Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hail the new

To all you usual suspects, and nearly all you unusual suspects, and most of the rest of you (except the obnoxious clown in Anhui who wants us all to buy some gold or something): All best wishes from me, Language Czarina, and the Official Research Kitties for a happy and prosperous new year. Thanks to all of you who have joined in the dialogue, and please come back often and encourage your friends to do the same.

Now, all hands stand by to splice the mainbrace.

Need it in words of one syllable?

OK. In case you missed the discussion three months ago, when the evil Islamic (or was it Satanic?) plot to plunge Baby Cuddle and Coo into America's heart like the tubby little plastic stiletto she is was first revealed, the answer is "no." She does not say "Islam is the light." Nor does she say "Satan is king." She didn't do any of that stuff in October, and she doesn't do it now.

Yes, it's entirely possible that some of your readers think BC&C is the camel's nose in the hitherto inviolate tent of the Carolinas. They are stupid (having enabled comments on most of your routine news coverage, you should have noticed this already). You should tell them so, rather than encouraging them to be even stupider.

Isn't this getting a little embarrassing yet? No one in his/her/their right mind thought this was a story when a few right-wing loonies first floated it last fall. No one in his/her/their right mind gives it any credence now. Wow, some moron in your circulation area -- sorry, a part of a nearby state where you could sell a few newspapers, back in the days when you actually sought to provide regional news coverage -- falls for this babbling Chicken Little nonsense, and you're giving it space on your front page? What's the point of that exactly?

Secret coded messages have been a good way of separating the stupid from their money for many centuries now. In an era in which we desperately need to demonstrate that mass media are worth keeping around because they do stuff right, it's really hard to understand why any competent professionals would deliberately steer for the sort of near-criminal cluelessness invoked by the abovementioned tale. Honestly -- who are you trying to kid with this stuff?

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Today's hed is a reminder that, however awesome your diagramming skills get, some "grammar" just isn't amenable to understanding without context. If you replace the current secretary of state with the previous one -- "Powell, wife defend president" -- you get rather a different meaning, which calls for some digression into the unruliness of nouns.

Even in a narrow category, like the ones that express family relationships, nouns are slippery characters. Usually, when a cousin or brother or aunt or grandnephew shows up in a news story, it's in the context of someone who's already been introduced or whose aura hangs over the whole thing (Billy Carter could enter a story first, but only because his brother was president). Exceptions come in two categories: man-bites-doggedness, which is why "Grandma robs bank" is a plausible* hed and "Cousin robs bank" isn't, and pathos, which is why the only Fox News hedline NP that trumps Missing Mom is Missing Pregnant Mom.

Even when there's another person in the hed, a family noun doesn't necessarily show a relationship with that person: "Grandma Robs Bank, Endorses Bush," for example, or "Bush Expresses Concern About Missing Mom." But "wife" isn't usually in that category; it wants to point to someone, and we can extract a couple useful rules about how that relationship seems to work.

If there's only one noun in the hed, that's where "wife" points: "Wife defends Bush" means "Laura Bush defends Bush." If "wife" is part of a compound, it stays in the compound: "Powell, wife defend Bush" means "Colin and Alma defend Bush." Make sense? Sure, until you get to "Rice, wife defend Bush." If your readers remembered to pack their Context (and unfortunately, they probably did), no one's going to be confused for more than a second. But that's not the sort of bet you want to place on just any proper name.

I am trying really, really hard not to comment on the actual content of the interviews, but if that's how Condi Rice handled her comps defense, somebody should have hit her upside the head with a copy of Politics Among Nations and told her to come back when she was ready.

* If (almost presumptively) sexist and ageist; kids, don't try that one at home.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Giant sucking sound (a slight return)

Quick, what do these fronts have in common? (Clockwise from upper left: Columbia, Cleveland, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando.) Or, put more accurately, what do they not have that they don't have in common?

If your answer was on the order of "a single freaking word about Saturday's striking escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," you may step forward and claim your prize (unless you are violently horking in the bathroom or busily using the new Erector set Santa brought you to elevate your jaw from the floor, both quite reasonable reactions). And once again, we can venture a generalization that if your newspaper couldn't be bothered to mention this development anywhere on its front page, your newspaper deeply, truly, actively, genuinely, deliberately, enthusiastically sucks.

You will note we aren't demanding that newspapers staff the Near East themselves these days (though the regional press had a long tradition of providing good overseas reporting through the simple expedient of sending good reporters overseas). Nor do we suggest that you lop a dozen columns off your sports section and hand 'em over to news of Faraway Places (this is an avowedly realist blog, but it tries to be a practical one as well). We aren't even saying you have to lead with the thing.
But it would be nice if you folks in the glass offices took your agenda-setting role a little more seriously. For at least a few more months of the foreseeable future, the front page of a big newspaper is going to be a stopping point: People can pick it up and have some rough idea of some of the bigger events of the past day that they ought to be thinking about. Think of it as a news aggregator that works even when the power goes down. Perhaps we might want to work a little harder at reminding readers that there's a world out there beyond college football and the musings of a stableful of local columnists,

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Corrections that don't

The Times calls this a "postscript," rather than a "correction":

An article on Tuesday previewing a report from President-elect Barack Obama about communications that his advisers had with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich over filling Mr. Obama’s Senate seat said that Michael Strautmanis, a longtime aide to Mr. Obama who once worked for Governor Blagojevich, was “expected to be mentioned” in the report. He was not.

... and you can see why, more or less. Corrections are about binary true-and-false stuff, and it may well be that the original assertion is true -- somebody was "expected to be mentioned" and wasn't.* But it's still a chunk of data in the corrections column, and as such it's still unsatisfying, especially if you're used to seeing corrections introduced by "due to an editing error" or "because of incorrect information provided to the Daily Beagle."

What we're missing here is some indication of who did the expecting (the original is not only passive but agentless). Was it the reporter or a source? If the latter, why was the assertion thought to be worth printing? (Or, actively, who decided the thing was worth printing?) Are those the sorts of things readers ought to be told so they can better assess the reliability of stuff they read in the future?

Inquiring minds might also enjoy the Big Soviet Encyclopedia-style edit on the original story, which the Times links to out of the correction:

At least two other names also are expected to be mentioned in the review.

Valerie Jarrett, a close friend to the Obama family who is a co-chairwoman of the transition effort, could also be referred to in the report.

Where did that "also" in the second graf come from? Here's what the story looks like at Lexis-Nexis:

At least two other names also are expected to be mentioned in the review, including Michael Strautmanis, a longtime aide to Mr. Obama who once worked for Mr. Blagojevich.

Valerie Jarrett, a close friend to the Obama family who is a co-chairwoman of the transition effort, could also be referred to in the report.

From an ethics perspective, that's an interesting idea -- try to mitigate the harm you've done by scrubbing the record. But it's unusual enough that it adds to the suspicion that we aren't being told enough about the error.

UPDATE: Doug Fisher, genial host of Common Sense Journalism, touched on that and other issues in a wise posting a couple days back ago. Worth your time, as always.

* I suppose that if "he was not" meant "he was not expected to be mentioned," the thing would have been called a correction after all, but that's getting kinda cosmic.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Pin the prepositional phrase on ...

Today's quiz! Based on the cutline, where were:
1) The rampage
2) The party
3) The news conference?

The Basic Rule of news agency cutlines is: Never run 'em verbatim. They're annoyingly literal, meaning they often commit the offense of telling you what your eyes have already told you (be thankful, at least, that the cop isn't gesturing as he points as he reacts). They stack information without regard to how it might go together, so "rampage at a Christmas party during a news conference" is interchangeable with "news conference about a rampage at a Christmas party." And they always need to be tweaked for style; your archivist needs to know that the rampage/party/conference was "Thursday, Dec. 25, 2008," but for publication we call that one "Thursday."

All of which leaves aside the larger question: What's so interesting about a picture of a guy standing in front of a bunch of microphones? That's part of what a murder story looks like, just as "He was the nicest guy you could imagine. Always a pleasure to talk to, always a big smile"* is part of what one sounds like. Given that the Good Ship Journalism is still taking on water and we're looking for stuff to throw over the side, maybe this is a good time to dump a few assumptions about the nature and appearance of news.

* Optional: "He was kind of a loner. Always kept to himself."


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Oops, wrong holiday

All together, flashlights under chins:

A suspected armed robber lead police on a chase through north Charlotte on Christmas Eve. That chase ended on Eerie Street in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood when a gold Cadillac crashed right into a fence.

Setting aside the carelessness with verbs and the puppyish enthusiasm of "right into a fence" -- dear TV reporter, would this drama by any chance have unfolded on "Erie Street," running south off LaSalle in Lincoln Heights?

Things get worse, as they usually do when you hand the car keys over to your broadcast "news partner":

When police saw it on the road they started to follow, that’s when the chase started. (Yes, that does seem to be the way these things start.) Police tell me the car blew a tire and veered through a yard and that’s when the two men inside jumped out and over a fence. Officers were able to catch them on the other side.

Not to belabor the point too thoroughly or anything, but -- if we're going to bet the franchise on local-local-local, you think we might want to invest in a couple of maps?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Right on schedule, actually

Sigh. Barely is the ink dry on this heartbreaking lede* of stunning originality in the Washington Post:

CHRISTMAS HAS come early for General Motors and Chrysler.

... when the Freep checks in with this annoying McClatchyism:

WASHINGTON -- 'Tis the season for making whoopee.

And this sports hed:
'Tis season for good hoops games

Did the buyouts really get everybody who remembered the Great Cliches? If so, maybe we want to reconsider.

* Onpassed from the Upper Hinkson bureau by an agent who was editing for a paper in yet another time zone altogether. The online age doesn't look quite as depressing when it has editors in it.


What's missing?

Today's quiz: What's missing from this story?

Some lesser questions are interspersed here and there, but don't be distracted from the main point, because it more or less goes to the Question of the Age in journalism and j-education: If you don't have a clue in the first place, who cares how many media platforms you're fluent in?

A south Charlotte homeowner held a shooting suspect at gunpoint in his garage until police could arrive and arrest the man.

Name Here, Sr., said he and his neighbors have had a problem with break-ins, and he thought he was going to be a victim of one when he saw an unfamiliar man sprinting across his back patio Saturday afternoon.
(Lots of familiar men sprinting across patios in south Charlotte these days, huh?)

“My mom saw him coming out,” said his son, Name Here, Jr. “She was screaming, and my dad grabbed my rifle that he'd been showing my grandfather…"

It just so happened that at that moment, Here, Jr. had been showing off his early Christmas present – a brand new deer rifle. (Could we get some ages here, please? Because at some point -- even before we learn the style rule about commas and "Jr." -- we're going to want to figure out whether junior is Name or Here on second reference.) As the family ran upstairs, Here, Sr. grabbed the rifle, loaded it, and headed to the garage. He cornered the man behind his car and told him to put his hands up. (Did Santa leave the ammunition and the rifle under the tree together? Because he has some pretty screwed-up ideas about gun safety if he did.)

“He was yelling don’t move an inch,” Here, Jr. said he heard his father yell. “If you move an inch put your hands up.” (He heard his father yell "He was yelling don't move an inch"? Just wondering.)

“If he moved I was going to shoot,” said Here, Sr. “And I didn’t really want to shoot but you know, you have to be ready.”

The suspect wrecked his car at the intersection behind the Here’s house, scaled the wall into their back yard, and ran.
(Absent some kind of transition, this sounds as if it's next in the sequence: Sundance threatens the "suspect," suspect wrecks car and flees. Canst clarify? And while at it, canst look up the style on plural possessives?)

While Here, Sr. kept the man at gunpoint in the garage, his daughter climbed on the roof outside her window and flagged down police by waving her arms and ringing a cow bell. (Let's be sure we have this straight: The family keeps an emergency cowbell upstairs, but not a telephone? What do you do, play "Mississippi Queen" to summon the cops?) She could see the car wreck from her window. Police were already in the area looking for the shooting suspect.

“There’s cop cars circling around here and like six cop cars out there,” said Here, Jr.

Police arrived at the Here’s home and arrested the man, and the neighborhood returned to the quiet Saturday afternoon it had enjoyed before all the excitement began.

“It was exciting but at the same time looking back a little scary,” said Here, Jr. “Because it could have been worse.”

Police had not released the suspect’s name as of late Saturday night, but said detectives were questioning him about the shooting.

It sounds worse than normal news writing, but that's partly because it isn't meant to be read. Broadcast journalese is something you speak, preferably while standing At The Scene with emergency vehicles in the background. It needs to be reconfigured for print. But that's only part of the problem. When you converge with your broadcast news partner, you're basically handing over the keys. Unless you're careful, all your standards -- fairness, accuracy, levels of sourcing, levels of identification, anything -- are going to be calibrated to whatever's in play that day over at EyeWitlessAction9News, and that's not a very compelling claim on people who still expect their news to have gone through some gatekeeping.

But back to the main question: What's missing from today's story? Pls check in at the comments.

UPDATE! And this just in, clue bazooka goes off at WCNC! The story's now topped to make the suspect a "break-in suspect"; the family called 911 instead of relying on the cowbell, and the Mystery Question is answered thus:

It turns out, police were looking for a man after a shooting in neighboring Grier Heights. They believed the man who wrecked his car at the intersection behind the Here's house, scaled the wall into their back yard, and ran, could be the suspect they were looking for. ... Police said late Saturday night that the man cornered in Here's garage was determined not to be a suspect in the Grier Heights shooting -- he merely got frightened after the wreck and ran because he had a revoked driver's license.

No explanation of why a wildly erroneous story was posted Sunday if that's what the cops said "late Saturday night" (which is also the time of the attribution in the original), or why the original is still up at the Observer's site as of this writing (3p Sunday), or why anybody thought to post such a tale without asking a few elementary questions about it in the first place.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Modifier of the morning

Typos on their own aren't especially interesting. But when it's in the hed and the lede:

One of two burglarly suspects who cut off electronic monitoring ankle bracelets Tuesday in Charlotte was caught late Wednesday, police say.

... it looks more like imitation than typo. If you guys are trying to convince me the online product is a reliable way to get news, could you at least start by giving it a routine edit?*

I'm reminded of a talented slot editor (now causing damage in the high management ranks) who, at the release of the movie "Barfly," was dismayed that the world had lost a chance at the greatest Pirate Adjective of all time: "Ar, he was a barfly lad!"

* While you're at it? Just turn off the comments on news stories. Your readers are morons.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dumb modification funnies

Sometimes in our haste to cram in those mandatory signature modifiers -- your "controversial," your "war-torn," your "saffron-robed," your "flamboyant" -- we risk forgetting that they're supposed to get along with all the words they talk to. Here are a couple from today's browse:*

Former embattled congressman requests passport
An overseas golf trip ruined his career and landed him to prison. But former Ohio Congressman Bob Ney appears ready to resume his travels.

Well, sorta. He's a former congressman, and we can't strictly call him "embattled" now that he's out of the clink and has his passport back, and if he was no longer embattled but still a congressman he'd be a formerly embattled congressman, but it still seems we're missing the point a bit. At the least, "embattled" should have had the decency to be overtaken by "disgraced" or "convicted" or something.

Here's one that looks like another Secret Handshake of the AP style cult gone awry:
As people headed inside St. Paul AME Church in east Macon to hear controversial the Rev. Jeremiah Wright deliver a revival sermon Monday, a band of nearly 20 people, led by a local radio talk show host, protested the visit.

That's to distinguish him from all the ordinary the Rev. Jeremiah Wrights who were sermonizing in Macon's AME churches at the weekend. (Though you need to be really careful here, lest you confuse the reader: "Oh, I thought you meant incendiary the Rev. Jeremiah Wright!") What's interesting, though, is the way the desk chose to read the style rule about always using the article with "reverend" (I'm guessing it's the desk, because writers -- even bad ones -- don't usually do that sort of stuff to their own prose).

That rule is rooted in the idea that "reverend" is an adjective, like "honorable," so it shouldn't be mistaken for a noun title -- General, Marchioness or Doctor, for example. It's the sort of rule that raises a lot of questions: why some people get adjectives on first reference and others don't, and whether "reverend" is indeed a noun used for clerics (yes, since early in the 17th century**), and why -- since educated native speakers have no problem producing or comprehending "Rev. Jeremiah Wright" -- we keep insisting that it isn't grammatical to drop the article. But it's much more fun to ask what sort of adjective "reverend" must be if it fits in "controversial the Rev. Jeremiah Wright."

If they're coordinate adjectives, we ought to be able to swap them around. So he could be either "controversial, Rev. Jeremiah Wright" or "Rev., controversial Jeremiah Wright," right? No, that's not going to work. But if they're cumulative, the determiner still has to come first; you can say "the full English breakfast" but not "full the English breakfast." And let's not even get into compounds.

I'd like to put the "the Rev." rule up for abandonment if we ever get around the the Great Style Summit. It doesn't really support a grammatical principle, it goes against a widely accepted standard for no good reason, and it's inherently unequal: Why does AP grant cool titles to people who graduate from seminaries but not to people who graduate from doctoral programs? But until then, we should at least keep people from doing dumb stuff with adjectives in print.

* To be precise, guilty-pleasure-wise, from consecutive items over to the Wonkette. News language is everywhere.
** Much longer than "blog," which the AP has no problem with.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Man eating tiger

If you're among those people who think copy editors are supercilious semi-pedants who don't even understand the rules they claim to venerate, hang on. Somebody downtown is about to hand you a fresh box of ammunition.

Bit of back story, on the off chance your newspaper doesn't keep you up to date on the Fractious Near East. Hamas is marking its 21st anniversary,* and the proceedings include a skit in which a guy plays a captive Israeli soldier pleading for his freedom. Here's the AP:

In the skit, Hamas paraded a Palestinian speaking Hebrew and dressed in an Israeli soldier's uniform -- a reference to Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, captured by Hamas-allied militants in June 2006. "I miss my Mom and Dad," said the man playing the Israeli soldier, kneeling as he spoke.

Seems pretty clear, doesn't it? A Palestinian (speaking in Hebrew) is playing an Israeli soldier. Let's see how the Freep handles it:

In the skit, Hamas paraded a Palestinian-speaking Hebrew dressed in an Israeli soldier's uniform -- a reference to Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, captured by Hamas-allied militants in June 2006.

One of my favorite Fowlerisms is the example for hyphenating noun-participle combinations: the need to distinguish "man eating tiger" from "man-eating tiger." That's the difference here. Rather than, oh, asking the AP why it's using a different transliteration of Shalit's family name and when he was promoted,** the Freep is changing the meaning of the sentence about as far as it can be changed: from "Hebrew-speaking Palestinian" to "Palestinian-speaking Hebrew."

There's a lot you have to not know to produce an edit like that -- whether it's appropriate to call people Hebrews, or whether Palestinian is a language -- over and above the ability to forget all the context in one paragraph before moving on to the next. If the Freep is intent on showing that the copy desk is little more than a dangerously inflamed appendix on the body journalistic, it's off to a good start.

* Interesting to think how different the world looked in December 1987, isn't it?
** I honestly don't know; AP has him a corporal as recently as May, and the Times has "Cpl. Gilad Shalit" (the spelling Ha'aretz's English edition uses) in a story from Dec. 4. If any Middle Eastern readers can shed light on the topic, please feel free.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


Anyone else have the same reaction I did to the Freep's opinion-section ComposoGraph today? (It's even cooler at full size, though the streak at upper right looks a little less like a surface-to-air missile.) Radioactive dinosaur that ate Tokyo? Eggplant that ate Chicago? You make the call!

Risible photo illustrations aside, though, there is a point worth pondering over the next month or so. Lots of news organizations have had trouble figuring out when and under what conditions to cast the November election as a political event and when (to the extent they're different) its social/historical aspect takes over. That's not surprising; it was both those things, and anyone who claims to know exactly where the dividing line falls (when, and to the extent that, there is one) has probably got a bridge to sell you too.
Regular reader Garrett passed along a nice bit of overnight content analysis after the election: After the "Obama wins" category, the biggest groupings of hed themes, with several dozen each, were "Change has come," "Obama" (alone or with punctuation) and "History." A few steps down, there's a cluster of "Yes he did" (10) and "Yes we can" (9). If I'd been playing along, I might have added a bin for references to the civil rights momement, because a couple of those stood out: "In our lifetime" (Anniston) and "Obama reaches the mountaintop" (Newark). But Garrett certainly came away with an informative snapshot of how editors made that spur-of-the-moment decision; no doubt we'll be seeing academic papers on the topic by August or so.
I don't know that I'd disagree with any of those first-day approaches outright (though it's always nice to have some evidence before proclaiming the advent of "Change"). As we get down to the business of sizing up interests and handing out political goods, though, it's worth remembering that at some point we're going to have to put away the crayons and get back to reporting about those interests and those goods.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eke, a mouse

It's not nice to pick on spelling blunders for their own sake, or even pairs of blunders for their own sake,* but as long as the whole front page is given over to football, basketball and more football, couldn't we at least pay some attention to the big type on the day's most super-important story?

Sorry, you're right. We forgot the world news: Russian blonde wins beauty pageant! And the cop news:
Police: Career criminal behind bars after chase
Wow! That must be important!

The man behind an alleged crime spree lasting almost two decades is finally behind bars.
(Uh ... if we're declaring our named party the criminal mastermind behind it all, why are we bothering to qualify "alleged crime spree"?)

His own family tells NewsChannel 36 they are glad he is behind bars. (Thanks, Mom!)

A family owned gas station, an unbelievable crime, an SUV smashing through the doors, a thief after lottery tickets. Store customers saw the owners clean up, then it happened again.
(Do we seem to be setting the bar a little low here for "unbelievable"? Just wondering)

Four times police say Name Here drove that same SUV into the store, always after lottery tickets which were sometimes claimed for cash. (Why do we seem to have a mugshot of a Crown Vic "like this one" but not of the sort of SUV that gets poked through the doors of a gas station every couple weeks? Just wondering)

A high speed chase this week ending with Here behind bars. Records show he's been jailed in Rowan County for theft, Henderson and Macon for fraud, arrested in Davie, Yadkin and Mecklenburg County after high speed police pursuits over the last 19 years. (Is this the two-decade crime spree of which the Moriarty of the Piedmont is finally behind bars? If so, it looks like it's the sort of spree interrupted by rather a lot of time in the clink.)

“It's so unbelievable because he's such a good person.” Anna Gaddis said she did not realize her neighbor also spent three years in a federal prison after he drove around in a Ford Crown Vic like this one, posing as a postmaster, stealing corporate checks from mailboxes, including a 63-thousand dollar check from this business in Charlotte. (Has this been rewritten at all from the TV script? Aside from the near-illiterate bursts of broadcast style, that's a lot of deixis for stuff I can't see.)

To be apocalyptic for a moment: I'm apparently about to stop getting a daily paper, and it's not my idea. The people downtown will still make some newspapers, but they'll only deliver them when they have enough inserts to make it worthwhile (Thursday, Friday, Sunday). This is supposed to be a good thing, since we can all read the paper online and it'll be just like Real Journalism. And in the online world, football is so important you don't even have to spell to like it. World news is something with hot! Russian! blondes! The offlede is high school football. And your standards for fairness and good ethical practice in local reporting are set by EyeWitless36.**

Is anybody out there still planning to produce journalism for people who, you know, actually like to read a newspaper that has pertinent stuff written and edited by grownups? I'm sort of hoping there's a market.

* Lest ye forget, there's a Sesame Street moment at the end of "Oklahoma!" in which the whole cast conveniently spells out the name of the state for you! In case you really were having trouble recalling it or didn't have time to look at a map or something.
** Did I miss it, or was there some point in the last 25 years when the news product at WCNC was anything north of a really lurid joke?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Another good distinction lost

When you get these three grafs on the front of what was once a carefully edited paper (and remains a pretty large one):

When World War II bomber pilot Charlie Brown is laid to rest Saturday, his burial will close a chapter on one of the most remarkable war stories in modern history.

It's a tale of two pilots -- one American, the other German -- and of a bloody, deadly battle in the sky that led to an extraordinary friendship.

Brown, a fighter pilot, scientist, engineer and happy-hour connoisseur, died last month of heart complications.

... you have to wonder whether "bomber" and "fighter" still mean different things in American journalism. This is, after all, the week in which the AP credited Japanese fighters with sinking half a dozen battleships at Pearl Harbor, and I don't want to even thinking about going back to count references to John McCain (or George Bush the elder) as fighter pilots. From those examples, it's tempting to conclude that anything with one engine is understood to be a "fighter," but given today's Herald piece, I'm not so sure. Maybe we're drifting toward a state in which all combat aircraft are "fighters," with "bombers" just a subset of that. Surely the writer can't have actually looked at the picture (or sat around and listened to people talking) and gotten the idea that those were the same sort of aircraft.

This would have been a nice, easy catch for a copy editor, and a nice thing to paint on the turret as a reminder during the next round of buyouts. But I don't know if it's the sort of thing the Herald would even bother to correct. Should we start a pool?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A shadow of the past

For your evening enjoyment, a bit of crystal-ball work by the AP, April 2003:

WASHINGTON -- When war ends in Iraq, President Bush will quickly shift focus to his 2004 re-election campaign and the issue that kept his father from winning a second term: a weak economy.

... "I believe the president will emerge from the war with enhanced ability to stimulate the economy," said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a close ally of the White House.

... The economy may dominate, but the war on terrorism will remain a significant issue in Bush's campaign.

"All he's got to do is remind voters that this is a dangerous age and that Democrats, at best, have a lukewarm support for the military," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. He said the conflict in Iraq may not fade from view as quickly as Democrats would like.

So how's that working out for you guys, anyway?

Active aggressive: Pending spree

Today's puzzler: How did this one come about?

At the time of the wreck, she was pending trial on September charges of speeding and driving while her license was revoked.

Pending further review, I'm inclined to classify this as a special case of overcorrecting. The writer's trying to turn something that looks passive ("trial was pending for her") into something that looks active ("she was pending trial"). Trouble is, this "pending" isn't a form of the verb "pend," which your 4th New World lists as intransitive anyway,* so it doesn't have verbacious characteristics like voice. We need the adjective "pending" -- variously, "not decided," "about to happen," or "awaiting decision or settlement" -- with a linking verb if we want to emphasize the trial or the charges. For the person, we could simply go with "awaiting" trial.

You're expecting a lot out of your readers if you want them to be interested in a hed like "Anna Lisa Smith was ejected in one-car wreck"; she's much more sensibly identified on the inside page as "track owner's daughter." And it is to be hoped that there's some other source for her alleged ambition to be a drag racer than a single Web site. But the real fun here seems to be another case of active-aggressive syndrome. Down is to be calmed out there in the trenches, OK?

* You can find a couple of transitive "pend" uses in the OED. Under the most recent, it looks as if a trial could be "pended," but not by the defendant and not in the sense we have here.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stop giggling, dammit, this is grammar

OK. You may all now raise your hands if you read this Fox hed the same way I did. I think there's a reason for that, but if any of you grownup language people would like to jump in with a real explanation, please do.

To start with, your brain has a lot to do, so when it can take a shortcut, it does. As you read the news, your brain is looking for ways to make sense of it all, so it's happy when a story fits a particular category at first glance --- no problem figuring out what folder the story goes in.* So if you're a regular Fox reader, "inflatable mattress sex" goes in the folder marked "People Bonking Durable Goods" -- as in, oh, "Cops: Man tried to have sex with a fence."

Why that folder? Because your brain also knows that headlines are supposed to be about what's different or unusual, and today's particular combination of noun and attributive noun modifier has its own folder to accommodate just such a signal -- say, "Jail time dropped in Dubai beach sex trial." So we can't mean "place," because that's boring. Taste in mattresses -- inflatable, Craftmatic, Posturepedic, whatever -- just isn't the stuff dreams are made of, hedwise.

Out of today's story, then, the Foxsters chose the least interesting -- and the most heuristically misleading -- hed approach possible:
... seven Spirit Creek Middle School faculty members have been implicated in a series of incidents that included daytime sexual encounters on an inflatable mattress in the school's public safety office.

Evidently there's a planet somewhere on which "inflatable mattress" is more interesting than "broad daylight in the freakin' public safety office." Its signal seems to be coming through loud and clear at Fox.

* Which, of course, is why certain specific points of view stand to gain when the War On Terror Dust is sprinkled around too liberally in your news copy. Framing is often misunderstood, but it ain't a joke.

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... or are you just glad to see me?

Wouldn't start the morning without NPR, but ... do you get the idea that there are some topics on which NPR's coverage is occasionally less reliable than others?

Correction: In some versions of this interview, we said N.Y. Giants player Plaxico Burress had shot himself with a "40-millimeter Glock." We should have said .40-caliber.

With tnx to Regret the Error, another high-priority stop on the daily rounds.

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Satan doll

And this just in (actually, this just in from March 2003 but dredged up in the course of some ongoing researchitude):

Iran's late leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini,* labeled the United States "the great Satin."

Thanks, America's Newspapers!

* Copydesk couldn't be bothered to look up the given name, one guesses.

Monday, December 08, 2008

They did, did they?

They called her the Mother Teresa of Genesis Park, so determined was she to feed the stomachs and spirits of the homeless in what was once one of Charlotte's meanest neighborhoods.

Two questions:
1) Who's "they"?
2) What evidence supports the assertion in the first clause?

This isn't as likely to raise eyebrows in a commemorative story, like an obit, as it might in something that made serious assertions about public opinion. But it's still dicey. If the only support for the "Mother Teresa" line is the subject's comment in an earlier interview (I'm having trouble tracking it down, but it seems her age was more precisely known than "in her early 60s" at that writing), we need to be a bit more careful about turning it into what "they called her." That's how one set of estimates can mushroom into "studies show"; the Guardian's ombud has a nice dissection of just such a phenomenon here.

Nice little pronouns shouldn't stray too far from their antecedents. Even when they think the angels are on their side.

Separated by a common hed sked

This one's probably not a record for strange modification in British heds, but it ought to win some sort of medal anyway. You can imagine why it's the most e-mailed story on the Beeb at this writing:

A drink-driver who killed a father and son in a motorway crash was performing a sex act on himself minutes before the collision, a court heard.

The judge's restraint is noteworthy:

Judge Andrew Blake told him: "At the least it must have been a symptom you were not giving your full attention to driving."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Death to all modifiers, he declared one day

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Tongan marines left with a song, their vowel-rich war choruses echoing in the marble halls of a palace built for Saddam Hussein but now occupied by the U.S. military.

Raising only a few questions: What would a vowel-deprived war chorus sound like? ("From the halls of Brno and Plzen" doesn't seem likely to fit the meter.) Are Iraqi children who grew up vowel-poor, with just the occasional diphthong for Sunday dinner, going to remember the generous Tongans wistfully in decades to come? Where does "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" fit on the war-chorus-vowel scale? How come you can write "humuhumunukunukuapuaa" using just the vowels available in standard Arabic and still have vowels left over?

Sounds like it's time to propose another small set of confidence-building measures in the Strunk and White Wars. The Adjective/Adverb Working Group suggests these propositions:

1) Some adjectives are really good
2) Some adjectives are really awful
3) Learning how to Write Good is a difficult process that, in part, involves learning to make that distinction and others like it

The S&W-bashers have no end of fun over the years noting that Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" is better at prescribing rules than at following its own -- particularly in the case of modifiers. Geoff Pullum puts it eloquently:

Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6% of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories, whether they're good or bad.

Or, more broadly, you don't get good writing by the rote application of "rules" to bad writing -- especially if you don't understand that concepts like "use the active voice" are really good in some cases, OK in others (as long as fear-of-passive isn't distracting you from bigger problems) and genuinely stupid in yet others. Trouble is, it's stretching a point to call this a rule: It's listed, along with "write with nouns and verbs," under S&W's "suggestions and cautionary hints." And it borders on egregious decontextualizing to find a "prohibition on the use of adjectives and adverbs" in a paragraph that calls them "indispensable parts of speech."

Now that both sides can agree that adjectives are right handy little tools sometimes, let's look at the flip side: the uncounted zillions of adjectives that would have been better left in the dictionary than drawn into some writer's attempt to sound writerly.

How do they go wrong? The general category exemplified by "vowel-rich war choruses" is one way, and it's the kind we'd like to expect an amen from the Language Log gang on: I'm not quite sure what I need to say, but that stuff sounds weird, so I'll call it something pseudo-linguistic, whether the result means anything or not.

Here's another (just to rein things in, let's stay within the A section of a major metropolitan newspaper): The as-opposed-to adjective, meant to make a newspaper sound like something friendly from third grade or EyeWitnessActionNews5.

Inside, stinky manure from 3,500 cows and 9,400 pigs is being fermented and turned into electricity. ... The manure is pumped into large insulated tanks, where it's heated to the ideal temperature for tiny bacteria in it to work on producing methane gas.

Or the belief that the way to distinguish a feature story from a news story is to put an adjective in front of any noun that looks lonesome:

The round metal building with its green dome looks only slightly out of place next to barns full of mooing cows. It takes up about a third of an acre, inconspicuous on the sprawling Scenic View Dairy farm, surrounded by dirt roads and acres of tasseled corn.

"Green" has a lot of merit as an adjective ("dude, is bacon supposed to be green before you cook it?"), but it isn't very exciting when it comes to describing domes. "Mooing" is kind of the normal condition of cows; you really want something like "invisible" or "Uzi-wielding" if you're going to modify cows in some way that makes the reader sit up and take notice. And "tasseled" -- look, I'm still sort of new here, but it started snowing last month. Do you guys normally have tasseled corn in the fields the first week of December?

Here's another category, perhaps closer to what S&W had in mind, under the hed "Surgeon's inspiring tale shot in Detroit":

His remarkable story is the subject of the new movie "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," shot in metro Detroit in recent weeks.

"Inspiring" and "remarkable" aren't there to limit or explain or specify or do the other important things adjectives do. They're there to tell you how to feel, but they don't suggest much effort on the writer's side -- hence the age-old "Don't tell me, show me" of city desks and writing classes.

Strunk and White seem to be getting at exactly what they're getting at: Don't use random modifiers to get out of the work of writing. If you pick a wrong noun, don't expect to fix it with an adjective. Those aren't shortcuts to the sort of good writing* Pullum describes, but the Adjective-Adverb Working Group would like to think we can still admit them to the list of Stuff Writers Ought To Know About.

* For the record, the Log in general has some of the best day-to-day writing I run across. And we have a fun parlor trick for editing class tomorrow: Which scores higher on the Flesch-Kincaid reading level test, Arnold Zwicky explaining distributed vs. narrow readings of adjectives or the AP describing a tornado?

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Reply hazy: Ask again later

Tell you what. Since you guys can't make up your minds, why don't you give me the 50 cents and I'll provide the answers:

Sounds likely
Don't bet on it

Does that clear things up?

Really, though, this is one of those breathtaking, DiMaggiovian, tell-the-grandkids-you-were-there achievements in 1A hed writing.* Not two, not three, but four Stupid Question heds above the fold! (If you missed it, the fourth is "$1 gas?" in the armpit of the lead.) It'd be nice if newspapers calmed down and just told you stuff.

* True, the Freep has four bangers on the front today: "Win $2,500!" "Take the money and shop!" "Noel Night tonight!" "(Holiday) Lights, camera, action!" But they're all in reefers, one's below the fold, and Orlando has two exclamation points downpage anyway.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Reasons to like the Motor City

If you play your radio buttons right (hey, kids, remember radio buttons?), you're never more than about two or three minutes from a traffic report. This core component of local journalism has produced one of my favorite lexical additions of the past year: "gawker delays," or more elegantly "gawkage." The traffic reports rely on a casual matter-of-factness, evidenced in this morning's gem from the U's excellent public station:

696 east before Dequindre, car hood in the center lane ... don't hit that.

Please, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. Help Detroit keep those car hoods coming.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Going off the tracks

Eventually, when you cut the staff and squeeze out the world news and cut the staff again and buy out all the pesky old coots who used to process news, all your heds are going to end up looking something like this:

High-profile bombings
skew truth about Iraq
Which is genuinely awful on a couple of levels. First, as a matter of elementary craftsmanship, compare it to the version on the Web:

Commander: High-profile bombings skew truth about Iraq
Not real subtle when you see 'em together, is it? The attribution changes everything; the first hed asserts a condition about Iraq, and the second asserts a condition about something somebody said. It's one of the most basic things a copy editor can know. It makes its most salient difference in cop reporting, and if you can't tell the difference between the assertions of fact in
Smith hits Jones upside head with stick
Police report says Smith hit Jones upside head with stick
you're in for a nasty, brutish and long day on the witness stand, and you deserve every minute of it.

A lot of what journalism does, for better or worse, is report stuff that might on its own be painful or defamatory or stupid but needs to be in the public domain because of the circumstances under which it's said. If school board candidates think dinosaurs cavorted with baby cavepersons, we're obliged to talk about it -- but to do so in a way that the opinions are inextricably pinned to the people who utter them. If you can't do that, you're really in the wrong sport, unless you're writing for the editorial page (where opinions, even genuinely stupid ones, are encouraged).

But there's a scarier point to this hed. It isn't just lacking attribution; it misrepresents the content in a fundamental (and -- not to be overlooked -- a deeply ideological) way. Here's the AP lede beneath the hed:

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Attacks fell in November to their lowest monthly level since the Iraq war began in 2003, despite recent high-profile bombings aimed at shaking public confidence, a top U.S. commander said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Baghdad, blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for a spate of bombings that has killed nearly 50 people in Baghdad and elsewhere since Monday. The explosions took place despite an 80% drop in attacks in Iraq since March, Austin said.

Despite not quite getting what "despite" means, the AP has a reasonably interesting tale here: Highly public violence is getting a lot of attention, while things that don't happen are getting correspondingly less. How does our three-star characterize it?

"What you've seen in the last several days is an attempt by Al Qaeda and others to conduct high-profile attempts that are really aimed at intimidating the civilian population" and drawing attention from the news media, Austin said.

"Their intent is to erode the confidence of civilians and Iraqi security forces to create a picture that things are not going in the right direction."

Notice what he's doing? He's basically defining "terrorism": Do something violent and dramatic, draw attention, intimidate the civilians, show that things aren't going in the right direction. Notice what he isn't doing? Trying to define the "truth" of Iraq (or, if he is, the AP didn't see fit to tell us). He's suggesting the picture is complex, but he isn't saying that blowing up a few dozen people isn't part of the "truth." That's the work of the copy editor.

Ultimately, that's scarier than a little ineptitude with attribution. Not knowing the difference between "X" and "Police say X" crops up all the time in journalism classes, where it's fairly easy to deal with. Assuming that there's a single "truth" about a war, especially if that truth leaves out the intent and skills of people who practice substate political violence, is evidence of a deeper category of stupid. It isn't just a journalist who hasn't learned to distinguish news from opinion; it's a sign of not knowing opinions from reality.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Speak of the devil ...

... and he will surely cut ahead of you in the express line with over 12 items in his satanic buggy. No, really. The reason we bring up stuff like the annual parade of hed cliches -- "Going Bowling," for example, having been mentioned by name yesterday -- is so you can stand firm against temptation when the Evil One whispers in your shell-pink ear. Not so you jump up and down and sell your soul at the first chance you get. See the difference?

There aren't too many ways to make a "Going Bowling" hed worse, but The State has found two of The Damn Things. That'd be the utterly pointless instances of G-droppin' on either side of the alleged gridster shown above. If anyone has any explanation for any possible good to be found in that annoying orthographic trick, please provide it now. The rest of us find it silly and devoutly wish you'd stop.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The O word

How is it that the same spark of crea- tivity seems to whack editors upside the head all at once across this great land of ours? Take a bow, Montgomery, Bakersfield, Stamford, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Atlanta, Detroit (News), KanCity, Greenville (the old hometown), and Milwaukee. And a special round of disdain for the Post-Dispatch, which put an "It's official" lede under the byline of a writer who (judging from what appears to be the original at the NYT) did nothing to deserve it.

If we could put in a preemptive request? Christmas won't come early. 'Twon't be the season. Your Fighting Whatevertheyares aren't going to Go Bowling or be Bowled Over. That should get us through the next month.


Monday, December 01, 2008

One born every minute

Everything you could want in a Monday front, isn't it? Football! Shopping! Weather! Lovely atmospheric photo of Orthanc the B-of-A tower! Oh, and a top news story too: Those teenagers! They lie, cheat and steal! And it has to be true, because Survey Says!
Let's admire the lead story for a bit, then, as a reminder that not all the evils done with (or to) survey research are the fault of statistical dishonesty or mendacious question design. Often, evil results come about because of elementary failures in the news judgment process: What makes these results news? What would it mean for them to be true? What's the context any resulting claims are based on? Who benefits if this is at the top of my page?
That's all assuming the survey is properly run, so let's assume it is (neither the version appearing here nor the longer one from the AP bothers to say, which is inexcusable*). What is it that's worth putting at the top of the front page?
In the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey.**
Oops! Fault one. Neither the paper nor the AP nor the folks who did the survey know how many students have stolen from stores or cheated on tests. This is what "self-report" means; all you know is how many of them say they did. More on this later, but a writer who doesn't understand the distinction really shouldn't be allowed to write about survey data.
Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today's young people are less honest than previous generations. But several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners.
Ah, so it's a trend piece! The pressures of modern life are prompting students to cut corners. But what makes that a top-of-the front trend today; do the anecdotes really illuminate any data, or are they just the same top-of-the-head stuff you could find interviewing people on the street?
The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; anonymity was assured.
Apparently the AP is so impressed by the "large-scale" survey that it doesn't need to ask any more questions (or even do basic stuff like report the confidence interval; does the AP think that's only relevant to political preference polls?). For that, we have to look at the institute's own data, which note that for questions with 20,000 responses, the "accuracy" is 0.7%*** -- a figure "verified by the Department Chair, Decision Sciences & Marketing, Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University." (You didn't have to go to the chair for that; a seventh-grader with a calculator could give you the same answer.)
And, under the subhed "Worse than it appears?" the institute provides this gem:
As bad as these numbers are, it appears they understate the level of dishonesty exhibited by America’s youth. More than one in four (26 percent) confessed they lied on at least one or two questions on the survey. Experts agree that dishonesty on surveys usually is an attempt to conceal misconduct.
Uh, no. "Experts" do tend to agree on social desirability bias, meaning that some people will give an answer that's closer to what they think the interviewer wants than to what they really think. But that's a very different sort of "dishonesty" than plagiarism or shoplifting; it's more like saying you're "undecided" even though you've already made up your mind how to vote. It takes a pretty strange attitude to class it as "an attempt to conceal misconduct."
Which brings on another question. A fourth of Our Younguns have "confessed" that they lied on the survey: Do any of you other high school refugees out there have an image of everybody in the row next to you giggling away as they check "10 or more times" for each of the sins? That "lying" in this setting might not be as unidirectional as it tends to be on questions like "did you vote in the election last month?"
What can be done about it? Let's ask the pollster:
Josephson contended that most Americans are too blase about ethical shortcomings.
“Adults are not taking this very seriously,” he said. “The schools are not doing even the most moderate thing. … They don't want to know. There's a pervasive apathy."
Cool. Five assertions of fact about public opinion, none of them having anything to do with what the survey measured. Is there a solution?
Josephson also addressed the argument that today's youth are no less honest than their predecessors.
“In the end, the question is not whether things are worse, but whether they are bad enough to mobilize concern and concerted action,” he said.
“What we need to learn from these survey results is that our moral infrastructure is unsound and in serious need of repair. This is not a time to lament and whine but to take thoughtful, positive actions.”
Don't tell me. Could we start by, oh, taking a Character Development Seminar from the Josephson Institute? Could we even become certified Character Development Specialists? Have those credit cards ready, kids!
Every two years, in short, this guy declares that the world is going to ethics hell in a handbasket (not only is all that shoplifting bad for businesses, but -- think of that next generation of Hummer salespersons!), and newspapers give him acres of free space to bemoan things in. It's pretty much the same story whether things go up or down: in 2002, the cheating rate had "soared" to 71% -- suggesting we needed at least a good plummet (if not an out-and-out "crater") to get down to the 61% (2006) from which we climbed back to 64% this year. But there's a certain sameness about the 2006 press release too:
According to a national survey of high school students by Josephson Institute, today’s young people reveal deeply entrenched habits of dishonesty.
There's no news in these surveys, and the "context" is the depressing need for journalists to stare into their navels and ask why things are so much worse than they used to be, and the only guy who benefits is the one who got the free ad at the top of your front page. It's kind of a pity more people don't have ethics issues with running decontextualized fictions in the guise of news.
* Sorry, but -- having been a high school student, I find it very hard to believe that "all students" in every chosen school completed the survey instrument.
** At least give the Obs desk credit for cutting the tail off the original AP lede, which read: In the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new, large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards. Any such suggestions about ethical apathy are entirely the invention of the writer.
*** That's "percentage points," if you've been paying attention.

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