Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hed ban alert

Here are some handy rules for those times when you're tempted to dip into pop-culture cliches for your display type:

1) Don't
2) If you must, be sure -- relentlessly, ruthlessly sure -- that the resulting cliche scans correctly
3) Nah. Just see (1)

That's the problem with The Offering by The State shown at The Top. First, it's genuinely bad-air-down-that-path stale: Find three nouns, follow with "oh my" and call it good. Second, count the meter in the original: LIons and TIgers and BEARS (beat), oh MY. If you can't match that, throw your hed out. You're drawing attention even farther away from the notional subject and toward the hed writer, always a bad move. And third -- right, see Rule 1.

"Oh my" heds are on the permanently banned list, whether you can count a dactyl or not. File 'em with "Let the games begin" and all its heirs and assigns.

Here's a seasonal reminder, while we're on the topic:

Katrina-ravaged Gulf fearing Gustav's wrath

Let's not, shall we? Someone else might think it's ...

Clearly the danger remains very real. Hurricanes are an example of nature's fury. Could we catch a break and dramatically spare most of our neighbors to the south from the destructive wrath of Gustav? Stay tuned!*

Residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, are being warned they too could soon feel the wrath of Gustav.

Cuba blasted by wrath of Gustav.

Oil industry better prepared for the wrath of Gustav.

In what must seem like a bad dream to so many of these beleaguered residents of New Orleans, who have only just begun to get their lives back together after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina which occurred three years ago, almost to the day, the reports of the wrath of Gustav as it hit Cuba’s western tip and gained speed has sent most New Orleans residents packing.

Unless and until the Atlantic season starts with Hurricane Aguirre, no more "wrath." Period.

* Somebody at Minnesota Public Radio has a bad case of the stupids today.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 30, 2008

First, do harm

We all like to Omit Needless Words. The more Needless Words you omit, the more Needful Words you can include. Eight lines is an inch of text, and when you serve an inch less foam, you can serve an inch more beer.

Trouble comes when you fire up the chainsaw before you RTFS: Omit Needless Words becomes just Omit Words, and that's a really good way to make the paper (and the writer, and more or less the whole profession) look really stupid. Here's a lede:

WASHINGTON - Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is just a pretty face has never looked at her resumé.

"Needless word!" cries some editor. And the verbal blade goes snicker-snack:

WASHINGTON - Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is just a pretty face never looked at her résumé.

That's the version that appears in today's 1A centerpiece. (Note the added vigilance on résumé). Trouble is, the "has" in "has never looked" hadn't finished its earthly tasks:

Or run against her -- or gone hunting with her.

If you think Sarah's just a pretty face, you never gone hunting with her, all right. Nor never run against her, neither. We done incorrected us a grammar right slam into the second graf.

The story has a Gannett byline (elsewhere; the Freep just credits "news services"), but it doesn't appear yet on the Gannett wire at Lexis, so it's hard to say conclusively what the "original" is. Several papers are running it with the auxiliary in place, and a few others join the Freep in the ain't-no-part-of-nothing version. My bet is still on "editing error." Even bad writers aren't usually that bad in that particular way. And this writer is a ... OK, let's say he's a "workmanlike" writer. Lots of the prose could really use some editorial help:

At 44, she is the youngest and first female governor of Alaska and now the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket.

Maybe it's a stretch to read that as "(youngest) and (first) (female governor)," rather than "(youngest) and (first female) (governor)." Maybe it isn't. But a choice between clumsy and silly isn't much of a choice at all. Why not just make it two sentences?

Palin has been described as colorful, outspoken and has been known to buck her party, Walsh said.

I like a candidate who has been described as has been known to buck her party. See why people have been known to appreciate those Strunk & White guidelines?

When she was three months old, the family moved to Alaska, where moose hunting and distance running filled weekends.

Kilt her a moose when she was only three, did she? After winning her a 5K on her stubby little legs?*

If your goal is to make mediocre writing sound better, there's no shortage of stuff to do in this story -- or, really, anywhere in the fields of news writing. But you need to start by actually reading the text. Otherwise, you're going to omit a needful word from the Basic Rule: First, do no harm.

* It's worse in the Freep version: "When she was 3 months old, the family moved to Alaska, where moose hunting and distance running filled her weekends." Again, you can't tell for sure whether the Freep made things worse or just blew another chance to make things less bad. But at least the Freep desk followed AP style for age!

Labels: ,

Friday, August 29, 2008

And this is worth 50 cents ... why again?

Before we get to the main course, let's take a moment to salute the intrepid copyeds at Trade and Tryon for getting first- person pronouns in three out of four frontpage heds.* (The fourth -- "Facebook founder 'friends' Obama" -- is such a solid favorite for the Cancer Cured/Mideast At Peace Prize that it's hardly fair to let it compete with mere pronouns.)

But it's a particular hed:

We love our
junk food
Charlotte area ranks 5th in filling
grocery carts with yummy stuff

... and the story beneath it, and the sort of thinking that ranked the whole thing right up there with "Facebook founder 'friends' Obama," that we need to worry about.

Broadly, there are two ways of approaching this. One is the Good Science vs. Bad Science approach. And let's not hear any protests that you aren't playing science here -- either you're proclaiming that you have a valid and reliable measure of how much metropolitan areas love their junk food (and that a difference of half a percentage point in that measure is significant), or one-fourth of your frontpage stories are made up. Which is it?

Glad you agree, but that means we get to ask some questions. Tell us a little more about your conceptual and operational definitions there:

On a list of the 10 U.S. cities where people spend the most amount of their yearly grocery bill on unhealthy food, Charlotte is No. 5. (So does "unhealthy" mean "junk" or "yummy stuff"?)

A study of product purchases found that in the Charlotte metro area – defined as Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord – we spend 10.9 percent of our annual food dollars in the unhealthy category.

OK, so the concept is the proportion of "yearly grocery bill" (or "annual food dollars," which ain't the same thing) spent on "unhealthy" food. And we measure that how?

That would be things like cake and brownie mixes, cookies, candies, frozen pizza, full-fat mayonnaise, chips and salty snacks, soft drinks, ice cream, bacon and sausage. (Hate to be rude here, but -- you pick up some butter, milk and eggs and we'll play Spoonbread of Mass Destruction with just the stuff that's in the cupboard.*** But we digress.)

The study, released earlier this month, was commissioned by, which asked a Florida-based research company, Catalina Marketing, to look at purchases of unhealthy foods in the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

The study included most supermarket chains, including Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Bi Lo, but not club and mass merchandisers, drug stores and Wal-Mart.

Sigh. Once again, somebody's invoking the magic of a "study" without telling us what's studied. So somebody else has to track down the press release:

Every week Americans head to the grocery store knowing what should fill their carts--fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods packed with whole grains. (Uh, yeah. Oops! Methods! Let's look for some methods!)

... Analysts calculated the total amount of money spent on more than 100,000 individual product codes deemed generally unhealthy at 17,000 grocery stores. Those figures were then corrected for total expenditures in grocery stores.

Except, as noted, for your Wal-Mart, your Sam's Club, your drug stores, and your Whole Foods. And, should you take the historic main drag north from campus, all the You Buy We Fry shops before and after the grocery store near the old Model T plant. So this difference of 0.02 percentage points between the top two cities is a significant measure of -- what again? Set aside for a moment the question of whether some percentage of a grocery bill says anything about the aggregate "us" and whether "we" love "our" junk food more or less than we did yesterday, or more or less than those happy Alaskans, or whatever. What's the outcome here?

Now, instead of the science approach, you could always back up a few grafs and note -- hmm, press release. And that leads to a more qualitative or humanist approach, in which we ask: Which interests in particular are served by the appearance on the front of a rewritten press release from The paper gets to ingratiate itself to some unknown part of its readership by saying "we" and "our." Forbes gets some free advertising space on the front. And the rest of us? Well, we don't get much, do we?

OK, fine; nobody's directly hurt by this. It's publicity-as-news and it's junk nutritionism, but it isn't actually harmful. Except that like so many journalistic Chee-Toes,**** it's clogging up space that might be spent on actual news -- you know, true, relevant stuff that risks making a difference in how people view the world. You guys have an incumbent senator who sort of like openly advocates discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation; were you planning to let her constituents know about that at some point? Is there another Georgia-Russia war out there that we might ought to know about before the tanks actually start rolling?

Yeah, yeah. People who are interested in why transition states do or don't try to blow the hell out of each other can go look it up themselves, right? Fair enough. We do anyway. But it's a lot easier when the precursor conditions to blowing the hell out of your neighbor are considered to be "news" (which, after all, they traditionally were) and given at least a chance to compete with stupid press releases from If they aren't, well ... it gets a little harder to justify that 50 cents a day, doesn't it?

* Right, that's the hortatory subjunctive,** waving at you from the offlede there.
** Language Czarina notes that it was also the Salad Subjunctive during her days as a classicist.
*** All your arteries are belong to us.
**** This may or may not be the standard plural, and I'm not entirely sure any rational adult should care.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Signs of the apocalypse

As a rule, we don't offer too many sweeping statements about the general state of newspaper design, but: Dear friends at the Sun-Sentinel, are you publishing a newspaper or a coloring book? Just curious.

(Update: Had a look at the home page, and there seems to be a third option: Comic book.)

No, really. Ideally, you want to come away from your daily media consumption routines at least a tad bit smarter than when you went in. But this particular set of design choices seems to be actively subtracting from the sum of human knowledge -- actually sucking tiny bits of wisdom out of the atmos and sending them across the universe for safekeeping. Is there a lot of this going around?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Misspent resources

Time is a zero-sum commodity in the world of editing. At the end of your shift, you've always spent the exact amount you started with. And once you spend it, you can't get it back and start over.

So the whole split-verb thing -- nicely discussed last week in both academic and professional circles -- isn't just irritating because it tends to make for worse-sounding writing, or because it gives people a wrong impression of "rules" and what editors do and don't do with them. Time you spend unsplitting an infinitive, or a perfectly healthy auxiliary-adverb-verb sequence, is almost invariably time that doesn't get spent doing something useful.

What do the fingerprints look like? Let's turn again to the Freep, which seems obsessed with the splitter:

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton never was seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

Is that what the AP transmitted? Well ...

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ran so closely to Obama in the primary, was never seriously considered, said two officials involved with the search.

So the Freep desk made a couple of style tweaks (adding the title*, deleting the "Rodham") and tightened out the relative clause (fine; I'm thinking "closely" is a hypercorrection anyway). But the "never was" -- that's a local embellishment that seems to have no justification whatsoever. (How the "seriously" escaped notice, I can't say.)

So what's the big deal? It's a little thing, but it's a little thing done in lieu of other little things, or parts of big things. In the time it took to turn "was never" into "never was," you could have ... oh, thrown a coffee cup at the person who thought it was a good idea to put "begorra" in the 1A reefer to the travel piece about Ireland.

Or should the resources that went into that change have gone into something bigger? Well, let's look at the 1A big type -- say, the deck on the top story: "Obama, Biden speeches chuck punches at McCain, GOP." Take a Google spin with "chuck a punch" and see if that looks like the right idiom to you.**

Downpage: "Ram's strength hoped to crush market woes." Makes sense if it's active, but that doesn't look like what the writer meant with "Chrysler LLC hopes for the same in the once-reliable U.S. pickup market as it launches the redesigned Dodge Ram." So we're supposed to read this as "Ram's strength is hoped to crush market woes," but can "hope" take a direct object and an infinitive? Chrysler hopes the Ram's strength to crush market woes?

So yes, a little more attention to the show-window heds would have been nice. But in an ideal world, I'd really like to see that energy go into the 6A package called "Biden has made more than a few verbal gaffes." Specifically:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

That certainly fits the story line. But Mark Liberman of the Log makes a very convincing case that it's effectively a misquote: Biden isn't saying Obama is the "first African American who is articulate," but that he's the first African American candidate and that he's articulate. Which in political and cultural terms is mind-bendingly tin-eared -- but it's not the sort of insensitivity portrayed in the quote. Mark acknowledges the blunderhood of the blunder and continues:

But there's also a linguistic and a journalistic point here. Senator Biden's word sequence corresponds to two different sentences with very different meanings, and the Observer misquoted him by omitting the comma.

I don't know whether the Observer misrepresented Biden's statement out of ignorance, carelessness, or malice. Maybe Horowitz and his editors don't know the difference between the two types of relative clauses; maybe they didn't bother to think about the difference in interpretation in this case; or maybe they know the difference in general, thought about it in this case, and decided that it would make a better story to present the wrong version.

We need to be ready for the occasional correction from the linguistics camp -- polite, sharp, kindly, blunt, whatever -- on the ignorance front. That's part of the package. But I'd rather not have anybody calling us out for carelessness or malice. Particularly when it looks like they're right.

*Since Biden and Obama were both introduced earlier without titles, I'm not convinced Clinton needs one, but ... hey, not my desk.
** Yes, I'm still tired of the gloves on/gloves off/came out swinging stuff.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

His master's voice

Didn't take long for word to filter down to Bill Sammon at Fox, did it?

Biden's embellishments could
provide easy fodder for GOP

When Joe Biden claimed at a Democratic debate last year that he had been “shot at” while visiting Baghdad’s Green Zone, the press didn’t bother to check it out, since Biden’s White House bid seemed unlikely to succeed.

But now that he has been catapulted into contention by virtue of being selected as Barack Obama’s running mate, Biden and such bullet-dodging tales may be subjected to a level of scrutiny that tripped up Hillary Clinton when she falsely claimed to have come under sniper fire in Bosnia. (Enough with "may" there, Bill. Have we started the said subjecting yet?)

And Republicans would have a litany of apparent inconsistencies and embellishments to pick through. (Got your scorecards ready? "Litany" is the column right after "total points.")

For example, Biden claimed in 2006 that he chided President Bush in a private conversation.

... His Democratic audience cheered appreciatively, but a close Bush confidante told FOX News on Saturday: “That conversation never happened.” (Well, that settles that!)

On the same show, Biden claimed to have once told a colleague: “Were we not senators, I’d rip your goddamn Adam’s apple out.”

Although he did not name the other senator, Biden’s graphic imagery caused some to wonder about his temperament. (Which is an "embellishment" issue exactly -- how?)

Biden also used unusually strong language to ridicule those who believe in creationism or intelligent design. (Which is an "inconsistency" issue exactly how?)

“I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!” the senior senator from Delaware exclaimed. (Dagnabbit! Were you too hoping for something more in the way of "unusually strong"?)

But less than six months earlier, CBS News conducted a poll that found a majority of Americans (51 percent) do believe that God created humans in their present form. (And misoverestimating public opinion has ... what again to do with embellishment?) Even larger majorities reject the theory of evolution, according to the poll. (Except the two-thirds who, "according to the poll,"* seem to think it's fine to believe in God and evolution at the same time.)

Still waiting for the litany?** Well, have a nice wait. While you're waiting, have a look over the transcript from the Bill Maher show in question, on which Biden appears with -- wow, could it be with some journalist named Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner, whose main purpose seemed to be hauling water for the Bush administration on matters like intelligent design and charging the New York Times with treason? And could all three embellishments and inconsistencies really come from the same show?***

Bear in mind a fairly important distinction in the world of journalism: Some organizations generally try to get stuff right and occasionally screw up. (OK, some of them actually screw up more than "occasionally.") Other organizations lie routinely, deliberately and enthusiastically as a matter of policy. Figured out yet which camp Fox falls into?

* Hard to tell much from the report at, which makes the NYT look like serious, cautious pros at the art of handling survey stats.
** Maybe it comes after the offertory. Goshdarn liberals!
*** If you're interested, here's how the "goddamn Adam's apple" quote appears in the transcript:
"I’ll give you a very quick story. My mother, God love her, very smart woman. Eighty-nine years old. Lives with me. Good health. My mother says a rosary every Sunday at Mass when we go to Mass, for her deceased brother Ambrose, who died in New Guinea, and the body was never recovered. I said to one of my senior – one of my colleagues who is a very sophisticated guy, when we got in an argument – I said, “Okay, Charlie, this is what my mother…what do you think of that” And he looked at me and said, “I think that’s quaint.” And I said, “Were you not – were we not senators, I’d rip your goddamn Adam’s apple out, because who the hell are you to look at my mother and say it’s ‘quaint’?” We have too many elites in our party who look down their nose on people of faith. The people of faith don’t want us to share their view. They just want to know we respect them. We respect them."


Friday, August 22, 2008

Hanging by a little thread

Spotted in the wild, in a teaser on the McClatchy Washburo frontpage, the dangling ... well, what should we call this? A dangling gerund phrase?*

McCain has big lead in South,
poll of 11 states shows

McCain enjoys a 16-point lead — 51 percent to 35 percent — among Southern voters, the poll, by Winthrop University and ETV, shows. And the further into the South you go, the larger McCain's lead. Eight-six percent of voters said race was not a factor in their preference, but one-quarter said having a Muslim parent was.

It's not a dangling participle, as in: "Having a Muslim parent, the campaign grew complicated." (If you'd like to score "Having a Muslim parent, Bubba said he could never vote for Obama" as a dangler too, go ahead; some danglerphiles disagree.) But it has the same sort of problem: Whose is the Muslim parent? The voter's (or voters'), or the mysterious candidate who goes unnamed in this blurb?

I really don't want to get into another round of survey nitpicking (hie yourselves to the originating paper and have at it, if you're inclined), but this is worth singling out:

And the further** into the South you go, the larger McCain's lead.

That's simply not true -- at least, whether it's true in some way or not, it isn't a finding of this poll. McCain's advantage in the whole sample is significant at 95% confidence. His advantage appears to be*** significantly larger in the Deep South states. It sounds cool and authoritative and intuitively sensible to state that as a linear relationship, but there's no evidence to support it. So don't.

* Nominations and analyses welcome.
** Ahem.
*** I am getting really, really tired of writers (and editors) who don't bother to report subgroup sizes.


Balance: Yur doin it wrong

This just in -- actually, these just in -- from the McClatchy cousins. In case you're wondering, the stories appear one atop the other on the "Politics" page.*

Above them is a better question: "Why're the media so excited about the vice-presidential pick?" To which two potential answers suggest themselves:

1) Dunno. Why're you?
2) If these're the depths we're sinking to, why'ren't we thinking about, oh, a weeklong moratorium on campaign news?

Just a suggestion.

* Presented, it appears, as "news" -- not the sort of point-counterpoint slop that might justify the "Earth Round! Earth Flat!" hed treatment.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How not to make a case for preserving the desk

Another day, another misshapen correction downtown:

In some editions of Wednesday's Local News section, a brief article and headline should have said an Army sergeant was killed in a blast in Afghanistan.

As usual, it doesn't take long to come up with a bunch of possible errors that "should have said" could plausibly be meant to cover:
Story misstated branch of service
Story misstated extent of injuries
Story misstated location of attack

A little head-scratching is still in order, though. Right there on Wednesday's local front is a brief article saying an Army sergeant was killed in a blast in Afghanistan. So why exactly are we running a correction? Because the lede and hed refer to the victim as an "Army officer."

Before you roll your eyes completely out the back of your head or blame the America-hating librul media, consider how the error might have come about. If the only uniformed people you're familiar with are cops, and you know that "officer" is a good generic term for cops of all ranks, it makes pretty good sense to extend that meaning to soldiers of all ranks.

The safety-net system that was built up as journalism became industrialized is supposed to stop things like that. The traditional* production line would have put at least three pairs of eyes on the story after a reporter:
  • A line editor, who either assigned the story or approved the reporter's idea, made sure that the agreed 5-graf brief hadn't become a 30-graf first-person feature while everyone's back was turned, and sent it to the copydesk

  • A rimrat, who smoothed out the rough structural work, tuned the grammar and style, cut and rearranged as necessary, and wrote the hed

  • A slot editor, who made sure the hed and trims matched the specs on the page (and, at least at a glance, that the hed reflected the story's content), checked the suturing to guard against desk-induced errors, and sent the story to type
No one ever said the assembly line caught everything (people have been collecting errors since Gutenberg first left the "L" out of "public"), but it did turn into an effective way of compensating for a lot of the haste of daily news production. And the story in question might have gotten the requisite number of checks. But I'd still class it among the growing body of evidence that people who want to improve the business by shucking off the editing functions are barking up the wrong tree on the wrong side of the moon.
Why isn't that case self-evident to anyone who still has more than two brain cells wired together? Because editors do stuff like this, from today's 1A:

But it also is symptomatic of how unprepared -- or unwilling -- the United States is to return to the days when, for 45 years, America was obsessed with the idea that the next conflict would be in central Europe.

What's the big deal about that? Here's the original:

But it is also symptomatic of how unprepared — or unwilling — the U.S. is to return to those days when, for 45 years, America was obsessed with the idea that the next conflict would be in central Europe.

So ... the desk doesn't have time to open the AP Stylebook and figure out where staff sergeants fall in the great scheme of Army ranks, but it has time to make a completely meaningless** tweak in the 1A copy? Please. Even if, somewhere, there was a "rule" against splitting main verbs and auxiliaries (there isn't, although the blind fear of one seems to be driving this urge to tweak), is there nobody around to point out that "is symptomatic" isn't a verb? It's, like, a linking verb and a predicate adjective?

I'm in the camp that firmly, deeply, permanently believes we need more editing, not less, in the Brave New World of the intartubes. A desk that lacks a sense of proportion, an ear for when writing sounds good and a freshman-level knowledge of what "grammar" is and how it works is an awfully poor argument for the long-term virtues of the craft.

Please try to do better. I'm no longer a stockholder,*** but I'm still a paying reader, and this sort of stuff really yanks my chain.

* "Traditional" meaning post-hot-type; into the mid-1970s, there would have been yet another pair of eyes, in the form of a proofreader -- often a better speller than anyone on the reporting staff, and happy to call upstairs and remind the night desk that sergeants werent officers when he was in the Army.
** Except that it sounds worse the new way. Sorry.
*** Since the sale, I mean; I still have some of the Confederate money that passes for McClatchy stock.

Charles Foster Kane defeated


Today's champion in the media framing freestyle goes to -- aw, you peeked.
Once again, a fairly competent piece of survey research is frog-marched to the top of the page and tortured by the cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. Again, don't blame the "pollsters"; my only major complaint with this lot is that they only stay in the field two days (two evenings, in this case). Well, and there are those annoying only-at-Fox questions that get thrown in at the end:
As far as you know, are Mormons Christians or not?
... but at least it can't poison the rest of the survey from the end.
One way of assessing how much bias is inherent in the instrument is to look at the questions themselves (and at interviewer instructions, like whether the order of names is rotated). Note that when the Opinion Dynamics folks ask about what respondents like in their candidates, the question is open-ended. Any distortion from this one is down to Fox, which has a very Sam-and-Gollum attitude toward the numbers: Once you give me a coney, the coney's mine, see, to cook, if I have a mind. That sort of takes us back to the days when press barons stalked the earth, which isn't necessarily a Good Thing.
None of which addresses the question of whether polls are ever news. I still think they are -- just that there are almost no circumstances under which they're anything resembling frontpage news. What makes them valid is rarely heddable, and what makes them heddable is rarely valid.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Objectivity failure

Time for another brief rant about the public interpretation of survey research. (If you're growing tired of those, may we recommend the excellent Comics section downpage?)* As we mentioned at the weekend, there's a widely held -- and generally wrong -- belief that some people called "pollsters" do evil magic stuff to numbers while we aren't looking and thus distort public opinion to reflect (a) their own Maoist leanings, (b) the fascist tendencies of their paymasters, or (c) either of the above, as long as they can embarrass innocent citizens in the process.**

That'd actually be a really stupid way to do business. Polls can, and do, ask vacant, loaded, double-headed, misnegated or openly racist questions. But poll questionnaires tend to sound alike on the relevant stuff:

If the election were held today, would you ...
Would you say that's very likely, somewhat likely, or ...
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "very happy" and 5 being "very unhappy," how would you ...

because that's how you get reliable answers. You could draw a random sample of 1,004 people and ask if they're planning to vote for the terrorist or the war hero, but if that's your goal, it's a lot cheaper to just make up a few percentages. Properly sampled and professionally arranged, a poll from Fox is going to be every bit as reliable on the big-league questions as one from -- well, if you can imagine a left-wing U.S. news organization, a poll run by a left-wing news organization.

Which gets us to "objectivity" -- that happy state in which we base our results on things as they work in the real world. What "objective" should mean is that everything's in the open: questions, order, results, subgroup sizes, all that. If you want to run all the tests again and see if anybody's cheating, you can. We don't have to make dark inferences about motives; we can talk about facts.

Does that give you the idea that "objectivity" isn't, or shouldn't be, a requirement to let people tell lies? Hope so, because that's the point of today's example. McClatchy is reporting (it's a bit hyperbolic, as usual) on a survey of registered female voters that -- surprise, surprise -- finds a pretty massive lead for Obama among the so-called GenY crowd. Calling forth this response:

EMILY's List overwhelmingly supports Democratic candidates, and that slant is going to figure into its numbers, said Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women For America, a political action group based in Washington that opposes legal abortion.

Erk. This is a genuine failure of objectivity. Wendy Wright is welcome to say or think what she wants, but the reporter (failing that, the desk) is justified here in telling her to sit down and shut up. She can say she doesn't like the numbers, or that she expects American womanhood to come to its senses soon, but when she says people who make their living by running polls are stacking the deck on their results, she's out of bounds. (Try that with accountants or lawyers and they're likely to sue you for libel.) "Objectivity" gives her the information to run a survey of a random sample of 1,400 female voters and see whether the results differ significantly from the ones reported here. It doesn't create a right to lie.

But don't the numbers need some sort of comment from people who don't like Emily's List? That's actually a better question. If the numbers are accurate, why does it? And if they aren't, why is the story running?

* And yes, this is an editing issue. Editors -- until some front-office genius decides to put us out of the sport altogether -- are still the folks who are empowered to stand up and ask things like "Why are we putting that crap in the paper?"
** Response biases are really interesting. Lying about voting behavior tends to go in only one direction: People don't say "I didn't vote" if they did vote, but they're happy to say "I voted" when they didn't.


And water flows -- which way again?

Strayhorn onpasses this from the NYT biz section:

Correction: August 16, 2008 An article on Friday about the planned construction of two large solar power installations in California described incorrectly the operation of the solar panels in one, to be built by SunPower. Its panels pivot from east to west to follow the sun over the course of a day — not west to east.

The file at has been corrected. But there's no hiding from Lexis-Nexis:

SunPower's panels are mounted at a 20-degree angle, facing south, and pivot from west to east over the course of the day to face the sun.

Labels: ,

Forbidden ledes: AP haz dem

WASHINGTON — Paddlings, swats, licks. A quarter of a million schoolchildren got them in 2007.

File the laundry-list lede with It's Official, Christmas Came Early, and any and all recipes. Don't let this one into your newspaper, and if your shovelware has already posted it -- why, yes, you can has another!


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bizarre invention of the (fading) day

This just in from the elite McClatchy Washburo:

An earlier comment from Obama, though, also made it seem unlikely that he'd pick Clinton. He told a woman in the town hall audience that he gets Wellesley College, a women's college outside Boston where Clinton was the student commencement speaker in 1969, confused with co-ed Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Uh, yeah. Copyeds, if this shows up in your basket, you're not only allowed but expected to call the political authorities in the Washburo and ask why this entertaining bit of fabrication is appearing in something presented as a news story.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Foot fault

What do you do with a grammar argument -- or, at least, something that looks like a grammar argument -- when the "grammar" in question isn't wrong? Sometimes the best approach is to treat it as a signaling issue: Is the message you're encoding up on your end of the Great Pneumatic Tube the same message somebody's going to decode on the other end? If the answer is "no," or "maybe," or "who knows," you might want to rethink the premises.

That's the issue with the "Sweet-tea vodka catches on quick" hed at right. (The bears are just there so you too can wonder why a story about bears in Alaska is frontpage news in Piedmont North Carolina.) Is it ungrammatical? Not really; "quick" as an adverb has been around for a good seven centuries. But if you look a bit further, you'll find suggestions that this is a case in which some adverbs are more equal than others. The OED says: "now usually considered less formal than quickly, and found chiefly in informal or colloquial contexts, often in standard constructions," with these among recent examples:

1901 M. FRANKLIN My Brilliant Career xxxii. 272 Lizer, shut the winder quick. 1936 C. SANDBURG People, Yes 83 Some men dress quick, others take as much time as a woman.

That makes things a bit confusing for the coffee-deprived reader. Does the hed mean someone's trying to sound like a novelist (or, worse, like Carl Sandburg), or that the desk doesn't do well at sticking to standard, or what? Put another way: Are you talking down to me (owin' to the story's about sweet tea, and that brings out the g-droppin' in all of us), or can't you tell the difference?

Heds have many purposes. Distracting the reader shouldn't be any of them.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Desperately seeking significance

A couple items from today's A section suggest that the Nation's Newspaper of Record has trouble -- fairly serious trouble, actually -- understanding a concept that's going to be of some importance as the campaign season wears on. The concept is statistical significance. It's not all that hard, but if you don't get it, you're at risk of sounding the way the Times sounded today: authoritatively clueless at best, and it goes downhill from there. Let's let the Times introduce the term and see where its wanderings can take us from there. Here's a tale from North Carolina:

The average of the latest polls here, as of Wednesday, showed Mr. McCain with a lead of 4.3 percentage points over Mr. Obama, a difference that is barely significant statistically.

Looks as if the Times, with its usual close regard for crediting other people's work, is borrowing the Real Clear Politics "average," which journalists in their right minds shun. Biggest point first, the RCP average can't be tested for statistical significance, because it's a meaningless number. It might or might not have some relation to something going on in the empirical world.* There is a way to determine the average of polls with different sample sizes, but RCP doesn't use it, and that's over and above the fallacy of averaging polls that sample adults, registered voters and "likely" voters.**

But our point is the term the Times invokes: "barely significant statistically." And the trouble there -- the thing suggesting that Times writers and editors don't know what they're talking about -- is that "barely" isn't an issue in significance testing. A difference is either significant or it ain't; "barely significant" is like "kind of pregnant" or "barely dead." So what does (or should) "significant" mean? Listen and attend.

When you're generalizing from samples to a population, a difference between samples can arise one of two ways: Either there's a real difference in the population or you got the result by accident ("chance"). To test for significance, you pick a confidence level, or a likelihood that you have a real result, rather than a chance one. Conventionally, that's 95%, meaning a "significant" result is one that has one chance (or less) in 20 of having happened by accident:*** Candidate A isn't really ahead of Candidate B, aspirin doesn't work better than placebo, kids who saw the violent cartoon don't act more violently than kids who saw the happy cartoon. Good so far?

OK, so a "significant" result is one that's unlikely to have happened by chance, given your chosen confidence level. What does that say about a 4.3-point McCain lead? Well, the difference isn't significant at the conventional 95%, although it'd be close in a poll the size of the one the Times and CBS ran last month. Even discounting chance, then, it's possible that Obama is leading in the whole population. Is it likely?

No, which suggests that survey differences that don't reach "significance" should be handled with care. In a poll as small as 600 people, that nonsignificant difference would be significant -- again, meaning unlikely to have come about by chance -- if we set the confidence level to 2 out of 3, rather than 19 out of 20. So the better way to talk about recent surveys in North Carolina isn't to say that a meaningless number did or didn't pass an arbitrary threshold that the reporter doesn't quite understand, but to place "nonsignificant" results on a scale that runs roughly between these points:

"The results are unlikely to represent a real difference in the population."
"The results suggest that Candidate A would be leading if the whole population had been surveyed, but the difference is not conclusive by traditional polling standards."

Got an idea where our next example might take us? Onward:

A New York Times/CBS News poll last month found the race between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain to be a statistical dead heat, not unlike where Senator John Kerry and Mr. Bush stood in a Times/CBS News poll in July 2004.

Uh, wow. Since even the AP acknowledges that there is no such thing as a "statistical dead heat," it'd be nice if the Newspaper of Record played along. If there are 9 chances in 10, or even 2 in 3, that the sample difference reflects a population difference, we have a difference that doesn't meet conventional levels of significance testing in the social sciences -- not a "dead heat."

But that's not the real problem here. The problem is that this writer either guessed at the results, read the wrong poll, or read the right poll and decided to lie about the whole thing. Because if the "New York Times/CBS News poll last month" is the one that the Times and CBS conducted, um, last month, Obama's lead (45-39, n = 1,534 RVs) isn't just significant at 95%. It's bloody near significant at 99% -- which would be less than 1 chance in 100 that the difference came about by accident.

So in a single section, the Times botches the data in a way that benefits the Democrat and in a way that benefits the Republican. You could, on some strange planet with an ammonia-based atmosphere and lots of suns, call that "balanced" and claim it as evidence of your impartiality. A more practical approach in this world might be adopting a few simple rules and applying them without fear or favor -- by looking at the numbers without the names.

Granted, it's a free country. You can claim, as Howard Kurtz does, that the numbers don't matter; it's your journalistic intuition that counts. That has the unfortunate outcome of making you sound like a bozo, whether you work for the Times or the Post or any of the lesser breeds. Significance testing, to borrow a phrase from old Lasker, is set about with the sort of merciless facts that tend to culminate in checkmate and thus contradict the hypocrite.

* You baseball fans can try this multiple choice question. Suppose you hit .400 your first year in the show and .196 your second. Your career batting average is:
a) .292
b) .298
c) .200
d) How should I know?
If you chose (d), congratulations! Now recalculate on these stats: First season, 4 hits in 10 at-bats; second season, 96 for 490.
** Calculate the career batting average again, but this time, bear in mind that one year's at-bats include walks, HBPs and SFs. Heh heh.
*** Maybe the Times would be happier with Wikipedia's definition.

Labels: ,

Recurse you, Gray Baron

Diagramming party to action stations: NYT sentence off the port bow!

Some Democrats said that Mr. Obama must still demonstrate he would be a more effective president than Mr. McCain, and that he could unite the Democratic Party before its convention.*

Recursion is a lovely property that lets you hook clauses together almost indefinitely: This is the party that still must demonstrate that it loves the country that despairs over the troubles that submerged the banks that protested the crisis that arose last fall that destroyed the hops that enlivened the malt that lived in the house that Jack built. Collisions arise when you forget to mark the intersections correctly. What does our target sentence mean?

Some Democrats said that
[Mr. Obama must still demonstrate he would be a more effective president than Mr. McCain], and that [he could unite the Democratic Party before its convention.]


Some Democrats said that Mr. Obama must still demonstrate
[he would be a more effective president than Mr. McCain], and that [he could unite the Democratic Party before its convention.]

The second reading seems to make more intuitive sense (and judging from the online tweak, is what the paper meant).** But the first is what the original "grammar" says. The punctuation doesn't help; it appears to be our old friend the "ham, and eggs" comma, an irrelevant mark thrown into a compound of two because the writer can't think of anything else to do.

Moral: When you can't tell what a sentence means, out cutlasses pencils and board. Even if you're the Times.

* This is the sentence as it appears on page 15A of the national edn; the complementizer is moved around in the online version. Wanna guess where?
** The parallelism fault -- both subordinated clauses need the "that" -- is noted in most stylebooks, but it's still extremely common in news writing, especially AP's.

Don't bogart those talking points

Tonight's campaign gem from the razor-sharp copyeds at the Fair 'n' Clueless Network:

Warren’s format aimed to toke the candidates off their usual talking points.

No further comment. Good night.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Stupid Question of the month

A few possible responses:

1) Dunno. Did he?
2) If you know the answer, how's about sharing it with the rest of us?
3) If you don't, do you suppose it might be a good idea to just shut up?

It may be, as one of the story's sources says, that "it's not unreasonable for people to ask" such a question. That's a far cry from concluding that it's reasonable for a newspaper to spend 1A space posing the question.

Bad hed, ray of hope, bad story

Time to complain about one of the Worst of All Hed Adjectives for a moment. That word is "faithful." Lots of writers use it in the sense of "having religious faith" -- not wrong, though Webster suggests it's obsolete. The biggest trouble with it in heds like the one shown here is other meanings are equally, if not more, accessible. Are the cousins down at the Dispatch talking about people who are conscientious about voting or religious people who vote?

Turns out it's the latter, which leads to another problem. The survey described under the hed doesn't attribute the toe-keeping characteristic to all religious voters, which suggests that the paper is adopting some of the pollster's baggage. That'd be the Barna Group, which calls for a few comments on the art of polling that may be worth noting over the next few months.

There's a common misperception out there that pollsters can wave a secret magic wand and make polls say anything they (or their paymasters) want. That's not true -- or at least not very true. Given a properly drawn random sample and mildly professional execution, a question like "If the election were held today, would you vote for A, B or someone else?" is going to produce a (more or less) valid and reliable result, no matter who asks it.

That's not to say there aren't evils done in the name of polling. One form arises from questions that are badly written or tendentious. Here's a genuinely stupid one from a Fox poll last month:

When talking about United States citizens of different ethnic or national descents, do you think the word American should come before or after the descent? That is, should Americans of Irish descent be called Irish-American or American-Irish, and should Americans of African descent be called African-American or American-African?

Does this mean Fox's results on the "If the election were held today ..." question aren't an accurate representation of what registered voters think?* No; it means Fox's polling firm will throw in anything the bottom-feeders at Fox think needs to be asked.

The other big offense that "pollsters" (as opposed to the journalists who invent portentous trends based on perfectly innocent results) commit is not showing their work -- in this case, describing outcomes without demonstrating how thoroughly those outcomes are supported. Such is the case with the poll the Dispatch falls for here:

If the presidential election were today, Barack Obama likely would become the first Democrat in 32 years to win among born-again Christians.

In fact, of the 18 faith segments tracked by pollster George Barna, the Illinois senator currently leads in all but three. Only two groups of evangelical Christians and those with an "active faith" favor Republican John McCain.
(The writer means two groups, evangelicals and actives, not two groups of each. Yoo hoo! Editors!)

But Barna finds that the political landscape among the faithful is churning rapidly, with support for Obama dropping almost across the board.

Time to stop the tape and unpack a few things. Yes, your first questions at this point should be about sample size: How big is the poll, how big are those subgroups? Without that information, you can't make a reliable judgment about whether the "political landscape" is "churning." (That's just a mixed metaphor; "churning rapidly," on the other hand, is an invention on the reporter's part. "Rapid" isn't the sort of thing you can measure with two polls two months apart.)

There's where Barna loads up the old spitball -- which, given that it's a free country and all, he's welcome to do. But it's the paper's job to ask the questions, and it fails. For one, according to the graphics, the overall sample is 1,003 adults, but the conclusions Barna reports are among "likely voters." In the June poll, that was a substantially smaller chunk, or 561 people. That makes for a noticeable difference in the confidence interval. Does the August poll make the same distinction? Gee. We don't seem to say.

Now, how big are those 18 "faith segments"? No idea. How many of them overlap? A bunch. How can we assess that "across the board" claim? Apparently through faith alone and not by works, and that isn't going to get you into methodology heaven.

The Barna Group doesn't make any secret of its biases, at least. And the biases don't mean the raw data are bad. They do, though, strongly suggest that any conclusions about "evangelicals" should be taken with a barrel of salt. Broadly, one of the ways Barna sorts Christianity is into three categories (look up the full definitions toward the end here): born-again, evangelical and "notional." So when the pollster himself offers assertions on the order of "While there is still a decided preference for Senator Obama, the more conservative element of the Christian population is slowly coming to grips with what an Obama presidency might be like," the writer needs to be aware -- and to make the audience aware -- that things like "core" and "conservative" might mean very different things in Barna World than they mean in the corporeal one in which political campaigns are fought.

You can say one good thing on the hed's behalf. It doesn't make any proclamations about who's ahead or behind. More survey heds should be so inconclusive.

* From the list of questions (give Fox credit for linking to the whole thing), it also appears that the preference question comes first -- meaning, at least, that the results aren't misprimed by questions like "How likely do you think it is that Obama is secretly a radical terrorist? Verry likely, somewhat likely, or only a little likely?"

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bad editing, academic division

Time to stray a bit from the fields of journalism and look at the broader subject of Editors Behaving Badly. What all editors do, anywhere, is try to make writers sound like themselves, only better. Editors who make writing worse can point to all the rules they want to; they're still bad editors, because however you might interpret the Prime Directive, they've screwed it up. Today's installment is from the depths of academe, textbook department.

Bit of background. I'm looking for a new text, or at least a supplement, for content analysis. The one we used last winter is thorough and easy to follow but very (very, very) newspaper-oriented, and after all, we're a comm department, not a masscomm department. So when the exhibitors' hall at AEJMC turns up a brand-new (2009-dated) content analysis reader from some big hitters at Penn, well -- give me one of those to read on the train, please?*

I like the thing a lot so far, but my chain was severely yanked before I got off the second page of the first chapter. For that, I blame some anonymous copy editor who makes the book look weak and my craft look silly. Appropriately enough for a chapter about 18th-century church factionalism, it's basically a which-hunting tale. And it's a good one! Wait until you get to the part where the churchman Kumblaeus figures out that the cunning pietists have figured out how to cloak their evil ideas "in the ordinary vocabulary of each country's language," so cleverly that the hicks didn't even know "they were being exposed to a new way of thinking because of the familiarity of the words and phrases." I mean, that's some content analysis -- and he's calculating his effect sizes with, like, an abacus and goose quills or something.

But there's a ghost at the banquet.** Four times on this one page, the editor*** has to make a call on whether a relative clause is restrictive ("integrated," for you Log visitors; also "limiting" or "essential," depending on where you went to school and how much you trust the AP Stylebook) or not. Each time, it's botched, because each time, the editor stops thinking at the pronoun and fails to read the rest of the clause before slapping in some punctuation. Here's the evidence:

By this time, however, State Church had become alarmed by the effects, which they believed the Songs were having on the public.

It is apparent from the historical record that the 18th century disputants approached their problem by asking questions, which are thoroughly familiar to present-day students of communications.

Were these publications used only in those circles, which were already infected with the ideas of the Moravians?

It stressed the words and ideas, which referred to the redemption of man by Christ, at the expense of those words and ideas that referred to the efforts of men to live as Christians.

The last one should give you the idea that the writer, or the original translator, uses "which" and "that" more or less interchangeably with restrictive clauses. That doesn't mean the writer can't tell restrictive from nonrestrictive; it means she doesn't mark the difference the way you're told in Editing School. So the editor steps in and -- well, basically screws it up every time. Each of these is restrictive. Don't put in a comma, change the damn pronoun! Or if you can't be bothered to read the sentence, just leave well enough alone.

It's really too bad. The writer has done an outstanding bit of detective work in tracing the roots of this modern research tool in an 18th-century religious feud. If you don't think it's pertinent today, imagine old Kumblaeus as a White House shill, reminding your TV networks of their patriotic duty in the War on Terror®: "This use of language made it possible for the Moravians to conceal dangerous, false doctrines and create 'a state within a state.'" And an editor who could have helped the book read well decided instead to make it worse.

The more time I spend with the book, the more I like it. But I'm convinced that somebody in the guise of a copy editor did the thing unnecessary damage, and I find that embarrassing.

* Song's right. Trains are the only way to fly.
** Well, one of those countries.
*** Fair inference, I think; the chapter is drawn from a 1951 dissertation written in Swedish.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Keep opinion to self

Don't be afraid of adjectives. Just -- oh, treat 'em with respect, in case they turn around and bite you:

The town of Matthews will soon get two new, family friendly restaurants.

So much sheer editing, so little time: snick the comma after "new," put a hyphen in the preposed compound ... wait, what exactly is that compound up to?

Modifiers don't automatically make news writing bad. Color adjectives -- "red," for example -- are pretty straightforward. Even in the food realm, some things that look tricky have widely known neutral meanings. "Family-style" doesn't mean "reliving the agony your demented parents foisted on you"; it means "people bring your table platters of stuff until you tell them to stop."

Allow me to suggest that "family-friendly" isn't in that category. Especially:

Just down Independence Boulevard, between Boston Market and Audi of Charlotte, a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is already under construction.

Ah, Cracker Barrel! Home of all sorts of good old family values, like ... oh, never mind.* Adjectives are harmless creatures, until you lift one straight out of the ad copy and you're up to your elbows in venom-dripping adjectival fangs.

"Family-friendly" is on the out-of-bounds list. Eschew it. Don't be surprised if it's on a Com3210 exercise.

* They've gotten much better! They promise!

Journalism: There's still some left

Brief time-out from making fun of journalism to raise a toast to some folks who are doing it right. You might have noticed, in the past few days, that there's a war on in the Caucasus. (If it's a surprise to you, imagine how shocked your average Deputy Managing Editor for Presentation and Design must be: that pesky international news getting in the way of the Olympics and the Back To School package again!)

In particular, kudos to the McClatchy team, which is unusual in keeping alive the idea that major regional papers ought to have their own international reporting. Editors, before you give your front pages over entirely to News2Use and MomsDotCom and whatever flavor of preseason sport you can fashion a centerpiece out of, please bear in mind the virtues of having a correspondent on the scene and one or two in Washington who can actually get hold of a moving story and make sense of it.

AP, please consider this a request to get the thumb out:

An Associated Press reporter saw Russian troops in control of government buildings in this town just miles from the frontier and Russian troops were reported in nearby Senaki.

...In Zugdidi, an AP reporter saw five or six Russian soldiers posted outside an Interior Ministry building.

... In the city of Gori, an AP reporter heard artillery fire and Georgian soldiers warned locals to get out because Russian tanks were approaching.

... An AP film crew saw Georgian tanks and military vehicles speeding along the road from Gori to Tbilisi. Firing began and people ran for cover. Cars could be seen in flames along the side of the road.

Great freaking God. The Washington bureau gets to make up hypothetical opening arguments in a hypothetical trial, but the reporter in Gori who is under the gun in a frighteningly literal way has to write that "an AP reporter heard" the artillery? Could we have some priorities in this bar, please?

With the official Realist Sorting Hat on, I'm inclined to think that one particular aspect of the US-Russia back-and-forth in this conflict is being badly underplayed. Anybody want to guess what?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Uh, congratulations

Today's Enlightening Hed Juxtaposition (Two Game Wardens, Seven Hunters division):

Tourist is Killed;
A Sweep for U.S.

Thank you, Nation's Newspaper of Record.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Editing lesson

Ready for an editing lesson? Don't worry, it's short:

Whenever you edit a story that mentions more than one place, have a map open and ready.

That's not just true of stories about militarized interstate disputes in the Caucasus (if you still have copy editors who remember a time when the Soviet Union was a going concern, you're lucky). It's painfully true of local stories, which are supposedly the unbreakable line: We can't outsource editing, because editors in Bangalore don't know the terrain the way we do.

Well, news flash. If "look at the map" isn't part of your routine but is part of the Bangalore editor's routine, you're going to lose that fight too. Let's have a look:

Chase and crash ends in Dilworth
(They does? I can see pointing out where the chase ended, but don't crashes usually end pretty near where they began, anyway?)

A chaotic scene unfolded in Dilworth as a police chase ended in a car crash Saturday morning. (By the way? All rules about editing are doubled for people who write ledes like this one. They're doubled again for spot news pieces from TV reporters).

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police were first called to the Park Road Shopping Center at the intersection of Park Road and Woodlawn Road for a reported armed robbery. By the time officers got there, the suspect took off in his car, heading north on East Boulevard.

Ready for the e-mail from Bangalore, city deskers? You can't go north on East Boulevard from Park Road Shopping Center (see map). You can't go anywhere on East Boulevard from Park Road Shopping Center, because that's not where East Boulevard is.

A short time later, police say the suspect, driving a blue Mustang, ran a red light at East Boulevard and Scott Avenue. "It was pretty incredible how fast the Mustang was going,” said one witness. At the same time, witnesses said a minivan was traveling on East Boulevard and crashed into the Mustang.

OK, so the suspect went north on Park Avenue, stayed on Scott (practical of him, as Kenilworth is one-way south at the intersection), then ran the light at East Boulevard and hit, or was hit by, someone else.* Makes perfect sense, as long as you don't read the story or anything.

“The van started spinning out of control," said another witness, who was drinking coffee outside a Starbucks at the intersection. The van ended up crashing into a brick barrier at the coffee shop. “That’s when everybody started running, because we didn't know how fast the van was going to spin out of control," said the witness.

Enough geography for a moment. Gaze on the breadth of expertise put forth by the reporter. Ponder how long it takes for a minivan to spin across the intersection.* Almost takes your mind off the commas, doesn't it?

The robbery suspect in the Mustang ... ran into a tree on the side of the coffee shop. He was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center for critical injuries. "His left eye looked like it was about closed, and it looked like he was having difficulties breathing,” recalled one witness. (Thanks, Dr. Witness!) The scene rattled the nerves for many in the neighborhood. "God forbid if I happened to change the time I was coming here, and I happened to turn the corner when that guy was coming, it could've been me.

And thus it ends. We've heard from "one witness," "another witness," a second "one witness" and somebody who might or might not have been another "another witness" (it's customary to put quote marks at the end of the quote too). "Rattled the nerves for many" is the sort of distinctly nonstandard thing a TV reporter might improvise; people who edit stuff for print are supposed to sandpaper those out.

Notice that we've handed something besides the map to our TV reporter? There's that policy -- should you be interested in one -- on when and whether news sources are granted anonymity.** There's the degree to which you let nonprivileged sources, named or unnamed, comment on potential criminal guilt or on medical conditions. (If, at this point, you dimly remember some grizzled editor or J-prof asking where either you or your "witness" went to med school, wave.) In all, the Brave New Online World seems to be a great place to get news, unless you like the sort of news to which somebody offered a moment or two of thought about accuracy, relevance, fairness and basic writing skills.

Seriously. If your goal is to make a case for keeping journalism jobs here, rather than shipping them overseas, running unedited babble from a TV reporter isn't a very auspicious start.

* Full disclosure: The previous HEADSUP-Lmobile was totaled by some clown in a pickup truck who ran the same stoplight. Plus ca whatever.
** Watched an outstanding panel discussion on the broader anonymity issue -- at least, until it drifted back to the source question -- at AEJMC last week. Further comment likely at some point


You-know-who in a chicken basket

Based on Associated Press reporting on the investigation, the FBI documents released last week and interviews with lawyers, here is a look at what could have been opening statements from the government and the defense if Ivins had lived and the case had gone to trial.

Please, tell me none of journalism's vigilant Cerberi of freedom saw fit to actually run this in print. If this is the new! improved! AP coverage that all the cool kids are talking about, let's have no more of it forever.

I was going to comment on the implications of having heard somebody cite Wikipedia in an academic paper. Somehow, that seems less worrisome than it did before the AP's leap into stagecraftery.

Interns, the comment line is still open for thoughts about your summer adventure. Pls scroll down a bit and offer some advice for your J-schools.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Got it out of your system yet?

Thanks for the quadrennial burst of creativity, America's Newspapers!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

How to kill a rogue story

Wondering about that funny-looking chunk of election-oriented social science that just landed in your basket for tomorrow's paper? Here are some quick tests to help you tell whether it's ready for the front page or the big sleep. And there's a real news story to practice on!

[That's actually the serious part, because this story has been floating around the McClatchy Web site since yesterday, suggesting it's probably headed for print at some shops that use the McClatchy service. It really, really needs to be killed, so if you see it headed for print ...]

Here's the story:

Small study suggests McCain ads lampooning Obama hurt

(Several assertions in the hed are either questionable or flatly wrong, but let's move on to the text first)

John McCain struck again on Friday, releasing a Web video suggesting that his Democatic rival, Barack Obama is "The One," a semi-religious figure sent to save the world. The spot includes footage of Charlton Heston as Moses, parting the Red Sea.

The ad was the second released this week by McCain intended to make fun of Obama. Earlier, the campaign issued an ad that likened Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in an effort to take the shine off the huge crowds Obama drew in Berlin during his European tour.

Friday's ad takes that theme one step further, lampooning Obama's soaring rhetoric and suggesting that the Illinois senator suffers from a Messianic complex.

Wondering when we'll get to the study? That's a good question. First, though, you might want to point out a contradiction between the lede and the second graf. What the McCain camp has done is to release a video. It's not an "ad" until someone buys time or space* for it (which is why we say stuff like "tell him to buy an ad" when a candidate tries to pitch a story about the other candidate's messiah complex). "Ads" also run the risk of disapproval by the outlet's ad-standards department. You can make fun of McCain's Intertube skills all you want, but he's getting some pretty good viral-campaign mileage out of this.

... A small study of people's reactions to the Britney-Paris ad suggested, however, that while people don't like the ad, it caused them to doubt Obama, and small percentages who'd said before viewing the ad that they'd vote for him said afterword that they wouldn't.

OK. Now we're out of "normative" territory (is it appropriate to write a story that, in effect, replicates a dishonest ad?) and into nuts-and-bolts land. If this is a "study," there's a set of questions we need to know the answers to before it can run. First, what kind of "study" is it? Masscomm research breaks down broadly into two kinds:

1) Studies that count stuff, test the resulting numbers and draw inferences, and
2) Everything else

"Everything else" is a huge range of of domains and methods: history, law, Saidian critical discourse analysis, focus-group discussions of pizza ads, and more. You shouldn't sell it short, but today we're talking about the first kind of study.

That settled, we need to ask what kind of quantitative study it is, because methods aren't interchangeable. Content analysis can tell you that the War on Terror® looks different on Fox than on the BBC, but it can't tell you what effect that difference has. Surveys can tell you what people say, but not what sort of content makes them say it. The story isn't complete if it doesn't tell you what "study" means. And when that's settled comes the fun stuff: What did they measure, how did they measure it, and what do the results look like?

Those declines didn't result in more support for McCain; doubting Democrats and Republicans instead moved into the undecided column. Independents who moved away from Obama did say they'd vote for McCain.

The study, of 320 Americans, found that a majority of Republicans were "disturbed, skeptical" and "saddened" after viewing the ad and that 61 percent of Republicans had a negative view of the ad.

...While viewing the ad, participants indicated their levels of agreement by moving their computer mouse from left on a continuum. The responses were recorded in quarter-second intervals and reported in the form of curves. Participants were also asked pre- and post-viewing questions.

McClatchy hasn't bothered to say, but at this point you can figure out that the "study" is an experiment, not a survey. That puts the hed in a different light: 320 would be small for a survey,** but it's really big for an experiment. (And it's a study of only one ad, so the hed's wrong on that count too; we can't talk about what the "ads," plural, are doing, because we aren't measuring it.)

Is it a good experiment? Yet another set of questions. For starters, participants aren't randomly assigned to conditions. That's not a deal-breaker (after all, you can't randomly assign people to smoke or be pregnant), but it puts us in the category of "quasi-experiment. It's a single-shot, pretest-posttest design with no control group. That means any conclusions about the effect raise an immediate question: Compared to what?

If the ad does anything, we don't know how it compares to the effect of no ad at all.*** We don't know whether McCain ads have more impact than Obama ads, or whether an "acclaim" (pro-McCain) ad has more impact than an "attack" (anti-Obama) ad. With only one stimulus, we have no idea what element of the ad -- visual, voice, music, content -- might be having the effect. Which puts this ominous paragraph in a whole different light:

But the results that may have been most telling were the changes in whom the participants would vote for and suggested that such advertising could have an impact, especially among independents.

If McClatchy thinks this result is the "most telling," why isn't it the one that the researchers emphasize? Why do the researchers note, to the contrary, that "the ad did not move voters"? That gets to what's measured and how, so let's try to tease some numbers out of the story and the original report and see what we can do with Excel and that nice VassarStats link to the right.

The researchers probably didn't mention this ominous sign of the Power of Evil Ads because it's irrelevant. Put the changes for "who would you vote for today?" in a chi-square and the P value comes out to about .89. That represents less than one chance in eight that there's any difference related to watching the ad. We don't know where the almost imperceptible change -- for the record, three original Obama voters went to "other" and three to "undecided" -- came from. We do know that whatever is happening on that question (not "doubt," which seems to have been made up by the reporters****) is almost certainly not a result of the experimental treatment.

That doesn't mean there aren't significant results of the experiment. There are. If you treat "very favorable," "somewhat favorable" and the like as nominal data, the ad has no effect on opinions about Obama but a significant negative effect on opinions about McCain. If you squint a bit and assume that the intervals from 1 (very negative) to 4 (very positive) are equal, the ad makes Republicans significantly more positive about McCain and Democrats and Independents significantly more negative. The mean differences are small (with an N of 320, you don't need much to reach significance, but that's another issue), but they almost certainly didn't come about by chance.*****

Whether the "if the election was today" question is a better predictor of voting behavior three months in the future than the "your overall opinion" question is a matter for debate. The results aren't. To the extent we can say anything at all about its impact, the ad affects opinion but not intent. And if the ads "hurt" anyone, they "hurt" McCain.

If you've been following the playbook -- what sort of study, what was measured, what do the numbers say -- the conclusion ought to be pretty clear. Kill the story. Right now. Or ask McClatchy to provide a version that accurately reflects what the study found, rather than what the reporters speculate.

* Unless MCT is donating the space as a public service, like an antismoking campaign, and it really doesn't want to go there.
** MCT has certainly been happy to draw inferences from smaller subsamples in the past, though.
*** With 320 people, you could have 160 watch a 2-minute clip from "The Daily Show" (80 with ad, 80 with no ad) and 160 watch a 2-minute clip from "The O'Reilly Factor" (80 with, 80 without). Now you have a 2 (show) x 2 (ad) x 3 (affiliation) design, and that's going to start being fun in a hurry.
**** As does the bit about whether participants "dislike" the ad. If it wasn't measured, you can't say it was. Period.
***** You can, and should, try this at home. To see whether the average "before" response differs from the average "after" response:
1) Find the original data and convert the percentages back to raw numbers
2) Create an Excel sheet with three columns: party (1, 2, and 3, just to make things easier), before and after. The first 104 cases are the Democrats (1 in the "party" column), the next 108 are the Republicans (2) and the next 108 are the Indys (3)
3) In "before" and "after," enter the number of responses that correspond to each level of the variable. Among Democrats, four have a "very favorable" opinion of McCain before seeing the ad, so the first four rows in "before" get a 4.There are 21 "mostly favorable," so the next 21 rows get a 3. In "after," the first 5 rows get a 4 (for "very favorable"), the next 18 get a 3, and so on.
4) Run a T-test (under "data analysis") on the second and third columns, then select just the Democrat, Republican and Independent conditions. The test will tell you what the averages are for before and after and confidence level of the test statistic -- whether the difference is statistically significant.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 01, 2008

Open mike for interns, 2008 edition

A note in yesterday's comments section spotlights one of the great dilemmas of this odd little craft we call editing, so it's time to bring an old tradition* out of mothballs. A few quick comments, and then -- I hope -- it's over to the interns.

Here's the comment from Luke**: "It's a struggle finding where what you've been taught was ideal in J-school applies and when exceptions are OK." He's quite right, and it may not be much consolation to know that the boundary can remain fluid long after the J-school and internship stage. But the matter does touch on a lot of issues that keep on coming up here, and interns are often in an especially ill-defined position when it comes to negotiating those issues.

There's the problem, for starters, of exactly how grammatical you want to get. One of the fun secrets of the newsroom is that the people who talk the loudest about "the language" often don't know very much about it (if you frequent the peevology section, you might have noticed that journalists -- and, to be fair, J-profs -- aren't alone in this regard). If someone tells you to stop sending over passive heds, you might need a decoder ring to know whether "passive" means "passive" or just "boring."

In many ways, you and your slot editor are navigating by throwing rocks in the dark and waiting to hear if any glass breaks. You're trying to figure out what the slot means by "grammar" and "rules," and the slot's wondering whether you let a split auxiliary go through because you exercised solid professional judgment or because you've never heard of the one "rule" the publisher remembers from college. Who's going to ask first? That's tricky even in a relationship where power is about even.

(The faculty*** is in a bit of a bind too. There's a lot of stuff in the secret-handshake category that really shouldn't be taught anymore -- certainly not as "grammar." But practically, we can't stop teaching the "over/more than" thing until editors stop testing for it. I expect lots of people on both sides will be happy to attend the opening ceremony of the disarmament talks, but until then, it'd be a brave journalism school that decided to teach the AP Stylebook as an important cultural artifact with nothing whatsoever worth reading about grammar and usage.)

Figuring out the grammar part is only the beginning. At some point in any good journalism program, students are introduced to the Forbidden Ledes: "It's official," "Christmas came early for ..." and all the other ones that should never stain a dead pine tree. The list tends to leave out a mundane but highly pertinent observation. Writers use the Forbidden Ledes. A lot. What's going to happen the first time you kill a "Christmas came early" on the local front centerpiece?

Did somebody say all journalism students ought to take at least one stats course? Well, they should. Does that mean someone's going to listen when you suggest that Star Reporter's keen political analysis of the latest poll is entirely unsupported by the data? You may be right, but don't expect to win.

So with that cheery screed aside, I hope this summer's journalism interns will take a moment to offer some advice. Two specific questions are posed:

1) What's the biggest surprise of your summer in journalism?
2) What's the one thing we should have taught you and didn't?

If you're an intern, please hit the button and comment. If you work in a shop with some interns, let 'em know they're invited. If you have some comments from your recent experience on either side**** of the divide, you can play too.

I hope to hear from you.

* Dating back to the turn of the millennium, when HEADSUP-L was an actual Listserv with a mere few dozen subscribers
** More visitors from KU would be welcome, by the way.
*** A whole bunch of us are going to get together and talk about you guys next week, by the way. Just so's you know.
**** I know. See above about the AP Stylebook.