Sunday, March 30, 2008

Don't know much about ...

Quick, name the news organi- zation at which a 180-word AP pickup from a newspaper six time zones away is the third most super-important story of the day!!!

Aw, you peeked. Anyway, if you find the syntax of the Fox reefer a little confusing, here's how the AP quotes the chap in question:

"For the first time in history, we are no longer at the top: Muslims have overtaken us."

Wait, wait, wait. "First time in history." You mean you guys were in charge back when the locals had that little Passover dispute in Jerusalem, before we even knew whether we were supposed to call it AD or CE, and you still can't figure out who's entitled to be standing on which part of the steps up to Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sep? Some Dan Brown-encircling conspiracy you are.

Anyway, that's between the AP and L'Osservatore. Why is this story, with its telling deictic pronoun, such a big deal at Fox? That's a bit of a longer story, to which we now return in hopes of having it in shape by the Tuesday night deadline (some of y'all may be looking at the same witching hour). Meanwhile, here's the link to the secret Vatican archives. See you Wednesday.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Baggage delays blight launch!

It doesn't take too long to figure the last sentence out, but still -- how many ways could you diagram it and still have a good time?

A cook, a comma, a panda ...

Must have been sequential storytelling day over at The State.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Content that isn't there

Can you do "content analysis" on stuff that isn't there? Try it with this AP lede:

WESTON, Wis. — The mother of an 11-year-old girl who died of untreated diabetes said Wednesday that she did not know her daughter was terminally ill as she prayed for her to get better.

What regular element is missing? Here are a few more grafs for context:

Madeline Neumann died Sunday from a treatable form of diabetes.

Her mother, Leilani Neumann, told The Associated Press that she never expected her daughter, whom she called Kara, to die. The family believes in the Bible, and it says healing comes from God, but they are not crazy, religious people, she said.

Puzzled? Here are a few hints from one of last month's discussions:

A Canadian man has been charged with murdering his own daughter, and her friends say the two clashed over her refusal to wear a Muslim head scarf.

A man on the run from police since his teenage daughters were found shot to death in a taxicab on New Year's Day had threatened to hurt one of the girls for dating a non-Muslim boy, according to police documents.

A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

Anybody want to take a swing? And for bonus points, to introduce a concept from discourse analysis that helps explain what you aren't seeing?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Out-of-tune hed of the month

When your mayor is charged with perjury, it's hard to argue with "MAYOR CHARGED" as a boxcar-sized 1A hed. The problem here is the deck, She says it's perjury; he vows a fight. "He" has an antecedent; "she" doesn't, and that pushes the hed into the wrong county altogether.

"He said/she said" is a pretty specific set of stuff: as the OED puts it, "characterized by conflicting statements from opposing parties in the absence of concrete evidence." Some examples:
The hearing on the docket presaged another round in the he-said-she-said acrimony of his marriage's breakdown.

Sexual assaults are tricky cases to investigate. In many instances, allegations boil down to he said, she said.

If you read a sexual undertone into "he said/she said," you're probably on track. And this is a case about sex (among many other things). The mayor and his former chief of staff are accused of lying during a whistleblower trial last year when they denied having an affair. Given all that, it's hard to tell from the deck that "he" is a crime suspect and "she" is a prosecutor (who happens to be a woman), isn't it? Almost as hard as imagining a "he said/he said" atop a murder indictment.

The Freep has put a lot of resources and prestige into this ongoing tragicomedy and has produced some fine old-fashioned journalism in the bargain -- there are 11 open pages* of Mayoral Follies of '08 inside the A section, and that isn't chopped liver by any standard. That amount of effort warrants better attention to what you're putting in the show window.

* A down side of this is that you can't tell from the A section that there's a war on -- much less two wars on. That's a very regrettable state of affairs that's becoming all too common downtown.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

AP: Sun rises in East

Sometimes you wonder which bodes worse for the future of American journalism: the growing tendency to run AP stories and suggested heds without editing, or the urge to amplify AP 's breathtaking naivete with one's own hed skills. Anyway, there's the hed, and here's AP's lede:
JERUSALEM -- In a bold defense of Israel, Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday that the U.S. wants a new beginning for the Palestinian people but will never pressure Israel to take steps that would jeopardize its security.

Is it too much to suggest that, boldness-wise, what the vice president is doing is sort of like telling the inquisitors that here I stand, I can do no other, water does too run downhill? That "bold" might be something like ... oh, some one-term administration hinting that maybe U.S. underwriting for new-housing loans might be reduced by the amount spent on housing construction in the occupied territories? Really. What in the last few years, or few decades, could remotely lead anyone to believe that Cheney is stating anything but the most thoroughly self-evident status quo?
In terms of U.S. media discourse about the Middle East, this ... no, wait. Tell you what. Here are three statements by major U.S. political figures. Two are from actors whose expertise is unquestioned. One of them comes from a figure who, in the conventional wisdom of media accounts, has some serious hurdles to overcome regarding foreign-policy sophistication and experience. Can you figure out which one is from the naif?
"Al-Qaida is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran."
"I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering, pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel."
"They've* declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people, some in the Middle East."
For bonus points, as you ponder cosmic questions like who should be answering the Great White Telephone at what ungodly hour of the morning for the next few years, identify the three speakers.
*"They" being "the Iranian government." Keep your pronoun issues to yourself; this is a content-editing question.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

No, not really

Practically everyone remembers the actor Jack Palance performing age-defying push-ups during his Oscar acceptance speech.

Pearl Harbor! JFK! The space shuttle! And ... Jack Palance. Just a reminder that when the New York Times makes a baseless cultural assertion, the result is a baseless cultural assertion in Times style. Somebody should have quietly euthanized that one. As did a wiser editor at Charlotte:

Remember actor Jack Palance performing age-defying push-ups during his Oscar acceptance speech?

Addressing the reader is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as playing See It Now with the NYT's toy department. Remember, kiddies, when the Times writes drivel, you can always fix it. Or -- sometimes better -- spike it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Whom's next?

When you think you're caught in grammatical quicksand, stop struggling and start diagramming:

The Mid-Missouri Internet Crimes Task Force arrested 19-year-old Your Name Here, an MU junior, for showing his genitals via Webcam to whom he thought was a 13-year-old girl but who was actually an undercover investigator.

Herm was? All right, keep your dirty mind on the grammar. Who'd the goolies get shown to? Someone. It'd be nice to have an epicene pronoun here, owing to the apparent confusion in the lead actor's mind, which becomes clearer when we un-transform the two relative clauses:
He thought s/he was a 13-year-old girl
S/he was actually an undercover officer

So they weren't allegedly shown to "whom" at all. They were allegedly shown to someone who he thought ... all right stop the tape. How do we know what he thought?

This isn't one of those cases where you point proudly at the textbook and turn "Smith thinks Carolina is going to win" into "Smith said he thinks Carolina is going to win." This is about the sort of thing people get locked up for. You can lighten up on lightweight stories. There's no corner-cutting, ever, on cop stories. (And yes, that extends to not saying "arrested for." That should have been written on your forehead with a soldering iron before you took the J2100 grammar exam.)

Different Dude's Name was taken into custody after a school official reported to the police that a 14-year-old girl had performed oral sex on him, said Boone County Sheriff’s Dept. Maj. Tom Reddin.

Quick, what's the antecedent of "him"?

There is no "too careful" with cop stories. But the good news is that grammar can get you out of trouble as quickly as it got you into trouble.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Be scared! No, scareder!

In case you missed any of those reminders today of how much safer you are thanks to the unpleas- antness in Meso- potamia, here's a Fox cen- terpiece to remind you of how close the danger is.

Things must be getting out of hand the world over, huh? Let's turn to the story we can find if we can bring ourselves to click on the photo:

The Vatican said Thursday that Usama bin Laden's accusation that Pope Benedict XVI had played a role in a worldwide campaign against Islam is "baseless," as the CIA said it was "confident" that the voice on the tape is in fact the terror leader's.

So this one's actually about the pope "blasting" (Fox's term) Bin Laden for the latter's comments on Wednesday. Yoo hoo! Where are you, Muslim rage?

It takes a bit of digging, because Fox apparently grabbed a pretty early version of this AP story; it doesn't even mention the recent republication of the cartoons. But several writethrus later, AP manages to work in this graf:

There have been renewed protests in the last month, though not as large or widespread. A few dozen university students waved banners and chanted slogans against Denmark on Thursday in Islamabad. The students said they had not seen the bin Laden message.

A few dozen, huh? Who didn't get the message in the first place? Threat-to-the-Republic-wise, it sounds like it falls somewhere between a pep rally and a Fred Phelps sermon.

Now, in all fairness, the photo Fox used was from an event today in Karachi (though the AP cutline notes that the guest of honor is a "representation" of the Danish flag). If the rally at which the alleged flag was torched was a big enough deal to warrant mention in any AP text coverage, I haven't been able to find it. At a quick glance, though, it wasn't on the scale of last week's demonstrations in Islamabad by scarily veiled women calling for ... erm, the restoration of the Supreme Court chief justice who was sacked by Musharraf last year. (Islam: Aflame for the separation of executive and judicial authority!)

So, to recap: Second-day story about a Bin Laden tape. Photo of a rally too dull to merit a reporter's attention. Couple dozen undergraduates who seem to have able to wipe the froth from 'round their lips long enough to talk about their news-watching habits. A + B + C = a billion people marching toward the ill-defended castle of Western Civ (pausing only at the New York Times building for some Gatorade and more torches).

Scared yet? Well, keep working on it. The election's just around the corner.

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Journalism weirdness of the day

A few completely unrelated bits of strange news language from today's Founts of Information:

It’s unclear how much damage, if any, the situation will do to Obama’s standing in his heat-to-hear race with Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a typo is just a typo, and sometimes two typos are just ... two typos. So save any comments about presupposition and Fox for later. What's interesting here is how something as straightforward -- you'd think -- as "head-to-head race" managed to get so entertainingly corkscrewed.

First, just Googling around, are a couple of things it almost certainly wasn't intended to be:
"hear-to-hear race" (no hits)
"heat-to-heat race" (only one, a recutting of "heat to heat, race to race")
"heart-to-heart race" (some things that appear to be fundraisers, and a recut blurb from a Harlequin NASCAR novel*)

"Head-to-head" looks like the obvious winner, but I wonder of some of those tens of thousands of "heat to hear" references:
"Idol" fans, celebrities brave heat to hear Sparks
Check out "Bakin' in the Heat" to hear their signature rock sound.
Listeners and sponsors rely on 106.3 The HEAT to hear their favorite music.
... hydration issues during the heat. To hear Rosenbloom’s tips ....
you may have to turn off your heat to hear it

... had some sort of unholy Cupertinoid influence. Or if Fox really has decided to chunk all copyeds overboard in this brave new world of live-every-second journalism.

Then there's this, from America's Heartland:
Gunshots a mystery in south Columbia
Gunshots were reported early Sunday in a south Columbia neighborhood, and police found shell casings. But police say no victims or witnesses have identified themselves.

The hed has the same content -- well, sorta -- as the lede, but it's "about" something entirely different. The story is about a report of gunshots. What's the hed about? Maybe it's about where gunshots are a mystery. Maybe it's about some property of south Columbia, a happy land where it never rains before the late news and firearms are unheard of. But it's not about things going bang, should that be what you were interested in.

[UPDATE: And this just in! New Jersey man, right, charged in the murder of his mistress and mother of his child, left, despite the fact that police have yet to find her or her body. Imagine that.]

* Is this a great country, or what?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Numbers held hostage

Numbers don't lie. Really. Quite the contrary, they're loyal, brave, thrifty, irreverent, obedient and honest to a fault. But if you lock numbers away in isolation, so they can't talk to each other, and force them to recite a predetermined script, it's not all that hard to make them say whatever you want -- or at least to look like they're saying it.
Hence this graphic from Fox News, evidently the fruit of long weeks of hard-nosed exclusive reporting that just happened -- sheer coincidence! -- to be ready for prime time today. And it's pretty evident what the numbers are being told to say: Reenlistments have been climbing steadily since 2003. Leading to this triumphant hed and story:
U.S. Army Isn't Broken After All, Military Experts Say

And the experts have the numbers to back them up. (Actually, it's only one guy saying that: meaning "expert says," not "experts say," in case somebody at Fox lost the key to the editing midterm. And -- stop us if you've heard this before -- the expert is also a Fox contributor!) Or they do, if you let your lying eyes try to do too many things at once: for example, scanning the proportions in the chart at the same time you're reading the numbers they're supposed to rep- resent. Using the "U.S. Army statistics obtained exclu- sively by Fox News," here's another way of representing that information visually. (Yes, if you thought 69, 512 and 69,777 should have been pretty much identical, you were right.)
But that's just nitpicking, right? Obviously, the real story is that reenlistment is up, up, up! Well, let's pass a few spoons out among the isolation cells and see if the numbers can figure out a way to communicate in Morse or something. Maybe if 2005 talked to 2006, and they both managed to get a message to 2001, who passed it along to 1999, we'd get something like this:
Or: Reenlistment appears to have fallen rather sharply starting in fiscal 2001. It appears to have bottomed out in 2003 (about 24% lower than 2000) and has since climbed back to almost the prewar level.

That's just the numbers Fox chose to use, and they're not much. What's this "mission" reenlistment figure that's on the PDF but not in the graphic?* Fiscal 2007 recruiting was at 112% of "mission," but the "mission" figure was 62,000: down from the past two years, which themselves represented an increase to fiscal 2001 levels (though substantially down from the late 1990s). Why is the reenlistment mission for the Army 17,000 lower than it was a decade ago?

Fox isn't necessarily lying with statistics; it's just being very selective about the fragments of truth it decides to let out. And that's not just an offense when Fox is nomming the toes of its political paymasters. It's wrong when anybody does it.

* I don't know, so if some of you current or former military readers out there can shed some light on how this is determined, please do.

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The potions and the motions

A couple of esteemed colleagues on the east coast are weighing in on one of those on-again-off-again usage issues: Who gets to be called "Doctor" in news stories? Interesting question that bears some study here, in that it reflects both the social functions of news language* and the argument to rectitude that language disputants like to invoke -- not just what's appropriate, but what's authoritatively "right."

I have no intention of "correcting" these folks, much less suggesting that they're the sort of ill-informed language bullies that stalk journalism and academe with roughly equal frequency. John and Bill are not just thoughtful public advocates of the editing cause, they're the sort of slots who regularly lace up their shoes and step in front of the peevish firehose of words and facts and implications that we fondly call "news." But I'm increasingly of the camp that holds that style decisions need to be acknowledged for what they are: pretty good approximations, more or less grounded in reality, that should probably be questioned a lot more often than they are. So in that sense, let's look at "Dr."

Acknowledging (or at least suggesting) that it's a bit extreme, Bill lays out essentially the AP Stylebook position: Doctors are people who, well, doctor people ("if you can't fix a broken leg..."). And this is a case of style getting serious**. John counters that the "style" loophole -- as AP puts it, go ahead and call other doctors "doctor" if it's "appropriate within the context" -- is so squirrelly as to render the so-called "rule" more or less irrelevant. Let's go back a little farther and see if there's any ground for saying what it means, in good old English, to call somebody "doctor."

On the evidence, the physicians lose. The OED's first recorded cite of "doctor" meaning "doctor of medicine" is in 1377 -- same as the first cite for "one who is proficient in knowledge of law" and two years later than "one who is proficient in knowledge of theology." That's three decades after "one who, by reason of his skill in any branch of knowledge, is competent to teach it" and seven decades after "the Doctors of the Church, certain early ‘fathers’ distinguished by their eminent learning." So if you're a believer in a single true meaning for English words, this one goes to the eggheads -- not the people who can fix broken legs.

That's said with apologies to all the LPNs and the like who can fix damaged limbs with some celerity, which gets to a more pertinent question: Why does news language reserve certain titles for certain people? Is it because MDs do more important stuff than lawyers and architects and copy editors? Or because they spent more years in school than other people who fix broken legs? Or because journalists think that doctors will revoke their hemoglobin or something if they aren't accorded appropriate respect?

At which point Bill has a pretty good suggestion: If you don't use courtesy titles regularly, why use them for this one small part of the honorific spectrum? And there our disputants seem to be in agreement; as John notes, for an egalitarian society, we sure have a hefty array of ranks and titles and degrees to be kept in order.

So there's the best solution. Throw out all courtesy titles, unless there's some reason not to. Do you want to be the bold editor who declares that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a real doctor? Go ahead -- but don't offer to rewrite someone's stylebook unless you're willing to spend a few shifts taking the phone calls that go with it. Style is a social construct. If it was math, it'd be boring, and we'd all be out of a job.

* Don't kid yourselves too hard. "Negro" was hanging around the AP Stylebook until about 2004.
** Not nearly as serious as the fairly routine decisions about the point in a news story at which religion is introduced as a potential motive.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Periodic diversity rant

What is it about this one that, year after year, seems to elude so many editors who really, really ought to be able to read a calendar by now?

At right, you'll find an Austin centerpiece. Here's how the Freep handled it Monday (in a 1A rail otherwise dominated by three references to St. Patrick's Day):
It's an early
Holy Week for

The general offensiveness-and-cluelessness prize, as usual, goes to Fox:

Easter is Sunday, much earlier than usual this year, and many people are scratching their heads. (Hint: Shampoo.) Isn't it still cold out? (Colder than it was Saturday. Heard that happens at this latitude.) Didn't we just celebrate Christmas? (Yes, three months ago. Still finding occasional brain cells in the carpet. And you?)

Well, "we" might have. And palms might have reminded "us" of something. But a problem with declaring what "we" do or expect or are reminded of is that it doesn't just define who "we" are. It defines who doesn't qualify -- who isn't among the elect readers the newspaper wants to address itself to. And that's ... anybody who isn't reminded that Easter is upon us!

Which could just be those damn heathens and Democrats and communists, whose lurid gaze isn't the sort of thing our advertisers want sullying their products anyway.* In this case, though, it's also a significant part of the Christian world. It's not an early Holy Week, and Easter isn't "soon," if you and your Orthodox friends and relatives are planning to celebrate Easter right on schedule at the end of next month.

You wonder how editors keep missing this one. Do they not get curious about what goes on in those cool old buildings when the natives aren't having festivals of Greek food and dancing? Do they just not get past the listings for northern and southern Wiccan observances on those calendars of world religion? Do they wonder if something interesting is up with those people who listen to the Ukrainian broadcasts on "America's Ethnic Superstation"?

"It’s a scientific thing," FOX News religion analyst Father Jonathan Morris said. "Easter is always based on the Hebrew tradition of being able to detect a day for the celebration of Passover."

At Fox, you never have to worry about calling sources who might say something complicated or inconvenient. You can just call your own commentators! (Somebody might want to remind Comrade Morris that waiting on the moon for your spring festival is a matter of "tradition," not "science." But we digress).

The Christian calendar generally mirrors the Jewish one, and Passover and Easter are usually very close together. But that isn't always the case because of the Christian calendar's strict adherence to the lunar cycle.

You'd like to think one benefit of having a religion commentator on staff is that he/she/them/whoever would remind you that there is no "the" Christian calendar.

Faithful Christians aren't the only ones having to adjust to the fast-approaching Easter holiday.

That ought to put those Orthodox mumblers and their funny alphabets in their place. (Wonder how many words there are in Greek for "pinheaded reporter.")

That famous bunny that hides eggs and brings chocolates to children around the world in a symbolic tradition commemorating the start of spring had to be extra organized this year, too.

Forget flood. Interview bunny.

It could be worse. In 1818, Easter arrived on the earliest possible day: March 22.

Whoa. We've established that the Western Christian Easter is coming early this year. Who decided that was bad?

All right, enough of that. There's still time to go forth and defuse this one. Anybody with a confirmed kill or a probable, sign in and claim credit below.

* Is it?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Forbidden verbs never go away

Sometimes you read your major metropolitan sports section and just wonder: How many more times?

Tiger Woods celebrates after sinking a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole Sunday for the win. (2B)

Jeff Burton celebrates in victory lane Sunday after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 in Bristol, Tenn. (7B)

Georgia's Corey Butler celebrates Sunday's 66-57 victory over Arkansas in the SEC final in Atlanta. (8B)

Temple's leading scorers, Mark Tyndale, left, and Dionte Christmas, celebrate upon learning of their matchup against Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. (9B)

MVP Dionte Christmas, left, celebrates after Temple beat Saint Joseph's for the Atlantic 10 title. (10B)

And this one's different, but it's hard to see how it's an improvement:
Mario Chalmers exults after scoring a three-pointer Sunday for Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest Regional. (11B)

In the broad, cosmic, let's-all-procrastinate-with-content-analysis sense, I wonder if the dominance of the "celebrate" photo isn't linked to some sort of broad ESPN-ization of sports journalism. It's no longer enough for games to have the fleeting moments of innate drama that actually make them fun to watch; now they have to be made iconic, and viewers have to be reminded every few seconds that what they're watching is something really special.*

As much fun as it would be to track the change in the modal sports photo from action to reaction, though, that's not the point. The point is that "celebrate" (like all its vile ilk) violates the Basic Rule of cutline writing: Never tell readers what they're seeing. Tell them what they aren't seeing. Everybody in your audience knows what the content of a "celebrate" photo means; they can't see what Mr. Woods just did, or what the basket being celebrated did to the score, or what sort of offense the defense overcame, or how much (or little) Mr. Burton won by. That's golden space under the photo. Spend it on something useful.

* Have you ever turned the closed-captioning on for a Dick Vitale telecast? Try it sometime!


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Banned words: Equinox edition

As mentioned a while back, the general philosophy around here is that it's best not to lose too much sleep banning new words and usages. Don't get us wrong; there are lots of them we cordially dislike, and if you want help in ridding yourself of verbs like "impact" and "reference," we're here for you. (I'm starting to get exercised about "do-over," myself.) But we won't exile you for using the damn things. Just try not to do it in front of the kitties.

There are, of course, exceptions. These words are banned without exception in heds and other display type for the remainder of the college basketball season:

Dance (all forms and aspects)
Let the [X] begin

Penalty for first offense, dinner with Dick Vitale. Meaning the two of you are bound together back to back and fed to orcs.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Two Dacron women feared missing!

Say a tornado hits a major U.S. city on a Friday night when things are really hopping downtown. Your lede hed should be ...
Um, Lexington? Guys? It was a Sunday newspaper parody. They didn't really mean it! Frances Bundle and her mother weren't real Ohio vacationers! And volcanoes didn't really destroy Japan (though Japan was is in the eastern hemisphere).
Look. We know basketball is a big deal, even for you lesser schools. But do let's keep our priorities straight, shall we?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Well, I'm saffron crimson

Why it's always good to be cautious about outland coverage written from the capital:

BEIJING — Fires and rock-throwing protests erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Friday as unrest against Chinese rule of the autonomous region escalated to its highest level in two decades.

Hmm. Beijing dateline, Lhasa riot -- can you guess what's coming next? (Let's not always see the same hands.)

A lockdown of three monasteries in the Lhasa area remained in effect to block saffron-robed monks from returning to the streets, as they did Monday and Tuesday.

And how did things look a few hours later?

By evening, authorities had ordered a curfew and mustered thousands of police officers with riot shields backed by armored vehicles at crucial areas around the city. Security forces threw up a cordon around another monastery after lockdowns at three others where crimson-robed monks began protest marches earlier in the week.

What could have intervened? Here's a clue sighted by the alert South Carolina bureau:

Re TIBET (Johnson) We'll move a CORRECTED version of the story momentarily to CORRECT the color of the monks' robes in graf 3 to crimson (NOT saffron).

Not naming any names or anything, but -- anybody out there make any calls to any central offices you'd like to take credit for?

Foxtacular Friday fibfest

Here's a real gem from the Fox front page. Indeed, given all the fun cultural variables in play, it's kind of surprising that it's not the lede story:

Study: Antiwar Reporting Helps U.S. Enemies
Insurgents in Iraq get a boost from coverage in the news media that shows support for troop withdrawals from the war torn country, according to a study.

Two Harvard University economists found that insurgent groups are responsive to "antiresolve" statements in the media.

See all the Science Magic? It's a study! It's from Harvard! It's by economists (so it's from the clear-eyed realistic perspective)! We're not going to get a lot out of the five grafs that make up a standard Fox rewrite, though, so we have to go to the source -- well, sort of. Fox cribbed this one from US News and World Report:

Are Iraqi Insurgents Emboldened by Antiwar Reporting?
Economists say their study, with caveats, finds some linkages
Are insurgents in Iraq emboldened by voices in the news media expressing dissent or calling for troop withdrawals from Iraq? The short answer, according to a pair of Harvard economists, is yes.

If our friends over at Language Log are wondering how conventional wisdom about "science" gets so entrenched, this is how. Fox isn't just pointing to a "study." It's pointing to what somebody else has already written about what the "Harvard economists" found. No need to link to the paper when you're quoting the people who link to a place where you can find the abstract!

In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors are quick to point out numerous caveats to their findings, based on data from mid-2003 through late 2007.

Really? Did you find some caveats before page 20?

Yet, their results show that insurgent groups are not devoid of reason and unresponsive to outside pressures and stimuli.

Watch the pivot foot. US News is signaling that there's a second discovery besides the one asserted in the lede, and it's designed to bolster the study's credibility by making it look "objective": See? These counterintuitive dudes have found that insurgents "are not devoid of reason"! Which the rest of the world has known since -- well, roughly since Josephus Flavius turned in his first draft of "The Jewish Wars." News apparently travels slowly to Cambridge.

If you haven't yet had your adult minimum daily requirement of amateur international expertise, go read the USNWR piece in all its glory. The point is basically the same: Every time those feckless news media cast doubt on The Mission, they're killing Americans and Iraqis! But if you're a content analysis fan, you're probably wondering: Interesting conceptual definition of the independent variable there ("coverage ... that shows support for troop withdrawals" or "voices ... expressing dissent"). Wonder how that's going to be operationalized?

Here's how. We're going to measure "emboldening" statements, which are going to send signals about US resolve, by counting the number of times "top Bush administration officials ... refer to statements or actions by other U.S. political figures that might encourage violent extremist groups in Iraq." In other words, the turrists aren't emboldened when the Democrats say their usual cut-n-run stuff; they're emboldened when the White House press secretary says the Democrats are the party of cutting and running.

How's the intercoder reliability on that variable? There isn't any! The Harvard economists used an iterative computer program that searches a database,* and everybody knows that computers are never wrong.

There's no substitute -- ever -- for asking for the original data, whether the subject is "Poll says X!" or "MRI study shows gals talk more than guys!" or "Craven liberal weenies are doing our enemies' work for them!" Ask the reporter (or call the news agency): What did these guys measure? How did they measure it? What did the results say? What stuff in the real world stands in for the concepts they're aiming for? By the time it becomes "study says," it's on its way to being conventional wisdom. The editor's job is to hold up that train until all the boxes are checked.

And when your readers call to demand why you haven't run that Fox story that proves how all you media liberals cover up the truth? That's when you get to say, "Well, Fox lied about the results of a study that measured something else entirely. Would you like to stop by and read the thing?"

* You can get to an explanation of the search for free here:


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Brave news world

Here's an idea for that space under the nameplate at the top of the front page! Instead of filling it with that tedious old "news," why not change the subject and turn the floor over to our (unedited) readers? And draw them in with a nearly incomprehensible hed that doesn't know what sort of grammar it wants to be ungrammatical in?

Hard to say what went on there at the newspaper of "suburban Chicago." At a guess, a standard-issue trial precede was knocked into a cocked hat by a (blind-sourced) development on a competitor's Web site. Thus the hed for the story inside proclaims that charges "may be dropped" (as with all "may" heds, it's no truer today than it was yesterday) against the mom in question, based on this graf:

The 36-year-old Tinley Park mother was preparing to go on trial today on misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and obstructing a peace officer. The Sun-Times News Group, citing anonymous sources, reported Wednesday night that the charges were to be dropped.

The 1A "presence" throws all that reader-blocking caution to the wind:

Should a mother be prosecuted for leaving her toddler alone in a locked, running car, even for just a few minutes?

It turns out a Tinsley Park mother won't be, but it's a question that stirs readers both to complain about overly aggressive police and to condemn thoughtless parents.

And from there, it's over to the readers, more than 75 of whom had commented by the time the trigger was pulled on the front page. And the remarks are the usual sort of belligerent, loopy, ill-informed babbling you'd expect.

It's tempting to say something like "readers are stupid," but that's not entirely true. Most readers aren't stupid, but the stupid ones are the ones who rise to the top when editors mistake public ranting for news. Let us hope this brave new form of court reporting is buckled gently into its safety seat, then driven over a cliff into a river full of alligators deformed by outflow from the reactor.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Inefficient like Beethoven

Today's food for thought, from Craig LaMay's "Exporting press freedom: Economic and editorial dilemmas in international media assistance" (2007, p. 5):

News is not like automobiles, computers, or blue jeans, businesses in which many fewer workers can now produce more product in less time than they could ten, twenty, or a hundred years ago. Put another way, good journalism is like good music, and is inefficient in the same way. Two hundred years ago, for example, it took four musicians to play Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 18, No. 4, and it took them about twenty minutes to play. Today the same piece still requires four people and twenty minutes to play.

There are some products, and news is one of them, where productivity remains flat or nearly so, notwithstanding the addition of new technologies or other innovations to the production line. Quality journalism -- the kind that involves reporters who investigate and report, editors who edit and rewrite -- works very much the same way. Good journalism is a hand-made product, and the only way to wring inefficiencies out of it is, unfortunately, to eliminate reporters or avoid serious newsgathering, neither of which is apt to improve democracy's chances.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jingoism goes uptown

Here's an interesting bit of storytelling from one of the few remaining papers that make a serious effort at international coverage (in this case, coverage of Latin America, but that's certainly a start).

It's interesting because it sounds so Fox-like, and it sounds Fox-like because one way to tell whether a nation is deemed a good guy or a bad guy is whether it's personified as its leader. "Germany" and "Britain" do stuff we like, while "Saddam" and "Ayatollah*" ... well, you know what they're up to. It's no surprise that Chavez is the actor to pay attention to if you're Fox News; the only surprise about the Fox image below is that it appeared Sunday, whereas all the multinational backing away** from the metaphorical brink had happened Friday.

The surprise is seeing "Chavez's nation" in a grownup newspaper, and on top of an important -- and so far underreported -- story, at that. (Another good job by McClatchy, though it could have used a bit more skepticism about the overtly ideological nature of the "terror sponsors" list.) There's a pretty simple explanation, at least from here: "Venezuela" is a nine-count word, and that hed has only eight units per line, and you can do the math yourself.*** So what are the circumstances under which a nation would be referred to as belonging to its leader? "Olmert's nation" is right out; Israel is shorter than either). "Abdallah's nation"? No for Jordan, perhaps for Saudi Arabia. "Correa's nation"? Pretty much a wash with Ecuador. "Blair's nation"? Well, why shouldn't that catch on?

Readers aren't always interested in mundane technical explanations, no matter how valid, for why dumb stuff appears at the top of the front page. Somebody needed to push the design desk to give some ground on this one.

All that said -- pretty interesting set of developments in Chavez's neck of the woods last week, eh?**** Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador had a pretty serious militarized interstate dispute. Why didn't it escalate into actual conflict? None of the countries qualify as straight-up "democracies" on the Freedom House scale. All three are most recently rated "partly free"; is a regime-type peace, rather than a democratic peace, having its effect? Or could it be our old friend freedom of the press?

Hmm. Colombia's improving slightly over the past three years, but still at the better end of the "not free" press category. Ecuador is steady in the better end of the "partly free" category. Venezuela has slid the farthest, but that's where the interest lies. As of 1994, when the pretty stable 100-point scale that Freedom House uses for press freedom came into play (and when Chavez was pardoned for his earlier coup attempt), Venezuela was still at the low end of "free." It took a fairly sharp fall after that, then stayed near the bubble for a few years until the early 2000s.

Why is that a big deal? Well, divide the FH scale into six levels (two each for free, partly free and not free), and there are two points at which improvement in press freedom is associated with a significant reduction in your likelihood of initiating a militarized interstate dispute. One is the border between "free" and "partly free"; Venezuela had no MIDS in 1992 or 1993, but five in the next four years and two more in 1999-2000. The other is the border between "not free" and "really, really, North Korea-level not free." Venezuela's losing points (as, to be fair, is the United States, which is somewhere around 20th in the league tables these days), but it hasn't crossed that other boundary yet.

There's a growing body of evidence for some sort of pacifying effect from all that tedious civics stuff about press freedom. The next prize is for figuring out how and why it works and whether Fox actually makes the same sort of contribution as NPR. But more on that later.

* A religious rank that has nothing to do with being the leader of Iran, but try selling that one to your Night Deputy AME for Cluelessness.
** Silly Fox! Prepositions are for kids!
*** Or, as the news desk at one Southeastern daily had to be reminded every week or so: "Palestinian" didn't fit in a 1/36 yesterday. What makes you think it's going to fit today?
**** If anybody runs into Language Czarina on the way back from the library/hardware/fishmarket run, tell her I'm not procrastinating. This is, um, theory-building.

Why, are they getting up?

Stung by a new study showing that the traditional garlic-and-silver technique worked no better than a placebo in reducing early-onset zombification, the Fayette County coroner today announced ...

Interesting (if underedited) story, genuinely unfortunate word choice in the reefer. The method is going to remain more or less the same: Insert client, add dirt. The idea here is to try to consolidate some stuff and cut some costs.

Lesson for the desk: When you're close, try again. And keep the garlic at hand.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Oh, those documents!

Hey, here's a nice follow-up story from our friends at McClatchy. Wonder how it'll play on the front pages tomorrow:

WASHINGTON — An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network.

So why is that a big deal?

He and others spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because the study isn't due to be shared with Congress and released before Wednesday.

Middle East trivia trying to be yesterday's news two days in advance again, eh? Well, good thing Oprah got that little iProblem with "A New Earth" worked out, but the competition for 1A is still going to be pretty fierce.

One does kind of hope this one is rewarded with some prominence. When it's not playing fast and loose with survey data, the McClatchy Washburo is continuing to do nice old-fashioned stuff like following up on big developments and writing stories about them. Indeed, it was kind of interesting to see all the 1A play today for AP's coverage on estimated long-term costs of the Iraq war, given that MCT did a fairly commendable job with it nearly two weeks ago (even the Freep, whose 1A lede today was about people who buy their own health insurance, gave it a decent ride).

One improvement by the AP is worth noting: Less space given to White House comments. Here's McClatchy being fair and balanced:

The White House doesn't care for the estimates by Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who's now a professor at Columbia University.

"People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can't even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9-11," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, conceding that the costs of the war on terrorism are high while questioning the premise of Stiglitz's research.

"It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn't his slide rule work that way?"

If, having wasted a few minutes on the call, you can't bring yourself to leave Mr. Fratto's breathtaking inanities out altogether, here's an objective suggestion:

A White House spokesman called one of the authors a coward but declined to comment on the estimates themselves.

Should he want to complain about the paraphrase, I'd be happy to take his call.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Impress them with our prowess

Why am I holding out the threat of summary execution over your clever pop-culture reference? Probably because I'm as idiosyncratic as the rest of your readers. Ledes like this leave me cold:

Set aside the Seinfeld-driven stereotypes about seniors when talking presidential politics with South Carolina's retirees.

Setting aside any questions of how wise* it is to begin a story by proclaiming your addiction to stereotypes, sorry: I wouldn't recognize a "Seinfeld-driven stereotype" if it cut me off in traffic. Never saw the show, never plan to. Likewise "The Sopranos," though I still would have challenged this one:

LODI, N.J. -- "The Sopranos" may not be swimming with the fishes after all.

Dear friends at The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record: Doesn't it make more sense as the original "sleeps with the fishes"? Because if you're "swimming with the fishes," you're, like, Prince Namor of the Deep or something? And he's holding up pretty well?

And, yeah, I'd be one of the people making life miserable for this visitor to the site:

Working as a 22-year-old journalist at a newspaper where the median age is 45 and having to deal with old people who don’t have a clue. Even worse when you work in features and cover entertainment and all these people can write about are bands that were cool and innovative 15 years ago but mean nothing today.

Yep. Not only do I not have a clue, my idea of "cool and innovative" is, like, Lester and Earl with Monroe and the BGBs, and that's so 1946.

So what sort of reference gets a smile around here? This one, from the Times's edpage:

Fight fiercely, Harvard

And that's the trouble with your pop-culture reference. Please me, leave the younguns confused. Please them, leave me baffled. Or you could just -- oh, stick to the news or something.

Except on the opinion pages. On those, go ahead and impress us with your prowess. Do.

* Not very.

Friday, March 07, 2008

And thanks for your patronage

The Central Ohio buro onpasses this delightful paragraph, from a correction* cataloged over at the excellent Regret The Error site:

The paper has printed an apology and has agreed to make a donation to a Christian group that helps prostitutes of which the Bishop is a patron.

I know we've already taken down the National Grammar Day decorations and dismantled the floats and all, but shouldn't that be "of whom"?

* The paper running the correction, to its credit, managed to avoid the antecedence issues: "Bishop Graham is a patron of the charity."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Post hoc, ergo cut it out

Every now and then, students wonder why an editing class veers into stuff like informal logical fallacies at the expense of another round or three of grammar calisthenics. There are two reasons. First, because news sources like to deceive journalists. Second, and equally important, because journalists are prone to deceiving themselves. And when we don't hold our own conclusions to the same standards we set for others, we also risk deceiving the public -- or, perhaps worse, giving the public reason to think we're stacking the deck.

Here's a real-life example from today's primary coverage. The topic is Clinton's use of attack ads on national security:

The ads had an impact:
• A majority of voters in both Ohio and Texas thought Clinton was more qualified to be commander in chief, according to exit polls.
• A majority of the people in both states who made up their minds in the last three days -- after the ad started airing -- went for Clinton.

Step forth all who said "post hoc, ergo propter hoc." Right. We have no way of knowing whether the ads had any such impact at all. These are correlational relationships, not causal relationships. For the first bullet point: Did the exit poll ask whether voters saw the ad? Did it ask whether the ad changed their view about who's more qualified? If not, on either count, there's no ground for stating a cause-effect relationship. For the second, same two questions (did you see it, and did it make you vote for Clinton), with an added caution. Late deciders have been important at a number of points during the primary process. Why would it be valid to conclude that these late deciders were turned into zombies by one ad? What if a voter settled on Clinton on Sunday, then saw the ad Monday? What about the coven of witches in Austin who drank the blood of a birth-strangled babe, then danced widdershins around an effigy of Obama, mocking his lack of international experience in their strange unearthly croaks?

Post hoc reasoning isn't something you can do if you're the New York Times, rather than some lesser breed without the law. It isn't something you can get away with in an "analysis," rather than a news report. (NPR made the same error in a news report this morning, and it was equally wrong.) The correlation is interesting, but it's the extent of what we know. When we pretend otherwise, we're guessing or opinionating (or both). And that makes us look as if we don't know the rules -- or, worse, that we're willing to bend them for one candidate or another.

By the time it gets to the copydesk, of course, such a logical fallacy is hard to stop. It's been written by a power figure, approved at the center, and approved by at least one authority (likely more) in-house. But an error that's been approved by a lot of people doesn't magically become correct. All it becomes is an error with a lot of powerful friends.

Funny, the McClatchy Washburo (to give credit where it's due, the old K-R side of the office) was justifiably honored as the Iraq debacle grew worse for having withstood exactly that problem: An error of judgment that came to seem so much like conventional wisdom that very few people (or organizations) bothered to point out that it was entirely unsubstantiated. Asking about the emperor's fashion tastes is always in style. Could we try it for campaign reporting too?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Fourth verse, same as the third second first

After Sunday's three-peat trifecta of alliteration action* in the metro centerpiece, what lies ahead when the dog show moves to the front page?
Did you really have to ask?
* "Catering to canines," "pamper posh pooches," "ritzy rovers" if you're scoring along at home.


Stop making stuff up!

We've com- plained a lot in the past few weeks about inter- changeable heds: the ones you could (and often do) put on any story without regard for whether GLOVES COME OFF! or MAKE OR BREAK! reflects any actual development in the story atop which it appears.

Today's example is a little different. "Polls: Ohio, Texas races tighten" looks as if it was just pulled out of the bag of day-before-the-primary heds, but it has a singular disadvantage: It isn't true. Or, put more roundaboutly, of several things you could reasonably conclude from current survey data, "these two races are tightening" isn't any of them. So before we get into the gory statistical details, a couple of suggestions, in case anyone wants to listen:

1) When you write a hed, make sure you can (a) place a finger on the fact statement in the text that corresponds to the hed and (b) confirm the fact in line with prevailing standards.

2) Don't write a flawed or overdramatized hed because a designer painted you into a corner. If the story doesn't have the hed specifications for the hed it needs, demand spex that conform to the story. Don't make the story fit the spex.

3) If you're going to generalize from samples to populations (and whether you like it or not, that's what every poll story since Caesar's "Gallic Wars" has done), learn the rules, all right? You don't have to know many, but you have to know them, and you have to be ruthless in editing stories that violate them for whatever reason. Honest. If sports writers treated their data as badly as we treat ours, the peasants would be at the gates.

Back to our hed. For it to be true, two things have to be true: Polls have to have tightened in Ohio, and they have to have tightened in Texas. Did they? Let's take a look. For context, let's use what the paper reported Saturday. Remember, the present tense in heds ("tighten") signals the event in the immediate past that tells you why today is different from yesterday -- the "why am I reading this?" development:
Polls now give her a modest lead in Ohio and show Texas is a toss-up, but earlier she had large leads in both states. (AP)

and inside Monday (reefered from the package shown above):
The race is close; a Mason-Dixon poll for the Cleveland Plain Dealer released on Sunday put Clinton ahead by four points, 47-43 percent, with an error margin of four points and 9 percent undecided. (Philly Inquirer)

So in the Mason-Dixon poll (in the field Feb. 27-29, interviewing 625 likely voters), Clinton leads in Ohio, but the lead isn't significant at conventional levels of confidence.* What has happened since? Let's have a look at the compilation at RealClearPolitics (which, if you discount the thoroughly bogus "RCP average," is a good one-stop site for data). Four polls of likely voters began at the weekend: SurveyUSA (n=873; Clinton 54, Obama 44), Public Policy Polling (n=1,112; Clinton 51, Obama 42) and Suffolk (n=400; Clinton 52, Obama 40), all in the field Saturday and Sunday, and Rasmussen (n=858; Clinton 50, Obama 44), which polled Sunday only. In the first three, Clinton's lead is significant at 95% confidence, meaning there aren't any non-chance cases in which Obama could be leading. In Rasmussen, Clinton's lead isn't significant, but it's larger than the difference in the Mason-Dixon poll.

So what does it all mean? It could mean everything's pretty stable. Random samples from a normal distribution will eventually form a normal distribution themselves, so the data could mean Clinton's support in the whole population (likely Democratic voters in Ohio) has been steady at, oh, 48 to Obama's steady 43. Or, given that most of the most recent surveys show a significant Clinton lead, Clinton's support could be growing. The one thing you can't get out of these data is that the race is tightening. It may be, for any of several reasons ("undecided" being a rather important one). But it isn't something that the polls show, meaning the hed is false.**

Are the later polls better? Well, you can say with a high level of confidence that they're later. Most of them have larger samples than Mason-Dixon (meaning tighter confidence intervals). They're also in the field at the weekend only and for shorter time periods, introducing other possible sources of error we can't quantify. If that tells you anything about survey data on voter intentions, it should be that the things that make polls interesting also make them very difficult to draw confident predictions from. That doesn't mean polls are unreliable; it means the things that limit their reliability need to be taken into account.

And Texas? Look for yourself. Those results are only tightening if -- oh, if you're a hed writer who has to say something novel about the primaries and knows there's no penalty for inventing a few conclusions from data you haven't seen. Ahem.

It'd be nice if we didn't have to return to this subject every few weeks, but Some People are Not Paying Attention. The polls are getting a lot of stick in this campaign season, and that's not fair. The polls are performing exactly the way they're supposed to. The fault is with people -- pollsters, candidates, "experts," reporters -- who decide to put lipstick on an otherwise fully functional data pig and parade it around to demonstrate their indispensable wisdom. You can't spell Marketplace of Ideas without "marketing." At least, not very well.

* Though it would be at 68% confidence! How many times do we have to repeat this? The margin of sampling error is meaningless without its confidence level.
** Clinton's complaints about unfair press coverage are silly to the point of being delusional. But if she wanted to complain that this hed gave a false opinion about her campaign, she'd be right.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008


Once is bad enough, but ...

Area hotels open doors
to pamper posh pooches

... and the fans are waiting to see what the desk does with the jump hed:

SHOW / Ritzy rovers relax

Grr. As if the hat trick of bush-league alliteration hadn't done enough damage. There are (I suppose; I've never actually heard of one) dogs named Rover, but that doesn't mean dogs are "rovers." This is the Holy Roman Empire principle: the Thing on the Doorstep this morning represents the joint edition of the Freep and the News, but that doesn't mean it's either free, or press, or particularly news.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Today's writing tip

Take a stick in one hand and a beer in the other. Whenever you feel the urge to write a lede like this:

It's no use crying over spilt milk, the old saying goes.

... hit yourself on the head with the stick and have a sip of the beer. Repeat as necessary until the urge goes away.