Thursday, January 31, 2008

Editing in the Brave New World

Should copy editors still get paid to sit around and do the same old tedious stuff they always did, now that we're in the Interactive Age? Cruise along with the New York Times as it treats us to political blogging with the Times® touch:

While the Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns claim to care about working women, one working woman is not exactly feeling the love.

Rosie the Riveter? Lady Marmalade? Umm Czarina? Would City Room care to fill us in on the working stiff's identity?

On Monday, Shelly Sindland, a senior reporter for Fox 61 (WTIC-TV) in Hartford, lingered after a town hall meeting held by Hillary Rodham Clinton in Hartford to ask the candidate what she thought about last week’s Obama endorsements from Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his niece Caroline. A campaign aide informed Ms. Sindland that the senator was there only to meet voters. Ms. Sindland tried anyway, putting the question to Senator Clinton three different ways, without luck. The senator continued shaking hands and signing autographs as if Ms. Sindland were not addressing her from a few feet away.

Take that, working people of all nations! Needless to say, the Obama camp, a few days along, is eager to play catch-up:

A female Obama aide chided Ms. Sindland that* the event was only for “real people'’ and that Mrs. Obama would not respond. Mrs. Obama shrugged obediently and kept moving.

And what does the Free and Independent Press think about this?

Ms. Sindland, who has interviewed powerful women — from First Lady Laura Bush to Queen Noor of Jordan — without incident, was not sure how to respond to the put-down. But outside the diner, she said, “I had more freedom of the press in the former Soviet Union,” when she covered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Hmm. Does the alarm go off at the dissonance between the quote and the explainer? As in, it'd be hard to cover the Chernobyl accident "in the former Soviet Union" because it didn't occur in a "former" Soviet Union but in the real thing? Blunder? Track record inflation? If so, whose?

The claim doesn't appear to be the reporter's; to hear Fox 61 tell it, she picked up an award in 1997 (that'll be nine years after the explosion at the Chernobyl plant) for a series based on her travels with "a group of local humanitarians":
Sindland spent time in "The Dead Zone", saw deformed babies in an Orphanage
and made it as far as the Chernobyl Plant's gate but then left after being
threatened to be arrested.

"More freedom of the press," eh? Granted, a political culture that encourages openness to the media is part of some press-freedom measures (the current incarnation of the Freedom House scale, for one). But access to official business isn't the same thing as a constitutional right to an answer from a candidate's spouse about whether she/he is enjoying her/his trip to Hartford. Draw your own conclusions about any comparison to the Soviet days. (Fox 61 apparently has.)

The vitae-baking, though, looks as if it belongs exclusively to the Times. And it's the sort irritating small-scale factual annoyance that copy editors catch, as long as they have time and somebody's interested in seeing such stuff caught. Is Times editing going to catch up with Times blogging? Is editing going to catch up with blogging anywhere?

* Sure looks like an out-of-bounds "chide."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Eating their young

You just never can tell with the little cousins at Fox, can you? Is the lede hed at right (up for an hour untouch- ed, best I can tell) just another example of sheer ineptitude -- that basic sort of first-week-of-editing-class inability to tell the difference between "Smith hits Jones upside head with stick" and "Police say Smith hit Jones upside head with stick"? Or is "Not Republican enough" actually the Fox party line, placed on display at last now that the stakes are getting higher?

Oh, and why is "Rebates for Illegals?" the second most super-important story in the whole world? Well, apparently some news organizations still take Tom Tancredo seriously (see, if even one illegal alien declared more than $3,000 of income under an individual tax identification number, he'd just send the money back to stimulate the economy of North Waziristan Mexico anyway).

That's one of the things we love about freedom of the press. Nobody since Milton has placed much stock in the idea that TRVTH will unfailingly emerge victorious from her occasional nekkid Jell-o-wrestling matches with Falsehood. But watching Fox is an end in itself, sort of like -- wow, what's Falsehood wearing to the prom?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bizarre double modal of the month

Not incidentally, Granholm has a lieutenant governor, John Cherry, who could increase the odds of the governor's seat remaining in Democratic Party control, should he could run in 2010.

Nope. This one doesn't occur in real life. ("You gonna run?" "Well, I should could.") Somebody downtown done left a scalpel in the patient again.

Now, if you want, you can return to the logic of the sentence: A Democrat can increase the party's chances of keeping the manse in Democratic control, could should he run! And why is all this speculation about whether tonight's address will be the governor's last leading the local front? Well, because ...

Speculation that Granholm might pull up stakes after 2008 and join a Hillary Clinton administration in Washington, D.C.,* has intensified in recent months as the presidential campaign season enters the late stages and Granholm nears the halfway point in her second and final term as governor.

Are we panicking yet? Well ...
First, Clinton hasn't won her party's nomination much less the general election, Ferguson said last week.

She hasn't??? While we got this guy on the line, let's ask him if water still goes downhill!

Enough of that. Amusing speculation doth not a lede story make. And should someone outranking you say it doth too, at least clean up the writing a little.

* That's as opposed to a Hillary Clinton administration in Washington, N.C., where the writer might could have heard real-life multiple modals.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Don't bogart that paired-samples t-test

Start => All Pro- grams => Access- ories => Calculator. Got it? Now that you've figured out the approximate cost per ounce, it's time to figure out why there are more than twice as many ounces in the lede as there seem to be in the cutline.

Over in the Triangle Buro, Strayhorn (who found this one in the N&O) notes: I guess this reminds us that Math is Hard, but getting a story to match the hed and cutline really isn't.

That nice Mr. Gates put a calculator at your work station. You're on your own for the suspicion part.


Grammar gone wild

Listen and attend as One Of America's Dailies precedes the State O'Union address:

If you're a businessperson, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. Ditto if you're a manufacturer looking for an aggressive federal fair trade policy or a change in the course of the Iraq war.

Which kind of "grammar purist" do you want to be? You can go hunting for rogue adverbs between auxiliaries and main verbs, or you can get out the diagramming sticks and hook some clauses and phrases onto some presuppositions and what-all. Let's play with "ditto" and "or" a bit:

If you're a businessperson, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008.

If you're a manufacturer looking for an aggressive federal fair trade policy, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. (OK, if you say so.)

If you're a manufacturer looking for a change in the course of the Iraq war, don't expect corporate tax cuts in 2008. (What if I want to Stay The Course and reach The Way Forward? Can I have some then?)

Wasn't that fun? On to the next graf!

The last year of the Bush administration is unlikely to be much different than the next-to-last year, with Democrats running Congress and a Republican White House butting heads on most major issues.

How do you want to break down the "with ..." phrase?

... with [Democrats running Congress] and [a Republican White House butting heads on most major issues].
Democrats run Congress, White House butts heads. For you international visitors there, that's what we call the "separation of powers."

... with [Democrats (running Congress)] and [a Republican White House] butting heads on most major issues.
Which sort of makes sense, but it's a lot to make people go through before that first cup of coffee, isn't it?

In the good old days, copy editors took (and had) the time to work their way through sentences like that. With any luck, they could convince writers of the error of their ways*:

But last week, a pair of excellent Free Press reporters revealed that in a series of text messages, the mayor was, to use a legal term, "lying his butt off."

Well, no. If I recall it correctly -- and it's been a little hard to miss, given the live report on the noon news that all the curtains on the ground floor of the mayoral mansion were drawn (but a shutter appeared to be open upstairs!) -- there's been no indication that the mayor was lying any major bodily part off in the text messages. The problem is with what he said in court, which is sort of at variance with the highly credible stuff he said in the text messages.

Does that mean bad editors? More likely, it means good editors spread too thin -- moving too much copy, digging out too many gimmick quotes for too many over-formatted briefs columns, doing too much decorating and not enough organizing. Guess what? People notice.

* If you haven't already, see John McIntyre's gently barbed look at a piece of sorry prose that shook off a commonsense challenge last week.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Personal foul, defense

OK. what two things have to be true for this hed to be true? You in the back, with the "Dr. Disgust"* T-shirt?

Exactly. There has to be "city union disgust with mayor," and it has to be bigger as of this writing than it was before. Is there any evidence to support either one, or has the desk left another writer hanging out to dry? Let's see:

The largest union local representing city workers called Friday for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's resignation, and next Wednesday -- with or without the mayor's presence on the 11th floor of City Hall -- city employees are expected to protest outside the building to drive their point home.

Bad start. Disgust is what we call a "basic emotion," and neither "calling for resignation" nor "protesting" is part of it.

Let's proceed. AFSCME 207 says he's a lame duck who won't get any respect. AFSCME 2920 says stuff like "dishonesty" and "theft" are "unacceptable." Other unions are angry but not surprised and want to see the mayor resign. Consultants point out that naughty text messages and the like "don't do much to boost high opinion" (press, comma, stop the!). Unions are likely to be "dispirited and less enthusiastic."

Is that disgust, and does it mean there's more disgust now than at this time last week? No, and that's a violation of "objectivity." Objectivity doesn't have a problem with going after the mayor's naughty text messages (particularly given the apparent trifling with public safety departments, which is vastly more important than the alleged wanderings of the mayoral kielbasa). Objectivity does, you know, worry a little about introducing unrelated categories into the mix, and it worries even more about proclaiming changes in something you haven't even demonstrated you can measure.

Going after the Evil Text Messages was good journalism. Don't screw it up by changing the subject.

* No joke. There is such a guy, and the quantitative study of disgust is eternally in his debt.

Friday, January 25, 2008

InDesign mandatory; speling optional

35,000 daily in North Carolina's Research Triangle seeks a journalist as versed at designing a section front as rimming an A1 lead, but will also consider copy specialists with an interest in expanding their skills, as well as recent top-knotch journalism graduates ready to hit the ground at a brisk trot.

Plus, no need to get your nickers in a twist over Orange County housing prices!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Which is the real Bushism?

This one probably looks funnier than it is. Here's the president talking to Fox News about Osama bin Laden:

"If we could find the cave he is in, I promise you — he would be brought to justice or wherever he's hiding," he tells FOX News in "George W. Bush: Fighting to the Finish."

Is the last part of the quote -- the one that more or less says "he would be brought to wherever he's hiding" -- further proof of terminal presidential disfluency? Or is it just a normal sort of afterthought that we wouldn't think twice about if we had the audio and visual clues of the broadcast to help us tie it to "the cave he is in"?

Anyway, much fun as it is to make fun of small details of bad sentences, one sort of hopes we don't lose track of the bigger picture created by what's said in the sentences:

Bush also discusses his controversial foreign-policy decisions, including the war in Iraq, in the interviews.

"The job of ... comfortable nations is to help others realize the blessings of a free society, because it's the great alternative to the ideology of hatred," Bush says.

His justification or Fox's, you figure? Or are they one and the same?


Had flies in my beard ...

It looks as if the aliens have left the Star-Telegram centerpiece and stealthily moved into the graphics department! Here's the secondary element from today's CP, about the breach of the wall between Gaza and Egypt.

The old-fashioned way of thinking about design elements is that they help organize knowledge -- not scatter it all over the place. Here, we've sort of randomly chosen some pictures of stuff that "world leaders" purportedly do, none of which has any bearing whatsoever on the case at hand.

If you must be irrelevant, try to stay on topic while you're doing it. Reagan's Berlin speech is revered by people who think Reagan was a great president and ought to have his picture on a muneez, but compared to, say, Hungary's decision to place its Helsinki obligations above its Warsaw Treaty obligations, "tear down this wall" is a footnote, and an ethnocentric one at that. This is the sort of news decision that makes the American press look like a realism-free zone (infra): The only things those damn foreigners pay attention to are Americans! Doesn't work in Europe. Way, way doesn't work in the Fractious Near East. Won't work with the space aliens either, in case you're trying to lure them out of the graphics department.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dreadful simile of the week

Like a loser at the Las Vegas gaming tables, Edwards has placed most of his remaining chips on Saturday's primary in South Carolina, the state where he was born and spent part of his childhood.

Lot of that going on out in Las Vegas last week, was there?

I'm all for thoughtful, well-maintained in-house stylebooks, by the way, but this seems a nice place to point out that the AP has decided that paying a casino to take your money should henceforth be known as "gambling." Not "gaming." As AP style decisions go, that's rather a good one.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sentence of the (middle-aged) morning

Why is it one senses that some desker felt the hot satanic breath of the editing textbook on his/her neck and decided to "fix" something here?

Parents had insisted each teen stop contacting each other shortly before they disappeared.

The unspecified "parents" (sorry, you need to say which parents; it doesn't work like "police") looks like the writers' work, but I'm guessing "each stop contacting each other" isn't the sort of thing that writers produce.

This one's harder to figure out:

The teens were found at about 2:20 p.m. Monday on Holly Beach, on the Gulf of Mexico border in the far southwest corner of the state, said Cameron Parish Sheriff's Detective Joey Babineaux.

Hmm. Didn't know the gulf had a border. But was this the location as it arrived at the desk, or did it start life as something like "on the Gulf of Mexico near the Texas border"? It appears to have been a bad night for geography downtown; the accompanying map has a label for "Cameron Parish," but no borders to indicate where the said parish might be.

Follow the sequence of events in the next graf and you'll see one the desk should have challenged:

The couple, he said, had been spotted in the same area Sunday by a resident. Deputies were notified Monday morning and later found Gage and Hannah driving down a highway.

OK. On the front page, the teens notice that they're being watched from a beach ambulance station and drive away:

Ambulance workers, who had learned of the missing teens from national news reports, radioed the Cameron Parish Sheriff's Department, who pulled them over around 2:30 p.m. Monday.

So -- who exactly notified whom, and when? The two sequences sound different enough that they ought to be reconciled.

The truism -- at least, what we like to tell ourselves -- is that good editing is the kind you can't see. The flip side of that is understaffed/overstressed editing really sticks out. Hope they get some help soon.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Whom's next?

Remember, kids, keep your eyes on the basics and you won't get fooled again by pronoun hypercorrection!

The man, whom neighbors said was 73, died of burns and smoke inhalation.

Turn the relative clause back into a regular clause:
(Who/whom) neighbors said was 73
Neighbors said (he/him) was 73
"Whom" is tempting because it looks so ... grammatical. In this case, it ain't.

This fused relative from CNN is even easier, because you don't even have to invert the clause:

"I saw myself as a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and Colin Farrell -- hopelessly romantic, but willing to (be with whomever) came my way," Cohen explains.

(Whoever/whomever) came my way
(Hu/hum) came my way

The parenthetical clarification is more than a bit weird. I can see "be with" as a bowdlerization, (or, if you don't have a dirty mind today, a way of shortening "have one more moondance with"), but how did the pronoun get into the parens? By the conventions of news-speak, our source must have left out the pronoun:

Can I just have one more moondance with whoever comes along?
* Can I just have one more moondance with comes along?

Unless the writer (or editor) thought "whoever" was an error and "helped" by inserting the hypercorrect pronoun? Wish we could say that was a wild guess entirely unfounded in observation.


Emergency verb drop request

You can help the sports copy desk at the Freep:

No. 1 seed Roger Federer reacts Saturday after beating No. 49 Janko Tipsarevic. (Saturday 3D).

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts to teammate Laurence Maroney's rushing touchdown in the second quarter against the Chargers on Sunday. (Monday 1B).

Maryland's Greivis Vasquez celebrates the Terrapins' 82-80 win over top-ranked North Carolina at the Dean Dome on Saturday. (Sunday 11D).

Giants placekicker Lawrence Tynes, left, celebrates with teammate Michael Strahan after kicking the winning field goal in overtime Sunday night in Green Bay. (Monday 1B).

... or you can turn the page.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Words of One Syllable department

Grim Cotton Mather, always seeing witches sentient ammonia beings from the Planet Mxyzptlk!

Seriously. When the aliens move up to centerpiece position, you get the idea that their work here is done. At least in some budget meetings.

Uphill, in the snow, both ways

The holidays must be well and truly over. We're back to Double Albom Sunday (one sports, one general The World Is Going To Hell for the newspages) at the Freep:

Today, the idea of bouncing a ball seems so incredibly lame, you'd wonder if the kid doing it had problems.

But that's the thing. We didn't have problems. Not like they have today. We didn't dream of torching the school, having sex with our teachers or getting back at enemies by destroying their reputation in cyberspace.

Damn kids! Wearing their baseball caps backwards. Boinking their teachers. Murdering the English language. Torching the school. And their music? It's just noise!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Correction of the morning

The folks downtown manage to get almost everything wrong in this correction:

On Thursday's front page, a chart showing which candidates were supported by black voters in Michigan's Democratic primary should not have said the survey's margin of sampling error was 4 percentage points. It was higher.

1) Avoid speculating about what should or shouldn't have happened. Corrections are about what was or wasn't wrong, not about what should have been.
2) Unless it's needed for clarity (as it sometimes is), avoid repeating the original error in the correction. [Update: As The Ridger notes below, Bill Walsh has a good take at Blogslot explaining the opposing view on this issue.]
3) On the other hand, a correction really, really ought to give the correct information -- not just say "it was higher."

This is a particularly interesting correction for a couple of other reasons. One, the item that's being corrected isn't necessarily "wrong." It's easy to make the margin of sampling error for that subgroup come out at 4 points, as long as you don't mind abusing the confidence level.* Two, in this case, the error doesn't affect the point of either the graphic or the story (which mentions a number of other subgroups with no indication of their size). Black voters were significantly more likely to report voting uncommitted than to report voting for Clinton.

Three and most fun, the correction doesn't have anything to do with the story's bizarre hed:
If Clinton gets the
nod, she must woo
some black voters

Even though seven out of 10 African Americans did not vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, analysts and black voters don't see it as a sign of irreversible trouble for Clinton if she becomes the party's nominee.

If you hang on until the 23rd graf (past all the anti-Clinton primary voters who say they'd vote for her in the general election anyway), you get to the opinion that might support the hed:
Todd Shaw, an assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, said Michigan's primary results are an indication that black voters are apprehensive about Clinton.

If Clinton does receive the nomination, recognizing that a significant segment of the black electorate does not support her, she'll have to court those voters as if she's just beginning to campaign, he said.

Interesting conjecture, but -- given what Real People seem to be saying -- it needs a lot of hedging before it can stand in a hed.

* Today's quiz: Calculate the margin of sampling error at 95% confidence for this subgroup of 225 voters in which 30% said "Clinton" and 68% were uncommitted. How much does it differ from the maximum margin of error for the subgroup?


Friday, January 18, 2008

More wisdom from the ancients

Gus-ism of the day: "It ain't a lawsuit until it has a number." Meaning, in short, that until it's been taken downtown and duly stamped and filed, a "plan" to sue is just so much hot air. Doesn't matter who said it, or how prominent the case, or how badly your news organization wants to make up for leading the mob in the early days of the case (as in, say, the example at hand). Until it's a lawsuit, don't write about it.

I've never heard a remotely persuasive argument for abandoning that standard, and I can't imagine any way in which the New Information Age could provide one. If you have or can, please hit the comment button and explain.

Hat trick of Stupid Questions!

The print edn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram certainly sets the bar high with the hed at right (hint: No). Can the newly redesigned ("To our readers: Tell us what you think") Web site live up to this standard?

It's hard to top a photo that shows "what could be a UFO,"* but you have to admit, the early signs are promising. Here's the hed from the new! improved! Buzz (hint: Light show).**

And what could top an offer like this? Here's the story you get to if you manage to click in the right place:

His UFO sighting is captured on cellphone
Is it a UFO? (Hint: No)
Can't say for sure. (Hint: Can too!)
But truck driver Sean Kiel said he photographed an unidentified flying object with his cellphone as he drove along Interstate 20 near Cisco on Jan. 8. (Breaker one-nine there, teddy bear: How about keeping your mind on your driving and your hands on the wheel?)
... Kiel, of New Haven, Ky., contacted Sherry Webb of the Texas Dairy Review in Stephenville. She put him in touch with the Star-Telegram. (Thanks, Sherry! Let us know if we can do you a favor sometime.)

OK, enough of that. Dear friends at Fort Worth, the newspaper is the home of the mundane and empirical. Save the supernatural for the horoscopes. And take a journalism tip from Texas Dairy Review: When somebody calls in with pictures of space creatures, the right answer is: "Thanks! Here's the number of someone who will be really interested!"

* On the other hand, it could be one of these Daleks from the rift at Canary Wharf. Or an emanation of Giant Albion.
** As a general redesign matter, elements that cut words in half in display type are usually not a good idea.


When robots get nervous

"How can you call this a life?" the university graduate from Senegal said, her head swiveling in fear.

Sometimes when writers draw you a word picture, you just want to quietly hand 'em the word eraser and hope they get the idea.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Look in the files, please

The afternoon's top story on Fox looks in-teresting:

One of those evil Democrats? No, as it turns out, a Reagan-era Republican from Michigan, "indicted Wednesday as part of a terrorist fundraising ring that allegedly sent more than $130,000 to an al-Qaida and Taliban supporter who has threatened U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan."

And who would that supporter be?
The indictment charges IARA with sending approximately $130,000 to help Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the United States has designated as a global terrorist. ... Authorities described Hekmatyar as an Afghan mujahedeen leader who has participated in and supported terrorist acts by al-Qaida and the Taliban. The Justice Department said Hekmatyar "has vowed to engage in a holy war against the United States and international troops in Afghanistan."

Sound familiar? You won't find any further clues in Fox's story, or in a version that appears to be uncut as it moved from the AP. Kind of a shame, because Hekmatyar is the sort of character who cries out for some context. In case you've thrown out your baseball cards from the Afghan-Soviet war, here's how the AP itself described his relationship to the U.S. in an August 1989 story:

Members of ... Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group Hezb-i-Islami, which has received the most U.S. aid, were reported to have killed 30 field commanders and fighters of the rival Jamiat-i-Islami.

The Washington Post's Jon Randal was a bit more nuanced a year earlier:

Hekmatyar appears an odd guerrilla leader for Washington to champion; he is an outspoken critic of the United States and a fierce Islamic fundamentalist. ... Hekmatyar has repeatedly denied receiving U.S. aid, although many diplomats perceive his organization as the principal beneficiary of arms and money provided by the United States and funneled through Pakistani military intelligence.

Or you could find this in a post-9/11 summary over at Salon:
The largest recipient of covert U.S. aid was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was described in a 1985 congressional study as "a relatively young leader often compared to the Ayatollah Khomeini in his intense ideological fundamentalism." Hekmatyar was virulently hostile to the West as well as to the Soviets. "It was obvious that the people we were supporting were fanatics but nobody wanted to hear it because we were winning the war," says Jack Blum, special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 1987 and 1989.

Well, shazam. Where on earth could a guy Reagan appointed as a delegate to the UN have gotten the idea that it's all right to send money to terrorists?

Granted, a story about an indictment in 2008 isn't the place to rehash every detail of a war that ended nearly 20 years ago. And whether giving money and state-of-the-art SAMs to Hekmatyar was a good idea or not (I'm inclined to say "not") doesn't have any real bearing on whether giving him money now is a good idea or not (really, really not). But a paragraph noting the history of the U.S. relationship with him doesn't have to blame anybody or point any fingers. All it has to do is remind us that Seemed Like Such A Good Idea At The Time can have nightmarish consequences down the road, and that the world is a far more complicated place than it sounded like when the Republican candidates were debating last week in South Carolina.

On the list of general failings in international coverage by the U.S. press, incredible contextual blinkeredness has to rank near the top. The AP really ought to be in the habit of checking its own files a little better.

'A realism-free zone'

Here's a nice look from upcampus that effectively toasts the NYT and its new op-ed face, Bill Kristol, without ever having to point out that ... well, that Kristol is shallow, tedious, and sublimely unoriginal and uninteresting. You don't have to have a few bottles of Stephen Walt-brand realism in your cellar* -- for that matter, you don't even have to be a realist -- to enjoy this take on diversity of opinion in the mainstream press. Take it away, Professor Walt:

What's missing in America's mainstream media is the voice of realism. As the label implies, realists think foreign policy should be based on the world as it really is, rather than what we might like it to be. Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states constantly compete for advantage and where security is often precarious. But realists understand that being overly alarmist and aggressive can get states into just as much trouble as being excessively trusting or complacent. So realists keep a keen eye on the balance of power, but they oppose squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America's commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and eventually force us to compromise our freedoms here at home.

Such views are hardly heretical, but there is not a single major columnist, TV commentator or radio pundit who consistently presents a realist perspective on world politics and American foreign policy. In America today, the mainstream media is a realism-free zone.

* Some of us prefer a broader conception of what "security studies" can cover, for one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We killed 'em in New Haven

Quick, diagrammers, does this Fox hed have a "subject" and a "verb"?

WATCH LIVE: Pregnant Marine Slaying Press Conference

Or is it up to something else entirely?

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Stop press: Clue sighted at MCT!

Not the end or the beginning of the end, nor yet the end of the beginning, but at least it's a tap on the brakes along the Highway to Hell:

Herald will not outsource editorial functions
The McClatchy Co., which announced in December it would experiment with outsourcing some production of The Miami Herald's Broward Neighbors sections to an India firm, has canceled that project.

''We've decided this would not be an appropriate use of this service so it won't be tested, nor will other newsroom and editing design like it,'' wrote Miami Herald Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal in a staff memo Jan. 14. ``The more we looked at the prospects of editing and layout from outside the newsroom, the more it was clear these skills involving news judgment and experience are not likely to work well from afar.

Full story here. Well, all three of three grafs, along with an array of reader comments that demonstrate pretty conclusively that reader comments on news stories are, at their most useful, a preposterous waste of time.

The mysterious East

Join the AP as it chronicles the president's "day of cultural diplomacy":

The president grinned and tapped his foot as a group of girls stepped rhythmically to Arabic music, [is this what my people call "dancing"?] their long hair swinging from shoulder to shoulder. The light rain that fell during Bush's arrival did not dampen the mood, as rain is considered here to be good luck during the visit of a foreign leader.

Uh, yeah. We can't testify personally to the existence or absence of this bit of folklore, but does it strike you as the sort of thing that might have been made up on the spot for the visiting experts of the press corps? Rain is a bit unusual in the Emirates; you have to wonder if the number of rainy days with visiting foreign leaders is big enough to even meet the assumptions of chi-square. But when the girls are stepping rhythmically to the mysterious music, well -- as Laura Martin put it 20-some years ago in explaining the birth of the Eskimo snow vocabulary story, These People are just so strange we'll believe almost anything about them.

Granted, rain-when-Great-White-Father-visits = good luck isn't of the magnitude of this one, spotted in the hinterlands by The Ridger at the weekend:
A Saudi Arabian man who allegedly admitted perusing child pornography is demanding a Quran and a prayer rug while behind bars.

... which certainly sounds like a barely veiled call to the lynch mob. But as long as we're doing cultural diplomacy, a brief sniff test for bizarre cultural generalizations might be a good place to start.

Why trust your correspondent, who admittedly has never seen it rain* in Dubai, rather than the AP, which after all was on the scene? Because the AP doesn't always remember to look out the window:

Bush was departing the Gulf region later in the day for meetings in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. security ally and often the region's decision leader.

If nobody at the AP paused a bit to wonder how Saudi Arabia could be the "decision leader" of a region it isn't in, couldn't somebody at a member paper at least open the freakin' atlas? The Saudis have more gulf frontage than Iraq and Kuwait put together. Riyadh is closer to the gulf itself than either Baghdad or Tehran. Do we really want the default mode of world news coverage to be copy-and-paste from the AP to the medium of delivery?

* Depending on how you score free-beer-with-tapas night. Heh heh.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

That ever-alert press pool

He then took a helicopter to the Sea of Galilee, walking out onto a pier with two friars in brown robes, who pointed toward the spot where Jesus is said to have walked on the water, according to pool reports.

Thanks for clearing that up for us, New York Times!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I'm in the shower, dear

An alert reader out west* somewhere sends in this entry, which points up two related perils of the Haste To The Web era:

1) AP stories might be published just as they am.
2) AP stories might be published with "editing" from somebody who barely escaped the editing class at the Procrustes State J-school.

Here's the lede, which you'll probably recognize from around the turn of the year (no need to embarrass the AP staffer, whose fault this isn't, but next to his byline on the Web site is the notation "10 minutes ago," suggesting some in-office pressure to make the site look awake):

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A law school student and former beauty queen who has posed for a racy calendar while brandishing a weapon has been accused of kidnapping, biting and threatening a former boyfriend with a handgun.

Fulbright, who competed for the Miss Arizona title in 2005 and 2006, recently completed a semester-long unpaid stint clerking for a federal judge, U.S. District Judge Raner Collins, his office said. She also poses wearing a shiny black bikini in a 2008 calendar that features women holding guns.

That's certainly helpful. The elegant coordination after "accused" goes untouched, while the second graf -- in which we actually learn the law student's first name -- is deleted. Moral: When you stitch the patient back together, be sure you haven't left any scalpels behind. They look awful on the X-rays.

But the fun is just beginning:

Authorities think the dispute began because the ex-boyfriend was believed to have stolen jewlery given to Fulbright by the former beau suspected of helping in the attack.

When Fulbright finished her shower, she allegedly bit the man on his forearm, right hand and ear, held a butcher knife to his head, and told him she was going to kill him.

Hold the nominations for the Janet Leigh Memorial Shower Out Of Nowhere Award! The graf we're missing here -- and yes, the Web editor in question seems to have achieved his/her goal of brevity by simply deleting every other graf (it would have been nice to fix "jewlery," but that wouldn't really save the reader any time, would it?) -- is this one:

Fulbright invited the man to her apartment, then excused herself to shower, said police spokesman Sgt. Fabian Pacheco. Then two men showed up and bound him with plastic ties and duct tape, accused him of taking the jewelry, and threatened to shoot him with pistols, Pacheco said.

The shower, the first reference to the main character, and the first explanation of why there are two people called "former boyfriend" to deal with (graf 4 mentions "another man she had previously dated") -- all gone like summer wages. Quite a lot of confusion for one shift.

* Tnx, Dragon.

Diagramming party to action stations

Kid Bridge-Throwing Suspect Due in Court

No peeking now, but: Who threw what to whom? Or, in Watergate terms, What did he throw and when did he throw it?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Content-crazy Wednesday

Content analysis is sort of like going "hmm" about content, only sys- tematic- ally, so let's go "hmm" about Fox News a little and see what happens. Let's try to generate some guidelines about what the No. 2 story at right might represent and why those results might be interesting or amusing. This is play-along-at-home, so comments are encouraged.
Clicking on the hed, you get:Joy Behar: No More Saints Due to Modern Medicine
FOX News
Saints were psychotic and advances in modern medicine have essentially wiped them off the planet. That's "the view" of comedian Joy Behar, as expressed on national television Wednesday.

Whether or not Behar was joking, "The View" co-host's remarks sparked a loud debate on and off the program.
Hmm. Pretty substantial play for a story whose significance ranges between none and the square root of none. What's it doing there? Is Fox just inordinately sensitive to stories in which Hollywood Liberals Make Fun Of All We Hold Dear And Threaten Our Way Of Life? If we're going to test that proposition, we have to have a category for it -- let's call it Threats To Our Way Of Life, for short -- and some rules for coding it. Leading to some questions:
  • What does Fox conceive of as a Threat To Our Way Of Life?
  • What are some characteristics of a TOWOL that would place a story in that category and rule other stories out? (Are stories about lingerie-clad mayors posing on fire engines a TOWOL, or do we need a new category for the mayoral lingerie threat?)
  • Can you write the TOWOL rules on a piece of paper, leave the paper on the kitchen table and expect the first person who picks up the paper to put Fox stories into the right category nine out of ten times?
Then we can start posing some propositions:
  • Fox gives more prominence to TOWOL stories than other networks. (Hmm. Need a rule for measuring "prominence," and which "other networks" are we going to study?)
  • TOWOL stories stay on the Fox front page longer than other stories do. (Why is "length of time a story stays on the front page" a big deal?)
  • Fox is more likely to devote staff resources to TOWOL stories than to non-TOWOL stories. (Is "presence of a Fox byline" alone going to be sufficient to measure this?)
  • How does Fox support the assertions made in TOWOL stories? Is it different from the assertions made in other stories?
That one's going to take a little work, since we need to find an assertion that would generally be supported by evidence in conventional lede writing: "sparked a loud debate on and off the program," for example. Here's the "loud debate on the program" part: Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck blasted Behar's theory, noting that the late Mother Teresa, who has not yet been given sainthood, is a modern example of a saint.

That's pretty straightforward. How about "loud debate off the program"?
FOX News contributor Father Jonathan Morris, when asked to comment for, lambasted Behar's remarks, whether or not they were intended to be funny.

Now we're having some fun. Because if we look aback a little, we can find other cases in which a Fox controversy is supported by reference to Fox contributors -- the internationalization of GI Joe, for example:

Retired Army Col. David W. Hunt, a FOX News military and terrorism analyst, called the scheme to make a whole new Joe "a shame."
"G.I. Joe is a U.S. guy," Hunt said. "... It's kind of stupid. It's ridiculous that they're doing that."
That gives us something else to count when we're trying to draw up good categories, and it lets us predict something else about how Fox constructs Threats To Our Way Of Life. That entry on the coding sheet might look like this:
How many participants in a public debate or controversy are Fox employees or contributors?
o = none, 1 = some, 2 = all
Now we can try out a prediction like: When a story involves a Threat To Our Way Of Life, supporting evidence is significantly more likely to come from Fox associates than when it doesn't.

See why content analysis is so much fun?

Labels: ,

Surf's up!

And the Pump House Gang award for nonpartisan campaign reporting goes to the San Jose Mercury News:

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, left, rode a wave of support from independent voters to defeat former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York rode a wave of female support to a surprise victory over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the New Hampshire Democratic primary Tuesday night.

More later, maybe. The laptop is still off station, and it's the first week of class and all that.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Night of the living Loeb

Presented without comment, though readers who aren't up on their history of how certain, um, sectors fabricate stories about tearful Democrats in New Hampshire can find a quick summary here, with interesting retrospective thoughts from a participant here.
Dear friends at Fox! Never miss a trick, do you?


DISC at the Times Magazine

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

Jennings says he believes the reason is simple

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

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

How about the first sentence of the preceding graf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennings says he believes the reason is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Forbidden words!

We can take or leave the annual list of banned words from the cousins at Lake Superior State. Around here, "webinar" is sort of like Bud Light: You can go ahead and pour my share back into the horse. We don't stock it or serve it, but if you show up with a six-pack to watch the game Sunday night, we're not going to make fun of you in public or anything.

What gets on the Forbidden Words list around here? Not the flavor-of-the-day things, or the ones that You Kids are going to Destroy The Language With if you don't turn those damn baseball caps around.* It's the ones that always seem to be hanging around the same crime scenes: "celebrates" with sports photos, "Up, Up and Away" with balloon photos, "at the scene" in cop stories, "saffron-colored robes"** in Southeast Asia stories. And, of course, the annoying Instant Epithets of the provincial press corps:
The show played so well in Iowa that Mike Huckabee, the bass-plucking former Southern Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor, decided to take it on the road. (Freep, Saturday 1A)
Meanwhile, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and bass-plucking Baptist preacher, rode a continuing wave of popularity in the state, wrenching away the lead long held by Republican Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and Bloomfield Hills native. (Freep, Friday 1A)

And any of the ones that have started to sound like datelines of their own:
WAR-TORN, Iraq (AP) --
OIL-RICH, Saudi Arabia (AP) --
And, of course, that hat trick -- hell, in deference to Lake Superior State, let's go ahead and call it a Perfect Storm -- of high-end dining terms in the lede story at right, from the Orlando Sentinel. Upscale eatery! Poshest restaurant! Swankiest restaurant! And that's before we get past the lede.

So -- ban new words? Nah. We have enough on our hands around here with the ones we already have.

* Sweet!
** I'm still trying to come up with a dateline for this one. Any suggestions there, Ridger?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Campaign tidbits

A few items worth noting from this morning's political coverage.

The Colin Powell You Break It, You Bought It Trophy, to the Miami Herald:
Iowa voters broke the presidential race wide open Thursday.
Good thing the Herald didn't read the AP, which last week declared this "the most wide-open presidential race in half a century," before breaking.

The Henry Ford Memorial History Is Bunk Prize, to the Detroit Freep:
Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee scored decisive if improbable victories in Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses Thursday.
And a good thing the Freep doesn't read its own Tuesday edition, which led with this probabilistic prediction from the Register poll: "Obama leaps ahead and Huckabee holds lead."

The Ransom E. Olds Innovation of the Week, to McClatchy DC:
This is not your father's New Hampshire, as presidential candidates of both parties are about to learn Tuesday, when the state holds the first primary of the 2008 campaign.

The Bullwinkle J. Moose Chili-Beanie Crystal Ball
The judges are still pondering several outstanding contenders:
Now it's up to a handful of other states with early and influential contests this month -- including Florida, on Jan. 29 -- to uphold Iowa's verdict or cast it aside. (Miami Herald)
Now comes the hard part for Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. (Boston Globe)

They say it's your birthday:
Only a couple of months ago, most everyone viewed Huckabee, 51, as an amiable longshot. (St. Pete Times)
Huckabee, 52, pledged to "bring this country back together." (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Obama, 46, told a raucous victory rally his triumph showed that in "big cities and small towns, you came together to say, 'We are one nation, we are one people and our time for change has come.'" (AP)
(What's Obama doing here? Well, he's "the first leader of a new generation," to hear Charlotte tell it.)

Annoying attention to detail (Columbus Dispatch):
Portraying himself as a transcendent agent of change in the mold of the late Robert F. Kennedy, Obama apparently brought thousands of young people, many first-time caucusgoers, into the Iowa political process.

More as they develop. Now back to work.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hyperbole pump sucking air

My opinion of this Sunday lede hed might have been a lot higher if somebody hadn't decided this particular cliche was ready to start again on four days' rest for the Thursday paper:

DES MOINES, Iowa --Now, at last, it's the voters' turn.

Starting tonight in Iowa, followed by a blur of state-by-state voting over the next month and culminating in a 22-state "Tsunami Tuesday" on Feb. 5, the American people begin picking presidential candidates for the two major political parties and charting a new course for the country.

When you can cover up the original lede, start at the second graf and miss absolutely nothing in the way of content or prose, that's pretty much diagnostic of an abysmal lede. (The second graf is about twice as long and twice as hyperbolic as it needs to be, but you have to admit it's an improvement over the first.) Which suggests, in turn, that either we've run out of meaningful stuff to say about this little gathering in Iowa or there never was much to say in the first place. I don't think we're going to have it fixed by tomorrow morning, but maybe by the time summer (with its conventions and all) gets here, we could sort of stick to saying things that have some actual resemblance to real life. On to the third graf for an example:

They do so after the longest, costliest election run-up in American history, the first since the 1920s with no heir apparent in either party.

Well, what's that supposed to mean? Is it literal -- as in, this isn't a monarchy, so we don't have heirs apparent, thanks? Or is "no heir apparent in either party" shorthand for something like "no current president or vice president on a major-party ticket," in which case it's simply wrong?* And either way, what does it have to do with anything?

Can matters get worse? Sure! Just turn to the frontpage summary (now, apparently, deleted from the Interwebs):

The most unpredictable presidential race in 80 years turns from campaigning to results tonight when Iowans gather for first-in-the-nation voting.

Bad case of McClatchy Fever here: If you can't think of something sensible to say, proclaim an event the biggest and baddest ever. Trouble is, sloppy thinking makes for sloppy variables, and sloppy variables make for bad results. How do we measure the "predictability" of a presidential race: By the size of the primary field 11 months out? Survey research a month before the general election? Diffusion of land-line telephones in the voting-age population?** Presence or absence of international conflict (if so, when)? Quarterly GDP trend lines (if so, starting when)?

Even if it was possible to say something by, oh, August about whether this race was more or less "unpredictable" than the last two, would you want to? In the least unpredictable presidential race since 1996 ...

And just so you don't think we have nothing to do around here but beat on breathless McClatchyism, here's another one that should have been sent back for rewrite:

The winners of the Feb. 5 Georgia presidential primaries could be decided Thursday in frigid Iowa.

Or, just as easily, the results of Thursday's first-in-the-nation presidential balloting could shake up the entire race a month before Super Tuesday, when Georgians and voters in 21 other states cast their votes.

If you can figure out a condition under which A could be true (unlikely, since the winner of the Georgia primaries is decided in "Georgia," but the writer seems to mean something like "lopsided victories in both sets of caucuses could create a presumptive winner in Georgia"), you get to the real problem. These outcomes are neither exclusive (A and B could both happen: two massive victories in Iowa shake up the whole race) nor exhaustive (A and B could both not happen: nothing about Georgia is decided, and the race isn't shaken up). In other words, we've managed to produce a then-again lede that's equally irrelevant either way you read it!

The problem, if we can go back to our hyperventilating friends at McClatchy one more time, is this:

By Wednesday, the campaign story line was very familiar to Iowans, who've been inundated since last January.

Exactly. The "story line" is familiar beyond tedium to everybody within bludgeon range of the traditional dead-pine-trees media. Whether spreading a "story line" is the highest and best use of the press in the democratic process is another issue altogether. And could we humbly suggest, on today's evidence, that it's time to shut up with proclamations of the next turn in the "story line"?

* Look it up: Stevenson-Sparkman vs. Ike-Tricky.
** And you can look this one up too.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Hello, sailor!

Today's editing lesson: Always do the arithmetic. Always. Even if you have to work the numbers out yourself. Even if they're in a column. Even if it's a holiday.

Roderick Davison Scattergood of Cornelius died Dec. 27, 2007. ... He was 86 and had joined the Navy in 1930, just out of high school.
Both the potential next-door errors here are plausible ("1930" could be a slip for either 1939 or 1940), so you can't fix it without checking. But you have to check, because people don't join the Navy when they're 9 years old.

This next one might be worth exploring too, but ...

She learned that his mom sent him 2,000 cigarettes a month during some of his POW years and that he used them like money.

Friends and neighbors, that's a lot of smokes -- more than three packs a day, which is hard to square with the image of privation that POW camps conjure up for those of us who know them from movie and TV representations. But with a bit of digging (say, R.A. Radford's "The economic organisation of a P.O.W. camp" (Economica, November 1945, pp. 189-201)), you have to wonder if this fellow wasn't just one of the ones whose families' generosity enabled the occasional disruption of the cigarette-based economy by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of cigarettes "in the space of a fortnight."

It's nice when editors have time to look stuff up on their own. It'd be even nicer if journalism had the luxury of tracking folks like this down for occasions other than their deaths. At the least, though, let's spare ourselves the correction and do the math before the story runs, rather than after.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

So ... how often would you say it happens?

Such cases are unusual in Cary but they do happen, Wulff said.

"We don't see it that often but we do see it," he said.

Every now and then, it's worth reminding writers that if they avoid saying stuff twice, there's room to say more stuff once.

The turkey trots to water

Dear Usual Suspects, unusual suspects, newcomers, casual visitors, critics and admirers of the journalistic craft, and sentient ammonia beings from the Planet Mxyzptlk:

Pls accept all best rgds for the new year from me, Czarina, and the Official Research Kitties. May you all deliver many a poke in the chops to the enemies of freedom, clarity, accuracy, random assignment to conditions and the series comma. Now signing off to admire the Blizzard* of Naught-Eight for a bit.

*Probly not, but it does have some thunder and rather a lot of snow.