Saturday, May 30, 2009

Incomprehensible hed of the month

Who did what to whom here? Or put another way, why are any of these actors in the story, and what's their relationship to each other? Ten people were poisoned, and the pharmacist saved nine? Horrible freeway smash, but the pharmacist leapt into the cab of the out-of-control semi and steered it to safety before it could squash any more grannies? Whence all this death and praise?

If you've been following this one (and obviously you must have been, given that it's the top story on the half-page or so that the Freep can spare for the rest of the nation and the other 190-odd countries in the world), you know it's the tale of the Oklahoma pharmacist who, having shot a would-be robber once, saw off the would-be accomplice and came back to finish off the one he'd shot. Trouble is, the headline packs in a bunch of random information without regard for the way information works in Headline World.

The "(number) dead" construction usually implies more than one; when there's only one of something, it's more common to use a singular noun (teen, toddler, missing mom, tourist, robber) to carry the number while providing a little more information. What we have sounds more like a tornado than an armed robbery attempt. "Pharmacist," while it's one of the second actor's roles, isn't the one that links him to the first part of the hed. "Praised," while also true, leaves out the middle term: what did he have to do with the death?

It makes sense, more or less, if you know the story -- but in that case, why the first-day approach of "1 dead"? (Given that the guy was charged Wednesday and today is what my people call "Saturday.") Better to stick to one idea per deck here, and even better to insist on enough room to say something intelligible.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Sources: Bear, woods, Charmin

Garrett shares this bit of incisive political demography from's coverage of the Supreme C0urt nomination:

Minorities on the court have been rare in its 220-year history. All but two of the 110 justices have been men, and only two of them have not been white, according to CNN's political unit.

... raising the (quite reasonable) question of whether much attention ought to be paid to the output of a CNN reporter who has to source this information to "CNN's political unit." Well, not much defense here; the reporter might be a little out of position (brought in from the toy department to handle the write-hed-before-reporting reaction piece?*), but you'd still have to be pretty inattentive not to have already internalized those data.

Which sort of brings us to the point. There are readers out there who still seem to be looking to old-fashioned media for information. In return, they expect us to pay attention. Seems like a reasonable deal to me.

* Raw speculation, sorry


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Having a wonderful time ...

PARIS -- O hai! Light posting this week, as Your Editor is off contributing to international scholarly amity and all (srsly!).

Your regularly scheduled program of random abuse for America's hardworking media will resume shortly. Meanwhile, tnx to all who have put up with bits and pieces of this line of research here (or in your living room, the Branch, or wherever).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fill in the blanks

Hey, kids! Do you have what it takes to be a cops reporter? Fill in the blanks in this shooting story:

Neighbors described him as a _____. “We would make small talk, but he was a _____ ___.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

You have the right to an attorney

This just in from CBS, courtesy of Strayhorn at the Triangle buro.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

If it's Tuesday ...

... it must be Kinky NIH Foreign Sex Research Abstract Day at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

Fox seems to have picked up its game a bit since our last visit. The lurid junior-high bits are almost gone, and the reporter (named) has gone out and found some "taxpayer watchdogs" (or "government watchdogs," he doesn't seem quite sure which) to "cry foul" on cue. Well, actually, he's found one watchdog; that's the Fox Plural there, creating a movement from a single source. And. to be fair, we stick fairly close to an actual public policy issue: should we spend tax money on Them Foreigners?

Oddly, Fox more or less gives that point away:

While some active NIH projects -- such as studies of suicide patterns among young men and women in China -- have a clearer relevance for communities living in the U.S., the utility of this study for U.S. citizens is not as clear-cut.

Well, that'll save a few hundred thousand right there. We can outsource all that messy peer review to Fox News.

The abstract indicates that it is intended to create prevention models specifically tailored to the "sociocultural factors specific to female and kathoey sex workers" in Thailand.

Yes. And it concludes: "Internationally, studies are needed on how to translate and adapt interventions that have proven to be effective in the U.S. to other communities and international settings, and to learn from other conditions and cultures to inform our understanding of the causes, consequences, and differences in HIV-related risks, morbidity, and mortality in diverse populations." It'd be nice if the researchers themselves took a whack at explaining the relevance, but they don't seem to have returned Fox's phone calls. Can't say I'm shocked at that.

I expect we'll see a few more of these, but they might just fade away as Fox realizes that they aren't really that interesting.

Editors apparently napping

Quoth the morning e-fishwrap:

The Boy Scout slogan is “Do a Good Turn Daily.”

But whoever stole a Boy Scout trailer in Roseville con­taining about a dozen tents, propane stoves, tanks and other camping gear apparently ignored the slogan.

Aside from the raw it's-official, beam-me-up-Scotty-ishness of it all -- if by "ignored the slogan" we mean "did a bad turn, rather than a good turn," there's no "apparently" about it. If otherwise -- huh? Did we ask? I mean, maybe they'd already helped their old lady across the street for the day and figured it was time to get back to work. (It's nice to do a good turn, but time is money in These Tough Times.) When a lede sounds good enough to be on EyeWitless News, you should send it there and quietly rewrite the thing for publication.

And this just in:

The Fieger Law Firm announced Tuesday in a news release that it is representing the Novi woman facing charges after police said they found her nude and engaged in a sex act with an Oakland County commissioner.

Don't we have an "ad department" where prominent lawyers' law firms can send their news releases? Or did we just need another excuse to point out that the (briefly) happy couple aren't husband and wife?

And this from the Web site:

How to avoid state seat belt crackdown

Hmm. Let me work on that one for a while. Wear your seat belt?

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Funday framing Foxtacular

Today's topic is framing as a media effect, so let's turn to our favorite front page and get to work.

No, not the top story (that's for you agenda-setting fans out there) -- the No. 2 Most Super-Important Story in the World, "Terrorist-Disarming Bill Walks Thin Line." Before we get around to what sort of effect framing is, let's spend a moment on what this story is doing. What's its function in the discourse community that is Planet Fox? We can get a few hints (suggestions, not conclusions) from the "comment" function:

Well - ol' Bama really is "Chavez light" - sounds like he's planning to demonize, then outlaw, legitimate opposition groups under the guise of the anti-terrorist banner. Fear of opposition armed or not, is NOT a legitimate case for restricting civil rights, or even instituting surveillance actions against outspoken groups. Lumping vocal conservatives and anti-administration media outlets with actively violent anarchists and anti-American terrorists is painting with too broad a brush. Beware the incrementalism of Fascism.

According to Obama's Administration, if you're White and Christian in America, you are an out for the guns and CONTACT YOUR REPRESENTATIVES AND TELL THEM NO. CONGRESS.ORG

It is scary just how many of these gun grabbers have become embolded now that Obama and his crew of flunkies are in office...

this is not about terrorists, it is about you, me and all the other law abiding citizens who do not tow the liberal/socialist line.

So it's prominent, it's important (not just a credit, but a byline), and it seems to reinforce a particularly salient theme: Obama and his socialist revolution are coming for your white girls guns! So what's going on in the story itself?

A bill designed to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists is drawing fire from gun rights advocates who say it could infringe upon regular citizens' constitutional right to bear arms.

The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009 would authorize Attorney General Eric Holder to deny the sale or transfer of firearms to known or suspected terrorists -- a list that could extend beyond* groups such as radical Islamists and other groups connected to international terror organizations.

The first part of the first clause looks weirder than it is. It contains two propositions: The bill would authorize the AG to do something, and Eric Holder is the AG. It's not really saying Holder and only Holder would be authorized; that construction is just one of the ways that news language packs information into stories. Here's one from yesterday's Freep:

A district judge said Franc­es Dingle likely never meant to kill four teens when she got be­hind the wheel drunk March 16, sped down Gratiot in Rose­ville, hit the median and sent her van airborne 31 feet before crashing into a car with the youths inside.

The story's not saying she deliberately sent her van airborne but didn't mean to kill anybody; it's saying she did something without intending its consequences, and then it's specifying the consequences. So it's not a violation of news rules to put Holder in the second graf of the terror story, it's just ... hmm. What's the next question that comes to your readerly mind?

Critics say the names of suspected terrorists could be drawn from existing government watch lists that cover such broad categories as animal rights extremists, Christian identity extremists, black separatists, anti-abortion extremists, anti-immigration extremists and anti-technology extremists.

"It doesn't say anything about trials and due process," said Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. "This is one of the most outrageous pieces of legislation to come along in some time. It's basically saying, 'I suspect you, so your rights are toast.'" (Your winnings, sir.)

And we have a few more grafs on the outrage over the DHS reports on extremist groups. Anything else we're missing?

... The proposed gun control bill, which was introduced by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, last week and has bipartisan support, is currently before the House Judiciary Committee.

Oh. So if you hang on for the eighth graf, you find out the thing was introduced by ... Peter King, R-NY? The Rep. Peter King, R-NY? Peter "Too Many Mosques" King, R-NY? The one who wanted NYT execs indicted under the Espionage Act a few years back?

Well, yeah. (And if you hang on another 13 grafs, you'll find that the American Legion thinks the bill is "pretty logical," but that's a different story.) And that's what makes this a good piece for a framing test. Let's write the story in two conditions. Leave the lede as it is, but tweak the second graf. In the first condition, the party in charge of carrying out the law comes first (that'll be the Democrats of the demon-spawn Holder):

The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009 would authorize Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder to ...

In the other, the party that introduced it comes first:

The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009, introduced by Rep. Peter King, R-NY, would authorize the Justice Department to ...

Keep the eighth graf in both cases, but tweak it in the second so there's a second reference to King, rather than a first reference. Recruit your standard 100 sophomores from a survey class, give them a pretest (age, gender, party affiliation, attitudes toward The Terrorists, and the like), show 50 of them Version 1 and the other 50 Version 2, then ask your outcome questions. I'd just about bet that on "Which party introduced the gun legislation?" you'll get a significant difference between conditions.

I have no idea how deliberate this bit of framing might be. It's fair to infer from the story's prominence and significance that it got more attention than usual. But as noted above, it doesn't break any rules of news language. So it could just be one of those random things about how the world works. On the other hand, when you have a two-sided coin that seems to come up "heads" 90 percent of the time, you eventually start to wonder about the people who report on the coin toss.

* Think we should tell 'em? "Terrorists" pretty much by definition goes beyond "radical Islamists" and "groups connected to international terror organizations"?

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Hed smash boy noun chiz

OK, one more trip to the Sun. See if you can figure out who's modifying whom in this hed without looking at the story.

Got it yet? "Fergie crash boy" is Alex Ferguson's step-grandson, injured in a wreck a few weeks back (having, as best I can tell, nothing at all to do with Sir Alex himself). Just thought you'd like to know.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Egg blast hed row prof in Page 3 fury

Over to the Log, Geoff Pullum brings a delightfully incomprehensible hed:


... and dissects it cleanly in all its tabloid spendour. More interesting, though, is his brief visit to the land of Page 3:

Poppy looks delightful dressed in nothing but those tiny pink underpants. (The page 3 feature is called "News in Briefs", you see: each day they print a quote about current events that they claim to have obtained from a young woman between the ages of about 17 and about 27, beside a full-frontal picture of the author of the remark, dressed only in panties. ...)

Now you've got my attention. I didn't know the Scottish Sun ran News In Briefs, which I had thought of as a uniquely English part of the Sun. Last time I read it, the Irish edition of the Sun had the same half-naked Page 3 Girl as the London edition (Krystle from Manchester), except that in Dublin there was no "from Manchester" -- and no "News in Briefs," the little talk-bubble of popular culture that Dr. Pullum is referring to.

Why? Well, here's where we could really use some long-term sociolinguistic observation from Scotland and Wales. News in Briefs covers a wider range than the vast tracts of land you see on Page 3 itself. It's about -- well, let's let Krystle from Manchester explain it:

Krystle said of John Lydon’s four-letter outburst: “I couldn’t believe my ears. There must have been loads of young children watching the eviction. It shows that ITV should have a time delay before broadcasting." (This was the famous case in which Johnny Rotten, appearing on a reality show, managed to refer to some people as "f***ing c***s" before the timer caught up with him)

Music lover Krystle was thrilled to see the Darkness triumph at the Brits. She said: “It’s great to see an old-fashioned rock group doing well. Justin and the boys have crushed all the bland pop acts that have dominated our charts. I hope they’re around for some time.”

Krystle says the Government is right to crack down on booze bingeing. She said: “We all like to enjoy a sociable drink every now and then. Like everything else, booze is fine in moderation. But some people are out of control. It’s got to stop.”

Krystle thinks it’s daft the Royals have banned Sun snapper Arthur Edwards from William’s next photocall. She said: “Arthur is a legend. It’s childish to try to punish him like this."

Do you get the idea that News in Briefs is actually all about --- family values? Here are a few more:

Shocked Katie (editor's note: Katie, 19, from Liverpool) was furious to hear how Britain’s jails are being blighted by political correctness. She said: “Criminals are in prison to be punished. Warders must be able to show they’re in charge and not have to pussyfoot around inmates.”

Ruth (Ruth, 23, from Bolton) is desperate to see Abu Hamza kicked out of Britain. She said: “He’s a sponger and he has got to go. I’m not at all surprised that the Sun has been swamped with support for its campaign.”

Zoe (22, from London) is certain Tony Blair was right to take Britain into the war with Iraq. She said: “You don’t need to be an international diplomat to realise the world is better off without Saddam. We should be proud of what has been achieved.”

Charlotte (19, from Ipswitch) reckons Tony Blair will be stunned by The Sun’s poll on the EU constitution. She said: “The PM will choke on his cornflakes when he reads how many Sun readers don’t want him to sign up to the constitution. In his heart of hearts, he knows they represent the country.”

Natasha (21, from Torquay) welcomed the Budget move to sweep away Whitehall waste. She said: “I don’t want my tax wasted on pen-pushers and bureaucrats. The axe should fall next on those in silly politically-correct council jobs.”

Those were from our tour in the London buro* a few years back, so as a responsible researcher, we asked Lexis-Nexis to bring us up to date:

Amii is saddened by Gordon Brown signing away British sovereignty. She said: "The people don't want this but he's done it anyway."

Rhian was left in fits of giggles by the mickey-taking "politically correct" Christmas card. She said: "It's a great idea -and shows up the silliness of the PC brigade."

Becky will be behind England's footie stars on Wednesday. She said: "Let's hope they show why they deserve a place at Euro 2008."

Keeley was delighted so many Sun readers backed an EU referendum. She said: "Britain has spoken. Now Gordon Brown must show he's a man of his word and let us vote."

Katie Marie congratulated England on beating the French --at CONKERS. She said: "William The Conquerer might have been a winner all those years ago. But now England always smashes the Frogs."

See what I mean? News in Briefs isn't about the naughty bits. Something else is going on. I thought it was English, but if Poppy's carrying on in the Scottish Sun, it might be something else. Transmarine readers, please advise.

*Don't use the Berkeley Square address! That's just there to yank Torchwood's chain. The London bureau is just south of Pembridge Square.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Science journalism: Dr. Evil edition

Are there worse things you can do to science than the run-of-the-mill "Men and Women: We're Still Different" stuff you see on the wires? Yes. And it's starting to look like a habit at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

When the tale above appeared in the No. 3 slot this afternoon, it sort of rang a bell -- kind of like the second story shown here, which was the No. 3 story last Friday. (It says rather a lot that when these stories fall off the homepage, they end up in the "politics" section.) Fox seems to have developed a new and fairly productive way of ferreting out important stories:

1) Troll the NIH for abstracts of studies that reflect the Wrong Sort of Values
2) Turn hotshot writer loose with lots of adjectives
3) You report, readers decide!

Just another fine example of the mentality of this administration. Cut spending on medicare and ss for our older people but give a lot of welfare to people who can still work but choose not to. And by all means, lets send more and more money to other countries for important matters like this.

Why go all the way to Argentina when all you have to do is hang out at MSNBC

Expect more of these wasteful programs as President Obama massively expands our government. This is why I oppose Obama and his Administrations views.

For those of you who feel strongly about this gigantic waste of money, perhaps you would like to let the study's author know how you feel, as I did.

Don't get things wrong. Fox likes science just fine, as long as it's space exploration, robots, pilotless attack aircraft -- you know, real science. But this other stuff ...

Government researchers are spending more than $400,000 in taxpayer money to hit the bars in Argentina.

The National Institutes of Health are paying researchers to cruise six bars in Buenos Aires to find out why gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while drunk -- and just what can be done about it.

You get the idea? We're out to curb "dangerous liaisons!" It's a two-year study, so we'll have "as many as 730 nights on the town."

Researchers plan to interview dozens of bar patrons and proprietors to help develop the on-site intervention programs -- and they mean to be exact. (Yes, the NIH appreciates it when you know what you're talking about.)

"Venue patrons will also undergo a brief quantitative assessment to gather descriptive data on sexual behavior and substance use among this sample," the study's abstract reads.

In layman's terms, that means they're asking drinkers to keep tabs on their quaffs and their quarry
(No it doesn't -- although Fox might have imported some elite news professionals from the British press, where you're more likely to find "quaffs," and it's as likely they're asking for self-report data on general sex/drug/booze habits as for keeping tabs on the "quarry"); fortunately for their more modest subjects, it's not a qualitative test too. (Jesus. Did you clowns even bother to read the abstract you linked to? The one that says "qualitative study consists of site observations of 6 venues"? Or do you not understand the distinction?)

An NIH official said that funds approved for the project include $275,000 for direct costs and an additional $125,000 in indirect costs, but would not elaborate. Though could not confirm the median price of cervezas in Buenos Aires, that should leave a lot of money for tips.

Get the idea? We're going to find all the NIH grant money awarded to a particular institution, then comb the titles for something that looks like it's wasted on foreigners. And show off our knowledge of Spanish in the bargain! (How Fox overlooked "Female Condom Use in South African College Students," one will never know.) Hence today's earth-shattering exclusive:

The federal government is spending $2.6 million to make sure prostitutes in China drink less on the job. (Easier and cheaper to leave that part up to the cops or the pimps. What the study wants to find out is whether it's possible to develop a program that induces people to cut down on risky behavior when they seem to be ignoring the laws or policies.)

That's the goal of a five-year study, bankrolled by the National Institutes of Health, designed to help lower HIV infections among China's "female sex workers," who are referred to in the study as "FSWs." (Yes, grant writers use the jargon of their craft. If it would make Fox feel better about the whole thing, we could call them "slinky Oriental dragon ladies," or "SODLs." Or "Harveys the Six-Foot Rabbit.")

Researchers will visit 100 houses of ill repute -- a whole hamlet of harlots -- to collect data on 700 prostitutes and 150 pimps and madams, referred to as "gatekeepers" in the study's sterile abstract.

Hamlet of harlots! Just hang on a few grafs and you'll get to the "bawds from Beihai." Somebody's been brushing up their Shakespeare (or borrowing the thesaurus again). Not that abstracts are supposed to be, oh, Shakespeare. For NIH grants, they're supposed to sum the project up for the reviewers.

Which sort of gets us to the point, doesn't it? These things don't go to the feminist studies faculty for review. Ward Churchill does not fund R01s. They're reviewed by people who do science, and those people are picky. These two projects come from a psychiatric hospital and a med school* -- neither one being the sort of institution known as a hotbed of liberalism. Both have start dates in fall '08, which allows the Fox readership to argue about whether they're Obama's fault or attributable to Nancy Pelosi and her satanic brood but doesn't tell you much about when they were approved, much less when they were first submitted.

None of which is pertinent to the folks at Fox, of course. Fox isn't interested in whether we might learn something useful about the circumstances under which people do more and less dumb stuff, or whether "doing dumb stuff" might have similar characteristics whether it's done in bars in Argentina* or airport restrooms in Minnesota. It wants you to know that liberals are wasting money on foreigners (who all have hopelessly bad habits anyway) because scientists are too stupid to figure out the obvious: People do dumb stuff when they're drunk!

Please don't miss the larger point. Science journalism isn't very good, but most of it isn't malificent. Fox journalism, on the other hand, is -- oh, how to put this? -- corrupt: anti-science and pro-stupid, not to mention nativist, pro-disease and a range of other unseemly traits, all in the service of its political masters. You can fix stupid, or at least you can try, but you can't fix evil.

* Couple blocks south of Motor City Brewing, turn left, can't miss it. I don't know the PI, but apparently we shop at the same IRB.
** Wouldn't it have been cool if he'd gotten an R21 to do the study in Venezuela? You can just see the little brains exploding.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Today's editing test

Are you ready to be a copy editor? Let's see:

One of the victims was Trenton resident Earl Hawley, 76. Anna May Hawley, who was pulled from the water by a family on a passing boat, was dismayed by the ruling.

"I'm very disappointed, but I guess there's nothing we could do," she said Monday, declining further comment.

Any questions for the reporter?

If you asked whether there's any relationship between these two people (which might explain why they were singled out for inclusion; after all, 20 people died and 27 survived), advance to the next level. "Well, obviously ..." and "Everybody can figure that out" won't cut it. We're not in the business of obvious, and anybody who could figure out that these two were married (they were) could figure out other plausible family relationships too. They could be siblings. Mother and son might be a stretch, but father and daughter isn't; as the NYT reported at the time, passengers ranged in age from 54 to 89.

Space is at a premium downtown these days, but there's space going to waste here. "Declining further comment" is the sort of thing you append to statements like "We stand by our story" or "I support the chairman a thousand percent" -- not to ones that actually address the question in a complete, relevant thought. And if we put the survivor first, it's clearer why these two are included:

Anna May Hawley of Trenton,* who was pulled from the water by a family on a passing boat, was dismayed by the ruling. Her husband, Earl, was among those who died.

Not perfect, but better, and sometimes a marginally better suggestion produces an even better answer from the reporter.

No story has room for every last detail, and not every question -- not even every question from the copydesk -- needs to be answered. "How long were they married?" isn't essential to this story. "Were they married?" is. Knowing the difference is part of the job.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Adventures in agenda-setting

You can come out of those fallout shelters now, kids! All the rocket scientists are busy using the "comment" function:

Now it is all about getting everything workers want and to heck with the employer who is forced out of business thru the unions demands. Resulting in jobs lost and people out of work. Why else do they call them Union Demands?

Dunno. Figure we could have a little more fun if we called 'em union "offers"?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Our sympathies, of course, are with the cat

From The Outer Hoard comes (slightly belated) notice that Media Watch, the Australian Broad- casting Corp.'s weekly program of media commentary and criticism, has been honored on its 20th anniversary. If you are annoyed at your news media, or if you've been having fun rereading A.J. Liebling of late, or if you think it's actually cool that a public-service broadcaster throws an elbow at the Murdoch apparat every now and then, you will want to surf around this wonderful buffet for a while.

You will note that the anniversary program itself, "20 Years: Stuff Ups, Beat Ups and Barneys," is rated "M" for "coarse language." That's not out of line; in Australia, media criticism seems to be a contact sport. The state of the American press might be substantially better if it became a contact sport here too.

Some of you real old-timers might see something familiar in the photo. True is is that the dreaded Dead Fish On Newspaper waved like the Jolly Roger in Chapel Hill rec-league softball in the early 1980s. But we only had it on a T-shirt; this guy did his year-end roundup with a dead fish on his desk. We have much to learn from these folks.

Apples and oranges

Further to the discussion below, here's the crosstown rival's latest on the Great Apple Flap at the World's Baddest J-School:

J-school official parses iPod ‘requirement’

Unusual, if only because it's one of the few known cases in journalism history in which the "comment" function has actually shed some light.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Wide World of Sports

Today's cool new lexical item comes from Lawro of the Beeb:

Man Utd v Man City (1330 BST)
If you're a United supporter then you always think this fixture as a banana skin.

Well, new to me, at least. "Banana skin" seems to be pretty well established in the British Isles:

Tomorrow, England start their tour to the West Indies with a three-day match in St Kitts, a place that should be able to provide more than the usual number of banana skins. (Times, Jan. 24)

The fourth-round tie remains a banana skin for the SPL team and McGhee is approaching the match the same way he would a game at nearby Aberdeen. (Sunday Star, Jan. 18)

There is a potential banana skin lying in wait for Dungannon Swifts who take on Downpatrick from the Amateur League. (Belfast Telegraph, Jan. 15)

"People might not have expected a hiccup but a lot of people looking for potential banana skins would have looked to McDiarmid Park, " he said. (The Herald, Glasgow, Jan. 14)

The stand-in skipper scored twice to help Arsene Wenger's Gunners avoid the potential banana skin laid down by Plymouth at the Emirates to earn a fourth-round clash at Cardiff. (The Mirror, Jan. 5)

First up is the banana skin of Italy at Twickenham, followed by games in Cardiff and Dublin. (The Sun, Jan. 1)

I don't know if the missing preposition (at least, "missing" from my perspective) in "think this fixture as a banana skin" is a typo or if it's standard. There's another in the following graf: Manager Sir Alex Ferguson will get his side fired up using the fact that City have set their sights matching them by proposing to sign big-name players.

Insights from readers across the pond are welcome.

"Banana peel" probably wouldn't work for baseball; there's just too much baseball for any particular game to be singled out that way. But it could come in handy for the winter sports. Especially if you staple one to a brick and buzz it at Dick Vitale.

Friday, May 08, 2009


My, we'll fall for almost anything downtown these days, won't we?

Pet psychic in spotlight on 'Oprah'
after helping find windswept Chihuahua*

The horse galloped out of the barn as soon as it saw her, but Lorrie the Pet Psychic didn't understand why. As the Holly-based seer made her way along the stalls, visiting the other animals, the rancher slipped away -- and the horse came back and started following her around.

Again, Lorrie was puzzled.

Then, the horse began to communicate with her, explaining that it was being abused by the owner. She, in turn, shared the mare's painful story with people who could help.

That rescue didn't catapult Lorrie -- who declines to use her last name -- into the spotlight (do you suppose there's a reason for that?), like her help finding a 5-pound Chihuahua swept away by the strong winds that battered the region last month, but it's a story that stands out amid her decades-long career.

"From my experience, they do communicate in English or through pictures," she explained Wednesday. (Don't tell me: The first thing the Chihuahua said was "I should like Taco Bell"?) "Sometimes, I hold gemstones and crystals. I don't use the tarot cards or crystal balls."

If we could suggest a generalizable rule from this: It's OK to talk to Local People who have been on Oprah. You can take them at their word when they say they talk to animals. But when they say the animals talk back, you need at least a little bit of attribution. Preferably to the animals themselves.

* No it wasn't. "Windswept" means swept by the wind. That's not the same thing as swept away by the wind.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Grammar for the naughty

Hey, kids! I bet you didn't know grammar could be this much fun!

Police say they caught a married county official having sex with another woman on the sidewalk in the Detroit suburb of Novi.

So, no peeking: Which of the two leading genders would you assign Commissioner Kim to? That depends on how you read "another woman": the Bad Country Song sense (a woman who isn't the wife of the subject), the literal sense (another in addition to the subject: Bluto and another Delta were caught stealing the exams) or the not-again sense (the dean was accused of mopery with another undergraduate).

If your answer is "So what?" -- welcome to Rewrite Club! The offense alleged here is indecent exposure, brought on by the couple's being caught "apparently having sex against a wall"* (as the AP so gently put it) outdoors at 2 in the morning. The law has an interest in stuff that scares the horses, not in who's trying out for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stick to the events and you can not only avoid sounding unhealthily puritanical about all sorts of stuff, you get a better lede in the bargain:

A county official was caught having sex on the sidewalk at 2 a.m. on a warm*** April Saturday in the Detroit suburb of Novi, police say.

One of the nice things about grammar is that if you leave it alone for a while, the pronouns will eventually cover most of your bases for you. As, for example, when the said commissioner "tells WXYZ-TV he 'started out with good intentions' when he began walking the woman home from a bar before his actions took a wrong turn."

* Or, as a treasured newspaper mentor once said of John Jenrette:** Hey, have one on the House.
** Oh, look it up.
*** Overnight low of 50 in this part of the county. I'd say that qualifies.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dan'l Webster, call on Line Two

Ahem. Would anyone at the World's Most Refulgent J-School have any further details?

The MU School of Journalism is requiring that all incoming freshmen have iPhones or iPod Touch devices to “help students adjust to freshmen year,” Associate Dean Brian Brooks said. “It also would allow them to record lectures and review it. Many schools are doing it now, and it seemed like a great idea to us.”

So in addition to the all-but-mandatory Apple laptop, we can now add another all-but-mandatory iProduct? And the quo pro all those quid is ...?

MU gets discounts for buying Apple products, but Brooks said the school will receive no additional discounts for mandating students to buy the iPhone or iPod Touch devices. Media representatives with Apple were not available for comment this morning.

Well, keep trying. At any rate, in the many years I have spent committing, teaching or commenting on the craft, I have yet to see a piece of journalism that would have been improved by the iPod. Granted, most reporting on quantitative social science would be better if you duct-taped an iPod to a baseball bat and hit the reporter upside the head with it, but in nearly all cases you can get equally good results without the iPod (just keep your weight on the back foot a little longer).

I hope we're at least getting a really, really big statue for the quad out of this. Or that we're really, really sure we got all the negatives.* Of all the sheep.

* Or Photoshops. Those crazy kids!

Make mine rare

Just to go ahead and spoil the fun, Roast is a restaurant in a downtown hotel. So there would have been several ways to avoid amusing the readership: "Roast's chef" or "Chef at Roast," say. Instead -- mmm, roast chef! Pass the mint sauce.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

His old man left him the paper

The "taxpayer" is always "overburdened," but it occurs to me as I write that he is always represented in editorial cartoons as a small, shabby man in underclothes and a barrel (the kind of fellow who if he had a wife, two children and no imagination would be caught for an income tax of about $8) and never as an unmistakably rich man, like, say, the proprietor of a large newspaper. The man in the barrel is always warned that a frivolous project like medical care for his aging parents is likely to double his already crushing tax burden. The implication is that the newspaper owner is above worrying about his parents, and of course he is, because his old man left him the paper.
-- A.J. Liebling, "The deserving rich"

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Adverbs gone wild II: Executing the survivors

Here's one of those interchangeable-time things I was hoping for an example of:

Man dies after being struck by car
An 18-year-old-man* was killed in southwest Detroit on Saturday night after he was deliberately struck by a car on Michigan Avenue following an argument.

Glitch much? It makes perfect sense to say he died after being hit by the car, but dying after an accident and being killed after an accident aren't quite the same thing. Hence the classic rescue-'em-and-shoot-'em hed from a few years back:

23 killed after turboprop crashes near Caspian Sea

The operating principle seems to be that time adverbs have a conjunctive sense -- A has something to do with B -- that overrides their time sense, partly driven by the widespread journalistic fear of saying something the same way twice. Here are a few more examples from recent days, both with an after/when swap from hed to lede:

Police: Woman killed after her car hits another, then overturns
Police said a North Carolina woman was killed Monday morning when her car sideswiped a vehicle, then hit another car, causing a chain reaction before overturning on First Colonial Road. (Virginian-Pilot, 4/28)

Uniontown man killed after motorcycle crash in Saltlick
A 74-year-old Uniontown man was killed Saturday afternoon when his motorcycle collided with a pick-up in Saltlick, state police at Uniontown reported. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/27)

Why not use "dies" for "(is) killed" in the heds? We don't even have the Elongated Yellow Fruit Syndrome to blame.

I don't think this particular bit of confusion is a long-term threat to democracy or free speech, and it probably isn't even too confusing for too awfully long. Still, it's a really strange habit to be so persistent in a trade that prides itself on its Guardianship of The Language. Makes you wonder whether we're wasting our effort holding the which/that line, doesn't it?

* Don't mind the hypenation; it's more or less random at the Freep these days.

Why we have editors

"You Haven't Lived Here Until ..." is a regular feature in the Sunday fishwrap, and today's topic is local place names (mostly resulting from the collision of French and English). If you wonder about stuff like why "St. Antoine" sounds like a planet in "Star Wars," or how to pronounce "Livernois,"* you can see why it's not just fun but Fun With A Purpose.

Alas, we have a little disagreement between map and text on how to say "Gratiot." The text says GRASH-it, and the map ... aw, you peeked! GRA-shit.

Add another to the Why We Have Editors list. It's nice to be right (and using both spellings is a way to cover that base**), but it's even nicer to be right and consistent, and it's almost as nice to look at the text with the eye of an adolescent. Readers have dirty minds. Editors should too.

* Neither of these is in the story, unfortunately.
** Language Czarina, who is a native speaker, is fine with GRASH-it.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Adverbs gone wild

Since we seem to have a nice influx (hi, Logsters!) of visitors interested in ghost adverbs and such, here's a "when" clause to sink your teeth into:

Eddie Hatcher, an American Indian activist, who was convicted of murder and attracted worldwide attention when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian newspaper, died of natural causes in prison. He was 51.

Quick, what happened during the Robesonian siege?
a) Murder
b) Hostage-taking
c) Both of the above
d) None of the above

It kinda depends on how you diagram the relative clause (which, by the way, strikes me as integrative, not supplemental, so I'd lose the comma after "activist"):

who ((was convicted of murder) and (attracted worldwide attention) when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian) ...

who (was convicted of murder) and (attracted worldwide attention when he and an accomplice took hostages at The Robesonian) ...

Which one do you like intuitively?* I bet it's the first one. It ain't Shakespeare, but it makes sense: two short verb phrases with the long subordinate clause explaining when it all happened. But the Robesonian siege was in 1988 (it ended without injuries), and the killing -- as the story on Hatcher's death** notes -- was in 1999.

Is it going to sound like a broken record if we count this as another Death of Editing story? One thing that sets newspapers apart from the garden-variety blog is institutional memory. Editors remember stuff that was a big deal a decade, or two decades, ago. Then they apply "grammar" -- not the unearthly admonitions of the "News Reporting and Writing" textbook, but the kind that lets you wire phrases into clauses and compare the different sorts of meaning you can get by doing the wiring differently. Then they ask you if you'd rather say what you mean or what you said, apply a headline, and move on to the next disaster. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There's an anecdote about a bag of hamburgers that goes here too, but I have a pile of grading to do. Please go to the blogroll at right and welcome John McIntyre back to the blogging world.

* I am so not calling on RayB, Strayhorn, Jane and anybody else who was committing journalism in that neck of the woods in those days. If you know the answer, don't spoil it for the rest of the class.
** "When did that happen?" is one of those "W" elements that -- you'd like to think -- might have aroused the curiosity of an editor, but the story doesn't mention it. Nor does the version at the originating paper, which appears to be the updated version from the pen of a staff writer (the wire coverage at the N&O Web site has "1988" in the hed)