Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Do the math, somebody

Today's lesson in the basics of copyediting comes from the ever-reliable foxnews.com (at this rate, Fox is going to get co-authorship credit any day now). And the lesson is DTFM, or Do The Math.

One thing that means is "whenever you see two numbers, do something to 'em." But it also means looking for implied numbers -- the ones that have to be true for the claim in a piece of text to be true. Those are the ones that get you, because the sort of obit that has the decedent fighting in a war that ended when he was 5 years old won't usually come with all the numbers placed in convenient (1950-1953) parentheses.

So the sample above requires a little work. You'd have to look up when Old Strom died, and how old he was when he joined the said choir invisible, and work backward to how old he was when he was born.* Or you could find his Senate biography and look up the date of birth there. Then you could look up when the War of the Recent Unpleasantness ended. Before too long, you're going to reach the conclusion that whatever else you want to pin on Old Strom, he came along a little too late to have been a slaveowner. As his appearance in news texts in this very millennium might have already suggested.

Fox makes it easy on us, but rare is the news organization that hasn't wished for a retrospective DTFM on one that got through.

* If your answer for this one is "0," you can skip this week's quiz.

Cut-n-paste cluelessness

Don't say you weren't warned. Don't say you didn't know Bad Things would happen to people who paid too much attention to that silly TOMB OF JESUS FOUND? story yesterday. Don't say you're surprised when Major Newspapers paste this sort of thing on their Web sites:

Christian Orthodox worshippers pass candles to fellow worshippers around the tomb where Jesus Christ is traditionally believed to be buried, during the Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

The hed on the home page is bad enough:

Jesus' tomb found in Holy Land?

... but slapping the AP cutline up there unedited is beyond silly. Who'd like to take a swing at the, um, slight error in the abovementioned cutline?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Return of the Stupid Question

It's back! It's ready for more! It's on the front page! It's the question mark posing as attribution, or whatever it's posing as today.

To recap: Use the question mark only on stories that are about questions. Don't use it as a form of attribution, and don't use it to stack the deck.

And, as in the example at right, don't use it to change the subject. That might be the way the story was pitched in the budget meeting, and that might be what the copy editor thought, but it's not the point the story makes. As it turns out -- well, let's hear from the study's lead author:

What's not clear is whether industry support skews the research, said Peppercorn, the paper's lead author.

"Just because the results are positive, I don't think we can assume that the results are biased," he said.

So the question mark isn't just a shortcut around the standard of attribution, it purports to raise a question the story can't answer. So you're cheating both the reader and the writer.

Here's the hed from the originating paper, which appears to have played the story in 1B rather than 1A (such judgments aren't always right -- witness the Post's misplay of Walter Pincus's skeptical tales before the Iraq invasion -- but they're always worth attending):

Industry role in research analyzed

A little on the boring side, but better a bit dull than a bit dishonest.

While you're at it? Spell his name wrong

Ar ar ar! HEADSUP-L is nailing a gold doubloon to the mast, and the copy editor claims it who kills the following story:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Archaeologists and clergymen in the Holy Land derided claims in a new documentary produced by James Cameron that contradict major Christian tenets, but the Oscar-winning director said the evidence was based on sound statistics.

All publicity is good publicity, and people can say whatever they want about a celebrity as long as they spell his/her name right, and that's the sole and exclusive function of this story -- publicity for the documentary. So not only should you spike it forthwith, you should go out of your way to spell James Cimmaron's name wrong every chance you get.

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which the Discovery Channel will run on March 4, argues that 10 ancient ossuaries -- small caskets used to store bones -- discovered in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the bones of Jesus and his family, according to a press release issued by the Discovery Channel.

One of the caskets even bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son, according to the documentary. And the very fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

Mm-hmm. For those who don't recall the flap over the "James Ossuary," let's just point out that there are some inherent risks in inferring a relationship between inscriptions found in the 20th century and events of the Second Temple era. (The "Bush/Cheney MMIV" sticker is not a reliable or valid indicator of how the Holy Family voted.) But let's get back the claim in the lede: What about those "sound statistics"?

Cameron told NBC'S "Today" show that statisticians found "in the range of a couple of million to one in favor of it being them."

And here's what the Discovery Channel has to say about the subject:

All leading epigraphers agree about the inscriptions. All archaeologists confirm the nature of the find. It comes down to a matter of statistics. A statistical study commissioned by the broadcasters (Discovery Channel/Vision Canada/C4 UK) concludes that the probability factor is 600 to 1 in favor of this tomb being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

A million here, a million there -- never mind that, Noah, what are these "statistics" it comes down to a matter of? How do we calculate this "probability factor"? Does it seem like the AP ought to be asking questions like "what statistical test was used, and would you mind showing us the data?" of Mr. Cameroon rather than the usual stuff about how another unsubstantiated assertion might or might not affect people's beliefs? Could one of you SPSS jockeys out there advise which pulldown the Da Vinci Code is under?

Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in Cameron's documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.

I'd like to know how we measured that (the "most Christians," I mean, not the length of time from Friday night through Sunday morning). Some do. Some hold out for the Garden Tomb (quieter, less crowded, nice bathrooms) on Nablus Road. And some, noting that both discoveries are distinctly ex post, don't think it's necessary to come down either way.

In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.

Every now and then, when everybody's running around saying the moon is made of green cheese, it pays to listen to the small, still voice saying "lifeless, airless rock." Seems to me like there's a lede here, if we have to write about the thing in the first place.

Don't take this in the wrong spirit, now. "Aliens" was a nice piece of filmmaking. But next time, maybe Mr. Kamloops should go through the normal ad-buying channels to flog his latest work, and the AP should stop wasting its time and firepower on this sort of swill. Grr. I mean, ar ar ar.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Speak of the devil ...

... and he (or she) will surely hog the armrest all the way to St. Louis. Another topic that came up at dinner last week was that remarkable phenomenon by which telling students never to commit some journalistic sin or another immediately causes that sin to appear in the professional press. Naturally, the local paper was rife with examples the next morning:

The high school newspaper laundry list lede:
Sushi made-to-order. Organic fruits and vegetables. French fries made without artery-clogging trans fats.

Most People Don't:
Many people might not associate the $11.1 billion, mass-produced college dining industry with the “slow food movement.” (Dear copyeds: Would you work on this writer's basic punctuation skills a little, please?)

The Stupid Name Pun sports hed:
On Kooz control

And this, which is actually kind of disturbing -- in part because it's labeled "New York Times," giving it that all-important air of authority:
Bush has also ordered a second aircraft carrier group within striking distance of Iran, an unsubtle reminder that if diplomacy fails, he could order a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

The problem is in the subordinate clause after "that," which puts a condition on the main clause: If it rains, we might get wet (but we won't if it doesn't rain). Trouble is, that might not be the case. The Times is telling its readers that some sort of diplomatic process is a reliable index of the Bush administration's signaling behavior when it comes to whacking unsavory regimes in the Near East. One doubts that many of those regimes (or their neighbors, enemies or trading partners) would agree.

It'd violate a number of journalistic norms (many of them useful) to write something like "an unsubtle reminder that the guy with the aircraft carriers can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants." But it would be a more accurate summary of the workings of the interstate system under anarchy.

The rules of the game call for the Times to find an "expert" to say that. It could have tried a little harder.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oceanfront land in Charlotte

Every now and then (funny, it came up tonight), we kick around the idea of how to break j-students of the habit of taking everything authority figures tell them at face value. Then along comes a chunk of prose that makes you wonder: Why bother?

Such is this, from the editorial page of the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas, taking a nice safe swing at the knuckle-dragging mentality that has Beaufort County tearing down any signs it can find that have the misfortune of being in Spanish (HEADSUP-L being from Pitt County, it's always nice to have somebody to look down on).

Guillermina Jasso, a sociologist at New York University, has studied immigration at NYU and for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for two decades. She said English is in no danger of being supplanted by Spanish -- or any other language.

"English is the language of democracy and egalitarianism, and those are the beliefs the world is evolving toward," she told the nation's editorial writers at a recent seminar on immigration at the University of Maryland.

That's nice. Can we support any of that, please?

Her evidence? 1. English does not have a formal tense. 2. English does not distinguish gender. 3. English is the language of the Internet.

Those arguments make a lot more sense than baseless fright that speaking another language somehow threatens English.

Well... no. In their own way, they're worse than baseless fright, because they're fabricated. It'd be nice to think the world was evolving toward democracy, but it's hardly uncontested (and sociologists, God love 'em, aren't the ones who keep score). But that's a point for discussion -- not an out-and-out fiction.

What's a "formal tense"? Does our expert mean English doesn't have separate forms of address for different kinds of acquaintances? (What that has to do with "tense" goes unexplained.) Does that feature mean French (somebody's in for a surprise) and Spanish can't be languages of democracy? Why isn't Arabic the language of democracy?

"English does not distinguish gender"? Gawd. One can only hope the little editors' and editrixes' rooms at the editorial writers' conference weren't marked "his" and "hers." And again, what does this have to do with democracy and equality? Do languages without grammatical gender make cultures free their slaves faster?

Seriously, though. If a sociologist stood up at the meeting and told you America was the land of the free because the sun rises in the West, would you believe it? And write it down? And use it to admonish the backward peoples of the coastal plain?

Yes, tearing down the signs is ignorant and verges on openly racist. Perhaps the same can be said of categorizing people's fitness for democracy by the features of their grammar. That's Orwellian in the most literal sense.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Everybody collects something

The doc submits this one from the VOA for Ambiguous Hed of the Day:

Most Premature Baby Heads Home

Eat 'em up, yum.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It's fine for me too

Quick, look at the top line of this reefer and tell me: Which is the subject and which is the modifier?

Right. Don't make me guess at this hour of the morning. If you think a "rule" is forcing you to be ambiguous, think again.

(Note to correspondents and Usual Suspects: Sorry for any delays in responding; the downtown HEADSUP-L office has just finished changing addresses)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Caught with their stats down

Be sure to give a look to the Public Editor column in today's NYT: Can a 15-year-old be a 'woman without a spouse'? Not to spoil the ending or anything, but Barney finds both the reporter and the editors playing fast and loose with the data on a 1A trender from last month -- the one that proclaimed that "51% of women are now living without spouse."

The picture he paints is dismaying because it's so familiar. The data in the analysis aren't quite the same ones reported in the graphic and story (but the reporter didn't think they made any difference, so ...). A few common-sense questions about the makeup of the trend -- say, "is it a good idea to count 15-year-olds as spouseless women?" -- got brushed aside in the interest of being out-front with "this tipping point." The reporter ends up defending the story because its "essence" remains accurate:

about half — maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less, depending on the age group — of American women are living without a spouse at any given time

even though the whole point is that the magic 51% mark has been reached.

It's a relief, sort of, to know that somebody got the glass offices' attention: Boss editor Bill Keller "has decided to meet with staffers with expertise in statistics and demographics to create a 'vetting network to help with the editing of articles dealing with those subjects.'" That's nice. But the problem in this sort of case isn't usually a lack of experts; it's the unholy lust that makes newsrooms see only what they want a story to say, not what it says in the cold light of day.

Expertise in statistics? Nah. You could chisel an introductory stats text onto stone tablets and haul 'em from Mount Sinai to the Times' 1A budget meeting and it wouldn't make any difference.

Better drowned than duffers

If not duffers, won't screw up their cliches in huge type in the 1A centerpiece. When you "weigh" [5. a. Naut. To heave up (a ship's anchor) from the ground, before sailing] the anchor, it's "aweigh." Not "away." Hence the title of the Navy's march, "Anchors Aweigh."

Now, to avoid being mistaken for Pilotless Drone Man, we ought to point out a couple of things. One, back before the English learned to spell, "weigh" often came out "wye" or "wey" -- even "way." Two, the homonym "away" crops up in the sort of phrases -- chocks away there, Biggles, old shoehorn! -- that make the confusion understandable. But all that aside, if you don't want to flood your in-box with questions about your education, patriotism and general fitness to breathe the same air as the public at large, look stuff up before you commit it to big type.

It's always possible, of course, that the Herald is just trying to take our minds off the appearance of another Anna Nicole Smith story in the lede position. Another sign of the apocalypse from the glory that was Knight-Ridder.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Who's No. 1, mon?

Somebody at the N&O sports desk is playing deep-catalog trivia:

'57 Tar Heels No. 1; won 'em all played just for fun

It's a quote,* but the quote isn't mentioned anywhere in the story. Who wants to take a swing at naming the source? And do you think there are enough copies out there for the hed to work?

* Yes, it's missing a comma -- the sort that can make a drastic difference in meaning. Somebody at the N&O desk doesn't get any dessert tonight.

Friday, February 09, 2007

As long as it's still cold ...

Since, as Doug noted, hell has frozen over, let's single out the KC Star for a strikingly sharp and adventurous use of the photo-into-nameplate trick.

Lots of times (today's Star, for example), these have that jittery feel of an all-consuming format in search of innocent content to stuff into its ravening maw. This one doesn't. Hats off to the Brown Acid Brigade.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And the winner is ...

It's hard to single anybody out on the red-in-tooth-and-claw fight for Dumbest Astronaut Hed of the Still-Young Millennium:



Good heavens!

... so we'll just point to a couple that stand out for their go-the-extra-light-year awfulness. Take a bow, Fox News:

And gather 'round for a lesson in the difference between Omit Needless Words and Omit Words, presented by Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper:

Well, no. To have a "murder" charge, somebody has to, you know, kind of ring down the curtain and join the choir invisible. This charge is called "attempted murder." You can debate the merits of such a charge in this particular case all you want, but you can't make it something it isn't. Or at least you shouldn't.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Slotting: Always in style

Let's start by assuming that anybody who wants to has been collecting Fox's heds on the wayward astronaut tale all day long (Houston, we have a problem! Spaced out astronaut! The wrong stuff! What was she thinking?) You pays your money and you takes your choice. But no matter where Fox sets its ever-reliable Taste-O-Meter, you'd like to think somebody would point how many exits past clueless it is to write "Cosmic Love Triangle" under a photo of three people unless all three are known inhabitants of the aforesaid geometric love grotto.

"Taste" is a command decision. In a way, it's above your pay grade. As a rimrat, you're not going to make the Post into the Times or vice versa. But if you're going to be a tabloid, try not to be a dumb one.

The question mark, to say the least, doesn't help.

For extra credit: Which possible player goes best with that last verb phrase in the cutline?

Labels: , ,

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Block that clause

OK, diagrammers, have a ball:

A custody fight over a golden retriever that belonged to an estranged couple who died in a murder-suicide has apparently ended with a judge awarding the dog to the family of the man police said killed his estranged girlfriend.

As far as I can tell, it's all legal. But it does raise a couple issues:
1) We sure don't want to make it easy on those slackers out there in readerland, do we?
2) Good thing there isn't any of that pesky news crowding feel-good stories like this out of our A section today.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Guilty, guilty, guilty!

A regular reader sends this in from a Friday evening at America's Newspapers:

CAMBRIDGE, Minn. — A farmer who chased down a thief and held him at gunpoint until authorities arrived now faces a more serious charge than the thief himself.

"What's wrong with this AP story?" she asks. Guess which infixed participle she used to modify AP?

Fake story = free ad

We'd really appreciate it if Al over at Poynter would stop passing bogus story ideas along at his "morning meeting." Here's the latest:

Super Bowl Sick-Out
There does seem to be some truth to one commonly held belief -- lots of people miss work Monday after the big game. MSNBC.com reports:

Super Bowl flu is quite contagious and quite common, says one employment productivity expert who has studied absenteeism in the workplace.

Here's a generalization for you: Whenever you see an absenteeism story built around the numbers of a "productivity expert" or "workplace guru," assume it's bogus. Pull it out of the queue and search it until it confesses. Generally, what's happened is that some wise marketing shill has sold a reporter a handful of magic beans and is long gone across the county line enjoying the benefits of a free ad. Let's take the above bit of fiction apart:

“We think there’s going to be a widespread impact across the country of Super Bowl-itis — and epidemic proportions in Chicago and Indianapolis,” said Stewart Itkin, vice president of Kronos, a Massachusetts company that solves workforce-related problems. (Clue #1: "Solves workforce-related problems" how? Mass layoffs? Decimating the board of directors?)

Nonetheless, the mark -- that's you, bubba -- is set up:

Kronos recently surveyed approximately 1,300 adults over the age 18 and asked if they would be coming to work the morning after the game, Feb. 5. Five percent of the respondents admitted that they planned to call in sick. With the U.S. working population numbering about 140 million people, Itkin estimates that "come Monday, there will be 7 million empty cubicles around the country, costing employers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity."

Well, that's pretty simple arithmetic. You can do that at your desk between phone calls. If you assume that self-reported intention translates exactly into action. And that people take a question like "Are you gonna call in sick the day after the Super Bowl?" seriously. And that his guess about productivity has something to back it up. And that ... oh, right. That his survey is a valid measure of something.

Neither Al nor MSNBC says, but Al gives us a link to Kronos' Web site, whence we can find something about the "previous survey" mentioned in the story (according to all of which the problem has more than quadrupled in two years). Scope the tactics in this press release from 2005:

New survey findings suggest that an estimated 1.4 million employed U.S. adults may call in sick to work the day after the Super Bowl. The "Working in America: Absent Workforce" survey of more than 1,300 employed adults was conducted by Harris Interactive® and commissioned by Kronos® Incorporated. Super Bowl-related absence rates may be even higher in parts of New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, and other areas where the contending teams have strong followings.

Where are the numbers for the last assertion? Hey, who cares? It sounds reasonable! Who's going to bother to check out an assertion like this? Which is how we get paragraphs on the news pages like this (yes, Lowell Sun, it's time for you to be embarrassed):

One way to better plan for such crises is to automate the tracking of sick time and schedules with software, one type of which is designed by Kronos.

Now, Harris Interactive is a grownup organization with a reputation to protect, so it's not going to lie about its methods. But hang on for the bait-and-switch here:

Harris Interactive conducted the online survey on behalf of Kronos Incorporated in the U.S. between December 20 and 23, 2004 among a nationwide cross section of 1,316 full-time employed U.S. adults aged 18 and over. Figures for age, sex, race, education, income, and region were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting (I don't know that that means, but I'm impressed)was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online. In theory, with probability samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the results for the overall sample have a sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. (Why be coy? Come right out and say it in practice! At a 95 percent confidence level, a probability sample of that size has a confidence interval, or margin of sampling error, of less than 3 points.) Sampling errors for the results of the following sub-samples: employed adults who have called in sick to work in the past year (792); employed adults who have a disciplinary attendance policy at work (733); and employed males aged 25-44 (300) are higher and vary. (Sun rises in East.) This online sample was not a probability sample.

See? If you get through all the cautions and hedges in the methods graf, you get to the line that knocks it all into a cocked hat. This isn't a probability sample, and that means you can't draw any conclusions about the wider population from it. Kronos has the free ad, you've gotten to make some stupid generalizations:

To wash it all down, we'll guzzle some $12 million worth of beer alone.*

and nobody's the worse for wear. Unless you're really tired of seeing made-up stuff crowding news out of the newspaper.

* Copydesk math quiz: Schnucks is selling Miller Lite for $15 a case. Based on that price, how many beers do "we" get to guzzle on the day of the big game?