Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fast away and all that stuff

Hail yet another new year, ye lads and lasses, fa la la la freakin' la and all that.

We're sealed in with glasses at the ready and hope all of you are similarly situated. Thus, we now sign off for 2009, and please accept best regards for the onrushing year from me, Czarina, Woodchuck and Bernie.

It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it

A little too much Stephen Colbert running through the copy editor's mind here? Put a "-y" on something and you get some sort of adjective that means, oh, something?

There is an adjective "catchy," and it means pretty much what it's meant forever (or since the early 19th century, to hear the OED tell it): "Adapted to catch the attention or fancy; attractive, ‘taking.'" The examples include "a catchy, stage-like effect" and "catchy tunes." We're looking for a different adjective: as Shakespeare put it, "sicknesse is catching."

This is one of the ways language changes. People make mistakes, more people make the same mistake, still other people use it because it seems to make sense, and eventually, sometimes, it stops being a mistake. But you can't decree that new meaning with a wave of the editorial wand. This one's just an error.

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The year on Planet Fox

Dunno. Where was they?

Anyway, the year-end roundup at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network is as nice an illustration of the "paranoid style" as we could ask for:

From radical advisers in the Obama White House to hacked e-mails showing questionable work by climate scientists, 2009 has seen its share of scandals. But if you only followed the mainstream media, you might have missed some of the biggest stories of the year.

This is the sort of clever, bank-shot question-begging that the F&B's excel at. Through the rose-colored 4-D glasses sold on Planet Fox, all those advisers are "radical," the e-mails actually illustrated "questionable work," and the tea party movement really was a national groundswell born of the Boston Massacre, the shelling of Fort McHenry and the Manchurian candidacy of B. Hussein O-Bow-Ma. One "czar" wants mandatory abortions, another wants the children raised at least to molestable age and your neighborhood ACORN office is ready to import enough teenage prostitutes to swing the balance either way as soon as the prevaricator-in-chief stops dithering.

There's a reason, of course, that "the mainstream media never touched the controversy" about John Holdren. There wasn't one, and no amount of lunatic quote-mining could bring one into existence. If there's a controversy at all amid this torrent of fabricated threats to the American way of life, it's the Times's apparent willingness to roll over in the face of it.

Anybody still need a New Year's resolution? When the herald from Planet Fox shows up at your newsroom demanding to know why you're suppressing the 2010 version of Climategate, let your model of responsible journalism be Walter Burns: Tell him his poetry smells and kick him downstairs.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Spelling by ear: If we don't ban together ...

What do you make of this hed? Accident -- a typo that got past an already short-staffed desk (with deadlines pushed up for the holiday, occurring atop the sort of breaking story that tends to crash in right on deadline anyway)? Or a deliberate choice, produced by someone who's used to hearing "bantogether" but not used to seeing "band together" written?

Language Czarina was pretty convinced it was a typo (not a bad strategy -- when in doubt, bet on human error). I wanted to hold out hope for the spell-by-ear option. Then I saw this, among the comments on a story elsewhere:

People will not ban together with a boycott if this happens.

So I'm a little more inclined to think it was intentional. What do you characters think?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Forbidden heds

No, don't. "Bowled over" is on the list of permanently banned hed cliches. It is the Omega unto the Alpha of "Ready for some football?"

Run it not, nor suggest it, nor let thy fingers dawdle over the B-O-W-L-D-O-V-R keys, lest thy name have an awful black mark next to it when the last trump sounds and Great Cthulhu comes forth with a copy of the bulldog edition and a dismayed look on his face. For that will not be pretty, amen.


Monday, December 28, 2009

Making stuff up: Don't

Must be rough making newspapers come out in Florida this week. One day, it's the super-most-important story in the history of the world in space: ZOMG COACH QUITS!! Next day, it's the super-most-important retracted story in the history of the world in space: ZOMG COACH UNQUITS!!

There are several ways to handle this correctly, sticking at all times to the general principle that heds should be about what happened, rather than what might happen at some indeterminate time in the future. St. Pete used the snarky but accurate "Meyer flips on his exit." Charlotte offered a commendably sane reefer: "Florida coach changes his mind about resigning."

There are also several ways to do it wrong, and one of the worst is Fort Lauderdale's, shown above: "Meyer won't quit." Let's go to the videotape here, Fort Lauderdale. One day the guy quits. The next day he says, hmm, not so fast. Is there anything you could do that's dumber than declaring in big type that he is or isn't going to do something tomorrow?

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

A knight in shining armor

Sure beats polyester, doesn't it?

If you wrote the hed, it probably makes perfect sense to you. The county is involved in a dispute with a guy from Georgia about a deal to pick up surplus metal from the fairgrounds. It has sued him and has moved for summary judgment (a hearing is set for Tuesday). He wants a jury trial (hearing the week after that).

The hed might even make sense if you've been keeping up with the case religiously since summer. For the rest of us -- pass the oil can.


The press in action

Interesting choice of a front-page visual element for the airline bombing attempt: "Reporters take part in a briefing at the arraignment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab at the hospital where he was being treated for burns." It's not self-indulgent (at least, not in the way that running a photo of your own reporters would be), but it does say some things about the public understanding of public events.

In a way, it's why people say a disaster or accident was "just like a movie." This is the part of the movie where the DA emerges to face a crowd of reporters shouting questions. Except for the parka and a few similar details, it could be right out of a studio-era crime film. It's not an iconic photo -- building in ruins, firefighter emerging from rubble with baby -- so much as an official signal of the sort of event we're seeing.

The hed strikes me as strange too -- as if it's hedging something it just declared. If there's a "plane plot" involving a character who was subdued by fellow passengers after trying to set off a bomb, it seems pretty self-evident that there are "terror ties." The kicker is the clue. I expect the hed writer is using "terror" as a synonym for "Qaida" (which would fit just fine in the main hed), and that's worth a little more caution. I don't have a problem with calling Qaida "terrorist"; what I'd like to head off is the suggestion that if it isn't Qaida, it isn't terrorism.

Several years back, the Tacoma paper explained its decision not to front a grisly Kashmir-related attack in Mumbai by contending that -- absent a link to the U.S. -- it represented a regional conflict and didn't rise to the level of "international terrorism." Today's example is nowhere near that level of blinkered exceptionalism, but it does suggest that the U.S. media still have trouble talking about terrorism.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

A star in the East

Comfort and joy to all you Usual Suspects, regular visitors and irregular visitors. May your days be merry and bright.

And now, Bernstein J. Firecat (right) with his rendition of "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem." Take it away, boys.

Christmas in the trenches

Just a reminder that Some Networks never cease their vigilance in the Long War on Christmas:

Global warming skeptics are blasting Build-A-Bear Workshop for being anything but soft and cuddly, accusing the well-known toy company of trying to indoctrinate young children with a series of videos warning of the effects of climate change.

Rest ye merry, you poor paranoid schmucks.


Everybody needs an editor

You can imagine how a big old mug shot of an angry robin* will get you to reading inside:

In 40 years Cypriots have given Britain kebabs, easyJet, George Michael and Stavros Flatley.

Set against these varied gifts is a rather less palatable practice that is currently in full swing. In Cyprus they are trapping British robins, roasting them and eating them for dinner.

Form square men! The Navy's here! Details of this outrage?

... At the table they are generally gobbled down whole, after diners have spat out the feet and beak. Like the Queen of the nursery rhyme, two diners might eat four and twenty of the birds in a single sitting and pay €80 (£70) for the privilege.

Readers on the far side of the Atlantic are encouraged to check in at this point, but -- wasn't it the King who was served the four and twenty birds?

* Be not deceived. As Language Czarina points out, the one in "Mary Poppins" is an American robin.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

That's that

Add to your list of ledes to be shot on sight: the "that's what."

"That's what" doesn't show up in the lede itself. It begins the second paragraph after an unsupported assertion, like this:

Embattled political consultant Sam Riddle not only pointed a shotgun at his live-in girlfriend when she apparently caught him with another woman, but he cocked the weapon, too.

That's what Magistrate Renee McDuffee said in setting a $25,000 bond for Riddle during his Tuesday arraignment on charges of felonious assault and using a firearm to commit a felony.

Unless you're James Thurber (which you aren't), the results will make you look silly. Except when you're dealing with cop stories, in which case it makes you look like a shill for the cops. Don't. Any lede that requires "that's what" attribution in the following graf is a Lede of Satan and must be destroyed or kicked back for rewriting.

This outstanding late entry in the Zeugma of the Year contest is also worth noting:

He also must stay away from former state Rep. Mary Waters, with whom he shared a townhouse on Navarre Place in Detroit and federal charges for alleged bribes to secure approval for a pawnshop to locate in Southfield.

Don't tell me. He made up his mind and a grab for the shotgun?


When Wal-marts go bad

From the Annals of Noun- Noun Modification, courtesy of Collegetown's best morning daily.

Take that, vehicle.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

News and propaganda

Here's an interesting bit of evidence in the ongoing debate about whether Fox News is fundamentally a news organization or a propaganda organization. Revisions to GDP estimates are a fairly routine sort of story. They aren't emergencies or surprises; they happen at regular times in regular places, and, like sporting events, their news value depends in part on how much the actual outcome diverges from the expected outcome.*

What distinguishes this example is not the data itself but the way it's categorized for Fox readers. GDP growth is an objective element in the happiest sense of the term: there's an agreed definition and way of measuring it, so you can report it without accusations of bias. But at Fox, it's not a biz story or an economy story or a national story; it's placed under "politics."

Notice something else? Comments are enabled. Readers don't get the chance to "speak up" or "join the conversation" on every story at Fox, as they do at many other news outlets. I don't know if anyone's established a conclusive pattern yet, but it looks as if Fox doesn't bother with comments on stories that don't fit a kind of ritualistic, let's-sit-at-the-bar-and-bitch-about-the-old-days function.

The capture above shows no comments so far. If I were the betting sort, I'd bet that the first comments would be from these general categories:

How's that HOPE and CHANGE working out for you now?
10% unemployment doesn't feel like a "recovery" to me.
Worst and most corrupt administration in history.

For you media-effects fans out there (or Language Log visitors who kept up with the weekend's framing discussion), this is a highly testable bit of media framing: Does it make a difference in attitudes or depth of processing to categorize a GDP story as "politics" rather than "economics"? Under the right circumstances, it probably does. I don't think Fox knows that, in the sense that it hasn't tested the effect among 160 extra-credit-seeking undergraduates in a survey class somewhere, but that doesn't mean it isn't a deliberate ideological choice.

* NB: The story has moved up to the No. 2 position, with the hed "3Q Growth Marred By GDP Slowdown." As is often the case at Fox, it's hard to tell whether the hed reflects dishonesty or simple incompetence. The GDP didn't "slow down"; it didn't increase as much as the initial estimate had suggested. Funny thing is that at Fox, that category of error only happens on one side of the aisle.

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Routines and WTF heds

Quick, you non-Ohio readers, what does this hed mean? More specifically, is it a noun phrase:

Children's major player in tumor war (arrested after high-speed chase)

Children's major player in tumor war (is invisible 6-foot rabbit)

or a completely formed hed?

It's the latter, but a couple of routines -- one general to the craft, one specific to this area* -- make it almost incomprehensible to the non-clued-in. Here's the lede:

As they work to unravel the genetics behind 20 killer tumors, researchers across the country will receive many of the samples they need from Nationwide Children's Hospital.

In context, "Children's" isn't any less sensible than "Beaumont" or whatever you call your nearest** Houses of Healing. Where did the fire victims end up? "They're at Children's." But without a cue, you really can't read the hed without the story, and that's not good.

You can also pass the time playing Pin the Linking Verb on the Noun:

Children's major is player in tumor war
Children's major player in tumor is war

... but that's getting a little excessive.

* Though it probably obtains, at least a little, in other cities where there's an institution called Children's Hospital.
** Consider this the standard plea to help stamp out "local," as in "the victims were rushed to a local hospital."

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Hey, whatever

It is called the Motor City for a reason. The natives don't travel to and from the office on broomsticks powered by tofu and angel tears. Road directions and rules are generally organized to help cars get from place to place with minimal interference from those pesky humans.

Thus, my favorite combination of signage so far in the whole state, if not in the entire world in space. It's at the head of the 696 entry ramp at the easternmost checkpoint on the Ferndale border, and the Saturn has a case of cognitive dissonance every time we use the Stop/No Stopping route.


Lessons in hed writing

Today's tip: Make your heds more exciting by leaving out those pesky qualifiers!

The homepage hed says "won't reduce deficits." The hed on the inside page is duller: "CBO: Senate Health Bill Won't Reduce Deficits Quite as Much." And the lede?

The Congressional Budget Office said Sunday that the Senate health care bill would not reduce long-term federal deficits as much as previously estimated, acknowledging that it made an "error" in its original analysis.

It should be noted that the story has a Fox creditline and no AP shirttail, suggesting that it's a purely Fair 'n' Balanced product. Good thing the hed writers got the important part right!

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Who did what to whom?

What takes the minds at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network off Carbonhagen, missing moms and the dawn of Nazi Communist socialized Mafia Chicago medicine? Celebrities! Diagramming party to action stations for this one:

TMZ reports Murphy's mother found the actress unconscious in the shower, and was in full cardiac arrest and started CPR.

Ghosts of textbooks past

Sometimes you can almost guess which skeletal page from which shroud-wrapped edition of which greisly textbook is sending tremors through the writers downtown.

Does "or more appropriate, Secret Santa" sound a little strange? The workbook-standard concept ended up as question 14 (part 4) on the first-round version of the old J110 style exam, on which you're supposed to change a sentence-initial "more importantly" to "more important." Why? Because, erm, well ... it's short for "what is more important," so it can't be the perfectly logical sentence adverb "more importantly." I mean, why go to the trouble of figuring out why people do what they do when you can follow the textbook and get the point?

Another one from today's A section:

With fewer than two weeks left in the year, the U.S. Senate on Saturday passed legislation that extends until the end of February eligibility deadlines for some key unemployment benefits.

Why "fewer than" two weeks? Because the book says numbers get "more than" and "fewer than"! One problem with that, though, is that we're not counting time in weeks here. "Fewer than two weeks" is one week or no weeks, not the 13 days that were (was?) on the clock when the lede was written. "Less than" isn't just idiomatic, it makes better sense -- but why make sense when you have a rule to follow?

And this:

For Monday, a 60% chance of snow exists.

Ever wonder why there's so much existing in news language? Might be a relic of the j-academy's occasional flirtation with General Semantics -- specifically, the part in which "be" verbs turn people into some sort of Whorfian zombies. Any reason not to say "there is" a particular chance of snow? Just the shadow of a textbook.

None of which is to say there's no editing at all downtown. Here's one from a wire story on the health care debate:

He also noted he successful­ly had fended off attempts to provide for a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

Want to know what the AP sent?

He also noted he had successfully fended off attempts to provide for a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers.

That's not the sort of adverb I'd spend a lot of time defending (when you fend something off, you succeed at fending it off), but moving the poor thing is a waste of editorial time with no conceivable improvement in the sentence. If you want to show me you're working, bring me the head of an "it's official." Or go over to the sports desk and cudgel the person who kept 'em from having a "celebrate"-free cutline day.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hat trick of evil

Looks like Santa Cliche came early for the folks downtown. Packed into a mere two inches across the bottom of the front, we have:

An "it's official" (garnished with "butts out")

An "it's not easy being green"

And a double dose of Christmas song titles!

When you wring the institutional memory out of your newsroom, you're not just losing the people who remember whether two streets cross where the story says they do. You're also losing the people whose job is to gently remind reporters (and editors) that "It's not easy being green" and the like weren't original the last five dozen times we saw them.


Friday, December 18, 2009

3-2, top of the 9th

"Inconven- ient truth" had a good showing at midweek, with frontpage heds Tuesday and Thursday, but "con- ference in disarray" is fighting back to take the lead!

And don't forget to visit our concession stands for your Fox bobbleheads:

Assembled world leaders cheered on the socialist strongman during a rousing attack on all things capitalist at the Copenhagen climate conference. Chavez's prime-time climate speech included references to Obama as the "Nobel Prize of War."

...The Venezuelan president used the international forum Wednesday to slime developed nations for creating an "imperial dictatorship" that rules the world, urging his audience to "fight against capitalism," the "silent and terrible ghost" that was haunting the elegant conference chambers in the Danish capital.

...Calling on spiritual leaders as varied as Jesus, Muhammad and Karl Marx, Chavez bellowed that climate discussions were going on behind closed doors and draft agreements remained "top secret."

"The text presented is not democratic or inclusive," said Chavez, who has made it a practice in his native Venezuela to close opposition newspapers, radio stations and TV networks, and jails dissident politicians on spurious charges.

...Chavez regularly regales a captive audience of millions of Venezuelans on his weekly "Alo Presidente" talk shows, the marathon TV and radio sessions that give him space to rail against the bourgeoisie, excoriate the U.S. and even sing a ballad when the mood strikes.

By comparison, his Copenhagen screed was brief, but was certainly gobbled up by many delegates in attendance who let out a nervous laugh as he attacked President Obama.

...But the commandante did manage to address climate change itself, warning of the dangers posed by the failure to rein in carbon emissions and give aid to the Third World.


Not that often, actually

The bar is always set high for second-person ledes, and this is among the reasons why:

How many times have you cast aside a craving for sushi just to appease a raw-fish-repulsed dining companion?

Generally, you don't want your pronouns to tell readers at the outset that they aren't welcome in your world. Ledes that implicitly ask "are you a Charlotte yupster who's stuck with the sort of friends who still think salt, pepper and Sweet-n-Lo are fine herbs and spices?" poke a chopstick in the reader's eye. Don't do that.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adventures in agenda-setting

Here are three glimpses of how the Copenhagen conference has looked on the Fair 'n' Balanced Network at various points throughout the day (top to bottom, roughly 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.).

From the first two examples, you could reasonably conclude that someone had "U.N. climate conference in disarray as ..." cued up and ready to go. When it didn't seem to stick to Ms. Hedegaard's resignation (which looks about as procedural as it's being described elsewhere; even the Times, Fox's Murdoch bedmate, seems unable to work up a lather about the issue), it's applied to the lagging negotiations. Then the disarray is pushed downpage by -- could it be? Newt Gingrich brandishing the Constitution?

Invoking the Constitution is right up there with mentioning Al Gore for stirring up the troops. Have a look at the comments section and you can see why:

we must not forget that in obama's NPR interview of 2007 he made it clear that his goal is to destroy the constitution of the United States. That the founding fathers got it all wrong and the entire document needs to be re-written. Everything he has done so far is systematically leading to this end - his stated goal. The false "Global warming" is just a step along the way. Rationed health care is another arrow in his quiver.

I just hope the military remembers their oath to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.

The people are so fed up with the dictatorial tendencies of this administration--which they put on public display day after day--that a real 'uprising' is a definite possibility. Those who support the Constitution have become a tinderbox of revolution, but a justifed one intended to merely return the US to its original design--that being one of a Republic governed by a Constitution with the people protected by the Bill of Rights.

The paranoid style isn't just alive and well; it has its own TV network.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prepositional phrase of the week

Strayhorn onpasses this lost-and-a-long-way-from-home example:

It follows the precedent established by Michael Jackson in 1993 when he stretched a $20 million settlement to a boy who claimed to have been molested over 20 annual payments.

I'm not inclined to add the Daily Beast to the reading list just yet -- certainly not until I am satisfied as to the Beast policy for the War. But it's always good to know that writers in the Brave New Age can still kick a modifier up into the cheap seats.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Annals of elongated yellow fruit

Today's winner of the Elongated Yellow Fruit Syndrome award:

Rescue groups and the Michigan Humane Society said they have seen an influx of pet rabbits in the past few months, surrendered by own­ers who either can no longer afford them or are over­whelmed with the responsibili­ty of caring for the floppy­-eared creatures often picked up on a whim at Easter or the Michigan State Fair.

Runner-up, this hat trick from the international desk:

An attacker hurled a statuette at Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, striking the leader in the face at the end of a rally Sunday in Milan, Italy, and leaving the stunned 73-­year-old media mogul with a bloodied mouth, police said.

No real reason not to turn this into two sentences, which would make it easier to get the time and place next to the hurling, rather than the striking. (It's not like the assailant was standing in Turin and hurling statues, one of which landed in Milan half an hour later.) Ledes get especially turgid sometimes because writers fear that if it isn't in the first sentence, it isn't in the lede. We could fix that, you know.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Want a rule? Here's a rule

Today's lesson in How to Tell if You're Really a Copy Editor: What's the first thing you thought of when you saw this hed?

Need a hint? You were probably reminded of it in the sixth graf: The percentage of suicide victims who force police officers to shoot them is increasing.

Right. If you're really a copy editor, you're asking what the "percentage" is today, what it was in the previous reporting period, how long those reporting periods are, and how the writer is going to demonstrate that the alleged increase corresponds with a real trend -- in other words, that some number the writer doesn't really understand hasn't risen slightly in this six-month (or five-year, or 10-year, or three-week) period after seven straight declines.

Well, don't hold your breath. The story goes on for 1,300-plus words, and not a one of them supports the assertion that suicide-by-cop is increasing. That's not to say the anecdotes at hand aren't true or pertinent or poignant; it's to say that if the story was sold as a trender, it's fundamentally bogus. When doubts arise on that score, it's an editor's job to hold up the train until the evidence is brought forth -- not, as happens here, to amplify the unsupported assertion in GREAT BIG TYPE.

There's a potentially good story in here, but it's hidden inside a really bad one. The lede is tank-town Edna Buchanan:

Anything but prison.

That may be what a 32-year-old Chesterfield Township man charged with retail fraud thought last month when he complained to Macomb County sheriff's deputies about not feeling well.

And then again, it may not! Since we can't know, how about if we don't speculate? But at least. The fragments. Aren't going to get lonely:

He avoided prison.

By going to the morgue.

If you're scoring along at home, the second lede* is longer and almost completely unmoored from reality:

In a world of do-it-yourselfers, they leave the most important decision of their lives in someone else's hands.

Specifically, their trigger fingers.

But the underlying point's the same, and it's equally unsupported. Note how often stuff that looks like evidence crops up, and how little it has to do with the basic assertion (that something's happening more often at Time B than at Time A). Eighth graf:

"You didn't hear about that many in my 47 years, but all of sudden, you hear it emerging that law enforcement across the country is dealing with it more often than ever before," said Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer, who said he dealt with suicide-by cop both in his current job and as Farmington Hills' top cop about once a year.

"All of a sudden" and "more often than ever before" are fine, but they're anecdotes, not evidence. If anything, since our source reports that the raw numbers are roughly the same -- "about once a year" -- for his current job and his former one,** we're even more justified in asking how the story plans to support its main claim.

Here's the third graf after the don't-call-it-a-jump:

A growing number of people who want to kill themselves are instead leaving the bloody work to those who are trained to kill when necessary.


A 2009 study by American and Canadian researchers found that 36% of officer-involved shootings from 90 North American police departments over an 18-year period were such so-called suicide-by-cop situations.

And 36% over 18 years indicates ... exactly what trend again? Here's another:

Indeed, research published this year in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that 95% of suicide-by-cop cases were men. Sixteen percent were known to have tried taking their own lives before, 4% by attempted suicide-by-cop.

Which demonstrates the increase how?

... The phenomenon also played a role in the 2003 Colin Farrell film "Phone Booth" and 10 years earlier in Michael Douglas' "Falling Down." (Oh, please.)

... "They don't want to do it themselves. It's forcing us to play their hand, making us do it," Tamsen explained, adding that the increase in suicide-by-cop he has noted over the last three to four years could be due to increased drug and alcohol use, depression linked to a lousy economy or society growing more violent overall.

He's welcome to his socio-cultural guesswork, but if he's "noted" an "increase," he ought to have some numbers. What are they, and how do they compare with other sets of numbers around the country? If his officers -- he's the chief in Taylor, in Wayne County -- "have to use deadly force in this manner two to three times a year," as the story asserts, how many civilians are they killing overall? (Put another way, if it's usually two or three a year and the most recent case was last December, isn't our trend going in the opposite direction from what the hed says?) Do newspapers still look this stuff up before reporting it?

More sociology from an earlier source:

Dwyer pointed to increases in unemployment, divorce, mental and physical health problems and domestic violence as possible explanations for the suicide-by-cop trend.

Should we think about throwing in Krakatoa, the designated hitter and Times v. Sullivan as well? Because we still aren't any closer to demonstrating a "suicide-by-cop trend."

Aside from the ledes -- breathless and tasteless, respectively -- there's a lot of genuinely inept writing here (count the number of times "explained" is used as attribution with a direct quote, if you're getting bored). That's the sort of thing editors fix. But editors can't fix stuff that isn't there. A story that makes broad trend-like claims isn't ready to run until it has some evidence to support those claims. No matter how telling the anecdotes look, if they don't address the main shortcoming of the story, they can go wait on the sidetrack until something does.

So there's a rule for you. If you're going to assert a change, provide the evidence, or your story doesn't run. Period.

And people wonder why copy editors have cats, rather than scores of Best Friends Forever among the ranks of upwardly mobile reporters.

* Because of the Freep's bizarre anti-jump policy, it's actually two stories in print. The hed here is on 7A, and the bulk of the story (hedded "Suicide-by-cop cases are growing," same as the version) is on 11A. The lede on 11A is the graf in the online version after the first subhed ("More cases").
** "Top cop" is the Freep trying to talk its way back into the 1940s. I'm getting a little tired of it.


The whom by numbers

Two in one day! That means we can write a trend story, doesn't it?

The 48-year-old -- whom she said was 12 days into what already was a troubled marriage -- killed his mother-in-law and then holed up in his Macomb County home for several hours before he came out firing at police.

It was the home of a retiree named Tom, a typically quiet man whom she says traveled the neighborhood by scooter due to a World War II injury.

Seriously? If you're going to guess, just guess "who." You have just as good a chance of being right (if not better), and if you're wrong, you can claim to be on the forward edge of language change.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Question of the morning

I don't know. For that matter, as far as I can tell, neither does the Orlando Sentinel. Indeed, from the story, you can't tell whether the bear has been caught ("On Friday night, they caught her") or not ("wildlife officials have said they will euthanize the bear, if they can trap the one suspected in Thursday night's contact with Stamm").

Nor can you tell whether the food was pet food inside the door or people food outside ("It possibly looked like chicken containers"), or whether it was placed around the house by human hand or something rooting through the trash, or even whether the victim-slash-suspect has been charged: It's "could face charges" on the front but "faces a second-degree misdemeanor charge" in the story. About all you can tell is that Orlando doesn't put much value on reading stuff before it's published. And that isn't a good idea.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Sarah Palin, doctoral candidate

Enjoyed the Sarah Palin op-ed on climatology and Carbonhagen, did we? Should it have run or should it have been left out on the plain for polar bears to eat? The Post is happy with it;* others disagree. I want to take a bit of a detour into the pile of Neat Stuff That Keeps Getting Pushed Into The Background before getting back to Palin.

A few months back, Jan Freeman brought up a good example of the general concern that's at issue here -- why does journalism's claim of relentless accuracy fall apart so badly on the opinion pages? Her case in point was Maureen Dowd rehashing the specious claim that women are just getting gloomier all the time (as Jan pointed out, the sort of thing Language Log excels at skewering). And Jan is, as usual, worth quoting at some length:

But then, the next day (or two), the letters column teems with contributions from people who have swallowed the guff entire and are busily spinning theories to explain the nonexistent "trend" (feminism! contraception! rock 'n' roll!).

It seems to me that a responsible press, even if it allows columnists to Make Stuff Up -- not that I approve of that -- should resist helping readers spread the false information. (One would hope a refutation would come in, and be printed, but that rarely seems to happen.) ... Have J-educators ever addressed this in a formal way?

Not so much that I know of. I'm open to contradictory evidence here, but when questions of that sort come up, J-education -- like journalism in general -- defaults quickly to a version of the "balancing" norm: print both sides (feminism! no, rock 'n' roll!) and let people make up their own minds. It's tempting to say this has been around forever, but it's actually been around since the late 19th century, whence we get a lot of the building blocks of objectivity.

You can see why critics of science reporting put "balancing" high on their lists of journalism's faults. The classic contention is that routines like this are what allowed the tobacco industry to game the system so well for so long. So here's a suggestion from the tag end of a paper** at the latest AEJ conference: We're categorizing content the wrong way. We stovepipe it vertically -- reporting, analysis, comment, editorial -- when we ought to be slicing it horizontally: Stuff that's true and stuff that isn't true. Put in terms we could take into the classroom, stuff that's falsifiable and stuff that isn't, or presentation of evidence and presentation of argument.

The balancing norm doesn't necessarily make for bad journalism. It makes for bad science journalism, but journalism was a kind of political communication long before it was a kind of science communication. If we carve the categories differently, we can start to make a better assessment of the stuff on the op-ed pages as well as the stuff on the news pages.

That doesn't mean Maureen Dowd isn't allowed to pontificate about how hard is the fortune of all womankind. It means an editor needs to bring her up short when she misinterprets or fabricates research results to support her lament (and, of course, that when Cal Thomas lies about the electoral practices of leaders he doesn't like, he's called to account as well). Ideally, it would also mean that the news pages introduce a new level of caution. When one source introduces a piece of evidence and the balancing response is an ad hominem attack, news stories no longer pretend the two are equal: "Asked to respond, Smith instead attacked Jones's character."

What does that have to do with Sarah Palin? Gov. Palin is a prominent American political figure whose views are evidently of great importance to adherents of both major parties. She's also malicious, dishonest and (quite frequently) laugh-out-loud stupid. That poses a particular challenge to the WashPost op-ed*** folks: Is Palin offering political opinions, which we encourage and publish, or is she asserting facts, which need to pass the same tests they do in the real world?

Short answer, a bit of both. Palin lies a little bit (the e-mails in question don't show deliberate destruction and manipulation), but the column isn't drastically more dishonest than some of her campaign stunts from 2008. She employs the same sort of ad hominem attacks that have long given the lie to her leave-my-family-alone schtick (if the Climategate perps are "so-called experts," critics are justified in describing Palin as a "so-called governor"). And -- like it or not -- she indulges in the sort of straight-up political speech that we take to the barricades to defend.

It's skidding up to the edge of dishonesty (Palin was a point guard; you expect her to move well with the ball) to claim that "this scandal obviously calls into question the proposals being pushed in Copenhagen." To believe that, you have to have spend a lot of time sharing the nitrous oxide mask with your friends at But like her or not, when Palin makes cost-benefit claims -- "We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs" -- we're obliged to put them forward. Doesn't matter if she could put together a sentence that long on her best day or not; cost-benefit arguments are what the "balancing" arguments of objective journalism are all about. But if you can't tell arguments from the evidence that does or doesn't support them, you came to the wrong party.

The Guardian**** has a phrase for it: Opinions are free, facts are sacred. The Palins and Dowds and Thomases are welcome to their opinions. When they claim to base those opinions on facts, they should have the facts at hand, and the facts should resemble the sorts of things we can trust in the real world. If the asserted facts don't match the offered evidence -- well. come on,WashPost! The obligation to consider is not an obligation to print.

*And let the record show that the world will not be the same without Editor & Publisher. RIP.
** Now out under review, so ... go destabilize that peer-review process, kids!
*** Disclosure-wise, the op-ed editor in question was a HEADSUP-L member from the earliest Listserv days. Should you see her, buy her one on the house.
**** They always do, the bastards.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

'A' is for ... no, don't

Those fun-loving japesters at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network! They sure know how to get a "laugh" out of any "situation"!

Any fan of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street knows that "C" is for cookie.

But at the Obama White House, "A" may be for acorn -- as in acorn cookies served at Monday's annual Christmas party.

The chocolate cookies shaped like an acorn were quite a hit with Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

"I didn't expect to see such stark symbolism," King said in an e-mail.

President Obama worked with the community organizing group ACORN in the mid-90s. But now ACORN faces a host of allegations related to voter fraud in the 2008 election and has been weakened by an undercover expose that shows employees offering tax advice to a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute.

Thanks for the reminder! I've been so terrified by Climategate that I almost forgot ACORN!

The irony of the White House dishing out acorn-shaped chocolate cookies seemed a little, well, "nutty" to King. The Iowa Republican is one of the loudest voices calling for Congress to investigate ACORN. ("Nutty"! Get it?)

King pocketed several of the acorn cookies at the White House soiree and even stowed a few at home in his freezer. King even delivered a real acorn to House Judiciary Committee John Conyers, D-Mich., in an effort to launch a dialogue about the organization's legal woes. (And what an icebreaker that must have been.)

"Bill Clinton redefined a two and a three-letter word," King said, a reference to Clinton's denial of the Lewinsky scandal. "But from the man who wrote 'The Audacity of Hope,' we were served the very redefinition of the word 'audacity.'"

That Steve King -- always there when Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., needs someone to keep him from looking like the Stupidest Person Named "King" in Congress. Don't you wish you were on his e-mail list?

If you spend some time with the secondary stories on this page, you'll get a pretty good idea of how news is judged and created over at Fox. "News" is less a matter of what happened than of what the Party of Lincoln thinks about what happened. That's not necessarily wrong (certainly not in isolation), but it does put the balance thing into perspective rather well.


Forbidden ledes

For all you junior league players out there,* here's a diagnostic test. When removing the lede paragraph from a story produces utterly no effect whatsofreakingever on the subsequent content, you have a lede you should kill. As in:

Call it good news that could be a whole lot better.

Cancer incidence decreased about 1 percent a year from 1999 to 2006, and deaths dropped an average of 1.6 percent a year from 2001 to 2006, according to a report released by the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.

"Call it" is your first hint. It's on the master list of Forbidden Ledes, which should have been freshly etched on your forehead with a soldering iron this month, owing to the high likelihood of Christmas coming early and grinches doing stuff to unlocked cars and all that. But more to the point: Place your thumb over the first graf. Read the second graf. Now go back and read the first graf.** Might as well throw the poor thing out, gratuitous reporterly judgment and all.

You shouldn't kill ledes at random, true. Editors look out for writers' interests as zealously as they look out for readers' interests. But both those parties are served best when the Great Cliches are quietly left to die on the floor of the composing room. Really.

* Sorry, too much Don Cherry in the media diet of late up here.
** If you're a Fox reader, remember to raise that thumb first!***

*** That wasn't very nice, was it? Won't happen again.

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Coordination fail

There are a couple of ways to do this deck hed right.* Here, it looks as if the copy editor got caught in the headlights and jumped the wrong way.

The tripping point is the relationship between the "move" verb and "killings." You could "move beyond" the killings, in which case the second comma would make the coordination clear: the survivors have moved beyond the killings, but they haven't forgotten the killings. But "move on" doesn't take the direct object in this sense. To say that the survivors have moved on but haven't forgotten the killings, you'd need to leave out the second comma.

So somebody committed some grammar on an innocent hed without doing a back-of-the-envelope sketch to see if all the parts went together correctly? Sounds like it. Dispatch folks might want to spend a little less time obsessing about hyphenating things that look like compounds and a little more on diagramming.

* This is the print version. Online, it's fine: "Survivors have moved on, but not forgotten." You'd do better to leave out the comma, but it doesn't cause confusion where it is.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

No, but thanks for asking

Save some outrage from Climategate and Gategate, friends and neighbors, because the liberal media are coming after Frosty!

A video adver- tisement on CBS's Web site that "mashes" material from the iconic "Frosty the Snowman" Christmastime cartoon with two of the network's comedy series is offensive and should be pulled, media analysts told

Just so's you didn't think it was safe to go back in the water ...

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

No miracles, please

One of my favorite stylebook maxims (I think it's from Montreal but can't track it down conclusively) is about miracles: Don't. Or, slightly paraphrased: Don't muscle in on the pope's territory by declaring miracles. He might retaliate by editing copy.

The cousins at Wichita are sending a misleading signal with this centerpiece: Are we talking about the general coolness of some influential person's presence (in the sort of way I appreciate the miracle of Bill Monroe) or the specific sort of miracle that defies empirical explanation and gets you a step closer to sainthood? The text makes fairly clear, though, that they're talking about the latter. And that's a place journalists shouldn't go.

That's not to say there isn't a story here that needs telling (or that today's story isn't a thorough and painstakingly reported bit of historical reconstruction; it is). It's to suggest that you can, and should, report those stories without falling into your sources' epistemological quicksand. We deal with observable stuff. We don't do miracles. We report what people say and do, but we do it without validating particular judgments about the supernatural.

If you haven't been keeping up with things, the Vatican is thinking about conferring sainthood on a priest from Kansas who served as a chaplain in World War II and Korea and died in a North Korean POW camp in 1951. People have prayed to him as an intercessory over the years, and owing to the remarkable recovery of a gravely injured athlete in 2008, the official miracle investigators have come to town to see if the case qualifies.

Here's a distinction that might help editors argue the case without seeming excessively boorish or too closely tied to an interpretation of the supernatural that might rightly be seen as exclusionary. Sainthood comes about by a speech act. Like "I pronounce you husband and wife" or "I declare that a state of war exists," it happens when it's spoken by someone with the authority to make it be true. You don't have to accept the authority yourself to acknowledge its writ (the Klan is the one that appoints kleagles, whether you like the Klan or not).

Medical outcomes happen in a different realm and are subject to different rules. Absence of an explanation is not a license to substitute your own; not knowing is not a different kind of knowing. The church can declare an event a miracle, but no one else is obliged to acknowledge it.

Summary? Wichita needs to be careful. Don't toss terms like "miracle" around loosely. Next thing you know, the church will expect you to help it declare heretics as well, and you really don't want to be there.

The day my mom got out of prison

Steve Goodman, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because we're about one security-referent object short of the perfect country and western song Fox News lead story:

Participants at Copenhagen's global climate summit will be meeting during the holiday season, but they will not be surrounded by festive Christmas decor, according to Denmark's Foreign Ministry.

Come on, you guys. Where's Chavez? Where's Soros? Where's ACORN? Where's the second effort?

[UPDATE: I knew this would get kicked up-page sooner or later. As of this writing, it's the centerpiece. Prosit!]


All the news that's fit ...

Hey, kids! See if you can guess what's the super-ultra most important story in the history of the world in space today!


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Why God made morons

As you may have noticed over the past few days, the Fair 'n' Balanced folks are turning it up to 11 over the climate change issue. Houston, we are told, had snow! Indeed, there was "snow across the South," according to the AP.

Well, sorta. The inside photo is from Blacksburg, which isn't exactly the coastal plain. "Across the South" includes "light snow at higher elevations" in Tennessee and North Carolina. And it is, may we point out, December, when it sometimes snows even in lower elevations -- though not, so far this season, up here in our little cabin home north of Canada.

Moral? Sometimes it snows. Sometimes it doesn't. Never hurts to put your head out the door for a second before you go to work.

Really, though. The yappers are fond of proclaiming that they've found a good hill to die on. Since it's almost Christmas and all -- well, as Patton Claus would have put it, the least we can do is help.


Naggcorn of the day

No Sidney Crosby tonight, the Wings announcer said, so we had to check the Intertubes for details. Good thing the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was on the case:

"It is something that has been kind of egging me a little bit for the past three of four days," Crosby said after sitting out a morning practice.

Another day on Planet Fox

Behold, the purest illustration of the Fair 'n' Balanced agenda to hit the files this year. Everything at the top of the page -- centerpiece, top stories and sidebars -- is Fox-generated; no AP filler in the lot. And what a feast it is for those who like to watch how events (and non-events) become news. Climategate, Crashergate, the War on Christmas and the second coming of Dick Cheney -- I mean, how can you go wrong?

"Obama Ignores Climate-Gate" takes you to a bigger story inside, hedded "Obama ignores Climate-gate in revising Copenhagen plans." Here's the lede:

The controversy swirling around the leaked e-mails of climate scientists apparently trying to downplay data and exclude dissenting opinions has led to calls for President Obama to skip this month's climate summit in Denmark until the e-mails can be investigated.

Technically true -- at least, so we're told, though the only "call" described in the text is from Sarah Palin's Facebook account. The bulk of it is a rehash of complaints from congressional flat-earthers (James Inhofe and Darrell Issa), routine denials from the White House and harrumphing from the Heritage Foundation. Note in particular the value Fox adds to this ongoing story from the sidebars, which as far as I can tell are all exclusive: Media critics say the lamestream media have failed! Free hookers in Copenhagen! Calls grow for Gore to return his Oscar! (And I'd be remiss not to mention my favorite miscoordinated WTF sentence, "The scandal being referred to as "Climate-gate" has rallied global warming skeptics, who say the threat is exaggerated -- let alone caused by humans.")

What's the latest on Crashergate? Mostly a chance for Fox readers to sound off on their favorite topics (check the comments section): White House incompetence and arrogance, violated campaign promises (transparency), the corruption of the Chicago gang, and a little old-fashioned D.W.Griffith-style racism ("Is that an apron she's wearing over her dress?").

War on Christmas tales have been few on the ground so far, so "Happy Winter" is more or less filling in for the previous day's outrage tale: the veteran who was told he couldn't fly Old Glory from a flagpole in his yard. Expect these to pick up as the season goes along, but since the post-hajj Eid has rotated out of the main winter holiday* season, the outrage won't be quite as high as the last few years.

And Cheney? (Be sure you check it out, if only for the illustration.) Well, "scattered conservatives" seem to be starting a draft-Dickie movement, though to the outsider it has sort of a veni-Emanuel tone to it.

Now, this lineup might look a little different from the four stories you'd pick for the top of today's lineup. That's fine -- come to that, it's encouraged. (Imagine a news agenda in which Crashergate and Tiger Woods never rose from the far inside of the paper; Fox isn't the only outlet to drool a little too hard over those.) But something else is driving these stories. They're "about" a different set of facts and assumptions, they answer different questions, they outline a generally different world. The basic definition of news isn't whether anything interesting has happened since the last time you looked; it's whether the many-tentacled conspiracy has crept any closer.

* You Arthur Ransome fans will recall that there's next to no mention at all of Christmas in the whole of "Winter Holiday." Somehow they're still not speaking Russian in the Lake District.


Friday, December 04, 2009

On clues and having them

I think the cousins at McClatchy (along with Charlotte and any other MCT fishwraps or subscribers that ran this lede) owe the reading public a correction or two:

With the jobless rate rising and his approval ratings sinking, President Barack Obama hosted academics and leaders of business and labor at a White House jobs summit Thursday, seeking advice on how to boost employment.

If you're the sort of paper that promises to correct errors of fact, it's time to get to work. First up is that rising unemployment rate -- in a story written, as noted in the eighth graf, "a day before the Labor Department releases November unemployment statistics." In a way, it's bad luck for the writers that the November stats show "an unexpected dip" in unemployment, but it's bad luck enabled by bad judgment. We have a really simple rule of basic journalism for that: Write about what happened, not about what you think might happen. That way, you don't have to write corrections when your guess turns out to be wrong.*

You can see why the lede looked attractive, though; that concise pairing of contrasting elements just captures the old zeitgeist perfectly, doesn't it? Trouble is, the second element is no truer than the first -- it's not as demonstrably false, but it can only be true with a reading of the available evidence that's so selective as to be deliberately distorted.

Obama's decline in the ratings is the sort of conventional wisdom that drives much of the discourse at Fox, where it's popular because it makes sense and helps other things make sense. In the reality-based world, we're supposed to rely on evidence -- that being, after all, where journalism gets its claim to be objective. So let's look at the roundup of polls over at RealClearPolitics (not the "RCP Average," which is a meaningless number no responsible journalist would ever allow into print).

Obama's job approval in the Gallup poll, with an N of around 1,500 adults, is a point higher than it was last month (52% vs. 51%). Rasmussen (N = 1,500 likelies) is unchanged at 46%. USAT/Gallup, with around 1,000 adults, is unchanged from October at 50% (bigger N, for some unknown reason). Quinnipiac's big-N survey (2,000-plus registered voters) is at 48% for early-ish November, down from 50% at the end of September. The brand-new CNN poll (48%, 1,041 adults) looks like a significant decline from two weeks ago, 55%, but we want to look at that a little closer. It could mean any of several things:

1) The change in the sample value represents a real change in the population value
2) The three previous CNN polls (55%, 54%, 55%) closely approximated the population value and this one is a far outlier -- the one case in 20 (at 95% confidence) in which the sample lies outside the confidence interval, or "margin of sampling error"
3) The real population value is around 51%, so all four samples are accurate (if extreme) nonchance representations of the population

What's the safe way to put it? Were I in a mood to generalize, I'd say that the president's job approval declined significantly from summer into fall but appears to have kinda-sorta leveled out. At Gallup, it's a point higher than in mid-September; at Rasmussen, it's a point lower. (Yes, survey data is a lot less sexy when you do it right.) And that makes our lede wrong on the second count as well. You can believe whatever you want to about public opinion,** but if you want to proclaim facts and attribute them to evidence, sorry -- you don't get to make things up.

Does that make McClatchy biased? Yes, but not in the partisan way that tends to be associated with the "media bias" that people like to yammer about. It's biased toward explaining things in terms of conventional wisdom, without regard toward whether the conventional wisdom is either true or informative. That's probably less offensive than the open and deliberate biases on offer at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network (and it certainly isn't as pervasive), but in terms of adding to or subtracting from the sum of human knowledge, it's hard to see how it's any better.

* A lede that said unemployment was expected to have been found to have risen again in the upcoming monthly report would have been accurate.
** If any of the MCT folks want to argue about confidence levels, the address is at right.

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Tricksy womenses!

Every now and then, the happy train wreck that is English grammar throws the sort of 59-foot curveball that even a good editor can't help swinging at.

The problem is that we don't have a good rule -- put another way, we have a lot of different equally good rules -- for handling nouns that modify nouns. Is it a "driver license," a "driver's license" or a "drivers license"? Depends on where you look, and sometimes -- as at the Michigan secretary of state's Web site -- it's two at once.

Stylebooks exist, in part, to handle just that sort of stuff. A rule mandating "drivers license" would be arbitrary; it has little or nothing to do with what's proper or grammatical, but it's really good for heading off unnecessary arguments on deadline. The AP stylebook has an entry for "workers' compensation," but you can't be certain what it's there to regulate: it could be the plural possessive, or it could be a reminder to avoid the sexist "workman's compensation." And that gets us into even trickier territory. I'm used to seeing the academic discipline rendered as "women's studies," but it's easy to find departments of women studies and woman's studies too.

So at a guess, the copyed who produced the hed above tried to figure out the correct form by analogy and reached for something like "drivers license" (it's "driver's license" in another 1A story, but the paper has used the plural and plural possessive forms too). Trouble is, "women" is already plural, so we get the slightly Gollumized "womens health" that made it into print.

Want another handy trick for telling whether someone's a real copy editor or not? If you claim with a straight face that you've never produced an error like that, you aren't a real copy editor.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thick and fast they came at last

Today's sociolinguistics lesson: How many words does journalism have for "snow"?

After 13 years of plowing the sidewalks of 240 apartments on 20 acres in Detroit, Geraghty, 54, said he is grateful for any November without an accumulation of white stuff.

Bzaaaaaaaaat! Sit down, Detroit Free Press. The correct answer is "one." The word for snow is "snow," and so it shall remain.* Desks everywhere, please feel free to demonstrate the narrowness of your perspective and emptiness of your vocabulary with this simple rule.

If you heeded John's advice and spiked the "12 Days" story, good for you. But 'tis only the beginning of the season. No "white stuff." No "Christmas came early." No Grinches stealing from the Salvation Army kettle. Fa la la la la humbug and Kalamazoo.

* No, you may not substitute the word "camel" for "snow." But we'll consider that for next year.