Sunday, July 05, 2009

Go no more a-maying

We've had some discussion of late about the merits of "may" heds -- particularly, whether some are better or worse than others. I'm usually inclined to say that all "may" (could, might, &c) heds are equally evil, because they all fall short in the same way. They're always negatable, and thus they're always going to fall short at the basic mission of the headline: telling you at a glance some way in which the world is different from the last time you picked up the paper. Somebody might sue, but then again they might not -- why is it exactly I put those quarters in the newspaper rack again?

On collecting a few for display, though, you get a clearer idea that "may" heds do different kinds of evil in different ways. "Bones in X's Tomb might be X" is always going to fall short; it's never going to be truer today than it was yesterday, while "tests date bones in X's Tomb to Nth Century" is at least going to pass the basic test.* But it's not as harmful -- to pick one of the examples above -- as "Legal aid group may sue over contract fight."

Here's how that works, sort of. The burden of proof for filing a lawsuit is, oh, whatever the filing fee is in your jurisdiction; you pay the 60 bucks, you can demand redress from your senator for all those Black Masses he conducts with the county comptroller at the crossroads at midnight ever and everfor Amen. The burden of proof for finding a gullible reporter and suggesting that by golly you're going to file a lawsuit Any Second Now is the former minus the filing fee. It's what you do when you don't have the evidence, the [erm] fortitude or both to actually make a formal accusation. There are two correct responses to "Well, we're thinking about suing" or "We're gonna charge the guilty bastard any minute now":

1) Here's my number; could you call me as soon as you do?
2) My deadline's at [scary hour here]. Is there a number I can call to see whether you have filed?

And needless to say, pace Gus Harwell, it ain't a lawsuit until it has a number -- meaning, among other things, that you can invoke the defense of privilege if you're quoting a real lawsuit or a real charge, but not if you're quoting (oh, what's that damn legal term?) so much hot air from cops or pressure groups. "Might sue" and "may be charged" go in the category of inexcusable deck-stacking. They are the worst of the worst, acceptable under no circumstances. Shun them without fail.

"Palin's resignation may hurt her future" is a different sort of offense, because -- you in the back there? Right. It's stupid! The resignation might hurt her future, and then again it might not! If we don't have the evidence or [hem hem] wherewithal to offer an educated explanation as to which, perhaps we should stick to what we do know (i.e., here are some supposedly educated guesses from some supposedly knowledgeable people), which might be the better story anyway.

And here's a third category of "may" hed (yes, sorry, had to dig around in the Fox files a little): "may" as a way of saying "you should pay attention to today's news because it might remind you of one of those Really Important Stories you've been demanding answers to." These heds appeared on Fox on consecutive days in October 2006:**

Body in woods may be missing Va. student
Body found may be missing N.Y. mother

Why? Because a really truly super-important story at Fox is going to look like this:

A badly decomposed human body discovered Wednesday by a cleaning crew on the shores of the Des Plaines River prompted speculation that the find could be connected to one of the Chicago area's high-profile missing women cases, and sparked hope for families looking for closure.

Bonus points if you can identify either of the missing-woman cases (the "speculation" was about two cases, though each case is about one missing woman), and no points at all if you recall that the remains turned out to be of the male persuasion, because you're just spoiling the fun. I mean, why waste a perfectly good body when you have High-Profile Cases you can speculate about?

I think we can conclude that there are no good "may" heds, only more and less awful ones. So the plea to editors remains: Why not talk about what is, rather than about what might be?

* Yes, it ought to have some way of signaling "plus or minus Y, at 95% confidence"; I'm open to suggestions on how to accomplish that.
** No, I do not make this stuff up. If I could make this stuff up, I would even now be sitting in my hot tub*** overlooking the Hollywood Hills and pondering where the next few billions would go.
*** All right, probably not. But there is that patch of land in Ashe County to think about.



Anonymous RJ said...

I thought of your blog yesterday while I was reading the mail. I received a letter telling me that the average savings for switching to this brand of car insurance was $359.90 per year. It went on to tell me that "Some people save more!" The automatic response in my head: "And some save less!"

Thanks for the good work.

10:54 AM, July 07, 2009  

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