Monday, September 29, 2008

Loopy AP-ism of the day

-persons Do not use coined words such as chairperson or spokesperson in regular text.

That's as opposed to those naturally occurring words like "chairman" and "spokesman," which were handed down at Mt. Sinai or created during the Big Bang or something?

I can't tell when this one entered the stylebook; it dates at least to 1984 (the earliest edn I have around here), so it's not from the remarkable wave of stupidisms that showed up in 1986. Ideas?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I mixted you a metafor

Judging by what America's Newspapers chose to prioritize, a presidential debate is either:

* Nuclear war
* Boxing match
* Horse race
* Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire
* Battlefield blunder
* Or ... OK, another boxing match. But if we already know it's a boxing match, how could "come out swinging" be a competent ayems hed for an event that ended around 10:30p Eastern?

The problem is deeper than a few ineptly chosen metaphors. One of the truly sound observations in Orwell's oft-reviled "Politics and the English Language" is that if two critics come to opposite metaphoric conclusions (one says the writing is alive, the other bemoans its deadness), they're probably talking about some feature that has no corresponding presence in the real world: there may be some characteristic that makes writing lively, but one or both of these folks wouldn't recognize it if it jumped up and bit 'em.

That's what seems to be happening with debate coverage. Evidently, we all agree there's something important going on, but we don't seem to agree on what it is, or why it's important, or whether debate discourse is different from attack-ad discourse, or whether "debates" really are just another form of televised sporting event.

Some of this appears to be design-driven, and the "Fast and furious" package is an example. Somebody at the Strib heard that "foreign policy" went with "first presidential debate" (hence the kicker), but it evidently wasn't the person who chose the quotes -- neither of which has squat to do with "foreign policy." And "fast and furious start" ... to what? The debate? (Hard to believe the hed writer watched it.) The all-important stretch run? (Uh, yeah.)

I think the core problem is that we're making a particular kind of event into something it's not. If we're judging debates by whether the candidates came out swinging, or whether someone landed the knockout blow, we're looking for the wrong stuff. That sector of political discourse is quite thoroughly covered by advertising and by whatever the bush-league tacticians on the talk shows think they read on the NYT and Post op-ed pages. A debate (so called) is a chance to watch candidates think out loud, or to watch what they recite in lieu of thinking.

That means we need to stop thinking of these things as centerpieces or centers of visual interest. Debates don't do that. They're visually boring and should be.* They're suited to long chunks of text, unmediated by the sort of instant experts who hang around presentation desks and editorial pages. When we summarize, we're going to get this:

Candidates' clearest difference is on Iraq policy

which, to the extent it's true, was self-evident before the event, but it misses the stuff in the debate that was geniunely interesting. ZOMG! Did you know we have one candidate who has a rough idea of how the Iranian political system works and one who doesn't?** One who understands what an "existential threat" is and one who thinks Hugo Chavez is one? One camp that has some actual claim to the realist ideal and one that occupies an interesting space that's half cloudcuckooland,*** half "Nightmare on Elm Street"?

We do have a few weeks to try to get this one right, so let's. The quadrennial candidate encounters might not technically be debates, but they aren't Ginormous Monster Truck Death Wrestling Cage Showdowns, either. Stop trying to make them centerpieces. Try making them chances to watch how candidates use political language in public.

* Special cluelessness prize to the "Fighting words" designer, who actually managed to make these two candidates the same height!
** Not a reference to his pronounciation -- though given the importance in right-wing discourse of demonizing Ahmadinejad, you'd think someone would have paid attention to this in warmups.
*** Speaking of which, let me introduce a political columnist I hadn't run across until today: David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. Check him out! You won't be disappointed!

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate whinge: Grammar's your friend

Couple small points to remind you that grammar isn't -- or mustn't be -- an afterthought, even when your highest-powered experts are hemming and hawing about presentation and content.
The passive voice is loved by us. Not just because it's fun to yank the occasional pedantic J-school chain, but because decisions about verb voice really ought to be based on which one serves the purpose at hand, rather than some ill-remembered rule. So I'm not complaining about the passive voice in this hed. I'm suggesting that when you mix voices in the same hed, you risk an appearance of card-stacking: Candidate A says something, but what's said about him comes from ... who? Candidate B? The audience? Other journalists? God in Her wisdom?
Let's try to do a little better here, SacBee. It doesn't help to balance paragraphs and quotes if your syntax is shopping you to the bias cops.
One more grammar point. Quick, diagram this sentence, from the Freep's frontpage column about the previous evening's unpleasantness:
Obama reiterated his belief that talk is good, even with those who swear they'd destroy us and our enemies.
In the not-too-long-ago days, some long-suffering editor might have asked the pontificator to diagram that complementized clause:
[talk is good, even with]
[those who swear they'd destroy us]
[our enemies]

[talk is good, even with those who swear they'd destroy]
[our enemies]

The enemy of my enemy is ... dude, wait. What?
There's a lot in this column to suggest that the writer's not very well positioned to talk about national politics:
Is it easier to talk about diplomacy and foreign relations -- areas of great importance but somewhat more obscure consequences or outcomes -- than to focus on real solutions to Americans' real problems?
... but those are clue questions, not grammar questions, and are dealt with elsewhere.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot

Shock outrage horror at Fox News! Mail rips off Biden story, the frontpage hed proclaims. It's a bit tamer inside:

British tabloid 'borrows' story from
... but the point is still the same:
"Could Clinton still come back? Internet buzzes with rumours Biden will be replaced by Hillary as Obama's running mate."

That was the headline in Thursday's Daily Mail, a British tabloid that evidently rips off — very, very liberally — other news sources without informing its readers.

One of those sources includes, which ran a story a day earlier bearing the headline, "Biden Dropping Out? Rumor Thrives on Internet."

People who read the story Thursday in the Mail — and there were many, thanks to a prominent link on the Web site — may have experienced a powerful sense of deja vu.

While the Mail changed a word here and there, by and large it lifted its entire story from

Fox proceeds to make a pretty good case for its accusation of a wholesale cut-n-paste job. It's entirely within its rights to do so (and to spend the space on it, even if that seems a bit overblown). Plagiarism is bad, no matter whom it's done to or who does it. But you have to wonder if Fox isn't being a little selective in its outrage. British press habits -- including but not limited to the lifting of other people's stuff without credit -- seem to be just fine with Fox under most circumstances. Let's look back at early July:

Ad Featuring Popular Police Pup
Sparks Anger in Scottish Muslim Communities

Muslims in the Scottish district of Tayside are outraged by the appearance of a wide-eyed, 6-week-old puppy on postcards distributed by the local police force, according to the Daily Mail.

Fox credits the Mail, which (at this remove) appears to have reported the story in print July 2 and online July 1:
Muslims outraged at police advert
featuring cute puppy sitting in policeman's hat

A postcard featuring a cute puppy sitting in a policeman's hat advertising a Scottish police force's new telephone number has sparked outrage from Muslims.

Tayside Police's new non-emergency phone number has prompted complaints from members of the Islamic community.

The choice of image on the Tayside Police cards - a black dog sitting in a police officer's hat - has now been raised with Chief Constable John Vine.

Pretty straightforward, eh?

... Dundee councillor Mohammed Asif said: 'My concern was that it's not welcomed by all communities, with the dog on the cards.'

'It was probably a waste of resources going to these communities.'

Starting to wonder why we haven't seen a time element yet? I wonder if there's a relationship to this graf, from the Courier ("Taking you to the heart of Tayside and Fife"), also dated July 1:

Dundee councillor Mohammed Asif said last night, “My concern was that it’s not welcomed by all communities, with the dog on the cards. It was probably a waste of resources going to these communities."

Hmm. Vanishing time element. Deixis sometimes gets shaved in the editing process to reinforce the value of timeliness (that's from Allan Bell's cool research into how news language works). Want to see some more?

Courier: Councillor Asif, who is a member of the Tayside Joint Police Board, said that the force had a diversity adviser and was generally very aware of such issues.

He raised the matter with Mr Vine at a meeting of the board yesterday. The chief constable said he was unaware of the concerns, that the force had not sought to cause any upset and that he would look into it.

Daily Mail: Councillor Asif, who is a member of the Tayside Joint Police Board, said that the force had a diversity adviser and was generally very aware of such issues.

He raised the matter with Mr Vine at a meeting of the board.

The chief constable said he was unaware of the concerns and that the force had not sought to cause any upset but added he would look into the matter.

Can you say "Sweetheart, get me rewrite"?

: A police spokesman said last night, “Trainee police dog Rebel has proved extremely popular with children and adults since being introduced to the public, aged six weeks old, as Tayside Police’s newest canine recruit."

Daily Mail: A spokesman for Tayside Police said: 'Trainee police dog Rebel has proved extremely popular with children and adults since being introduced to the public, aged six weeks old, as Tayside Police's newest canine recruit.

From the available evidence, we can't conclusively establish temporal precedence,* though the indications are that the Mail report is later. Another of Bell's points is that news doesn't get less newsy in the editing process; it'd make sense if "complaints" in the Courier lede became "outrage" in a later lede, but not for "outrage" to be toned down to "complaints. And I don't know if the two papers have some sort of corporate relationship or whether the story's origin is off somewhere else in the mists of Fife. But it certainly seems from here that Fox doesn't normally have a problem with plagiarism-by-Mail, as long as it it furthers the party line about Those People and doesn't step on Fox's own strikingly original idea of rewriting rumors from Blog World.

* If any agents in Tayside have been stashing away their copies of the Courier all summer, now's the time to raise your hands.

Labels: ,

Let's make a ... no, let's not

In case you're still shopping for a hed for your next Market Meltdown centerpiece, mind if we suggest one to avoid?

Take a bow, Columbus (Ga.), the Rocky, Florida Today, Marshalltown (Iowa), Worcester, Orlando (doubling the fun with "Debate or no debate?" in the offlede), Miami, the PiPress, Biloxi, KanCity (that blue screen of pain), USA Today and Poodle Springs.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cheering in the pressbox

Gee, you think the cousins at Fox might have had a dog in this race? Or are they just trying to take our minds off the other heds on the page?


Comma comma comma comma

You might know it as the Harvard comma, or the Oxford comma, or the red, white and blue comma, or even the Ayn Rand comma* ("I'd like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand"). It's the one after "jobs" in the centerpiece hed shown here. (There's no "and" in the online hed, though there's more than enough space for it.)

So what's up? Has the Freep thrown in with the English department and sworn off one of the most treasured secret handshakes of the Ancient Craft?** Well, not judging from the inside heds:

Iran lashes out at U.S., Israel and NATO

or the body copy:
The Senate took up a giant tax package Tuesday that saves more than 20 million taxpayers from the bite of the alternative minimum tax, nudges the nation toward more renewable energy use and extends relief for disaster victims.

Apparently this hallmark of wire service style is alive and kicking downtown.

Time for panic in the streets? Probably not. We tend to teach, or at least to imply, that readers will be at the gates with pitchforks and torches at the sight of such stylistic inconsistency. Some of them might notice (though there's plenty of stuff more worthy of their attention), but I'd hazard that they're more likely to ask why the rest of the A section hasn't caught up. Truth be told, that's not a bad question. The Ayn Rand comma does no harm by its presence, but it can do some by its absence:

TV cameras captured images of gunsmoke, bullets slamming into cars and buildings and police ducking and running.

That one's been de-comma'ed for effect; best I can tell from here, AP and everyone who ran it sensibly followed the AP sub-rule and kept the comma after "buildings." Maybe the no-serial-comma rule is another one due for the ash heap of history.

While we're at it, collectors of Tyranny of the Stylebook tales will surely want to check out Arnold Zwicky's take on the NYT's recent case of husseinitis.

* Czarina brought this one home from graduate school many years back; as Language Hat and others have noted, it seems to have been around for a while and might be an apocryphal book dedication.
** Meaning -- no more "cops," "feds" and "pals" in heds?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PBS in the fake poll ranks

From operatives south of the border comes word of PBS's ongoing flirtation with the Dark Side of survey research (this is a veteran agent who took the maths degree before the journalisms degree, so when she turns on the caps lock key to complain about validity, we listen). The cousins at PBS are running a click-to-vote poll on this question:

Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?

Opinions are divided on how to respond (let's rule out throwing stuff at the cats, who know just as well as the rest of us that self-selected samples are invalid by definition and have all the predictive value of the Solunar Tables, whether they're conducted by PBS or One camp likes to storm the poll until the numbers shift. I can see the appeal, but it seems ultimately sort of like hacking the newspaper's computer system to change the next day's horoscope: feels good, doesn't actually increase your chances of meeting a tall dark stranger.

On the other hand, maybe we could all write to PBS and gently point out: Look. There are endless dozens of places to find bogus polls and made-up statistics and other things that get in the way of real information. We like public broadcasting in general, and specific stations in particular, because they're reliable sources of actual good information. We'd like you to know we appreciate that. And we hope you'll consider an immediate and permanent end to anything that tries to pass as public opinion research without meeting some basic standards of validity and reliability. That includes but isn't limited to any "poll" in which the sample selects itself, as in the "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified" example.

Yes, there are people who contend that click-to-vote polls are a kind of harmless fun. That misstates things. "Harmless" is the best they can hope for, under optimal conditions, which would include frequent prominent disclaimers that the poll is essentially a horoscope with numbers, not to be taken seriously by anyone on either the sending or the receiving end of the mass media equation. And if your best-case scenario calls for frequent proclamations that something carrying your brand is a joke and ought to be ignored, imagine how the other scenarios look.

We know you value your work more than that. We certainly do.


How to lie with pictures

Quick, free-association time: What's the message of this fair-n-balanced center- piece from this morning?

Brief digression while you're thinking. If you were cruising the D yesterday afternoon with your ragtop down and your radio set to the excellent campus public radio station,* you might have heard your friendly editor discussing the role and effectiveness of negative advertising. One of the points that came up was the message that isn't false but might as well be -- put another way, technically true, but not for lack of effort on the campaign's part. The underlying message of which is: Hey, it's not our fault if you got the meaning we intended, rather than the one that might have been entailed by those actual pesky facts!

There's a pretty clear message, meseems, in the juxtaposition of the Lady In Red picture, the hed ("I get why she's HOTT"), and the mug of Old Bill with that let's-you-and-me-go-make-a-couple-new-words-for-snow look on his face. Doesn't it just totally spoil the effect if you read the (fairly tedious and mundane) AP procedural campaign story that Fox kicked up to centerpiece play just for the occasion?

Former President Bill Clinton said Monday he understands why Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is popular in the American heartland: because people relate to her.

“I come from Arkansas, I get why she’s hot out there, why she’s doing well,” said Clinton.

You can't say it's a lie; it's his exact words and everything! Not our fault if you weren't watching the dealer's hands. But you came really close! Wanna play again?

* Absolute stoney-lonesome cask-strength bluegrass on Saturdays, too.

Labels: ,

Annoying news updates

Things that cause unnecessary teeth-grinding and hair-pulling upon a browse over the newly updated home page:

Chaos and death filled the flaming night sky as rescuers tried to comfort two musicians who miraculously escaped the blaze in Learjet No. N999LJ that consumed four others.

Faith is not a strategy, prayer is not a research method, miracles are not a DOT-approved emergency procedure. Restrain reporting of news stories to the empirical world. Leave miracles to the church.

A cheerleader at Wake Christian Academy was arrested Monday on felony drug charges after a state ABC officer searched her BMW and found the prescription drugs hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Let's review the bidding for a moment here. The arrest of one teenager yesterday in a city 160-some miles away, which you don't cover (and where you don't circulate), is the top story under "More from the Newsroom" for exactly what reason?

Actually, don't answer that. If the answer is "because cheerleaders don't do that sort of thing," somebody's going to suggest you weren't paying attention in high school. And if it's "because people at religious schools don't do that sort of thing," see answer No. 1. Let the Raleigh paper cover Raleigh trivia, and don't let your own newsroom's biases turn somebody else's trivia into your news.


Anniversaries II

Another Great Moment in Media History: On Sept. 23, 1952, the Republican vice presidential candidate -- that's the guy wearing the Nixon mask, above -- went before the public to explain his side of a slush-fund scandal:

I have a theory, too, that the best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth. And that's why I'm here tonight. I want to tell you my side of the case.

Shown here is the part about the dog, which is why this has gone down in history as the "Checkers speech." You'll want to stay tuned for the foreign-policy stuff, though; in functional theory terms, the speech looks like a defense, but it's also a full-throated attack. With a few other gems thrown in:

Now let me say that, finally, this evening I want to read to you just briefly excerpts from a letter which I received, a letter which, after all this is over, no one can take away from us. It reads as follows:

Dear Senator Nixon:
Since I'm only 19 years of age I can't vote in this
Presidential election but believe me if I could you and General Eisenhower would
certainly get my vote. My husband is in the Fleet Marines in Korea. He's a
corpsman on the front lines and we have a two-month-old son he's never seen. And I feel confident that with great Americans like you and General Eisenhower in
the White House, lonely Americans like myself will be united with their loved
ones now in Korea.
I only pray to God that you won't be too late.

Could Nixon actually go 15 minutes without telling a lie of some sort? Well ...

And, now, finally, I know that you wonder whether or not I am going to stay on the Republican ticket or resign.

Let me say this: I don't believe that I ought to quit because I'm not a quitter. And, incidentally, Pat's not a quitter. After all, her name was Patricia Ryan and she was born on St. Patrick's Day, and you know the Irish never quit.

I think I first saw this one in a NatLamp trivia quiz back in the Watergate days, but: Her name was Thelma Catherine Ryan, and she was born March 16, 1912.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Rogue story: Shoot on sight

If this story shows up in your paper tomorrow, someone has done a very very bad thing. Take it away, McClatchy Washington Bureau:

A majority of Americans think the United States isn't winning the war on terrorism, a perception that could undermine a key Republican strength just as John McCain and Barack Obama head into their first debate Friday night, a clash over foreign policy and national security. [Whose opinion is "undermine a key Republican strength," and is it based on anything real and measurable?]

A new Ipsos/McClatchy online poll finds a solid majority of 57 percent thinking that the country can win the war on terrorism but a similar majority of 54 percent saying that the country is NOT winning it. [Hmm. So any second now, we'll not only find out what makes a majority "solid" in this poll, but how Ipsos/McClatchy defined "war on terrorism" so as to assure us that respondents were talking about more or less the same thing?]

Skip a few grafs of debate-related setup for this:

... If Americans are turning more pessimistic about the so-called war on terrorism, it could present a challenge for McCain. [All of a sudden, it's become the "so-called war on terrorism"? That's an interesting and important change -- but I doubt it reflects the question you asked, and that underscores why you need to say what you mean by it.] Voters traditionally trust Republicans more than Democrats to handle terrorism and national security, but a loss of confidence in the results of the fighting so far could erode that edge. [One fiction, one guess. There is a body of stuff out there suggesting that, at least in the modern polling era, voters trust Republicans more on defense; it's the "issue ownership" concept. But it doesn't extend to terrorism, because there is no "tradition" of handling terrorism in US politics. And asserting that Americans are "turning more pessimistic," or that there's a "loss of confidence in the fighting so far," would require, at the least, one earlier poll that actually measured pessimism and "confidence in the fighting so far."]

... The survey also found that Americans think by 57-43 percent that Afghanistan is now a more important front in combating terrorists than Iraq is.

Why the "now"? Where's the comparable poll to support the relevance of this distinction? Does McClatchy think Iraq has always been part of the "war on terrorism"? How is the question phrased? And how about some numbers so we can tell a little more about those majorities the writer is flinging around?

...The poll has no statistical margin of error [news flash: That's the only kind there is] because the online sample isn't a random one that mirrors the population within a statistical probability ratio, although Ipsos weights the sample to resemble U.S. demographics.

Are you saying that it's a convenience sample? Because if it is, all the conclusions are bogus. You can't say anything about what "a majority of Americans" think. If Ipsos has a way of explaining how its "online panel" (which, a later blurb declares, "isn't a random sample") is chosen that might mitigate this otherwise pretty obvious conclusion, we need to hear it. Otherwise, just go down to the mall and ask a few dozen people what they think; it's as good as any other convenience sample.

Broken record time again. The McClatchy Washburo (specifically, the pre-merger Knight-Ridder side of it) won a lot of well-deserved praise for its prewar skepticism and its critical coverage of the Iraq runup. That ought to be a proud tradition. Why give it away by running made-up conclusions about bogus data?

Labels: , ,


No doubt you social-history-of-media fans have the champagne cooling* already, but -- on this date 53 years ago, British TV saw its first-ever advertisement (viewable above thanks to the miracle of the YouTubez).

This was hardly as casual as it looks in retrospect. U.S. TV's treatment of the recent coronation was still an unpleasant memory for many. As parliamentary debate on allowing a commercially supported channel began, Herbert Morrison called the issue "one of the – if not the – most important debates since the war." Here's John Reith, founding deity of the Beeb: "Somebody introduced Christianity into England and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting. ... Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake."

The ITV forces carried the day, though, and at more or less 8:12 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1955, Gibbs SR Toothpaste made its dent in history.

And on a cheerier note: Happy anniversary, Language Czarina!

* Or the oil boiling. Ad Day is that kind of party.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bad Science via the BDR

How, you may ask, does "angry at Wall Street" qualify as a Bad Science hed? We're going to get there, but we're going to take the Birders' Direct Route, which may entail a few twists and turns.

Log fans probably noticed Mark's post yesterday on the "Factoid Acquisition Device": that marvelous human facility that allows for the use of anecdotes to illustrate social or cultural points that your readers (students, trainees, acolytes, consumers) probably ought to be aware of, even if the anecdote at hand -- "Chrysler Imperial" means "please fondle my buttocks" in Hungarian, or something -- is entirely fictional and has been debunked repeatedly.

Like medicine that works but tastes awful, the government bailout of Wall Street may help Main Street families -- but only by causing them considerable discomfort.

What does this have to do with science? We're getting there. (Ar ar ar! Kirtland's Warbler off the port bow! All hands aft to splice the mainbrace!) The FAD is a special case of a more general phenomenon: Stuff that Ought To Be True. "Americans angry at Wall Street" (the hed on the story online is "Americans take out frustrations with Wall Street") presents a slightly different situation: not a specific condition that needs illustrating, but a condition or concern that, to the writer's mind, ought to be true (and might be, any second), even if it isn't true yet. That's where the science connection comes in.

Read the story and you'll note that there's no there there -- more precisely, there's no Main Street there. (OK, there's a retiree from Livonia and an electrician from New Baltimore, but they're two-sentence-each players.) The evidence doesn't support the idea that Americans are angry, because there isn't any evidence. It isn't that kind of story. It's about what Americans ought to be thinking.

That's not why science (or non-science) tales like the bit about whether women talk more than men show up in the paper. But it does suggest why the Politico folks can put a lede like "In a report sure to spark a national conversation on race" on its coverage of the AP survey that got a bunch of coverage yesterday: Americans might not be talking about it yet, but they ought to be. I think, in a way, it might have something to do with some of the concerns you see about media effects -- whether the infamous "Daisy ad" cemented the 1964 election, or whether a single ad actually peels voters away from one candidate and gives them to another (hint: no). An issue gets the image or the reputation of being so important you can't afford to be wrong about it, so ... right or wrong, the story goes in. If you aren't concerned yet, you ought to be.

Overall, this category of stuff isn't necessarily as malevolent as some categories of too-good-to-check-out coverage. That doesn't mean it's good. You aren't making people smarter if you tell them stuff that isn't supported by what's knowable, and there's always a chance you'll get caught.


Shiny jangly stuff

The craft of design is generally held in high regard around here. That's "design," the use of visual principles to help interpret and organize the day's events, not "design" as in "Let's throw some shiny jangly stuff at the page and hope people with the attention span of garden slugs will put some quarters in the rack and be temporarily awed." Guess which approach is in charge at Fort Lauderdale?

Once you've figured out from the new! improved! nameplate which paper you're reading ("Look, honey, Superman has his own newspaper!"), you might first notice that there isn't a lot of "news" out there in the world. Then you might notice that the most Cosmically Super-Important Thing Going is a public opinion survey. It looks like about two-thirds of the page; is that space well spent? There are a couple of ways to look at that: how the space is spent and what it's spent on.

The top hed -- the "How Florida would vote" thing floating around in the air above the dominant visual element -- is a good place to start. At best, it's overawed by the obvious: "Who would you vote for today?" is what presidential preference polls ask to determine -- you know, presidential preference. But it gets worse in a hurry. By turning the individual preference question into an assertion about what the state "would" do, it skids into nonsense. The statement can't be true; if nothing else, there wouldn't be an "undecided" (the 6% under Obama's left ear) if the election "were held today."

The visual centerpiece is striking for how little it conveys about anything. In case you didn't notice, it's a couple of mug shots, a couple of numbers, and some stylized parts of what looks like it was supposed to be an American flag. Thus, the entirety of "content" above the fold at the Sun-Sentinel can be summed up in this sentence:

"A survey of 600 likely voters in Florida, conducted Sept. 15-18, found that 46% said they would vote for McCain and 45% for Obama if the election were held today."

That's actually more information than the page gives you, since it includes the sample size and the dates the poll was in the field. Without a lot of effort, we could also add the maximum margin of sampling error (and the all-important confidence level), reminding us that the designers aren't the only ones at fault here.

Is this starting to sound like a broken record? There is no such thing as a "statistical tie" (just as your stylebook says, if you follow AP style). "Within the margin of error" is a meaningless term.* So a graf like this:

Obama has overcome McCain's earlier advantage in the state to reach a statistical tie of 45 percent to 46 percent, according to a statewide poll of likely voters conducted last week for the Sun Sentinel and the Florida Times-Union. The 1-percentage-point difference is within the poll's margin of error.

... suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject matter. It doesn't matter whether the New York Times gets it or not, or whether the story is from your Washington bureau chief. It's like reading that someone "scored a home run"; if you don't know how the scoring works, you undermine any conclusions you draw about the game.

There's a bigger, or at least a two-layered, problem as well. The story contends that Obama has overcome "McCain's earlier advantage," apparently based on this assertion: "Most pre-convention polls in Florida showed Obama trailing McCain beyond the margin of error." That suggests somebody isn't reading the paper: At midweek, the Sun-Sentinel was reporting a Time poll with the candidates at 48-48. At the beginning of the month, something that looks like an editorial proclaimed that "according to the latest polls," Florida was "pretty much up for grabs." Judging from the RCP log,*** a good way of stating the "most polls" thing would be: Some do. Some don't.

The best conclusion a careful newspaper would draw from all this is: Reply (still) hazy. Ask again later. This is a competently done poll that doesn't come anywhere near supporting the end-of-the-world treatment it got. Whoever's fault that was, please stop.

*If you're having trouble convincing a writer of this, feel free to call the 24-hour help line.**
** Or, until the help line is staffed, drop a note and we will try to help.
*** Good for results of individual surveys; just stay from the alleged "average."

Labels: ,

Friday, September 19, 2008

Calm down or we'll kill you some more

Is it just me, or is this hed bizarrely out of tune?

19 inmates killed to calm
prison riot near San Diego

For want of a real technical explanation, I think the problem is that the hed sounds more like a prescription than an outcome:

What are you going to do for that headache?
I think I'll take two Tylenols.

What are you going to do for that riot?
I think I'll kill 19 and injure about 12.

Better explanations are welcome. (And, yes, I don't doubt that someone gave a shoot-to-kill order; I'm puzzled by the implication of specific intent. What were the other 12 people shot for -- to please the Great Old Ones?)

We should note in passing that the problem wouldn't have come up if the hed writer had followed one of the most basic of rules: Heds live in main clauses, not subordinate clauses. The lede is organized this way:

Hundreds of anxious families waited outside La Mesa State Penitentiary for word on their loved ones Thursday after police fatally shot 19 prisoners to regain control of the facility.

because the killings happened Wednesday, leading to this hed Thursday (online, at least):

Mexican police kill 19 Tijuana prison inmates

I don't think "families wait anxiously" is the most compelling lede available. I'm more interested in the gap between the official account of how things started and the inmates' relatives' account. Either way, though, don't put the hed you ran yesterday on today's story.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A ray of sunshine from the AP

An interesting bit of campaign journalism from an AP spot-news tale:

McCain released a television ad Thursday charging that Obama would increase the size of the federal government amid an economic crisis. Contending that "a big government casts a big shadow on us all," the ad features the image of a shadow slowly covering a sleeping baby as a narrator misstates the reach of the Obama tax proposal.

Something refreshingly casual about that, isn't there? As if ad fibs are something you're supposed to just point out on your own in routine eight-graf stories written off the morning talk shows? Without having to find an expert or surrogate to say it for you?

(The story's getting big play at Fox -- right under the 'I feel you' tale -- but for some mysterious reason, the abovementioned graf is missing. Space must be tight on the intertubes today.)

Touch me, heal me

On the too-good-to-retouch, what-were-they-thinking front, this just in from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

Best I can tell, "I feel you" dates at least to an update at 10:43a, and so far it's survived one further update (10:56a). Anybody wanna start a pool on how long it stays up? [Alas, as of about 11:15a, it has become the tedious "Bush: I Share Americans' Concern." Sic transit gloria feely]

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fun with ledes

There seems to be some sentiment around the intartubes that this might be the worst lede ever:

John McCain embraces and expels Washington like an accordion player belting out a song.
Squeeze in and he touts his vast knowledge of the capital city. Draw out and he casts himself a reformer bent on changing its ways.

Well ... at least they didn't call him a banjo player. Otherwise, yeah, it's pretty much in the top five worst AP ledes of all time.

Gotta run! Sean Hannity is interviewing Sarah "the American people are getting down to the facts" Palin!

Copy editors in the news

From today's "Doonesbury," in which Rick is offered The Buyout after 33 years at The Post:
HAHAHAHAHAHA! Dream on, Hotshot Investigative Reporter! The MWCDEU's in the other bookbag now,isn't it?
Suggestions for appropriate songs of unrequited love may be submitted under "comments," below.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

DTFM: Sports edition

Journalism doesn't have a lot of respect for motherhood, does it? After all, it's the craft that gave humankind the phrase "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Well, time for a corollary:

If your mother says "somebody already checked the arithmetic," stuff a towel in her mouth and get out your calculator.

Even in sports? The one department in which a "statistics junkie" is considered an asset, rather than a nuisance who gets in the way of the soaring prose in your survey stories? Alas:

The most games the Tigers can win is 83. The White Sox have 83 wins and the Twins 82. Because the Twins and White Sox have three games left with each other, one will be assured of winning at least 83 games.

True (as long as you don't count the subordinate clause; the Sox are assured of 83 wins because they have 83 wins, not because of how many games any dyad has left), but off by a game. The leading team needs 84 wins, not 83, for the Tigers to go under*, and if the Sox and Twins finish more than one of their three games, one of them will get to 84.

The math doesn't have to be complicated. It just has to be done. And if your mother tells you to steal third with two out, kick her in the shins.

* As the online version now notes. It used to be a point of pride to actually get things right in print, though.


Time machine

Ahem. Not to sound like a grouchy old copy editor or anything, but:

In the past, Republicans have been elected governor in North Carolina when GOP presidential candidates had strong coattails. Jim Holshouser was helped by the Nixon landslide of 1992, and Jim Martin by the Reagan landslide of 1984.

Post hoc, ergo propter buyout? Even if the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas has run slam out of editors who remember the Holshouser days, you'd like to think somebody would have noticed that Tricky couldn't have landslid in 1992. (Surely somebody remembers Bill Clinton? That lady senator's husband? And there's that Watergate movie with, like, that really old printer at the beginning? From 1976? And it's about Nixon?)

Once again, we can't tell from here where the error originated. The story at McClatchy links to the version at Charlotte, which contains the error (and a Stupid Question hed for good measure). But the story originated from Raleigh, where the error doesn't appear. Inserted in Washington? Inserted in Charlotte? Present in the original but deleted by an alert Raleigh desker? If anyone can shed some light, please do. Meanwhile, add it to the folder of potential evidence for the Great Buyouts Trial.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Department of Short Answers

Business Week has taken another whack at the SpinSpotters tale, without too awfully much improvement. Here's the new lede:

If I told you I invented a machine that could spot bias in what you read, would you believe me?

Uh, "no." Or in slightly longer form: "Dunno. If I told you I had invented a machine that turned your Camry into a time machine while converting the exhaust fumes into a cheeky yet accessible merlot, would you believe me?"

Time's a bit short to review all the bidding here, though the reporter's justifications for the original column do shed some light on the science/journalism issue in passing. But ponder for a second the basic SpinSpotters premise: Right-wing crank claims to have invented formula that, with lots of input from trusted readers (and journalism students, as we now learn, to "help referee the system"), will eventually be able to scan a piece of text and isolate phrases that people with too much time on their hands have identified as symptomatic of "spin." And think of what, if anything, it might identify in a story like this:

Ex-POW Criticizes McCain in 'Swift Boat'-Style Ad
A former Naval Academy midshipman who was imprisoned alongside John McCain is the narrator of a new television ad that bashes the Republican candidate by saying being a prisoner of war is not a good prerequisite for being president.

"Bashes." Hmm, well, it's in the active voice, so that's all right, and it's not an adjective, so it can't go beyond its supporting evidence. So "bash" must just be ... some sort of verb that means "question the relationship between some form of experience and the job it purportedly qualifies a candidate for"?

... The ad, which is in the vein of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who used former comrades of John Kerry to knock down the idea that his military service qualified him for the presidency, is part of a new effort by “527″ groups to lend an assist to Barack Obama.

And it provides context! So on the evidence, what we have here is another straight-up-the-middle bit of dispassionate political journalism from America's Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

Unless your algorithm actually sat up and watched the Swift Boat ads back in 2004, in which case it might spit out its popcorn and ask if you just saw what it just saw. The Swift Boat ads didn't "knock down the idea" that Kerry's military service "qualified him for the presidency." They said he lied about his service. They said he "betrayed us" and "dishonored his country." Is there a particular kind of brain-dead zombie you have to be before the stuff at Fox makes sense?

So, anyway, we're going to have some ongoing issues with the algorithm. Unless you want to give it a shortcut: If you see something on Fox, just assume it's a lie. No charge for the initial consultation!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Family-style breakfast

Hard to beat an AP cutline for raw disingenuousness, isn't it?

A box of Obama Waffles is seen in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008.

To hear the AP tell it, waffle mix was selling like -- oh, what's the word for a hot, flat bread with syrup? -- at the Values Voter Summit in Washington this weekend. Right, that'd be the one with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich among its speakers, sponsored by the "lobbying arm" of the Family Research Council.

Three days into the summit, the organizers discovered that gambling was going on at Rick's cut off sales off the nutritious breakfast treat. Here's the AP on how things went before that:

Asked if he considered the pictures of Obama on the box to be racial stereotypes, Whitlock said: "We had some people mention that to us, but you think of Newman's Own or Emeril's -- there are tons and tons of personality-branded food products on the market. So we've taken that model and, using political satire, have highlighted his policies, his position changes."

HAHAHAHAHA! Political satire!

At any rate, this will doubtless ring a bell with many of us as we recall the small-town values of our distant pasts. Given the prominence of pigs and lipstick and Rootless Cosmopolitanism in the past few weeks' political discourse, one looks forward to seeing the sort of play this family-friendly jibe will get.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This is kind of annoying

You can't say the folks downtown don't cover politics, can you? I mean, look at the centerpiece -- Our Governor will play That Governor in the debate rehearsals! Isn't that enough politics for you?

Well, to avoid getting all involved in the journalism food fight over to the Log, here's a quick reminder: Journalism is an industry. That's not intended as an all-purpose explanation of journalism's ideological content (though it does put some ideological features into context). It's a reminder that the ways in which "news" is identified, gathered, processed and packaged reflect particular industrial needs. News is timely; partly because of that, it's episodic, rather than systematic. It's interested in things that happen, rather than things that have been happening for a long time, or tend to happen in particular patterned ways owing to particular circumstances.

What we end up with is a lot of "politics" coverage that has very little to do with politics and a lot to do with tactics. So we see a lot of stuff about who's shifted to what position, and who's playing which card, and what the other experts say about those two conditions, but almost nothing about how the larger strategic system works -- say, who's allowed to vote and who isn't. Like this:

The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

Which is only part of a larger strategic issue if, oh, you're interested in systematic ways in which people are excluded from voting -- like, say, the photo ID law in Indiana (if you're actually interested in politics, rather than tactics, go have a look at Andrew Hacker's fine piece in the current New York Review of Books).

Now. Why is that of interest here? Because if you live in the "Who's Got Change?" circulation area, you're getting tactics, not politics. You might not know that Macomb County thinks it's technically part of Alabama, because the local paper doesn't seem to think that's a big deal compared with Our Governor having a role in debate prep. (Try it: Plug "Macomb," "Republican" and "foreclosure" into the search on the Freep homepage.) Why does The Ridger, all the way off on Planet Maryland, have this story before my local paper does?

(Preview: Bits of Sarah Palin interview are emerging. The candidate seems unqualified to TA an undergraduate course in World Since 1945, let alone whatever goes with that job in Washington she's applying for.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

No, my dear, he's "last"

Since we seem to be settling into something like Spin Week, let's enjoy another entry from the Fair 'n' Balanced Gang.

Back story: My first actual exposure to "media framing" probably came in a Tom Slick cartoon back in the 1840s or whenever Tom Slick was on the black-and-white teevees. In the one I'm remembering,* our hero is in a two-car race with some typical villain and his typical villain girlfriend. Villain is trailing, and girlfriend wails: "We're last!"

"No, my dear," the villain says. "We're 'second.'"

Villain overtakes Tom, and girlfriend is delighted: "Now Tom Slick is second!"

"No, my dear," the villain says. "He's 'last.'"

Which is an appropriate way of reading Fox's framing of these results from its regular poll (August results at top, September below them). In both cases, it's Opinion Dynamics surveying 900 RVs over two consecutive nights; the "held today" question is in almost exactly the same place, and the only difference in wording is that VP candidates are included in the September poll. (Comparing polls is always risky, but if you have to do it, that's the way to go.) In each case, the result is a three-point difference between the major candidates. This, friends and neighbors, is framing with a capital F.**

What does the poll mean? Support for McCain/Palin in this poll is significantly higher -- we're 95% sure there's an actual difference in the population -- than support for McCain was last month (before the conventions, and before the selection of running mates). Obama's support is unchanged. That's interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the framing.

How about it there, SpinSpotter?

* If you are the keeper of the Complete Tom Slick Screenplay Archive, now's the time to stand up and be counted.
** And some asterisks.

Labels: , , ,

Quizzes in real life

Still wondering why those sentences containing "chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court" keep showing up on exercises in editing class, and why you keep losing points for not fixing them?

An article on Saturday about the variety of fashion choices made by New York City's judges misstated the title once held by two former United States Supreme Court justices — John Jay, who was often pictured wearing a scarlet and black robe with silver trim, and John Marshall, who departed from tradition by wearing a plain silk black robe. They were chief justices of the United States — there is no such title as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The NYT does lots of things well. That doesn't mean, and never has meant, that it does everything right.

Don't do the crime ...

... if you can't do the time!

Businessman who dated Anne Hathaway pleads guilty
A smooth-talking Italian businessman who once dated actress Anne Hathaway and claimed to have friends in high places at the Vatican is headed to prison after pleading guilty Wednesday in a Manhattan real estate fraud case.

Suggested hed, The AP; h/t, The Ridger.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Got your spin! Got your spin right here!

Sure was fun watching SpinSpotter have its 15 minutes of fame, wasn't it? The poor thing came within range of Language Log's main battery sometime before dawn, and the results are instructive.* Particularly if you look in the comments, and particularly if you keep track of how much work the Logsters were doing over (or in lieu of) breakfast that should have been done by ... erm, by the journalists who regurgitated this silly bit of press-releasery in the first place? Yeah, that'd be it. (By the way, for you regulars as well as the many new customers, the floor is still open just downpage for those who would like to say something to the editors of the future.)

The business of bias in the news, of course, went about its business as if nothing had happened. Here's a reminder that it's going to have to be dug out hedgerow by hedgerow.

Right, the World's Most Super-Important Story at Fox this evening is -- those pesky liberals! And how they're chewing on their own feminist tail or something! Wonder if any of the assertions and entailments of the frontpage presentation, or the story itself, are true?

The feminist debate has come full circle. As Sarah Palin barnstorms throughout the country emphasizing her personal story of being Alaska’s governor and the mother of five children, many liberal commentators are asking whether she can balance the rigor of the vice presidency with the demands of parenting.

... The combination of parenting along with her decision to campaign as John McCain’s running mate has spurred a phalanx of questions from surrogates for her political opponents as well as members of the mainstream media.

Nice footwork. The innocent reader is expecting "many liberal commentators," but we're going to stack the deck with "surrogates" and the "mainstream media."

“Children with Down’s syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?” CNN anchor John Roberts asked during a live segment on Aug. 29, the day McCain announced Palin’s candidacy.

Sally Quinn, a columnist with The Washington Post, wrote in a recent online column that Palin’s need to care for her special needs son, Trig, and her daughter, Bristol, not to mention her three other children, would “inevitably be an enormous distraction for a new vice president (or president) in a time of global turmoil.”

In a Sept. 5 interview on the “Laura Ingraham Show,” Howard Gutman, an original member of Barack Obama’s finance committee, charged the Alaska governor with “not putting family first” by accepting the GOP vice presidential nomination.

Scoring along at home? That's one "mainstream" anchor, one "liberal commentator" and one political operative, two of whom are talking about the issue at hand. And the third?

“If my daughter had just come home at 17 years old and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m pregnant, we have a family problem,’ I wouldn’t say, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to take this private family problem…I’m going to go on the international stage and broadcast it to the world’,” Gutman said.

Right. He's not even talking about the balance of family and professional responsibilities; he's suggesting that using your teenage daughter's pregnancy as a political club is -- OK, let's just say he's not addressing the "feminist" concern but the "shameless opportunist" one.

But questioning of Palin’s priorities has drawn fierce criticism from both political parties as well as women’s advocacy groups who claim it is sexist to raise the issue or have declared it off limits.

Having demonstrated that "many liberal commentators" is a set consisting of Sally Quinn, and having introduced some entirely unrelated evidence to support the argument , it's time to turn back to the real point: Democrats are out of bounds. Liberals are hypocrites. Anybody who dares question this candidate about anything is a really, really bad human being.

Granted, one or two parts of the story are actually "true," even if they don't relate to each other in the way that's claimed. Very little of it violates the sort of "spin" boundaries that SpinSpotter talks about. But it's deeply dishonest in every possible way. And it's dishonest in the service of the party line. Hard to think of a clearer sort of spin.

* Kudos to the night desk, by the way, for the excellent hed: "Dumb mag buys grammar goof spin spot fraud"


Monday, September 08, 2008

The King's Camelopard, or ...

The Royal Nonesuch
Guaranteed to spot
at the merest CLICK of the MOUSE!

... And if that don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansas. Which is more or less, I think, what to make of this lede:

In a development that could titillate political partisans of all stripes, a new Web application promising to spot bias in news stories will launch on Monday, Sept. 8, just as this ferociously contested election season shifts into high gear.

Don't get your hopes up too fast; as of a few minutes ago, the new launch date seems to be Sept. 9. But a little slippage in your release date isn't the real problem. The problem is the particular flavor of magic beans that Business Week is trying to sell here. It's a Web app that'll scan all your news for bias, or "spin," thus presumably allowing you to be a better citizen.

What's it going to do? Let's let Business Week tell us!

When turned on in a user's Web browser's toolbar, Spinoculars scans Web pages and spots certain potential indicators of bias. The toolbar also will allow its users to flag phrases in news stories and opine on those called out by other Spinspotter users. The application's algorithms work off six key tenets of spin and bias, which the company derived from both the guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code Of Ethics and input from an advisory board composed of journalism luminaries.

What sort of tenets might those mighty algorithms use? Let's have a look (interrupted here and there by your editor):

The tenets are: reporter's voice (adjectives used by a journalist that go beyond the supporting evidence in the article);
This is a reliability/validity question: Does the measure we're using provide a consistent index of something, and does that index have some relation to the thing we want it to represent? We have some problems on either count. As a rule, stories that describe "brutal" murders don't provide any evidence to distinguish the murder at hand from any other murder; as Raymond Chandler suggested some decades ago, all murders are brutal. Does that mean those stories are spun, and if so, is an anti-murder spin a bad thing?

That's not to say adjectives -- "fresh-faced maverick Sarah Palin gave another hard-hitting speech last night" -- can't or don't indicate spin. It is to suggest that they're an unreliable indicator of a small part of the spin spectrum. If you want to worry about "reporter's voice," try this: "Smith, who fought in the War on Terror during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said he would vote for McCain." Not an adjective in the lot, but it's the reporter's voice that makes the invasion part of the War on Terror. If your "voice" algorithm is off hunting adjectives - well, good luck with that supporting evidence, algorithm!

passive voice (example: a story says "bombs land" without stating which party is responsible for them);
Another writer who wouldn't recognize verb voice if it jumped up and he was bitten by it. "Bombs land" is in the "active" voice. Our writer (and presumably our algorithm) is concerned with the absence of agency, which is a legitimate if separate concern: "Bombs land" and "fire breaks out" are both some form of natural disaster. The active voice, alas, is not only good at hiding agency, it's a good way of introducing another set of biases -- particularly for those journalists who want to blame an attack on the Usual Suspects, rather than admitting that nobody knows who carried it out. Beyond that, verb voice leaves a whole raft of "spin" and bias unmeasured. Referring to Iraq as "the war-torn country" leaves open the question of how it got that way, but it doesn't go beyond the "evidence" and it doesn't involve verb voice. What is it we're measuring again?

a biased source (a quoted source's partisanship is not clearly identified);
Worthwhile goal, but we risk confusing facticity with accuracy here. You can pile on the source's name, age, hometown and party affiliation all you want, but that won't turn a lie into something true. Some partisans say things that are true. Some -- I'm thinking of Bill Safire, for one, but you probably have your own examples -- almost invariably don't. If you let a source lie, it doesn't really matter how thoroughly you document his/her "partisanship."

disregarded context (a political rally's attendance is reported to be "massive," but would it have been so huge had the surviving members of the Beatles not played?);
Sorry, missed that gig.

and lack of balance (a news story on a controversial topic gives much more credence to one side's claims).
This used to be known as the "green cheese fallacy": the idea that if your candidate says the moon is an airless rock and the other candidate says the moon is made of green cheese, the hed is going to be CANDIDATES SPAR OVER NATURE OF MOON. And the blunt reality is that on many "controversial" topics, one side's claims ought to be given much more credence because they're ... you know, true.

Smoking kills people and causes cancer. "Intelligent design" is a religious belief, rather than something you teach in a science classroom. Iraq was not an existential threat to U.S. national security when George Bush decided to invade it. These aren't topics that should be given equal weight as legitimate controversies because they aren't controversies. If you pretend there's a controvery when there isn't, that's "spin." Or "bias." Or "outright lying."

Business Week falls for another fallacy when it notes that, although the SpinSpotter founder is a conservative, the CEO is "progressive"! So we can't be biased, right? You've probably seen your local editor make a similar claim: Both sides are mad, so we must be doing something right! Which overlooks, alas, the high probability that having different partisan camps mad at you simply means you can't do anything right.

Go ahead and put SpinSpotter on your toolbar if you want. (I might do the same; I'm actually kind of interested in what it identifies as "spun" news.) Just don't mistake it for anything that brings you any closer to understanding how news works or why some people do or don't trust it. If you have any questions, check out this fairly typical piece from the paid liars over at Fox and see if it doesn't qualify as "objective."

BusinessWeek would do well to stop buying magic beans, but that's a different matter.

Pot, meet kettle

The Fair-n-Balanced Network makes a splash of other people's personnel issues:

The network announced Monday that Olbermann and Chris Matthews have both been booted as co-hosts on political night coverage in favor of David Gregory, whose White House press corps experience may make him better suited to deliver sober and less opinion-driven assessments of the news.

I'm sure MSNBC will be up to Fox's exalted standard of sobriety and impartiality any day now.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Talk to the (upcoming) editors

The new semester is well and truly upon us, so it's time for some annual fall festivities, and everybody's invited. Here's the game:

You're about to address an undergraduate editing class (OK, two undergraduate editing classes). You can give them one piece of advice.* What is it?

"Everybody's invited," of course, means exactly that: Usual Suspects, regulars who have your own mugs behind the bar, occasional visitors, drop-ins, first-timers -- everybody but the spam crowd. Some of you will be hiring these students. Some of you will be working next to them. Some are teaching their counterparts. Some are their counterparts. Some are recent pros who have discovered all the stuff we forgot to teach. Some have left the trade but still cringe in predictable ways when you open the paper. Some wonder why science looks the way it does in news accounts. Some wonder why the observable world in general looks the way it does in newspapers. Regardless, please hie yourself to the comments and talk to the editors of the future.

* Sure, you can make it a suggestion. You can even make it a question if it works.

Respect the reader: Inch less foam ...

We trust readers -- at least, apparently --- to process a hed like "U.S. to take over Fannie & Freddie." We trust them to know what a "moniker" is and what a phrase like "Feds nab 2 in heist" means. So why don't we trust them to figure out that what we've just said is ... what we've just said?

“There was no airstrike in Pakistan, or near Miran Shah or in North Waziristan,” Abbas said, referring to Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.

Just this once, let's give him the benefit of the doubt: When he said Miran Shah, he meant --Miran Shah! Not Spinboldak or Miran Shah Pointe or Kannapolis or Upper Arlington but the very place he mentioned on his own.

Once again, we can't say from here how the error occurred. Here's how the sentence looks at the NYT Web site:

“There was no airstrike in Pakistan, or near Miran Shah or in North Waziristan,” General Abbas said. Miran Shah is the capital of North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.

Much more sensible, eh? Explain the term, but don't waste space noting that he was referring to the thing he referred to.

The title "General" most likely was deleted before the article was put on the NYT wire (most customers are also AP members, so it makes sense for the NYTNS to harmonize its copy with AP style*). The "referring to" could have been an error in the original, cleaned up before it hit the last edition of the Times but not by the wire, or it could have been inserted by the subscriber paper. Either way -- oh, come on. If your readers have the wherewithal to read a Pakistan story, trust 'em to know that the good general meant the town he mentioned, all right?

This is a particularly repellent case of the "said of" phenomenon, an out-of-control technique for trying to explain rogue pronouns or given names that rarely does more good than harm. Here's a sort of least-worst case from the local rag:

"Cindy has hung back a little, she's not out in front, whereas Michelle has been a surrogate on the trail for her husband," Gutin said of Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

See? On the off chance that you hadn't figured out -- in a story about Cindy McCain, in which Michelle Obama was introduced in the preceding graf -- that "her husband" meant Democratic presidential hopeful Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, we're going to spell it out for you! (Even if we mercifully omit the Freep's usual attributive train wreck.)

It can get worse -- usually, because some writer assumes that any reader who begins a story is unable to load any of it into memory for more than a graf or two:

Hours of standing in line and waiting to listen to Sen. Barack Obama ended for thousands with a 9-minute speech Monday from the Democratic presidential candidate. ... "It was too short," Phil Robinson, 64, a truck driver from Oakland Township, said of the speech.

Observant Muslims across Michigan begin the holy month of Ramadan this week with special prayers and the start of 30 days of fasting during daylight hours. For many of them, it's also a time to reflect. ... "It's about purification of your heart and soul," Begg said of the observance.

The Lions kept 11 defensive linemen and four tight ends. ... "Obviously, a lot of factors go into these decisions," coach Rod Marinelli said of keeping 11 linemen.

Often, "said of" is just a clumsy way of introducing information:

"If there was unusually high traffic on Groesbeck and Church, the camera sees that," Adam Merchant, traffic engineer for the road commission, said of the test site in Clinton Township that's displayed on a wide screen inside the traffic center.

Either way, don't. Do what the Times did. If you have to explain what a source said, do it in a separate clause -- not a "said of." You're showing your readers some respect and saving some space in the bargain.

Speaking of which, back to the original topic:
Another local resident, Mahmood Khan, said that pilotless aircraft were seen over Al Must at 9 a.m. Friday morning.

Here's what the Times has:
Another local resident, Mahmood Khan, said that pilotless aircraft were seen over Al Must at 9 a.m. Friday.

Sigh. The reason things like "9 a.m. Friday morning" are perpetual features of editing tests is that they're classic examples of genuinely needless words.** There is no "9 a.m. Friday evening" to get the one in the morning confused with. And with all regard for our S&W-bashing friends over in the linguistics department, omitting needless words is a legitimate and relevant part of the craft.

If you missed this part of the lecture -- well, DTFM. Eight lines of 9-point type is an inch, and on an 11-pica column, a redundant "morning" or extra "referring to" is very likely to make a difference of a line. Eight of those, and all of a sudden you're serving an inch less foam and an inch more beer. Newsprint isn't getting cheaper, budgets aren't getting bigger, newsholes aren't getting more cavernous. Bad editors do evil stuff in the name of "omit needless words," but that's because they're bad editors, not because the principle is wrong.

Geoff Pullum (I hope he doesn't mind standing in for the anti-S&W crowd) doesn't use a lot of needless words, but then again he's a deeply practiced and exceptionally good writer. Just because he was born with a good ear doesn't mean he should begrudge the rest of us our Mel Bays.

* Hence the tales about "Windows ME" becoming "Windows, Maine" -- a Cupertinoid all its own, though I don't know if any of these escaped into the wild or if it's just told around the campfire to scare the younguns.
**The complementizing "that" is also unnecessary with a simple independent clause following. Keeping it is one of those little affectations that make the Times sound like the Times.

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Just can't turn your back on 'em

See? John McCain lets those Democrats out of his sight for a second and look what happens:

John McCain’s presidential campaign prepared to chastise Democrats Saturday over leaving behind piles of miniature American flags after Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech last Thursday in Denver.

Boy Scouts have arrived with 84 trash bags full of bundles of flags at the site of a McCain rally scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. local time in Colorado Springs.

The campaign says the flags were recovered from Invesco Field after the Democrats concluded their convention there, and they are going to be used as part of the warm-up ceremonies before McCain takes the stage for the rally.

FOX News has been told a vendor at Invesco Field found the flags, which were going to be thrown out, and turned them over to the McCain campaign.

That's the kind of thorough sourcing that pushes a story upward on my front page, all right. Plus it has Boy Scouts.

[4 p.m. update: See why some news tips are known as "too good to check out"? But Democratic convention organizers claimed the flags were not going to be discarded — but instead were snatched from the site of Obama’s historic address to carry out a “cheap political stunt.” Good thing nothing about this changes the basic thrust of the story, eh?]

Credit where due: Fox is giving some prominence to this interesting AP item:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin’s church is promoting a conference that promises to convert gays into heterosexuals through the power of prayer.

Fly-on-the-wall-wise, though: Do you wonder how that was pitched at the Fox news meeting?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Those pesky liberals!

You can tell why this story is a big deal for our fair-n-balanced friends today. One, it takes on those pesky liberal lies before they can get started! Two, it gives readers a break from the important policy headlines dominating the page:

Palin: McCain Won't 'Run
With the Washington Herd'

Oprah Not a Palin Fan?

And third, it lets you run a picture of a scantily (if patriotically) clad woman with huge tracts of land qualifications for executive office.

Seriously, it's good to know that Fox is continuing its policy of being proactive (see more about the heroic effort shown at right here) on stopping patently false rumors before they become part of the liberal media's hate-filled discourse. Take, for example, Lie (or Myth, or Unconfirmed Report) No. 3: Palin "wants creationism taught in school." Just because somebody asked her about creation and evilution during a televised debate and she said "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both"! And the idea that she was almost recalled as mayor when all the City Council did was consider a recall motion ... I tell you, those media grow more shameless by the day.

The genuinely bizarre part, though, is Fox's apparent inability to tell the difference between a legitimate question -- when you say you're a proponent of teaching creationism in schools, do you mean it, or do you mean what you said when you backtracked? -- and the sort of bottom-feeding idiocy that believes every photo that turns up on the intertubes. Or what appears in every way to be a genuinely vicious lie about whose baby the youngest Palin offspring is.

From a content-analysis perspective, note the location of anger-at-rumor in the two examples here. In the earlier one, it's the Obama camp that's furious. In the new one, it's Fox. That says more or less all you need to know about Fox's journalistic orientation, but if you've been a regular Fox consumer, you already knew it.


Metaphoric steamship train wreck of the morning

Preaching a message of bipartisanship and insisting he's the man to throw the "me-first, country-second" crowd out of Washington, a buoyant John McCain steered his Straight Talk Express into its biggest berth ever Thursday night -- the Republican nomination for president.

Thank you, Freep

Thursday, September 04, 2008

New-clear days on the policy front

There's something about the cries of Shock Outrage Sexism from the network* at which some political figures are Sarah or Hillary and others are Biden, Romney or Huckabee that kind of makes you think Captain Renault has just joined the Fox stable of commentators. And it's hard to take the Media Hate Me routine seriously when the local fishwrap** needed less than a day to proclaim Gov. Palen a "a 44-year-old political maverick" (that's in a 1A news story, in case you're scoring along at home). Overlooked in all this noise is a bigger concern: the blithe lack of interest within journalistic ranks about any role the media themselves might play in building narratives.

It's not just the AP's tendency to lapse into breathless incoherence at the novelty of it all, annoying though that tendency is:

The first female vice presidential nominee in the party's history, she spoke to uncounted millions of viewers at home in her solo national debut.

About 37, according to Fox. Nielsen has been measuring convention audiences for nearly five decades and has a pretty good handle on it. If the AP had bothered to read the Times last Friday, it might have noticed that those numbers are usually available the next day.***

Sorry. We digress. The bigger issue -- the one I'd like to see more people in newsrooms phoning the AP about, or complaining to "presentation" editors about, or just raising at the end of a pointy stick any time the phrase "story line" is brought up at a budget meeting -- is this wonderfully disingenuous assumption that all the narratives and sub-narratives of a political campaign are some sort of naturally occurring element.

The problem isn't just the AP, which proclaimed Gov. Palin's speech on Wednesday to be "rousing" and "searing" (Ron Fournier has gotten a lot of stick lately, but he deserves a nod for this, from a different AP story: "It's not lying, and it's not exaggeration, actually. It's more like they're using non sequiturs to build up her image.")

And it's not just the Freep, which said (in a frontpage column) that she "rose to her convention moment" with "toughness and vigor" and a "brilliant mix of warm efforts ... and sharp attacks." (The news story on the same page credits her with "taking aim at the Washington political establishment" and logs in "the fact that she was 'not a member of the permanent political establishment.'") It's the broader assumption that things become true by being proclaimed -- that being a maverick, or an outsider, or a typical tank-town mom with a stiletto and a smile is a condition brought about by a speech act. How do you get to be a maverick? Get people to call you one.

Driven by that sort of narrative, coverage of the Palin speech tends to settle into a pseudo-argument about "experience" -- specifically, what kind of experience is better than what other kind. That tends to bury some much more interesting issues that the speech itself suggests. Experience, for one thing, isn't the same as aptitude. And, as every hiring editor knows, there are people with 20 years' experience and there are people with one year of experience 20 times.

What could we have talked about instead? I'm kind of taken by this little phonetic reminder from Palin's prompter script, brought to our attention by the Log gang:
Starting in January, in a McCain-Palin administration, we're going to lay more pipelines ... build more new-clear plants

Slip of the finger? How about this:
Terrorist states are seeking new-clear weapons without delay ... he wants to meet them without preconditions.

Some people in this campaign think their vice presidential candidate is very, very stupid.

Granted, she doesn't perform impeccably in front of a big crowd. Here's the script:
To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world energy supplies ... or that terrorists might strike again at the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia ... or that Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries ... we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas.

And her reading, per the Fox transcript:
To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of the world’s energy supplies, or that terrorists might strike again at the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia, or that Venezuela might shut off its oil discoveries and its deliveries of that source, Americans, we need to produce more of our own oil and gas.

The stumble isn't the problem. The problem is that the Freep draws the following conclusion on its front page:
She showed a firm grasp of key domestic issues, including energy independence and tax policy.

Suggesting a larger problem: What in this poorly read effort from the White House speechwriting team suggests any kind of firm grasp of any kind of issues? Evidently, she has hold of the idea that Venezuela is a major national security threat. Let's look at some more:

Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?

Well, not really. He's sort of on the record as favoring hot pursuit across borders with regard to the said terrorists -- which all of a sudden seems to be the policy of the current administration too. Reading them their rights is conditional on catching them, but given that, it seems like a fairly low-cost way to maintain a little standing in the eyes of the world.

You starting to think the "story line" should move a little away from whether a candidate has some form of executive experience and toward whether the candidate has the faintest freaking idea of how the world works?

That pipeline, when the last section is laid and its valves are open, will lead America one step farther away from dependence on dangerous foreign powers that do not have our interests at heart.

Oops! Looks like some journalism majors at the University of Idaho skipped that freshman seminar in political science. That'll be the one where we introduce the idea that "foreign powers" act in their own interests, and that one way to figure out what they're going to do is to figure out what they think those interests are!

We could go on and on about this. Wonder when somebody else will.

*Here's a hint: It's the network that has trouble telling US Weekly from the New York Times. Must have been a long week.
** The purportedly "liberal" paper in the JOA.
*** Editors? It's actually OK to delete patently nonsensical stuff from news stories. Yes you can! Sí se puede!