Wednesday, January 31, 2007

When nouns collide

Diagramming party to action stations: Fox News is on the loose again!

Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders

For extra credit, see how much fun you can have with one, two or three hyphens.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

All brains on deck

From the Read Ad Before Submitting department, just in off the ACES list:

If you know who Richard Lederer is and think that "Eats Chutes & Leaves" is one of the best presents ever, then you might want to come work for us.

Must be mere coincidence that "All brains on deck" is the top hed at the Web site that would-be applicants are supposed to respond to.

And, yeah, we know who Richard Lederer is. Why -- do you want us to call the cops if we see him hanging around the spellchecker or something?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

MU student among ACES laureates

All rise for the winners of the 2006 American Copy Editors Society scholarships:

Krysten Chambrot, MU
Megan Crockett, Central Michigan University
Matthew Dulin, University of Houston
Amy Goldstein, City University of New York
David Ok, University of Texas at Arlington

Dulin, judged the top candidate, wins this year's Aubespin scholarship. But please give all these folks -- and ACES, which is putting money ahead of talk for promising young editors -- a hand. Well done and congratulations to all.

And for fun, see who you recognize in this rogue's gallery of past ACES winners. Looks like some pretty serious copydesk firepower in there.

Sins of omission

Questions about what isn't there are hard ones for the desk to raise -- especially when they arise on the editorial page, whence come thunderbolts of concern, alarm and bluster. But the flip side of "opinion is free" is still "facts are sacred," and when an editorial goes beyond what's known from the news pages, it needs to be held to account. That means saying not just what the paper knows but how it knows it.

The assertion challenged here could be right. We don't know, and that's an editing failure. Let's have a look:

An act of hate?
Large fight plus racial slurs equals trouble at Guilford

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a hate crime this way: "A criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."

Until the details of a fight on the campus of Guilford College involving Muslim students and football players become clearer, it's wrong to assume a hate crime occurred. But if the facts reported by the victims and some of the witnesses bear out, this small Quaker campus has a serious problem on its hands.

This paper was quick to board the guilty-till-proven-innocent bandwagon after the Duke lacrosse case erupted, so it's nice to see it counseling against hasty assumptions. But it's making a new assumption here: How do we know the students are Muslims?

Once again, we don't know that they're not. But that's the point. The readily available reporting -- from the Raleigh and Greensboro papers, the AP and the NYT -- says they're Palestinian. Two of them went to a Quaker school in Ramallah (known as a traditionally Christian town when HEADSUP-L summered there). We know that the attackers are said to have used "racial slurs" and to have called the Palestinians "terrorists." And we know that Muslims in the area have expressed concern. None of which answers the yes-or-no question: Do we know that the complainants are Muslims?

Religion isn't a necessary element of "ethnic slurs." People from a big swath of southern and southwestern Asia have been smeared with the "terrorist" brush on the basis of appearance and accent, no matter their religion (and it's worth noting that the group that pioneered the mass hijacking was founded by a Palestinian Christian). And a hate crime, as the lede notes, can involve ethnicity or national origin as easily as religion.

If this was a youthful brawl where tempers flared, that's bad enough. But if there's evidence of deliberate violence against Muslims, charges against those who committed it should be leveled swiftly.

Well, yeah. And if it was deliberate violence against Palestinians, wouldn't that qualify too?

Somebody on the desk might have asked the how-do-we-know question. And somebody might have answered it. But the paper, like many in its circulation area, doesn't have a very good record at sweating the details between language, ethnicity and religion when dealing with that part of the world. The editorial needs to be open about how it knows what it knows. Opinion is free, but facts are where opinions come from. And facts are a pretty big deal.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More hed slips

And some more instructive hed errors from the past week:

Student held in journalist's death
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Police detained a man Saturday suspected of killing an Armenian journalist, acting on a tip from the suspect's father after pictures were broadcast on television, a police official said.

A healthy 80% of the hed is confirmed by the lede: There's a journalist who's dead, and a suspect has been detained, and it's a suspect "in" the case (those prepositions will trip you at the gate sometimes). How about "student," though?

The reader needs to do some wading (one hopes that "caught on a bus" in the second graf wasn't supposed to be the signal) to find out where "student" comes from. It seems to be here:

There were pleas for the public to help track down the suspect and also photographs showing a thin man in his late teens or early 20s with an angular face and a wisp of a mustache. ...

Istanbul Gov. Muammar Guler said the man photographed by security cameras was also identified by Dink's secretary, who said he had requested a meeting with Dink the day he was killed, the Anatolia nenws agency reported. The man said he was a student at Ankara University, Guler said.

Now count up the layers of attribution that go with "student." Official said secretary said man in photo is same one who said he was a student -- three layers, not counting the questions of whether the man in the photo is the suspect and whether the secretary's identification is correct.
So even if we could fit Man who official says secretary says said he was student held in journalist's death into the space allotted, we wouldn't be all the way home.

Just call the guy a "suspect." Stick with what you know, not what you guess might be the case if what somebody said somebody said somebody said turns out to be true.

U.S., Iraqi troops clash in Baghdad
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi troops battled Sunni insurgents hiding in high-rise buildings on Haifa Street in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Another grammatically flawless hed that has the slight problem of saying almost exactly the opposite of what it means. Two things in the subject can "clash": Buffy and Jody, for example. Or some thing or things in the noun phrase can clash with some thing or things in the predicate: Buffy and Jody can clash with Mr. French. But (b) can't mean (a). The lede has the two groups alllied; the hed has them turning their guns on each other.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Misguided heds

A few instructive hed mistakes pop out from this morning's scan of news-about-news. They aren't the sort that make the back of CJR; indeed, the only thing that stands out about them is how typical they are. An extra second of attention from copyed or slot is usually all it takes to keep these things out of print. The trick is making sure to allot that second, even if you don't think you need to.

First up, the Lexington Herald-Leader:
UK study: Tax breaks create
fewer jobs than state claims
Raising the musical question: How many jobs do state claims create? Pick a verb ("says" or "contends") that can't do double duty as a plural noun.

Army corps says safety must rank above tourism
There are two ways to shorten "Army Corps of Engineers" (Kentucky being well within the borders of the United States, there's little point in calling it the "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers"). "Army corps" is the wrong one. What's relevant about this organization is its engineer-ness, not its army-ness (another Army corps, the 18th Airborne, has a strong presence in Kentucky too). Make it the Corps of Engineers. Turn "rank above" into "outrank." Throw out the "must" construction. If it still won't fit, throw out the silly "rank" metaphor altogether.

And from Romenesko:
Schultz returns to Plain Dealer as columnist-senator's wife
The hyphen, as your AP Stylebook notes, is a joiner. It creates compounds. Here, alas, it creates a compound from the wrong end of the noun phrase. In real life, Schultz is a columnist who's married to a senator; in this hed, she's the wife of a columnist-senator. "Senator's wife-columnist" wouldn't be any better, though it does have a charming Old English sort of ring to it ("Aelfrics wyf-columnist ywrites of courtshippe in charmyng new boke").

Lots of solutions suggest themselves. There's the conjunctive comma ("columnist, senator's wife"). There's the good old conjunction itself. You could break the compound apart ("columnist returns as senator's wife"). You could downscale the potential sexism a bit ("columnist returns after husband's Senate victory"). But you can't pretend a compound is something other than what it is. Actual rules of grammar are afoot there.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Truest hed of the (still-young) millennium

Here's a genuinely remarkable bit of desk work: The most unambiguously true hed in the history of the free world.

Mona Lisa's gravesite -- or not
ROME - It may be that the world's most famously enigmatic woman has shed some of her mystery.

An amateur historian believes he has found the final resting place of the Florentine Renaissance woman who inspired Leonardo da Vinci's most renowned painting -- the Mona Lisa.

It's exclusive! It's exhaustive! It needs no qualification whatsoever! It's as accurate as a hed can get! So it'd be only a little uncharitable to note that exactly the same thing can be said of that patch of the Official HEADSUP-L Backyard between the rose bushes and the suet feeder.

Please don't step in the herb bed. Try to keep the noise down after 9 p.m. and on weekends. There's a coffee can on the deck for your offerings.

A desk commandment

Here's the reminder again, since* writers always seem to forget it in the clutch: Don't pass judgments about the supernatural. It isn't our province, and jackleg theology on the part of the newspaper is a really good way to offend people. Here's how:

Romney's challenge in the run-up to 2008: Assuage the fears of voters who think he belongs to a non-Christian church with an odd theology -- as in: Jesus appeared in America -- and lingering ties to polygamy.

Point of order. Theology (like doctrine) often involves appearances and disappearances, occultations, revelations, transubstantiations and other events that to the outside eye appear equally "odd." Why it's odd for Jesus to have visited Mexico, but not (e.g.) for his mother to have done so, goes unexplained here. And that's a good thing. It's a very short step from declaring somebody's beliefs "odd" to -- oh, burning a few of his or her close friends at the stake.

Other controversial Mormon teachings past and present: That God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are three distinct persons, not a trinity ...

Isn't that nice and medieval? A newspaper that can provide normative judgments on the nature of the trinity? Theologically, I'd prefer one that can consistently tell Ireland from Northern Ireland, but perhaps that's just me.

Bottom line: Thou shalt not. Report on religion and religious people and their views and their lived experience all you want, but don't set yourself up as an arbiter of what's normal and what's odd in the nature of belief. You're asking for trouble.

* Don't listen to Kilpatrick. This is a time-honored sense of "since."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Giving style a bad name

Ever wonder why writers are wary of trusting us with their babies? Consider this, from the crosstown competition:

"I think in a perfect world where there’s justice and equality, the police would be arresting Sen. Bond and" President "George" W. "Bush for aiding and abetting war crimes," Jacobs said.

What Steve said, one gathers, was "arresting Senator Bond and George Bush." But owing to two house style quirks -- the phobic avoidance of (parenthetical) clarification in quotes and the insistence on spelling out the incumbent president's full name, with initial -- it's hard to tell what's going on. "George" ends up looking like a bad case of scare quotes. What the President and W. are up to is anybody's guess. (I don't know whether the paper in question also ignores AP's rule on spelling out titles in quotes.)

Writers (should) rightly hate this sort of stuff. One is hard-pressed to think of the sort of planet on which readers would find it clearer or more edifying -- let alone easier to follow. Why do we keep doing stuff if it confuses readers and makes us look like tin-eared idiots?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Repeat offender

Old Man Winter kept the trunk of Typical Localwoman’s Subaru sealed in his icy clutch this morning, requiring her to load her groceries into the back seat instead.

Wait a minute. Wasn't he in a 1A lede just a month ...

Old Man Winter dumped between a foot and 15½ inches of snow on Columbia in a 24-hour period, making this year the second most significant snowfall since 1900.

That's him, officer! Stop him before he makes a break for the innocent morning paper across town!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How many more times?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had a rough reception on Capitol Hill as she tried to sell President Bush's new plan for Iraq, left Friday for the Middle East, where the going is likely to be no easier.

So far, so good. It's an Iraq-Mideast tale of some sort -- not a brilliant one, and not one that does a lot in the way of contextual connection, but a workmanlike 10 grafs of largely related information. Until ...

• U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami ordered another delay for the trial of alleged al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla and two others, in part to allow time for a full evaluation of Padilla's mental competency. Cooke set a new trial date of April 16.

OK, stop the tape. What's Mr. Padilla doing at the end of an Iraq story? Or, more to the point, is he going to be followed by the road closings, the afternoon TV listings and the ACC standings?

You wonder how many times we're going to need to repeat this. When you say B is a "development" in A, you've said it's part of the larger story A. Jose Padilla is not a part of the Iraq story. He's part of a different story. When you make them the same thing, you're perpetuating a Big Lie.

Look. The White House has a press office. It has its own television network. It doesn't need your help. The grownup media are supposed to present news developments in a context that gives them meaning. Please try to do better.

Friday, January 12, 2007

It's always poll season

Public opinion surveys don't go away when the polls close; for good or ill, they're with us all year round. So let's call this one the first assignment of the semester, and let's give CNN a B+, with the reminder that the midterm won't be graded so gently.

Poll: Two-thirds of Americans oppose more troops in Iraq
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two out of three Americans oppose President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Friday indicates.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled also say Bush has no clear plan for Iraq.

While his numbers have inched up slightly on that question since the previous poll last week, Bush's address to the nation Wednesday night seems to have made little difference.

Put a marker on this one for revisiting because of the inference. "Inched up slightly" is irritating (as opposed to "inched up dramatically"?), but that's bad writing, not bad data.

Nearly half of those who saw the speech say their minds were not changed, while the rest are evenly split over whether they'd be more or less likely to support his policies.

... This is the first poll gauging Americans' positions on the strategy following Bush's address. The telephone survey of 1,093 adult Americans was conducted Thursday. The sampling error on all the questions in the poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points. (Read the complete poll results -- PDF)

Full credit for mentioning sample size, population, time in the field and margin of sampling error. Extra credit for the link to the PDF. Point off for omitting confidence level. Three points off for misinterpreting the poll's statement of sampling error. Opinion Research said it was 3 points for "results based on the total sample," not for "all the questions in the poll." As the preceding graf makes clear, at least one of the questions involves a subset ("those who saw the speech"), for which the confidence interval is always higher -- in this case, about 4.5 percentage points.

The president argued that the increase in troop strength would be the best chance to succeed in a war the U.S. cannot afford to lose.

But Americans, the poll indicates, do not see it that way. Asked their positions on sending more troops to Iraq, 66 percent of respondents said they oppose the move, while 32 percent said they favor it.

Two points off for bad juxtaposition. "Do you favor or oppose the plan?" isn't the same question as "Is the increase the best chance to succeed in a war the U.S. cannot afford to lose?"

... Asked whether Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, 63 percent said no, while 35 percent said yes.
A week earlier, 72 percent said no and 25 percent said yes.

But that slight rise is apparently not attributable to having watched Bush's speech Wednesday night. Among those who watched the speech -- which was a little less than half the people surveyed -- 45 percent said it made no difference. Meanwhile 27 percent said they were more likely to support his policies -- and 27 percent said they were less likely.

Three points off for deck-stacking. "Slight rise" is the sort of editorial judgment that leaves you wide-open to anybody who wonders why 10 points is a "slight rise" for Republicans and a "leap" for Democrats. Assuming that the week-ago poll was of comparable size, there are no non-chance cases of overlap, and there's about a 5-point difference (the confidence interval is smaller for a 75/25 split than for a 50/50) between the biggest non-chance value of the previous week and the smallest of this week. With the "yes" camp being about 40 percent larger in this poll, that sounds like a pretty striking change.

Five points off for drawing a conclusion from a false comparison. The question asked of the speech-watching subset was "Did the speech make you or less likely to support Bush's policies in Iraq?" That is emphatically not the same thing as "Do you think Bush does or does not have a clear plan for handling the situation?"

Let's call it an 88 and give CNN the aforementioned B+. Reminders for the rest of the term: Don't throw in adjectives you can't justify; they can make you look either dumb or biased (or both). Don't shift your pivot foot when you're trying to draw inferences. The person who writes the follow-up is likely to stop at the third graf and say that a January poll found that Bush's speech didn't affect opinions about whether he has a "clear plan." We have no idea whether there was any such effect. When we say that we do -- in other words, when we make stuff up about the data -- we're poisoning the well for anybody who uses this story for reference in the future.

And whatever it is that you put first on the list of Things that Ail Journalism, "making stuff up" doesn't fix it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Clear days on the propaganda front

A look at the running labels the networks were using during the Bush speech tonight:

Presidential address on Iraq (ABC, CBS)

Presidential address (CNN, MSNBC)

(It's a bit hard to tell what NBC was up to; in these parts, it had no verbiage at all, with the president relegated to the upper left corner and Those Tygers -- peace with honor again, by the way -- dominating the screen)

Iraq: Moving forward (Fox)

In case you missed the hint, or couldn't wait up for Sean Hannity, here's Shep Smith's closer on the Fox speech coverage: "The new way forward is established, as laid out tonight by the White House."

Steel guitar rag

"If you see a mistake, please call us," one of our regular news references says at the end of its corrections column. Let's save 'em the phone call and discuss a couple instructive hed errors from today's paper here.

David Ervine, Irish Protestant leader
DUBLIN, Ireland -- David Ervine, a one-time Protestant militant who became one of Northern Ireland's most articulate and forward-thinking politicians, died Monday after suffering a heart attack, according to colleagues and a Belfast hospital.
You can just about set your watch by this one here in Collegetown, and the saving grace is that big papers seem incapable of getting it right either. The "Northern Ireland" mentioned in the lede? It's part of the UK, not part of "Ireland" (at least politically; they do share an island). The distinction is sort of, you know, why Northern Ireland has been in the news such a great deal in recent decades. You can call Mr. Ervine an "Ulster Protestant," but not an "Irish Protestant."

Normally that's a once-a-semester rant about editors who can't be bothered to read (while we're at it: never, never write a hed off a dateline), but the next hed suggests that it's actually part of a different kind of misunderstanding:

Pete Kleinow, Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist
SAN FRANCISCO -- "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, a steel guitar prodigy who rose to fame as one of the original members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, died Saturday. ... During a musical career that spanned six decades, Kleinow helped define the country-rock genre in the late 1960s and 1970s by taking the instrument he had picked up as a teenager in South Bend, Ind., to California.

See the issue? Sneaky Pete's not a guitarist, he's a steel guitarist. What's the difference? "Steel guitar," like "Northern Ireland," is a compound noun. A guitar is a kind of instrument, and a graphite guitar (why, there's one at right; $1,499 at Elderly) is a kind of guitar, but a "steel guitar" (the table saw with pedals at lower right) isn't. It's another kind of stringed instrument. Similarly, Ireland is a political unit, but "Northern Ireland" isn't a subset of Ireland. It's another (though different) member of the category of political units that Ireland belongs to.

"Graphite guitar," on the other hand, is a noun phrase, like "journalism school" (a kind of school) or "Guinness brewery" (a kind of brewery). The head noun (guitar, school, brewery) is what the phrase is about. Modifying nouns just specify or limit the head noun.

See how it works? Tony Snow is a White House spokesman, but he's not a House spokesman. "White" isn't the kind of House he's spokesman of; "White House" is the metonymic political thing he's spokesman for. When in doubt, head for the dictionary -- which should always be by your side when you edit, and whose last name is never ".com".

We'll be watching for those corrections.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sideswipe sensitivity

Granted, columnists get more latitude, and opinion is free, and all that stuff. Lighter editing doesn't mean no editing at all. It would have been nice if someone had taken the Boston Globe sports desk aside for a little chat before this one ran:

Here's Belichick's problem, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he dresses like he's from Appalachia and has the personality of a wet mop: He thinks he's above everybody else.

Enlighten us there a little, Mr. Boston Globe: How do people from Appalachia dress? What are those warning signs that tip you off, so the simple folk of the hills can avoid your scorn in the future? Wanna fill us in on how you can tell when someone "thinks he's above everybody else"?

Doesn't take a lot of imagination to come up with a circumstance that would have Mr. Globe off to the gulag for a sideswipe like that. Desk, next time the guy's about to step on his columnisthood in public, help him out a little, OK? Don't expect any thanks for it on the spot, but in a day or two, it might sink in.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Yoo hoo! Editors?

This one might be fixed (actually, it'd be awfully nice if it was fixed) by morning, but meanwhile:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. gunship attacked suspected al Qaeda targets in southern Somalia, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.

The AC-130 flew its mission within the last 24 hours, the official told CNN. The operation was launched based on intelligence that al Qaeda operatives were at the location, but there was no immediate indication of how successful the strike had been.

OK, aside from a bad case of Elongated Yellow Fruit Syndrome, we might have a story here, or we might not. Anybody worth targeting in this, um, "operation"?

... He did not identify the operatives, but U.S. officials accused the Islamic Courts Union of harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

All right. You have my attention.

... U.S. authorities believe three al Qaeda operatives accused in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have been hiding in Somalia for years.
The three are believed to be closely tied to the Somali Islamic group - the ICU.

The FBI Web site lists the wanted men as Fahid Mohammad Ally Msalam; Fazul Abdullah Mohammed; Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali; Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah; Anas al-Liby; and Ayman al-Zawahri.

Say, kids! Would that be the Ayman al-Zawahri who ...

Rewards for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of each of the suspects is up to $5 million. However, there is a reward of up to $25 million for al-Zawahri.

Wow, sounds like it might be the ...

According to the FBI, al-Zawahri is a physician and founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organization opposed to the secular Egyptian government. In approximately 1998, the EIJ, led by al-Zawahri, merged with al Qaeda.

OK! Is this who we ... well, let's just leave the reader in suspense for, oh, another seven grafs, shall we? No hurry!

... Al Qaeda's deputy leader urged Somalia's Islamic militia to attack Ethiopian forces, according to an audiotape on the Internet, The Associated Press reported last week.

And who would he be?

"I speak to you today as the crusader Ethiopian invasion forces violate the soil of the beloved Muslim Somalia," said Ayman al-Zawahri, the AP reported.

Don't tell me! Is that the same Ayman al-Zawahri mentioned above?

About 40 percent of Ethiopians are Christian, according to the U.S. State Department.

Oh, for God's sake. Did it occur to nobody at CNN to clarify whether the Ayman "Z-Money" al-Zawahri mentioned in the penultimate graf might be the Ayman "Fordham Flash" al-Zawahri tossed off at the end of the 9th graf? Or that if they are the same dude, whether they have anything to do with the developments at the top? And that if (a) and (b), maybe it might be worth asking the writer if he/she/they might be burying a mildly compelling lede?

Sort of makes you long for the days when news came from newspapers.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The reader stumbles

It's not enough for heds to be clear. They have to be clear about what they're clear about. Remember, people are propping their eyes open with toothpicks and pouring the first coffee of the day when they encounter our handiwork.

N.C. officers not charged in most fatal shootings
Well, that's a relief. I mean, if you had to arrest a cop every time a couple of yahoos in a trailer park started potting at each other, you'd run out of cops in a hurry. But that's not why we're writing the story, is it?
New Hanover County prosecutors took a very rare step when they sought criminal charges against a sheriff's deputy for fatally shooting a Durham teenager last month.

Right. The story's about how often law officers who kill people in the line of duty are charged. That might have been what the hed writer meant, but nobody can see what the hed writer meant. All they can see is what the hed says. See if the writer and the data are happy with something like
Charges rare in fatal shootings by N.C. officers
... which also has the slight advantage of being about what is, rather than what isn't.

Or you can just be unclear:

Art passion flowers for McColl

This one looks like a last-minute space compromise that goes a step too far. The subject is supposed to be "passion," and "flowers" is the verb. It'd work if there was space for "Passion for art flowers for McColl." But the remorseless hed counter says "2 OVER," so the hed writer relies on nouns' ability to hurry around from the far end of a prepositional phrase to modify other nouns from in front. Sometimes it works seamlessly. Sometimes it's a bit clumsy (I'd call "art passion" such a case). And sometimes -- as in this case -- a secondary signal, like the juxtaposition of "passion" and "flowers," stacks the cognitive deck. What presents itself is a verbless hed: Some nameless somebody or something is giving McColl some passion flowers.

If you can't make your original idea make sense in the allotted space, either get more space or throw the idea out and start over. It's Sunday morning, a day of rest in large parts of the Western world. Don't make me work too hard first thing in the morning.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Paging Dr. McClatchy

Wire eds, a reminder: You might get credit from the glass offices for running lots of copy produced by members of your newspaper chain group, but that doesn't mean the copy's worth running. Here's one that's likely to have had some currency among the 2506th Foil Helmet Brigade in the originating paper's circulation area, but by the time it crosses the northern border ... well, let's have a look:

U.S. doubts Castro is cancer-free
Intelligence officials believe Cuban leader is terminally ill

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials are sticking to the belief that Fidel Castro is terminally ill, saying they doubt a Spanish doctor's assertion that the Cuban leader doesn't have cancer.

"The bottom line: He is terminally ill," said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency that coordinates the work of 16 U.S. intelligence-gathering centers.

Where was it Dr. Feinstein did that oncology residency again? Just asking.

... U.S. officials have been claiming that Castro suffers from cancer, which prompted a denial by Spanish surgeon Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido after his trip to Havana last month to examine the Cuban leader.

The U.S. ambassador to Madrid, Eduardo Aguirre, told reporters Friday that Garcia Sabrido's comments might have been part of a Cuban "propaganda" ploy.

Yep. And what sort of ploy do you suppose Dr. Feinstein's and Dr. Aguirre's comments might be part of?

... "From what I've read (in media reports), a well-qualified doctor traveled a great distance to see a patient for a short period and tell us what he does not have," said Aguirre, a Cuban American and former banker.

"I'm not sure if his visit was focused on a professional, medical angle or a propaganda angle," he said.

Well, who indeed can look into the hearts of men and discern their true thoughts? (I'd start with somebody who claims to be able to look into the intestines of men from a few thousand miles away and discern cancer, but maybe that's just me.)

Garcia Sabrido has said he had contacts with the island that go back many years and met with Fidel Castro for about 90 minutes last month. He said Castro had had "very grave" surgery and then suffered a series of complications that he declined to reveal, but he insisted Castro does not have cancer.

His was the first independent assessment of Castro's health by a medical specialist since Cuba announced the 80-year-old leader had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and temporarily handed power to his brother Raul on July 31.

... The press office at the Council of Consumption and Health -- the local Madrid government agency that runs the Gregorio Maranon hospital that employs Garcia Sabrido -- said the doctor is not granting any more media interviews.

Ain't objectivity great? The guy who has a medical qualification and has seen the patient isn't giving further interviews. The banker with the honorary doctorate from UConn calls the former a propaganda tool. And which one goes where on the inverted pyramid?

Unless you have a lot of city-edition readers who want 1A space for every anti-Castro rumor that floats across the straits, there's only one reason for running a story like this, and that's to make clear what sort of bush-league political hack represents the country in the capitals of some major European allies. But somehow the smilies cleverly placed at the end of each line seem to have fallen off. One is left with the impression that this story is meant to be taken seriously.

And that's too bad. Long-distance medical diagnosis is risky business, but you don't need a weatherman to know that that the BS detectors at some major newspapers are in pretty bad shape. It's still "propaganda" when your side does it, guys.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Malpractice, you say?

AP lede:
Former Democratic Party boss and Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe is lambasting John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential campaign, calling his effort to unseat President Bush "one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics."

12th graf:
"I thought the decision of the Kerry campaign to back off any real criticism of Bush was one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics," he said.

Who's leaving a bigger scalpel in the patient here, Kerry or the AP?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Significance vs. substance

One last look at the end-of-the-year nonsense before we all shake the confetti out of the collective hair and get back to saving the world through copyediting. And what better way to keep up those resolutions about survey research than to discuss significance and substance?

Significance, you'll recall, doesn't always mean "importance." For today's purposes, it's a term of art referring to the likelihood -- based on an arbitrary level of confidence that you determine in advance -- that the difference you observe reflects a real difference in the population. In the AP story you see at right, for example, we can be confident that significantly more Americans expect scientists to find a cure for cancer in 2007 (35%) than expect scientists to find evidence of extraterrestrial life (19%). The miracle of random sampling assures us that there's less than a 1% chance that among all Americans, the alien faithful are tied with or leading the cure believers!

Substance, on the other hand, is the property that makes us ask (or should have made us ask before we put the AP story on the Monday front page, ahem): Who gives the southern end of a northbound rat how many Americans think we'll find extraterrestrial life this year? Or, to keep at least one foot on this planet, what proportion of Americans think there will be a terrorist attack, or an increase in gasoline prices, or anything else over which they have no influence?

If you have a particularly obsessive paper, or one that really doesn't look at wire content before it slaps the stuff online, you might have noticed this at the end: AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and writer Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.

Truly the final indignity. We need the manager of news surveys and a survey specialist to sign off on a study that says more people expect a cure for cancer than expect proof of extraterrestrial life?

Speaking of which, the "survey" in the No. 3 spot on the Fox page has the other sort of problem. It must be fun to proclaim that "over 1/2 of married U.S. women not sure they'd marry husband again, over 1/3 say they definitely wouldn't, Web survey says," but it sure makes your news organization look -- oh, stupid and gullible? You can't tell whether this finding is "significant," of course, because nonrandom surveys (that'll include but not be limited to self-seleting online still) don't generate that sort of data. They're basically horoscopes on the newspage.

And speaking of horoscopes and extraterrestrial life: Dear friends at the Virginian-Pilot, whatever it was you were smoking when you fronted Pat Robertson's predictions (right), did you bring enough to share with the rest of the class?

OK. Here's the rule. Pat can talk to whoever he wants. But if he's going to proclaim it's God, you need to either confirm it with the other party or -- in the immortal words of Walter Burns -- stick him in the funny pages.

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson cited communications with God in predicting Tuesday that horrific terrorism aimed at the United States will result in "mass killing" during the second half of 2007.

"The Lord didn't say nuclear, but I do believe it'll be something like that -- that'll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people, major cities injured," Robertson said.

How was it He got that message across again? Semaphore? Igpay Atinlay? The Rock 'n' Roll Heaven Band spelling out "nuclear" as if it were Script Ohio?* And who let Pat out of J306 with this idea that you let a source off the hook like that? (And does God reduce the consonant cluster in "nuclear"?)

There's significance. Then there's substance. Then there's this:

Robertson said the actions of Israel's government also weighed heavily on God's heart and his.

"The word was that the Olmert policies were toxic" for Israel, said Robertson, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Robertson, who did not cite specific policies, said the United States was "feigning friendship" toward Israel while espousing policies that were "pushing them toward national suicide."

... His accuracy in predictions has been mixed, though Robertson on Tuesday claimed a "relatively good track record."

Please. Stop it.

* Bill Monroe is the dot. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The road to hell is ...

... due for resurfacing in Summer 2008 or thereabouts, until which it's paved with well-intentioned stories like unto the following. It seems harsh to call it bad journalism, because its heart is in the right place and ultimately it sort of seems to get somewhere near what the researchers might have been close to finding, and the conclusions are probably good for you even if they're reached on specious grounds. Still, you're left wondering -- what if we actually tried to report accurately on this stuff?

Articles on diet bad for teens?
Study links reading on weight loss to eating disorders

The big type is the fault of the member paper, not the AP (with an implied exception or two we're going to get to in a moment), so to the extent this is "bad journalism," the copydesk deserves a chunk of the blame. From the top: The relevant results of this study aren't about body image, they're about behavior. Stories about assertions should never have question heds, and this study doesn't examine what is or isn't "bad for teens" anyway. And it also "links reading on weight loss" to ... exercise! and eating vegetables! And other stuff like that.

Setting aside the inept treatment in the big type, you can get a sense of why this was waved through. Here's the lede:

Magazine headlines entice teenage girls with promises: "Get the body you want" and "Hit your dream weight now!" But a new study suggests reading articles on diet and weight loss could have unhealthy consequences.

I'll take your word for what the headlines sound like. Trouble is, this study doesn't have anything to do with what sorts of headlines are used to entice teenage girls (or, as the article acknowledges later, with how articles about weight loss are illustrated, or what they say, or anything like that). Articles that say "be happy with your body" are the same as "get the body you want" for these purposes.

Teenage girls who frequently read magazine articles about dieting were more likely five years later to practice extreme weight-loss measures, such as vomiting, than girls who never read such articles, the University of Minnesota study found.

Yep. That's one of the things the study found.

... The study, in January's issue of the journal Pediatrics, adds to evidence that girls' attitudes toward their bodies are shaped by popular culture.

Really? As the authors write: "It is somewhat surprising that associations were found with weight-control behaviors but not with body satisfaction" (emphasis mine). The same can be said for self-esteem, only more so; the p value there is .949.

The new findings were based on surveys and weight-height measurements of 2,516 middle school students in 1999 and again in 2004.

That's not true. The 2004 part of the study (the "panel" part, which at least allows a bit of thinking about cause and effect) involved surveys only. The weight-height measurements were done in 1999. Let's not hear any complaints that that's a quibble. This is journalism. You aren't supposed to make any of it up.

About 45 percent of the students were boys.

Only 14 percent of boys reported reading diet articles frequently, compared with 44 percent of girls. For those boys who did read about weight loss, there was no similar lasting effect on behavior. (Which underscores the importance of not raising Stupid Questions about what is or isn't "bad for teens" in the heds.)

In the new study, it was unclear whether it was the diet articles themselves or accompanying photographs of thin models that made a difference. The study didn't ask teenagers which magazines they read, only how frequently they read magazine articles "in which dieting or weight loss are discussed."

It wasn't "unclear." It didn't even come up. The study doesn't ask about illustrations, or which magazines are read, or what the heds look like, or whether the articles encourage positive body images or the "thin ideal" that the study is justifiably concerned with. It asked one question -- "How often do you read magazine articles in which dieting or weight loss are discussed?" -- and allowed four responses: Never, hardly ever, sometimes, or often. Then, five years later, it asked some behavior and attitude questions.

Now, those aren't irrelevant or uninteresting results. But the point is they say only what they say. (One of the things they say is that -- at least up through "sometimes" -- reading articles about weight loss is associated with the weight-loss behaviors the study calls "healthy," like exercising and eating more fruits and vegetables.)

The study was based on students' self-reports about their behavior and, like all surveys, could be skewed by teenagers telling researchers what they think the researchers want to hear, said study co-author Patricia van den Berg.

Time out to complain about inept writing. A survey can't be skewed by "teenagers telling researchers what they think the researchers want to hear" unless it uses teenagers. But it is subject to social desirability bias like any other survey. Meaning you can state the possibility of error caused by self-reporting as a fact, independent of whether the researcher admits it or not. It's good of van den Berg to point it out, in case the AP had overlooked the possibility, but it doesn't need attribution.

Nathan Christopher, a spokesman for Seventeen magazine, said health is important to the magazine's readers. He wouldn't comment specifically on the study because it was unclear which magazines the teenagers read.

Fair enough. Why should he? More to the point, why did we ask him?Again, it's not "unclear" what magazines are involved. It's never even come up.

Thus, much as this one has good intentions and could end up having good outcomes, somebody needs to throw the flag on it. Is it too much to ask for good execution along with the good intentions?

Monday, January 01, 2007


So what do you figure was the most common hed phrase on front pages across the land, aside from "Happy New Year"? How about ...

At grim milestone for U.S. deaths in Iraq war, a time to reflect
Decatur Daily News

Grim milestone for U.S troops in Iraq
Rocky Mountain News (the competition got "grim milestone" into a C-deck)

At grim Iraq milestone, a time to reflect
Bradenton Herald

U.S. casualties reach a grim milestone in the final days of 2006
Lakeland Ledger

The military reaches a grim milestone on the last day of 2006
The News & Observer (mistaking the report for the milestone itself)

U.S. death toll in Iraq war hits grim milestone
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Iraq war's U.S. death toll hits grim milestone
Lincoln Journal-Star

U.S. forces in Iraq reach grim milestone on day Hussein is buried
Akron Beacon Journal

The grim milestone coincides with the burial of the dictator U.S. forces brought down
Roanoke Times

U.S. deaths in Iraq war reach grim milestone
Lynchburg News & Advance

Then there are the merely silly:
Soldier's death ends '06 on grim number
The Olympian
Numbers aren't "grim." You can contrast grim milestones (e.g., deaths) with perky ones (schools opened), but 3,000 isn't any grimmer than 2,461

U.S. dead in Iraq reaches 3,000
Anchorage Daily News
They does? I mean, it do?

Iraq war U.S. casualties reach 3,000
Chicago Tribune
For the first, but almost certainly not the last, time this year, "casualties" does not mean "deaths." It means "losses to active strength." U.S. casualties, dead and wounded, in this war are in the neighborhood of 25,000, and if that's a story that got held out again for the allure of a Big Round Number, then we're still missing the boat.

Which almost gets to the point: If you're going to proclaim a number is important -- which, needless to say, you're doing when you put it at the top of the front page, or dress it up as a centerpiece, or whatever -- you need to know what the number means and why it's a significant change from the status quo. Here's an example that suggests what might have been going on in the editorial mind:

In Iraq, a grim milestone
As U.S. marks 3,000th military death, Americans more aware of toll
Charlotte Observer
Sorry, but that's just wishful thinking. There's nothing in the story to support the main clause in the deck and its "as" link to the event. We might hope there's some such link, but absent some evidence, it's a guess.

U.S. war deaths go beyond numbers
Give doubters voice as tally hits 3,000

West Paterson (NJ) Herald News (clearly a candidate to watch in the Worst Hed of '07 competition)

Again, retrospective guesswork. Show me some -- any -- doubters who needed an artificial milestone (however grim) to find their voices.

To generalize (and, as pollster William Blake was fond of pointing out, to generalize is to be an idiot), it looks as if a lot of papers are trying to get on this bandwagon as eagerly as they got on the war wagon. Assuming a public obsession with round numbers that equals the newsroom's obsession doesn't really get it, and it obscures some of the larger and better points that some of the experts and pollsters might be able to make if we let them. There are plenty of stories still out there by way of reminding people that Nos. 3,001 and 3,002 (which "All Things Considered" was reporting earlier this evening) are every bit as relevant as the one that happens to end in three zeroes.

Assignment for everybody who thought "grim milestone" would make an original hed: Go find an article published in 2006 by any of the scholars mentioned in the AP article Charlotte ran and write a 150-word precis. It's that or a dozen laps.