Thursday, July 31, 2008

Active aggressive

I'm getting really tired of the active voice. OK, not exactly. The active voice is easily one of my two favorite verb voices. What I'm getting tired of is every time a bit of information asks for a straight-bladed screwdriver, some copy editor insists on fetching a Phillips head.

That's the problem with today's hed.* It comes with a pretty unforgiving count. (1.5/42/2? Or is it a 36?) If you want to pack some meaning in, you'll need to work carefully, and this looks like a first-thing-that-fit sort of hed. The easiest way to make it better is to ignore your J2100 textbook** and ask for the appropriate item from the part of the grammar toolbox called "verb voice."

Count it up. The first line -- half the hed -- is gone by the time you're finished getting the subject out. The verb is another fourth of it. So you have the last quarter of the hed to spend on the most important noun, which is the object. The passive voice is the tool that lets you turn the hed around and emphasize the object.

Indictment heds are classics of the cop-and-court variety because there's almost never any need to emphasize the subject. The Woodward Dream Cruise doesn't issue indictments. The AARP doesn't issue indictments. That's what grand juries do. So the meaning of the first 75% of the hed is pretty much contained in the verb. That's space we can spend on who was indicted, which (trust me, I've been reading these things for a long time) is almost invariably more interesting than who did the indicting.

What makes up a senator's identity? Name, party and state almost always show up, though sometimes a career characteristic gets pride of place. ("Senator No" can be a clearer identifier than "R-N.C."). Almost any of them would make the hed better by their mere appearance. Let's see how they fit:

Grand jury
indicts senator

Alaska Sen.
Stevens indicted

Seven-term GOP
senator indicted

Another GOP
solon accused
(sorry, had to get "solon" in)

King of Senate
pork indicted

(if the Freep can declare him a "lion," I can make him a "king")

And British-style active, for the fun of it (kids, don't try this at home):
Alaska senator
'lied about gifts'

If the passive voice is so good (and good for you), why does the Strunk & White book call for preferring the active? It's a freshman comp book! It's a guide for people who need to write adequately, even if they never need (or learn, or want) to write well. And rules like "use the active voice" are a good way to write adequately.***

None of this is to say that the passive is "better." Verb voice is a tool that helps put meaning into place. The better one is the one that does that well. In case you're wondering, here's a hed that misuses the passive. Look in the relative clause:

Birth certificate of child linked to Edwards lists no father

"Linked" by whom? If you don't have the space to say "linked by the National Enquirer," you need to say hello to the active voice. As you should consider doing whenever you venture into the territory of election-year mudslinging.

Are we telling you anything you don't know? Hed writing isn't a walk in the park. You need all the stuff in the toolbox. Don't be scared away from the passive voice by some half-remembered thunder from J-school.

* OK, "yesterday's hed." Busy few weeks at the Manor.
** You should be making a habit of this anyway.
*** S&W also gives a nice example of how the passive voice can serve the writer's intent. Read it before you slag it.

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Ministry of Truth

Just in from the Fair-n-Balanced Network, and too good to pass up:

WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Thursday that Bush administration advisers are not immune to congressional subpoenas.

The decision gives Democrats on Capitol Hill a major victory in their attempts to hamstring the Bush administration through a number of ongoing investigations.

Those darn Democrats on Capitol Hill! Always skulking around Rock Creek Park and waiting for Bin Laden's couriers to drop off their weekly shipment of cocaine and counterfeit $100 bills attempting to hamstring the Bush administration!

Sort of makes one wonder what coverage of the Watergate hearings might have looked like on Fox. But then again, we already have some hints about that.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fear factor Foxtacular

It's a good day to keep the kids indoors, judging by today's news menu at the Fair-n-Valenced Network.
In addition to the kids-in-peril tales shown at right, a few more have been added:

Three kids shot in back seat of mom's Mercedes

Sitter charged with having sex with teen in her care

Amber Alert issued for 4 children in Massachusetts

Scared yet? Fox apparently hopes so.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gaily indight, a gallant knight

Sometimes it's fun to just sit back and watch Fox play at copyediting, isn't it?

Credit where it's due. Fox put its own name on the Stevens story, with no less than three staffers contributing, and the story was getting better play earlier in the afternoon (what you see above is the top "latest news" item). That's notably more staff input than the average Missing Mom story (to be fair, Washington is Washington, and the Southeast general mayhem beat reporter is tied up elsewhere). If you're interested in the shenanigans of Monica Goodling, Kyle Sampson and their playmates at the Justice Department, though, you're going to have to work for it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

There's a word for that, you know

It's official: Christmas came early. Call it pain relief at the pump.

How else to explain the pinch-us-we're-dreaming tone that surrounds this minor statistical occurrence?*

It's really true -- gas dips below $4 a gallon
("Really true" distinguishing it from all those heds that are merely "true")

The signs don't lie: Charlotte-area gas prices really have dropped below $4 a gallon.
(That's good to hear. Because when the signs do lie, we have a word for that. It's called "fraud.")

Declining oil prices in the last two weeks – from a record-high of more than $145 a barrel to less than $124 Friday – have meant a little less pain at the pump.
(Don't hyphenate adj-noun combinations like "record high." Unless you're trying to take your readers' minds off "pain at the pump.")

Smart Shopperette of Charlotte filled up her white Mitsubishi Galant – whose license plate read LUVISLUV** – Saturday afternoon at the Quik Shoppe at East and South boulevards, where regular unleaded was $3.95 a gallon.

Ah, the beauty of news routines. A story like this isn't really official until a Real Person joins in -- i.e., until somebody buying gasoline is prodded into acknowledging that yes, it's usually better to pay less money for the same amount of stuff. And the white Galant is there -- well, for the same reason we always ask what kind of dog it was. More facts make a story truer.

“I drove over here to get this gas,” which was cheaper than stations near her home off Wilkinson Boulevard, Shopperette said, adding that saving only a few cents “makes a big difference.”

You know what might be more useful than playing Names Make News at the local gas station? Figuring out the point at which her statement becomes true. Let's keep it simple: 5 cents a gallon, 20 gallons a tankful -- five cents saves you a dollar a tank. At a ballpark figure of $4 a gallon, if you burn a quarter of a gallon getting to and from the 5-cent discount, it's a wash.

Isn't that fun? You wouldn't get to leave the office, but then again, you wouldn't have to ask people dumb questions like "Would you rather pay less money or more money for gasoline?"

* Copy editors: For real fun, next time you get a story about the "average price" of a gallon of gasoline, ask the originating desk for the standard deviation. Then ask for the sample from which the mean is calculated and whether the change from last week is significant. They'll love you!
** Forgive me for being unimpressed. Now if it had read LUVISNOTLUV THATALTERSWHENITALTERATIONFINDS, that'd be worth putting in the story.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

If they didn't, they should have

Today's lesson in the Virtues of Not Making Stuff Up comes to you courtesy of -- well, just about everybody. Here's a lede from today's local guardian of the public weal:

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and an eager public will have to wait again -- this time until at least next month -- for Judge Ronald Giles to rule whether any of 200 text messages from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former aide Christine Beatty will be revealed.

Got it? OK. What does that lede have in common with this hed from America's Fair'n'Balanced Network?

Italians Shocked After Sunbathers Relax on Beach Near Dead Bodies

Anybody ready to take a try? Exactly! Neither one is, well, you know, exactly true -- but if they aren't, they ought to be. The Freep has no evidence -- meaning "none in the story," which is a pretty good stand-in here for "none, period" -- that there's an "eager public" waiting to read stuff they've been reading since ... gee, was it really January? Fully six months before Jon Stewart put the Residence Inn in Madison Heights on the National Love Map?

OK, I'm feeling like I want another night like the most recent Saturday at the Residence Inn!

Edge of my seat, I'm telling you.

And Fox? Almost the same. The story has some bodies and some sunbathers, but there's no way to tell if any Italians were shocked in the making of this story, because nobody bothers to ask any of them. But like the Freep's eager public, it tends to slide right past the slot, because -- well, no doubt some of them are shocked, or would be if we asked them, but mainly because shocked is what Real People should be at the very thought of such a thing.

Things like "Critics blast Obama's West Bank trip," noted here earlier, get more attention because of the blatant ideological thumb on the scales. But they're not that different in substance. Fox doesn't have a critic to present, but there has to be one out there; the Freep doesn't have an "eager public," but if the ungrateful swine aren't eager to hear about the text messages, they should be.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of News, where everything we tell you is true -- or, if not, is the way things ought to be.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pack of Nabs

We all know what the Best Of All Hed Verbs is over at the Fair-n-Balanced Network, right?
Police nab man claiming to be Christ
Cops nab caped foot fetishist in NYC
Robbery victim, 71, and friend in wheelchair nab suspect
Candy wrappers help police nab suspects
Chocolate breath odor helps officer nab shoplifting suspect

... and we could go on and on, as Fox surely will before the day is out. So when we see three of the things on the opening page of the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas, what are we supposed to think?

Checkpoint near uptown nabs 12 for DWI
CMPD re-nab robbery suspect
Tips help nab burglary suspects

"Re-nab" is outstanding, as is the British reading of "CMPD" as plural. (That is the sophisticated European touch and not a simple blunder, right?) But overall -- a hat trick of tabloidization on the front page? We look from Fox to news and from news to Fox, and it's getting increasingly hard to tell the difference.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hed, meet story

It's sort of a cardinal rule of headline writing. You can condense, you can highlight, you can frame, you can select, but you have to condense something that's actually in the text. You can't just make something up and use it to draw people into your story. That's called false advertising -- or, if you prefer, "lying."

And, as usual, we have a handy example from Fox, which uses the hed above ("Critics blast Obama's West Bank trip") to tease to this AP story:

JERUSALEM — Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama toured Israel’s Holocaust memorial Wednesday, laying a wreath in memory of the 6 million Jews who died and saying, “Ultimately, this is a place of hope.”

There's a little bit, beginning at the 11th graf, about Obama's West Bank visit, but nothing about any critics, or any blasting. (Perhaps Fox was thinking of the op-ed pages of the "liberal" "media," wherein the usual Krauthammer-Thomas choir is in full song). About as close as anyone comes is this:

But most Palestinians believe the U.S. is so irrevocably biased toward Israel that it will make little difference whether the next president is Democrat Obama or Republican John McCain, said pollster Jamil Rabbah. He offered no poll in support of that view.

Interesting bit of facticity from the AP there. Wonder why that was so important to point out?

Many people in Israel are concerned that Obama — a first-term U.S. senator with little foreign policy experience — would push Israel too hard in negotiations with the Palestinians.

And does AP have any polls to support that view? Or is some conventional wisdom just too wise to question?

You get the impression that the Israelis and the Palestinians have both been paying rather close attention to both the bold outlines and the nuances of what the candidates say about the Near East. It'd be nice if one could have that sort of confidence in AP campaign writers, wouldn't it?


It's technically possible, I guess, to write a worse hurricane hed than this one. But why bother when the bar has been set so high?

Please don't do this. If you see a friend hunched over a computer and writing "Hello, Dolly," just go ahead and call the brain police.
Testy Copy Editors has hosted a long crusade against "Hello, Dalai," "Hello, Dali" and the like, and colleagues there have already sighted "Hello, Dolly" in newspaper storm coverage. In that spirit, what can we add but: No more "Hello," or ... got it?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Perot prizes

Wow, was it that long ago? The grisly series of wars that followed the collapse of federal Yugoslavia? Is that when Ross Perot gave us the phrase "giant sucking sound"? Allowing us to avoid excess headline vulgarity and still describe the noise your newspaper made if it didn't front Radovan Karadzic's arrest today? Yeah, it must have been. So let's assign some grades.

Down in the F range are outstanding founts o' knowledge of the sort Old Word Wolf describes: no Balkans anywhere in the paper, but good play for the toe-sucking-carp* feature.

If you managed to get the arrest in the paper (at the Freep, it was the lead world brief on 8A, unless you count the photo of the World Santa Claus Congress) but nowhere near the front, you've earned a gentleperson's D. Columbus, Fort Worth -- you might have given the story a good ride on 2A, but we can't tell from the front page that you've heard of the rest of the planet.

If Karadzic is the last reefer on the front page -- the afterthought that would have fallen off if somebody had only had the decency to throw a no-hitter -- you're in the C range. Sacramento, C- not just for expecting "Fugitive arrested" to make the grade, but for that stupid feature above the reefers. ("Battle brews between beer giant, small makers over freebie swag"? Please.) Indianapolis gets rid of the minus sign with "War-crimes suspect is arrested."

How thoroughly has grade inflation been loosed upon the world? Cleveland gets a B for actually putting world news at the top of its 1A reefer column. If you put a reefer high on the front and actually dressed it up with a photo or otherwise suggested you might want people to read it, call your parents and tell 'em it's a B+. (Twinge of conscience there at Trade and Tryon?)

And if you ran a frontpage story, take an A and enjoy it. Little Rock, we expected no less. Raleigh -- pleasant surprise! (Though why y'all gave 1A play to the right-wing huffy-puffy over the NYT's daring to ask McCain to rewrite his alleged op-ed piece ... wow, who in the Wake County Republican Party has a picture of the McClatchy CEO with a sheep?)

It'd actually hurt to go through and count up all the papers that managed to get a mug shot of a jalapeno at the top of the front. Or the ones that found a way to use yet another publicity still from yet another movie about yet another comic book character. Is that the best you guys can do by way of making your paper irreplaceable in my life? Because it really isn't working very well.

* I actually know somebody who wrote a song about this. Well, more or less.

First, biggest, only: Cut it out

Remember, editors, you can never go wrong by asking for some documentation that some event or person is the first or only of its kind. And when a reporter declares that something is the biggest, baddest or hairiest of anything, you're within your rights to demand a copy of the scorecard and a list of the runners-up.

Why do writers insist on doing this? Well, it makes copy sound sexier. It makes reporters sound more "authoritative." It's a factola that the other guy doesn't have. Unless it turns out to be either (a) wrong or (b) so baffling as to leave the readers scratching their heads.

McClatchy writers (specifically, the ones representing the former K-R empire) have long been especially prone to these failings, and again today, they're setting the pace:

AMMAN, Jordan -- As Barack Obama heads into the world's most complicated region in a bid to establish his foreign-policy credentials as a presidential hopeful, Israelis and Palestinians are voicing a mixture of hope, skepticism and curiosity.

Most complicated, eh? And how exactly do we propose to measure that variable and test your proposition? I could buy "highest ratio of words to clues in popular news writing," but otherwise -- wow, suppose you tell people he's headed for the Fractious Near East and leave it at that, eh?

And here's one that -- I think -- began at MCT and seems to have migrated into the wider news world:

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — - The judge in the first American war crimes trial since World War II barred evidence on Monday that interrogators obtained from Osama bin Laden's driver after his capture in Afghanistan.

No. It isn't. Go look it up. This is the first trial of a Guantanamo "detainee" in the "war on terror." It might be the first time the American military has run a war-crimes trial of someone from another country since World War II. But it isn't the first American war-crimes trial since then.

There's always a first, a biggest, and an only. But it's so rarely the one identified by the reporter that you might as well just challenge them all.

A simple test

Small point before we close down transmissions for the night. I'm listening to the BBC's outstanding spot coverage of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader appropriately described as "a major, major thug" and "one of the worst men in the world."*

If you were doing journalism, or generally paying attention to the world, in the latter years of the previous century, you know how big a deal that is and why. Thus I propose a simple test. If Karadzic's arrest isn't on the front page of your Tuesday newspaper, then that newspaper -- um, "sucks." Plain and simple. If your editor disagrees, you may use the secret access code to patch him or her through directly.

The Newseum site will be open first thing in the morning if you want to seee how America's Newspapers did. I hope you will all feel free to launch or join discussions about the merits of paying attention to the world outside.

* That's how you describe it in the budget meeting if you need to explain to your deputy managing editor for presentation why this is actually more important than another Batman story. Naturally, in print, you'll attribute those views to Richard Holbrooke and use more measured language on your own.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thank you, Reverend Freep

Even as the AP is sticking its toe in the water of letting reporters call 'em like they see 'em, the local centerpiece gives us an example of the Virtues of Objectivity -- particularly, why reporters need to understand the difference between an empirical truth that might sound a little harsh (Candidate A lied about his experience) and a value judgment (Candidate A is a blight on every tradition this country holds dear). Take it away, Reverend Freep:

For years, worshippers at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Livonia patiently put up with their diocese as it adopted a series of liberal changes that clashed with biblical tradition. But the breaking point came in 2003, when the Episcopal Church -- with the approval of the local diocese -- consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

See why it's a bad idea for a corporeal newspaper to take sides in a supernatural dispute? What any particular bit of holy writ "says" is pretty easy to figure out. Some have more competing versions, or more translations, than others, but that's why we have operational definitions: Once you've defined "holy writ" as "the edition the Grand Inquisitor is waving at the jury during my trial," it's just a matter of looking stuff up.

"Biblical tradition" is a different matter -- sort of like the difference between "my neighbor has a Toyota in her driveway" and "my neighbor's values aren't American values." You're determining not just what the text says, but which interpretation of the text corresponds with "tradition" and "values." And journalists need, really badly, not to go there.

Does that mean adjectives and judgments are always bad? No. It means writers -- and editors -- need to understand the difference between adjectives that describe empirical conditions ("red" being a particular part of the visible spectrum) and ones that require theological judgments ("heretical" not being too far from "clashed with biblical tradition"). It means being able to tell "the candidate contradicted herself" from "the candidate doesn't stand for America." Not as hard as it looks, is it?

Grammar sidelight. A note from a regular visitor addresses this sentence in the sidebar:
Who won't be there: About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Followed, a sentence later, by:
His words will be closely listened to during this conference.

"They will?" asks our correspondent. "You just told me he was leading the boycott!" As, indeed we did -- or appear to have, given the squinting nature of the reduced relative clause beginning with "led by."

I was a little puzzled at first, because that's not the phrasing in the sidebar I saw, either in print or online, in which this bullet point:
  • Who won't be there: About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference.

follows the Williams graf. I think, after a bit of checking, that this is a case of hastiness to get stuff on the wire. Somebody at the Freep sent the story on to the McClatchy-Trib service before it went through the local copydesk.* Given that both versions (the one I saw and the one Garrett saw) are archived at Lexis-Nexis already,** the wire might even have shipped a correction, which at least some outfits ignored.

There are a few other signs of editing in the print version here, compared with the wire version. On the wire, you'll find a reference to the "fundamental questions" at stake, among them:

Is pre martial sex OK?

By the time the story saw print at home, some alert editor had quickly fixed the appalling violation of prefix style:

Is premartial sex OK?

Overlooking, alas, the larger issue. "Premartial" sex has been with us since, like, Lysistrata. The kind of sex that Reverend Freep wants to warn us against is "premarital." Reading the stylebook is nice. It isn't a substitute for reading the story.

* That doesn't mean it wasn't "edited"; it means it didn't get all the levels of editing that have been customary at middling-competent newspapers for the past hundred years or so. That standard is changing pretty quickly
** Dated Sunday, suggesting that it's a wire rather than a printed version.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Y'all hiring?

This week's entry in the Everybody Needs an Editor category: We were over at Umm Czarina's the other night and had a chance to catch up on the local fishwrap (not the Ozymandian husk of a metro that lands in the driveway every morning; the ex-pyem that Czarina used to string for when she was but a little sorceress). It runs a column called "Dot-com Mom," whose topic this week was ...

Bowled over by Carolina 'barbecue'
(Desk, futurely, get your hands off that "quote" key or I will personally whap you upside the "head" with a "spatula")
Dear Mom: I was in North Carolina and had something they called "barbeque," but it didn't have tomatoes in it. We really liked it. Do you have a recipe?
Dear Carolina: There are two kinds of Carolina barbeque. One is called western and is tomato-based. The other is eastern and is vinegar-based. (Dear Mom: There are three. You're leaving out the mustard-based heresy served in Lesser Carolina. Regardless, you ought to settle on a single way to spell "barbecue.") ... Barbeque is often served with coleslaw hush puppies.

Whee! That's an interesting sort of WTF error, because, of course, barbecue isn't. "Often served with coleslaw hush puppies," I mean, because there are no such thing. There's coleslaw, which goes on the sandwich, and hush puppies, which go next to the fries and slightly uphill from the baked beans on the plate with the sandwich, but there ain't no such animal as "coleslaw hush puppies," as ane fule who didn't already know* could find out in a couple seconds of searching.

And after all, that's what editors do. They know stuff, and they look stuff up when they don't know it, and when they run across something as cognitively bizarre as coleslaw hush puppies, they ask dumb-sounding questions until Dot-com Mom explains exactly how her "Internet and cookbook" sources handle the oil-temp-vs.-cabbage-in-mayo thing.

I wouldn't throw the whole column out; the sauce recipes are a little picky but not out of line (no, you don't have to use brown sugar**). But let's be serious for a second here, Daily Tribune. You guys send a flyer around every few weeks suggesting we ought to subscribe. If y'all can't tell the difference between slaw and hush puppies, what particular claim do you have on my reading time?

* And didn't have the sort of Burger King-level curiosity to think: d00d! Deep-fried cabbage in mayo! That's got to suck.
** If you have to be kinky, cut with rice wine vinegar, sted white. Prosit!

The AP's new clues

Here's an interesting item from this week's Ask The Editor collection at the AP Stylebook site:

I have a question about reporting poll results and the margin of error. The stylebook address a poll taken when two candidates are facing off, but I'm not exactly sure how to apply that to a ballot measure that requires a certain percentage to pass. Specifically, a poll found 51 percent of voters plan to vote against a measure, 42 percent are for it and 7 percent are unsure, with a margin of erro

And the response (the nut of it, at least; most of the response is taken up with noting that the questioner seems to have overlooked the character limit on questions):

I'll try to find out, but rpt just this sentence with the missing words ...

I don't think it's really a trick question,* or something unique to the AP. It's broader than that, and that makes it interesting, because it says something about how journalism interprets concepts like expertise and authority. "Margin of error" isn't something you can own, like Yastrzemski's batting average in 1967;** it's something you have to take an expert's word for (once you find an expert). And if you're interested in social science reporting, word choice, audience perceptions and other stuff that comes up around here at times, that's a way of understanding what things like "precise" and "credible" and "objective" mean when we apply them to news decisions.

What's the answer? Well, start with the question. The stylebook doesn't say anything about how to handle a poll "taken when two candidates are facing off" (or putting the gloves on, or taking the gloves off, or doing the horizontal hokey-pokey). It addresses how to discuss a difference between two candidates.*** There's no mention of whether that means two of two candidates or two of five candidates -- or if it's a primary with a 40% threshold, or a ballot issue ("yes" and "no" being about as two-candidate as you can get) with a 60% threshold, or anything like that, because none of those things affect what the margin of sampling error measures. So the answer is simple: Apply the same guidelines.

That doesn't mean the question is a stupid question. It suggests that the questioner doesn't know much about the domain involved (which is vastly different from being stupid). The problem is that a straightforward question ought to get a straightforward answer, and what it gets is a misleading (I'm trying hard not to say "stupid") one.

Misleading how? Because it pushes a mathematical formula that's only slightly more complicated than "earned-run average" into the domain of wizardly expertise. Journalists can't live there; we can only knock on the door, accept what we're told, and go home to see what the Times is saying. And the whole point of inferential stats is that -- as in baseball -- we all own them. We might use a batting average to support different arguments (you say a .367 average proves that power is irrelevant, and I say it fails to show that the clown doesn't hit with runners on second or third). But we're both using the same proportion, and in both cases it represents the same thing. If someone asks how to calculate batting averages if a player needs 350 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, we have the same answer: No difference. Do all the same calculations, then go to "select cases" and include 'em out**** if PA is less than 350.

If we want to cure what ails poll reporting, and science reporting in general, that'd be a good place to start. The discussion section -- where you talk about what your statistics mean, and why they do or don't support your theory-driven predictions -- is where experts disagree (and ought to be consulted; there's nothing wrong with talking to smart people, as long as you're talking to the right people about the right stuff). The results section is a slightly more complicated version of what you've been doing since the first time you picked up a Sunday sports section and started pondering the AL Top Ten. You can play there. Any copyed, on any desk, anywhere, can own "sampling error" as thoroughly as the sports desk owns "earned-run average." And once you do, you can challenge any faulty conclusions that rely on your being too ill-informed -- or too cowed by magic -- to challenge.

Is the AP serious about "accountability journalism"? A little more aggression with undergraduate statistics would be a good place to start.

* As in "Hey, Stylebook! If a plane crashed on the border of two countries, where would you bury the survivors?" Though it's close.
** Though since you're reading this on a computer, you probably have a calculator a few clicks away, and the margin of sampling error needs maybe one more keystroke to calculate.
*** To its everlasting credit, the stylebook also notes that there is no such thing as a "statistical tie." Please heed it.
**** Should have been Berra, was probably Goldwyn. Alas.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Consensual S&M Barbie

Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, this is the S&M Barbie first identified on Fox just the other day.

The "Moms" trend in online journalism (the example here is from MomsCharlotte; the version in these parts is MotorCityMoms) must have gotten to the bottom of the barrel pretty fast if it's resorting to two-day-old rewrites from Fox -- which itself was picking up straight from The Sun. This one's of note, though, because it's raised as a straightforward discussion topic: Moms, has Barbie gotten too sleazy? What do you think? Join the discussion!

It wouldn't do, either at Fox or MomsCharlotte, to suggest that the "critics" at Christian Voice are -- Bluestockings? Busybodies? Thought Police agents with way too much time on their hands?* Funny, because that's how Fox usually responds when people denounce Barbie as a danger to civilization. Isn't that right, Bill O'Reilly?

The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day
Saudi Arabia's religious police have declared Barbie dolls a threat to morality saying the dolls are offensive to Islam.

What do you say, news desk?
Iran takes new shot at Barbie, calling US doll 'destructive'

Hop right in, moms! Should be an arousing discussion.

* By the way, Charlotte editors? You can't turn one Christian group into "some Christian groups." That's called "making stuff up," and it's not appropriate. Even on your Web site.

The AP's new clothes

What does the purported new breeze from the AP Washington bureau hold for those of us downwind? In some cases, perhaps more than meets the eye. On balance, probably less, so let's have a look.

First the news. Doug and Andy (esteemed partners in crimethink who profess editing at Lesser and Greater Carolina, respectively) have drawn attention this week to a piece over at Politico about the new direction being encouraged by AP's Ron Fournier, "a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as 'cutting through the clutter.'"

Politico's hed gets to the concern about the story (if not its substance): "Is Fournier saving or destroying the AP?" The signature test case is a piece by an AP hand who covered the Clinton campaign that began "I miss Hillary." The AP's executive editor "loved" the piece, Politico reports. Doug, being a concise old wire hand, suggests "You make the call." So:

I miss having a woman in the race and the excitement so many women felt at the prospect of electing the first female president.

Sorry, AP, but SSDP: Same [conventional wisdom], different pronouns. You might as well be reading Maureen Dowd without the delicate hint of Eau de High School Yearbook. If the AP had written "I miss having a genuinely liberal candidate in the race," that'd be a little more adventurous. Or "I miss having a candidate with substantial experience in international relations." Or "I regret that the AP worked as hard as anyone to make sure genuine expertise and political diversity were marginalized throughout the primary season." That would suggest some serious clutter-cutting. Conventional wisdom in the first person is still conventional wisdom.

Signature cases make for bad generalizations, though, so let's look at some more routine stuff. A cornerstone of this "accountability journalism" is calling out the bad guys: "Reward the truth-tellers, expose the liars and help readers navigate the squalls of spin," as Fournier suggested in a 2007 piece outlining some goals and tactics. In Politico's phrasing: "Reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers."

Nice goal, but one that's more likely to bag a few episodic targets than to make a dent in systemic weaselhood. Here's a concrete example: Your Govment has put a lot of effort into convincing various news media that they need a new word -- "detainees" -- for prisoners captured in the course of the War on Terror®. Given that we already have several highly useful words -- like "prisoners," for people we've thrown in prison, or "captives," for people we've captured -- for the concept, "detainee" seems like a good candidate for a "weasel word" to be discarded at once. AP evidently disagrees. (Credit where due, though; international is ahead of the pack at mixing in the occasional reference to "Guantanamo* prisoners.")

And pointing out the mote in the other guy's eye doesn't do much good if the weasel is in your own:

Chertoff's comments on Capitol Hill come as the country is entering a potentially vulnerable period with the presidential nominating conventions next month, the presidential election in November and the transition to a new administration in January — all of which may be attractive targets for terrorists.

That's the AP's opinion, but it might as well have been written in a box of earth from Dick Cheney's native planet. Certainly, political conventions "may be attractive targets for terrorists" (a claim that's rather harder to make about a "transition"), but why would they make the country more "vulnerable" than the Super Bowl, the Co-Cola 600 or the Detroit Thanksgiving parade, all of which happen every year?

Then there's the encouraging side. You go leafing through the AP archive at Lexis-Nexis long enough and something like this turns up:

WASHINGTON -- Eight years after bashing the Clinton administration for squandering U.S. resources on "nation building'' around the world, Condoleezza Rice is singing a different tune.

If this is where AP wants to go with "accountability journalism," sign me up for some more. The writer (Matthew Lee) has been doing his homework, and he lets the standard-bearer of faux realism in 2000 paint herself into her own corner. I wish I'd seen it six weeks ago, when it was written.

Which, alas, is the larger problem with the AP's effort: Is anyone going to see it? The major metro daily that lands in my driveway every morning doesn't trouble me with very much international news, and it's hardly the only paper leaving readers on their own if they're interested in the World Outside. If anyone saw this piece in print (or ran it), please check in, but it's increasingly hard to imagine a retrospective policy piece making itself heard above the din of hyperlocalism and News2Use.

Good luck to the AP, and may it have the fortitude to put with the occasional stumble (axing "detainee" really would be an encouraging sign). It'll be an interesting effort -- especially if it manages to see the light of day.

* If the AP really wants to get rid of "weasel words," it could start with banning "Gitmo" from suggested heds, which all too often are shoveled straight onto Web sites. But that might be an issue for the general desk to address.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

You're the thirteenth one who's been here

How does a science story get to be a science story in the silly season? Well, imagine that a reporter is drivin' down a lonely road on a dark and stormy night.* A forlorn story appears by the side of the road. Reporter stops, story gets in the back, and in a shaky tone ...

Some things just seem to recur without any coaching from outside. The animal dialect story is one of them, as our friends outside the profession are fond of noting. This incarnation is a bit different, mostly because of the near-total disconnect between (or among) the hed, the story, and the "study" that seems to have given rise to it.

The hed, by definition, is supposed to be the essence of what's new: it tells you what happened since our last visit (quake kills thousands, Dewey defeats Truman, Sox crush Yankees) that makes today different from yesterday. So this should be a story about a study that demonstrates regional accents among birds -- implying that such a discovery is (a) new and (b) the point of the study.

To its credit, the story doesn't say that. The study, it says, "also helps scientists understand how birds can have dialects -- something that has been noted for years." Which it has, suggesting that the N&O copydesk is running about a quart and a half low these days (hence the hed), but also suggesting some of the ways in which science news isn't about "news."

As soon as Illinois-born neurobiologist Richard Mooney opens his mouth, Triangle residents know he's not from around here.

Uh, yeah. I know a few "Triangle residents" who are "from around here" in the made-good-decisions-in-late-18th-century sense, but I have a feeling that's not what the writer has in mind. It does, though, suggest something important about science writing: It needs to remind us that scientists are Real People.

But humans aren't the only creatures whose regional drawls and twangs give them away. (Sorry, but whenever I hear "drawls and twangs," I reach for my Uzi sort of assume that the writer isn't "from around here" either.) The same thing goes for the songbirds Mooney studies in his Duke University laboratory.

Is that what the study's about? Well...

It turns out that these dialects stem from the way that baby birds learn to sing -- a process that is much like the way human babies learn to talk.

...These brain mechanisms include a phenomenon known as mirror neurons, which Mooney and his team documented in birds for the first time. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fires either because the animal is performing a certain action, or because it is seeing another animal perform that same action.

Aha! That appears to represent some really cool stuff Mooney et al. have published this year -- songbirds seem to have mirror neurons. Which is pretty cosmic if that's the sport you keep up with, and not if not. Hence, to be science journalism, it has to be tricked out with some things that make it less scary and more accessible.

It might seem odd to refer to behavioral variation in bird populations as cultural differences, but one could argue that the songbirds are much better at preserving their cultural roots than humans are.

"Unfortunately because of TV and radio, there has been a real homogenization of regional dialects," Mooney said.

While we're on the subject, this is another of those enduring issues** about the popular portrayal of "science": The science reporter is a specialist in the newsroom but a generalist in "science." Mooney's a neurobiologist, and he sounds like a smart and innovative one. In the field of dialect variation, he's kind of at odds with people like Walt Wolfram, who contend that dialect diversity is growing despite the evil machinations of broadcasting. A PhD in one domain might well be -- and often is -- just another amateur in others.

Out of all that, somehow, we manage to have a story that's tangentially related to some recent work a Local Subject has been doing, with a badly bollixed hed and a mug of a swamp sparrow, and it still makes the metro front of a major regional daily. How? Well, the reporter saw this lonely story hitchhiking on the road, but when they got to the house, the story was ... gone! And then a nice lady came out of the house and (wiping away tears) said that thirteen years ago today, in a wreck just up the road ...

* Yes, you may apply for a G-droppin' license for your HEADSUP-L visits. As part of the test, you'll have to be able (blindfolded) to tell Eddie Adcock from Don Reno with at least 80% accuracy. Just sayin'.
** Meaning I don't recall the citations offhand but am fairly sure which box they're in in the basement.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Man bites Times

Here's a potentially interesting sign of things to come: a major-party campaign going after a story it dislikes through a new-media third party. The implications of that are more interesting than a little small-scale statistical whingeing -- though we are going to have a touch of that (and just as a reminder, if your first response to "margin of error" isn't "at what confidence level?", you are not in shape for the stretch run). And even though the New York Times is still unmatched at stumbling over its own self-importance, the overall outlook is mildly cheery.

OK. So over at Talking Points Memo, we find a report that the Obama campaign is a little miffed at today's NYT -- specifically, it has produced a lengthy complaint about how the Times reported its own most recent omnibus poll on race relations, the State of the Nation, the general election campaign and just about everything else since Krakatoa (don't be intimidated by the length of the NYT's pdf; it actually includes a lot of useful longitudinal stuff about MIP and presidential-performance questions and the like).

There's nothing new about going to a friendly outfit to gripe about what the Big Bad Press did, but there are a few details that make the complaint worth a look. More to the point, there's also a reponse from the NYT reporter -- and while we're at it, let's not forget to give the Times credit for posting the complete results; if you're inclined, you can take a run at assessing their credibility on your own. As improvements in the general state of campaign discourse go, those are hardly inconsequential.

First, the complainant, so over to TPM:

The Obama campaign sent over a detailed critique of the story, which concludes from the poll that Obama isn't closing the divide on race. The story's lead reporter was the paper's top political writer, Adam Nagourney.

"The NYT story about their poll ignores multiple and significant pieces of data that actually indicate a trend much different from that which the story suggests," the critique reads. It goes on to list "some straightforward points from their data that are omitted from the story."...

OK. You can check the list out yourself, but the bulk of the Obama-side details come down to "you didn't write the story we would have." They're welcome to that opinion, but absent a showing that (a) the Times is wrong and (b) the alternate version is righter or better (or both), they aren't going to get anywhere. (Complaining that the Times didn't report a stat that meets a criterion that an "independent expert" said would assure a win for Obama is just silly.) Two points are worth noting, though:

"Racial dissension" around Mrs. Obama's 24% favorable rating among whites is an extremely odd description given that Mrs. McCain's favorable rating among white voters is 20%.

Right target, wrong arrow. Here's what the Times said:
There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters.

I'm not convinced that comparison represents "dissension." More likely is the proportion of "not favorable" responses by race: 19% among whites, 1% among blacks. The grain of salt you need to take all those numbers with is that barely a quarter of black voters (27%) "haven't heard enough" about Michelle Obama to form a judgment, compared with 38% of white voters. About 55% of voters say that about Cindy McCain (the racial subgroups are indistinguishable; I wish they'd broken gender out on this one). Judgment: The Times overreached, but the complaint missed the mark.

And this:
Though there is a six-point margin of error among black voters the NYT describes the 7-point change in black voters' views that whites had a better chance of getting ahead as slightly higher than 8 years ago. Given that the Times reports horserace questions as statistically even when the margin falls within the margin, it seems that this shift from seven years ago among black voters is well within the margin of error.

Hmm. Even though the designated complainer doesn't quite know what he or she is talking about, it's nice to see someone throwing a flag on the Times's handling of survey data. First things first, "within the margin" doesn't designate a magic point at which results become cosmic. Second, seven points is not "within" a six-point margin. Third, the poll in 2000 was a very different creature: it included 934 black respondents, compared with 297, and it's more distinctly focused on racial -- specifically, black-white -- issues. Summary? The Times would have done better just to note the difference, rather than characterizing it as "slightly higher" (and to emphasize the risk of comparing different surveys), but the complaint is poorly drawn and looks irrelevant.

Now let's pick on the Times a bit, because it has a few things to answer for. Some of them relate to statistical hygiene: Never report a margin of sampling error without a confidence level (you can find it in the pdf, but that's no excuse). Don't round the margin of sampling error to whole numbers. Don't give the N for the whole sample and the margin of error for a subgroup (like registered voters).

But for the real problem, let's look at the Times reporter's response to the Talking Points post, elided a bit here for emphasis:

We could have chosen to focus on any number of themes; we decided to focus mainly on what we could learn from the poll about how blacks, whites and Hispanics view politics and society at the critical moment. ... But we are comfortable that our story accurately captured the results on the questions that most struck us, those that sought to illuminate how blacks, whites and Hispanics see the United States at a moment when Senator Obama's candidacy is putting race front and center in a new way.

Well and good, but -- that's not the story you ran on the front today, is it?

Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race
Americans are sharply divided by race heading into the first election in which an African-American will be a major-party presidential nominee, with blacks and whites holding vastly different views of Senator Barack Obama, the state of race relations and how black Americans are treated by society, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The results of the poll ... suggested that Mr. Obama’s candidacy, while generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, is not seen by them as evidence of significant improvement in race relations.

Well, there's your problem. The poll doesn't "find" that, because the poll doesn't measure it. The way to find out whether people think Obama is closing a "divide on race" is -- ready for this? -- to ask them. The writer (oh, the shock) blames the hed:

The point of the story is that black respondents apparently do not see the fact of Mr. Obama's candidacy as evidence of significant improvement in race relations. The story does not suggest that there is some onus on Mr. Obama himself to be closing this divide.

He has a slight point: The hed's active (Obama isn't doing something), and the corresponding passage in the story is passive (something isn't being seen by black voters). But changing the voice of the hed verb wouldn't fix the story, which would still rest on the same faulty assumptions.

Where did the Times go wrong? Look at the statistical conclusions that support the story. Blacks are significantly more likely than whites to say that race relations are bad and that there's been no progress in ending discrimination. Whites are significantly more likely to say that black complaints about discrimination are overblown. No surprises there -- but that's not the problem. Here's Question 64:

Have you ever felt you were stopped by the police just because of your race or ethnic background?

About 40 percent of black respondents, unchanged from eight years ago, said yes. But how could that answer possibly be affected by Obama's candidacy? Whatever your taste in verb voice, what's your rationale for suggesting that this is some measure of whether some particular political event is or isn't closing some "divide"? Or, to take a broader point, whether the closure of that divide by this campaign is the sort of thing your poll can even address?

It's nice of the Times to make its methods public, and to answer its critics in a timely fashion, but openness (however encouraging) isn't a cure for cluelessness. If you're going to use survey data to talk about how a campaign might or might not have affected as broad a topic as "race relations," you need to start by asking relevant questions that can logically be related to the conclusions you want to address.

Lessons for editors? There's more to editing a poll story than back-checking the long division. When a story draws weighty answers from questions it doesn't even bother to ask, someone needs to call it in for questioning. Stupid conclusions don't magically become valid when they're blessed by the lead political writer from the Times.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Glad to hear it

"We strive to have the watch list contain all appropriately suspected terrorists who represent a threat to the U.S., but only appropriately suspected terrorists," Kolton said.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Apocalypse inch by inch

It's risky to infer too much about what a single correction means, but sometimes you get two or three in a row (or, as in this case, one correction and two so-far-uncorrected errors) that all point to the same thing. So this week's Freep is sort of like the Ghost of Xmas Future: a glimpse of the yawning void that lies ahead if you keep starving your copydesk.

First up, the correction, one of three that ran Tuesday:
A Sunday Local News article about the goals of Sue Martin, the new president of Eastern Michigan University, should have said University House, the presidential residence, is 10,000 square feet.

As we've discussed repeatedly, corrections should never say "should have said." For this case, let's narrow the options down to two:
1) The story "should have said" University House is 10,000 square feet because the First Amendment requires that features about university administrators always mention the size of their houses, and the reporter unaccountably left the figure out.
2) The story "should have said" University House is 10,000 square feet because what it actually said was something really stupid -- like University House, Eastern Michigan University's 100,000-square-foot presidential residence and a key fund-raising venue, is loaded with a catering kitchen, a built-in patio grill and heavy wooden doors adorned with the university's seal.

Slightly larger, in other words, than the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Versailles, Mo., that opened in 2006. Why didn't anyone flag this as it made its way into print? Well, when in your life does square footage become salient? Generally not, I'd suggest, when you're walking past the stately, ivy-covered home of the president or the chancellor or whoever lives up the quad from your J-school. More likely it's when you buy your first 1,000-square-foot bungalow (or watch your friends go through the process).

If your newspaper has made it worth your while to stick around for a few years picking up local knowledge, and pays enough that you can cover the down payment and the note, you might be such a homeowner. And the error alarm is likely to go off when a story says the president of Compass Point State lives in (click, search, click, search) something the size of a Wal-Mart. If not ...

Now. If you aren't given the denominator (is this one error in 10,000 chances or one in 50?), it's hard to say whether any particular gaffe is a symptom or a one-off.* But evidence always occurs in context. So here are a couple -- and these are desk-induced errors, not ones that writers made and editors missed -- the Freep hasn't corrected yet.** On Wednesday's 8A:

Irish march on, celebrating violent past
You'd like to think the Belfast dateline would be a clue. This is a story about Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Orange Order, which is a bunch of people who want to keep it that way. Making them "Irish" suggests that the newspaper doesn't pay much attention to the world around it.

And this cutline, under two mugs on today's 4A:
U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Jintao said China's per-capita emission is 'relatively low.'

Even if the dust is thick on your stylebook, there's usually a clue in the text as to which part of "Hu Jintao" is the family name and which part is the given name. And which one do grownups get on second reference?

Again, generalizing is risky, but three rookie errors in a row suggests more than just a lack of time (which I have no doubt is a factor). Basic statistical curiosity*** and elementary world knowledge used to be benchmarks of a good desk. Their absence suggests a pretty widespread lack of experience, which in turn suggests that the squeeze-and-buyout response to the industry's economic debacle is having a noticeable impact on quality.

May I propose a lesson for the glass offices? It doesn't matter how many posters you put up of inspirational slogans superimposed on cats doing improbable things. It doesn't matter how quickly you rename your beats "circles," or how often you babble about "interactivity." If your readers can't tell your supposedly professional product from the blog down the street, you don't have much of a claim on their loyalty.

* Traditionally, there should be at least three sets of eyes -- line editor, copyed, slot -- on a story after it leaves the reporter. The "assembly line" model evolved as a pretty effective way of regulating the quality of a huge amount of disparate copy against rigid deadlines.
** I don't recommend holding your breath and waiting, either.
*** The emphasis is on curiosity, not statistics. You can teach statistics.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

You talkin' to me?

Or you got some other reason for tryin' the G-droppin'* thing on your 1A lede story today?

Really. I have a hard time figurin' out where you're goin' with this one. Just demonstratin' how hip you are? Or remindin' us that any news event can conjure up some kind of advertisin' campaign? Or tryin' to take our minds off all the people you're libelin' on the inside pages?
If you're hopin' to connect with your readers, you missed a lot of opportunities right on the homepage:
Relief for interstate traffic: Drivin' on shoulders
Jesse Helms recalled as carin' man
One drowns in Neuse River, one missin'
Man pleads guilty in beatin' death
Report: Evergreen CEO retirin'
Really. If you want grownups to keep readin' the paper, how about cuttin' this stuff out?

* Just kiddin', linguists! "G-droppin'" is a popular but not entirely accurate term, though it certainly makes visual sense.** People who have this speech feature (quite a few of us in American English, under some circumstances) aren't really reducin' a consonant cluster. They're substitutin' one consonant ("n") for another ("engma," represented by "ng").
** And gets irritatin' in a big f***in' hurry.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Snakes on a plane Wal-Mart!

Today's discussion on risk perception and journalism comes to you courtesy of -- who else? -- Fox News.

What does the rest of your day look like if you're a resident of Fox World? Pretty bleak, as you'll note from the "Latest News"summary above(captured around 2 p.m. EDT). If you're home, you need to get out of the house right now. Indeed, if you're having lunch somewhere en route to the airport, the safest thing you can do is freeze in place, choke on your burger and hope a football player comes along in time to rescue you. Don't continue on to the airport; you'll either be mugged by your fellow passengers or killed in a gruesome collision. And whatever you do, don't go home. If your spouse doesn't kill you (two wives dead, one wounded, one missing), your uncles or your kids will (especially if they've been playing Beer Pong on their video consoles). Or you'll just die from drinking too much cold water.

Now let's consider the fourth-most-read story of the last 24 hours over at the McClatchy Washburo, "Wal-Mart customer bitten by rattlesnake hiding in plants." Note, in particular, the conclusion:

Wal-Mart said it contacted emergency services immediately after the shopper was bitten and is working with authorities in the investigation, said Daphne Moore, a spokeswoman with the company.

''This is clearly an isolated situation. Customer safety is always a priority,'' Moore said.

Well, clearly! I mean, we can't have people stampeding out of Wal-Marts across this great land of ours in fear of rattlesnakes under every potted plant in the entire building isolated cases of almost entirely harmless episodic accidents, can we?

Let's set the economic-determinist argument to rest for a moment. The quote isn't there because Wal-Mart is an advertiser (from a newspaper perspective, it generally isn't, with a few amusing exceptions). It's there because everybody goes shopping, and the Episodic Reptile Disaster narrative calls for an indication at this point that (a) you can relax and (b) the newspaper and Wal-Mart have things under control.* Even if, as the "full story" at the Miami Herald notes, there have been half a dozen or so such snake bites at nurseries in the area over the past decade.

Lots of time to spend on a pretty trivial story, right? Sure, even if it's still hanging in there at #4 on a national Web site. But think outside the paradigm** for a second. What if every story about the "war on terror" -- or more to the point, every story about defense appropriations or congressional campaigns -- included a paragraph putting your personal risk of terrorist mayhem in any particular decade into perspective? How does it compare with your chances of getting bitten by a rattlesnake at the Wal-Mart? (John Mueller's already gone into the comparative risk of drowning in your own toilet, so I won't go there.***)

As long as we're casting about for ways to save journalism from itself or the Internet or whatever, maybe we could give that one a try.

* For a slightly different perspective, see today's entertaining "Confirmed by Science" over to the Language Log.
** Or whatever Those Crazy Kids in newsroom management are saying these days.
*** Even though we have a cat who thinks it's cool to drink out of one.****
**** Woodchuck.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Journalism and its God words

It's not a massive surprise that the NYT's ombud has weighed the case of the CIA interrogator identified (over his and the agency's protests) on the front page two weeks ago and found that the paper did the right thing. Ethics isn't statistics; it's entirely possible for people to put the same data into the same matrix and get radically different results. And Clark Hoyt has differed with the paper's decisions often enough -- this recent case involving the op-ed pages stands out -- that it would be unfair and unwise to dismiss his judgment out of hand.

What makes this matter interesting is the manner in which both Hoyt and Bob Steele of Poynter justify the decision, because they both rely on a particular set of "God words"* -- terms that bring forth a certain amount of awestruck bowing and scraping merely by being invoked, regardless of whether the user or the audience can define them in any practical way or explain their relevance to the case at hand. In this case, the core concept is "credibility." And the trouble is that no one who invokes it bothers to explain what it is, how it's measured, or why the Times's solution is one that gives "credibility" a boost.

Back in the golden days of newsroom anthropology, Gaye Tuchman suggested that "objectivity" wasn't really the positivist concept that the empirical world might recognize as much as it was a "strategic ritual": You can't call the apartment owner a slumlord, but if you make a couple more phone calls, you'll be getting somewhere. So it is here with "credibility." When Hoyt invokes the concept, he's suggesting there's some sort of linear relationship between credibility and the use of names:

Scott Shane, the reporter, and his editors said that using the name was necessary for credibility.

With all due respect to The Ridger and the host of other folks who are ready to retire "begging the question" to the Old Logical Fallacies Home -- that's begging the question, or supporting an unsupported assertion with another unsupported assertion. We needed the name to make the story credible. Why? Because names make stories credible!

It's a handy myth of American news practice: Names make news. It's one reason American cop reporting looks the way it does. British cop reporting, partly because of British libel law, looks vastly different. Nobody's ever suggested that public safety in Britain is weakened because crime suspects aren't named before trial, or that crime reports in the British press are less credible*** because they don't contain enough names. Nonetheless, we hang on to the idea that names are a factor in credibility.

I can't disprove that concept, largely for the same reason no one on the other side can "prove" it: No one has yet shown that it can be reduced to testable concepts and tried out in the lab. But as a counterexample, here's some NYT-brand journalism from -- how time flies! -- December 2001:

An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.

The defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, gave details of the projects he said he worked on for President Saddam Hussein's government in an extensive interview last week in Bangkok.

Sound familiar? Named source and all, it's the prewar work of Judith Miller, now thoroughly disowned by the Times. Again, it doesn't "prove" a thing, although it should suggest that anyone who proposes a direct relationship between source naming and "credibility" has a lot of uphill ice-skating to do.

Steele's argument is more detailed but not substantially different. He gives pride of place to the journalistic duty of providing "accurate, precise and substantive information about a significant issue and event." Fair enough, though "accurate," "precise" and "substantive" are drastically distinct concepts -- as is evident a bit later, when Steele points to the substance of the story (undeniable) without bothering to explain how it relates to the subject's request (again, the subject wasn't a source for the story) not to be identified:

The Times makes a compelling argument in the seventh graph on the value of this story: “The story of Mr. Name's role...provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture...”

And there’s an equally compelling justification for the story in this sentence from the 10th paragraph: “Mr. Name's success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate.”

OK, and that relates to the name exactly how?

This story is powerful in its substance. That power is enhanced by the specific use of Source Name's name connecting him to the “ad-hoc” program and his surprising role (given his experience and skills) as a key interrogator in the anti-terrorism effort. He is a central character, and using his name gives readers a clear focal point.

Those are God words. I like power and substance and clear focal points too -- much as I like kittens and birthday cake and prewar flatheads. The argument doesn't establish them; it merely invokes them.

Using his name — rather than a pseudonym or just referring to him by title — also heightens reliability and validity in the reporting process.

This is even worse. "Reliability" and "validity" are specific things. Reliability is the accuracy with which you measure a concept. If I can use your rulebook and get results similar to yours, or you can rerun your tests in a month and get the results you got yesterday, we've established a kind of reliability. Validity is how closely that concept resembles the slice of reality that you're measuring. The proportion of correct baseball scores to incorrect baseball scores in your paper is a valid measure of how accurately you cover baseball. Are important national security stories made more accurate by the use of names? (See Miller above.) Are they about more important issues? Oh, come on.

The story is more believable. (Why, who says, and how do you measure it?) Granted, the Times chose to use his nickname, Deuce, rather than his real first name, apparently to offer him some level of identity protection. But the use of his surname and nickname helps the paper achieve one of its primary objectives: bolstering the credibility of its reporting. (How and why does it do that? How much "credibility" would you get if you used the nickname and a made-up surname? What population would you like to test that effect in? What standards can you propose for journalists who don't work for the Times but still have to make ethics decisions?)

See what we mean by "God words"? "Believable" and "credible" are things we are obliged to respect, but they're not for us mortals to question. They belong to people who work for Poynter or the Times. Go about your business. You'll understand it all by and by.

Partly because this is so clearly not an "objective" decision -- because there's so clearly no relation between words like "believable," "credible," "reliable" and "valid" and the decision-making process that ought to be involved -- I'll toss in my personal response here. I wouldn't have found the story less credible without the name. If anything, I would have found it more credible. The Times has a tendency to overreact when it's under threat, and I'd like some assurance that the Times isn't turning down a legitimate request for anonymity because it's trying to make up for the sins of Judy Miller.

I started doing journalism for a living back in the late Cretaceous, and I don't yield to anyone -- Times, Poynter, Pope of Rome, whoever -- in my regard for "accurate, precise and substantive information." (One of the things I do in my current life is to keep track of assorted ways in which news organizations transgress against accuracy, precision and substance, but if you're a regular visitor here, you've probably noticed that.) The Times provided an important service with this story, but it followed up with what, on the evidence, was an inappropriate ethical response. I hope, as does anyone who's been around the table for an ethical crapshoot in journalism, that it isn't proven wrong.

* A term I first heard from a rather scary methods prof** a few years back
** OK, Bill Benoit
*** Credibility issues specific to the British press are more often down to the habit of some sectors -- we are looking straight at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday -- of "making stuff up," which is a different issue altogether.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Former cityside editor, 86, was Marvell critic

Jesse Helms, the iconoclastic senator from North Carolina who helped build the Republican Party in the South and fuel the conservative movement across the country, died at 1: 15 a.m. this morning, the Jesse Helms Center has reported. He was 86.

If you can't be picky in an obit, when can you be picky? Jesse Helms was certainly an "iconic" figure, but it's hard to think of any circumstances in which he could be considered "iconoclastic."

For a quick turnaround on an obit that's been in the can for a long time (so long that Your Correspondent even polished a version of it one night when Helms was in the hospital), this isn't too bad. It seems a little credulous on the Smith-Graham race, but perhaps that's just me. And it's kind of a shame to see no mention of the great "To His Coy Mistress" scandal, certainly an interesting Animal House-era portent of relations between the modern American right and the public university.*

Here's a brief summary. Freshman misinterprets assignment in comp class, complains to mother. Mother encounters radio editorialist at dinner party. Dan Pollitt picks up the tale in a 1991 interview for the Southern Oral History Project:

The mother told Jesse Helms that her daughter had told her that she had to write on "my first seduction" and the assignment was given by a young male graduate student.

Nothing was said about it being about this poem?

No. So Jesse Helms called the University and asked what was going on. "Are your young male graduate students trying to seduce the freshmen coeds this way?" And they didn't know anything about it, you know, and they said they'd call back. But in any event, Jesse went on the air.

During his editorials?

During his editorial and complained that the University was assigning…. That the freshmen coeds had to write about their love affairs to the young graduate students who naturally were trying to seek out what was doing around.

The TA in question was promptly removed from the classroom, though he was reinstated not long after. (And, I think, ended up a dean of some sort in the Frozen North; living well, and all that.) Interesting hint of things to come, though, isn't it?

While we're at it with the picky stuff? When you pull a file obit, any and all time references need an extra look. As in this cutline:

** FILE ** Jesse Helms leaves the Senate floor on Capitol Hill Oct. 2, 2002. Former Sen. Helms admits he was wrong about the AIDS epidemic, but believes integration was forced before its time by "outside agitators who had their own agendas," according to advance proofs of his upcoming memoir, "Here's Where I Stand," to be published in September 2005 by Random House.

Which, if nothing else, should have raised some suspicions about this sentence: His death comes months after he published a memoir in which he sought to define his legacy and soften his image.

Some days the impact of staff cutbacks is more evident than others.

* No doubt some of you also recall the Great KOMU Flag Pin Affair of September 2001.

Corrections that don't

Consider this a candidate for Worst Correction of the Year. It does almost nothing a correction should and almost everything a correction shouldn't:

An article in Thursday's Local News section about fireworks deaths should have said the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized eight cases of commercial fireworks in a garage in Mt. Pleasant this year as part of an investigation that was separate from a fireworks explosion last July that killed brothers Andy and Lee Impola of Independence Township.

Here, have some oxygen, and yes, one of the things corrections shouldn't do is try to set records for sentence length. That implies, or should imply, the main thing that corrections should do: Be clear. They have to allow a reader to find out where an error happened, which means enough detail but not a blizzard of trivia (sufficiency and relevance, if you're playing the home version of the Conversational Maxims game). They need to say exactly what was wrong; it's usually better not to repeat the error itself, but sometimes that can't be avoided. And then they need to provide correct information to replace the bad information.

What shouldn't they do? Corrections shouldn't say "should have." That's an open-ended, normative category. There's no stopping once we start down that road (which might not be a bad thing; imagine a correction like "An article on page 1A Wednesday should have been edited by somebody who had passed an undergraduate course in reasoning with statistics"). Corrections are about about specific events -- things that did happen, not things that should have happened. Of course you "should have" done the math, read the clip file, looked at the map, checked the URL, spelled it O-B-A-M-A, whatever. Save that for the annual review. The correction sets the record straight on what happened when you didn't.

How many different factual assertions might that "should have said" cover? Try putting "as opposed to" after each of these:
  1. An article in Thursday's Local News section
  2. the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  3. eight cases
  4. of commercial fireworks
  5. in a garage in Mt. Pleasant
  6. this year
  7. as part of an investigation that was separate from a fireworks explosion last July
OK, you could get overly picky here and continue: It was two other Impola brothers, not these two, or it was the Impola brothers from Royal Oak Township, not Independence Township. But you get the idea. I can't process the correction until I know what's being corrected, and I can't tell that without the original article. (Hint: If a correction sends you to yesterday's paper, it's a bad correction.) So forward to the recycling bin:

The same week Barse died, two brothers, Andy and Lee Impola, both of Independence Township, were killed in an explosion when they tried to make M-80-type explosives in a garage at their Lancaster Lakes apartment complex.

George Krappmann, a spokesman with the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the agency found eight cases of commercial fireworks in the garage where the Impola brothers were working.

So with some map searching and some guessing, it sounds like a little (5) and a lot of (6) and (7). Perhaps what we were trying to say -- or trying to avoid saying -- was on the order of:

An article Thursday incorrectly suggested that two fireworks investigations were related. The seizure of commercial fireworks in Mount Pleasant occurred this year and was not part of an investigation into a fatal explosion last year in Independence Township.

Again, that's mostly guesswork, and it does nothing to explain why -- if indeed it's the case that -- the paper attributed a bunch of false information to the BATF spokesman. But it's a start. Or at least a plea for corrections that justify their presence.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

It did?

Not to stack the deck or anything, but -- quick, what does this hed mean?

Apparently one of the kitties* unplugged the clue-charger overnight, because I didn't get the intended meaning until halfway through breakfast. The problem isn't that the meaning is unclear; it's that two meanings are perfectly clear, and my lingering first impression was the one that doesn't fit. "Walk" is the noun, no problem, and there's a prepositional phrase telling you which walk it is, and then the walk ... well, there's your trouble.

The hed-scanning part of the brain figured "stops" was a standard present-tense-equals-immediate-past-action sort of hed verb (as in "river stops rising" or "grandma stops shrinking"), which made "bus" the object of the preposition:

Walk [to bus] [stops growing]

But the hed writer meant:
Walk [to bus stops] [growing]

... with the auxiliary understood. Makes perfect sense when you think about it, and unfortunately that's the point. If you have to read the story to make sense of the hed, you have the wrong hed.

The easiest answer is to fix the verb. Just make it "will grow." In a perfect world, heds would never predict the future, but if the originating desk is confident enough not to hedge the lede, you certainly wouldn't be going beyond what's in the text.

* Probably Woodchuck

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Buy the magazine or ...

... the entire monolithic world of Islam will rise up as one and kill this cute, helpless puppy!

In case you thought we were just kidding about Fox News, we weren't. Here's an actual cute puppy (you can tell, because not only Fox but the highly reliable Daily Mail, whence the story originates, devotes headline space to pointing out its cuteness) whose only offense is trying to remind you not to call 9-9-9 unless it's an emergency, and what thanks does it get? Outrage! Anger! Furor!

Let's spend a little time on how "Cute police pup outrages Scottish Muslims" got to be the Sixth Most Super-Important Story in the World for Fox. After all, we've got slain pregnant women, missing teens, Iranian terror meddling, Saudi snarkiness about oil prices, the return of the Zodiac killer, and progress in Iraq to deal with. And before Fox goes overseas, it could look to its own affiliate here in Motown, which has actual video of an off-duty cop shooting the teen who tried to carjack him!

What Fox wants you to take away from this is that these people will never fit in. As Fox has relentlessly documented (often with the help of the British press), Muslims hate Barbie, Valentine's Day and children's stories. Cute puppies were only a matter of time.

The role of the British press is worth a bit of attention, because British press practice is often a lot different to what we're used to here in the colonies. What we do around here is called the "inverted pyramid" for a reason: broad assertion goes on top, then comes some evidence to support it, then some more evidence. What the Mail (and, to be fair, the still-respected-for-some-bizarre-reason Times) excels at is making the assertion, then conveniently leaving out the parts where your average American journalist would put some sort of quote or comment that actually supports the lede. Here's the Mail:

A postcard featuring a cute puppy sitting in a policeman's hat advertising a Scottish police force's new telephone number has sparked outrage from Muslims.

It'd be second nature for your average US J-grad (you guys can go ahead and check in if you want to) to, you know, follow up with some Tayside Muslims expressing their outrage.* Take it away, Daily Mail Reporter!

Dundee councillor Mohammed Asif said: 'My concern was that it's not welcomed by all communities, with the dog on the cards.'

Shock outrage furor.... er, not welcome!

'It was probably a waste of resources going to these communities.'

Furor outrage shock ... could we talk to some of his constituents, please?

Well, the short answer is "no," and there's a reason for that. If you start asking people direct questions about whether your lede is true, you might find out that it isn't. Much better to just sort of waltz around, tossing in the occasional quote that sounds sort of like it might be kind of close to the topic. That's one of those British journalistic skills that we can only look on and despair.

So a reminder, from yesterday's entry. Some news organizations screw up every now and then (and spare a kind thought for your friends in peril at McClatchy; they're trying to cover the same amount of front with 10% less infantry than they had a month ago). Some news organizations make stuff up as a matter of policy. Guess which one Fox is?

* Extending it to all the Muslims in Scotland is Fox's doing. There's a lot to be said for enterprise.