Saturday, February 28, 2009

We rumor, you decide

Since this was apparently deemed worthy of a chunk of 1A real estate, let's enjoy its entire seven-graf glory:

Romulus Mayor Alan Lambert says he asked this week for a chance for himself and his chief of staff, a big fan, to meet actor George Clooney, who is filming a new movie, "Up in the Air," at Metro Airport.

It didn't work out, Lambert said. After that, the story gets weird. (Do tell)

Rumors were flying that Lambert was angry that he didn't get to meet Clooney and asked his city's cops to pull the star over and ticket him if they got the chance. (And?)

The mayor, in fact, took calls from an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and an official with the state's economic development agency, wanting to make sure he wasn't doing something to give Michigan's burgeoning film industry a black eye. (And?)

"As far as I'm concerned, this is all unfounded," Lambert said.

Romulus Police Chief Michael St. Andre backs up his boss.

"We never interfered with the filming," he said.
(And when did that get into the equation?) "This was blown way out of proportion."

Does it seem to anyone else that we're at a crossroads of mutually exclusive conditions here?

1) There's no reason to believe the rumors (in which case, why was the story written, let alone fronted?)
2) There's some reason to believe the rumors (in which case, aren't you obliged to offer at least a tiny bit of evidence?)

In a way, this recalls the Times's blunder with the McCain-Iseman story last year. The Times made a big deal out of an eight-year-old rumor but didn't set to rest the question it raised: If people were "convinced" of something eight years ago, are they still convinced today? If not, why not, and why do we think it still looks like a story?

Here, we apparently know how far the flying rumors got and who "in fact"* did something to check into them. Seems like that should entail a few more questions: Where did the rumors appear? What prompted the prosecutor's office to call the mayor? What does the official who made the call think now? How about the economic development folks?

Rumors are a cue to start reporting; they aren't a cue to start writing. What we have on the front page here is gossip -- the very sort of material we have this quaint thing called an "editing process" to distinguish ourselves from. If a newspaper can't do anything with rumors beyond "we speculate, you decide," then it's basically just a blog that gets ink on the carpet.

* Ahem. If it isn't a "fact," what is it doing in a news story in the first place?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sun rises in East, experts say

On the "water runs downhill, two sources with knowledge of the situation told the Eagle-Beacon-Democrat on condition of anonymity" front, this just in from a rather Catholic enclave to the east*:

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the Lenten fast on the Christian calendar.

Not to be rude, but -- do you suppose we could place Lent on the ecclesiastical sked without having to attribute it?*** Perhaps by taking (gasp) a little authority on ourselves?

* Not Hamtramck; that'd be southeast.**
** And very much worth honoring for the Fat Tuesday tradition of paczki. Nom nom nom.
*** On the bright side, at least it isn't Wikipedia.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No, but thanks for asking

What's more irresponsible than alleged legal professionals who speculate about the outcome of trials that haven't happened yet? Newspapers that call 'em up and offer free promotional space to do so!
This is proclaimed an ORLANDO SENTINEL EXCLUSIVE, and there seems to be good reason for it:
Since Casey Anthony became the prime suspect in the disappearance — and eventual death — of her daughter Caylee Marie, prosecutors have released thousands of pages of evidence in their case against her.
But does the case, with its countless morsels of evidence, truly link the 22-year-old Orange County mother to Caylee Anthony's remains?
The Orlando Sentinel asked a handful of legal experts about some of the evidence released so far. They predict a difficult case for both sides.
It's "exclusive" because -- oh, hell. That's why we run the horse race! We actually have a "legal system," which has a "mechanism" for determining whether cases link people to stuff. It's called a "trial." Not a "1A centerpiece."
Lawyers are responsible for their own ethical standards. We're responsible for ours. The story shouldn't have been written, it shouldn't have been fronted, and -- we're getting into very-small-victory territory for copy editors here, but it's better than nothing -- it shouldn't have been phrased as a question that assumes its own answer. And one more thing: Don't call grownups by their first names in heds.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lyrics contest

Property crime: It's a laff riot!

2 suspects nabbed ... up on the roof
"On the roof, it's peaceful as can be, And there the world below don't bother me."

Well, Carole King's lyrics didn't exactly describe life for a pair of burglary suspects who were caught overnight on the roof of a north Charlotte business.

Once upon a time, kiddies, ledes like that were quietly taken out and put to sleep. But maybe a few more lyrical twists in cop coverage would be just the thing to help us all through These Tough Times. Thus, you are all invited to submit your favorite (or least favorite) lyrical cop/crime/fire/rescue/whatever ledes. Titles, first lines, choruses: If you can write a lede from it, send it in. Here are a few to get you started:

Under the boardwalk. That's where Jimmy Hoffa wasn't Tuesday, but that wasn't the fault of FBI agents who spent three hours looking for him.

In the ghetto: This homicide is four grafs on 3B and the one in Myers Park is on the front page.

I can't quit you, baby. That's what a naked man waving a fire extinguisher and a dozen long-stemmed roses must have been thinking when police found him in the parking lot of his ex-girlfriend's apartment late Wednesday.

The evening breeze/caressed the trees/tenderly. Seconds later, it turned into a howling F4 tornado, uprooting trees, downing power lines and killing at least 13 in this tiny Texas hamlet.

Who's next?

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Hed noun pileup of the morning

American hed dialect just doesn't do this, and somehow we seem the worse for it:

Texting death crash peer jailed


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fair 'n' balanced

And how do the evening's events look over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network? Glad you asked!


'Scuse me while I dwarf this guy

Annals of telephone errors, chapter LXXVII:

An article on Monday about the Academy Awards ceremony misstated part of a comment by Danny Boyle, director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” in some editions. Mr. Boyle, saluting the people of Mumbai, where the film is set, said, “You dwarf even this guy,” referring to the Oscar statuette — not “You dwarf even the sky.”


No ****ing ****?

Enjoy this early nominee for Disastrous Hed Orthography Trick of the Year.

Not to spoil the surprise or anything, but -- didja get it yet? The library got a rating of five stars (not, alas, five ****ing asterisks) from Library Journal. If that was your first reading, please let us know.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Department of short answers

Nothing, thanks. How about you?

Addressing the reader directly is always risky. At best, it sounds a little nosy; at worst, it invites readers to tell you that you've got the wrong number and should go away.

It'd be nice to cut down on the shouting a bit:

Cost-cutting smokers soon will pay a whole lot more to roll their own cigarettes.

And Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to make them pay even more.

She has called for doubling the state tax on loose tobacco, cigars and snuff to help balance next year's state budget. That's on top of whopping increases in federal tobacco taxes -- including those for manufactured cigarettes -- that take effect April 1 to pay for expanding health insurance for low-income children, known as SCHIP.

Skyrocketing taxes slam smokers! Yes, we got the idea. But first things first. Get the "you" out of the teasers.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Porcelain? Marble? Alabaster?

Heavy white stuff may already be falling when you read this -- and it's only going to pile up deeper.

Let's jot this one in the margins of our stylebooks, shall we? On first reference, that stuff is called "snow." On second reference, it's "snow." Third and all subsequent references, "snow." It is not "white stuff." It is never "white stuff."*

Yet another sign of the Apocalypse showed up yesterday in the lede of the top story:

It's official: Gov. Jennifer Granholm says she'll use federal stimulus dollars to avoid planned budget cuts to Michigan schools and universities next fiscal year.

Once more with feeling: "It's official" must be deleted whenever it appears. You do not need to consult with the originating desk. You do not need to consult with the writer.

And it will pay $853 million for road and transportation projects expected to create about 25,000 related jobs.

Please don't make people work so hard to find the antecedent. (Unless you really wanted "they," referring back to "dollars," which is a pretty good case for not saying "dollars" when you mean "money.")

* And, for the record, it wasn't falling when I brought the paper in and isn't now, though the radio alleges that it has reached the western burbs. The best way for newspapers to avoid looking silly about the weather is to let other people do the predicting.


Friday, February 20, 2009

How to succeed

Ah, Fox: Is it the grammar or is it the thinly disguised fiction posing as news? Or (happy day) is it both?

What we seem to have here is a sort of midterm report: one character's not doing well, the other might still meet the goals of the class. But Fox isn't interested in Vicki Kennedy's success; it's interested in whether she might succeed her husband, transitively. Given that there appears to be room for a "him" at the end of the hed, it's hard to understand why Fox took the silly route.

Well, not that hard -- Fox has its eye on bigger game: "speculation grows" that Those Democrats are up to their dynastic European succession tricks again! Its source is the always-reliable Boston Herald, sniffing out the Real Truth from a multipart series appearing, Pravda-like, in what it calls the Boring Broadsheet:

And yesterday’s installment was interpreted by some close to the matter as the first step in a torch-passing to Kennedy’s wife, Vicki.

“It appeared to be setting up Vicki’s senate campaign,” said one insider.

How we get from high-quality sourcing like that to "speculation grows" -- well, that's up to the gang at Fox. Say something often enough and eventually you can succeed in making it come true!


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Elevate me

On the one hand, it's tempting to just declare a ban on "stimulate" heds for the duration. On the other, in the reader-friendly spirit of service journalism -- if this is really an issue, maybe you GOP Govs should think about comparing notes with GOP Senators, who seem to be pretty good at getting around that problem.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The vanishing editor

Bible, handcuffs, diaper in abduction baffles Toledo police
Pretty striking hed to appear in the late edn of a once-major metropolitan daily, huh? What do you figure: implausible elision, inability to figure out that three things in the subject ought to take a plural verb once we get to the predicate,* or spectacularly misplaced comma? ("Bible handcuffs diaper in abduction, baffles Toledo police") Let's go to the lede and see:

TOLEDO -- A Toledo man accused of kidnapping, handcuffing and holding captive in an adult diaper a 22-year-old woman he picked up off the streets in Detroit said he was trying to "save her," according to authorities.

There's something about the mention of adult diapers that appears to bring out the inner junior-high student in every reporter. Think back to the Astro-Nut case (can it actually be two years ago this month?**), in which the diaper angle seems to have persisted as a defining symbol despite there being, um, apparently no reason to believe it after the first few days. You have to wonder why people still worry that The Children will stumble across a spicy tale in the newspaper; were I the Freep desk, I'd be worried that the grownups might find it.

Suspect's Name, 34, also read the Bible to Complainant's Name, the Detroit woman who told investigators Name handcuffed her by the wrists and ankles in his west Toledo apartment. He also took off her clothes, dressed her in an adult diaper and gave her no food and little to drink, she told investigators.

Names elided because -- has it occurred to anyone at the Freep desk yet that we're very close to the dim gray line at which a victim of a crime becomes a victim of a sex crime as well? About which the paper occasionally claims to uphold the prevailing industry standard? ("The Free Press does not typically identify alleged sex-crimes victims" is a pretty good approximation of the garden-variety insert; well-edited papers don't say "alleged victim," any more than they say "alleged rapist.")

Editors are supposed to do more than display minimal grammatical competence in the big type. They also need to be the ones who ask whether news coverage is written up to standard. Policies and guidelines aren't there for easy cases. They're there for hard cases: when the assigning desk goes all goofy (d00d! Diapers! Get 'em in the lede!) and somebody has to be the annoying Pulitzer-killer who says no, kidnapping and the lot really aren't very funny.***

When it comes to naming crime victims and accusers, I'm in the unpopular camp: The burden of proof is on people who want to put names in the paper, not on those who want to keep names out of the paper.**** Grammar is nice, but it'd be even nicer if editors held to some basic standards, even in the face of temptation-by-adult-diapers. Let's try to think that one through a bit better next time, shall we?

* The verb in the online hed is "baffle." I'm sitting here looking at the print edn, though, and it's "baffles" as quoted above. I don't know if we're in final-final-final edn territory, but we're well south of 11 Mile, if that helps.
** Time's fun when you're having flies.
*** Not to be rude, but if you think the hed would have read "Bible, handcuffs, diaper" had the accuser been from the Pointes rather than Detroit proper, I will politely suggest that you are deeply and genuinely bereft of clues.
**** I/we have some dear professional and academic friends who disagree, and they are welcome to chime in.

The correctors unlearned

Though it be from Wikipedia, re which I yield to none in generall Doubt and Scorn, yet is this passage worth quoting. The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the decline in editing skill that gave us the world's all-time best case of "Eds: Insert Dropped 'Not' in 7th graf," also known as the Naughty Bible or Wicked Bible:

I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the beste, but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned.

True that, Your Worship. The deskly arts have gone to hell in a handbasket since I was a little rimrat too. And their music? It is but noise.

Regular posting resumes shortly, Your Editor being newly returned from the big town and beset with Labours.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pronouns gone wild

Looks like a case of Man Bites Man -- or, as the hed puts it:

Man charged in killing of man at his front door
Whose front door? Maybe the lede will help:
Police say a man shot and killed his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend after the man answered the door of his North Charleston home.

Great. Now we not only don't know whose door, we don't know which man. Could we try to be a little clearer on the crime news, please?

An area man was charged late Friday with murder after killing someone in an alcohol-related crash.

On second thought, let's not. But thanks again for sparing us the expense of a trial, Judge Observer!

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Leave my personal life out of this

The Stupid Question of the Morning comes to you courtesy of Superman's Newspaper. Raising perhaps a better question: Shouldn't you guys have at least one person with a naughty mind and a juvenile sense of humor on the late shift?

Oh. He was downpage, writing "The fastest way to anyone's heart" and "Langer feeling right at home"? Hur hur.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Solution in search of a problem

The Capitalist Newspaper of Record checks in on the looming end of seven-day home delivery:

Until people in Michigan make a routine of checking online obits, funeral homes are asking grieving families to spread news of deaths by creating extensive lists for phone calls, email blasts and Facebook messages. At the same time, there are calls for people to be philosophically proactive.

The Journal is featurizing without reporting; this looks like a chance to call some psych professors and ruminate about the future of Starbuck's, rather than keep up with how the Detroit Media Partnership is trimming the sails ahead of the transition.* But do you figure there's a bigger clue gap here? As in: If people aren't used to checking for news online, what exactly do you propose to cure by asking them to check Facebook more often?

And by the way? Next time one of you poltroons calls Czarina's mom a "luddite," I shall have my footmen cudgel you.

* No mention of the plans for bulk delivery to apartments and old folks' homes, for example, or the same-day-mail option for an extra $8 a month over the three-day rate. Both may prove silly and/or unpopular, but they suggest that there's still news to be had in how the rules are being written and rewritten for this sort of thing.

News2Use gone wild

With an offer as good as the one in this Dispatch centerpiece hed, is it too much to ask where the hell the coupons are?

Really. It'd be nice to spend a bit more time on things like the difference between "purgatory" and "limbo," but there's a larger point afoot. It's genuinely rude to make big-type assumptions about your readers' relationship with the beyond. (A few centuries back, some of their forebears came to blows over the very issue this story's about.) For that matter, it's rude to make small-type assumptions about beliefs. Just don't.

Reporting is fine. Preaching? Leave it to the folks in the stained-glass offices, forever and ever Amen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hey! Laughing boy!

One of those lessons that need to occur earlier in the career, rather than later: Never put something on the screen if you don't want to see it published. Such is the moral of this link, which Strayhorn found for a frontpage Orlando Sentinel tale about that Obama-induced ammunition shortage:
Oops! One buwwet weft at Orwando!
"Buwwets" is pretty low-bore, damage-wise, but it's a polite way of reminding you not to use "dirtbag" as a slug on the story about the mayor's visit to the elementary school, or "crook" on the story about how the wonderful guy who owns the Chevrolet dealership is helping the Little People deal with These Tough Times.* All it takes is an idle click or two and suddenly it's wabbit duck season.
Having endured that screed, you deserve the video:

* Perhaps more pertinently, why you should generally avoid "rape" and "murder" as slugs on stories about sexual assaults and gunshot deaths. Slugs have a way of finding their way into heds, and you can land in trouble awfully fast if the hed carries a charge that isn't borne out in the story or the court proceeding.

Don't panic! Well ... OK, panic

Don't let your guard down for a second, America!

Fire- fighters and home- owners aren't the only ones keenly watching Australia's massive wildfires, responsible for killing at least 173 people in the southern part of the continent.
Terrorism experts suspect Muslim extremists are watching closely, too — and taking note of the devastation.

While Australian authorities have revealed no evidence linking the wildfires to extremists, terrorism experts say the large death toll, the huge swath of destruction and the massive financial blow to the country are proving to Islamic terrorists that arson can be a highly effective — and simple — tool of holy war.

Help yourself to the whole thrilling tale at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network (our motto: "The network that believes everything Steve Emerson says"). And when you pick up the toothpaste this morning, America? Be on your toes.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Audience participation: Editing tests

Here's another chance for all you ships at sea to advance the art of editing -- or at least the way we understand it and teach it. Pls feel free to answer in the comments or by e-mail to the address at right:

What are the five most important grammar points editors need to know?

What five grammar points would you expect to be on any editing test? (Not necessarily the same thing, though it's fine if your answers are the same for both.)

What are the five most important style points editors need to know?

What five style points would you expect to be on any editing test?

Pls indicate which identity hat you're wearing: journalist (current or former), journalism educator, other educator, nonjournalistic editor, other interested party.

No names associated with answers unless you do so in a reply (which is fine).


Sunday, February 08, 2009

At the Fox sausage factory

Today's lesson in the social construc- tion of reality comes courtesy of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. Our goal: Build a front-page story from almost nothing!

The example here was No. 3 on the front page Saturday, meaning it was almost as important as 'Spendulus' awaits vote ("spendulus" apparently being secret Fox code for a stimulus package that has too much spending, get it?) and Iran nuke boast: Sanctions helping (the day's excuse to run a scary picture of Ahmadinejad, only it's illustrating a story about some remarks by Khamenei). And don't forget a sidebar to the top story, Runnin' late? That's 'Obama time':

There's a new time zone in the nation's capital: Obama Time.

Barely two weeks into his presidency, Barack Obama has made a clean break from George W. Bush in several high-profile moves, including reversing a number of the 43rd president's policies.

He's also reversed an unwritten but much-noticed Bush policy: Be on time, all the time.

But enough with the thinly veiled racist jokes; let's get to those evil greens and their "environment religion"!

Could environmental education be crossing into environmental indoctrination? Some critics say yes, as schools boast that such curricula simply is teaching children ways of caring for the earth.

Critics say, schools boast: Liebling, thou shouldst be living at this hour. And hang on to the Stupid Question for a bit.

Being a "good" student at Western Avenue Elementary School in Flossmoor, Ill., means more than just doing reading, writing and arithmetic well. It also means trying to save the planet.

(Fallacy alert in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...)

... The students are taking part in what's called "National Green Week," organized by the Green Education Foundation. Schools across the country are encouraged to teach children about recycling, global warming and carbon footprints.

... Children as young as 5 years old are told to avoid plastic water bottles, carry lunches in reusable containers, to conserve water and reduce their trash, both at school and at home. They're also taught that planet earth is in trouble and animals' lives could be in danger.

While that may seem politically correct to many people, all the talk of "green" is making some people see red.

The people who aren't bothered by this are generally not going to think it seems "politically correct," a derogatory term that usually says a lot about the user's inability to tell motes from logs.

Critics say using public schools as a means to change habits and opinions on things such as ecology and global warming, amounts to environmental religion, because the beliefs of some are being forced on all children. The kids are then pressured to bring that information home and impose it on their families.

Whee! Category error! So any case in which "the beliefs of some" are "forced on all children" amounts to some sort of "religion"? (Yes, the first comma's out of place, and yes, "critics" is a plural noun.)

Angela Logomasini, from a free-market environmental policy group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says it's political indoctrination.

"I think children should not be forced to take one set of values over another," Logomasini said.

Oh, I do. Democracy, disestablishment, not extorting lunch money from first graders -- lots of values ought to be forced on children in elementary school! If you haven't noticed that schools already do a great deal of socializing, you weren't paying attention. But the bigger issue is the ideological boost Fox gives to the source's argument: Everything taught in school is equally reducible to "values." It's the same mechanism that enables the claim that science is just another kind of religion.

"This isn't simply about controlling litter, like we had in the '70s. (In the snow! Uphill! Both ways!) It's more about recycling, living organically — it's a lifestyle choice that is being forced on students whether they like it or not, whether parents like it or not." (Which, again, is not necessarily a Bad Thing; having to sit in the same room as Those People is the sort of "lifestyle choice" that eventually had to be forced on the country by court order -- whether parents liked it or not.)

Logomasini said this type of teaching doesn't belong in taxpayer funded schools — students should be "learning science and they should be learning different perspectives from which they can make a critical analysis," rather than being taught that there's only one viewpoint.

No one has yet said they shouldn't learn science or offered evidence that they aren't (and, just to spoil the surprise, Logomasini is the only "critic" who appears in the story). Fox is keeping its thumb on the scales. Learning science and learning social practice aren't mutually exclusive. Conservation isn't necessarily science, though it can reflect it (and "parsimony," whether it's with resources or hypotheses, is a handy principle of most brands of science). And -- how many times do you think we need to say it? -- we really, really ought to be teaching "only one viewpoint" on lots of stuff. Breaking people's legs on the playground is wrong. Mythology and biology are both cool, but they're not interchangeable. And so on.

It's going to be a busy few years at Fox, what with the walls caving in on every side. Enjoy.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Talks with doors

Is there some particular reason AP keeps writing sentences like this (and we keep running them)?

Detectives were talking to residents of the 10-story co-op with decorative wrought-iron doors on a quiet residential block.

It works a lot better if you let all the descriptive stuff camp out in an appositive: "... residents of the building, a 10-story co-op with decorative wrought-iron doors on a quiet residential block." But that'd mean ... needless words! Omit them! AIYEE!!!

(Unrelated true story: after "Dances With Wolves" came out, there was a brief flurry in my then-employer's sports department of movie-related names. One desker became Screams At Walls, and an especially clueless big-paper castoff was Sits Looking Vacant. Sports people can be fun to have around.)

Cop quote of the morning

An anonymous caller tipped police that Stegall and Toomey were selling marijuana inside the Waffle House at 2553 Cherry Road, where Toomey worked, said Marvin Brown, commander of York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit.

“You can't just sit in a Waffle House and sell marijuana,” Brown said. “I know the economy is bad. They're going to have to find some other way to make money.”*

*Apparently a dollar's still a dollar at the Waffle House: “They were breaking the marijuana down into dime bags and selling them for $10 apiece,” Lubben said.

Treed by a common language

A new discovery (for me, at least) in the morning's scroll through the sporting news:

Arsenal have kept going without pulling up any trees.

Not entirely-utterly confusing, in that it made sense initially in a couple of possible ways:
Arsenal hasn't crashed and burned yet
Arsenal hasn't really taken off yet

The Googles narrow the meaning down and suggest it's rather widespread. A Spurs fan: I'd be sad to see Hudd leave but for the right price, it wouldn't be the end of the world. He isn't pulling up any trees.

A Colemanball: The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Villa aren't pulling up any trees.

The Independent: The world No 3 defeated Tony Jones 5-2 without pulling up any trees.

An electronics review: While the BD-HP20 doesn’t necessarily pull up any trees, it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of kit.

Music review: Musically, 'We Leave At Dawn' is not going to pull up any trees, but what the band lack in ideas, they most certainly make up for in dog-eared charm.

So I'm reasonably sure I get it, but -- dear friends across the pond, can any of you explain where this one came from? Gratefullest, &c

Thursday, February 05, 2009

No, not really

If the top late-breaking news story under your "More from the Newsroom" tab is going to be a wire tale from the coast of a neighboring state, do you suppose maybe it'd be a good idea to ensure that it wasn't ... um, a free ad cleverly hidden in a lede of clue-defying inanity?

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Starting a family might be a little easier with a trip to Ripley's Believe It or Not museum in Myrtle Beach. (If you're thinking of the Woody Allen movie I'm thinking of, maybe. Otherwise, not.) The museum on Thursday opens a monthlong display of its fertility statues. The 5-foot tall wooden statues were acquired on the Ivory Coast of West Africa in 1993. (That wouldn't be the country known as "Ivory Coast," would it? Given the prevalence of "independent states" in Africa these days? Or does "editing" no longer include stuff like "asking which century the Ripley's PR people live in"?) The company says they were then placed in its corporate headquarters in Orlando, Fla., and within months, 13 women became pregnant. (ZOMG! Thirteen women pregnant in the tiny hamlet of Orlando in mere months! Call the -- oops, wrong free ad.)

The statues have since been on display around the world. According to the company, more than 2,000 women have reported becoming pregnant after touching the statues. (So your standard for "news" is "whatever a company says in a press release"? Just checking.)

They will be on display at Ripley's through the first of March. The company says couples wanting to have a baby can touch the statues for free during business hours.
(See there? Service journalism is alive and well.)

Hard to top a story like that, except -- you guessed it! With a hed like "Careful! These statues could get you pregnant." Wasn't anybody just a little embarrassed by this whole thing?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Adjectives and adjectives

Here's another tantalizing preview from the upcoming grammar smash, "Strunk & Pullum's Real Good Guide To Writing." Everyone will want his or her their own copy!

Adjectives. You cannot write without adjectives, so don't try. The only sillier thing than deciding Adjectives Are Bad is deciding Adjectives Are Rhetorically Interchangeable. You barking loony.

Their point, at least from the editor's perspective, is that "don't use adjectives" is a misreading of a fairly sound principle for any sort of informative writing about the empirical world: Don't offer opinions (a) about stuff you aren't suited to judge (b) in venues where they aren't appropriate (c) before you finish the results section and get to the discussion (or take up writing for the editorial page, whichever).

Adjectives are indispensable because they limit, explain and define nouns. You can't write news without them, unless you think you can write about troops fighting guerrillas without saying which troops and which guerrillas. But like lots of other goodies in the journalistic toolbox, they can also work along a parallel channel: telling readers how they ought to feel. That's what the local fishwrap seems to be up to in the frontpage gems shown above. "Cushy Texas town" and "ritzy Texas city"* are interchangeable concepts because "cushy" and "ritzy" aren't there to explain or define. Their purpose is to remind you that the paper's on your side, lookin' out for you by makin' sure you know dirtbags are still engaging in general dirtbaggery. Also. And "fancy new lawyer"** sounds like a line from a particularly threadbare Western: Mighty fancy new lawyer you got there, stranger. Where'd you say you was from?

Nouns, obviously, can do the same thing. That's why Freep heds never pass up a chance to call the police "cops" or the ex-mayor's friends "pals" (and, more generally, why the use of "terrorist" is more likely to be determined by who is attacked, rather than the characteristics of the attack itself). But nobody rises up to call for a ban on nouns in the way that people go off on the poor old adjective.*** What that suggests is that journalists might be looking in the wrong place. Don't ban parts of speech. Ban irrelevant yanking on the attitudinal chain.

* If we can steal another phrase from John McIntyre, the kinder, gentler Sage II of Baltimore: A reporter with a thesaurus is sort of like a toddler with a handgun.
** In print, it's "Fancy new lawyer's/role not clear yet," in case you thought the apocalypse was somehow farther away than it is.
*** Strunk & White didn't do that, and people who think they did should, um, RTFB.

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Always at war with Christmas Eastasia

The important thing at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network isn't who's at war with whom. The important thing is that we're at war, because war is easy to securitize. When you securitize* an issue, you move it from the realm of normal politics and into a magic realm where special powers are needed for the duration (and, centrally, you get a stake in defining "the duration").

In other words, with the War On Christmas on hold, the War On Valentine's Day still brewing and the War On St. Patrick a distant gleam in Sean Hannity's eye, we might as well get lathered up for the War On Prayer, because the Assault On Americana isn't far behind.

"Be very afraid" is a cliche, and it's not really the point of securitization anyway.** Fox will be quite happy if you're Just Afraid Enough.

* In the Copenhagen School's formulation, pretty accurately represented here, for all of Wikipedia's myriad faults.
** If posting is sparse for a bit, it's because a securitization paper is being beaten slowly into shape. If posting is heavy, Your Editor is either procrastinating or rebuilding a 3210 lecture. Both have been known to happen.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Clause of the evening

Long day, huh? Let's relax with a dram of single-cask McClatchy:

Mere months ago, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was introduced to the world as a hockey mom who hunts and fishes, remains grounded in small-town values, and is married to her blue-collar, snow-machine-loving high school sweetheart.

Saturday night, Palin was whisked into the governors-and-cabinet-members-only section of one of the nation's capital's most exclusive parties: the Alfalfa Club dinner. Wearing an elegant black satin evening gown and a matching wrap, hair loose to her shoulders, Palin was about as far away as anyone can get from field-dressing a moose, let alone Joe the Plumber.

My, my, my. How the mind struggles to fill in the elided blanks:
... as far away as anyone can get from field-dressing a moose, let alone (field-dressing) Joe the Plumber

... as far away as anyone (let alone Joe the Plumber) can get from field-dressing a moose

... as far away as anyone can get from field-dressing a moose, let alone (how far anyone can get from) Joe the Plumber

I think -- all right, I kind of hope, in a regretful sort of way -- that Door No. 3 is more or less what the writer had in mind. But in that case, don't we have the image entirely backward? I don't know if Joe has a tie, but you could probably buy him one, and odds are he'd be a lot more likely to get into the Alfalfa Club than if he walked in with a bunch of moose chitlins around his neck.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Inept survey story of the (still-young) year

Behold! A hack social science story that makes almost every mistake in the book, yet sees the light of day because ... well, why did it see the light of day?

Usually, the response is along the lines of "Oh, lighten up. It's a cute little story that says something about Our Times, so who cares if it has all that statisticky stuff in it?" The short answer is "you do," and it's short for something like this:
1) It's a poll, so there are specific limits on what sort of knowledge it can produce.
2) When you write a story that ignores those limits, you are doing what we call "making stuff up."
3) Made-up stuff can't say something about Our Times. But it says a lot about the skills and intentions of the people who write and publish it.

All right, let's have a look. It's barely 11 a.m. on Sunday, so don't go get a drink first:

American Protestants are more loyal to their toothpaste or toilet paper than to their religious denomination, making consumers more choosy about Charmin or Colgate than they are about church, a new survey shows.
(On second thought, get me one while you're up.) The participial phrase -- is it supposed to modify "Protestants," by the way? -- more or less repeats the independent clause, apparently so the writer can toss in some alliteration. But in addition to compounding the aesthetic offense, it reinforces the crimes against the data. We're ignoring three sources of error:
1) Sampling
2) Subgroup comparison
3) Question design

Experts say the findings may be more telling about Americans' views of the plethora of Protestant groups than how they choose between Quilted Northern and, say, Cottonelle.

OK, make it four. Featurizing isn't always an offense against the data, but it is here. The findings don't address whether "consumers" are more "choosy" about "Charmin" than "church"; they're about what a particular subset of Protestants might do. Same with "Americans' views" about the "plethora of Protestant groups." That's not what we're measuring, so the findings can't be "telling" about it.

If you hang on to the 12th graf (what's taking so long with the drinks out there?), you can find a few hints about the sample size: It's a "nationally representative online panel of 1,007 U.S. adults, including 471 respondents who attended a Christian congregation one or more times a month." Assuming our pollster got a genuine random sample, not merely a "representative" one, that'd yield a margin of sampling error of 4.5 points at 95 percent confidence (the pollster reports 4.4, not that the story bothers to tell you either way). Let's be generous and say 400 of those count as Protestants; now we're at 4.9 percentage points. Why is that a big deal?

Researchers found 16 percent of Protestants say they would consider only one denomination, while 22 percent would use only one brand of toothpaste and 19 percent would use just one brand of bathroom tissue.

In other words, our sample could reflect a population value of about 11 to 21 percent for Protestants on "consider only one denomination" and about 14 to 24 percent on the toilet paper issue. But that overlooks another, possibly bigger, problem: Not all Protestants are equal on this question. Evangelicals are at 19 percent (dead even with Charmin), mainliners at 14. So even if you ignore the likelihood that the finding came about by chance, it's fundamentally dishonest to extend the toilet paper claim to all Protestants.

Here's how the pollster got to the consider-other-denominations issue (again, it's the reporter's job to ask questions like this, and if the reporter didn't, the story needs to go on the spike until the questions are answered): "Then they were asked what role that denomination would play if they could no longer attend their current church (if the church closed or if they moved to another area, for instance)."

See the question-design problem? How was that phrased for Charmin and Colgate and Cottonelle and all the other brand names the reporter threw in? Is there even a comparable way of framing that choice? ("Would you rather let your soul rot, let your teeth rot, use the Land's End catalog, none of the above, or don't know?")

When the first expert you ask for some context comes up with a comment like this:
When you actually think about it for more than 10 seconds,” he said, “none of this is all that surprising and I don't think it's actually bad.”

... you might want to take that as a hint that you're making a mountain out of a pile of -- um, Charmin and Colgate. (Especially the "think about it for more than 10 seconds" bit.) Of course, the expert isn't the first person quoted in the story. That honor goes to -- the president of the marketing research firm that ran the survey!

Do you sense a larger concern emerging here? The survey doesn't really say anything new or interesting about denominational choice; it throws some giggly factoids at each other by way of getting your attention. Ellison Research gets some free publicity, the writer gets to play with alliteration, and the readers get -- what about the poor readers anyway?
1) They might believe you, in which case you've misled them.
2) They might not believe you -- in other words, they might have noticed that you ran a dishonest story, and they might infer from that evidence that any story you run about polling data (or religion, for that matter) is similarly dishonest.

I don't see a lot of merit in either outcome. If you need stuff to fill the "faith and values" page, it's not too late to consider the Washburo's look at the state of play on efforts to teach creationism in science classes. That has the merit of being true (as long as you edit the second graf carefully), informative and alliteration-free.

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