Sunday, April 29, 2007

Edit the big names too

How do you get to and from work if your assignment is to edit Bill Safire? I mean, do you wear Groucho glasses and kind of sneak from doorway to doorway all the way to Times Square? And when people ask what you do at work, do you tell 'em you steal coins from blind guys' cups? It's got to be tough any week, but especially when he's just making stuff up and tossing it out there as if folks were supposed to believe it.

As is sort of the case this week. Bill, apparently still wondering about the origin of the term "fall guy," starts by referring to his own prose, then opens the floor to whoever else has a guess. The results are about what you'd expect. At least he labels it honestly: "Now to the speculations."

As a copy editor, at this point, you might just be looking for a vein to cut (of yours, not his). But some of the sillier speculation could at least be challenged:

My favorite is from Vance Garnett of Washington: “The 1930 Dashiell Hammett story and, later, the 1941 film ‘The Maltese Falcon’ may well be the earliest usage of the word as we’ve come to know it. Humphrey Bogart as ‘Sam Spade’ tells Mary Astor, as the femme fatale, ‘You’re taking the fall.’ ”

Sorry, Vance. Sam does say "You're taking the fall" to Brigid, but he doesn't call her the "fall guy." The term arises 24 pages earlier ("We've got to have a fall guy") and recurs several times before landing conclusively on Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr. in the movie): "'Well,' he said, 'there's our fall guy.'"

Bill, for some reason, questions Sam's use of "taking the fall":
I wonder about that; in the Humpty Dumpty world of falls, to take the fall means “to accept punishment” but does not necessarily impute unfairness or corruption to the punishment. “To take a fall,” however, is equivalent to take a dive, in which the faller is complicit in the trick, dodge or conspiracy in throwing the fight. (Emphasis his, as is the missing "to" after "equivalent.")

Bill! Dude! Of course it doesn't impute unfairness! Brigid killed Miles, and she's going over for it! As Wilmer is taking the fall for the guys he shot! The only time Sam suggests that a "fall guy" might be partially innocent is when he suggests Cairo for the part (framing Brigid for the two killings in question, of course, is Cairo's idea, not Sam's).

That’s my opinion; that’s what it means to me. But here is the beauty part: My slang definition may not be yours. In dealing with Standard English, lexicographers, etymologists, semanticists and usage mavenim can bring hard-earned authority to definitions, giving needed precision to the language, but when it comes to slang, the experts are the nonexperts. Slang swings; its meanings are in the heads of the users, who are legion and gleefully bang their different drums. (We report; you decide.)

OK. The experts can check in as they will, but is it worth suggesting that "slang" is pretty rule-bound in the bargain? That we have a fairly good idea of what "fall guy" means in the same way we have a good idea of the meaning of lots of other terms that date to the beginning of the 20th century? And, of course, that it'd be awfully nice if somebody held Safire to account for his inanities?

Must be rough up at the Magazine: Safire on language, and the "ethicist" on "ethics." What's next, Dr. Phil on cognitive neuropsyc?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Arbeit macht schtupid

This outstandingly tasteless and tin-eared lede just about speaks for itself:
The officialspeak is "forward operating bases." The honest words are death camps. There's no other way to describe the risk American soldiers face dispersed in dangerous Iraqi neighborhoods, outside secure walls.
Well, to paraphrase Lou Grant at one or another of Mary Richards' hapless parties: "No, Mary. That's not a death camp. This is a death camp."
For God's sake.
The lede illustrates a couple of mirror-image assumptions often made in news language:
One, a term the writer doesn't understand must be some form of Orwellian "officialspeak," meant to hide the "truth" from the public. Sometimes that's true. Other times, words do what they often do in life, which is distinguish stuff from other stuff. If you hang around with a lot of other Eskimos who need to distinguish main operating bases from forward satellite sites used for tactical operations, you probably know 20 or 30 words for "forward operating base."* We only have the one in American English, but, y'know, it seems to work.
Two, dysphemism makes you stronger! The louder and more harshly you say something, the truer it must be. This makes you, um, a speaker of TRVTH or something. Unless you forget that "death camp" has so many cultural overtones already that, on the off chance your first point had any merit, your second would overwhelm it with your cluelessness.
By itself, that's all bad enough. But there's more going on in this column. Let's have a look (and, as copyeds, we want concrete stuff; we aren't going to get too far arguing about the tone, even if it's as abysmal as "death camps").
It was also the largest loss for the celebrated 82nd Airborne since June 1969, when 12 paratroopers from the 3rd Brigade Combat team were ambushed and killed in Vietnam, according to the division's historical records.
Some perspective:
... When the Tet Offensive swept across the Republic of Vietnam in 1968, the 82nd responded, fighting in fearsome quarters such as Hue-Phu, Mekong and Saigon.
Hmm. Funny place names alert! Where is this "Hue-Phu" of which we speak? A ranging shot suggests that the construct originated, sort of, in those pesky "historical records":
During the Tet Offensive, which swept across the Republic of Vietnam in January 1968, the 3rd Brigade was alerted and within 24 hours, the brigade was enroute to Chu Lai. The 3rd Brigade performed combat duties in the Hue-Phu Bai area of the I Corps sector.
Looks like we got a little careless with our ctrlV-ctrlC there. "Hue-Phu" isn't a Bai area; "Hue-Phu Bai" is the area we wanted (as noted in Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie," Phu Bai -- now an international airport -- is an airfield hard by the old imperial capital). And "Mekong" -- tell us, historical records, are those fearsome quarters a city?
Later the brigade was moved south to Saigon, and fought battles in the Mekong Delta, the Iron Triangle and along the Cambodian border.
Guess not. Usually, in English, we mark rivers and deltas and such with the definite article. Washington didn't cross Delaware, he crossed the Delaware. This isn't "perspective"; it's "cutting and pasting random words and phrases that sound vaguely exotic to the writer."
But aside from playing fast and loose with texts, there are some deeper problems here. Basically, the paper, which has been distinctly pro-war throughout (in sort of a genteel Southern as-long-as-it-doesn't-scare-the-horses sort of way), has now decided to stamp its foot:
There comes a time in all conflicts when good people can no longer defend the status quo.
Such a moment arrived in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, when a firebomb killed four black girls getting ready for the morning worship service.
(Why was it that "good people" were able to defend the status quo before this?)
Such a moment arrived later that same decade when it became apparent President Lyndon Johnson had told outright lies about the extent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. (So we'll have rather flexible definitions of "moment" and "conflict"?)
Many people in North Carolina have reached that moment about Iraq. Many, many more are close.
Meaning ... "many people" in North Carolina have reached the point where "good people" can no longer defend the status quo? Just checking.
Sounds as if somebody's trying to use the Local Angle as a way of sneaking out of the pro-war camp under cover of night. If that's the case, somebody has a little more explaining to do before the change of stripes is going to be believed.
* ONLY KIDDING. Just because Eskimos would have individual "words" designating FOB Liebling, FOB Scoop and FOB Sentence-Final Preposition doesn't mean they have more access to the concept than we do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stupid question(s) of the (still-young) day

1) Dunno. Why he not?

The next is a bit tricker. At first glance, this looks like the sort of inept deck that simply repeats the structure and ideas of the main hed ("sister" for "family," "illegal immigrant" for "suspect") with a few minor changes in detail. But there's a big change hidden in there: When the deck moves into the active voice, it shifts the suspect's role from done-to to doer. So at the risk of seeming impolite, the answer to the second question is probably something like:

2) Because he could.

If you don't want readers to think you're saying something you didn't, pay attention to your grammar. Use the rules or they'll use you.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

At the language lesson

Here's a really nice piece of journalism with one passage that just sort of yanks the old chain. It doesn't ruin the article, but it does make one wish some copy editor had ignored all the prestige issues involved and stood up to complain. Since it'll crop up again soon somewhere in the editing world, let's talk about the phenomenon of deixis for a bit.

Deixis is a property of language that talks about stuff as it stands in relation to other stuff, and deictic language is language in which that property is front and center -- language that points. Think of the difference between "turn north at the milestone marked 3" and "turn left there": You have to know which way you're going to get the right result from "left," and you have to know where here is to understand where "there" is.

On its own, it's pretty innocent. It can be good (make your hymns sound hymnlike with Deixis®!) or less good (as in most sets of instructions). But like most things in this sad world, it's subject to manipulative uses. The biggest worry for journalists is "empathetic deixis," which usually seeks to orient the speaker/writer toward something the audience favors. Think of the difference between "William Boot, with U.S. troops in Ishmaelia" and "William Boot, with our troops in the War on Terror." You can't tell what "our" means unless you know what "we" means -- or in many cases, what it doesn't mean.

Hence the issue with the abovementioned delightful piece of reporting and advocacy (don't mistake it for "objective"; it ain't) in today's Times magazine. Here's a taste:

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

Help yourself to more; it's informative, snarky and slightly outraged (and with all due respect to our pals who've been blogging at TCE from the Miami conference, strong evidence that education is actually a good thing for journalism). There's just this one annoying bit:

... most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes.

Pretty clear who the Times Magazine thinks is in the audience, huh? Because if you're stuck in the Midwest, it sure as hell isn't you. "Our" representatives can ignore it, because the hicks are the only ones that care.

Kind of an unfortunate set of writing choices for somebody who holds an endowed chair at a J-school. (And from deep in the central time zone, one is tempted to mutter: Hmm. Berkeley. New York. Not exactly hotbeds of journalism education, are they? Wonder if it's the shortage of corn and soy.) And if some poor copyed looked at the byline and decided this one wasn't worth a fight, that's a pity.

Well, enough of that. Empathetic deixis isn't what they'll be talking about tomorrow if the article should surface over at Nutrition Sciences. But it's worth bringing the matter up when some writer is tempted to indulge in the first person plural: When you make clear who "we" are, you also make abundantly clear who "they" are. And they might not appreciate it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Style serves meaning

Two thousand-year-old beliefs about God, the soul, sin and people outside our tribe are hindering medical research and warping public policy.

So, allegedly, says a letter to the editor. Leading to a question: Which two 11th-century beliefs does the correspondent have in mind?

Right. Clearly the correspondent (in his or her own bumbling way) is trying to wrap a few a millennia worth of assorted beliefs into a single potshot aimed at the early days of the Common Era. Which would be "two-thousand-year-old beliefs."

At a distance, one is inclined to guess that in editing the letter for "style," somebody mis-extended the AP's silly ban on hyphenating "million" and "billion" compounds. The rule's OK for simple compounds, like "$2 million building." It's shaky for multiples, like "$2 billion-plus budget," in which the hyphen appears to be setting off the second part of the compound. And in the "two thousand-year-old beliefs" above, it's just dumb.

Meaning isn't the servant of style. Style is the servant of meaning. That's the bottom line of all stylebooks.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Let's play 'Month of Tragedies'

Stay tuned: Editing exercise at end!

One of the little-known benefits of being a copy editor -- leaving aside the massive salaries, the luxurious working conditions, and the hordes of grammar groupies -- is the unlimited Emperor's New Clothes license issued when you take the nightside's shilling. With it, you can stand up at any point when the parade is going by and proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.

Which is what somebody should have done (or done louder; I wasn't there) with the story in question. The experts are right. It's coincidence. April is a "month of tragedies" because every month is a month of tragedies (by which the writer apparently means "unrelated killings," not disasters, interstate violence or plays in which a central flaw leads to grisly doom for the main character).

Let's look at the story:

In April 1995, two men executed what was then the worst terrorist act in American history by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City. (So American history starts -- when, late 1983? Just wondering.)

On an April day four years later, Columbine High School became the site of the nation's deadliest school shooting. (Though not, by a long chalk, the deadliest attack on a school.)

Now, almost exactly eight years later, the mass murder at Virginia Tech has set a new, horrible standard: A single gunman killed 32 victims.

Is there's something about the month of April? (I don't know. Is there's?)

Criminologists and psychiatrists say it's unlikely. The timing of these incidents are coincidences, not a trend.

Here's the part where you get to stand up and say "He's naked!" Sorry about the phone calls the writer has already made, but at this point it's clear that the story shouldn't run. Actually, it should have been clear after the first couple of phone calls. But while we had the psychiatrists on the line, it might have been nice to ask them about cognitive biases, because what we have here is a blind spot in how journalists evaluate evidence.

That's not a moral failing or anything. We all put a heuristic thumb on the judgment scales every now and then. The problem in this case is that someone decided to turn faulty reasoning into a 1A presence, and that's a bad idea.

Mass mayhem in April is a very "available" construct right now. Columbine has been talked up a lot, and when you add in Oklahoma City (even though seasonal affect has exactly the square root of zero to do with political violence), you have what looks like a Trend. But the emperor's naked. You can find trends every bit as good almost anywhere, as long as you trust the data instead of your lyin' forebrain.

Today's editing exercise, then, is to play the "month of tragedies" game yourself. Pick a month and find at least three acts of substate mass killing (for master-level play, stay within U.S. borders and don't count political violence and terrorism):

August: Month of tragedies?
Edmond, Okla., 1986 (Aug. 20): Post office shooting, 14 dead
Austin, Texas, 1966 (Aug. 1): Campus sniper, 14 dead
Fayetteville, N.C., 1993 (Aug. 6): Restaurant shooting, 4 dead (BONUS: Name the Clint Eastwood movie the gunman had been watching before the attack).

Who's got one?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rules emerge from chaos

A couple items to add to the list of rules for covering mass murders or other heinous public crimes (just go ahead and pencil 'em into your stylebooks for now):

I. No dark hints about media effects. As in: There has been some speculation, especially among online forums, that Cho may have been inspired by the South Korean movie "Oldboy." Anybody who wants to run that sort of stuff needs to have a 20-page literature review approved by the committee in advance.

Ia. "Online" is not an excuse for printing crap. "Speculation" is a technical journalistic term for "baseless gossip," and it's still gossip even if it's in "online forums"! Here in the mass media, one of the things we do is "mediate" information, and one of the things that's shorthand for is "make at least some rudimentary effort to determine whether it has some remote chance of being true." Not, it should go without saying, taking as gospel whatever you read on somebody's blog (except this one and its friends).

II. Do not report the doings of the supernatural unless you have tried to contact the supernatural for comment. Step forward, Fox News: Was Cho Seung-Hui schizophrenic … psychotic … manic-depressive? Or were the shooting deaths of 32 people, including Cho himself, at Virginia Tech University part of the ongoing struggle between God and Satan … good against evil … lightness and darkness?
Could Cho have been possessed by the Devil? Could that explain the massacre at Virginia Tech?

Anyone wishing to write about the Evil One will submit phone records (in advance) to the committee documenting at least three attempts to reach him or his designated spokesman for comment. E-mail will not do.

IIa. For the speculations of people whose links to the supernatural are genetically transmitted, see Rule II.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, who dispatched 20 "rapid-response" chaplains to Virginia Tech this week, says he believes gunman Cho Seung-Hui was "demon-possessed."
Nope. Don't care what junior thinks about the matter (or see what distinguishes it from online speculation, supra). Don't particularly care what daddy thinks about the matter either. But this unfortunate bit of localization gets even worse in a hurry:

He told the Observer that evil and the devil were behind the Holocaust, as well as recent cases of genocide -- in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Let's save "told the Daily Bugle" for the empirical world, shall we?

Not all Christian leaders are willing to rule out mental illness in the Virginia shootings.
Is it just me, or are the implications of this transition remarkably -- almost deliberately -- offensive?

The Rev. Stephen Shoemaker, senior minister of Charlotte's Myers Park Baptist Church, agreed murder is "a great moral wrong."
Big of him, huh? Is there somebody we're not going to insult in this tale?

But, he added, "This young man was severely troubled. And mental health professionals have told me in the past that major mental illness in some forms often erupts suddenly in late adolescence or early adulthood."
This guy was done a disservice by being dragged in as a foil on a story that should have been neither written nor run. I bet he had better things to do with his time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Don't mention the war

Sometimes you wonder why we even bother with editorials:

In a single day, on an idyllic college campus, America set a new record for mass violence. At least 33 people died and some 25 were injured in separate shootings at Virginia Tech Monday, bloodshed on a stunning scale.

Well, whatever you do (Cleese & Booth, 1975), don't mention the war. Or any of the other wars. Or any of the interstate (or extrasystemic) disputes falling below the 1,000-battle-deaths cutoff. Or the occurrence in New York a few years ago. Or the one in Oklahoma City. Or (infra) the Bath Massacre.

By the way? Nobody sets "old" records. When you recycle stuff from the wires, try to spell the names of towns right. And try not to cut-n-paste too obviously:

AP: Previously, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage that took place in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire with a rifle from the 28th-floor observation deck. He killed 16 people before he was shot to death by police.

Editorial: The deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage that took place in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and open fire with a rifle, killing 16.

Let's not set a bad example for J2100, all right?

Is it possible to produce a more cluelorn piece of writing? Hey, that's why we have Fox!

Another interesting story about Westfield graduates: Michael Kennedy, Class of '05 - Shot and killed two police officers and wounded another outside the Sully district Fairfax County police station in in May, 2006. Kennedy suffered from mental illness. Cho Seung Hui and Michael Kennedy were students at Westfield at the same time. This may be coincidence.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Superlative alert

Quoth CNN:
A lone gunman is dead after officials said he killed at least 31 people Monday during shootings in a dorm and a building housing classrooms at Virginia Tech, making it the deadliest school attack in U.S. history.

Nope. Next month comes the 80th anniversary of the Bath (Michigan) elementary school bombing, which killed nearly four dozen people. Here's the NYT's hed selection from May 20, 1927:

Charred Body of Mrs. Kehoe Is Found
in Ruins at Home That Michigan Maniac Blew Up.
Said to Have Mania for Killing,
He Is Believed to Have Planned
School Destruction for Weeks.
Bath Villagers, Stunned by Awful Deed,
Console One Another as They Prepare to Bury Little Ones

BATH, Mich., May 19. -- Still stunned by the deed of the madman Andrew Kehoe, who yesterday killed his wife and then blew up the consolidated school here and his own automobile, causing the death of forty-three persons, including himself, this little community today was groping its way through tears trying to meet the awful consequences of the tragedy.

(If you're a Times reader, the lede should look familiar: note the determiner retention in "the madman Andrew Kehoe" and the size of the relative clause that comes before the subject. The more things change ...)

Anyway: A big story's the time to ask hard questions of copy, not to let them skate. Nothing wrong with context. Nothing wrong with being respectful. And absolutely no law saying you can't insist on being right while doing all the above.

It's OK to edit the wires

Another lovely spring morning at the Manor: Set the coffee on, feed the kitties,* see how far under the neighbor's pickup truck the morning paper landed, turn on radio, open paper.

Nice long article about the French presidential race (still nothing about Nigeria or Zimbabwe, but ... hey, an election precede from a nuclear-armed permanent member of the Security Council is a start). And reasonably thoughtful stuff too, right up until:

After 12 years of Chirac, France almost certainly will get its first leader born after World War II. It might, in another first, be a woman: the Socialists' motherly, ever-smiling Segolene Royal. Or it may be the right's Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant.

That's enough to put you right off your fresh-fried lobster. Motherly? There's Segolene, at left. We report, you decide.

Now. Over and above the accuracy of the adjective is its appropriateness. How parent-like status is determined from looks, and its relevance to head-of-state-dom, go unexplained here. Notable is the lack of a similar adjective for Nick, shown at right. Is he "fatherly"? Or just "marionette-like"? Or -- here's an idea -- neither?

Broad-sunny-uplands-of-2007-wise, you'd like to think we could relax the general state of alert for gratuitous, pinheaded sexism in international news coverage. Apparently we might have to wait another week or so. Meanwhile, the lesson for copyeds is: The wires aren't infallible. They aren't protected by a magic shield. Dumb journalism from the wires is still dumb journalism. Pretend the creditline isn't there and edit away. It's called wire "editing" for a reason.

* By the way, Sunday was two years since Woodchuck and Bernie left their home under the Neff Hall hostas to become the official HEADSUP-L research kitties. Happy Bernieversary.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Fun with hed dialect

Like any other dialect, headlines are more rule-bound than they sometimes appear to the casual observer. An entertaining and instructive sample from Fox News:

'Winkler tried to pass bad checks'

It looks really weird. If you're used to reading American news, it looks like either a direct quote or a scare quote. It's neither. At a guess, I'd say it's Fox lapsing into British hedspeak, in which quotes are a standard way of summarizing an assertion (a common way to do it here is with the colon, as in Witness: Winkler tried to pass bad checks).

It's a bit out of tune even for that, since the British generally leave the subject out of the summary:

Ross ‘faces jail sentence as she admits drink-driving’
Ross is Diana Ross, who we can probably agree is a headline name. Whether Mary Winkler is a hed name isn't a dialect issue but a shop-style issue; in Fox World, where runaway wives are standard fare, apparently she is.

Here's an example with a non-celeb:
Man ‘kept dead victim as trophy in storage unit’
A part-time musician with an interest in websites about violent sex murdered a teacher to satisfy his “macabre” fantasies, a court heard yesterday.

Graham Coutts then hid the body of 31-year-old Jane Longhust in a storage unit and visited “his trophy” regularly.

Sometimes part of the verb falls out of the summary:
Writer is ‘killed by face op’

And sometimes an attribute of the main actor ends up included:
164 ‘killed by Nazi fiend, 86’
A frail 86-year-old man has been accused of murdering 164 people in Nazi-occupied Slovakia during World War Two.

British heds also take a lot more liberties with hauling stuff around from the end of prepositional phrases than we do:
Nude pic row vicar resigns

When you throw in a relative clause, it gets out-and-out kinky:
Storm after FA let manslaughter coach teach kids
(A "manslaughter coach" isn't like a "strength and conditioning coach"; it's a coach who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.)

Just another reason Fox-watching is so much fun. You never know what they're going to do next.

Friday, April 13, 2007

'College athletics is sacred'

At last, amid the noise and waste of the Don Imus tale, somebody finds something new and interesting to say. Here's Bob Entman, who has done some of the sharpest work of the past couple decades on media, framing and race, as quoted in the Times:

In this case, he chose a college basketball team. College athletics is sacred in our culture in a way. We tell ourselves that it is a place that we have transcended race. This was an attack on the purity of sport, student athletes who are not paid to perform.

And that's enough on that topic, except for this spectactular mixed metaphor from earlier in the same article:

The drumbeat was not going to stop. The controversy metastasized and by Monday, the media began to lock and load.

Form square men! When drums stop, bass solo begins! More later, gotta tickle some numbers for a while.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

First, biggest, only

Copyeds, a reminder that it's not only your right but your sworn duty (that's why you drank the chicken blood) to ask for a scorecard and a list of the runners-up whenever a writer proclaims someone or some event to be a first, biggest, or only.

There's a first of everything and a biggest of everything, granted. They're generally look-up-able and come with a set of standings and an explanation of the scoring. Tallest mountain, done in some linear measure, here's the list. All-time major league home run leader, measured by home runs, here's the list. First man on the moon -- you get the idea.

Trouble comes when writers start juicing stories with sonorous proclamations meant to underscore the gravity of the moment. That's where you need to start checking IDs a little closer. It's embarrassing when some fact-claim leaves the writer sounding like history began back in early February or so. Almost as bad is the Bar Fight Syndrome: Writer makes Profound Statement, everybody else in the bar chimes in with "Oh yeah? What about ...?" You want them reading the story, not arguing about the writer's memory or ability to count.

Here's today's case in point:

Attorney General Roy Cooper is deciding whether the state of North Carolina will proceed with sexual assault and kidnapping charges against David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann. The three stand accused in the state's most publicized case in decades, and after a year of turmoil they long for an announcement.

OK. Leave aside the telepathy at the end of the graf. The issue is the underlined phrase that appears before it, and the first reaction from here is "What about ...?"

Velma Barfield aside (one tabloid "Pink PJs" hed doth not eternal fame guarantee, and we're talking about staying power here), a couple of candidates from recent decades do come to mind. In no particular order:

Jeffrey MacDonald (which some years ex post became known as the "Fatal Vision" case)
The Greensboro Massacre
The Wilmington 10 (early '70s, but convictions vacated in 1980)
Eric Rudolph
(Don't see your favorite on the short list? Add a comment or write!)

We might want to consider a few others (Bobby Garwood, for example). But it ought to be pretty clear by now that whatever cosmic point the writers wanted to make is lost in a welter of peanuts and bar napkins. Institutional memory is supposed to be one of the things that set newspapers apart from the wires-and-lights-on-a-box crowd. Let's not be so eager to give it away.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Appalling heds of the (still-young) month

Yet more evidence that the answer to the question "How low can you go in the race to discard all those pesky journalism basics so you can put stuff online faster?" is on the order of "No! Lower!"
Where to start? How about the second of the two "may" statements? Here's the lede:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police believe the man charged with killing two officers was drinking brandy, smoking cigarettes and listening to music -- possibly a Pastor Troy song called Murda Man -- before the shootings, according to court documents made public this morning.
Hmm. He may have been listening to music, and it may have been "Murda Man."* Any further support for this?
... The documents also say police searched a Timber Ridge apartment on Friday looking for compact discs, alcoholic beverage containers, Newport cigarettes, drugs, drug paraphernalia, and evidence of firearm possession relating to a .32 caliber weapon. Police believe Montgomery had been in the apartment before the shootings.
And this, under a subhed:
The lyrics
Police searched an apartment Friday in connection with the killing of two police officers. In addition to other things, they searched for a compact disc containing the song "Murda Man" by rap artist Pastor Troy.
So there may (or may not) have been a CD, and it may (or may not) have included the said ditty, and the suspect may (or may not) have listened to it. Notice how far all of that is from the bigger "may": the bizarre assertion that the song "may have influenced" the suspect? (And no, we're not going to go into the media-effects literature here.)
Left hanging is what the song "may" have "influenced" the suspect to do. But the deck makes that clear: Use a .32-caliber gun! If you're going to declare him guilty before trial, why bother with "suspect"?
Judging from the report, this set of legal documents doesn't seem to have produced a lot of surprises. Granted, it gives you a chance to say "this morning" on a development in the big local story of the week. But earth-shattering? Nah. And there, again, is the core of the issue.
If you recall the "blow up the copydesk" idiocy of the 1990s, you'll recall that the tedious old writer-stifling rim-and-slot system of editing ultimately survived as, if not the best, clearly the least worst available method of distributing attention among stories. It ensured that even a low-bore five-graf update on the release of search warrant affidavits would get at least a few minutes of cursory copyediting -- enough to clean up the elementary style errors (composition titles and preposed number compounds), if nothing else. And for a story that really is a big deal, the system piled on enough attention to put the copy into play in a hurry while avoiding** inane, unfounded slop like "Song may have influenced suspect."
PS: And there's this, on a sidebar from the paper's TV "news" "partner":
Lawyer plans defense of accused killer
Regardless of your stance on "accused killer" (barred in most quality shops), the hed is flat wrong. As the story points out, the longtime defense lawyer doing the speculating in the story isn't the one defending the suspect.
* I may have too! Does it go sort of like "Tiptoe thru the Tulips," only the bridge is in the relative minor?
** Well, most of the time.

Guessing game

Today's trivia question: Whose mug is that illustrating the latest development in the police shootings?

Is it the judge? Is it one of the officers? Is it, you know, anybody who's mentioned in the blurb?

As you'll notice if you read the jump, it isn't. It's the suspect. How a first-time or casual reader is supposed to know that remains unclear. Unless -- you don't suppose a newspaper that bravely took on Don Imus all by itself just sort of assumes we know what suspects look like?

Nah. Couldn't be.

Monday, April 09, 2007


First, this from the Sincerest Form of Flattery department:

Missourian, Friday:
1 man. 25,000 homes. 8 weeks. $500,000.

Trib, Monday:
Twenty-five thousand homes. Two legs. One ambitious fundraising effort.

[AHEM] Anyway, once you get past the pyem competition's woeful lack of creative juicery, you're left with some numbers. As spelled out in more detail in both stories (what you see above is the Missourian's display type and the Trib's lede), the head of the Missouri Theatre Centre For the Artes thyng is hoping to cap off the fund drive with a personal door-to-door effort. He's going to visit 450 homes a day, or 25,000 homes over eight weeks, and try to raise $20 from each one.

See where we might have a problem with this?

The basic DTFM rule is "when you see two numbers, do something to them." By extension, it means look for all the implied numbers and do similar stuff to them. Let's start with the easy ones: $20 x 25,000 = $500,000, check. 450 x 7 = 3,150, x 8 = 25,200, check, with a little room to spare. All he has to do now is get to 450 homes a day. Quick: If Mr. White works 16 hours a day, how much time on average does he have to get to each house, knock on the door, find someone within, make his pitch for $20, collect, and say thanks?

Let's give him the spare 200 houses above and round the total down to 28 an hour. He still sounds like a pretty busy fellow -- seven days a week for eight weeks. He'd better be persuasive, too: Unless he's armed, it might take a little more than the allotted two minutes and change to talk folks out of their $20. And you know what else? Some dude shows up at the door of Stately HEADSUP-L Manor at 10:45 on a Sunday night wearing a Waldo hat and asking for 20 simoleons, I'm going to set the cats on him. And they like protein.

Copyeds, if you want a friend, get a dog. If you want earthly isolation now with the promise of a future reward, DTFM.


Another of those pesky reminders that the Brave New World of instant publishing would be well served to remember some of the Brave Old Rules. A nice example is this familiar last-minute backstopping plan: When you get to a fact (asserted or implied) in a hed, put a finger on it. Run another finger down the story until you find the corresponding fact. If you don't find the said fact, you have a problem.

As in? As in:

Police capture armed-robbery suspects
Quick work by police and their search dogs resulted in the arrest of a suspect overnight in the armed robbery of a cab driver in west Charlotte.

Police say two men asked a driver to take them to an address early this morning on Timberbrook Drive, off Tuckaseegee Road west of Interstate 85. When the driver arrived at the address, police say, the suspects robbed him.

... Authorities say one of the two suspects was captured during the night. They are searching for the other man.

The hed writer can quickly check off the facts stated or implied in most of the hed: Police, capture, armed robbery (and huzzah for the oft-abused hyphen, which performs admirably here in making sure "armed" stays with "robbery" and doesn't wander off to modify "suspect," which would assert a fact we can't confirm). But rest a finger on "suspects" and search for its corresponding fact and you stumble: It's a suspect. Buzzers need to go off.

You don't need a staff meeting or a retreat or an ad hoc newsroom committee to fix that. You just need to pay attention to what your seasoned old copyeds have been saying all along. RTFS: Not just for breakfast anymore!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Department of Corrections

If you're a Romenesko reader (and who isn't?), you've probably seen something on the flap about the Albany paper and its "ghetto" reference.

Long story short, the paper apologized for an "inexplicible" (not all MEs can spell) error: When a Web-only breaking story was freshened for print, the new quotes (unbeknownst to the reporter whose byline they appeared under) included this comment: “That’s the thing with Albany, there’s always a ghetto nearby.”

Well, judgment's an individual sort of thing, and we're not going to sit here and tell Albany what it should or shouldn't have done (the editor's blog is worth a look in the ongoing debate about when, whether and how "comment" sections add anything worthwhile). Interesting, though, to note that in all the back-and-forth about "ghetto," this goes unremarked:

"I walk to my car myself -- I'm a tough girl,'' said the slim brunette.

Did this one slip past all the, um, leggy redheads on the copydesk? Just wondering.

'Tis the season! Let the games begin!

And another hed cliche we need to retire posthaste, if not sooner: He's BAAAack!

Give the News credit (half a point on a hundred, say) for trying to catch the intonation. But that's not much help. The Choir Invisible is recruiting new members even as we speak. Any hed that's so obvious it occurs to every shop in town is an automatic candidate.

And on the Out of the Frying Pan front, this just in from the Florida bureau:

Britons held by Iranians back home

"Haven't they been through enough?" asks the buro.One would certainly like to think so.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Out cutlasses and board up

Ar ar ar! Some lubber be overlooking the Basic Rule of Grammar again! Which it's to look up the wiring diagram before you be putting your nouns and verbs and modifiers together.

The trouble with this hed is the illegal truncation. The homes haven't been "boarded." We didn't fire a shot across their bow and order them to heave to while we searched them for contraband. We didn't provide them with daily meals while they studied amid the dreaming spires. What they are is "boarded up":

7. a. trans. To cover or furnish with boards. to board over: to cover with boarding. to board up: to close with boarding.

Doesn't matter what you meant to say. You don't get to invent new meanings based on your circulation size. Use the rules or the rules will use you. And the rules are like Amazon pirates: Ruthless.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Here's mote in your eye

Another in that series of curious events suggesting that there's less to journalism's alleged obsession with accuracy than meets the eye:

A March 27 story about rapper Eminem and his ex-wife Kim Mathers incorrectly said that the pair agreed in a court order not to criticize each other in public. The court order only prevents them from criticizing each other in front of their daughter, Hailie, and does not affect what they say in public.

Glad we cleared that up. If we hadn't run the story in the first place, of course, we wouldn't be wasting space on the correction, but it's hard to criticize anybody for being too accurate.

The corrections column does say "If you see a mistake, please call us or e-mail us." One suspects it really means "if you see an inaccurate detail," not "if you see a mistake that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works." Otherwise there might have been a small note about this goof, which the paper in question has now run three times:

David Hicks, the 31-year-old Australian who became the first person to face a U.S. war crimes trial since World War II, unexpectedly agreed to plead guilty to a single count of lending material support to terrorism in an extraordinary court proceeding here Monday night.

One is tempted to say something like "Rusty Calley?" But according to the New York Times (writing about a trial from the Panama invasion), that doesn't narrow it down much: "From 1965 to 1973, there were 241 cases, not including My Lai, that involved allegations of various war crimes against United States soldiers. Of those, 36 cases were brought to a court-martial." So we can't even say "first war crimes trial since World War II that didn't produce an alarmingly weird Top 40 song."*

And there's this:

Bill Clinton mostly ignored foreign policy in his first term, then threw himself into Middle East peacemaking as his days in office drew to a close, although he came up short.

Strangeness! A lot of us thought, like, the Arafat-Rabin thing (September 1993) and the Dayton accords (November 1995) sort of fell into the first Clinton term. What were we smoking?

Conclusion of sermon: Accuracy's nice, but it comes in different flavors. Details about the rich and stupid are one thing. Knowing what the heck you're writing about and why is quite another. Please order your efforts accordingly.

* "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," by C Company featuring Terry Nelson. No. 1 that week: "Joy to the World" (Three Dog Night). Also cracking the Top 40 for the first time: "Brown Sugar." Making big moves up the charts: "Love Her Madly," "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo," "Chick-a-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)." HEADSUP-L feels very old right now, thanks.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Shooting the wounded

Gather 'round for another installment of Journalism Blunders that Won't Go Away. This week: the Post-Accident Execution.

Many of the Blunders that Won't Go Away are actual errors of "grammar," meaning misapplications of the wiring diagrams that make words go into sentences and sentences into meanings. If you can't pick the prepositions out of a phrasal verb accurately, you get the Cop-Shop Magic Wand ("turned himself into police"). And if you misread the chart that comes with a preposition, you get the Post-Accident Execution ("20 killed after plane crash"). Two examples from the past few days:

2 wounded by police after shots exchanged
Two men were taken to a hospital early Sunday after being shot by police near a nightclub on Independence Boulevard, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said.

Hmm. That'd be "after" as in "behind in time, later than." So the lede is correct: They were taken to the hospital after they were shot. But the hed's wrong. They were wounded during ("at some point in the entire time of, in the course of") the exchange of shots. As it is, we're accusing the police of shooting 'em while they're down. And when your lede story is about the killing of two officers in a separate shooting, that's a pretty tasteless thing to imply. (See *note below, and while we're at it, avoid ill-formed jargon like "As is routine in officer-involved shootings." Officers don't involve shootings; shootings involve officers. Nothing wrong with "shootings in which officers are involved," unless we want to restrict it to "cases in which officers fire their weapons").

Want another one? Oh, all right:
Pedestrian dies after being hit twice
A 39-year-old pedestrian was killed early Friday after she was struck by two vehicles, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The hed's plausible but uncertain; if we don't know when in the sequence she died, we shouldn't specify it. But the lede is the real problem. Again, we have a killer operating independently from the event that actually did the killing. Why not stick to what you know: "struck by two vehicles and fatally injured" or "pronounced dead after being hit by two vehicles"?

Points off for ignoring style on highway numbers and titles. Credit the writer, though, for not using "police responded" -- and for not putting an irrelevant gender mark in the lede, as the fishwrap across town did:

A female pedestrian was killed early this morning on Highway 763 just north of Columbia after being struck by a minivan and dragged underneath a second vehicle.

Another post-accident execution! And every bit as easy to avoid as the others.

* On a mildly related parting note, a candidate has arrived for Clueless Lede of the Year. Gaze on this, from a column about the killings of the two officers mentioned above:

Charlotte isn't Mayberry. Perhaps it never was.

Wow. No kidding?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Welcome to Framing World

If anybody wants to beat that looming AEJMC deadline with a quick framing study, here's a place to start:

U.S. deaths in military for March dwarf Iraq's
BAGHDAD --U.S. military deaths in March, the first full month of the security crackdown, were nearly twice that of the Iraqi army -- which American and Iraqi officials say is taking the leading role in the latest attempt to curb violence in the capital, surrounding cities and Anbar province, according to figures compiled on Saturday.

The Associated Press count of U.S. military deaths for the month was 81, including a soldier who died from noncombat causes Friday. Figures compiled from officials in the Iraqi ministries of Defense, Health and Interior showed the Iraqi military toll was 44. The Iraqi figures showed that 165 Iraqi police were killed in March. Many of the police serve in paramilitary units.

Gee. Sounds like we might be able to count things a little differently and get a figure that wasn't quite so -- what does the hed suggest, dwarfish? Maybe even a little Orkish? Slushfund tietack kierkegaard! Suppose things might change a bit if we broke the count down geographically too?

Additionally, the Iraqi ministry figures listed 1,872 Iraqi civilian deaths for the month -- down significantly from 2,172 in December, the highest monthly casualty figure since the AP began keeping records of civilian deaths in April 2005.

That's one way to look at it. Down some 14% from December sounds pretty significant from here. Or you could count the way the Beeb does:

Iraqi civilian deaths up in March
Iraqi figures estimate civilian deaths in violence across the country rose by 13% last month, despite the security crackdown in Baghdad.

Data compiled by several ministries put civilian deaths in March at 1,861 - compared with 1,645 for February.

Who's a poor reader supposed to trust? Hint: Not the one that thinks "War & Terror Digest" is a good briefs package.