Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gub control

The WashPost (shared by Strayhorn) reminds us that life imitates Woody:

According to 3rd District Police Cmdr. George Kucik, the robber handed an employee a note. When the employee had trouble reading the handwriting and sought help from a manager, the robber fled.

This station will now go into listen-only mode until the AEJ deadline. If you find yourself in the same situation, best of luck.


Sunday, March 29, 2009


If you thought the little cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network were putting all their energy into chron- icling the Failed Obama Admin- istration, think again. Things are also active on the Michiganistan front! Here's the lede from Saturday afternoon's centerpiece (it's been cleaned up a little since it was first published, but the sturmabteilung were kind enough to post the original top of the story):

The "call to prayer" is a sound heard five times a day in this city, but this is not the Middle East. It’s Dearborn, Michigan — which has one of the largest Arab-speaking populations in the U.S. (Those may be the funniest scare quotes I've ever seen. The "call to prayer" is called a call to prayer because -- oh, hell, is this giving it away? It "calls" people to "prayer." Sort of like "ringing" a church "bell." It's only scary if you're stupid. The language, by the way, is called Arabic, not Arab, and it's a language, not a religion. Most Muslims aren't Arabs. But that's the sort of thing journalists who write for national news organizations are supposed to know, isn't it?)

Like other immigrant groups, many came here decades ago in search of a better life. In the past few decades, the auto industry needed workers, so Michigan became a top destination (True-ish and not very true, respectively. The first big wave of Arab immigration to these parts was around the turn of the previous century, and it was predominantly Levantine Christian. In the "past few decades," it's been more made up of Muslims and refugees, and it's had nothing to do with the auto industry, which wasn't short of workers.)

Over the years, thousands of the Muslim faithful from around the world settled here, opening shops and restaurants, and turning [this is a bust at the FreeRepublic version, alas, but we could point out that (again) "Arab" and "Muslim" aren't the same thing and that being a member of the "faithful" isn't a known correlate of immigration.]

Dearborn is a Muslim dominated community, replete with mosques in every section of town and traditional foods from places like Pakistan and Syria. [ZOMG head for the hills they're coming for our cheerleaders!!!!! Our reporter needs to breathe deeply and visit -- oh, Dearborn's homepage! Wherein one can find a mayor named O'Reilly (a common Muslim terrorist name, as anybody at Fox ought to know), a city council populated by the likes of Tafelski, Hubbard, Thomas, Sareini, Shooshanian, Abraham and Darany, and a bunch of judges named Hultgren, Somers and Wygonik. True, the police chief is a Haddad, which is pretty scary, but we're going to get a lot of Schmidts and Herreras* in the dragnet if we bring him in for questioning. I think you'd have to be genuinely, massively delusional** to think of Dearborn as "Muslim-dominated," but it's a great place to eat. As long as you don't find the Arabic alphabet inherently terrifying.]

But while there are plenty of cultural comforts from the old country, Muslim women say that they’re constantly caught balancing their lives between the freedoms they have in the western culture, and the restrictions they face from religious and societal pressure. They worry whether they’re following the habits of "a good Muslim woman".

Amid the blizzard of Orientalist non sequiturs (are we talking about Arabs or Muslims? Immigrants or fifth-generation families? Culture or religion?), you've probably figured out what Fox is up to here: These People will never adjust, and we'd better throw them out wholesale before they start blowing us up.

We have here, by any standards, a stunningly incompetent piece of reporting. It generalizes from two people to a billion people. It's about immigrants, but the first Real Person it quotes is someone who grew up here. It's about people who immigrate from restrictive cultures, but it doesn't stop to parcel out the number of people who have Saudi or Afghan or Pakistani roots. It hints that Those People can have four wives whenever they want, but it can't be bothered to acknowledge that most monotheistic traditions are usually able to work around or ignore the stranger or more antediluvian prescriptions of their holy writ. There's no evidence to support the nut graf: that Muslim women in Dearborn are prone to cross-cultural pressure in ways that others aren't. (Read this in the context of the local fishwrap's proclamation that Christians are up in arms about opening day, in that real Christians*** are in church from noon to 3 on Good Friday and those heathen Tigers are playing the Rangers at 1 p.m.)

All that sort of suggests the point: This isn't journalism that's meant to inform, or to round up the current state of knowledge, or to set out a few sets of opposing viewpoints. It's journalism that's meant to scare. If you're a Fox regular, you read it in the context of this story from Tuesday:

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A clash of civilizations**** may be taking place on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it's also happening a lot more quietly in European cities.

Old Europe's population is dwindling even as immigration and high birth rates among Muslim groups are swelling in cities all over the continent.

The message is that we're next, meaning ...

And sometimes clashes of cultures can have deadly consequences.

Last month, Buffalo resident Aasiya Hassan, 37, was found decapitated after she had been complaining to police about domestic violence. Her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, was charged with the crime.

Well, decapitation is a big story at Fox, wherever it happens. But doesn't it seem kind of shortsighted -- as long as they're in beautiful southeastern Michigan and all -- not to mention the case of notorious Muslim extremist Stephen Grant, who dismembered his wife Tara right up the road from here? And there hasn't been a beheading in the Dearborn area since -- oh, since that Orlewicz kid killed somebody named Sorensen a couple years back, is it?

Whenever Fox turns up the heat on something, you should keep an eye on the burners. Usually, if people want you to be scared, they have a reason for it.

* Go look it up. Of course, he could be one of those closet Arabs, like -- oh, Danny Thomas or something.
** This would involve your being completely unable to read or think, for example. Which seems to work pretty well for Fox and FreeRepublic.
*** Being of thoroughly Protestant descent, I'd never heard of this notion until now, though I freely acknowledge that day baseball is pleasing in the eyes of the Lord amen.
**** Even if you buy into the CoC thesis (Homer nods, and so does Samuel Huntington), this is a genuinely idiotic misuse of it.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Who's who?

A steadfast commitment to teaching, concern for disadvantaged people and the relentless pursuit of world peace were driving forces that guided Sister Rita Mary Olszewski during her vocation with the Sisters of Mercy.

The member of the religious order for more than four decades died of cancer Saturday at Flower Hospital in Sylvania, Ohio. The Detroit resident was 60.

It's pretty common (and not necessarily offputting) for news writing to keep the factoid-per-sentence count high through the judicious use of epithets: "That ain't my style," the portly portsider added. When you run two together in the same graf, though, you're starting to get a pretty crowded obit. Readers have reason to ask: Who's on first? (Or, worse: Can't anybody here play this game?)

Rather than two different noun phrases (one of them 11 words long, with two prepositional phrases) for the same person, just use her name and a pronoun:

Sister Olszewki, 60, a Detroit resident, died of cancer Saturday at Flower Hospital in Sylvania, Ohio. She had been a member of the religious order for more than four decades.

The title on second reference is a common exception for obits, but it does point toward one of those interesting quirks of traditional news style: What sort of professions get courtesy titles on first reference, and why?


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Back to basics

Back in the Good Old Days, when "design" was called "layout" (and page dummies were drawn with rulers and proportion wheels, and disgruntled compositors would put billiard balls in the pneumatic tubes* if the newsroom was slow in moving the pages, and uphill both ways in the snow), one of the basic rules everyone learned was: Make people look into their stories.

The idea is simple: If there's direction in the photo -- somebody's looking or pointing or jumping or shooting one way or the other -- you want to use that direction to steer the reader's eyes into the appropriate story, rather than the one next door. And it really works -- put another way, when you do it wrong, the result really sticks out.

As it does in today's Denver Post reefers. If you're not a regular reader (or if you're the sort of reader who doesn't spend much time with the feature columnists), and you don't know what John Hope Franklin looked like, you can be forgiven for thinking that the guy in the picture must be the guy holding court with the "queen." And it would have been just as easy to take advantage of the eye's instincts and -- oh, do it right.

There's a lot more to complain about in this small sector of 1A. "Serious snow: Will it clobber Denver?" is the sort of Stupid Question TV stations ask before they head off to the commercials. Unfortunately, someone's already answered it a few inches higher -- that'll be the forecast of "heavy snow" you see just above the reefers.

The Stupid Question prize, of course, goes to the lead hed, "Is This Mess Over?" If you think "yes" is an option, you should probably avoid games of skill or chance, excess use of the pointy scissors, and the craft of hed writing in general. To its credit, that's not even the question the AP story suggests: the idea that "some people" may be "thinking the worst is over."

If newspapers are going to have a claim on the audience, it won't be through immediacy, or interactivity, or the ability to make the frontpage sound like a tank-town TV anchor in full cry. It might be through maximizing things we can still do well. But if the best we can be is a browser that you have to bring in from the driveway, or a TV that doesn't move or talk, we're going to lose without a fight.

* You may now raise your hand if you ever played Mortar Crew with the pneumatic tubes.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

To the barricades!

Gee. If you were leading tonight's discussion on agenda-setting, what conclu- sions would you draw from the Fox home page this morning?

Please address both the first ("issue agenda") and second ("attribute agenda") levels of agenda-setting. Would you distinguish second-level agenda-setting from framing, and if so, why? Or would you just buy some more ammunition and bottled water?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

No, not really

So the last surviving newspaper in Denver is going to use its awesome frontpage powers to ... oh, right. Sorry we asked.

The AP story that birthed this gem is a monument to the journalistic biscuit game in its full-length version, but cut down to a six-graf News2Use special, it's something like two counties past stupid.

If nothing else, the hullabaloo over Michelle Obama's occasionally sleeveless attire has unleashed a torrent of clever puns from headline writers — the better to distract us from that economic news we would rather not be hearing.

Actually, no. If it's between economic news and Maureen Dowd writing about anything, I'll take the economy. (Although I'd rather the AFP guy at the press conference tonight had gotten a substantive answer about the Fractious Near East.*) Please, if you have this story lingering somewhere in a holding queue, quietly let it sleep the big sleep.

* And thanks to Fox for asking about the single world currency! You don't suppose that'll reflect badly on his J-school, do you?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Looks like a job for Indy

No peeking: What's your first reading of this hed?

Mine -- leaning back and having a sip of the finest arak in Rick's Cafe (OK, it's still spring break, so it's my fantasy) -- is: My friend, smuggling ancient coffins into the United States is a challenging business these days. Vultures everywhere! Perhaps you can assure us of your bona fides?

So we have an ambiguous hed here. It's a bit different from yesterday's, in which the absence of the complementizing "that" left you with a couple of choices:*
Biologist warned killer chimp was dangerous
Biologist warned (that) killer chimp was dangerous
Biologist warned killer (that) chimp was dangerous

... but it's still a case of being left flatfooted at the crossroads by a normal grammatical move, in this case reducing a relative clause. Usually,** you can knock the relative pronoun and copulative verb out of a relative clause without any impact on meaning:

Smith, who is a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...
Smith, a prominent lawyer and notorious laudanum-eater...

... which is exactly what Fox is doing with "Egypt wants 3,000-year-old coffin (that was) smuggled into U.S." Trouble is, "want" with the wrong sort of verb or adjective carries a different meaning that, absent a handy clue like the relative pronoun, is likely to be the first that comes to mind:

I want those prisoners shot before sunrise
I want the kitchen cleaned by lunch
I want that coffin smuggled into America

And these, then, are potentially quite different chunks of meaning:

I want the coffin
I want the coffin smuggled into America
I want the coffin smuggled into America returned at once

Moral: If you can't tell what you're saying, go ahead and de-omit a few words that your journalism teacher told you to omit. They aren't "needless words" if they help somebody figure out what you mean on the first go-round.

* Kudos to The Ridger for picking out this ambiguity; I've spent so much time in Fox World that I assume killer chimps are a normal state of affairs. The idea of killers having biologists around for consulting makes a lot of Fox sense too, but I'm still not convinced it's the normal reading of things.
** Unless you're the New York Times and think it's just too-too informal to reduce relative clauses. With all appropriate respect to the Times and its hobgoblins, the insistence on full relative clauses is genuinely irrational.

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Spring Break II

Every now and then on spring break, you end up annoying the wildlife. Language Czarina inter- rupted some sandhill cranes at breakfast for this one, from a north- western trip in 2005.

Spring break with the cranes is actually cooler than it appears from a single photo. Apparently, if you're a sandhill crane anywhere in the western hemisphere and your last name begins with L through Z, you're obliged to fly through a chokepoint about 10 miles wide near Kearney, Neb., when you go north in March. So rather than a couple birds noshing in a former cornfield, the modal image is, like, hundreds of millions of red-eyed gray monsters wandering around going "Dude! Spring break!"


Saturday, March 21, 2009

RTFS: It's the thought that counts

The curse of letting the facts get in the way of a good story! Alas for Fox, the "killer chimp" didn't (so far) actually kill anybody, which is generally considered sort of a prerequisite for being a "killer chimp."* But that's what elevates it from a bit of garden-variety editing incompetence into something worth talking about -- the touch of Fox ideology that, however briefly, let KILLER CHIMP stalk the wilds of Connecticut.

Ideology isn't always about Democrats and Republicans; more often, it's about the way the world ought to be -- or at least, the way the world ought to look. And in Fox World, killer chimps and incest dads are all stalking the streets with the mysterious "Josh," who might be Little Caylee's father (if what Casey told Melina is true). It's a pretty scary place. Too bad we've voted out all the people who could save us now!

* On the bright side (if you're a Fox editor, at least), chimps don't usually have a very good handle on libel law.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Thanks, AP!

You don't have to do a lot to make an AP cutline better -- but you do have to do something. Sometimes you start by assuming that if the readers brought the paper in without getting run over, or turned on the computer without electrocuting themselves, they don't need to be told Obama's on the left.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Agreement by chance

Naturally, none of you would try this at home, but -- you've probably figured out that, given a roughly equal proportion of correct "true" and "false" answers, you can score around 50% on a true-false test just by hitting the same key every time. Which, with all due respect, I think we should suggest for the nice folks downtown whenever they come to a who/whom question:

Frances P. Dingle, whom authorities said was driving with nearly triple the amount of alcohol in her blood than is allowed by law, was arraigned Tuesday afternoon on four counts of murder in her room at St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Warren, police said. (5A, jumping from 1A)

A 40-year-old Sri Lankan national, who U.S. authorities have twice tried to deport, was in federal court Tuesday charged with throwing a tantrum and threatening the flight crew of a London-bound Northwest Airlines jet last month during his deportation. (2B)

Sarath Dhanayakage, who entered the country on a fake Singaporean passport in July 2007 and was caught two days later trying to enter Windsor, Canada, screamed to the flight crew that "everyone was going to die," after agents took him on to the plane at Detroit Metro Airport on Feb. 9, according to a federal indictment. (Same story, 2B)

Wasn't that easy? If you just hit "who" every time, you'll be at 67%, almost a gentleperson's C-minus, rather than the fairly miserable 33% you'd have by doing whatever the Freep does. (Yes, for the record, the answers are who-whom-who, not whom-who-who).

As I've said before, I like "whom." It's a friendly little pronoun, and it gives us something to talk about at conferences. I don't want to throw it over the side, but -- you have to admit, just getting rid of case-inflected pronouns looks like a really good idea sometimes, doesn't it?

The bizarre process that must have produced "nearly triple the amount of alcohol in her blood than is allowed by law," on the other hand, ought to be stopped. You'd like to attribute that to deadline writing, given that the deadly wreck in question occurred around 8:30 at night, but then you're sort of forced to acknowledge that the wreck was at 8:30 Monday night and the tortured paragraph in question is from the Wednesday paper. Sort of makes you wonder why the Tuesday Freep had no mention of a wreck on Monday that killed four teenagers (and ate up a lot of the News's Tuesday front). Somebody's trying really, really hard to make sure I don't miss having a newspaper in my driveway in the morning, and it's starting to work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring break I

It's spring break, so you should all be out enjoying yourselves, unless spring break is your chance to drop the portcullis and try to get some writing done before the AEJMC deadline. Anyway, here's the first of a few irregular off-topic photos from spring breaks past. Other reminiscences, of course, are welcome, particularly if any of these sights ring a bell.
This one's in honor of the day. We think of it as the Horking Leprechaun, as in "Did you know there's a leprechaun throwing up in your french fries?" Dublin on a spring day in 2004.


Ghost of textbooks past

Another in the didn't-happen-by-accident category, from today's front page:

On Monday morning, people who are unemployed, underemployed and others lined around the Palace of Auburn Hills like a scarf around a chilly neck for free tickets to his April 7 Comedy Stimulus Plan show.

Not the simile (though it probably has Raymond Chandler rolling over in his angel food), the verb: "People lined around the Palace of Auburn Hills." Someone is remembering, or misremembering, some rogue guide to news writing that denounced all prepositions-with-verbs as "needless words" in need of omitting.

True it is that there are a few such cases, in which the preposition is just there for emphasis or hanging around like the human appendix. "Clean the kitchen" and "clean up the kitchen" are pretty much the same thing (though "clean up" is a whole different verb in "I went to the races and cleaned up"). But "line" and "line up" -- no, those are entirely separate verbs. It's impossible to tell from the subscriber seats whether an editor let the writer down by not noticing the slip or -- worse -- by "improving" a correct original, but somebody done somebody wrong.

The "people who are unemployed" clause looks like an overextension of a trend in inclusive language: talk about people, rather than conditions. The result is a Lucy the Pig fault:
people who are unemployed
people who are underemployed
people who are others

And the last graf could have been written without leaving the office:

"This," said 55-year-old Quotable Person of Warren, who lost her job with Chrysler 18 months ago, "is just what this area needs."

... but that's enough about a five-paragraph story, innit?


Monday, March 16, 2009

Burnt hand dreads cold water

I don't think this one is an accident. It's from the AP's obit of actor Ron Silver:

Whichever end of the political spectrum his activism fell, Silver viewed such involvement as something of a duty for entertainers.

I think someone's looking in the mirror and imagining that the Preposition Monster is closer than it appears. There wouldn't be anything wrong with leaving the poor preposition where it wants to be ("his activism fell on"), but the sentence we end up with* is ungrammatical. You can fall "here," but you can't fall "this end."

If you really, really think Miss Thistlebottom is going to rise from her grave and stalk you for hanging a preposition, there's an easy answer: Wherever on the political spectrum his activism fell, Silver viewed such involvement as something of a duty for entertainers. I'd rather leave the preposition in its natural home and dare someone to change it. I did that a few weeks ago, and a copy editor** let it go, and it felt rather good.

* Not that many newspapers today would consider close attention to the 22nd graf of a wire obit to be a good use of editing resources.
** Pretty good one, best I could tell.


The wages of what?

I have trouble seeing this as much of a lead story; it looks like a grab for anything that looks like News2Use, just to keep that pesky international news off the front page. But the really interesting thing is the verb in the last sentence in the deck: "But consumers could see fewer choices as the war wages."

As the war wages what?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oh, stop the press

It's Sunshine Week, when newspapers around this great land of ours are supposed to publish hard-hitting stories and editorials underscoring the importance of open-records laws. Like, say, this lead story from Orlando:

We know when Casey Anthony orders a ponytail holder, candy bars and deodorant.

We know whom she has slept with, and we've read the racy instant messages she shared with an ex-deputy.

And we know that Anthony's father lost money in an e-mail scam.

The public has learned a lot about Anthony, her family and friends since the 22-year-old mother was arrested last summer — and that's largely because of Florida's broad public-records laws.

Right -- if you don't pay much attention to Fox or CNN, or if you live in some part of the country where one-off cases of family violence in distant states don't merit much interest, that's Caylee's Mom. And thanks to the courageous efforts of Florida journalists, we know all kinds of stuff about her (and her sex life, and her dad's finances) that goes to the very core of our democratic rights and responsibilities! Casey ordered some deodorant! Yes to the school bonds! Power to the people! See how it works?

Does it strike you that using an industrial-strength public-records law to put together a lead story like MISSING TOT'S MOM ORDERS CANDY BAR IN JAIL is a little like using your high-speed online access to the OED to look up naughty words? Maybe we ought to set aside a day* during Sunshine Week to reflect on the fine print: The guarantee of press freedom is not a guarantee of press quality, or even of press competence.

This is a more-than-average-salience question around here, especially in light of the recent poll suggesting that, in general, people wouldn't miss their newspaper a lot if it went away. In a couple of weeks the papers here are going to do exactly that -- if your idea of "daily newspaper" is "one that arrives every day," that is. The one that still lands in the driveway has done a couple of pieces of genuinely noble work with public records over the past few years, but day to day, am I going to miss it? It's apparently working really hard to make sure I don't.

Today's 1A centerpiece, for the second day in a row, is Death of Local Sports Owner (today's different, of course, because Albom! weighs in, in addition to whom there's another columnist's remembrance in the A section and four more in the sports section -- half a dozen columns, if you score the way I do). On the local front (it's Double Albom! Sunday), Albom inveighs against That Octomom. And the centerpiece on the feature front is Intrepid Reporter Tries Out New Birthing Center -- the same Intrepid Reporter, if I recall correctly, whose adventures as a balloon-wrangler in the Thanksgiving parade were a centerpiece themselves a few months back.

There isn't, in case you're wondering, a nation or a world to speak of in the Freep, and that's mostly why I'm moving toward the "won't miss it" column. For all the value of bird-dogging the laws on records and meetings, that's really a latecomer to what journalism does -- and, valuable as it is, it isn't why the Founding Dads gave pride of place to freedom of speech and the press. The "press" that the FDs read wasn't filing FOI requests with the crown stationer's office; it was telling people in Philadelphia what people in New York and New England and South Carolina -- and, not inconsequentially, Europe, which is what "the world" looked like** -- were doing and hearing and lying about, and thus suggesting what they might want do be doing about it.

When our national report is reduced to stories about Tiny Caylee and Missing Haleigh, we're missing the core of what journalism does, which is remind us of stuff that's of public interest and ought to be on our agenda before someone else forces it there. Whom*** Casey Anthony did or didn't biff has nothing to do with the rest of the country -- but how Florida approaches property taxes, and subsidies for favored agriculture industries, and demands from the pointy-headed to Teach The Controversy when it comes to creationism in schools, that's actually stuff that Michigan or California or Oklahoma or Texas might want to pay attention to. We're actually a rather interesting country, once you get beyond the mundane tendency of people to commit stupid idiosyncratic violence against their friends and relatives.

The world, of course, might as well be on the other side of Jupiter; there's barely enough space for Iraq to suck all the air out of the room, let alone for the notionally voting public to have some idea of what might have gone into the Georgia-Russia war that last fall's candidates paid some brief attention to. If you're going to trust people with the vote, you need to trust them with some pretty general concepts, so here's one:**** One of the most disruptive things the US could do to Iran is engage it diplomatically, because Iran doesn't have a strategy for that; they'd be on their back foot, and we'd be calling the game. It's not a stunningly subtle idea -- hell, it's basically a basketball metaphor, which ought to suggest that a large part of your audience can understand it, but that's really a framing issue. A journalist who can't come up with a metaphor that illustrates why diplomacy is as valuable as armed force is a journalist who isn't paying attention, and no FOI law in the world is going to fix that.

So let's celebrate open-records laws and people who hold the bureaucracy's feet to the fire about 'em, but let's remember to set aside a month -- at this point, honestly, I'll settle for two or three hours on a Thursday afternoon, as long as we're all happy about it -- for all the routine sinews-of-citizenship stuff that's about to be thrown out the window. Because when that's gone, we aren't going to get it back.

* We could call it Judgment Day, but I think that's already taken.
** For the white, moneyed, enfranchised ones, which is a different story itself.
*** Was "we know whom she has slept with" a candidate for Most Annoying Pronoun of the Decade, or what?
**** I heard this during a panel session at the ISA conference last month, and if I had been a remotely competent notetaker, I'd know whether it was Vali Nasr or Amitai Etzioni who introduced it. Apologies to both for the sloppiness -- but a better reporter would have gotten it right, which is the point.

That six-word phrase is back

In case you thought everybody was kidding last week about the frequency of the string "before turning the gun on himself," here it is again in real life.

A Language Log commenter offers an interesting observation: In some contexts, including journalism and science writing, recourse to boilerplate may actually help persuade editors and referees that the work meets professional standards; if a paper says "the animals were sacrificed" it's science, if it says "I killed the mice" it's macabre, though the event is the same.

That might be a view from the bleachers, or it might be a summary from a disguised professional; either way, it's a good account of how routines work. If you need a slightly more formal cite, may we recommend Gaye Tuchman's 1972 "Objectivity as strategic ritual" (American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-679)? This is from the abstract:

This article examines three factors which help a newsman to define an "objective fact": form, content, and interorganizational relationships. It shows that in discussing content and interorganizational relationships, the newsman can only invoke his news judgment; however, he can claim objectivity by citing procedures he has followed which exemplify the formal attributes of a news history or a newspaper. For instance, the newsman can suggest that he quoted other people instead of offering his own opinions. ... "Objectivity" may be seen as a strategic ritual protecting newspapermen from the risks of their trade.

Tuchman also offers this charmingly turned image: "Attacked for a controversial presentation of 'facts,' newspapermen invoke their objectivity almost the way a Mediterranean peasant might wear a clove of garlic around his neck to ward off evil spirits." Makes you think we're leaving something out of the curriculum, doesn't it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Una tarántula en un plato de nata

And how does a rewrite of a small 2-day-old inside story from the FiTimes become the Third Most Super-Important Story in the Universe? Welcome to the wonderful world of agenda-setting!

Like most fun theories, agenda-setting is about a fairly simple correlation: When a topic is important on the media agenda, it looks important on the public agenda as well. So if the front page* tends to go economy-crime-drugs-war, opinion polls will look a lot like economy-crime-drugs-war too.

The Fox agenda is distinctive not because Fox makes stuff up (though it's good at that) but because Fox builds and emphasizes particular categories, whether the stories in them are true or not. It's the national clearinghouse for stories about random episodic danger to children and pregnant moms. Fox scours the British tabloid press for stories about Muslim efforts to stamp out Barbie, Valentine's Day and the Three Little Pigs so you don't have to! Fox's agenda keeps you up to speed on the War On Christmas, the ACLU's efforts to turn your kids into socialist zombie apostles of sex, drugs and treason, and the doings of various unrepentant terrorists.**

So the idea of a Wal-Mart calling itself a supermercado isn't an example of the inanimate genius of the free market. It goes into a separate category of Threats to the American Way of Life. Those People won't learn our language, they won't eat our junk food, and now they want their own Wal-Marts too.

All news agendas are socially constructed; there is no hidden Rosetta stone of news value. But Fox is -- oh, how should one put this? Not quite as inconspicuous as it might like to think?

* The original agenda-setting study (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) was about the 1968 election and the media available in Chapel Hill; life was easier when "the media" could be measured by two morning dailies and two TV stations.
** That's an example of the "agenda of attributes" used in what's called the second level of agenda-setting. Tune in next week.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Egermency, egermency!

Everybody to be getting to barricades! They are coming to fix your window treatments find your daughters interpret your Farsis!

Sheez. I'm going to go get some bumper stickers printed up: "Honk if you think we've had too damn many Arabic-speakers in the ranks all this time." Wear blue jeans on Friday if you want one.

Fear factor

Stock up on bottled water and 7.62mm ammu- nition, kids; the U.N. is coming after Our Redbirds! And the ice cream stands will only offer Red Straw- berry, and they'll be out of that too!

It's a fairly normal day at Fox: Obama's a failure, crocodiles are eating schoolgirls, all Democrats are hypocrites and Bill Ayers can run, but he can't hide. But don't take your eye off the big picture: The Senate's getting ready to hand over our national patrimony to the focus of evil in the modern world United Nations!

Let's let the Heritage Foundation sum it up in everybody's favorite word of the month:

"The whole theory of the treaty is that the world's oceans and everything below them are the common heritage of mankind," said Groves. "Very socialist."

Darn those pesky international treaties! Anyway, think twice about whether you really want Colonel Qadhafi teaching your kids about the infield fly rule, then call your senators and tell 'em to Just Say No to undersea socialism.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tastes like a freight train, sounds like chicken

An old pal from down in hurricane country questions the NYT's lede on the Alabama shootings:

A gunman shot and killed at least 10 people, including several members of his family, on Tuesday afternoon in what officials said was the worst shooting in Alabama.

"Does this need a time qualifier," she asks, "like 'in Alabama history' or 'ever in Alabama' or 'in Alabama in the past week'? Or is this just the new way of writing such things?"

On reflection, I'm inclined to say yes and no. No, I expect it's a standard news lede that got left in the dryer at the NYT a little too long, and yes, it's missing a time limitation. I can't provide a rule,* but I'll try an analogy: "That was the best performance in the ACC tournament." The thought isn't closed** until I know how much tournament you mean: This year? Ever for all time amen? In the hubris-laden phrase of Mike O'Koren, "so far"?***

So this is probably just a one-off, but it's an interesting one-off -- not just because it's unusual for the heavily edited Times, but because cop coverage in general is so thoroughly built from off-the-shelf parts. Language Log readers have probably noticed this morning's comment on the Google frequency of the phrase "before turning the gun on himself." I'm not sure that suggests how thoroughly we've become inured to the frequency of shooting rampages (the technical journalistic term, of course, is "spree") as much as it indicates that everyone involved knows what the building blocks of that story look like, where to find them and how to put them together -- the way tornadoes sound like freight trains and slightly exotic foods actually taste like chicken. (I was going to point out unlike most such stories, no one had yet described the gunman as a quiet fella who kind of kept to himself, but I see from the latest AP update that he was "shy, quiet and laid-back.")

You've probably seen most of these in crime stories, of whatever scale:

You-are-there details: At the hardware store, yellow tape was strung across the front of the store where at least five bullet holes punctured the glass windows to the store, with its wheelbarrows and Adirondack lawn chairs on display. An orange-and-black sign to the store reading "Closed" lay on the ground outside the store atop the glass shards.

This just in: Police had hung white sheets to the entranceway to shield the scene where authorities said a black hearse that pulled away late Tuesday was transporting victims' bodies. ("Transport," in cop-blotter-speak, doesn't need the "to ..." argument; "two people were transported" means something on the order of "two people were taken to the hospital").

Syntax that doesn't quite logically mesh with the data:

The bloodshed began when McLendon burned down his mother's house in Kinston, according to Coffee County Coroner Robert Preachers. Authorities found Lisa McLendon's body inside, but they had not determined how she died or whether she was a 10th victim of her son's spree. (If we aren't sure if she was a victim of the spree, are we sure that's where the bloodshed began? And if that's where it began, how could she be the 10th victim?)

Once investigators got a look at the ammunition he was carrying, they feared the bloodshed could have been worse. (They might have "realized" it at this point, but it's unlikely they "feared" it.)

The witnesses know their parts too:

"We could have been caught up in it just as well as anyone else," he said.

"I first thought it was somebody playing," McCullough said.

The value of novelty moves stuff to the top, even if its relevance isn't known. As best I can tell, these are sequential updates:

Tuesday's shootings in a mostly rural area near the Florida border were believed to be the work of Michael McLendon, who lived with his mother and once worked at a local metal plant.

The man believed responsible for gunning down 10 in rural Alabama quit his job at a sausage plant days before the deadly spree.

Authorities say an Alabama gunman who killed 10 people and himself in a rampage had once trained as a police officer.

A man who killed 10 people in two rural Alabama counties before committing suicide had been keeping a list of those "who done him wrong," a district attorney said Wednesday.

That last one is actually pretty striking, but not for the appearance of the grudge list. If the fuller quote in the third graf -- "We found a list of people he worked with, people who had done him wrong" -- is correct, the lede is an unusually direct violation of standard news practice and AP's specific stylebook entry: Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.**** Here, though, the lede isn't even cleaning the DA up; it's making him sound like a freaking country song. Inferences may be drawn about your local news outfit's remaining interest in the craft of editing by that quote's appearance tomorrow. [UPDATE: The AP appears to have written the story through, correcting the lede to conform with the 3rd graf, half an hour after this version moved. It's worth noting that USAT is using a staff-written version, with a hed based on the "done him wrong" quote from the AP.]

News is (generally, hopefully, probably) about what's new. But it's also about what's familiar about what's new. When somebody says the tornado sounded like a chicken or the rattlesnake souffle tasted like a freight train, the world is off its axis.

* You Real Language People out there are welcome to jump in whenever you wish.
** Does that make it one of those Steven Pinker excuse-me-but-your-parser-is-open things?
*** No doubt Jane is among many of you loyalists out there who remember the matchup in question.
**** If you have worked in the sausage factory, you already take that with the appropriate amount of salt.

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There's a reason for that

The Freep on the Alabama shootings:

Police don't have a motive yet.

... and a local slaying:

Investigators don't yet have a motive.

There's a reason they don't have a motive, you know. They didn't do it! (OK, it's the big town: They probably didn't do it!) "Police have no motive" is one of those deeply robotic bits of news writing that shows up everywhere because -- well, because everybody else who writes about cops seems to be using it. There's no earthly reason not to do it right: "Police haven't determined a motive."

Monday, March 09, 2009

We're insulting more readers!

First-person heds on news stories are never good. But some are dramatically more offensive and clueless than others:

Survey: We're losing our religion
Poll on faith in U.S. shows more claim no religion; percentage of Christians down overall.

A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the Roman Catholic population has been shifting out of the Northeast to the Southwest, the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and an increasing number say they have no religion at all.

It's kind of hard to avoid the conclusion that "our religion" is Christianity, isn't it? Which may well be what the paper meant (and is almost certainly true in the aggregate of the newsroom), but diversity-wise, isn't that about as smart as calling the pale-pink crayon "flesh" color?

That's enough of a reason to spike the hed and remind the desk that first-person heds are banned, but we aren't done yet. Where's the evidence that some notional "we" are losing our religion? Hiding in the second graf, you say?

Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, up from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

And -- aw, you'd think they were paying attention or something! -- the story includes the confidence interval (not the confidence level, but progress is progress). The interval, aka "margin of sampling error," is given as half a percentage point.* So given the other potential sources of error that result from being in the field for nine months,** we can safely say that the apparent increase in the "no religion" category approaches significance at traditional levels of confidence.

Remember another of the lessons from last fall, though? The difference between statistical significance and practical significance? What we're almost sure of, assuming the sample is an accurate reflection of whatever "us" the hed writer had in mind,*** is that the proportion of heathens in the population has risen almost a full percentage point. In other words, if this was 1992 and we had a poll indicating that a nearly significant increase had brought Ross Perot's support up to 15 percent, the hed would read "We're Voting For Perot!"

What we seem to have, then, is the classic news-vs.-polls problem. The things that make a poll good usually aren't the things that get attention in the news meeting, and the things that get attention are usually the least valid, or least generalizable, aspects of the poll. That's a general fault of how journalism handles science. But we really need not to compound it with heds that panic some readers and gratuitously insult a portion of the rest.

Now go eat your beets.

* About time the NYT dropped its irrational fear of reporting any survey data to the first decimal point, isn't it?
** Yes, religious affiliation is almost certainly more stable than voting intent, but -- you pays your money and you takes your choice.
*** Probably a dumb assumption, given the paper's circulation area.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Why we need editors

Quick, what country does "the country" refer to in this AP yarn?

If you guessed "Syria," you're probably -- oh, a regular old-fashioned first-language English speaker or something. You're also wrong, but that's hardly your fault, is it?

Here's the relevant sentence, according to AFP: "President Obama will be visiting Turkey within the next month or so," she said. And within half an hour or so, the AP had come to its senses: Clinton also said President Barack Obama will visit Turkey in the "next month or so."

So if someone offers the bizarrely popular new line that today's well-educated writers are perfectly capable of editing themselves ("I produce copy that goes straight on screen - why can't anyone else do that?"), Obama's holiday plans ought to be a pretty obvious reminder. Good writers usually produce good first drafts more often, and more quickly, than less good writers. That's very different from suggesting that they don't make mistakes, produce disfluencies, ignore obvious holes or let stupid conventions of news writing drive them into the ground.*

The screen capture above is from Fox, where the very idea that superpowers can have talks with regional powers is -- hey, let's ask the bottom-feeders commenting on the story at Fox!

These terrorists are laughing their heads off at this weak minded socialist government lead by someone with his head in the sand.

Good move Obama . . . send your clowns out to make a deal with the devil. This poor sick Republic is in serious trouble.

It's impossible to tell from the time stamps whether these were posted to the original story or the update. And nothing the AP writes is going to make the Fox audience drastically smarter. But with a little editing -- even just asking a fresh set of eyes whether the stuff you wrote means what you think it means -- we could at least keep from adding to the sum of human cluelessness.

* Doug Fisher has some more examples in an eloquent defense of the deskly arts over at Common Sense Journalism.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Waiter! There's a mouse in my salmonella

One more visit to the hed-noun-pileup factory. Garrett onpasses this one with the quite reasonable suggestion that a "salmonella plant" ought to be the sort of place that cranks out salmonella on purpose -- pretty much the way we'd interpret "Model T plant" for the building down in Highland Park.

Off topic, a salmonella query for our British readers: A few years back, when Spurs tried and failed to get a Premier League fixture against West Ham postponed because 10 of their players were out of service with food poisoning, the Sun hedded the matter "Play It Again Salmonella." Does that work in British English -- would people read it "sammonella"? Inquiring minds, etc.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Books: Threat or menace?

What's the Third Most Super-Important Story in the Whole Wide World over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network? Aw, you peeked!

Are children's book publishers seeking to indoctrinate impressionable young readers -- or are they simply obeying the laws of supply and demand?

Fox's story is an eight-graf rewrite from that temple of thoughtful journalism known as the Washington Times -- well, sort of a rewrite. The question above and several other grafs are copied from the Times's frontpage article, though they carry a Fox creditline.* It has several hallmarks of the Stupid Question; it's not exhaustive, and more to the point, it's easy to answer with "Why is that a question?"** But it's not a multiple question, for which we need to turn to the Times itself:
Is there something fishy about the publishing industry's haste to anoint Barack Obama in the eyes of uniquely impressionable readers?
Got the answers yet?
* Yes, there's something fishy about the publishing industry's haste to anoint Barack Obama in the eyes of uniquely impressionable readers.
* No, there's nothing fishy about the publishing industry's haste to anoint Barack Obama in the eyes of uniquely impressionable readers.
Some news organizations screw up occasionally. Some are dishonest as a matter of policy. Any questions about Fox and the WaTms natdesk?

* There's a word for that, isn't there? Starts with "P"?
** Note that you can't do the same thing with "Paper or plastic?" or "What would you like to drink?"

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Let me stand next to your fire conditions

Just a touch of editing to the prose of your TV "news partner" could go a long way:

Firefighters said there were heavy fire conditions coming from the rear of the home when they arrived on scene.

And think of all the baby pine trees that could be saved if firefighters no longer had to arrive "at the scene."

What was the question again?

What, exactly, is the Reefer Madness design at Bakersfield asking us to do here? Say yes or no to the dollar breakfast? Get a cheap breakfast, as long as we're willing to indulge in some light preprandial armed robbery? Eat, shoot, leave?

I can't find the breakfast story, but the handgun story is actually -- surprise! -- about a cop who shot someone who was drawing a pellet (or BB; the story says both) gun. Seem like something people ought to be told about, rather than asked about?

For extra credit, have fun diagramming this cutline:

A fake gun that looked like a semiautomatic handgun that was involved in a suspect being shot by Bakersfield Police that took place Sunday evening on 11th Street.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Tangled up in writing

Here's an unusually heavy case of noun pileup in text:

A British spiritualist minister was found guilty Monday of murdering his Emmy award-winning TV make-up artist wife and dumping her body in the woods.

I'm inclined to score that as just general bad writing, rather than a particularly British feature; "his TV makeup artist wife" doesn't sound as if it would be out of place in a US social column (assuming social columns still run in some places). And American news language is equally fond of using all that space in the predicate to summarize the spicy parts about the case, even if "murder" is the only part the defendant was convicted of.

And a bit of tangled writing from the colonies:

He said injuries generally happen infrequently at the museum, and usually are like those that occur on a playground.

So ... if they generally happen infrequently, how often do they happen frequently? Which one of those goes with "usually"?

There's a useful Strunk & White-ish guideline for this: Generally, talk about what stuff is, rather than what it isn't. If he said injuries are rare at the museum (one does sort of hope so, doesn't one?), let him say it: Injuries are rare at the museum, he said, and when they do happen, they are usually like ones that occur on the playground.


Sunday, March 01, 2009

Nude pic row vicar resigns

A big Motor City welcome to all you visitors who found your way here from the Log. Ready for some more British hed noun pileups? Prepare to tap on the brakes* and admire the carnage.

Here are a couple from the Beeb's current display to start with -- not particularly amusing, but they do underscore the idea that British hed dialect is distinct from ours in ways that cut across sectors and markets. The first is from the news homepage, the second from the story that you reach when you click the first:
US military chief in Iran warning
Iran's uranium 'enough for bomb'

The first uses a preposition where an American hed would be scrambling around for a verb; the second uses quotation marks not to indicate a direct quote but to mark the part of the hed that needs attribution** (which we'd have to mark with "official says" or something). Neither would work on our side of the pond, but both are as likely to show up in the redtops as in the more rarefied atmos of the BBC.

I think Mark Liberman is right: However odd they look from here, these heds probably make perfect sense to people who are used to seeing them. Though there are exceptions:
Storm after FA let manslaughter coach teach kids
A "manslaughter coach" isn't -- alas -- somebody who coaches manslaughter; it's a football coach who was convicted of manslaughter.*** In "rule" terms, I think that means British hed writers can pull an attributive noun across a lot more barriers than we can -- specifically, all the way from a prepositional phrase at the end of a clause:

Blast Kelly lands on road in bed
("A schoolgirl was blasted out of her attic bedroom in a gas explosion and landed in the street – still tucked up in bed"; Kelly is her first name.)
Last seconds of hols dad
(Security photos show a guy being run over with his own carjacked Volvo as he prepared to leave on vacation)

After a cycle or two, the topic is often familiar enough to sum up in a noun phrase, ideally with a noun like "row," "fury" or "shame":
George row doc in U-turn
Pay strike cash fury
Kid porn shame councillor quits
Soup row doc gets job back
Love-row Sir victory
The "row" heds are particular fun here. "George row doc" is a physician who purportedly tried to get the dying George Harrison to sign a guitar. "Soup row doc" is a brain surgeon suspended for taking seconds without paying. "Love-row Sir" is a teacher "unfairly sacked for a relationship with an ex-pupil."

The preposition thing actually looks pretty handy, if you've spent much time trying to jam "charged," "accused," "sentenced" or whatever into a tight count:

Swiss nurse on 24 murder charges
Lad on jogger stabbing rap
Yob brothers in hoods ban
Hoon in army kit scandal cover-up
Escaped gorilla in bid to eat toddler
(OK, only the Sun could have run "Escaped gorilla in bid to eat toddler." But the Grauniad and the Mail are also represented here.)

Put it all together and you can have:
("A mum told yesterday how she tried to save a little boy spotted at the bottom of her swimming pool during a kids’ party.")
‘Cop kill’ court in gun alert
("The nightclub bouncer accused of shooting three policemen appeared at court yesterday – with ELEVEN armed cops guarding the building.")
‘Fatkins’ leak wife may sue
("The widow of diet guru Robert Atkins may sue officials who leaked a confidential report revealing he died a fatty")

We don't really have anything comparable in US print media, though foxnews.com (Murdoch-owned, highly tabloid, given to borrowing from the British press) is a pretty good online approximation:
Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders

He that has never written a hed on deadline among you, let him (or her) cast the first stone.

* Resulting in what the local radio calls "gawker delays" or "gawkage." Isn't dialect fun?
** Geoff Pullum has called these "mendacity quotes," though that seems to overstate the intent.
*** American style would also read "FA" as singular, rather than plural.