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.



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11:26 PM, December 30, 2008  

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