Saturday, January 31, 2009

Detroit snow vocabulary hoax

Only his legs protruded from a pool of frozen water where his body was found Wednesday inside the warehouse on 14th and Michigan.

OK. I know it's been snowing every day since, like, August, but -- are these people really so tough that there is no word for "ice" in their dialect?

Friday, January 30, 2009

No comment

Just tell me you're not going to put this one in your job application package, OK?

Stop press

Let's see. You've got these two senators, one of them a Republican and the other a -- what do you call 'em, a Democrat. And they disagree about stuff!
U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan disagree on much of the economic stimulus package they will vote on next week.
When you're writing heds, do try to start with the idea of telling people something they don't know.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My man!

Add "Ohio" to the list of states you should be really careful about abbreviating in heds. (Photo just in from Strayhorn.)

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Related story, page 16WTF

Desk hands of a certain age and front-end system* probably remember the "UF/ related" format call or some- thing like it: hit a few keys and you get a ballot box** at the top of your story with a line beginning "Related story, page --". Fill in the page number and you've created an instant reefer to a related -- at least, allegedly related -- story. Back in the early days of reader-friendliness, it was a nice way to let readers know you cared.

But back to the present. You can tell Fox is off to a happy start; any day when you can lead with a picture of Ahmadinejad shaking his fist is a good day at Fox. More interesting is the set of bullets under the cutline, which in the sort of visual grammar Fox is using sum up all the stories related to Ahmadinejad's latest "demand":
-- Iranian denies Holocaust
-- Iran will nuke you by Valentine's Day
-- Democrats hate Limbaugh!

It's going to be a long but endlessly amusing next couple of years on Fox Watch. Don't miss a single episode!


* Hi, Wilmingburgers!
** "Square bullet," if you insist

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When zombies talk to the media

No, probably not. But you have to admit the ouija board is probably cheaper than the cell phone, interview-wise.

The Fair-n-Balanced Network might wish to attend to a few other things if it wants to preserve its image as uncritical promoter of all things military. This guy is an American, not an "Iraq officer." For that matter he's a PFC, not an officer ("officer" is a good shorthand for cops, but not for MPs). "Electrocuted," of course, means ... other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Editor alert

All desks, be careful if you see this not-bad tale from McClatchy, owing to the really-really-bad second graf:

WASHINGTON — Two centuries after Charles Darwin's birth on Feb. 12, 1809, people still argue passionately about his theory of evolution.

Was Darwin right? Should schoolchildren be exposed to contrary views in science class? These two controversies continue to rage, partly because both sides are evenly matched.

Well -- no. No, they aren't evenly matched. We're getting a couple of separate controversies confused here, and that's unfortunate for a story that actually does a nice job of summing up the state of play on national efforts to infuse un-science into science classrooms (if your newspaper's idea of national coverage is episodic crime, missing moms and weather, this is an especially valuable service).

If "was Darwin right?" is a question about the evolution of evolution, there's a useful summary at the bottom of the story that indicates why it's a pretty good topic to teach. But if we're talking about a demand that natural science be made to accommodate supernatural explanations, we're creating some genuine confusion. "Both sides" may be about even in survey results, but that's a far cry from "evenly matched."

The story's a bit even-handed overall for my taste. I'm not that fond of invective journalism, but we seem to be missing the voice that explains clearly and simply that we aren't looking at an even match between opposing views about theory; we're looking at opposing views of what's appropriate to teach under the heading of "science" (wouldn't hurt to point out the level of national panic that arose in the 1950s when it became clear the childrens weren't learning enough science to keep us all from speaking Russian any day now). If you run it, be sure to fix the second graf. But it'd be all right to remind the Washburo that it earned its laurels earlier this decade through an appropriate skepticism toward the specious.

Well, that answers that question

Thirty-second verse, same as the thirty-first. You don't suppose there was any advance discussion over in Fair 'n' Balanced World about an appropriate theme for the day's talk, do you?

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

When zombies handle the paperwork

Diagramming party to action stations: Who did what before whom in this spine-tingling 1A hed?

You probably have no trouble getting the point if you've been writing a lot about Cherry Hospital and its troubles, or slotting all the Cherry heds, or hearing about it in the news meeting every other day. Your civilian readers, opening the paper while the coffee is still brewing, might be more inclined to ask when Cherry was buried.

The easiest solution is to ignore the "rule" about omitting auxiliaries in favor of the bigger rule about not being any more confusing than you need to be. Without too much playing around, you can get "Patient was buried before/Cherry filed mandatory papers." But that's still taking the eye off the ball a bit; it sounds as if the issue is when the patient was buried, not how late the paperwork was. From a quick glance at the first three grafs, something like "Cherry was 10 weeks late/in filing report on death" suggests itself. (That's assuming we've decided, as the original indicates, that the hed doesn't need attribution.)

As Czarina notes, things would be clearer still if only one of the heds had been in the present: "Patient buried before Cherry/files report to pathologist." And there's always that NYT participle-first approach: "Buried before Cherry, patient/files report with pathologist." Evidently too much time is being had on the hands here at the Manor this morning.

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I say, Cuthbertson ...

... surely one doesn't mean to imply that one might find G-droppin' goin' on amid the stately Gothic architectin' of the Duke campus, does one?

One does hope the message is brought into the starkest relief by this examplar. There are no circumstances under which one may indulge the urge to seem playful by pretendin' to drop the G. It matters not whether one is talkin' about Duke or State or Clempson. One simply doesn't.

Really. If you've been wondering why we seem to get stuck with Dick Vitale for every game that reaches us up here in the expat community, it's probably divine retribution for clueless attempts to mark dialect -- whether you pretend it's yours or someone else's -- in heds. Just stop it. Now. And don't do it again.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Neglected to death by the steam

Interesting way of trying to sum up the charges, but -- no. People can be beaten, shot or stabbed to death, but I'm not at all sure they can be ignored to death.

Friday, January 23, 2009

And get it right this time

EDITORS:
The St. Louis story BC-MO--Shooting Death has been killed. The man who was shot was critically wounded but did not die.
A kill is mandatory.

Well ... I suppose that'd help, but wouldn't it be easier just to make a couple more calls before you file the story?

(Tnx to unnamed sources for the FB alert)

Please don't feed the wingnuts

In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits O hai! Just a reminder to the desk at the Miami Herald that some otherwise perfectly innocent combinations of words have secret meanings that make them -- how shall we put this? Less-than-stellar choices for 1A news heds on stories about the new president's plans to end the greater occultation place his imprint on international policy?

I wonder if the intertubes can help? Say! There's a very informative article over at the ... what's that, Wikipedians? "This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject. WikiProject Rational Skepticism may be able to help recruit one"? Well, don't touch that dial! I expect a nice young fellow will be at your door sometime between noon and 2 p.m. to help the widow's son disambiguate all those confusing references for you! Also.

Word to the wise, Miami. Don't summon 'em if you can't tripsarecopsem send 'em back.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dudes! Like, fess up!

Behold, an actual 1A reefer from the once-sober N&O. Those two wild and crazy guys! Fessing up to those wacky armed robberies!

Here's an idea: What if we paid some very literal-minded grownup to read behind all the heds and teasers on the front before they were typeset? We could call it -- "slotting"!

The story is not without Decline and Fall elements of its own:

Two Raleigh men admitted in a federal courtroom this week that they went on a July crime spree that led to four armed robberies in four days. (I doubt it -- I mean, I doubt that the crime spree was some sort of antecedent condition that "led to four armed robberies." Didn't the robberies themselves constitute the crime spree?)

Raphael Davonne Powell, 24, and David Michael Wesley Jr., 19, pleaded guilty to charges of robbery and using a firearm while committing a crime of violence at a hearing Tuesday in the federal courthouse in Wilmington, according to court documents. (In the Good Old Days,* newspapers covered legal proceedings by -- well, going to the court building. Which meant they could write about them the next day, rather than two days later, and they could write about something they saw, rather than something they had to learn at second hand.)

... During the robberies, Wesley would carry a .38-caliber handgun while Kerr took cash from the stores' registers, according to a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina. A spokeswoman couldn't provide details late Wednesday about Powell's role in the robberies. (What's worse than covering a court proceeding from "court documents," which at least are privileged? Covering court proceedings by rewriting press releases from the DA's office! And "couldn't provide details late Wednesday" strongly suggests that the paper didn't just decide to preserve its travel money and cover the thing long distance; it sounds as if nobody in the newsroom had any idea that something was happening in this case until the DA's office was kind enough to send a fax the day after the plea.)

OK, granted. In the political-economy sense, the whole idea of "beats" is an artifact of the industrialization of journalism. But as artifacts go, it isn't a bad one. Covering a beat entails some hanging around, which doesn't always look all that productive but is in the main a pretty good way of finding out what's going on without having to wait on the powers-that-be to tell you. And who knows? If you actually go to court, you might get to talk with the side of a legal proceeding that doesn't have the wherewithal to send out press releases.

None of those, of course, are decisions the copydesk can affect. But we can do our part by not putting "2 guys fess up" on stories about that perennial knee-slapper we know as armed robbery. (One is tempted to wonder if it would have been so funny if it hadn't happened at places like the Tienda Todo Guerrerense.) And we could remind the powers-that-beancount that the slot isn't just an ornament on a copydesk. It's essential.

*You kids get off the lawn! Right now!

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yep, sounds serious to me

One just has to wonder what goes through the little minds at Fox sometimes, doesn't one?

It's almost impossible to figure out what the "serious" is doing there. Nobody in the (5-graf) story says "serious," and it's not the sort of "claim quote" the British press uses to mark assertions that we mark with attribution (though Fox does employ them sometimes; I think that's a nod to its heritage). And what else would we be doing -- distinguishing this from all those light-hearted fatal falls on Mount Hood?




Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why we have the rule

A Charlotte businessman was murdered Friday morning on Independence Boulevard, the victim of an apparent robbery.

The basic rule: It's a murder when a jury says it's a murder. Until then, it's a "killing" (a homicide, if all the cops on that shift are monolingual in Latin) or -- nice blanket term -- a "death." Murder is a legal term for a particular kind of killing. Until that determination is made, you run a risk (ranging from smaller to larger, but never nonexistent) of being wrong when you decide to narrow down the broad category of homicide to the kind you think sounds good in a lede.

Arguments for the freewheeling use of "murder" come in two basic flavors:
1) Murder sounds more dramatic than "killing" or "death"! Funny, most people manage to sustain a reasonable level of interest when "found dead of a gunshot wound" occurs in their neighborhood or parking deck. How badly do you want to write a correction?
2) But [star columnist's name here] gets paid to call 'em like he sees 'em! Well, opinion is free, facts are sacred; how's it going with that correction?

Does it seem as if we're harping too much on that tiny risk of being wrong? Let's see:
A Charlotte man shot to death Friday morning in the Independence Towers parking lot was not the victim of a robbery but of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police now say.

"Police now say" is a little disingenuous. In the first story, the only elements attributed to the cops were "found lying in the parking lot" and "had been shot sometime around 9:35 a.m." Even the paper's "news partner" wrote "was shot to death Friday morning* during an apparent robbery, police said." (Don't you love the passive voice?)

There's more to this than one overeager blunder, though. Let's shift gears for a second and look at a story discussed on the editor's blog:

Q:You usually allow reader comments for stories posted on your Web site. But that's not the case with the coverage of the Skipper Beck prostitution story. Was this an oversight, or deliberate decision not to let readers weigh in?
A: We really like for readers to weigh in on the stories we post. But some topics consistently attract lewd, obscene or otherwise inappropriate comments. So, when such topics surface, we are faced with either constantly monitoring the comments or simply skipping the commenting function on a particular story. Prostitution, as you might imagine, is one of those topics. In the case of Skipper Beck, it quickly became clear that a few readers were determined to post offensive remarks.


Mr. Beck, if you're scoring along at home, runs a Mercedes dealership. You can see why, despite the paper's fascination with all the fallout from this high-end prostitution ring thing, you'd want to disable comments. What sort of comments showed up on the purported Independence Boulevard murder?

I am working as hard as I can to get my family back to the west coast. With the make up of this city and what I see comming down. I just do not want to live in the south anymore !

We all know these guns are illegal, being used by gun toting felons, the Drug Dealers are selling them with the Drugs Many Imported underground from Mexico, they are noted for their drug /weapon imports and human trafficking.

That one was from a poster whose earlier comment was deleted as "abusive." I don't know what that category covers, but here are a few comments I'd nominate from the TV station's story:

the media could help by posting descriptions of these animals. ever heard of america's most wanted? the liberal media is more interested in trying to hide the fact that there is an epidemic of black crime, expecially black against white crime, in charlotte. they care more about appearing as good little knee jerk lock step liberals than in helping the law abiding people of charlotte.

these creatures have taken over our streets. our justice system is a joke. if something does not change soon, we are headed for total anarchy. when that happens, the US will surely crumble. when and if they catch this creature, i wonder what race it will be? i think we already know the answer. these types of creatures need to be removed from our society. sounds barbaric? it is! and it is the only option we have if we want to take back our country.

Not to be blunt, but if you haven't noticed yet that stories about violent crime in Charlotte inevitably attract comment from the sort of bottom-feeding droolers who seem "determined to post offensive remarks" like these, you haven't been paying attention -- or, at least, you haven't been paying attention to stories that aren't about rich white guys who sell Benzes. Does it take a blunder on the cop beat to bring home the painfully obvious point that the comment feature ought to be disabled on all news stories, permanently, without exceptions?

It's clear that the Independence death story isn't racist in intent; it isn't the paper's fault that it has a bunch of unreconstructed swine among its readers. But it's racist in result, particularly in context of the prostitution story, and that's a pretty good argument for (a) professional caution in cop reporting and (b) an immediate end to the idea that reader comments are worth adding to news coverage.

* The hed does say "murdered"; let's not give the TV folks too much credit.

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Keep opinion to self

This just in from a fount o'knowledge that serves a US Airways hub:

The US Airways jet that landed in the Hudson River on Thursday had engine trouble on the same route two days earlier and the pilot considered an emergency landing, several passengers and CNN.com reported.

Any reason for sourcing this to passengers and a TV network, rather than to the NTSB's examination of the plane's maintenance records (which the AP used in its Monday story)?

The description of a stalled engine on fire raises questions about whether the aircraft should have been back in the air two days later. On Thursday, the pilot of Flight 1549 was forced to ditch his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River after the two engines failed from a “double-bird strike” moments after takeoff from LaGuardia.

Just a few quick questions:
1) What's the normal turnaround time to inspect (and fix if necessary) an A320 engine after a compressor stall?
2) What indications do you have that the procedure wasn't followed?
3) If you're still having trouble with (1) and (2), what makes your opinion about whether the plane "should have been back in the air" worth sharing?

That's not to say the "raises questions" idea is permanently ruled out, but it ought to be restricted to cases in which the questions can't be answered. In this one, the reporter's job is to find out the answers, and the desk's job is to flag suspect phrases until they're fixed.

By the way? It wasn't a "double-bird strike," which would be a strike by a double bird. It was a "double bird strike." We need "double" to modify "bird strike," not "double bird" to modify "strike."

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Wake up, America!!!!!!

That's the great thing about a two-newspaper town. The giddy left-wing paper (you know, the one that went all gooey about Gov. Palin's command of national issues on its front page last summer) is filling up the Kool-Aid powdered soft drink mix pitchers of hope as fast as those liberals and feminists and unionists can order them. Fortunately, we have the sober, responsible voice of the Detroit News to go behind the curtain and show us what those people are really up to. Take it away, Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley:

Where's the hope?

Barack Obama won the presidency and inspired the American people by challenging them to have the audacity to hope for better days ahead and a different way of doing things.

... And yet, since Election Day, Obama's message of hope has given way to doom and gloom warnings of worsening economic conditions and a much longer road to recovery. He's even using the taboo D word -- depression -- to describe the present danger.

(Big guy? Hyphens in the preposed compound modifier in "doom-and-gloom warnings," OK?)

Obama is trash-talking the economy for obvious reasons. First, he wants to lower expectations of his ability to work miracles. The economy is a mess, and the longer he can blame it all on George W. Bush, the better for him. (Clever, huh?)

Obama is also building support for his economic stimulus plan. If he can convince Americans they face a frightening future without massive government intervention, he can get them to sign off on borrowing and spending billions of dollars for public works projects and expanding the welfare state. (
ZOMG! You don't mean ...)

The left has been waiting for this opportunity to shove the national needle left of center for nearly 30 years, and Obama isn't going to squander it by being too positive.

You mean -- the president-elect? He's going to ... he's going to use fear for openly political ends? To make his sinister backers happy and lull us all into swallowing his party's snake oil? Surely no president would ... you in the back there?

“All these debates will matter not if there is another attack on the homeland,” he said, his voice rising as he leaned over the lectern for effect.

Well, that was just a press conference. Surely Mr. Bush was less scary when he had time to prepare a television address?

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe. ... There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil. This is a tribute to those who toil night and day to keep us safe.

But when he talks on the radio -- well, surely Mr. Bush going to sound all hopey and FDR-like then, isn't he?

While our Nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack. Our enemies are patient, and determined to strike again.

Does everybody in the outgoing administration feel that way?

MR. LEHRER: And if that had not happened, you think there would have been further attacks?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: There's no doubt in mind there would have been.


Wow. Fear appeals! You think there's a tradition of that in presidential politics that might be worth noting?

Anyway, long may the News wave -- don't hold the people who gather and print the news responsible for the babblings of the editorial page. But for you lot in the White House, now that we're inside the 12-hour mark: Please don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Stop the press!

Quick, which major news organi- zation is first to bring you this, the Third Most Super-Important Story in the Whole Wide World? Aw, you peeked.

Fox tells the Times that its correspondents are going to "cover Mr. Obama objectively, just as they had Mr. Bush" (the Times's words, not the interviewee's). No doubt that's as true a comment as has ever come from Fox.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

'Accuracy' and accuracy

Tonight's trivia question: What do college football and the fractious Near East have in common? Raise your hand if you said "original convincing test cases for the 'hostile media' effect" -- the idea that partisans of opposing sides can look at the same piece of "neutral" reportage and conclude that it's biased against their side.

It's tempting to conclude from the "hostile media" effect, and from the normal run of complaints about Middle East coverage, that all complaints about "accuracy" are complaints about ideology. Calls for truthful and unbiased reporting do often boil down to calls for a different kind of bias in reporting. But it's worth bearing in mind that amid the political minefields, there are still concerns about straight-up, literal, binary accuracy. And the evidence from one of the local fishwraps is starting to pile up uncomfortably high.

Last month, the Freep desk managed to pull a complete 180 on some Gaza copy: turning a "Palestinian speaking Hebrew" into a "Palestinian-speaking Hebrew." That suggests the sort of genuine unfamiliarity with the basics that -- not to be jealous or anything, but it'd get the perpetrator laughed out of a sports department in very short order. Nor have things gotten better since the current Gaza conflict erupted.

The teaser hed on the Jan. 5 front page proclaimed "Troops go deep into Gaza City." As the teaser itself (and the inside story it referred to) noted, they were doing no such thing; they were going deep into the Gaza strip, but the effect was to cut the city itself off, not to enter it. Last Sunday, the lead hed on 4A declared "Hamas, Fatah rift tears Gaza" -- interesting if true, but since the story was about public opinion in the West Bank, an important topic on its own but quite distinct from public opinion in Gaza, pretty spectacularly off the mark.

If you've done much deadline editing, you've seen how the latter mistake happens: somebody gets the day's "Gaza story" (which happens to be about the West Bank, and is fairly prescient in the bargain) and, not knowing the West Bank from Hazel Park, figures the most important word to get into the hed is "Gaza." Today's blunder, though, is different. Here's the cutline from today's 4A:

An Israeli Arab fighter flashes a victory sign in Tel Aviv, Israel, during a demonstration against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

Some background while you scrape your jaw from the floor. Arabs (Muslim and Christian) comprise about 16% to 18% of Israel's citizens, and they do most of the things that citizens do (military service usually being the big exception). They can vote. They can run for parliament. And, as Israelis in general are often good at, they can demonstrate. Which, according to all versions of the cutline I've seen (including the one at the WashTimes), is what's going on here: An Israeli Arab flashes a victory sign during a demonstration against Israel's military operations in Gaza, in Tel Aviv,Israel, Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009.

True, it's been a while since I've watched a demonstration in Tel Aviv,* but I think it's safe to say that if "Arab fighters" were running loose in the streets during one, we would have heard about it. It looks as if some Freep desker figured that "fighter" must be the safe, neutral way to describe "scary-looking person with a keffiyeh over the face," rather than having the common sense to read the damn caption and the basic area knowledge to realize that it might be -- hold on -- just a "demonstrator."

If that reading is correct,** the "Israeli Arab fighter" cutline is just a remarkably stupid blunder, but it's the sort of blunder that's impossible to tell from bias, and that ought to sound a warning bell downtown. Not just for demographic reasons (the Freep used to take some pride in its awareness of the significant Arab population in these parts), but for fundamental questions about whether the paper can credibly claim to offer an accurate portrayal of things that are happening in the broader world.

The "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" argument has been with us for decades (the earliest specific reference I know of is from 1948). Reasonable people still wrestle with it because it's still a vexing impediment to attempts to define terrorism, and terrorism is worth defining because a calm, rational understanding of it gets us closer to the condition suggested by German legal scholar Christian Walter: A person committing certain criminal acts may (or even: must) be considered everyone’s terrorist even if he or she is someone’s freedom fighter or someone else’s law enforcement agent.

That's an ideal, and I can see why a newspaper would want to look neutral on the question of when a "fighter" is a terrorist and when he (or she***) isn't until that ideal is reached. But not distinguishing between types of substate violence is a whole world different from not being able to distinguish armed violence from civil protest. If the Freep can't tell those things apart, it's in far more serious trouble than a new home delivery schedule can fix.

* Or in Ramallah, for that matter.
** If anyone has a different account, by all means check in soonest at the comments.
*** The subtitle of Geula Cohen's autobiography, after all, is "Memoirs of a young terrorist." Worth reading if you keep up with this sort of thing.

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The construction of reality

Today's front page offers another example of the made-up story: not supernatural creatures prowling the suburbs or slanderous fictions about a candidate's past, but an unsupported statement about the way things ought to be if only you people would pay attention.
News is "objective" because it's (at least notionally) empirical. Something observable distinguishes today from yesterday: Troops cross border, volcano kills hundreds, plane lands in river. Our lead hed here is stating a testable relationship that would yield such a difference. There's a measurable thing called "'Buy American' pressure," it's greater at Time B than it was at Time A, and that difference is significant at some predetermined confidence level (meaning it represents a real difference, not an accident of sampling or measurement). But our story isn't about any such thing. It's about a woman who annoys her fellow drivers, and then it veers off to a development official, some guys who make bumper stickers and a self-selecting poll of online readers.
The story proclaims that "'Buy American' is a revived sentiment these days in Michigan," and it asks the development official whether "the most recent resurgence in Buy American sentiment" is a good thing, but it doesn't say how those conclusions were reached -- or even whether the newspaper is interested in (or capable of) measuring them. Those sentiments might be real or they might not; either way, the process that put them at the top of the front page is a persuasive one, not a journalistic one. It's no different from what another news organization -- let's call it Rabid Hyena News -- might do by proclaiming that "concerns are growing" about some candidate's unrepentant socialist anti-American terrorist plans to ruin entire industries, or that "outrage" has followed some ruling that threatens Our Kids. It reflects the news organization's view of how the world works, and it resonates ideologically with the audience, but it isn't really news.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wikiledes and wikicontext

Google the word "ghetto" and the first definition comes from Wikipedia: "A ghetto is described as a 'portion of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.' "

Meet the new "Webster's dictionary defines ..." lede, same as the old "Webster's dictionary defines ..." lede. The Freep is trying to put a little context on the way in which the city's corporation counsel fell or was pushed out of her job; depending on which side you listen to, she either said Detroit's 36th District Court risked being perceived as a "ghetto court" or needed to stop "acting like a ghetto court." She's white, most of the court's judges are black, and -- surprise -- the comment was perceived very differently by the audience than by the speaker. Those factors suggest that "the dictionary" (or the Google search for the Wikipedia page that quotes the dictionary) is the wrong place to start answering this question.

Sidelight: Why is Wikipedia generally banned as a source? Because, as Wikipedia itself proclaims, it's the encyclopedia "that anyone can edit" -- case in point, the second sentence of the "ghetto" entry: Some of the largest ghettos in the US are Compton, CA, East Cleveland, OH, Chester, PA and most noteably the South Bronx which lies in the poort congresional district in the United States. I don't know enough about Wiki culture to say whether the inept spelling is a sign of an ideologically motivated edit, but if I was in a guessing mood, I wouldn't mind starting there.

Not everything on Wikipedia is so awful. I don't see a reason to doubt the Langston Hughes and August Wilson cites later in the "ghetto" article, and they shed some light on how complex and socially/contextually bound the valence of a term like "ghetto" can be. (In turn, that suggests that the history department might not be the best place to look for an "expert" -- the hed's term, not the writer's -- to explain the social use of language. You want one of those, what do you call 'em, socio-linguo people or something.) When a word gets somebody pushed out of a high-profile job, what that word "means" or "really means" or "originally meant" might be less relevant than who said it to whom, about what, and in the presence of what recording device.*

Context-blindness is familiar these days from right-wing grudge commentary. Sean Hannity can joke with an Irish-surnamed caller about sharing a seven-course Irish dinner,** then wonder aloud why Some Jokes are off limits, given that the Hannitys of the world are such good sports -- the implication being that Those People need to suck it up and stop being so sensitive. Asking when a particular term did or didn't become derogatory might not be all that useful. It's entirely possible that "Irish dinner" can exist alongside "Irish culture," with the direction of the adjective not clear until you've seen all the players and the rest of the script.

I don't mean to liken the former corporation counsel to the evil gasbags of talk radio, but that does suggest a way of interpreting her justification:

Leavey said in an interview Friday that her remarks about the court, where most of the judges are black, were taken out of context.

(Wow! Didn't see that one coming, did you?) That's exactly the problem. If she'd been taken out of context, she wouldn't be so former. She just failed to see the context that, unavoidably, she would be taken in.

* The Morris and Morris usage dictionary (the one with the panel of writers who vote on things like "hopefully" and "host") calls "ghetto" a euphemism for "slum," which seems a case of the euphemism-phobia that afflicts lots of writers, especially journalists.***
** Six-pack and a potato, in case you missed that day.
*** Consider the genuinely bizarre contention that "African American" is a euphemism. What do you figure it's supposed to be a euphemism for?

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Editor of the week

Everyone who laces up the editing cleats and takes to the field has to deal, at some point, with a complaining member of the audience. Sometimes it's a malicious complainer. Sometimes it's a very stupid complainer. Sometimes it's a powerful complainer. Sometimes it's all three.

We can't all have the presence to respond with "Cancel your own damn subscription." We can't all be like an excellent colleague from several newspapers back who violated the Cooperative Principle all over a caller one night on the sports desk:
Drunk in bar: Whaz the score of the Carolina game?
Sports desker: 24-22 (begins to hang up)
Drunk in bar: Wait. Uh. Who won?
Sports desker: 24 (finishes hanging up)

But we'd probably all count it a good day if we could respond to a critic in detail, pointing at the documentation while invoking Higher Journalistic Principle and never -- no matter how enticingly the Evil One whispers -- bringing up the critic's mama and the entire 18th Airborne Corps in the same sentence. Please join your editors here, then, in honoring our first Editor of the Week recipient, Pat Dougherty of the Anchorage Daily News.

Mr. Dougherty has a particularly vexing problem, When he writes back to a particular (mendacious, powerful, etc.) critic to request details of a complaint and offer a few in response, he gets silence -- until he finds the critic has used a preexisting bully pulpit to call him and his crew a bunch of hacks. If you haven't figured out yet who his antagonist is, it's someone who has (a) access to the governor's press office and (b) the unmitigated gall to play poor-pitiful-me with phrases like "I acknowledge that you own the ink." Also. Getting the picture yet? And she has a journalism degree also. So he -- quite responsibly, in my view -- responds by putting the e-mail exchange into the record, along with follow-ups as needed.

I had been sort of hoping Sarah Palin would just go away, and she sort of did. But she seems intent on proving herself just as shamelessly dishonest outside the spotlight as she was during her few bizarre weeks in it. For staying on topic, taking we-report-you-decide seriously, and resolutely refusing to tee off on the governor despite mortal temptation, Pat Dougherty is Editor of the Week. Please buy him a beer if you see him.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today's editing tip

When reading copy for the food section, always read the name of the dish:

The Potato-Pea Tortilla recipe in Wednesday's Carolina Living section omitted one ingredient. It should have included 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed.

But things seem to be getting better. At least we didn't leave out the potatoes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When you've got 'em by the bells ...

Here's the sort of correction that -- given time, luck and a mandate to be skeptical -- a desk is often able to head off:

An article on Saturday about the rise of the Arizona Cardinals in the N.F.L. after years of poor play and questionable front-office decisions misidentified, in some editions, the man who bought the team for $50,000 in 1932. He was Charles Bidwill — not his son Bill, who is the current owner. The article also misidentified a former job held by one of Bill Bidwill’s sons, Michael, who is the team president. He was once a ball boy, not a bellboy.

The basic numbers rule is whenever you see two numbers, you should do something to them. With historical events, there's always a second number: the present. So somebody bought the team 76 years ago. Let's be utterly arbitrary and assume that people under 21 don't buy football teams. So that'd make the owner ("as quiet, reserved and well versed in football as his trademark bow tie would suggest") 97. The point of having a specialized desk -- of not making your business desk edit sports, or your World In Crisis desk edit the food section -- is to have people around who know whether the Cards are the team with the 97-year-old owner.

The second one's a bit trickier, partly because it's simply impractical for the desk to question every last fact a writer asserts in a news story. But your old friend the maxim of relevance is there to help. If indeed Dad was 97, "bellboy" wouldn't have been impossible, but what's it doing there? Weirdest job the kid ever held, or evidence that he actually performed manual labor outside his dad's organization, or ...? Was the bell desk where Junior learned about the seedy life of sports stars? If so, where'd he bell? Or is this just some kind of telephone error for some more likely job held by someone growing up in a football family?

Since you already have the writer on the line ("Just checking -- you meant old Charlie's son Bill, not Charlie himself, right?"), you might as well ask about the hotel too. And you can hang up with the grateful writer's thanks* echoing in your ears, having kept another correction out of the paper.

* HAHAHAHA! Kidding.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sentence of the morning

Quoth the AP:

Schrenker lived a high-flying life as an experienced recreational pilot with the nerves to pull off aerial stunts and an investment manager.

Pulled off many an investment manager in his day, no doubt.

Easy fix: Put another "as" after the conjunction. Slightly more complicated but better fix: Put the simple part of the compound (the one without all those annoying prepositional and infinitive phrases and stuff) first, so it doesn't appear to go with "aerial stunts."

Reporters work in a hurry. Editors slow 'em down. Fixing minor sloppiness in AP stories is good practice for fixing major sloppiness in the stuff you are expected to pay attention to.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Today's do-it-yourself tip

Hey, in these tough economic times, everybody wants to save a little money. So here are some ways you can fix those annoying science stories at home, without having to call in an expert or spend years and years taking those pesky methods courses. Today, we're going to spike a paragraph from an AP medical writer!

First, you want to spread some Context over the work surface:

Sam Silverman is co-captain of his high school football team — a safety accustomed to bruising collisions. But that’s nothing compared with the abuse he gets for being a vegetarian.

Be sure to wear your eye protection when handling those anecdotal ledes, kids! Now, reach in with the pliers until you feel something round and lumpy:

... Silverman may feel like a vegetable vendor at a butchers’ convention, but about 367,000 other kids are in the same boat, according to a recent study that provides the government’s first estimate of how many children avoid meat. That’s about 1 in 200.

Got it? That's the "nut graf," which explains why you've been reading three paragraphs about somebody you've never heard of. Rotate the nut graf until you find a "relative clause" that tells you why the story is interesting -- that one about "the government's first estimate of how many children avoid meat." Now see if you can find a black-and-white wire that leads to the Trend:

... Anecdotally, adolescent vegetarianism seems to be rising, thanks in part to YouTube animal slaughter videos that shock the developing sensibilities of many U.S. children. But there isn’t enough long-term data to prove that, according to government researchers.

Did you make sure the power was turned off at the circuit breaker? Great! Now pick up your baseball bat and hit the AP upside the head with it.

First thing you want to do is dismantle the "attribution." Go ahead and remove "according to government researchers." If you applied enough context, you probably remember that this is "the government's first estimate," so there's not only not "enough" long-term data, there's no long-term data at all! You have a single data point. Pretend it's a picture of a car: Is it going faster or slower than it was yesterday? So you can say on your own that nothing's been proven, but we still need to back up a little farther.

Survey data don't "prove" anything. They never have, and they never will. Social science (that's what surveys about teen eating habits are) is in the business of probability; if you're interested in "proof," go to seminary. But we're not dealing with probabilistic evidence here. The AP says that "anecdotally," something seems to be happening, but it doesn't provide anything to judge what "anecdotal" means. In a way, that's beside the point; anecdotal evidence is all pretty much the same, whether it comes from the writer's nephew or an impassioned editorial in the high school newspaper or something you saw on CNN last week. It not only isn't proof, it isn't even probability.

And "thanks in part to YouTube videos" is (you didn't take the goggles off, did you?) simply fictional. It's an objectivity failure -- not because it puts some thumb on the ideological scales, but because it's completely made up. There's no indication that "exposure to YouTube" has even been conceptualized, let alone measured, let alone compared with anything that might in some way allow a causal inference.

OK! We're ready to take our paragraph out and throw it at a wire editor! Most newspapers -- this being the age of shovelware and all -- seem to have simply run with the AP's suggested hed, but the folks at the Lawrence Journal-World decided to improve it on their own:
Number of young vegetarians on the rise
No, you can't fix it by adding attribution. The story doesn't say that, and it doesn't say that "study says" that, for the simple reason that no known evidence on God's green earth allows you to say anything, either way, about what the "number of young vegetarians" is doing.

One hopes they're teaching better habits at the local J-school.* Come to that, one hopes they're teaching better habits at J-schools across the universe.

* Can we be heretical for a sec? Lawrence is in many ways a much cooler town than Columbia, though the J-school will be hopelessly inferior unto the end of time amen.

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The real Bushisms

With the waning of the Bush presidency, it's a reasonable bet that we'll also see an end to the hunt for Bushisms. I can't say I'm sorry; the suggestion that Bush is uniquely unfluent, or particularly evil in the serial mangling of Old Mother Tongue, isn't very persuasive (Language Log approaches it with appropriately skeptical empiricism), and when the NYT proclaims that Bush invented a noun that the OED dates to the late 16th century -- well, just hand the Media Bias crowd a loaded shotgun, why don't you?

But in listening to the farewell news conference today, I heard something -- two somethings -- that do strike me as characteristic of Bush's speech. Here's the first:

I'm for a sustainable cease-fire. And a definition of a sustainable cease-fire is that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel. And there will not be a sustainable cease-fire if they continue firing rockets. I happen to believe the choice is Hamas's to make. And we believe that the best way to ensure that there is a sustainable cease-fire is to work with Egypt to stop the smuggling of arms into the Gaza that enables Hamas to continue to fire rockets.

Sound familiar? Flash back to last year:
So when you want to talk about peace being difficult in the Middle East -- it's going to be difficult, but it's even made more difficult by entities like Hamas, who insist upon lobbing rockets into Israel, trying to provoke response and trying to destabilize -- even destabilize the region more.
(we're going to change questioners and skip four grafs here) ... But Hamas is -- look, when you're Israel and you've got people lobbing rockets into your country, you're going to take care of business. But you got to ask, why is Hamas lobbing rockets?

Or two years before that, without the repetition:
One thing is for certain -- is that when this force goes into help Lebanon, Hezbollah won't have that safe haven, or that kind of freedom to run in Lebanon's southern border. In other words, there's an opportunity to create a cushion, a security cushion. Hopefully, over time, Hezbollah will disarm. You can't have a democracy with an armed political party willing to bomb its neighbor without the consent of its government, or deciding, well, let's create enough chaos and discord by lobbing rockets.

I think Bush has been told that the Way Forward in political discourse consists of getting your phrase out there first and loudest, so that when people -- particularly the press, but also the people who write to the press and ask it not to be so horribly evil and liberal all the time -- talk about an issue, they do it on your terms. (More or less George Lakoff's explanation of framing.) But when Bush is improvising, he doesn't know when to stop, and he ends up sounding like Chatty Cathy. Here's another bit from today, this time about Hurricane Katrina:

People said, well, the federal response was slow. Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response.

Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely. But when I hear people say, the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers, or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?

I really don't think he produces that sort of a statement by accident. I think he starts with a prime he wants to plant and can't bring himself to stop when the stopping's good. Other thoughts, ideas, comments?

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

What if we don't miss it?

Sometime in the next few months, I'm not going to have a newspaper landing in the driveway every morning. I'm not looking forward to that; in cosmic terms, I rate it about one seal short of an apo- calypse. But every Sunday, it seems, the folks downtown go out of their way to remind me that I don't really need a newspaper after all.

The lead story, in case your eyes have fallen out of their sockets, is about one of the local sports columnists. He has a message from Detroit, it appears. Let's see what the story might hold:

When Sports Illustrated asked him whether anybody still cared about Detroit, Free Press columnist Mitch Albom knew what he needed to do.

Take a break from his holiday vacation. Write a personal defense of his city and his state.

Thus was born "And yet ..." -- the signature article in this week's edition of the country's leading sports magazine.

Well, um -- thanks, Mitch. But let's try not to look at this in terms of how thoroughly mediocre a writer Mitch Albom is (imagine Dan Brown as a sportswriter, with shorter paragraphs and the occasional mandate to provide the Bluff Little Guy's view on actual sociopolitical issues). Let's not think about the Freep's Gannett-driven tendency to fill its section fronts with columns rather than news. And let's set aside the shameless recycling that's been the order of the day since mid-November (Albom's "Hey, Congress" column was so good it had to run twice, and "Six Myths About The Detroit 3" was "updated" three weeks later as "Seven Myths About The Detroit 3"). Let's just look at this as an investment of space.

The Freep's A section today is 14 pages, or 84 columns (6 columns per page in today's currency; if you've seen "All the President's Men," you might remember the scene in which space is allotted among the various desks at the budget meeting). We can divide that space up as news and not-news, which requires some value judgments, or more simply as paid (anything some person, business or governmental organization has bought) and unpaid (everything else).

Four pages are gone to full-page ads (o tempora; a decade ago, a fat Sunday A section would nearly have covered those Monday and Tuesday issues that the Freep won't be bothering to deliver anymore). 2A is mostly unpaid, but none of it is news. 1A is almost entirely unpaid, but ... well, it's not really news either, is it? I'll spot you the Macy's elbow on 9A in return, even though 75-85% of an elbow page is paid. So let's say we're down to 8 pages for everything in the world.

Let's throw three more pages out; the Albom piece (not to belabor a point, but the Albom piece reprinted from Sports Illustrated) eats up the double truck (6A-7A) and slops over to 8A, which is about two-thirds open. 10A is auto show jumps and 11A is inaugural jumps. There's a fairly good story about the Chinese economy on 9A (again, flash back a decade and multiply by six; half a dozen elbow pages could have meant half a dozen stories about developing economies).

What's left? Well, 12A has two stories about the economy and the largest visual image in the A section: a 4-column shot of the Tuileries, labeled "Polar Paris." Apparently there's snow in Western Europe, but no indication of why this is the day's most important image (or why it's buried down in the ad stack, where it's hard to tell from ... an ad). And that leaves us with 4A -- six columns for anything else that might have gone on in the other 49 states, or the rest of the world, worth a little digesting and reporting in a daily newspaper. A little more than a third of what went into the Albom wankfest, if you're scoring along at home.

Mitch Albom's epic mediocrity isn't why people are shooting at each other in the Near East. But it's one of the reasons that -- should you have to rely on the Freep for your news -- you don't hear about places like Gaza before they blow up. It's one of the things that make sure you won't hear about other international or internal conflicts before they get really destructive. I'm trying to think again of exactly what I'll miss if there isn't a sports paper with an occasional page of news landing in my driveway every morning.

Be embarrassed. Be very embarrassed

What might we find at the top of the homepage of the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas? (Aside from a lot of football and basketball, which is the firmest ground most of your big regional dailies can stand on anymore?) Why, it's an important news story! Things I might not know about the Bush record! Let's have a look, shall we?

First thing we'll see is a title page: "100 Things Americans May Not Know About The Bush Administration Record" (Oops. Contents must have settled during shipping.) Next thing we'll see is the presidential seal. Do you suppose that might tip you off, just a tad bit, that what follows might not be the sort of thing we expect from the workings of the news machine?

But onward. The first thing I "may not know" about the Bush record is that Bush "waged the global war on terror"! Gawd. What planet do you people think your readers live on? We just sort of missed the whole GWoT thing amid the basketball, football and banking news?

But there are, of course, bullet points: Bush "removed threatening regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, which freed 50 million people"! It's interesting that the unnamed propagandists put Iraq, which in no conceivable way was "threatening" US security, ahead of Afghanistan, which was allowing safe haven to a genuine security threat. In the longer term, we might want to ask the "50 million people" what exactly they've been freed from -- or perhaps more appropriately, what they've been freed into. Endemic violence and foreign military occupation don't generally produce happy, stable, peaceable democracies. Or does the Observer just assume its readers have the same sort of zero attention span its editors have when it comes to ongoing stories like Gaza?

You could go on and on, as the PDF does for 41 relentless, disingenuous, morally vacant pages. I tend to look first at the stunningly Orwellian lies about international issues, because that's my area of interest, but that doesn't mean stuff like
Appointed Judges Committed to Ruling by the Letter of the Law
Appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, and more than one-third of all active Federal judges, who will not legislate from the bench.
... gets a free pass. Please: On what planet, under how many funny-colored suns, did this thing look like news? And how do you propose to assure any of your readers who still put some faith in the market-based model of journalism that you can be trusted to make competent judgments about things that public officials do and say?

Somebody -- more than one somebody -- should be deeply embarrassed by this. What's the point of doing journalism if you can't do it right?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Safire's back!

One of the things I regret about the newspaper days is that I never had one of those view-with-concern, point-with-alarm sort of jobs where you could just make stuff up when you ran out of other things to talk about. You know, like Bill Safire:

Y’know reached its usage peak among teenagers in the 1980s, later replaced by I mean, then by like and of late by an elemental uh.

Did it occur to anybody -- specifically, anybody who edits copy for the Times magazine -- that there are two sorts of testable claims in there? One about frequency, and one about time sequences? And that neither one comes with the remotest shred of evidence (aside from the speaker's authority, which is more or less nil) to support it?

Sports writers, you might have noticed, tend not to do that -- I mean, make unsubstantiated assertions about frequency ("free-throw shooting was at its best in the 1980s") or order (the Cards defeated Boston the year after they lost to Detroit) and expect to be taken seriously solely on the size of their mavenhood. I expect that's because sports writers know they're fairly likely to be called out, by readers if not first by editors, should they start inventing stuff at random. Other parts of the paper ought to follow the same general approach. When you say something peaked, whether it's cancer deaths, paper acceptance rates, editorial support for Republican candidates in U.S. daily newspaper editorials, or whatever, you put your data on the table or your babblings don't get put in the paper.

Look, you know, a grunted uh, I mean — which is what I use to fill up a silence to show I’m conscious while I’m groping for a word — is, like, prelinguistic language.

Words, like, fail me.

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That's what he was when they found him

Striking unanimity among the Illinois fishwraps this morning, eh? Not so much the choice of lead story (even for the most up-to-date present- ation editor, the impeachment of the chief executive is hard to ignore) as the nature of the heds. Only one of eight bothers to include the subject ("Blagojevich"); for the rest, it's just IMPEACHED, above, beside or within a picture of the governor. James Thurber ("Dead. That's what the man was when they found him") must be smiling.

I don't think the topic-comment approach is necessarily bad, misleading or wrong. I do think the evidence suggests that we've passed some sort of watershed in the collective understanding of what makes for necessary elements in a headline or presentation. We're probably not entirely at the rebus stage yet, though that could get kind of interesting too.

It should go without saying that there are far, far worse ap- proaches to the Blago hed than "Im- peached." Charlotte and Detroit manage to get almost everything wrong:
Ill. House votes to impeach
Ill. House OKs impeachment
Sigh. One, Illinois is near the top of the list of States You Never Abbreviate If You Can Help It. It's fun in lots of ways depending on the font, from the numeric
Ill. Men Charged In Mass. Murder
to the Noahic
Ark. Man Kills Ill. Livestock
Two, the active voice is the enemy of cops-and-courts reporting. Particularly in unique-actor cases (you can't get an impeachment at the Home Depot), the object is nearly always more pertinent than the subject.
Three -- pace Orwell, S&W and more news writing gurus than you can shake a bludgeon at -- it's entirely possible for an active subject-verb-object sentence to be indirect. That often comes about when writers fall into the trap of emphasizing process over outcome, leading to sound-like-your-sources yawners on the order of "Police executed a search warrant" (rather than "Police searched a house") or "Police made an arrest" (rather than "Police arrested a naked, screaming, ax-wielding City Council member").

There's nothing wrong with writing an obvious hed, as long as you meet the underlying obligation of the hed business: Tell me why today is different from yesterday. "It's official" and "Pain at the pump" can't do that. "Governor impeached," on the other hand, does it pretty well.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

A behind-the-scenes birthday

With a nod to The Ridger,* here's a birthday for copy editors: Lloyd Loar was born this day in 1886.
Why should copy editors celebrate? Because Loar is a guy whose work you know without knowing it. If you've ever heard Bill Monroe, you've heard Loar. He was Gibson's demon acoustic engineer for the first half of the 1920s (that's his signature in a 1924 F-5 at right). Bluegrass sounds the way it does because, when Monroe got around to inventing it, he had an instrument that did the things Lloyd Loar had taught it to do.
Late in life, Loar indulged in academia at Northwestern. This is from a nice bio at Roger Simonoff's site:
C25. The Physics of Music. The scientific side of music. Composition of tone; tone color or timbre; sound waves; vibration; resonance; acoustics of various wind and stringed instruments; the piano and pipe organ; voice acoustics; radio. This course will be accepted toward a degree as either a music elective or in lieu of Liberal Arts requirement to the limit of three semester-hours. 1:30-3:30, Mr. Loar
Makes you wish you were in college again, doesn't it? Anyway, on behalf of copy editors and anyone else you know who works out of sight of the crowd, raise a glass to Lloyd Loar.

*Scholar, birder, indefatigable chronicler of birthdays.

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Talking back to the stylebook

This quote from the front of yesterday's Freep landed oddly on the ear. It comes from the last story in a series about the sexual abuse of female inmates; it's "just another day in July," until the protagonist is taken aside by the warden:

"Gov. Jennifer Granholm," the warden said, "signed your commutation yesterday."

I wasn't there, and neither was the reporter, but -- really? Because that sounds a lot more like a stylebook talking than an actual human person. It's hard to imagine any of the people in that room (or, to be fair, anybody between here and the tunnel to Canada) producing a first reference to "Gov. Jennifer Granholm" in that sort of sentence. But it does follow the Freep stylebook, which specifies that style on title abbreviations is followed in quotes.* That suggests that the quote was reconstructed with an eye on style, rather than impact on the eye or ear, and I wonder if that isn't another "rule" we ought to think about scrapping, or at least toning down.

That's reinforced a little farther into the issue (it's Thursday, one of the editions that will survive the looming end of home delivery, so there's room for a scrap of international news):

“We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President" Hosni "Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt,” Rice said. “We’re supporting that initiative.”

Stumble a bit on "President" Hosni "Mubarak"?** That's Freep style too: Avoid parenthetical inserts in quotations, such as: "She (Salome) said it was in (her) best interest."*** Here's how the statement looks at the State Department Web site:

Of course, we are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt.

And in the AP, before the Freep got hold of it:
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President (Hosni) Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Rice said.

But here's how the IHT handled the AP story:
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Rice said.

Wow. Some news organization out there figures that anyone who has paid 50 cents for a newspaper and gotten this far into a Near East story is going to know that the "President Mubarak" acting on behalf of Egypt is Hosni Mubarak, not his half brother Elvis Mubarak or Joe "The Plumber" Mubarak or Israeli Prime Minister J.D. "Lightning" Mubarak? I'm impressed.

I'm not suggesting we throw the stylebook out the window. I like stylebooks.**** But I also think it's time to acknowledge that following a rule into the ground is a stupid idea. I can't imagine anyone in the Freep's circulation area who couldn't have followed the inmate story without a first name for "Gov. Granholm," who's barely even a walk-on in this installment. And I'm at a loss to demonstrate what we've genuinely gained by inserting (Hosni) into the Rice comment -- much less so if we throw in the supreme distraction of the busted quote. If our goal is to prove that editors are central to the foundering enterprise we call "professional journalism," we can likely find a dozen better ways to prove it before tomorrow's A section is through.

* The stylebook also says: "If you are reconstructing dialogue, make it clear to the reader you are doing so." I deeply dislike reconstructed dialogue as it is, but if we're not going to bar it outright, at least we could send the requisite signals.
** And no, dear cousins who program the freep.com search engine, I did not mean to search for "President Hosanna Mubarak."
*** Which looks like a really poor choice of example for the rule. What's the second parenthetical doing there? Was the original supposed to be "She said it was in her best interest" or "She said it was in my best interest"? Is the rule supposed to be "don't clarify pronouns" or "don't replace pronouns"? When a stylebook is confusing, it's also likely to be ignored.
**** Everybody has a hobby.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Periodic diversity rant

Awful lot of people sort of dragging us back to the '60s at once, isn't it?

More recent work by Greenwald and colleagues shows that most people --between 75 and 80 percent -- have implicit, non-overt prejudices against blacks.

So at CNN, the world is divided into "people" and "blacks"? (And by the way, no: This study doesn't "harken back" to the Milgram study.)

The 20-year-old woman told police that she was walking to her vehicle when two Hispanic men forced her into a dark-colored, two-door vehicle, possibly a Honda Accord or Civic

And that's it for physical description at the Obs. Height or weight? Facial hair, hair hair, other identifying features? Eye patches, bandoliers, missing teeth? Mexican men, Nicaraguan men, Men of La Mancha? Hey, who cares?

U.S. backs Egyptian-French cease-fire
But Israelis, Arabs haven't accepted
You sort of wonder if the Freep has just run out of people who had heard about the Fractious Near East before last week. (Given the demographics of the area, that's potentially pretty embarrassing.) Since the Egyptians (a subset of "the Arabs") are suggesting the cease-fire, it maybe ought to be sort of obvious that the level of analysis in the deck should be, maybe, limited to the even smaller subset of "the Arabs" on the other side of this conflict. Otherwise, it's sort of like -- oh, like saying "the Hispanics" gave a speech last week celebrating the 50th anniversary of the revolution.

The main hed misses the head noun kinda dramatically too. The event at issue here isn't an Egyptian-French cease-fire (that's so 1956). It's an Egyptian-French proposal for other people to cease fire. There really is a difference.

Yes, there's a lot to pay attention to, and there are fewer editors every week to pay attention to it. But there is still sort of a bottom line here: Readers don't know what you meant. All they know is what you said.

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Active aggressive

Cold water is dreaded by the burnt hand again:

Obama will swear in facing a
deskful of historic challenges
No he won't, and copyeds need to get over their obsession with the active voice. To swear in is "admit or induct into an office by administering a prescribed oath."* It's transitive. It has to have an object. Obama isn't going to swear (anybody) in; he's going to be sworn in.

If you're in a hed-counting mood, you will quickly note that "take office" is only one count longer (8.5) than "swear in" (7.5). You can bump the orphan article down to the next line or lose it altogether. You can make it "to take office" rather than "will take office." But if you want "swear in," you need to be passive.

[PS: The question would be moot if someone had looked carefully at the lede -- "The New Year begins with unusual promise and unusual peril" -- and assigned this column to the ash heap of history forthwith. We're not making much of a case for the centrality of print as the home of insightful commentary here.]

* So says the Good Book amen.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Silver anniversary

No, not that one.* But 2008 did mark an editing milestone of sorts for Your Editor: 25 years since I last had to count a hed by hand. And 2008 was also the year -- coincidentally, unless you're an Unseen Hand member and have a quota to meet -- I finally stopped teaching that fine, entertaining and thoroughly useless skill to editing students.

One of the Rules of Cool at my first shop was that if you actually wrote out the hed and counted it on paper, you weren't ready to play with sharp objects. You memorized the L-I-F-T formulae and tallied up all the counts, half-counts and count-and-a-halfs in your head, then you typed the result on a manual typewriter and put it on the hed hook in composing. Heds came in 6-point steps (except for the skip from 14 to 18 and the leap from 36 to 48), so there was no adjusting by half a point until things fit. If you wanted to tweak the spacing, you did it with an X-Acto or a single-edge razor blade (careful; bleeding on a near-completed page is very, very bad form).

So imagine how nice it was to encounter a front-end system that not only justified text in whatever width you wanted but told you whether your hed efforts were 1 UNDER or 2 OVER or -- we all thought the punctuation was a cheery touch -- ** LINE FULL!! **. More stuff done, less time, less blood: why go back?

But I've always taught the Old Ways, partly on grounds that people should know what to do in a power failure** but mostly -- in retrospect -- out of sheer walk-to-school-uphill-in-the-snow-both-ways-ishness. Until last semester, when I decided there were better things to do with that chunk of time if the goal was to produce competent heds by the end of the month. And the sky did not darken.

Thus, because it's almost time to launch a new semester, the biennial semiannual twice-a-year audience participation question: What's one thing we should all stop teaching this semester?

Everyone is welcome to join in: editors, victims of editing, J-profs and students, interested observers from the outside world. Hit the comment button and play.

* Not all that far, though, if you're wondering what to do with all those extra Stellings, AKs and cases of bordeaux that the kids are always tripping over.
** What they'll do is sit there. Can't write heds if you can't read stories.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

You make the call

Fairly striking correction at the Times today:*

An article last Sunday rendered a comment by Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, incorrectly. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she said, “We are targeting Hamas, we are not looking for civilians to kill,” and then added “More than that, during this military operation, we are trying to avoid any kind of civilian casualties.” She did not say, “We are targeting Hamas, we are not looking for civilians to kill more than that.”

You can see why the common precept of not repeating the thing you're correcting is ignored here. That's a pretty striking difference, and based on the transcript at MSNBC, it looks like a genuinely egregious quote mine:

MS. LIVNI: Well, of course, we are in a very close connection. I am in a very close connection with Secretary Rice, and we had some talks only last night. The idea--and this is according also to our values--we are targeting Hamas, we are not looking for civilians to kill. More than that, during this military operation, we are trying to avoid any kind of civil casualty.

The Times has scrubbed the article linked from the correction, but here's the quote from Lexis:
''We are targeting Hamas, we are not looking for civilians to kill more than that,'' she said in a second interview, on NBC's ''Meet the Press.''

Seems pretty damning, doesn't it? Particularly in a conflict in which every word that's written or spoken is going to be put under the microscope at the faintest suggestion of bias? Have a look at the tape -- the relevant passage occurs around the 6:10 mark -- and see which cutting of the sentence is closer to what the speaker produced: The Times's or MSNBC's?

Any decision on where and how to excerpt speech in an interview is subjective; audiences need to be able to trust not only the reporter's ear** but the reporter's ability to understand context and be faithful to it.*** (Before you make a judgment on what Livni "said," you'll want to watch enough to get a general idea of how she speaks; that's part of context too.) The Times's decision might be closer and still not be good. But it seems to me worth asking whether what the speaker said or "did not say" is as clear-cut as the correction indicates.

* Online; I have yet to find it in the print edn that reaches these parts.
** I hear "civil casualty," not the Times's "civilian casualties."
*** We seem to give people plenty of reason not to extend that trust, too.

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Corrections: Paging Dr. Escher

And how were the New Year's Eve festivities in Columbus? Let's ask the Dispatch:

Last night's First Night also boasted a new midnight location at Broad and High streets for its countdown and fireworks display. But the night belonged to the children who would likely be nodding off long before the new year arrived.*

The follow-up from Jan. 2:

CORRECTION
There were no fireworks Downtown on New Year's Eve for First Night Columbus. (For an explanation about why, see Page B2 in today's paper.) Because of incorrect information provided by the organization and an early press deadline, a story that ran on Page A1 yesterday was incorrect.

That pesky incorrect information! Anyway, here's the explanation:
People expecting fireworks at First Night Columbus' countdown to midnight on New Year's Eve had to be satisfied with confetti cannons instead.

Organizers originally had intended to shoot off stadium fireworks near the Downtown celebration's new midnight location at Broad and High streets, but then found out that they needed a permit, First Night spokeswoman Lindsey Weiker said.

Unable to get a permit at the last minute, the group changed its schedule lineup, but it had trouble spreading the word. "It was just a lot of miscommunication," Weiker said.

Sure was! Nor was it over:

CLARIFICATION
The need for a permit was not a factor in the decision to use confetti cannons instead of stadium fireworks at First Night Columbus' countdown to midnight. A story on Page B2 of yesterday's Metro & State section was not clear in explaining that organizers knew they didn't have a place to set off fireworks once the Town Street bridge was closed.

Thanks to the Central Ohio Bureau for keeping an eye on the twists and turns and providing the grisly details. Can't wait to see what the next day's paper brings.

* The Dispatch is scrubbing the archives a bit; follow the link from dispatch.com and you'll find this: Last night's First Night also boasted a new midnight location at Broad and High streets for its countdown. But the night belonged to the children who would likely be nodding off long before the new year arrived. Good thing there's Lexis.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Confuse ... the cat!

Quick, what's the grammatical clue that suggests all is not well with this lede?

Strike launched on militants
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The U.S. military said a temporary closure of the key supply line was not a problem. Officials praised the campaign in the rugged hills of northwestern Pakistan where al-Qaida leaders — including Osama bin Laden — are thought to be hiding.

Confused? Here's what the AP wrote:

Pakistan suspended truck shipments of U.S. military supplies through the famed Khyber Pass on Tuesday after launching an offensive against militants who are trying to cripple Washington's war on a resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

The U.S. military said a temporary closure of the key supply line was not a problem, and praised the campaign in the rugged hills of northwestern Pakistan where al-Qaida leaders — including Osama bin Laden — are believed hiding
.

Clearly there's some editing going on here -- the second graf has been broken into separate sentences, thus relieving the AP of any need to toss a coin and decide whether to use the comma between the two parts of the compound predicate or not.* But "removing the lede and leaving the readers to guess what 'the key supply line' and 'the campaign' represent" is not what we usually mean by "editing."

* Not. But thanks for asking.

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Lying with (other people's) numbers

Surveys and their illegitimate cousins show up distorted in the press for a lot of reasons. One is game-frame bias: If something looks like a contest, it's told like one, even if the data don't support all the clawing, eking, inching and scrapping in the hed. Another is confirmation bias: If something purports to show that the world is either on or off track (church makes you healthy, Those Kids are Destroying the Language, whatever), it gets emphasized. And there's lab-coat bias, or the tendency to assign extra credibility to whoever is standing in front of the whiteboard and sounding scientific.*

Then there's out-and-out lying, or ignoring the data and inventing conclusions to support your ideological or political stance. That can be hard to tell from confirmation bias, but the little cousins at Fox are sometimes pretty blatant about it, as they are here.

For the record, no. We have no idea whether "troops wary about Obama" is true, because this survey doesn't address the issue. Generalizations about what "more than half of U.S. service members think" are fabricated. As it has done before with this particular instrument, Fox is lying because it has a chance to sow doubt about its political enemies:

Six out of 10 Americans in uniform are concerned about Obama's lack of military experience and their perceived difference in his mission and values from that of Bush.

Military Times is a little less blunt this time about the limitations of its survey, but the information is there if you want it. This is a self-selecting poll, meaning the results can't be generalized to the population sampled.** The "characteristics of Military Times readers" are also mentioned. The explanation a few months ago was pretty specific about this: "The group surveyed is older, more senior in rank and less ethnically diverse than the overall armed services." In short, we don't even know much about what this unrepresentative slice of the military thinks.

Genuine, deliberate lying in the news is a bad idea, owing to the unpleasant consequences of being caught. Fox is lucky here because it picks up some camouflage from the pack; even the big kids are sloppy, gullible or both when it comes to survey data. But there's always a chance that if someone at the Times or the Post or McClatchy complains loudly enough, a burst of bogus statisticking can be stopped in its tracks. That's unlikely to happen at Fox, because Fox is fundamentally dishonest in ways that professional news organizations aren't.

These are rough times for journalism. Remember not to get the real kind mixed up with the Fox kind.

* If somebody out there can explain why the NYT is so goo-goo about FiveThirtyEight.com, please do. I completely don't get that.
** Whenever you see a phrase like "that means it is impossible to calculate statistical margins of error commonly reported in opinion surveys," you should feel free to reach for the firearm of your choice.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Let's see that one in slow motion

The AP (bless its pointy little head) has a rule on "assassination, date of": A prominent person is shot one day and dies the next. Which day was he assassinated? The day he was attacked.

Desk? I really don't think the rule applies to drownings as well.