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.

And?

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 freep.com 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.

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