednesday afternoon.

Hello, neighbor!

Admittedly, that's a pretty U.S.-centric view of things. The unintended consequences of Governor Perdue's thoughtless act could have landed a dozen time zones away -- where, judging from today's reports, they could have done without the help.

The technical journalistic term for the hed is "cherry-picking." Sure, rain followed the Capitol prayer. But -- just going from the first chapter in this new edition of "News Reporting and Writing"* that showed up the other day -- either "Tornado follows Capitol prayer" or "Cyclone kills hundreds following Capitol prayer" would have been a better reflection of standard news values.

Is there a lesson? Sure. Leave the supernatural (all of it, without discrimination) off the news pages. We have our hands full with the doings of God's creatures great and small.

* Yes, the Missouri Group still has trouble with the concept of "dangling participle."


Every year the warnings go out. And every year they get ignored:

'Hannah' fans rejoice: More tickets soon
Parents, Christmas just came early for you and your kids.

No, no, no. Never, never, never. "Christmas came early" is forbidden in all forms, in all media, under all circumstances. Which of those did the author of this appalling lede deem it exempt from?

Directly addressing the reader is what's called an "aggravating factor." Some readers might have moppets who have better stuff to do ("Wow, Mom! SPSS 15.0!"), and it's generally wise for news organizations not to assume all their readers fit a particular zombie mode.

John McIntyre has posted a comprehensive warning list of forbidden holiday cliches over at his excellent blog. Please heed it. All copy editors understand the occasional need to beat our heads against a brick wall. We only get irritated when we have to beat our heads against the same brick wall over and over and over again.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wire Week: News judgment and you

We talked a bit last week about the pressure in newsrooms to play ABA, or Anybody But AP, with international/national coverage. The main presumption underlying that is that the creditline is the primary or sole measure of a story's quality; reporting, proximity, context, clarity are all secondary. It's not a very good way of making decisions, but as a heuristic, it makes sense: Cognitive resources you save by making a quick judgment-by-creditline are resources you can spend somewhere else.

Here's a nice example of how ABA can go wrong:
Washington Post
Ira Levin, 78, a writer of entertaining if highly implausible suspense novels, including "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys From Brazil," as well as the long-running Broadway play "Deathtrap," died Monday at his home in New York after an apparent heart attack.

Levin's novels, whose plots centered on urban Satanists, creepily submissive wives and a Nazi doctor's efforts to clone Adolf Hitler, were praised for their taut and imaginative writing. At times, the books were criticized for questionable taste and stretching credulity to its limits, but they were unremittingly popular with readers.

The second graf is garden-variety mud-on-the-wall bad journalistic writing. Levin's novels don't center on Satanists, suburban wives and fugitive Nazis; those are the plots of the three mentioned in the lede. But the problem is the lede and its undisguised snark. "Entertaining if highly implausible" is elite-speak for "you and I don't actually read this stuff, do we?" Whether we do or don't, that's missing the point. Suspense novels often have this certain -- you know, implausibility about them. And it's OK! Dudes get raised from the dead! Dudes turn into bats! Yur geometry it is all wrong!

Here's a better choice, from the Freep:

Ira Levin, a mild-mannnered playwright and novelist who liked nothing better than to give people the creeps -- and who did so repeatedly, with best-selling novels such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys from Brazil" -- has died at 78.

None of which makes Ira Levin a better or worse writer, which isn't a problem. The obit isn't a place for the obit writer to demonstrate how far his/her tastes are from the madding crowd's. It's a place to chronicle stuff and put it into context. Sort of like ... journalism!

Lesson for editors? Discrimination is part of your job. Judge stories by content, not by creditline. No matter what the Stepford Wives tell you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Situation normal, all Foxed up

Just another day of keeping the state of public fear at a low boil for the gang at the Murdoch products. This frontpage gem is from the New York Post, more or less the closest thing we have to a print stand-in for Fox News.

Here's the Post's inside play, as reefered above (there's a more rational account over at the Free Press, for which it's a local story).


November 14, 2007 -- In an embarrassing security breach, an illegal Lebanese immigrant arranged a bogus marriage to earn US citizenship and jobs with the FBI and CIA - then sneaked into a top-secret government computer to see what investigators uncovered about Hezbollah and her family's ties to terror.

To spare you the trouble, there's no further mention of the "Jihad Jane" bit anywhere in the tale. Given that a quick and nonrandom Googling suggests that "Jihad Jane" has gained currency only among some of the more foamy-mouthed commentators, and only in reference to Jane Fonda, one gets the idea it was simply made up on the spot to keep the proles in jitters.

That said, one supposes that extremism in the defense of America's Children from the Terrorism Menace is no vice. So it's probably worth asking exactly what the Hez Hag* (for such is the genteel terminology of the Post cutline) was up to.

Nada Nadim Prouty's stunning betrayal became public when the 37-year-old former waitress pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges yesterday, a week after quitting her mid-level post at the CIA.

Hmm, betrayal. Isn't that the sort of thing we send people to the chair for? Who exactly was it she betrayed? Certainly not the poor downriver schlep she married; from the press accounts, that sounds like a business deal carried out to the satisfaction of both parties. Could it be related to the "conspiracy" she pleaded to? Gosh, according to the Freep, that was "conspiring to fraudulently obtain U.S. citizenship" (yeah, but it's so boring when you put all those extra words in). And of course, we're still waiting for an indication that she "penetrated" the FBI, or that she "stole Fed secrets on terror" (which is lots more specific than "took home classified FBI information"; it must be one laff riot after another to be a libel lawyer on Mr. Murdoch's payroll).
After the marriage of convenience, by both accounts, she managed to get a job at the FBI, background checks and all, and later at the CIA, which seemed to think the FBI had done its job. And she went nosing around the databases to see whether she or the relatives were being investigated.

Not much detail on what cause she might have had, but there's plenty of space for some guilt by association: The Hez Hag's "sister and fugitive brother-in-law had ties to what the feds called 'the highest levels' of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group." (Hezbollah has its own particular set of interests, but why pass up a chance to sideswipe the Iran fright button?) They "were apparently highly respected by Hezbollah, which, their indictment noted, had murdered more Americans than any other foreign terrorist organization' before 9/11.' ... In August 2002, Chahine and Elfat attended a fund-raising event in Lebanon in which the chief speakers were Chahine, representing 'a worldwide group of fund-raisers,' and Hezbollah's chief spiritual leader, Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadwallah, according to the indictment." (The Freep writer managed to spell Fadlallah's family name correctly, suggesting that unlike the Post scribe, he had actually heard of Hezbollah before the indictment told him what to think.)

The Post's penultimate graf grudgingly admits: "Investigators cautioned yesterday that Prouty was not assigned to work on FBI investigations involving Hezbollah and there is no evidence Prouty served Hezbollah as a spy" (for some reason, the Freep thought that was worth getting on the front). So at the end of the day, is there any reason for the Hez Hag and Jihad Jane hysteria, or is that just the sort of routine lying and race-baiting that goes on with the Fair-n-Balanced crowd?

There's a tradition of that sort of thing in some sectors of journalism, unfortunately. You'd kind of think it's one journalists today would prefer not to be associated with.

* Not to get all technical, but the noun in this compound is "Hezb." Not "Hez." Which you could, you know, look up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Vhat marks on the neck?

I can't say it's wrong, but I'm still inclined to nominate this for Weirdest Fronting of Physical Characteristic in a Crime Tale, mid-major, 2007:

Man with red mark on neck robs bank
The FBI wants to know if you've seen a man with a reddish mark on the right side of his neck -- investigators believe he robbed the Scottish Bank on Morrison Boulevard today.

The robbery happened at 11:14 this morning, when the robber -- a white man in his 50s who was about 5-foot-7 and weighted approximately 160 pounds -- walked into the bank and presented a robbery demand note to a teller.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday forum: Editors and news

Two examples stand out this week from Romenesko's Monday roundup of ombud/reader-rep columns. Both are the sort that hit my we're-circling-the-drain-and-picking-up-speed button, though I expect some people disagree (probably the ones who think my crowd are the ones sending the profession into irrelevance, but ... to each his own).

Anyway, I'm interested in y'all's thoughts about the future and present of "news," as outlined here. So pls chime in.

First up, Ted Diadun of the Plain Dealer:

Page One's new look designed to reflect people's lives
... Page One of this newspaper has changed dramatically over the past few months. You have noticed and have asked questions: Why has national and international news been taking a back seat? And why has Page One become so "featurey"?

This column has addressed specific front-page decisions several times recently, but perhaps it's time to take a more overall look at what has been happening to Page One and why.

The mission each day is to give you stories, photos and information on Page One and throughout the newspaper that you can't get anywhere else but in The Plain Dealer.

That's always been the mission, really, but things have, uh, changed. If something happens in Afghanistan or Alabama, the chances are that cable TV, e-mail and the Internet will tell you all about it before we can. ...

But if something occurs in a courtroom, in a boardroom or on a ballfield in Cleveland, your first and best shot is The Plain Dealer. So those are the things that make the front page of this newspaper, almost without exception.

(Right, and during the playoffs there was nothing but pro sports -- the prototype bird of "news you already know if you care" -- on the P-D front. But we digress.)

Last weekend, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended his country's constitution and cracked down on political opposition, and we heard from several readers who wanted to know how any self-respecting newspaper could not have had such important news on Page One.

A decade ago, the Pakistan stories would likely have been on Page One, continued to a story inside the A section that ran on for 40 inches. A year ago, the story might still have made Page One, albeit in a more concise form.

Today, sacrilegious as it seems to some, editors don't believe you buy The Plain Dealer to read about Pakistan.

So that Sunday's Page One was dominated by a thoughtful and readable story on the legacy of Carl Stokes, surrounded by stories about good news for the future of the Avon Lake Ford plant, and a feature about a firm that manufactures coffins and urns for Major League Baseball fans. And Monday's Page One told the tale of the Browns' overtime win, along with stories about problems in Ohio's school tutoring program and the competition between Cleveland-based insurance giant Progressive and aggressive marketer Geico.

Are any of those stories as important as an upheaval in Pakistan? Perhaps not, but readers could find the Musharraf stories in lots of places. The story about people who want to be buried in an Indians casket was only in The Plain Dealer - and, of course, on

(Watch the paper shift its feet now)

"I think the front page really needs to reflect the reality of people's lives, and people's lives are not just about events to worry about -- war, death and tragedy," said editor Susan Goldberg.

True but disingenuous. The argument was never "replace all the 1A fluff with Pakistan stories" or "life really is just war, death and tragedy"; it's about why the bar has moved to the point where major stories can't make a dent in the fluff. Sheez.

Over to the N&O, Ted Vaden comes out in the open with a weird defense of card-stacking:

Assessing bias in campaign coverage
I've heard a good bit recently from my friends toward the starboard tip of the political spectrum, alerting me to a new study of the media and the 2008 presidential campaign.

He's on for a bit about a Shorenstein Center study, the upshot of which seems to be that media coverage of Democrats is a lot more positive than media coverage of Republicans, but if you factor out Obama coverage (justifiable because "his challenge to Hillary Clinton was the buzz of the first half of this year") on the plus side and McCain coverage on the minus side, things sorta even out.

Which tap-dances around the elephant a bit: Why is it that only Obama's "challenge to Hillary" (there's a scary assumption in that bit of framing, if you're the sort that thinks the selection process is an important attribute of democracy) creates that sort of "buzz"? Do only Democrats buzz at the frequency reporters can hear? Is a "stronger narrative" really what ought to drive the supply of political information?

I was interested in how the coverage is playing out in The News & Observer, so I looked back at coverage in October. Using my own horseback (read: biased) judgment of positive versus negative, here's how the stories broke down for major candidates.

Sigh. Your own judgment might be biased, but there are ways to account for and control that. Wonder why we were complaining at the weekend about how nice it'd be if people insisted that j-education contain methods courses? But his point here isn't about the valence of coverage so much as its volume:

Those numbers overlap, i.e. Edwards, Clinton and Obama appeared in many of the same stories. Still, why were Democrats mentioned in twice as many stories (852) as Republicans (415)? Is that a bias on The N&O's part?

Yes. The bias is deliberate, to give as much coverage as possible to the campaign of John Edwards, who is the first serious presidential candidate from North Carolina since Terry Sanford in 1976, and as such deserves more attention from his state's newspapers. Much of the Edwards coverage has been negative, such as the UNC video flap and stories on $400 haircuts and his $6 million mansion.

This is the part -- even more than the idea that the race is defined by who's challenging Hillary -- that I find outright irresponsible, if not openly anti-democratic. This is not the race for Homecoming King. It's for the national chief executive. At this stage (for better or worse; I think it's way too early), our job isn't to remind people that John Edwards is from North Carolina. It's to help them get a firm grip on what their preferences are and figure out which candidate in the party of their choice best reflects those preferences. (Nor am I sure Liddy Dole doesn't qualify as having been a "serious" candidate, but again, she might not have been using the sort of frequency the N&O can hear). Leaving aside the folks who don't think they're getting enough data to make a choice about a Republican candidate, what if you're a Democrat whose views are better reflected ... oh, hell, we've said this before, but by non-lightweights on the international policy front?

The floor, as always, is open. Obviously I'd drive the newspaper industry into the ground if they let me near the wheel. Anybody have a six-pack and want to come along for the ride?

Me or your lying eyes?

Look what's back in the news:

The monasteries of Myanmar used to teem with saffron-robed Buddhist monks, revered as spiritual guides and moral authorities in a country in the grip of a repressive military regime.

The Ridger raised a pretty good question about this last month: How come all those stories about "saffron-robed monks" tend to come with pictures of people in wine-dark seas robes? Is that some kind of monkish camouflage, or is it something journalists write (or news desks insert) because "saffron-robed" goes in front of "monks" the way "war-torn" goes in front of "Lebanon"? Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Now have a look at today's Breakfast Experiment over at the Log, which takes a couple of healthy whacks in passing at Sunday's nearly-full-page "Your Brain on Politics" tale in the NYT. In particular: It's irresponsible to take the responses of 10 medical students (or whatever) recruited at UCLA as a proxy for the reactions of 55 million male or 55 million female U.S. voters. Their conclusions might be true, or they might not be, but the fact that some of their evidence comes from high-tech brain-imaging machines doesn't make the results any more likely to generalize to American voters as a whole than if they asked for a show of hands in their Introduction to Neuroscience class.

For our purposes, we could add: Nor is the evidence any more credible because it's published in the Times' Week in Review section, rather than the Hogwarts weekly or some other journal that's open about its dedication to the nonempirical world.

It's worth noting what reality-based nonjournalists say about the journalism they read. They aren't accultured to all the craft norms we take for granted. When we turn red robes into saffron, or base our statements on some sort of magickal argumetum ad fMRI, they don't simply take it in stride; they wonder what the hell we're doing.

Suggestions for the week: Observe stuff carefully. Distinguish observations from inferences. Be open about how stuff is measured and what the measurements actually say. This doesn't mean we all need to rush out and get research degrees in cognitive neuropsyc. It means having more fun with the tools we already have.

Today's exercise? Discuss the presentation of evidence in this news report. For extra credit, would muttering "Dewey Defeats Truman" be an example of:
a) The genetic fallacy
b) Argument ad hominem
c) Picking on the competition, or
d) All of the above?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Albom, Osama and Pat: On journalism, risk and the normal distribution of clues

Sure, it's a Stupid Question, but it's so much more:

Is there a murder plot in your child's head?
You give them life, they try to kill you.

That sentence should never apply to your children. But it does in the sad case of a Maryland teenager named Cory Ryder, who tried to hire a hit man to kill his parents.

This is such pitch-perfect Albom that it's kind of a shame it's the real thing, rather than a parody: Average Joe bewildered at the State of Things These Days (conveniently, it's Things in a State a couple of hundred miles to the southeast, which cuts down on the need to do anything more original than Reading the Intertubes, which is even easier than what we used to call Reading The Wires).

... But I do know that we are living in strange times. There are forces that suck our kids away from us that our ancestors never had to face. It is no shock that Ryder was into rap and video games. (Mitch! Surely you're not ...) I am not blaming them. I cite them as things that are wall builders in families.

OK. Sorry. This week's column wouldn't even be worth noting if it weren't for a bizarre McClatchy piece up in the A section:

A good recruit is hard to find
War in Iraq only adds to the problem; fear keeps many from enlisting

THURMONT, Md. -- The Army is struggling to find volunteers for an unpopular war, despite recruiting bonuses of up to $20,000 and pay increases for enlistees that have beaten inflation by 21% since 2000.

Long story short, the consensus of "experts" summoned for this tale is that the big issue is fear: as one recruiter puts it, "They all figure they're going to get sent to Iraq, be in a firefight in the first 10 seconds and die," he said. The writer reassures us: While it may seem that way, it's not.
Indeed, once we stop comparing apples to Yamahas, things start to look brighter, don't they?

Per year deployed, the death risk for U.S. troops in Iraq is about a fifth of that for troops in the Vietnam War, according to University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston and the study's coauthor, Emily Buzzell.

Preston attributes the exaggerated fear mainly to news media exposure.

The news media is "always after the dramatic violence," he said. (Happy Veterans Day to you too, pal. And did the reporter not ask how you calculate the risk for multiple deployments, or did you not tell?)

Indeed, Pentagon surveys show that the more attention high school students pay to news, the less likely they are to enlist. (This looks like a chicken-and-egg question, but it's really more like a chicken-two-eggs question. As in, quick: think of some antecedent conditions that might be related to both (a) news attention and (b) likelihood of enlisting. If you think it's getting hard to figure out where the writer is trying to go with the story, hang on.)

One reason parents in particular tend to exaggerate fear is that they're bad at estimating the likelihood of rare, but horrific events, that might befall their children, said Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Houston and the author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood."

His theory is that parents can't keep rational odds and emotional fears separate in their minds. So they overestimate all kinds of low-probability risks, Mintz said, including risks of child abduction and even unaccompanied trick-or-treating.

How this widespread set of observations become one historian's "theory" is sort of a mystery; it's more or less where we get the whole cognitive subdivision of framing.* Everybody has trouble keeping "rational odds and emotional fears separate," and everybody's bad at accurately estimating rare and scary events. I wonder if that's -- wow, is that something those awful news media could do something about?

Radical Islam cited to rouse `values' voters
Evangelical agenda widens in hopes of revving key GOP bloc

Following last month's Values Voter Summit in Washington, conservative Christian power broker Gary Bauer sent an e-mail to supporters.

He ticked off the issues dear to activists in attendance. Opposition to "abortion-on-demand" and preservation of traditional marriage led the way.

Then the one-time presidential hopeful turned his attention to a different threat. ... "The war against Islamofascism is in many respects a `values issue,' " Bauer wrote. "That may seem like an odd statement at first glance, but, as I have often said, losing Western Civilization to this vicious enemy would be immoral."

"It's the ultimate life issue," said Rick Scarborough, president of the Texas-based conservative Christian group Vision America. "If radical Islam succeeds in its ultimate goals, Christianity ceases to exist."

That might sound alarmist, but Scarborough's words illustrate how many conservative Christian leaders view matters of national security as a battle between good and evil -- nothing short of a clash of civilizations.

It doesn't just sound alarmist. It is alarmist (actually, "alarmist" is far too polite for that sort of irrational babbling, but I suppose AP's still writing for the family newspaper). This is what the Copenhagen gang means by "securitization": turning a particular threat into an all-encompassing imminent menace to cultural and physical survival, requiring extraordinary measures for indefinite periods. Take my habeas corpus. Please!

Needless to say, the political actor who gets to call "security!" on an issue also gets a say in deciding which rights you should give up and when you should think about wondering whether to ask for any of them back. How can we help in the media, you ask? Well ...

The use of "Islamofascism" is another flashpoint. Proponents of the term argue that Islamic radicals who embrace totalitarian methods evoke European fascist movements of the early 20th century. Critics call it manufactured propaganda, a 21st-century scare tactic that fails to capture the complex causes of terrorism.

Deleting paragraphs like this, and not pretending there's an argument or controversy here in the first place, would be a good start. There aren't two sides to this issue. "Islamofascism" is manufactured propaganda, brought to you by the same folks who told you to say "homicide bomber" when you mean "somebody who kills himself and nobody else" (Fox meets the Stasi: We decide, you report).

• Televangelist Pat Robertson, explaining his endorsement last week of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists." ...
• At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in June, evangelical thinker Charles Colson spoke of a "long war" against Islamofascists.

How can you help these silly old frauds and poor Mitch Albom at the same time? Well, what if we started talking about risk rationally? What if we sent Mitch back to the sports pages and left the social fearmongering to the pulpits? What if we let on that we know a propaganda campaign when we see one? What if Pat Robertson was on notice that we're still waiting for the million-deaths nuclear attack he told us to expect this year? What if we stopped letting people play "teach the controversy" on the news pages when one side is openly dishonest?

We need to report on what the Bauers and Robertsons are up to (as Martin Luther put it, their craft and power are great). We can, and should, be courteous to political actors who come to do business in the public sphere. But it'd be kind of nice if we had some Pure Food and Drug laws in our back pockets, for those days when the snake oil gets a little too thick for the palate.

* Whether the aduction of children by strangers would still be considered an extremely low-probability event if it happened several hundred times a year in lots of communities of fewer than 200,000, of course, is a different matter.

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The torture never stops

Q: And how are things on the sports photo desk at certain large metropolitan dailies?
A: Glad you asked!

Things were heating up in Boiling Springs, N.C. on Thursday, where students celebrated little Gardner-Webb's big win Wednesday night in Kentucky's Rupp Arena. (2D Friday)

Dan Cleary, who tipped in a shot by Brett Lebda, background, celebrates after giving the Red Wings a 1-0 first-period lead over Columbus. (1B Saturday)

Lions holder and punter Nick Harris, left, watches as kicker Jason Hanson celebrates a field goal. (7B Saturday)

Illinois' Antonio Steele (40) celebrates his third-quarter interception with Justin Harrison. (3E Sunday)

Michigan State running back Jehuu Caulcrick celebrates the Spartans' 48-31 victory over Purdue with fans Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. (5E Sunday)

Q: Wow! So it's pretty much Wait Till Next Year for all the other Forbidden Verbs?
A: Not so fast. When the going gets tough, the tough get going:
Allison Schmitt, right, shares a laugh with teammate Monica Blaesser during last year's Division 1 finals meet at Oakland University.

Q: Any early signals on the Forbidden Headlines front?
A: Yes.
Going bowling?
Hoyer leads Spartans to their 6th win
A quick reminder that the jaws of hell gape for "Bowled over" and all its minions and catamites.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Look, it says 'sex' in the hed

From several time zones to the west comes a complaint about this AP lede:

Programs that focus exclusively on abstinence have not been shown to affect teenager sexual behavior, although they are eligible for tens of millions of dollars in federal grants, according to a study released by a nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce teen pregnancies.

... on the perfectly reasonable grounds that the conclusion seems a lot more hedged in the second graf:

"At present there does not exist any strong evidence that any abstinence program delays the initiation of sex, hastens the return to abstinence or reduces the number of sexual partners" among teenagers, the study concluded.

... and that a quick trip via intrawebs to the study itself (this is a summary, but you can find the whole thing on the same page) finds pretty good reason for the hedges. In short, "study says" and "AP says" are once again two different things. Which is particularly unfortunate in this case, for a couple of reasons. Aside from the heds, which, unsurprisingly, run along the lines of:
Report: Abstinence programs don't work
Report: Abstinence programs fail

"What do we do about fixing it?" asks the complainant. "Do we demand a retraction? Do we tell our wire editors to stop running this stuff (if they'll listen)? Do we stop hiring J-school grads in favor of anybody who has been taught to critically think (and read)? Or do we just vent at TestyCopyEditors and do our jobs until newspapers die and we have to go live on the streets?"

I'm for a judicious combination of those steps. But first, a little sermonizing. And point one is that you can do quite a bit of good just by swimming upstream to the study itself. You can almost always find an abstract, and surprisingly often the whole thing is there. If it's behind a pay wall, see if you can get around it. Anybody on the staff taking courses part time at the local U and possessed of a library account? What kind of online privileges can you get with a community borrowing pass (which is usually pretty cheap, and which you ought to have anyway)?

Point two is that "scientific method" is not a cafeteria. If you want a plate of "Study finds X" or "Study sees no relationship between A and B," you get the whole damn dinner or you're cheating. The rules that make the study's findings relevant (and it is) also govern how you interpret the things that appear, in the AP's telling, to be nonfindings.

That's important because, point three, just outside the perimeter are a bunch of people who want to see our heads on sticks, our cattle thrown in the wells, our tomato fields salted and our little editorlings sold into bondage. Why are we handing them ammunition in the form of something that's easy to mistake for a deliberate ideological distortion on a social-hot-button story? (I don't think it is -- my default bet is usually on Media Stupid rather than Media Bias -- but I have no way of ruling it out.)

OK, then: What does the study say, and how should it be read? (And a brief cheer for papers like Cleveland and Dallas, which avoided the AP's blunder.) First, it's a review study; it's trying to draw conclusions from a bunch of studies, rather than conducting original research. One thing that means is it's going to make a lot of evaluations of different research designs, samples, statistical tests, and the like that are reflected in phrases like "At present there is no strong evidence" -- which frankly don't sound nearly as interesting as "programs that focus exclusively on abstinence have not been shown to affect teenager sexual behavior."

But the boring, wishy-washy one has the advantage of being true, while the conclusive, authoritative one isn't. The most rigorously tested abstinence programs* don't produce evidence of behavior change. Moving down the scale, things get trickier. One study finds a delay in sex initiation, but it's a quasi-experiment**, there's a lot of mortality in the follow-ups, and the significance is .05 (of course, if you prefer a higher arbitrary benchmark for significance in your social science, that's fine; the trick is to remember that they're both arbitrary). A couple of other quasi-experiments find some behavior changes. And there's a true experimental design that's found a behavior change, but it's only been presented at a conference so far and isn't included in the metastudy.

Bottom line? The AP's lede misstates the findings; call it a simple lapse, a routine-induced hedge deletion or whatever, it's wrong. Copy editors should press wire eds, and wire eds should call the AP and push for clarification. Don't stop hiring J-grads; just make clear in the interview or advertisement stage that you value methods and stats classes as much as extra classes in How To Write Good. And keep complaining at TCEs; it's a way of changing attitudes, if indirectly.

I'm tempted to say (and said in class today, on a different topic) that it's better to be boring and right than exciting and wrong, but in this case there's no need to be boring. A pretty good meta-analysis offers some good conclusions about what kinds of sex ed programs actually do affect behavior, and abstinence-only isn't the choice. And it concludes pretty soundly that teenagers aren't driven into frenzies of sexual activity by sex ed classes. On the social-progress-for-my-side scale, I'll take that. Why give the aspirin-between-the-knees crowd the chance to ask you whether you're being deliberately dishonest or just incapable of reading the results?

* At page 113 of the full report, you'll not only find a detailed definition of "abstinence education" but a good caution from the author: "In reality, programs do not fall neatly into one of these two groups. Rather, they exist along a continuum, which makes some of them difficult to classify."
** Usually meaning that, for whatever reason, the researchers can't meet the benchmark of random assignment to conditions. Makes sense; randomly assigning some people to the "smoking" group and others to the "nonsmoking" group, for example, would raise some issues with your IRB.