Sunday, November 30, 2008

Grammar vs. secret handshakes

Between the teaching of news editing and the day-to-day practice of editing, we have the makings of a security dilemma. The classroom side is ready to throw overboard some of the loopy style distinctions and grammatical phantasms (the split infinitive, to pick one that draws near-universal agreement), but nobody's going to stop teaching them without some assurance that newsrooms will stop testing for them. The Compass Point State J-faculty might decide the which/that distinction with restrictive clauses is unfounded, but if it's still the gospel at Hidebound U. (and editors still say "they really teach the basics at Hidebound"), CPSU won't be the first to disarm.

Nobody -- at least, nobody I've ever heard of -- wants to stop teaching grammar. And, for the record, nobody thinks there isn't a difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses; that argument is about whether "which" and "that" are interchangeable with restrictive clauses. The question is whether we should spend less time on teaching the whimsical secret handshakes enshrined in the AP Stylebook and more time at the dissecting table, trying to head off sentences like this:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating an early-morning shooting death in east Charlotte that included private security for a nightclub exchanging gunfire with homicide suspects.

Thus the topic that has been kicked around at conferences and on discussion boards of late: Which rules can newsrooms and classrooms agree that we can stop teaching (or, more politely, point out as traditional but unfounded and unnecessary)? This is the audience participation part. You're a hiring editor, and a job candidate has left these sentences as-is on your editing test. For each, indicate whether you think it's (a) fine, (b) OK but not preferred, or (c) forbidden.

Everybody took their seats, and the concert began.

Two of the bullets which struck the SUV were found in the upholstery.

Hopefully, that won't happen again this year.

Are there lions on either side of the entrance?

The tradition remains widespread in states like Georgia and Alabama.

Over 100 people were arrested after the concert.

Lawyers have frequently complained about the judge's attitude.

Please feel free to answer in the comments (be polite; this is about data, not persuasion) or at the G-mail addy at right (no identities will be revealed). Anyone can play, but if you're a journalist, I'd appreciate if you'd indicate:
How long at your paper/publication
How large it is
What you do (copy editing, line editing, writing, design, &c; please note if you do any slotting or supervising)
Vaguely, how old you are (under 30 or 30 and up)

Pls feel free to tell your friends.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Headlines: Just add taste

Don't you just hate it when a perfectly good annual cliche -- say, "Ready, set, shop" -- is marred by one of those pesky deaths? Credit the New Haven Register with this robust blend of mixed 1A signals for your breakfast enjoyment.

"Taste" is always going to be a notoriously tricky thing to define, and sometimes it's difficult to improve on old Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it, and this isn't it. Some hed specs simply don't match the story; it's hard to fit "news" (especially when you're nearly half a day behind the place where the news is happening) into the hammer-and-deck setup Waterbury employed here. As our design cousins would point out, this isn't a fault of design so much as a fault of bad design. It's also a fault of the desk for not pushing back against unruly specs.

As long as we're in the northeast corridor, how about the Post's treament of the Wal-Mart mayhem? Hard to imagine a Postier hed (though the Daily News's "Death by shopping" is right up there). Moral: If you want New York Times heds, don't put your quarters in the box that says "New York Post."

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Annals of buttocks-grabbing, ch. LXXVI

From the folks* who brought you "Man throws ice, grabs buttocks on plane," another finalist in the Buttocks-Grabbing Hed of the Year competition. This one's also a grammar issue,** but it's a grammar issue of a different kind: The attributive noun modifier works correctly in "Hooters waitress" but not in "waitress buttocks." That's worth a little look.

Nouns go around modifying each other with abandon, but that doesn't mean they don't follow precedent. A "sailor suit" is something resembling what sailors wear: "Postcards carried his photograph, in a sailor suit or on a bicycle." It's not the same thing as the garb of a particular sailor:
Roscoe stole a sailor suit (from Macy's)
Roscoe stole a sailor's suit (while the Reluctant was in port)***

There are waitress shoes (shoes that waitresses wear) and waitress smiles (smiles that waitresses maintain). There may even be a condition called "waitress buttocks" (like "tennis elbow"). But the offense of sexual battery isn't about a condition; it's something that happens to a specific person. This guy isn't accused of grabbing a substance called waitress buttocks; he's accused of grabbing a waitress's buttocks.

Even in hed dialect, it's just as easy to do it right:
Police: Man grabbed Hooters waitress's buttocks
That's not necessarily a best solution. I'm not convinced this is a good case for detailing the substance of the offense, rather than the charge, and it seems unlikely that anyone would have seen a need to identify the restaurant if it wasn't a Hooters. But at least it's not a wrong solution.

* What is it down there in Charlotte anyway? Some particularly evil bit of malware triggered by the appearance of "buttocks" in the hed field?
** Belated thanks to q_pheevr of "A Roguish Chresthomathy" for a thorough explanation of the "grabs buttocks" issue, particularly the concept of inalienable buttocks, which should be its own Python sketch. To summarize without wading too deep into the thicket of bare-noun buttocks: Because body parts are "inalienably" possessed, the natural reading of the bare form used in heds is that the part in question belongs to the actor. So "man breaks leg on plane" would mean he broke his own, not that he assaulted a fellow passenger, and "man grabs buttocks on plane" ... you get the idea.
*** True, some of those occupational modifiers do take the possessive:

Do you still have that dream about Jamie Lee Curtis in a barrister's wig?
I don't know. Do you still have that dream about John Cleese in a sailor suit?
... but I think those are idiosyncratic, the way some colleges offer "women's studies" and some offer "woman studies."

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Leave the rooster! That's human interest!

What do you do when that pesky news breaks out on the eve of a holiday? Let's see how three papers in Florida (longtime wheelhoss of American journalism fads) handled the Mumbai attacks.

At left is Fort Lauderdale ("look, honey! Superman has his own newspaper"), which apparently decided to ignore the things altogether.
At center, Orlando put the attacks above the nameplate -- at least, that's a pretty reasonable guess. The hed combines an actual news event with the hints of warnings of speculation about talk of a possible Qaida plot to think about attacking the New York subway, so it's kind of hard to figure out the priorities. But the color levels in the photo leave it looking sort of like a painting, and thus uncomfortably like the First Thanksgiving art in the centerpiece ("Save room for our quiz").
Tampa, at right, plays Short Attention Span Theater with everything in sight. The attacks get a mention next to the nameplate -- in the brave new world, there is no more "above the flag," and the shopping flowchart just sort of envelops everything in its capitalist glow.
Not a stellar performance there, Florida. Shopping doesn't really need context. International political violence, on the other hand, often does.
[Other than that, the central office is now going into holiday* mode. Language Czarina is pruning the adverbs. Woodchuck is enjoying America's Baddest Thanksgiving Parade.** Bernie is sulking because he doesn't have a major thoroughfare named after him. And Santa is getting the keys to the city from a WSU J-grad.]
* International visitors, please join us in some flavorless poultry and sloth!
** Macy's doesn't have the Contours singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reporters without clues (or editors)

How kind of the local fishwrap to continue running exercises for editing class under the guise of local news stories:

Odds stacked against suspect in slayings after DNA test
To convince a jury he's innocent, murder suspect Xavier Chase faces tough odds: 1 in 55 quadrillion, to be exact.

Never, ever play fast and loose in court coverage. Jury trials are as literal a case as possible of we report, someone else -- that'll be the "jury" -- decides. (By the way? Suspects don't have to convince juries they're innocent. Prosecutors have to convince juries that suspects are guilty. That's -- all rise, please -- the American Way.)

That's the statistical likelihood that the DNA recovered from inside a Halloween mask found near the scene of a double homicide -- and smattered with a victim's blood -- was from Chase, 40, of Sterling Heights.

So if there's one chance in eighty bazillion that the DNA is from the suspect, what exactly is the problem again? (It's worth noting here that the reporter has no way of knowing whether the conclusions in the first two grafs are true or not. What the reporter knows ... well, let's look at the next graf and see!)

Bart Naugle, a DNA analyst with Virginia-based Bodie Technologies, testified Tuesday that Chase's DNA also was inside gloves found with the mask, which had been tossed about a block and a half north of the Warren apartment building where Chase's ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend were fatally shot last November.

Halfway through the story, some indication that something actually happened on Tuesday: A DNA expert testified about some DNA stuff. (Which is what the reporter should have noted in the first two grafs: This is stuff somebody said in testimony, not something independently known to be true. That's inexcusable deck-stacking.)

Rema Reed, 32, and Terry Buchanan, 36, were ambushed after they left Reed's apartment. Spots of Buchanan's blood were found on the Michael Myers-style Halloween mask, the outside of the gloves and the instep of Chase's shoes, Naugle testified.

Another sentence of background (which we can only hope is confirmed), another sentence of testimony, and a horror movie reference. Why bother to watch the trial?

Chase's lawyer, Tim Barkovic, has said that because the mask and gloves were put into a bag with Chase's other belongings when he was arrested, his DNA could have been transferred to the items.

So the odds aren't twelvety-zillion to one? Because the defense doesn't acknowledge (it'd be nice to know what "has said" means; doesn't sound like Tuesday) that the DNA evidence constitutes guilt? Well, that takes the fun out of things.

The trial is set to continue today.

And some more news. So strip away the attempts to play Junior G-Man and you're left with a graf of news, a graf of background, and a reminder that things would continue. In other words, a brief -- which some alert editor should have brought into being, rather than amplifying the cluelessness with the "Odds stacked against suspect" hed.

Hard to imagine doing worse in six grafs, but ... no doubt someone will try.

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Corrections: Be careful what you wish for

Correction policies aren't built for this sort of thing:

Because of an editing error, a story in Saturday's Observer about a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who was cleared in the fatal shooting of a suspect omitted a key fact. Police said they recovered a handgun from near Aaron Winchester's body.

Interesting on lots of levels, isn't it? For one, there's how the gunshot victim came to be identified as a "suspect" (he isn't called that in the story that's being "corrected" here). For another, there's that "editing error" thing. What's that mean: error of commission (editor took the fact out) or error of omission (editor failed to correct absence of key fact)? Where in the editing chain did the error take place? If the "key fact" was in the original, where was it? If it had been in the second graf, along with "five other witnesses ... never reported seeing a gun in his hand," it almost certainly wouldn't have been cut; why was it placed somewhere that made it look not-so-key to whoever took it out?

As a career rimrat, of course, Your Editor is always awaiting corrections blamed on "errors" elsewhere in the news process:

Due to a reporting error, a bunch of local people were quoted in an article about Iran on Page 1A Wednesday. None of them have any idea of what they're talking about.

Due to a management error, a metro columnist was not drawn and quartered after last year's "Things I'm thankful for" column. As a result, this year's version appears on Page 1B.

But the real point is the nature of corrections in general. Corrections are about facts, and correction policies tend to look like the one that lands on the doorstep here: "The Free Press corrects all errors of fact." In real life, that usually means something like "We'll correct most errors of fact, most of the time, as long as we know about them and we don't deem them too trivial or otherwise inconvenient." But today's item isn't about facts; it's about context, or the stuff that allows facts to mean what they mean. You can understand why the Obs would come in for a certain amount of heat over this omission -- not just from the usual run of bottom-feeding readers ("Do not forget, he died by choice"), but from the cops and the DA's office. Context has a way of making stories messier and less conclusive, and that's often a good thing.

When you open the door to context-based corrections, though, you never know what's going to come sneaking in. Allow me to suggest a couple candidates, based on a bunch of stuff from 2002-03 that's churning around the content analysis mill this week:

An article on Page 1A Tuesday warned of the likelihood that Iraq would use chemical weapons against the United States. It should have pointed out that Iraq did not use chemical weapons against U.S. forces in 1991, when it actually had the means to do so, and that deterrence has not been repealed since then.

An editorial on page 10A Thursday said that Saddam Hussein should be overthrown because he had gassed his own people. True enough, but that was 15 years ago, when Iraq (at war with Iran) was enjoying the tacit support of the Reagan administration. If we had really thought gassing people was such a big deal, maybe we should have put it on the front page instead of another story about fire ants, huh?

Interesting decision by the Obs, but -- be careful what you wish for. Some genies go not gently back into the bottle.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Correction of the day (and not)

A map accompanying an article about Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that ran in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly included an island mislabeled as Brunei.

Inquiring minds want to know: How would you "correctly" include an island mislabeled as Brunei? What's our correction trying to correct: Brunei's status (not an island unto itself), its location (not quite so far west of the moon), or the mislabeling of Natuna (which was correctly included, for all that)?

Good desks have a couple of atlases (paper ones; they don't crash when the intartubes are down) and use them. Editors aren't paid to trust; they're paid to verify.

And on the not-corrected front:
An after-school staffer has been fired and a second classroom teacher could face the same fate because of offensive Facebook postings, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spokeswoman said Monday.

Hmm. Two weeks ago, this guy was a "teacher" in a 1A hed and story. That seems like a pretty substantial difference (for one thing, per today's tale, he lacks some of the contractual protections that teachers have). Have I missed the correction, or have we somehow not gotten around to writing it yet? "Owing to inaccurate information provided by a hyperventilating TV station trying to jack up its ratings during sweeps month, an article Nov. 14 incorrectly described an employee caught in the cyber-witchburning. He is an after-school staffer, not a teacher."


Sunday, November 23, 2008

In my little minefield

Diagramming party to action stations: The Miami Herald is aiming at Guantanamo, but what does it hit?

But change comes slowly to this 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base bunkered behind a Cuban minefield with small-town amenities and the population to match.

If we're going to worry about grammar, we might want to spend a little less time on how to hyphenate "war-on-terror detainees" (if they're "prisoners from the Afghanistan war," just say so) and a little more on how nouns and prepositional phrases hook up.

[On a wider point: the idea that slipping the prisoners a few Game Boys and teaching them English is a "dose of culture" that will "help men captured across the globe think for themselves" is the sort of blithe don't-get-it-ness that journalism could do with a lot less of. Every now and then, when people who don't like you "think for themselves," they come to the same conclusion they did before.]


Friday, November 21, 2008

I've told you once

Credit the N&O with using multiple storytelling forms to attract the reader. If the active voice doesn't work, just say it all again in the passive!

Alertly flagged by Strayhorn of the Triangle buro, who alertly flagged it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A broken record is sounded like

Oyez, oyez. Order will now be come to by the Loyal Order of Friends of the Passive Voice.

If a broken record is starting to be sounded like, there's a reason. Verb voice is a grammatical tool that writers use to make meaning -- not to appease some half-remembered demonic cackle from the bowels of the J2100 textbook. The hed writer made a bad choice, resulting in a hed that's perfectly "grammatical" but misleading, not to mention a lot less interesting than it ought to be.
"Sink" is what your dictionary calls a "vb," meaning it has both transitive and intransitive uses. When we don't know or need to mention who or what might have been responsible, the intransitive form is fine. The takeaway point on the Edmund Fitzgerald is that it sank, and you can wait a few verses before deciding on whether it split up or capsized or broke deep and took water. The Hood* is a different case -- it's not wrong to note that it sank in May 1941, but it's probably more relevant to point out that it was sunk by the Bismarck (transitive and passive). Whether it's better still to say the Bismarck sank the Hood (transitive and active) is the sort of question good editors don't answer without looking at the context, but at least the transitive sense gets straight to the idea that somebody sank something. Which, after all, is the point of a lede like this:
The Indian navy sank a suspected pirate “mother ship” and chased two attack boats into the night, officials said Wednesday, as the owners of a seized Saudi oil supertanker negotiated for the release of their vessel and its $100 million cargo.
For hed purposes, we don't need to know who did the sinking (object outranks subject in this case), but we do need to know it was done deliberately. Intransitive "sink" gives you an active hed, but the passive "is sunk" gives you a relevant hed. There's a difference.
Oh, and whoever wrote:
Please don't do that again.
* OK, the Economist ought to be more careful when it ventures into phonetics, but a good Economist obit is a true delight.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lying with stats: It never goes away

Ack. Here it looked like a couple weeks' vacation from beating up on the abuse of survey data, and here come Fox and its acolytes looking for more fun.

Bottom line, if you see a story about a purported documentary called "Media Malpractice," credited to an alleged filmmaker named John Ziegler and incorporating a postelection survey by Zogby, kill it on sight. If readers call up to ask why you're suppressing it, guffaw heartily at them and point out that it's a fake story promulgated by hacks and liars.

This isn't a complaint about the poll itself (I have one off-the-cuff methodological complaint), which appears to represent what it represents. The problem is with how the results are contextualized, which would be obscene if it wasn't so amateurish. So let's have a look at what our crusading filmmaker wants them to say:

On November 4th, 2008 millions of Americans were shocked that a man of Barack Obama's limited experience, extreme liberal positions and radical political alliances could be elected President of the United States. For many of these Americans, the explanation was rather simple... the news media, completely enamored with Obama, simply refused to do their job.

On Election day twelve Obama voters were interviewed extensively right after they voted to learn how the news media impacted their knowledge of what occurred during the campaign. These voters were chosen for their apparent intelligence/verbal abilities and willingness to express their opinions to a large audience. The rather shocking video below seeks to provide some insight into which information broke through the news media clutter and which did not.

Or, as he put it to Hannity and Colmes:

No, here's what I'm saying, Alan. What I'm saying is that the media coverage of this campaign was so scandalous, so beyond bias, into the realm of media malpractice, which is why I'm doing a documentary with that title — and that's why we did this film, at — that the reality is the media coverage was so horrendous that Obama voters had no idea for what they were voting. They had no idea about some of the basic issues of the campaign, many of which you and Sean talked an awful lot about.

To boil it down, the contention that Obama voters were clueless robots rests on two main assertions: They're ignorant when it comes to baseline information anyway (they don't even know who controls Congress), and thus, when the liberal media caved in and refused to report important fictional plants from the Fox axis, those critically important points didn't sink in.

Sounds kind of scary, especially if you haven't noticed that research has spent some decades finding out what sorts of things the electorate knows and doesn't know. The first of the documentary's points is that a survey found -- well, let's quote Sean Hannity: "Nearly 60 percent could not correctly say which party controls Congress. Now, that's frightening."

Some people scare easily. The National Election Survey folks have been asking a comparable, if simpler, question for some time now: "Do you happen to know which party has the most members in the House of Representatives in Washington before the elections (this/last) month?"

Zogby's results ("Before this past election,* which political party controlled both houses of Congress?") found 42.6 percent of Obama voters saying the Democrats, which our documentarian is going to count as the "correct" response -- hence, 57.4% (with a confidence of interval of 4.4 points) were wrong. That's more than the NES found in 2004 (46%) but quite a bit less than in 2002 (72%), 1986 (67%), or 1982 (68%). And if we count the 13% "neither" response as correct -- I have no objection, given that the 51-49 Senate majority relied on two independents -- our total is right down there with the bulk of responses.

Our hero scoffs when Colmes asks whether McCain voters would have similar responses, even offering to bet the poll's expenses (doubled if he loses) to see. I'd be a bit more careful with my money. Democrats and Republicans were about even in answering the NES question wrong in '04, '02 and '98, with the Democrats significantly higher in '00, '96, '94, '92 (indies and apoliticals are significantly higher in all those years). Interestingly, conservatives did worse than liberals in '04, better in '00.

Anyway, you can grow old in a hurry worrying about the cluelessness of American voters (as the post-Labor Day stretch began in 2004, John Kerry was around 75% in name recognition). The core of Hero Filmmaker's contention is that Crucial Facts about the evil Obama couldn't have sunk in anyway because the media ignored them (hence the "malpractice" part). So let's look at a few of those.**

Some of the Shock Outrage stats are down to the pretty reasonable observation that people do better identifying Beatles than they do Supreme Court justices (amazing; people pay attention to popular culture). Some of the rest are -- erm, let's say, a little on the selective side. Nor is it by any means clear what we're measuring with them.

Take, for example, "Which candidate currently has a pregnant teenage daughter?" (93.6% said "Palin.") What's that indexing? "Candidates who have teenage daughters" is one possibility. So is "messages introduced by the McCain campaign" (the datum about Palin's daughter didn't just fall from the clear blue sky, if you recall). On that count, you'd have to conclude that the media were very effective at transmitting GOP campaign messages.

Here's another: "Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry?" The answer our hero is looking for is "Obama," though the correct answer is "none" -- as noted earlier, the "I'll bankrupt the industry" bit is a patent lie, fabricated at the last minute from an interview that had been public for 10 months. It's interesting to note that nearly 12% of respondents believed Obama had made the claim; that's really impressive for a lie that was introduced literally the day before the election (and ignored by many professional news organizations). On the other hand, 27% thought the claim was McCain's --- suggesting that when people guess at a WTF question, they really, really guess.***

The foamy-mouthed right should take solace in the results on "Which candidate said that Obama would be tested in his first six months as president by a generated international crisis?" -- most people said Biden, with only 21% saying McCain. If that strikes you as the sort of question that makes "inside baseball" sound user-friendly, you have a point. Seriously: On what planet, under how many suns, does it matter the square root of doodly-boo which candidate said that? What level of "issue knowledge" are you pretending that represents, and why?

We can leave out the questions about one-off disfluencies. When people venture a guess, most of them "know" that Obama had "claimed to have campaigned in 57 states." How that would compare with the proportion who might know that McCain "couldn't agree more" that Western Pennsylvania was a racist backwater? The honest answer is: Who cares? People slip when they're on stage 25 hours a day. Are you playing bloopers or politics?

But that does suggest a deeper concern. Respondents seem to have a pretty good idea about "which candidate said that the government should redistribute the wealth" -- certainly compared with "which candidate started their political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground?" (I can put up with singular "they," but "started their political career" entails the sort of multiple judgment that makes for really incompetent survey work.) But I'm missing a lot of the discourse that I found really interesting during the last few months of the campaign, which could have suggested questions like:

Which candidate thinks that nobody shot at anybody during the Cold War?****
Which candidate professes to love Israel but declared in a campaign speech that Israelis are not free?

Those get a little closer to "issue knowledge" (as opposed to Beatles-vs.-judges knowledge) -- or at least, in my view, to the difference between an occasional verbal fumble and a genuinely deep-seated indifference (bordering on stupidity) about how the world works. If your answer is "dunno," you can blame the Liberal Media that either edited Sarah Palin kindly, failed to connect the logical dots of her public babblings, or simply decreed (as did my local paper) that she had a firm grasp of the issues.

Enough of that. If you see a story based on the documentary, set it out on the midden for the wolves. And if John Ziegler waves his double-or-nothing around too often, he shouldn't be surprised if somebody takes it.

[UPDATED to fix the spelling of Ziegler's name, per his Web site (that'll teach your editor to rely on Fox's spelling. Tnx to Andy for pointing to the Nate Silver interview in the comments.]

* I wonder if "this past election" didn't cause some double-clutching. I like the NES phrasing -- "the election this month" -- better. Can't be too straightforward with survey questions.
** Again, this isn't Zogby's fault. Somebody pays your price, there's no reason not to run the poll. And there's no reason I can see to doubt the poll's quantitative results.
*** Only 47% of respondents picked a candidate for this question. Make of that what you will.
**** Since she seems so impressed by aviators who were captured by the commies -- Gov. Palin, meet Francis Gary Powers.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Aiyee! A thesaurus!

The disturbance broke out shortly after 2:30 a.m. at the Buckhead Saloon, on North College Street at East Fifth Street. Police described the melee as "a large fight," but they did not say what triggered the brawl.

Couldn't you hang on for just one more clause in this graf? To see if we could come up with a fifth word for melee/fight/brawl?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Language change: Ur doin it ... uh, however

This just in from the cousins at Fox. Before you read any further: What's your instant reaction? If it's the same as mine was, you're right -- but maybe not as right as you (or I) thought.

Here's the lede, appearing on Fox more or less as it appeared on the AP wire:

NAPA, Calif. — The California Highway Patrol says four college students are dead after their car skidded into oncoming traffic on a two-lane Napa Valley highway.

Still fits with the hed, right? Good old Fox, easing into the 1970s on the inclusive language front!

The CHP has not identified the four men, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22, but said all four attended Pacific Union College in Angwin.

Well, that'll make you slam on the brakes. When did men become "coeds" -- especially at one of the few US outlets that still regularly use the word in its original (now strongly disfavored) meaning? Is this usage a one-off or part of a trend? Let's start in the references.

We get "coed" from "co-education," which enters the fray in the mid-19th century for the practice of letting girls study along with boys. A co-educational school became a co-ed* (no weirder than your car or your favorite handgun being an "automatic"), and then the noun came to mean a girl or woman studying at such an institution.** The hyphen persists in AP texts into 1977,*** though it seems to be gone a year later.

The adjective "coed" is still in fairly active, unremarkable use, even though it seems to be most often used in nonacademic contexts like athletics (or, in 1978, the White House honor guard). The noun has gone on the bad list -- the MWCDEU says that movement was in play by 1980, though news texts at that point are still rife with "coeds" in news and feature stories alike. The timing makes sense; that's about when the Miller and Swift "Handbook of nonsexist writing" came out. And if you compare recent AP texts with a stack from 1980, you'll note that "coed" for "female student" has just about vanished. Getting there from here requires a little detour into how news language looks at the inclusive language ("political correctness," if you absolutely must) movement.

The problem with "coed" isn't that it distinguishes female from male (often a useful thing to do), but that it distinguishes female students from students. In the same way that "lady doctor" and "male nurse" create a normal condition and a marked condition for those professions, "coed" suggests that there are real students and girl students -- not a very welcoming observation at the start, and these days an out-and-out stupid one. So it seems like the sort of thing you want to shy away from if you're trying to publish for a general audience, particularly if you're the Liberal Media, right?

Not so fast. News language has actually been pretty conservative when it comes to social inclusion, for a variety of interrelated reasons:
* The appeal to tradition: We've always done it that way, that's what readers expect, nobody will know what it means if we start calling Those People something else (far as I know, 2004 is the first edition of the AP Stylebook that doesn't mention "the Negro race").
* The "clear pane of glass" fallacy: The words we use now are the original, unweighted words, and any deviation from that standard puts a thumb on the journalistic scales. Thus, "African American" is a "euphemism" for "black," rather than another in a long string of attempts to find a socially appropriate term.
* Loony literalism, the insistence that a correct or technical reading renders a term nonsensical or logically impossible and thus out of bounds. The 1984 AP Stylebook proclaims that Indians can't be called Native Americans because "their ancestors came over on a land bridge from Asia."
* Wariness of giving in -- at least, of being seen as capitulating to any request, whether reasonable or not (hence the inmates-running-the-asylum tales, usually apocryphal, about bans on "black coffee" and the like).

That's where Fox in particular comes in (though it's far from alone in that camp). Fox World is a scary place, especially if you're a missing pregnant mom, but it's also a very comfortable one, because things are the way they Ought To Be. Fox spends the time turning AP's "Quran" and "Muhammad" back into "Koran" and "Mohammed" (which AP dropped nearly a decade ago) because -- well, give those people an inch and next thing, your kids will be studying Farsi, right?

Thus, "coed" for "female student" has persisted at Fox long after most outlets wrote it out, particularly in heds on agency stories:

California Coed Reportedly Bailed out of Iran Jail
Judge Keeps American Student, Co-Defendant Jailed in Slain British Coed Case
Kansas Jury Recommends Death in Coed's 1996 Slaying

... but also in news copy that Fox produces itself:
Detectives in three states on Thursday were hunting for clues in the mysterious shooting murders — a day apart — of two college coeds from Georgia, and sources have told FOX News that an arrest may be imminent in one of the killings.

All of which makes sense, until you come to "coeds" meaning "four male students." Is that a first? As it turns out, no -- the AP's already gone there, and in a national trender, no less. The topic is the looming end of the tray in college cafeterias:

Advocates of the trayless cafeterias say if students can't pile on the food as Bluto did, they might consume fewer calories and keep off those unhealthy pounds often gained in college.

Try telling that to hungry coeds who simply make more trips to the counter.

"I'll just keep coming back for seconds," said Jeff Lyke, a freshman at Glenville State, which started going trayless in April to coincide with Earth Day.

So has "coed" actually slipped the surly bonds of its original meaning and become just another unmarked word for "undergraduate"? Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence -- anybody got a third case?

[UPDATE: Jan Freeman's thorough and delightful exploration of this matter, from 2005, can be found here, and The Word is at last available in the blogroll.]

* Per the OED, it was a noncount noun a few decades before this usage came along.
** And probably to mean any female student, even one at an all-female school; that might be worth a look sometime.
*** 1977 is the first year the AP Stylebook appeared as a full-size reference book, rather than the slender typography-oriented thing that had been around since the 1950s. I don't have a '77 and have no idea whether the hyphen variance is accidental or deliberate.

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Epic fail: Sing, Mitch muse!

Does one detect just a tad bit of passive-aggressive editing here? Star Columnist turns in his effort for the Sunday local front, and it's ... quatrains. Nineteen of them. Each one worse than -- no, actually, they form a genuinely random distribution of awfulness:

Every day I have less
In my bank account
Every day I grow scared
As my losses mount

... Every day I hear stories
Of a company's worth
Sinking to levels
From before my birth

... Every day that I stumble
Or say, "I can't do it!"
Is a day I discover
With God's grace, I get through it.

Questioning a star columnist's judgment is sort of like running your head into a brick wall. But editors are paid to run their heads into some wearily similar brick walls over and over again. So the desk might have suggested: Judas Christmas on a pogo stick, Star Columnist, this would have been embarrassing in the junior high yearbook why don't you take the weekend off? We can find a wire story for the local front!

Or the desk might have quietly shaken its grizzled head, noted that messing with Star Columnist's style is not its job, hit the spellcheck button and called it good. No jury on the planet is going to convict on those grounds. And thanks to the miracle of the intertubes, the entire world can enjoy not only the prose but the genuinely Vogon peotic stylings of Star Columnist. Prosit!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Making stuff up: Don't do it

Q: Is it still making stuff up when your motives are pure and your cause is just?
A: Why -- was some part of "don't make stuff up" not clear in the instructions?

Here's the case in point:
The U.S. Army promoted the first female to four-star general in its history Friday in an emotion-laden ceremony that sparked hopes among women that the role for female troops will continue to expand.

A question like "how do you know that?" involves a stack of questions:
*Are you asserting something that can be known?
*What sort of knowing does it involve?
*What steps do you have to take to know it?
*Have you taken any of those steps?
*Guess not, huh?

That's not to say the assertion is wrong (accepting the null hypothesis would be the same mistake as rejecting it, only in reverse). It's to suggest that whatever we're claiming isn't something we can know under any conditions the writer presents or implies. It's a statement about what ought to be true, which makes it very hard to distinguish from the product on offer over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. When Fox tells you that Concerns Are Growing about the socialist bent of certain presidential candidates, or that hanging around with Unrepentant Terrorists is a major policy issue, it isn't stating anything that's observed "objectively"; it's talking about what it thinks should be the case if only people would get the wax out and start thinking correctly. It's hard to think of some way in which that's substantively different from what McClatchy is doing here.

The conjecture in the McClatchy piece might indeed be true, and I'd certainly be happy if it was true, but news isn't supposed to be about stuff that ought to be true. News organizations that don't want to be mistaken for Fox need to demonstrate that difference in method as well as in topic.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Gotta love that anonymity

How do you find out if any GOP governors were unhappy with the Palin press confer- ence? I guess you ask 'em:

Some Republican governors tell CNN they were not particularly happy with the way the Republican Governors Association press conference was executed Thursday, saying that they agreed to go as a show of GOP governors’ unity — but they ended up feeling like silent Palin supporters, since it was clearly a press conference called for her.

Quick, which governors?

The GOP governors spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity.

One called it awkward: “I’m sure you could see it on some of our faces.”

I guess you could add up the GOP governors in the world and subtract two (Palin, obviously, and Haley Barbour, who told CNN that somebody must have been "running down a rabbit trail"). Or you could wonder if the "some Republican governors" of the lede are any kin to the cutline's "Some GOP governors" who "weren't happy with how Palin's press conference unfolded."

Sometimes that old "condition of anonymity" doesn't go as far as it used to.

Help some media scholars

Some colleagues from south of here are gathering data on how people use the Internet for political information, and they'd appreciate more data from more people. If you have a few moments and would like to add a bit to the sum of human knowledge, please consider participating in their project. You can find it at:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock, OB/GYN

From the Maryland buro comes this outstanding hed, spotted in the WashPost online:

Surfers accused of pap attack plead not guilty
LOS ANGELES -- Two surfers have pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor battery charges for allegedly throwing a photographer into the water as he tried to shoot pictures of Matthew McConaughey on the waves.

The surfers _ Skylar Peak and Philip Hildebrand _ are accused of confronting several paparazzi who showed up June 21 on a Malibu beach to take pictures and film the "Fool's Gold" and "Failure to Launch" star.

It's sort of a mike/mic issue, but it's much, much more! By the time you finish the second graf, you've figured out that "pap attack" is not The Movie Hitchcock Dared Not Make* but something involving "paparazzi." So now you're wondering -- gee, do I shorten that to "paps," based on the spelling of the full word, or "pops," based on what my friends and I mutter when we're ducking into trendy sidewalk cafes in sun-drenched Rome to avoid one? At which point it sort of dawns -- there's a reason that issue hasn't come up. Paparazzi just don't figure in day-to-day conversations around here. We could make a rule, but it's sort of like a protocol for introducing an allosaurus at the Rotary Club.

But the broader matter leads to a couple of issues of interest to journalists. One is whether clipping, which is a natural thing for languages to do, is neutral -- or, given that we're going to abbreviate stuff (and that columns and pages aren't going to get wider again), are there more and less neutral ways to be shorter? When all the police are "cops" and all mothers are "moms," something's going on. How close is it to what goes on when all Democrats are "Dems" and anybody who draws a paycheck on the US govment is a "fed"? Are we sure we want to go there, and how awake are we while we're doing it?

Which leads to the second point: Not very. As of this writing, "surfers accused of pap attack" gets about 122,000 Google hits. From the first couple pages, it's pretty clear that what the AP sends as a suggested hed goes up untouched at, um, thousands upon thousands of sites across and around the fruited plain. That's sort of interesting as a factor in the process of language change, but from an agenda-setting perspective -- does anybody out there think we ought to be looking for ways to edit more stuff, rather than less?

* I stole this one from Language Czarina. In her defense, that was a really big flock of starlings.


The miracle of convergence

Bad news, newspaper folks: When you let TV stations pick your frontpage stories, you're letting TV stations set your standards for news and news practice. Sure you want to go down that road?

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher faces firing for posting derogatory comments about students on Facebook, while four others have been disciplined for posts involving “poor judgment and bad taste,” spokeswoman Nora Carr said Tuesday.

Stop press! And how did this alarming situation come about?

WCNC, the Observer's news partner, turned up questionable pages on the social networking site by searching for people who identified themselves as CMS employees.

Oops. Don't tell me it's Sweeps Month again. Let's see if we can get this straight: TV station, eyes on the ratings, decides to go trolling in Facebook for Teachers Behaving Badly. And then it ...

Reporter Jeff Campbell of WCNC said he showed district officials pages involving seven CMS teachers.

Oh, great.

This wouldn't go anywhere as a privacy case, I suspect, because Facebook isn't private; post a picture of yourself summoning Great Cthulhu with the Nekkid Square Dance and you're going to have a hard time claiming it was a secret. But that doesn't mean our intrepid reporter is in the clear. He didn't create the pictures or the postings, but he created the offense -- the harm they purportedly cause. Getting drunk and striking racy poses with your teacher pals after work isn't inherently harmful, in the way that taking bribes or sleeping with your minor students create harm just by happening. It's only harmful when the pictures go public (if then). This story strikes me as the moral equivalent of hanging out at the bar where teachers drink, getting a few photos of teachers nose-down and shopping the results to the school board: Look What Our "Role" "Models" Are Up To Now!

TV stations do this stuff because -- well, because they're TV stations. A couple times a year, they get very directly rewarded for having lots of eyes on screen, so it pays them to have really low to nonexistent journalistic standards during those times. Why newspapers go along is a mystery. If anyone wants to argue the opposing case, please feel free, but I don't see the newspaper getting much out of this except sleaze without the gratification of originality.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In charge of the asylum

So you figured the foil-helmet nature of news from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network was going to die down a little after the election? Well ... sorry. It looks like we could be in for a long couple of years.

Our topic of interest* is the second item here, "GOP Rep. claims Obama wants 'Nazi'-like security force." It's from the AP, which unfortunately has sort of a professional obligation to report on the doings of our elected officials with more or less a straight face. The embellishments are Fox's, though:

Republican Congressman Warns of Obama Dictatorship
A Republican congressman from Georgia said Monday he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist or fascist dictatorship.

WASHINGTON -- A Republican congressman from Georgia said Monday he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist or fascist dictatorship.

"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. "I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may -- may not, I hope not -- but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."

Here's where the AP needs to step in and contextualize a bit. Alas, it fails:

Broun cited a July speech by Obama that has circulated on the Internet in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military.

Partly true: There is a July speech (July 2), and it has "circulated on the Internet" -- at least, a 16-second clip has. People like Joseph Farah, the bull goose loony over at the generally hilarious WorldNetDaily, have been sounding the tocsin for months now about this "rather shocking (and chilling) pledge." The usual suspects have taken up the call, and it got another push right before the election. AP doesn't help matters by taking Rep. Broun's summary at face value, rather than bothering to figure out what the Obama speech might actually have meant. (Memo to Ron Fournier and the gang at AP Washn: If you still want to "reward the truth-tellers" and "expose the liars," this would have been a really, really good place to start.)

It probably helps to know that, among grownups who study security issues, there's been a debate for quite some time about how to extend "security" beyond the traditional state-border-military domain without -- to borrow Stephen Walt's pointed image -- turning day care into a national security matter. Thus, when a candidate suggests that public education, energy policy, and an active foreign service ought to be considered along with armed force as components of security, you can be forgiven for guessing that the candidate actually knows what he's talking about -- quite a pleasant change from the hacks and neocons who have had the run of "national security" of late.

If you watch the whole speech (it's almost half an hour, but start around the 16:00 mark and you'll have enough context to make sense of the scare quote when it shows up a minute later), that's sort of the idea you get: a broad conception of what constitutes service and "security" and how those ends can be served without necessarily blowing people up. You could say the guy's trying to start a personal Gestapo,** and you might be able to slip it past a couple of especially stupid fifth-graders, but don't push your luck. Sometime they're smarter than they let on.

I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that word of the armistice hasn't reached the Fox trenches, and WorldNetDaily readers will probably be turning up in caves on desert islands 40 years from now no matter what the rest of the world does. But it'd be nice if AP stopped enabling this sort of openly mendacious nonsense -- and if newspapers running wire stories just as they appear would turn off the autopilot and add a line indicating that Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., probably shouldn't be allowed to dress himself alone, let alone vote or play with scissors or drive in Washington traffic.

Working journalists who field calls from the bottom-feeders demanding the head of whatever Kremlin*** plant suppressed that story are justified in responding:
1) Nope. Not a story. Go watch the video.
2) Please don't be seen in public reading our newspaper, all right?

* Gov. Palin's speculations about the almighty are only of interest when He speculates back.
** The rhetor might mean something more like Sturmabteilung, but -- hey, whatever.
*** Or OkH. Apparently commies and Nazis are interchangeable again.

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Eye vs. brain vs. ear

Here's the mic/mike debate writ large -- or, at least, writ in big type at the top of the front page. I had to fumble with it for a minute or so, even though I could see the "SD" on the cap (and had deliberately opened the San Diego frontpage). That's because I read "Pads" as the word it already is -- since I don't have a phonetic alphabet, that's "pads" as in "fat dads" -- rather than a clipped version of "Padres," which I would think of as "pods."*

What does that have to do with mikes and mics? As with a lot of rules (so called) or laws or expectations of language, where you stand is often less interesting than how you got there -- how you derive "rules," how you put them into play, and how you inflict them on others, should you find yourself in charge of rules.

I never had much of a problem with the mike/mic thing, because I always thought the better choice was pretty self-evident. I had a bike, and a parental unit named Mike, and a reasonable pre-Sesame Street idea of what that "silent E" thing was up to. "Mike" seemed like the sensible way to shorten "microphone," partly because that's what grownups and experts did:

Mikes can be discussed or described in many ways. Here we will discuss them by microphone type, and their specific usage will be described in a later chapter.**

Announce microphones generally will be high-quality, unidirectional mikes (to control unwanted studio or audience noise) unless two performers are going to use the microphone at the same time, in which case a bi-directional mike is sometimes used.***

Derived forms work in the same way. Hunter Thompson wrote about bikers, not bicers. And how would you pronounce these gerunds?

Dicing the banjo requires a handsaw and a pair of metal shears.
Micing the banjo requires delicate professional skill.

The OED seems inclined toward my side; it dates "mike" to 1926, "mic" to 1961. So imagine my surprise, years later, to find out that I was apparently an irrational loony. "Open mike" means an Irishman in surgery!**** There's no "k" in "microphone"!***** Everybody knows the only proper spelling is "mic"!

Well, live and learn. I think this is partly generational; people my age and up seem to think "mike" is natural; people a decade and more younger seem to think "mic" is natural. The cool part is where rules come from: who makes them, what they say, how they're grounded, and how flexible or inflexible they are. If I was in charge of the how-to-spell-clippings rule, it'd look something like:

Most clippings are words on their own. Spell them the way you pronounce them. If a clipping resembles an existing word, you should expect people to read it that way. No, you don't need an apostrophe in 'phone. If in doubt, send me a note and I will issue a fiat. (not a Fiat, which is pronounced "tow truck").

Long story short, I probably wouldn't refer to the San Diego baseball team as the Pads, which sounds wrong, but I'd be wary of the Pods on "Body Snatchers" grounds (apparently this does have some journalistic currency, though). I'd suggest avoiding the issue in writing altogether.

Isn't spelling fun?

* I don't know if there's a written standard on this; observations from California readers are welcome.
** Oringel's "Audio Control Handbook," fourth edition, 1972
*** Stasheef et al., "The television program: Its direction and production," fifth edn, 1975. A couple of illustrations use "mic." -- with period --as the short form.
**** "WTF" barely begins to scratch the surface sometimes, doesn't it?

***** An orthographic feature shared with "bicycle" and "Michael," if you're scoring along at home.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Department of silver linings

A recipe for Ginger Apple Stir-Fry in the Oct. 29 Food section was missing two ingredients. Add 2 cored, sliced apples and 2 tablespoons minced gingerroot while stir-frying the vegetables.

... on the bright side, though, we did remember the vegetables!


Friday, November 07, 2008

Veni, Emanuel

When do you dial down the cele- bration and start covering news about the upcoming executive transition? Um -- could we suggest about a day earlier than certain local papers are going to get to it? The "Obama" hammerhed and accompanying portrait is fine if you're just getting around to your special commemorative issue (as, ahem, some other local papers are), but it's not the way to introduce news. The folks downtown would have done better to leave the press running an extra hour Wednesday morning -- thus averting, at least, the spectacle of J-profs wandering the halls and bemoaning the lack of newspapers on Wednesday afternoon.

Charlotte gets a bit closer with the example at right -- it's leading, at least, with a transition story and a news hed. The story's not much to write home about, but it's sandbagged by the hed, which makes a tedious inside-baseball decision like the CoS pick into the moral or tactical equivalent of the NBA draft: ZOMG! It's ... Emanuel!!! By picking an item that's essentially over in a sentence, the newspaper misses a chance to do what it can still do well (explain, contextualize, look forward) in favor of proving once again that it's going to lose every footrace it gets into with all-news TV.

It wouldn't be all that hard to keep the transition -- meaning, not coincidentally, the symbolic value that the Freep was trying for and missing -- at the top of the page, either. Here's a piece the McClatchy Washburo made available Thursday that -- oh, you think this could have held the lead-with-the-transition spot pretty well?

Bush officials moving fast to cut environmental protections
WASHINGTON — In the next few weeks, the Bush administration is expected to relax environmental-protection rules on power plants near national parks, uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and more mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.

The administration is widely expected to try to get some of the rules into final form by the week before Thanksgiving because, in some cases, there's a 60-day delay before new regulations take effect. And once the rules are in place, undoing them generally would be a more time-consuming job for the next Congress and administration.

That wasn't so bad, was it? And here's one that -- best I can tell -- didn't move until today but seems to have some look-ahead firepower:

Can Barack Obama undo Bush's tangled legal legacy?
WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama becomes president in January, he'll confront the controversial legal legacy of the Bush administration.

From expansive executive privilege to hard-line tactics in the war on terrorism, Obama must decide what he'll undo and what he'll embrace.

The stakes couldn't be higher.

McClatchy hyperbole aside -- not a bad little tale, eh?

There's a reasonably wide consensus that the U.S. presidency is both miscovered and overcovered -- often at the expense of substantive issues on the legislative side, and often at the cost of making all crises seem irrelevant until the president has said something appropriately somber. The press has a hefty share of guilt on that score (so, in fairness, does the look-at-ME! presidency of Bill Clinton, though the problem didn't start with him). That's not to say that power transitions aren't important, or that this one isn't unique. But -- look, if you had people lined up around the block on Wednesday waiting to buy copies of your paper, do you figure you ought to publish a few front pages over the next few days that remind them why they ought to come back?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Carl Cameron, media ethicist

Interesting to note the introduction to the now-rather-famous video in which Fox News figures out that the gamblers in the back of Rick's are actually gambling Sarah Palin apparently thought Africa was a country, not a continent:

Smith: Now that the election is over, Carl, tell us more about all those reports of infighting between McCain and Palin staffers

Cameron: Well, I wish I could have told you back at the time, but all of it was put off the record until after the election. There was great concern in the McCain campaign that Sarah Palin lacked the degree of knowledgeability necessary to be a running mate, a vice president, a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Just to recap, then: If you acquire some information by agreeing to conditions that limit your public release of it, you're obliged to stick to those conditions, even if it's potentially relevant to the election and somebody at Fox News thinks you ought to spill all at once? Thanks for clearing that up, Shep and Carl!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

You can lead a bee to water ...

Dole's strident advertising campaign was at odds with her style, which is very much 1950s North Carolina. She is always smartly dressed and typically displays a get-more-bees-with-honey style of graciousness.

... but you can't make him take wooden nickels!

No doubt there's more, but let's all take the evening off and watch the returns.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Well, which is it, young feller?

You just can't win for losing if you're the left-wing gotcha media, can you?

Last week, John McCain went after the LA Times for not posting a tape to go with a story it ran in, um, April. Today, America's Governor is beating up on the San Francisco Chronicle for not writing about an interview it posted a tape of in, um, January. (The current month is called "November," for those of you checking in from another planet.) Here's what the news looks like if you're a Fox follower:

“Now a couple points on this: One is that here again, why is the audio tape just now surfacing? This interview was given to San Francisco folks many, many months ago. You should have known about this, so that you would have better decision-making information as you go into the voting booth,” Palin said as shouts of “liberal media!” could be heard from the crowd.

When even Fox admits the obvious, though, you have to wonder if something isn't going wrong:

The audio file has been on the San Francisco Chronicle's website since the January interview with its editorial board, but Palin accused the newspaper of withholding the information until right before the election.*

You can find the relevant comments about 27 minutes in, near the -21:45 mark. And in case you had any lingering doubts about Fox's (or Gov. Palin's) integrity, no. There's no comment that could possibly yield "I would bankrupt the industry" (whichever industry Fox might have meant). And, of course, there's no "eleventh-hour audiotape." Those are known as "lies."

Lying isn't an issue for the First Amendment, of course. The court-prescribed cure for bad speech is more speech, not more restrictions. Be sure to hie yourself to the polling station tomorrow and vote, but the media gods gave you a remote and a middle finger, and you may vote with them at any time.

* Lexis-Nexis shows two stories mentioning Obama and coal from January, both apparently based on the interview.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Crix nix fork foes' hed sked

Sometimes, all the bizarre shortenings, transfers of meaning, elisions and assumptions that go into headline writing produce something really fun, as in today's nominee for Hed of the Week:

Frank calls fork
As with "Stix nix hick pix," the hed writer is counting on your showing up with a little background (this is from Talking Points Memo, so the assumption is that you're keeping up with politics and the election and that you'll recognize many of the Major and Minor Pundits). "Frank," in this case, is short for "Republican pollster Frank Luntz." "Call" isn't much of a stretch at all. It's in the neighborhood of "call foul" (not "call a foul"), to declare out of bounds, which we can get in heds with or without the prepositional complement:
Critics call foul over LA exhibition
Media call foul, but Palin sticks with bridge claim

... but it may be closer to "call bullshit": "I declare (that this meets the conditions of) fork." And that leaves us with "fork" to solve. It's clearly not "call fork," which looks like some sort of programming term, or a euphemism like "Oh, fork," or any of the other unlikely alternatives. My vote is for "stick a fork in it," meaning "it's done," yielding:

Frank calls fork
Frank Luntz: "I cannot foresee a scenario that John McCain is elected the President of the United States."

Let it never be said that the tabloid hed has vanished into the mists of time.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Poll contest: WIN BIG PRIZES!

It's the weekend before the election -- yeah, feels like walking across the plains of Mordor in your stocking feet, doesn't it? -- and some aspects of political discourse are getting a little squirrelly. Given that public-opinion reporting is one of those aspects, editors have a lovely chance to step up and commit a genuine public service by squeezing some of the blather out of "polls say" stories.

So, for that remaining three days, we're offering a free one-year subscription to the HEADSUP-L product of your choice for catching and killing any of the following offenses against the reporting of survey data:

1) "Statistical dead heat"
2) "Within the margin of error"
3) "Real Clear Politics average"

Catch two and win a free subscription for a friend as well. Catch all three and win three full years of editing fun! (If you're nice, the judges might even give you credit for de-snarking a reference to a "single-digit lead.")

If you've been doing your homework, you know the explanations. Write, call or send a carrier pigeon if you have any questions.

Offers and demands

There's a data problem with this hed, but the bigger problem with it is "framing" -- not just the way facts are selected, but the way they're organized to tell a particular kind of story (problems of a particular kind imply solutions from a particular set, and so on). A.J. Liebling* managed to get it all in a single sentence five decades ago: Why is it that management always "offers" and labor always "demands"?

Data first. For the hed to be true, several of its elements have to be true. There has to be a condition of "moving away from careers in science" (implying a condition of "moving toward" careers in science, which apparently is genetic), and that condition has to be significantly higher (meaning not attributable to chance) among young Muslims than it used to be. So we can't say the hed is false, because we have no idea whether it's true. If there is such a measurement, there's no indication anyone identified it or used it in any way. The story quotes one law student whose parents are scientists and another whose dad is a doctor, but the trend is entirely the invention of the hed writer.

Not that the story doesn't claim its own tenuously supported trend:
Qureshi is one of a growing number of middle-class Muslims who are venturing into law, journalism, filmmaking and acting. They have seen firsthand the difficulties of being a Muslim post-9-11, and they want to ensure that America's values of equality, freedom and opportunity are extended to all.

Notice the difference? That's where framing comes in. What does it mean to "move away" from a career you haven't yet settled on, despite a childhood of filling petri dishes for the parents?** In framing terms, that's a question about the conditions under which career choices are portrayed as positive or negative. Liebling might put it better: Why do young preprofessional Muslims move "away" from careers while other kids move "toward" careers?

One of the running subthemes in the Fear Factor crankosphere is the idea of Islam and Muslims as inordinately anti-science and anti-knowledge (yeah, algebra was great, but what have you done for me lately?). I don't think the hed writer meant to play into that so directly, but -- favorite theme again -- readers can't tell what you meant. All they can tell is what you said.

The hed at the originating paper isn't the sort of eternal prose that gets carved in granite, but it does a better job of reflecting the story:
Students on course for empowerment

Whether the writer complains or not, this might be a nice time for the desk to sit around and talk about why some groups offer and others demand.

* From whom the hed is appropriated too.
** Full disclosure: I used to rotate stuff in the incubator for my dad on weekends, if that counts.