Monday, December 31, 2007

Oh, stop it

And why is it we tell the upcoming Best and Brightest never to write ledes about what "most people" do, think or want? Because "most people" ledes invariably turn out to be insulting, trivial and stupid!

If you're like most well-intentioned folks, your New Year's resolutions will go something like this:
Spend more time with family.
Get out of debt.
Lose lots of weight.
Eat healthier.
Make career changes.
Quit smoking or drinking.

We try not to do resolutions in these parts, though if we did, "no more features about resolutions" and "always strip the local anesthesia out of allegedly 'national' features before running them eight states away"* seem like good places to start. And while you're at it, you can probably make sure some heavenly imp or another earns its wings by carrying out any of these in the onrushing journalistic year. As the sign says over on Woodward, you buy, we fry: You write in with evidence of your good deed and HEADSUP-L will salute it in public (names changed to protect the innocent in the rare case that actually involves innocents).
  • Kill a hed that makes a stupid pun on somebody's name.
  • Kill a sports cutline in which anyone "celebrates."
  • Make an after-hours call to a news agency (or star reporter) to ask for the confidence level at which a poll's margin of sampling error was calculated. You won't be disappointed!
  • Spike a Natalee Holloway follow-up.
  • Reduce all the relative clauses you can in a New York Times story.
  • Correctly place an adverb between the auxiliary and main verbs in an AP story.
Any more suggestions?

* Funny you should mention it. You figure these looked a little odd in a New Year's feature here in the snow-smitten paradise?
"Generally, we see a lot of people with unrealistic expectations coming in January," says fitness trainer Grant Trobaugh, who owns Simply Fit in Melbourne, Fla.
One reason people don't succeed is because they set goals that are too overwhelming to meet, says Florida career coach Laura DeCarlo.

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Bizarre hed elision of the year

The best route to immortalization at the back of CJR or someplace like it isn't breaking the rules of hed elision, it's following them into the ground. That's why we never run short of stuff like "Smith gets shot at tournament" or "Player helps blind woman" to amuse colleagues and undergraduates with. Today's example, on the other hand, fits no known pattern and might represent an entirely new species of hed formation (take a bow there, Richmond Times-Dispatch). We simply don't have any idea what, or how much, or where, to fill in:
[We've] never been more at risk for fraud
Never [have you] been more at risk for fraud
Never [have there] been more at risk for fraud

Notice how normal the deck sounds in comparison to the main hed? Nobody who reads U.S. news regularly is going to trip on the missing "were" before "lost," or the use of the comma to replace "or" in "lost or stolen," or the missing "a" before "record." All those are in bounds.

A number of other standard truncations go unnoticed as well. Feature pages are particularly accepting of an understood "you can" or "you should," as in this hat trick from page 3C of today's Freep:

Decorate home with an aquarium or two
Welcome New Year with all kinds of shows and people
Be sure policy has you covered

And from the same T-D front as today's gem are two examples of an elided expletive phrase:

It's more common in U.S. feature or label heds, as at left: "[There is a] crackdown on DUI"; using it on spot news, as in the lede slot above, is rare here* but fairly common in British heds, as in these from today's Sun:
Two arrests over teen stabbing
Fears over kids' diet disaster

The redtops will also use prepositional phrases in cases where we'd try to work in a verb phrase:
Gordon Brown in poll plea

Gone, alas, are the days of the Flying Verb, as in this example (quoted by Liebling) from the glory days of the Chicago Tribune:
PLAN DICTATOR
IF WAR WIPES
OUT CAPITAL

Hed fashions come and hed fashions go. Finding a flying verb in the wild** today would be worth a call to the bird lab people at Cornell or something, but clippings like "Dems" and "reps," which would have been substandard in broadsheet hed language a few years ago, have become pretty unexceptional. The "rules" of hed language are subject to evolution and change, but you can't declare a change unilaterally and expect to be understood.

* "Headless body in topless bar" is the classic exception
** In the broadsheet world, at least; I don't see enough tabs regularly to be too certain about what they're up to.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

When bad things happen to good data

There's an in- nocent way and a less inno- cent way to interpret this widespread report of survey data:

John Edwards has clawed his way into contention to win Iowa's caucuses Thursday in the first vote for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.


Innocent way first: Writers and editors handling campaign coverage for McClatchy and its member papers are less concerned with what survey results might actually indicate than with whether they can be woven into a dramatic, culturally congruent story line. (That's sort of how some of our more suspicious neighbors look on journalism in general, and given that we keep passing them the ammunition, it's hard to blame them.) Look back a few weeks -- "Whipsawed by an increasingly heated campaign, Democrats in Iowa and other early voting states are closely divided over which of their three top candidates to support, according to a new series of polls for McClatchy and MSNBC" -- and you could easily form the impression that the main function of survey data is to let writers use really perky verbs and lots of adjectives.

And the less innocent interpretation? Since the two papers represented above have both declared that they're going to stack their coverage toward the home-state candidate Edwards ("The bias is deliberate," as the N&O's public editor so gently put it), they're deliberately cooking the results to reflect their ideological interests.

The innocent interpretation is more likely. But neither is especially good for the long-term future of newspaper journalism, and if you don't want people to think the worst of you, why make it so blinking easy?

Now's the time to change the channel if you don't want to hear the usual complaints about misinterpretations of perfectly innocent survey data. We'll try to keep it short, and let's start by pointing out two things that McClatchy did right: It compared identical sample sizes drawn from the same population, thus avoiding the main evils of the "RCP Average" (which, basically, adds two apples to four oranges and expresses the result in pairs of kiwifruit).

That's a nice start, and it points to some interesting conclusions -- just not to the ones McClatchy draws. And it helps shoot down the lede without having to invoke confidence intervals or anything like that (sinners, why persisteth thou in reporting sampling error without thou also reporteth the confidence level, knowing how it doth yank the almighty's chain when you do?). Here's how the same writer summarized the findings of Dec. 6-8 version of the poll:

The surveys suggest that the Democratic race is so close — and hangs on the candidates' resumes and personalities as much as it does on issues — that any of them could win or finish third.

Which, conveniently, is true as far as it goes. But if it was true then that Edwards "could win," how could he have "clawed his way into contention to win" in the new survey?

Anyway. To keep from getting too bogged down in yet another rant about how best to phrase interpretations of "margin of sampling error," let's just note that lots of things make this survey interesting -- just not the things mentioned in the lede. Basically, the data suggest that the only significant change on the Democratic side between Dec. 6-8 and Dec. 26-28 is that the McClatchy graphics desk has learned how to spell "Barack." What "survey says" isn't that anybody has clawed his or her way into anything. A better interpretation of the data suggests that whatever clawing and hissing might have gone on, it's produced no change that we can distinguish from the normal random workings of chance. And even if it doesn't let you crank up your vocabulary to McClatchy pitch, that's interesting.

The significant changes on the Republican side are cool too (raising the question of whether the emphasis on nonsignificant movement on the Democratic side is the result of chance or of a pro-Democrat bias at McClatchy):

Taken together, this first poll in Iowa since campaigning resumed after a Christmas break showed a dead heat among the three leading Democratic candidates and a volatile clash between the two top Republican rivals there.

And how does the Dec. 26-28 survey reveal a "volatile clash" on one side but not on the other?

Huckabee's support dropped 8 percentage points* since the last McClatchy/MSNBC poll Dec. 3-6.

A major reason is that he has come under sharp criticism from rivals such as Romney, been blistered as a tax raiser in a $500,000 ad campaign aired by the anti-tax group Club For Growth, and faced new scrutiny by the media of his Arkansas record on such issues as pardons.

Couple problems here. The Huckabee change is starting to look big (not necessarily significant; at 95% confidence, in a sample this size, 23% and 31% could both be non-chance reflections of 27% support in the whole population, for example). It's worth mentioning, with a caution that it falls short at conventional confidence levels. What we can't do -- surveys only measure what they measure -- is say why the change is taking place. The bit about "sharp criticism" and fresh media scrutiny isn't "poll says," it's "writer guesses." It might be a good guess and it might not, but it doesn't have anything to do with the survey results. It's fine to point out the correlation, but it's dishonest to proclaim a cause.

But we're missing some more interesting stuff too. McCain's support has grown significantly, and there's a significant decline in the number of Republicans plumping for "undecided." Both those are worth talking about, even if they don't fit the conventional story line.

Finally, somebody needs to be chastised for this:

Poll: Bhutto doesn't add to terror issue

DES MOINES, Iowa -- The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did not raise the profile of terrorism as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign in Iowa, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.

"People are still voting on what they were voting on a week ago," said Brad Coker, pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

Democrats still rank terrorism a very low priority. The survey found 5 percent of Iowa Democrats calling it their top concern, up from 1 percent earlier in the month, but with virtually no change during three nights of poll calls that started the evening before the assassination and continued the next two evenings when news of the murder dominated national media.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh. One, you can't compare the priorities of Democrats and Republicans because you're not asking them the same questions. Two, the poll doesn't address whether the assassination "raised the profile of terrorism as an issue" (2A, it was already in the field for a day before the assassination, and 2B, the poll doesn't measure the "profile of terrorism as an issue"); that's a guess you can attribute to the guesser, but not to the data. Three, you're not measuring whether Democrats rank terrorism as a low priority. You're only measuring whether it's their highest priority. If (among the likely-attendee Democrats with land lines who were called during the second and third nights of the survey and had heard of the assassination) the assassination had moved "terrorism" up to the second priority for half your voters, it's become a lot more salient, but you have no way of knowing it.

We're always open to good arguments for less attention to polls, and this particular poll is one. But as long as we're going to spend the time and the space -- and the not-inconsiderable amounts of money it costs to run a random telephone sample in the era of the 20% response rate -- the least we can do is be honest with the data. McClatchy is failing at that, and member papers are, at the least, guilty of failing to insist on fundamental accuracy. Both camps need to shape up. Particularly if you've already declared a bias, try not to compound it with cluelessness.

* 9 points, according to the earlier report, but who's counting?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

RTFP: Not just for breakfast anymore

And this just in from the Let's Keep Running It Until We Get It Right Department. The lede from Friday's story:

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan jolted the race for the White House on Thursday, sending candidates in both parties scrambling for political advantage.

And from Saturday's:

For the presidential candidates, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has emerged as a ghoulish sort of test: a chance to project leadership and competence -- or not -- on a fast-moving and nuanced foreign policy issue.

You sort of wonder how long it'll take to sink in. A story that the AP covers doesn't become a new story when the Times gets around to it a day later. It's the same story with more adjectives. There's nothing in the Times piece that makes the thing worth repeating. (If you're going to point to the appearance of Biden and Richardson, don't; both were quoted in the AP story that ran on Friday but were left on the cutting-room floor in this edited version.)

There's plenty of election-related news that has yet to see the light of day here, Ohio's newfound revulsion for high-tech ballots being but one example. How about we make sure everything gets said once before we circle back and say stuff twice?

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

And this just in ...

Missouri statistics: We marry more than we divorce
These tidbits and others come from the federal government’s 127th annual Statistical Abstract of the United States, which provides a statistical snapshot of the nation.

Leaving aside the pesky details (couples that divorce in-state weren't necessarily married in-state, and so forth), wouldn't this have made for a nice bear/woods/Charmin teaching moment at Mid-Missouri's Most Bodacious Morning Daily? As in, it'd be kinda tricky, divorcing more often than you marry, wouldn't it?

Second verse, same as the first

And why should readers turn to you for up-to-the-minute campaign coverage on Thursday?

Race enters decisive phase
The most wide-open presidential race in a half century pushed into a decisive new phase Wednesday, the rhetoric a bit more pointed and the appeals a tad more urgent in the final run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Because it's a great place to catch up if you missed the front-page coverage on Wednesday!
Crucial final leg for races in Iowa
After a pause for Christmas, presidential contenders today resume their blitz across Iowa, scraping and scuffling in contests that have grown tighter and more unpredictable as the first balloting of 2008 nears.

Really. Take out the time elements and the two stories are roughly interchangeable. Here's Thursday's take on the Democrats:
Meanwhile, the Democratic race is shaping up as a three-way fight for Iowa among Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee.

And Wednesday's?
On the Democratic side, three candidates -- Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and John Edwards, former senator from North Carolina -- are running neck-and-neck-and-neck.

The only real difference between the two tales is that Wednesday's has a few more experts and Thursday's a few more headline moments from the day's cliche events:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, surprise leader in the Republican pre-caucus polls, bagged an Iowa pheasant with a 12-gauge shotgun and said caucus-goers Jan. 3 should take notice.

[Clearly marking Huckabee as the candidate for change; polls show that Iowa caucus-goers prefer candidates who shoot pheasants, rather than lawyers, when hunting pheasants. But speaking of public opinion, haven't we had time to get over our surprise at those "pre-caucus polls" yet? And if not, shouldn't we hurry?]

Note to editors: The point of a news story is to let people know how the world has changed since the last time you asked for their attention (often, it helps to do this somewhere near the top of the story). If we can't be bothered to read our own stuff, it's a bit uncharitable to complain when the civilians can't be bothered either.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

O little settlement of Bethlehem

OK, granted. It's hard to know the status of any particular square yard of the territories captured in the '67 war without a scorecard (which isn't an argument for resigning yourself to cluelessness; it's an argument for running the scorecard more often). That said, the AP and any member papers* that ran this graphic committed the sort of blunder that could have been headed off with a quick burst of common sense.

The trouble is the bizarre egalitarianism of the map's color coding, which labels areas of Israeli and Palestinian "settlement." It's half right. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank represent settlement (as in the Big Book, "The act of settling as colonists or new-comers; the act of peopling or colonizing a new country, or of planting a colony"). The Palestinians are the people who already lived there. If you haven't already figured out that Bethlehem is a fairly well established town, rather than a "settlement," should we send some carolers around to remind you?

You're welcome, as always, to your own opinions about the goodness or badness of any particular situation. And you're welcome to your own opinions about how to move toward a peaceful solution that addresses the legitimate interests of all parties. But you don't get to make up your own facts. Particularly if you're supposed to be providing information that purports to help other people form their opinions.

* Originally spotted on dead pine trees in the op-ed section of the Columbus Dispatch, but it appears from the intertubes to be rather widespread.

Corrections are hard. Let's go shopping!

Because of an editing error, a story in Saturday's Sports section incorrectly described how difficult it is to be a quarterback in the NFL for young players. It is not easy.

Can't find anything in the original to indicate how an "editing error" might have brought this about. Can any interested readers fill in the blanks on that?

There is, as always, a special prize for correcting the corrections!

A correction in Saturday's Observer about closings for the Christmas holiday gave incorrect information about Charlotte city government.

And somehow, we still seem to be waiting for corrections on the misidentification of the Confederate battle flag and on the moving of the 1949 armistice lines to 1967. Errors must be less wrong if they're made in Washington or something.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Are we scared yet?

In case there's any space for national news left amid the Natalee Holloway updates and the Four More Shopping Days furor, here's an unnerving development on the academic front. A major Midwestern* university advises its faculty:
"You are strongly encouraged to visit the Provost web site ... and use the sample statements in your syllabus in future academic semesters."

Nothing unfamiliar when it comes to academic dishonesty and ADA accommodation. But what's this new item -- intellectual pluralism? Glad you asked!

The statement on Intellectual Pluralism is new to the website. It was added in response to legislation and Board of Curators’ interest. This statement was then adopted by the Faculty Council earlier this fall and recommended to our office for distribution to the faculty.


And what is it those forward-looking legislators and curators have talked the Provost's Office into?

Sample Statement for Intellectual Pluralism
The University community welcomes intellectual diversity and respects student rights. Students who have questions concerning the quality of instruction in this class may address concerns to either the Departmental Chair or Divisional leader or Director of the Office of Students Rights and Responsibilities. ... All students will have the opportunity to submit an anonymous evaluation of the instructor(s) at the end of the course.

Well, there's a lot to be said for intellectual diversity, student rights and quality of instruction, but it's hard to imagine three sequiturs that go together any more non than that. Not hard at all, though, to figure out the subtext, is it?

It'd be nice if someone decided to make a fight out of this one. Now that the Western Front of the War On Christmas has stabilized, that is.

*Nowhere near Warren Avenue, should you be scoring along at home.

Blown saves on the editing front

Two cases from Thursday's product -- one grammatical, one semantic -- in which better editing could have made for marginally smarter readers. Instead, we end up with more of the sort of garden-variety carelessness that makes mainstream news so easy to hijack by those who seek to work us woe.

Grammar first:
And here's the lede:
The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq warned Wednesday that al-Qaida in Iraq was still capable of staging spectacular attacks despite a 50 percent drop in bombings and other violence in his region.

Notice how much fun you can have just sliding a prepositional phrase around?
[Al-Qaida still threat] [in Iraq]
[Al-Qaida in Iraq] [still threat]

The hed tells you where "Al-Qaida" is still a threat, but the lede talks about a different group that's still a threat in Iraq. Fun, huh?
The best long-term solution would be to refer to the Iraqi group as "Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," but that's unlikely. News has a strong tendency to adopt the language of its sources; just as cop coverage ends up strewn with phrases like "extrication accident" and "person of interest," security coverage adopts "AQI" and "al-Qaida in Iraq."

Combine that with another well-established bit of news routine -- heds shouldn't directly echo the phrasing of ledes -- and you see how easy it is to make the hop from [b] to [a]. But the end result here isn't an equally matched pair of alternatives; it's a slightly loaded meaning and a heavily loaded meaning. Still wonder why so many voters think Saddam and Bin Laden were poker buddies?

Here's the same sort of conceptual confusion in a vocabulary issue:

Veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating mental ailments are discovering that their disability payments from the government vary widely depending on where they live, a McClatchy Newspapers analysis has found.

So far, more than 43,000 recent veterans are on the disability compensation rolls for a range of mental conditions. Of those, more than 31,000 have PTSD, which has emerged as one of the signature disabilities from the war on terrorism. Given the number of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is likely to be a fraction of what the total will be.

Here's where some editor needed to put the question directly to the McClatchy writer: What are the boundaries of this "war on terrorism"? Because if Iraq's been part of it all along, don't you guys owe those nice people in the White House an apology for all that untoward skepticism on your part back in naught-three? And shouldn't you stop dining out on your reputation for "truth to power"?

This one's an easier fix, if anything (just insist that the writer replace "war on terrorism" with a specific conflict on all references) -- but only if someone steps up and does it. Support your local desk, even if it means taking a few extra minutes with that pesky Middle East coverage and putting a bit less time into the shopping roundup.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Omit needless words

A six-year-old Minnesota girl who was horrifically disemboweled after sitting on an open drain in a swimming pool has received three new organs, KETV.com reported Wednesday.

Dear friends at Fox: News flash. You can't be politely disemboweled. Nor genteelly, nor charmingly, nor cheeringly ("gleefully," maybe. but that's a different story). "Disemboweled" is one of those fortunate verbs, like "murder" and "behead," that carry all the social-alignment meaning you need. You don't have to tell us what to think; the verb does that all by itself!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back by popular demand!

Shock horror terrifying news just in at Fox! Look down at the No. 3 tale here and you'll find out that any second now, Mo- hammed is going to pip Jack to come top, and we all know what that means for the Green and Pleasant Land.
Of course, if you had your telescope trained on Planet Fox back on June 6, things might seem a bit familiar. At lower right is what the story looked like back then.
Yep. With almost no effort (and apparently with no shame whatsofreakingever), the Baby Name Peril is back!
Well, surely this is an update, right? A major change in the data, indicating that little Muhammad is marching grimly ahead on his menacing trajectory? Or just another baked tale fresh from the ovens of Lord Copper and his ilk? Hard to say. The numbers aren't exactly the same; the Times, also relying on the Office of National Statistics, used more transliter- ations but got fewer Muhammads. Who knows? Maybe they've taken control of our calculators too.
At any rate, the song remains the same: Let your guard down for a second, and next thing you know you'll be writing backwards and breaking your pharynx on consonants God threw out when He made English the official language of the Garden of Eden. Fox just wants you to know.
[footnote: HEADSUP-L is somewhat unnerved to look back at the June posting and find this alarming conclusion: "So five years out, there will be twice as many Muhammads as Jacks each year? And eventually, British tinies will have to start naming their teddy bears Muhammad just to keep up with the overflow?" Coincidence -- or what?]

Circular lede of the (fleeting) year

Not the worst lede in and of itself, but when paired with that second graf ...

BOCA RATON — The man wanted for questioning in Wednesday's double-homicide at the Town Center mall is likely the same armed robber who blindfolded, tied up and handcuffed another woman when he abducted her from the same mall in August, according to police and a report of that incident.

Investigators believe the perpetrator of the Aug. 7 carjacking and kidnapping of a 30-year-old woman and her 2-year-old son at gunpoint in a mall parking garage is probably the same man who bound and shot Nancy Bochicchio , 47, and her 7-year-old daughter, Joey Bochicchio-Hauser, late Wednesday afternoon or evening.

There's plenty of confusion to go around here (as in: Since the cops seem, per the second graf, to know the guy did it, do you figure they want him for more than "questioning?" Or if they don't know who it is, isn't it a bit silly to point out that "police don't know whether the man has killed before"?) But in traditional j-class terms, let's look at how the second graf provides new data to help support the contention in the lede.

Lede: Cops think Attacker X (for Xpesmas) is also Attacker A (for August).
Support: Because cops think Attacker A is probably also Attacker X!

This is where editors are supposed to act like readers: If it sounds silly to you, imagine what it might sound like to some poor civilian who doesn't have the benefit of all that high-powered journalism training?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

National news: Card-stacking and ...

This issue's going to crop up again (assuming national news doesn't actually fall off the radar screen entirely at the Nation's Newspapers, about which more below), so let's try not to repeat the blunder of the St. Pete Times in the 1A hed shown here.

The hed has the slight problem of being untrue. There's a "clash" here to report, but it isn't a clash between theories. It's a clash between theory and doctrine, and when we pretend they're the same thing, we're stacking the deck. And guess which side gets the unfair advantage?

We have here an interesting local manifestation of a significant national dispute. As pickups from Florida papers go, it's notably more relevant to a wider audience than, say, a puff piece from the Orlando Sentinel about the "Vcommunicator" (developed in guess which mouse-infested Florida city):

[T]he hand-held, iPod-based device is loaded with more Middle Eastern voice files than there are songs on a teenager's Nano. It has megabytes full of mission programs -- vehicle checkpoints, interrogations, patrols and raids -- with scores of phrases.

Soldiers can surf the menu, set the language -- Iraqi Arabic, Pashtu or Dari, for example -- tap the mission and click a phrase. The device displays an animated figure that repeats the phrase in accents and is accompanied by gestures that are specific to the culture.

Can't wait to see that in action at your friendly neighborhood roadblock.

Anyway, if you're put in mind of that Texas curriculum official who got sandbagged last month and think that national news is where you ought to be able to keep up with related developments in the Flying Spaghetti Monster culture wars, you're more or less out of luck. Don't get us wrong; there is "national" news out there. The local Foxsters are carrying a pretty detailed Natalee Holloway report even as we speak, and if you're in the mood for some Drew and Stacy or some Steve and Tara, you won't have much trouble finding it. How about this one, though?

Ohio needs to make changes to its election system in time for the presidential election next fall, Gov. Ted Strickland says, even as some county elections officials and others worry it's impossible to do that and still have a smooth election.

My, my, my. That's a state capital daily (nice job by the Dispatch, though it would have been nice to see this one above the fold) quoting the state's chief executive as saying ... what was that again?

"This country has gone through two presidential elections where there have been, I believe, legitimate concerns raised about the fairness and the integrity of those elections," the governor said. "I don't think we should go through a third presidential election and have those questions out there."

Seems we're kind of past the commie-pamphleteer-in-grubby-raincoat stage on this one, doesn't it?

The coverage is there -- at least, the AP's writing about it (and over at Drudge, of all places, you can find some further entertaining ballot-related news from other states). Wouldn't it be nice if wire editors were spending their time on the fun stuff, rather than on the Missing Mom beat?

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Deep background

Unless and until we've talked -- on the record -- to all the sources who have a stake in the matter, let's have no more heds about what the divine did or didn't seem to do. Period. Ever.
People who talk to reporters are welcome to say things like this, and there's nothing wrong with reporting their views. The hed, though, puts the assumption on the paper rather than the source. And it leaves you without much to say if a caller should wonder why there was no similar intervention to head off the double murder at the gas station.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Iranian tanks headed for Texas!

Never throw away those baseball cards, kiddies! Hang on to 'em for a few admin- istrations and you'll be sur- prised how fresh they look.

At right, of course, is Fox News, just making sure you go to bed a little nervous tonight ("War On The Border" is there to remind you that if the Iranians don't get you, the Mexicans will). And if "On Our Doorstep?" sounds familiar, it's because that's where those Soviet tanks were going to be any second now if we didn't send lots more money real soon to the proxy guerrilla army we were hoping would throw those pesky Sandinistas out of Managua (not to mention those deadly Soviet MiG-21s that were going to do whatever the MiG-21 still did in the mid-1980s).

Fox, as usual, is bending the facts just a teeny bit (in the sort of first-week-of-propaganda-class way that's hard to tell from genuine news routines). True, three "reports" are mentioned in the seven-graf Fox story in question, but only one of them points out the purported alarm rocking the State Department (it's a proper noun, guys; you have to capitalize it, even if it's the Evil Wing of government). I'm not sure, for example, where this snippet comes from:

And on Monday Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wrapped up a visit to the Islamic republic aimed at building a "strategic unity".

That did happen on Monday, but if -- oh, let's take a wild guess -- for some reason it's related to this AFP lede:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Monday wrapped up a visit to the Islamic republic aimed at building a "strategic unity"

the "Monday" in question was Nov. 19. Even by Fox standards, that'd be a remarkably shameless bit of lying, so it's obviously an accident of some sort.

The core of the Fox report, though, seems to be drawn from a piece in the San Antonio Express-News, noted hotbed of sophisticated international reporting. But if the Express-News has trouble figuring out whether Hezbollah gets its mail in Lebanon or Iran (and, ahem, toning down some of the Fox-like shrillness of its reporters), at least it has the good sense not to make all the claims Fox attributes to it:

Fox: Some state department officials are concerned that Iran's presence in Nicaragua would allow Tehran to stage strikes on American interests.

Express-News: What worries state department officials, former national security officials and counterterrorism researchers is that, if attacked, Iran could stage strikes on American or allied interests from Nicaragua.

Interesting how that condition seems to play a role in stuff, unless it's Fox doing the reporting.

Time to move Glenn Garvin's fine "Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras" (Brassey's: 1992) up to the bedtime reading list for a bit. The rest of you, start looking in the attic for that 1982 Topps "Ortega Brothers: Double Trouble" card. Sounds like somebody's about to make it worth your while again.

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Between five and six gunshots were fired near the intersection of Rice and Carol Roads around 9 p.m. Monday.

Hmmm. You might mean "five or six" gunshots. Or you might mean "several" gunshots. But it's pretty unlikely that "between five and six" gunshots were fired, given that gunshots tend to come in round numbers.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Support your local copydesk: A slight return

If you didn't see this McClatchy gem, there could be a couple of reasons. It could have been squeezed out by late-breaking Hannah Montana coverage. It might have fallen out to make room for some service journalism. Or it might have been headed for print when some skeptical editors (kudos here to the S.C. bureau's northern coastal office) pulled it over and asked for some identification. Let's watch:

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have dramatically different views of the nation's priorities, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll. The fact that the two parties' bases don't even agree on which issues matter most may help to explain why the people they send to Washington have such a hard time agreeing on anything.

That's not a bad concept for a poll to explore, and this isn't necessarily a bad poll. But by cheating on methods and reaching for a Profound Conclusion that the data don't (and can't) support, it ends up making for a really silly story.

While pollsters didn't offer each side all the same choices, Democrats and Republicans in all three states differed widely when asked about the same issues. Voters were asked to identify which issue they felt was the most important.

Guys? You're doing it wrong. The traditional way to run a "most important problem" survey is open-ended: You ask people what they think is the most important problem facing the country and write down what they say. You do get a fraction of respondents identifying the Sinister Masonic Conspiracy as the MIP, and a higher fraction worried about how Kids Today got no respect for the law and blah blah blah, but you end up with responses that you can usefully compare by gender, party ID, ethnicity and the like. What Mason-Dixon appears to have done at McClatchy's request* is to read half a dozen issues** to the Democrats and half a dozen overlapping but not identical ones to the Republicans. Republicans weren't asked about Social Security or "environment, energy and climate change"; Democrats weren't asked about "moral issues" or "taxes and government spending."

OK. You could argue some a priori reason to ask different stuff of different subsets, and that's true as far as it goes. You can justify not asking men whether they're worried about getting ovarian cancer, but that's very much not the same thing as refusing to ask Democrats if they're concerned about "moral issues" or Republicans if they're worried about Social Security. There are propositions you could test this way, but it's the wrong way to test the one claimed in the lede. That's cheating.

The top-down methodology points to another bunch of dubious conclusions as well. Among the evidence supporting the "they're from Mars, we're from Venus" conclusion in the lede is the significant difference on questions of "national security or terrorism" (Republicans think this is a big deal) and "Iraq" (big points from Democrats). The lede is assuming that the conceptual dust has settled a lot more than real life suggests -- basically, that "terrorism" and "Iraq" are exclusive categories in public opinion the same way as "Clinton" and "Obama," or "boxers" and "briefs." That's a really risky assumption, regardless of your views of the War On Terror® and its relationship to Iraq. But it's not an unusual one; CNN had a poll (conducted by Opinion Research Corp.) up last week with separate "who's winning" questions for Iraq, Afghanistan and the War On Terror®. We might be able to fix that sort of confusion at some point, but we can't pretend it isn't there now.

Can you cure that with a traditional MIP approach -- letting respondents generate the categories and drawing conclusions from there? Not entirely. You still can't tell for sure whether "terrorism" means Iran, the FARC or Timmy McVeigh. But you do have a case that you're measuring what's on the tip of the public tongue to start with, rather than what's placed there, and you have something you can use longitudinally.

There's a lot of other silly stuff in the lede. Sampling "likely caucus voters" or "likely primary voters" in three states doesn't allow for inferences about what the "parties' bases" think. "Most important issue" means exactly that; it isn't a measure of whether or how much other issues do or don't matter. And the idea that different parties identify different leading problems might be, oh, sort of why we have party systems in the first place.

Anyway, lots of talk that shouldn't take away from the main point. A local copydesk looked upon a ponderous submission from the Washington bureau and, finding it bizarre, sent it to sleep with the fishes. You'd like to hope that sort of well-founded assertiveness merits a nice note from the front office.

* Pay fiddler, call tune. Welcome to the band.
** The order was rotated, and "other/not sure" is counted as a separate category but not offered to the respondent. Pretty standard, but always nice to see it spelled out.

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Hed tautology of the day

Murder suspect sought in man's slaying
One man was killed and another was injured after an argument in Statesville ended in gunfire early Saturday morning, and police are looking for a Charlotte man who is charged with murder.

To enjoy the stuff that's wrong with this one, you have to bear in mind the cases in which you would write a hed that contains "suspect sought in man's slaying." Bear in mind, first, that a "suspect" is a particular known person who's suspected of a particular crime. "Suspects" don't rob banks; those people are "robbers." As long as you keep those categories separate -- "suspects" are identifiable people accused but not convicted, and "robbers" are the yet-unidentified people who did the act that the suspects are suspected of -- you won't set off the crude sort of libel buzzer we keep at the copydesk.

The object in a hed like this (the passive voice is God's gift to heds, and never let a textbook tell you otherwise) generally tells you a category of thing being sought, with no implication that the cops know who or what out of that category might have done the evil deed: "Mystery Ape Sought In Rue Morgue Death," say, or "Armed Attackers Sought After Campus Mugging." Let's call the direct object the D slot and the crime scene at the end of the prepositional phrase the P slot.

When "suspect" isn't modified, the same crime is fitting into both the D and P slots: A specific person (D) has been identified as the suspect in P: Suspect sought in shooting. When "suspect" is modified, the picture changes a bit. The D slot is identifying the suspect by familiar one crime, and the P slot is describing the new one that the suspect is sought in. Vandalism suspect sought in murder means the guy arraigned last week in the Great Vandalism Scare is the person now being sought in Rue Morgue Slaying.

So "suspect sought in slaying" means one kind of relationship between D and P, and "[blank] suspect sought in slaying" means the other kind. Unless we're talking about two different murders, "murder suspect sought in man's slaying" is pretty much the same as "hit-and-run suspect sought in hit-and-run." Spend the space adding some information that the hed doesn't already contain: "Charlotte man sought in man's slaying."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Editing for taste

"Taste" isn't the sort of thing that has a nice binary entry in the stylebook, but that doesn't mean editors should roll over and capitulate whenever writers complain that their creativity is being stepped on. Here's a tin-eared lede that should have been left out on the plain for the wolves:

DES MOINES -- Is Mike Huckabee just a one-night stand in Iowa, or is he someone Republicans nationwide are ready to marry?

Huckabee's rock 'n' roll skills notwithstanding, let's infer from the whole metaphor that the meaning of "one-night stand" we want is "casual sexual liaison or encounter" (the OED's so delicate), rather than "single performance ... esp. one given by a touring company, band, etc." And as a grouchy old editor facing this across the breakfast table, one is tempted to respond: Could we grow up, please?

Some folks appear to share that sentiment, at least a little; take a bow, Sacramento Bee:

DES MOINES, Iowa – Is Mike Huckabee just an infatuation in Iowa, or is he someone Republicans nationwide are ready to marry?

Interesting subtextual culture clash here. The story's credit is McClatchy, but the writer is from the old Knight-Ridder side of that bureau. Sacramento's an old McClatchy paper; Miami (like Charlotte, which ran the rumpy-pumpy lede but hacked the substance of the story pretty thoroughly*), is a K-R property that went to McClatchy in last year's self-immolation. Is Old McClatchy less tolerant than Old K-R of the Washburo's shortcomings? There are signs of it; the original also declares that an Iowa victory would make Huckabee "the" frontrunner, while Sacramento makes it "one of the" frontrunners.

The point, in fine, is another one of those first-day-of-editing-class sermons. It isn't your name on top of the story, true. But it isn't the writer's name on the 1A nameplate either. Editors are guardians of writers' interests, but they also guard the paper against writers' cluelessness. If you can do both at once, you're in the club.

Over at You Don't Say, the patient and scholarly John McIntyre has posted some Johnsonian (Sam, not Lyndon) wisdom that's worth stapling to the foreheads of irksome writers:

I would say … what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

*Specifically, the part about the appeal to social conservatives, which looks like a pretty important counterpoint to the assertion that overt religion might not sell in all GOP constituencies.

Friday, December 14, 2007

No, don't

Hey! Al from Poynter has been looking for tips on how to cover a big snowstorm, and he's sharing some from his friends on TV!

Showcase your meteorologist as a scientist. Some of the areas that will get hit this weekend are areas that are more used to freezing rain or ice than snow. Let your weather experts explain how snowfall occurs and how much rain a few inches of snow equals. Let the weather forecasters shine.

On second thought, let's don't and say we did.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Outcome, not process

One of the handiest bits of advice you can give beginning news writers (often struggling to keep their noses above water amid a tide of made-up "grammar" rules, arcane formulae for where the attribution does or doesn't go, the official-looking language of sources and the looming stylebook of doom) is a nice simple one:

Talk about outcomes, not about processes.

That's really what the whole idea of the inverted pyramid is all about. Don't show me all the steps that point toward the conclusion; just tell me the conclusion, then back-fill as necessary. Alas, it's the sort of advice that seems to be wanting among the crack professionals at TV stations too:

A judge made a critical decision Thursday morning in the case of a man accused of gunning down two restaurant managers in Dilworth.

Yes, that's why judges make the big bucks. Care to tell us what the decision was?

The judge ruled Derrick Gregory could face execution if he’s found guilty.

Hmm. Sounds -- with some revisions -- like a potential lede. There's a lot of fixing between this item and some ideal state of genuinely publishable form, but none of it's worth doing if the writer can't figure out which foot to step off with.

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Support your local copydesk

Here's another of those arguments against outsourcing and in favor of cultivating a strong on-site copydesk. Granted, in this case, the local desk didn't come through, but there's always the chance that, next time the distant experts bollix a piece of regional trivia, it will:

It all led to a rollicking, but failed, 2000 presidential bid in which McCain revealed his full self to an unsuspecting electorate: funny, engaging and relentlessly honest. Until he wasn't -- when he tried to finesse whether the Confederate Stars and Bars should fly over the S.C. State House. He pleased no one, including himself.

This is almost unchanged from the version posted three weeks ago at the McClatchy Washburo Web site, so the error in question is one that wasn't corrected, rather than one inserted by the desk (hey, it happens). But it's the sort that desks take pride -- or at least used to take pride -- in catching. The flag that waved o'er the land of the unreconstructed yahoos and Maurice's Piggie Park was the official pickup truck flag of the Confederacy -- the battle flag with the Andrew cross, not the "Stars and Bars."

That's the sort of thing that's called "detail" in stories we think are important and "trivia" in stories we discount. It's worth having editors around who pay attention to details (or trivia), because -- whether it's in matters of culture or of social science -- reporters have a distressing tendency to grab for the available or "sounds like" concept, rather than the one that says what they mean. Centralized or long-distance editing doesn't cure that. Strong local editing might.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making America safe for the dumb

Some more routine-but-not-great journalism that does exactly what routine journalism is supposed to do: keep the gears of public information lubricated. Until the end, which we'll discuss in a moment.

Court protects possible proof of torture
Administration told to preserve evidence sought by Gitmo detainee
A federal appeals court in Washington issued a preliminary order on Tuesday directing the Bush administration to preserve any evidence that might show that a former Baltimore resident was tortured during his three years in secret CIA detention.

The order, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, gave the government until Dec. 20 to respond to a court filing last week that accused the CIA of torturing Majid Khan, 27.

Khan is among 15 high-value detainees who once were held by the CIA but are now in military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And so on for eight grafs of nice, basic information, Except for the hed (I count "Gitmo" as another measurable sign of the steady tabloidization of journalism, and I wish grownup newspapers would stop using it), all's fine. Right up to the subhed and the next four grafs:

Tuesday's developments
• Bloomberg News reported that Iraq's government has asked the U.N. Security Council to extend the mandate of U.S.-led forces in the country for the final time and said the Iraqi army intends to take full control of the country by the end of 2008.
• A suicide car bomber killed two guards at a checkpoint near the home and offices of two prominent politicians, one a secular Shiite, the other Sunni. Both were out of the country at the time.
• An anti-al-Qaida Sunni sheik who was promoting national unity was killed along with his nephew in a shooting near Tal Afar.
• In Basra, the bullet-riddled bodies of a Christian woman and her brother were found in a garbage dump on Monday, police and church officials said Tuesday. McClatchy Newspapers reported that the city's Christian archbishop canceled the celebration of Christmas to protest the deaths.


Holy Mudhead, mackerel! Majid Khan was arrested in Pakistan, kept somewhere mysterious by the CIA and then sent to Guantanamo Bay, but those "developments" are from the completely unrelated U.S. war in Iraq! You guys letting John Bolton fill in on the wire desk on Tuesday evenings these days?

Seriously. There's no evidence (yet) that you get a provable increase in the dumbs from this specific blunder, though there are good indications that how you talk about security issues affects how your readers process news about security issues (and how willing they are to hand over their rights for the duration if you scare them in the right way). And -- normative hat [on] -- that's a good argument for digging in your heels against the evil lure of packaging all That Mideast Trivia under one convenient hed.

Just to say something nice about survey data for a change: The most interesting results of a survey often don't make the cut required for "horse race" coverage, meaning they go unremarked while political editors and the like ponder nonsignificant changes across dissimilar samples as if they were so many sheep livers. And some interesting long-term stuff is buried deep in the latest from CNN/Opinion Research (more about this later, assuming there's a chance to discuss a nice catch from the South Carolina Bureau's northern coastal office).

For instance, pretty consistently across the past 42 months or so, about 40% of respondents have said they're at least "somewhat concerned" when asked "How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?" Americans are significantly less likely than they were in mid-October to say they think Iran is building a nuke -- but 61 percent still think it is.

And to make that last one even more fun, it's asked of only half the sample. The other half was asked whether the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public about whether Iran was attempting to develop its own nuclear weapons," and more than half of that subsample said "yes." Go figure.

There isn't an immediately handy media cure. In the meantime, if we spent more time talking about the world in general, we probably wouldn't have to sound so frantic when it does come up. And it certainly wouldn't hurt if we could tell one category of event from another.

Next: The war on articles

So you think you can write a headline? Let's see if you're good enough to cut it at Fox News, where you have to write a hed using nothing but nouns before you can get your first cup of coffee!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Recycle newsprint, not news

Nothing too surprising about the No. 3 story at Fox on today's afternoon sweep.
Indeed, it's so unsurprising that --- hey, haven't we seen this before? Shazam! There it is in the No. 2 spot on the front page, from around noon on Nov. 29.
Surely there's been some sort of new development in the all-important case of Geert Wilders* vs. the Quranic menace since then? No, as the time stamp on today's story rather clearly indicates, it's from, er, Nov. 29. (Dear Fox editors: If you don't want people to wonder about your news judgment, don't leave "said Wednesday" in the ledes of articles that appear on Tuesdays.) Meaning, inter alia, that any of the really news-driven questions stemming from the initial report -- is he done making his film yet? has he secured the alleged air time for it? -- remain unanswered.
What's the news value of slapping a story on the front page two weeks after you first ran it? Just to remind you that Your Vote Counts in the upcoming electoral season. And if you spend it in the wrong place, the War On Terror® is goingto come right after you and your family!
* Among his other proposals: Jail for women who wear the burka. Wonder how he'd poll in South Carolina.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Andromeda with cream and dog

This deck ("Black hat might link ...") from the Rocky Mountain News is strange enough that it merits a new category. Until a better term comes along, it's an Andromeda Strain hed, as in: We've been looking at it since it landed, and now we're climbing into the isolation suits, and we're not coming out until somebody from Language Log gets here to explain exactly what the deck means and what far-distant sunless sea it came from.

"Black hat" is interesting enough. First reports on the radio yesterday said the attacker at the YWAM dorm was wearing a "skullcap" (in some later reports, a "beanie"), but a "black hat" is something like what Clint Eastwood is wearing in "Pale Rider." What's on the guy's head? Is a skullcap a hat, or is that the sort of category mistake that makes bats into birds and dolphins into fish? What's happening when it links the "same" gunman to the slayings? Wouldn't it be more interesting if it linked different gunmen to the slayings?

But the real fun is all the stuff in the "before" clause (and it's kind of clammy in the suits here, so we'd really appreciate it if you could pick it up with the diagramming help). What if the hat linked the same gunman to the slayings after he (or they) was (or were) killed? What if it doesn't link him (them) to the slaying(s)? What if it's a different gunman, but the same hat, and it links the shootings at exactly the same time as the time-space portal opens between the link and the gunman's getting shot, and (here's the twist) it's a male security guard?* You can see why it's getting complicated.

Moral? Sure. Readers don't become telepathic in the presence of a Big Story. They'd kind of like a headline that lays stuff out and organizes the day's events into some sort of order, so they don't have to do it themselves. And they'd really appreciate it if somebody would get here and declare the area secure before they all have to drive off to work in the damn isolation suits.

And a pair of 1A heds from the Post, across town, underscore the need to be nice and clear, even in the crunch of a Big Story:

The trouble with "Man denied mission stay" is that when you reduce the relative clause (from "Man [who was] denied mission stay"), there's no immediate clue about where to put "denied." For the first two-thirds of the hed, it's quite plausibly an active verb that goes with "man" (and "mission stay" just becomes the subject of a "that"-less clause). You have to get to the predicate of the main clause, then puzzle out that it's "shot," rather than "denied," that goes with "man," before you know what's what.**

On the other side of the photo, there's a different sort of problem. "Believe" does different things when it's hooked to a prepositional phrase than when it's hooked to a subordinate clause. You can "believe in" spirits of the vasty deep, but that's vastly different from believing "that" they'll come when you call on them. The cops don't have "reason to believe in" a connection; they have "reason to believe that" there is a connection.

That's an argument about syntax. It's worth recalling, though, that syntax happens in context of the rest of the page. "Reason to believe in" says something different within the context of a page about shootings at a mission dorm and a megachurch. It's clearly right for a lot of stories spinning off this event. It's just as clearly wrong for a story about the investigation itself.

* Different sort of normative point, but: You figure somebody who has shot a heavily armed and provably dangerous nutcase on a Sunday morning in the line of duty has enough to worry about without a flood of headlines that say "And she's a GIRL, too"?
** This wouldn't have been a problem if the subordinate verb had been, say, "give," rather than "deny": "Man given mission stay" can't be confused with "Man gave mission stay."

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Multicultural tower of babble

The Fort Worth Bureau onpasses this from Time (in screenshot form here, lest it be gone down unto and edited while we looketh the other way).
Sounds like the young fella in the story might be happier if only we returned to the days when the whole earth had one language and few words (I'm guessing English, but as Molly Ivins put it, maybe it makes more sense in the original German). Don't you hate to yank his chain -- assuming he's not just a cab driver borrowed from the foreign desk for the occasion -- by suggesting a bit of evidence for outsourcing this job to those New Zealand Indians?
...a heavily muscled young man with closely cropped hair began to shout about"open borders"as the issue"that will destroy this country ... You can't imagine the amount of anger your average European Christian American feels about the multicultural tower of Babel."

Hi there, big fella

Stunning Huckabee sex scandal shocker from Fox News!
Good thing he didn't make those remarks in front of any undercover officers in any Midwestern airports.
And in other developments on the Hed Ambiguity Front, The State checks in with this three- headed monster.
What's illegal: The drugs, the sales or the custom? Film at 11.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Attribution of the day

MEXICO CITY -- A trumpet player was found dead with his hands and feet bound and a plastic bag over his head in southern Mexico, in what authorities said was apparently the country's third slaying of a musician in less than a week.

Since we seem to know that he's a trumpet player, and that he was bound and (per the second graf) beaten on the head, what is it that we (and the authorities) are so unsure about?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Local dog chases local cat over local fence

Let's review the bidding at the top of the front page here. More (and lurider) details on that "high-end prostitution ring" (sex, like so many other things, is apparently a lot more interesting when rich people have it). Conclusion to truly bizarre process of selecting a sheriff. And what could possibly be more important than that high school football eligibility dispute?

Um, if it please the court, could we enter a couple of candidates from inside the paper? I was sort of thinking of "Videotapes of CIA questioning destroyed" (OK, to be fair, it did get a small downpage reefer). I know it's only eight grafs, but that last one -- "Hayden's message was an attempt to get ahead of a New York Times story about the videotapes" -- looks kind of interesting. Wonder what the Times was going to say about the videotape?

Sorry. The other one was "White House seeks to clarify comments" (yeah, from a hed clarity perspective, it's right up there with "Board Approves Plan," but let's try to stay on topic here). The "comments" would be the president's assertion on Tuesday, summarized thus:

The president added that "nobody ever told me" that he should back down on heated rhetoric about Iran as a result of the potential new findings.

You can see how that kind of murky language -- "nobody ever told me" -- might want some clarifying. And?

... White House press secretary Dana Perino said Thursday that McConnell did tell Bush in August that Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons program and that, if confirmed, it could result in a new Iran view from the intelligence community. The only thing Bush didn't get then, she said, were "the raw detail in terms of the sources and methods" and what sort of checking was going to be done.

"I can see where you could see that the president could have been more precise in that language," she said. "But the president was being truthful."

You know, when you put it that way, I can see it too. But considering that the first-day coverage of the Iran backtrack couldn't get to the front page either, my question is really for the folks making the news decisions at the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas:

What, exactly, does this administration have to do to get your attention?

Thank you. I'll take my reply offline.

Poll badness: Smoke, mirrors, magic

The polling cluelessness simply isn't going to go away, is it? Let's look at a couple of bad examples of journalism's attitude toward survey research, in hopes that one or two newsrooms at a time will catch on.

The nice thing about polling is that it isn't magic. It relies on a finite set of rules, so it's accessible to anybody. And if you attend to the rules (this is the fun part), you'll be right, no matter what the famous and prominent say. Here's a quick summary of the rules. Then we'll see each one broken in a really annoying way:

1) Some methods of sampling public opinion allow you to make reliable generalizations from a sample to the population it represents. These are called "probability" samples. Generalizing from any other sample is the moral equivalent of reading the horoscopes to your colleagues at lunch: If you're lucky, they'll just think you're harmlessly vacant, not dishonest or irresponsible or anything.
2) Generalizing from samples is about likelihood, not proof. (Want proof? Go to seminary.) A competently reported survey must explain how likely it is that the results could have come about by chance (this is the "confidence level") and the width of the band in which your sample is likely to represent the population (the "confidence interval," better known as the "margin of sampling error"). The "margin of error" is not some magical point at which "statistical ties" become untied; anyone who reports it as such is blowing smoke.
3) Survey research, properly done, is a pretty good way of finding out what people think. It's less effective at predicting what people might do, and that utility can fall off in a hurry based on a number of factors. Never get the two mixed up.

Those are some basic guidelines for hanging around in the empirical world, though of course they don't explain everything. The "scientific method" isn't a guide to running your whole life. It's not a good way to figure out what to have for dinner, or whether you like a movie or a piece of music, or whether you've found your True Love. But if you want to talk about a scientific process like survey research, it's the only one you can use. Sorry, no exceptions.

First up, the McClatchy News Service, illustrating Point 1:
Youths favor Obama, Giuliani

Interesting. And how do we support such a claim?

... Those are the headlines from a national survey of 2,526 likely voters ages 18-24 released Wednesday by Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

Hmm. Big sample for a survey. And it's from Harvard!!! If you'll provide the confidence level, we'll be happy to calculate a margin of sampling error, but ... what's that in the back there?

The survey, taken Oct. 28-Nov. 9 by Harris Interactive for Harvard, was conducted online from a sample of young people who agreed in advance to participate. Because of the method, no formal margin of error was attached to the findings.

That's interesting. "Formal" is not a property of confidence intervals (there's no "informal" way of calculating sampling error to contrast to the "formal" one McClatchy is invoking). And there's only one flavor of sampling that doesn't allow this calculation. Wonder if ... gee, do you suppose it's the same methodology Harris ran for Harvard a couple months ago?

This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

You can stop after "not based on a probability sample," because that means we have no idea whether "youths favor" any of the candidates presented. Doesn't matter how big the sample, and doesn't matter how many times you say "Harvard!!!" That's an argument to (false) authority. Arguments to authority are a good way of finding out whether you can stay out after midnight, but they don't affect the rules of probability. Astrology is still astrology if they do it at Harvard!!!

Next up, Howard Kurtz, representing both the mining-town paper in the town where the mine is government (right, that's the Washington Post) and the fallacy of arguing to tradition. Here's the online Q&A:

Gainesville, Va.: Howard, I think it is time to send political reporters and commentators to a remedial course in statistics. You wrote that Obama could as easily be tied with Hillary because his lead of 28 percent to 25 percent is within the margin of error. What the confidence interval means is that if the confidence interval is smaller than the difference between two means we can be 95 percent (not 100 percent) sure that the opinions held in the universe will reflect the higher response to be greater than the lower. If the difference of the two poll results are within the confidence interval, it may mean we can only be sure that one is greater than the other with 80 percent or 75 percent confidence. It doesn't mean they are tied. It really would be helpful if you and your colleagues boned up on this question before you made statements that aren't true.
Howard Kurtz: I stand by what I said. Obama's lead is within the margin of error. In fact, the poll's margin of error was over 4 percent, which makes the 3-point lead even more of what I would regard as a statistical tie.


This isn't another case in which we have a difference of opinion and need to report both sides. Kurtz is wrong, and the reader is right (though "remedial course in statistics" is excessively snarky, and the reader overlooks the importance of applying the confidence interval to both points in the distribution). Tradition -- "that's the way we do it around here" -- is a fine guide to putting up your Xpesmas goodies, but it's not a part of the scientific method.

Put simply, "within the margin of error" and "statistical tie" are meaningless terms, no matter what Howard Kurtz says (and how any tie could be more of a tie than any other tie is a question for the ages). Let's invent a real-life example: We'll survey 800 registered voters in that hotly contested Crook vs. Liar race and see if we can find out who's ahead. We're going to decide in advance how confident we want to be, and based on that, we'll know how likely it is that what we see in the sample represents a real difference in the population. Let's say our result is Crook 51, Liar 47. Who's ahead, if anyone? Let's apply a few margins of sampling error and see.

Start with 3.5 percentage points. The difference is "outside the margin," so called; what does that mean in real life? Discounting the predetermined likelihood of having gotten our results by chance, rather than the degree to which they represent the population, it means Crook is somewhere between 54.5 percent and 47.5 percent, to Liar's range of 43.5 to 50.5. So we could have a perfectly accurate poll that represents a population in which Liar is ahead of Crook, despite what our results say.

All right, let's say the margin of error is 4.5 points -- meaning Crook's lead is "within the margin of error," as Kurtz (and many others) put it. In real life, again, we're X percent confident that Crook's support is between 55.5 and 46.5 percent, to Liar's range of 42.5 to 51.5. Could Liar be ahead in the whole population? Sure. It's less likely than a Crook lead, but evidently it's perfectly possible.

Well then, let's make the margin of error 1.8 points. Aha! In all nonchance cases, Crook's support is above 49 percent and Liar's is below 49 percent. Except for that agreed-in-advance level that we've set for accidents, we got us a lead.

What's the relationship among those three cases? They're all based on the same results. All we've done is manipulate the "confidence level." In the first case, it's 95% -- the arbitrary (and "traditional") level generally used in social science research, representing 1 chance in 20 that our sample doesn't correspond to the population. In the second, the confidence level is 99% (1 in 100), and in the third, it's about 68%, or 1 in 3. Don't like your margin of error? We can fix that!*

And none of them are "statistical ties." If you have to have a racing metaphor, they're more and less obscured views of the track. We can't see well enough to know who's ahead, but that doesn't mean the ones we can't see are even.

And then there's:
If Florida has its way, it looks like Giuliani vs. Clinton in a tight race.

Get ready Florida for another nail biter presidential election. (That damn comma of direct address! Out drinking with the hyphens again)

A new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll shows America's biggest battleground state is up for grabs by either Republicans or Democrats, and that neither of the front-runners for their party nominations, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, has Florida locked up yet.

I suppose it does. Then again, so do the flight of birds, the chitlins of sheep and the Powerball results (assuming you read 'em right). The poll results are validly and reliably derived, but they can't and don't say anything about what's going to happen in a year (or whether there's any relationship between that eventuality and whether Florida does or doesn't have its say).

Moral? Stick to what you know. Stay on the True Methodological Path and turn not aside. When in doubt, dull it down. If that suggests less (and less prominent) coverage of polling, it should.

* For a price, Ugarte

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Foxtacular Framing Friday: Pop quiz

If you can't have content-analytic freaky fun on Foxtacular Framing Friday, you just aren't trying:
∞ If that person in Baghdad is a "homicide bomber," shouldn't we say the Omaha mall gunperson left a "homicide note"?
∞ In a hed like "Ex-mistress may now vote for Sen. Clinton," what does "ex-mistress" mean? Can something that isn't in the sentence fill in as the object of the missing prepositional phrase?(Compare, for example, "Ex-coach may now cheer for team.") And doesn't Fox usually use italic emphasis for PC Run Amok heds, rather than What Will They Think Of Next?

But on to the quiz! Today's project involves inductive category-building: Instead of imposing frame categories from outside on Fox content, we're going to see if Fox content can't generate its own frames. What overall storytelling category is the best fit for this story? Here are some you can consider:

Partisan (a story about a conflict between the Bush party and some other political entity)
Nationalist (a story about an affront to the United States)
Tabloid (a story that intends to deliver information through an appeal to emotion rather than intellect)

What potential problems would you identify with those frames? Is there a better frame to capture the implications of "Despite U.S. report ...."? Could this text generate other frames to be used in comparing Fox World to other "worlds" portrayed in news accounts? Could these frames be used to analyze BBC content? Explain, and support with examples.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bad school! Bad!

Hum along with the Central Ohio Bureau, which submits this for your consideration:

Merrily we hyphenate, hyphenate, hyphenate....

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It is not funny, McGee

Q: Is there really a time and a place for everything?
A: Yes.
Q: Even grammar?
A: Yes, even grammar.
The 1A teaser at right looked worrisome, and those worries were borne out by the hed on the inside story. "Whom do we appreciate?" isn't a hypercorrection, in that it doesn't end up being "wrong" (unlike, say, "The Pope listed all those whom he felt would rise from the dead"). It's the kind of thing that gives editors a bad name, because it suggests that for all our supposed attention to detail, we're sometimes very, very bad at paying attention to what goes on in real life.
"Whom" is a lovely word with lots of friends and its own cottage humor industry. What it ain't is part of the idiomatic cheer-like phrase "2-4-6-8: Who do we appreciate?" That phrase doesn't need any extra Grammar®. As our nice friends at the Webster plant suggest, it's peculiar unto itself in grammar*. And it's fine the way it is. You don't "fix" it by adding "whom." All you do is annoy the crocodiles in the moat.
* Or, as in "Monday week," in "having a meaning that cannot be derived form the conjoined meanings of its elements."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Alarmingly clueless news decision of the (fading) year

Here's a bit of news judgment that's so strikingly bad, in so many ways, that it's worth discussing for a moment (that's a bit of folio on top of the illustration, so's you can tell it's from the upper right corner of the front page). It's awful because of what it is, but perhaps even more for what it isn't.

What it is? Well, it's a truly mediocre campaign story -- exactly the sort of small-bore, micro-tactical thing we've all been denouncing as a symptom of "horse race" journalism for the past two or three decades.

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa --Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped up her attacks on rival Sen. Barack Obama on Monday, saying the country needs "a doer, not a talker" in the White House and mocking Obama's record in public office.

That' s most of what you need to know: The irrelevant measured by the breathless at the direction of the overpaid. It's a brief at best -- hardly a topic for the front page, certainly not the dominant chunk of political data (let alone the dominant news event) of the day. And to cap it off, the suggestion that all this happens "as race tightens," which of course isn't among the unrelated results we could reliably pretend to be conjuring from the statistics the writer doesn't understand.

Can it get worse? Well, yeah. There's what the story isn't, which is the rather striking admission in the unclassified parts of the latest relevant National Intelligence Estimate that, um, suggests with "high confidence" (the very sort of confidence you ought to have in surveys) that Iran stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon four years ago. Which, if you were picking the lone news event outside your all-important borders that merited Page 1A attention and wasn't a sports event, is a reasonable candidate for your consideration.

Why? For a couple of reasons. One, the system seems to be working a lot better: dissent about strange foreign adventures is reflected both in official opinion and in public discourse. Two, there's a change in opinion at the top; if Fox News is to be trusted, the official view is that Iran is a rational and unitary actor, suggesting that the John Boltons of the world are now being officially categorized as the raving buffoons they are (or that somebody at Fox has passed an undergrad survey course in international relations). Three, that running some unadventurous but competent articles suggesting that March To War isn't the only option at hand is the sort of thing that is rewarded with headlines eventually. Four, that it's more fun to run news that looks ahead -- say, a Monday event that foreshadowed both the president's news conference and the Democrats' radio debate -- than news that looks behind.

And fifth ... hmm. So the chief executive who lied the nation into one war is more or less publicly exposed as trying to lie it into another? Gosh. Since the rest of the front page is devoted to (a) a candidate for county office discussing his secretive past and (b) the transgressions of high school sports officials who apparently enabled some small-scale deceit that allowed some teenagers to play for one school rather than another, do you suppose another bit about the integrity of public figures might have made a neat bit of packaging?

Nobody's suggesting that Iran has suddenly become the land of puppies, kittens and birthday cake. That's not what "rational and unitary actor" means. It does suggest that policy decisions about how to treat Iran are potentially more likely to be based on rational assessments of how Iran intends to go about furthering its interests than on the rantings of a cabal of nutters. And that seems like news, whatever the days ahead might hold for those all-important high school football playoffs.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Make up your mind. No, don't.

Just another day in the Wal-Marketplace of Ideas: Shoppers show up with their democratic market baskets, and vendors hawk their democratic wares, and good ideas always beat bad ideas. Right? I mean, Milton himself said that truth will always kick falsehood's butt, and Milton wasn't the sort of guy to make up allegorical tales about good and bad, was he?
Let's go to the Big Book on these heds. A power play (outside the sports world, which claims the first two definitions) involves "the use or threatened use of power to accomplish one's goals." And reform is "the amendment, or altering for the better, of some faulty state of things, esp. of a corrupt or oppressive political institution or practice." Beer here! Get your ice-cold transitive preferences here!
So who's hawking rival views of Hugo Chavez and his proposals for Venezuela's constitution in the heds here: Global North and Global South? Left-wing daily and right-wing daily? CNN and Fox? No, it's the Sunday ("power play") and Saturday ("reforms") front pages of the Miami Herald. And the point isn't really that the Herald needs to settle on one or the other. The point is that "objectivity" doesn't require giving equal weight to rival opinions. It requires openness about methods and evidence, and part of that means tying opinions to the people to hawk them, not adopting the opinions as your own on even- and odd-numbered days.
Pick a word you can use every day without stacking the deck. Enforce it. Even when (or especially when) people complain that you're hindering their creativity or stifling their voice.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Well, which is it, young feller?

Today's quiz: What does "homicide" mean in Fox World?
Homicide Attack Caught On Camera
Homicide Suspects Had Prior Links To Taylor

Silly rabbit! When you kill yourself, it's homicide, but when you kill somebody else, it's ... uh, can we take that from the top again?

Actually, if we were in the market around here for something of theoretical interest in the Fox report, it'd be the sheer amount of random episodic mayhem directed at children:

Woman Stabs Autistic Nephew In His Eyes, Then Herself*
Wisconsin Toddler, 1, Left In Day Care Van Overnight
Cops: Parents Duct-Taped Kids, Then Left Them Outside
Mom: Phone Recording Proves Teacher Spanked Son

(New Hershey Candy Leaves Sour Taste In Cops' Mouth isn't "random violence against kids" under a strict reading, though it's pretty close to the old LSD-in-the-Pixy-Stix myth)

See why "we need to get tougher on crime" is such a successful theme in some circles? Whatever we're doing, it's obviously not enough.

*We're still ciphering on this one: Woman stabs nephew in herself?