Monday, January 07, 2008

DISC at the Times Magazine

Quick, which of the two leading genders does "Jennings" belong to?

Jennings says he believes the reason is simple

Here's the rest of the sentence. Does that help?

Jennings says he believes the reason is simple: Sarasota’s touch-screen machines malfunctioned — and lost votes that could have tipped the election in her favor.

How about the first sentence of the preceding graf?

“See, look at this,” Jennings said, dragging me over to the map when I visited her in November.

What we appear to have here is a case of Desk-Induced Sex Change in the pages of the New York Times Magazine (Clive Thompson's "Can you count on voting machines?" in the Sunday edn). DISC* arises from the J-school precept that -- because reporters can't read sources' minds -- news accounts can never say what people "think" or "believe," or whether they "agree" or "disagree" with issues or comments. Smith has to "say he believes," "say he agrees," whatever.

Like much of what's taught in J-schools, it's a good general idea that can do a lot of damage when it's turned into gospel. Attribution can summarize as well as report: When a source turns beet-red, jumps foamy-mouthed from his chair and bellows "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard, and here's why," he's disagreeing, but he hasn't "said he disagrees." And, while attribution is always important, it's not always of equal importance. An arrest report and a mom watching her kid in the park are two different situations.

But the real problem arises when sentences are read without their context. "Smith thinks the smoking ban is a good idea" or "Jones agrees with the panel's conclusions" arrives at the desk, and the next thing you know, the acolytes have gathered about with garlic and silver, chanting the appropriate spell from the J-textbook: "SAYS he thinks!" "SAYS he agrees!" And so the offending text is changed -- regardless of whether Smith is a Christopher or a Christine.

Which, at a guess, is what happened at the Times and its anecdote about Christine Jennings' electoral defeat. It's not as if the preceding paragraph doesn't have a few clues:

“See, look at this,” Jennings said, dragging me over to the map when I visited her in November. Her staff had written the size of the undervote in every precinct in Sarasota, where the undervotes occurred: 180 votes in one precinct, 338 in another. “I mean, it’s huge!” she said. “It’s just unbelievable.” She pointed to Precinct 150, a district on the south end of Sarasota County. Buchanan received 346 votes, Jennings received 275 and the undervote was 133. “I mean, people would walk in and vote for everything except this race?” she said. “Why?”

Jennings says he believes the reason is simple.

The sex change is even more interesting because of some other signals. There's the regular use of "she" as the purportedly gender-neutral pronoun:

Before the voter pushes “vote,” she’s supposed to peer down at the ribbon of paper — which sits beneath a layer of see-through plastic, to prevent tampering — and verify that the machine has, in fact, correctly recorded her choices. (She can’t take the paper vote with her as proof; the spool of paper remains locked inside the machine until the end of the day.)

And the attention to attribution is, at best, inconsistent; note the difference in the writer's assumptions in these consecutive sentences:

I heard reports from poll workers who saw much more lax behavior in their colleagues.Yet here’s the curious thing: Almost no credible scientific critics of touch-screen voting say they believe any machines have ever been successfully hacked.

If anyone from the Times wants to check in, that'd be welcome. Until then, we're inclined to classify this as an unusually high-level occurrence of Desk-Induced Sex Change, and thus a reminder that one of the best moves an editor can make is to sit on his/her/its hands until he/she/it knows what a sentence is saying. DISC corrections are really embarrassing.

* Also known as the Missourian Sex Change, after the J-school where it was isolated and identified.



Blogger Strayhorn said...

Somehow this makes me think there are still desks where editing changes are made with X-acto knives . . .

1:56 PM, January 07, 2008  

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