Tuesday, June 30, 2009

This isn't the story you were looking for ...

... so why invest front-page space in it? That's a mystery, especially when it's clear from the outset that there's going to be no substance in this tale:

She is a 43-year-old, divorced mother of two teenage boys who wants to believe she can still experience true love.

Oh, stop the press.

She is an intensely private woman who was not afraid to fight back when that privacy was breached.

She was educated in Catholic schools and professes her belief in God, evil and the afterlife, and yet joined a married father of four in violating the Seventh Commandment prohibition against adultery.

This might come as a surprise to the AP, but -- if we start listing all the commandments violated by people who went to Catholic schools or profess beliefs in sundry deities, we're going to solve the recession in the newsprint business singlehandedly.

Maria Belen Chapur has successfully eluded the news media since S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford revealed their yearlong affair last week.

Do you get the idea by now that you've just learned all the new stuff you're going to learn from this epic? OK, that's not entirely true. We learn that an "acquaintance" describes her mom's family as "oligarchic," which without a little cultural context seems likely to be wildly misleading to your garden-variety reader who stopped paying attention to South America long about the time world peace broke out forever in 1990. And we learn that a "classmate" says -- well, either when she went back to school, which college she went to or what she majored in, depending on how you read AP sentence structure.

We learn that she's "dark-haired," which we must have forgotten in the time it took to follow the story inside from the 1A photo, and "athletic" (AP seems to think we need to be reminded of what women look like, in case anyone thought the governor was seduced by some hideous crone). And we learn that she "traveled the world, learning English, French and Portuguese" -- not technically a "dangling" participle, but sort of a wandering one, in that there's no explanation of why someone who went to an international baccalaureate high school and majored in IR in college wouldn't have already studied English and Portuguese* at least before traveling the world. Perhaps it's so we can be reminded seven grafs later that she's a "well-mannered polyglot and competitive runner."**

And, of course, that she sounds*** like a "giddy schoolgirl" (don't mind me, I'm just dreaming about a planet with three suns where little streams of Pilsner Urquell come trickling down the rocks and major news co-ops refer to sitting Republican governors as "giddy schoolboys"). And that she -- no, you just have to enjoy this one for yourself:

“…You brought happiness and love to my life and (I) will take you forever in my heart,” she wrote in imperfect English. “Believe me, I haven't felt this since I was in my teen ages, when afterwards I got married.”

But hang on, we're sort of getting to the point, I think, maybe:

Since word of the affair broke last Wednesday, first lady Jenny Sanford has been widely praised for her poise and strength. She has fiercely guarded her sons' privacy, and expressed a willingness to work at forgiving Sanford and salvaging the marriage.

Chapur – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jenny Sanford – has demonstrated similar grace, despite her role in the affair.

OK. We need to be able to trust our reporters when they describe demonstrations as massive, or earthquakes as devastating, or cities as destitute. Uncanny resemblances, I'm not so sure about. And what exactly constitutes "similar grace" -- the mere fact of not having found a buyer for the memoirs yet?

Here, I think, we're starting to see the real disconnect between the almost-nil content of the story and what someone must have thought it was to sell it to the front page. The deck hed says "Sanford's lover earns praise for poise and grace under pressure," which is, y'know, strictly speaking, made up. On the evidence, the only praise she's earned is from the AP -- which, after tut-tutting about her hair, her syntax**** and her fidelity to the Commandments, seems to think it needs to say something nice.

Perhaps it actually looked like a Modern Woman profile, rather than a few nuggets of pedestrian biographical information from unnamed sources and a bunch of second-hand judgments that the AP doesn't really have either the qualifications or the evidence to make. Given what we have in hand, though, surely there was something else from the World Beyond Mecklenburg that merited some editorial attention.

* Which, after all, they speak in the neighboring country that's sort of the biggest one on the continent.
** Does that mean she's a well-mannered runner too, or is she only well-mannered when she's polyglotting?
*** To whom besides the AP, we aren't told.
**** Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Wanna buy a bridge of sighs?

Regular reader John raised the issue of "may" heds in a recent comment, so it's probably useful to review one of our favorite bans. "May," "could," "can" and "might" fall in the category of "then-again" heds, which are forbidden unless they appear with a deck hed saying "then again, may not" or something to that effect. Looking back a few weeks, I hope we could all agree that "LOCAL MAN MIGHT BE BOY WHO WAS KIDNAPPED IN NEW YORK IN 1955!!!!!!" would have gotten more appropriate treatment if it had had the appropriate deck: "And then again, he might not be."

Hence our concern with the hed at right. Sure enough, having narrowed the age of the remains down to a couple of centuries, the tests apparently show that the remains "could" be St. Paul.* That's primarily by virtue of the tests' not having shown that the remains couldn't be St. Paul, which -- with all due respect to the nice old guy in the cool hat -- is nowhere near "seeming to conclude" that they are.

Pope and plowman alike, we're all entitled to our opinions. It'd be nice to think we were entitled to slightly less credulous journalism by way of getting the material that lets us form those opinions.

* This isn't the sort of testing we do over on the fifth floor; any of you stalwarts out there know what sort of confidence level these tests are conducted at?**
** "Excuse me, but at Research-Intensive University, we don't end our sentences with prepositions." Anyone want to try for the punch line?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shall we place a bet?

Q: So -- stupid generalizations about the universality of cultural icons are OK when they appear in the Times, right?

A: I was a dark, brooding teenager, and everywhere I turned there was a poster of a beaming woman with wild blond hair, her smile as wide as the Texas sky, in a low-cut scarlet bathing suit that, every man now over the age of 40 can tell, revealed what was in 1976 the scandalous hint of a nipple.

No. Why on earth would you think that?

Name and shame

Hey, see if you can guess who the Pistons drafted last week!

Right. It wasn't original as a 1A teaser Friday ("Daye Time"), and it wasn't original as a sports centerpiece (the rival "New Daye" heds, both appearing Friday), and it still wasn't original today (that's the cute inside feature at top, "Daye Care"). It wasn't original the first time the poor guy heard it. It wasn't original when Fred Flintstone looked across the yard and said "Whole new Daye, huh, Barneyboy?" And it's never going to be original. No sports hed that plays off someone's name ever will be.

Pete Wernick (I think) had a tale about a banjo contest in which one of the criteria was "originality." What's that mean? he asked. Oh, that's how close you played it to the original. Which, at least, is probably an improvement over the sort of originality that goes on in sports departments.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Annals of 'after'

The in/after swap (here, the "killed after/dies after" version) won't be a surprise to you Usual Suspects:

NC man killed after barge hits boat
Authorities say a 55-year-old man died after a barge struck his boat on Watts Bar Lake in East Tennessee.

But here's a new case of random "after" from Fox:
Search halted after ship's crewman lost off Alaska

Well, Amazon pirates are ruthless, aren't they? Lost a crewman? Stop looking for him and start polishing up the brasswork! In real life, it's just another of those missing middle terms: Crew member goes overboard, Coast Guard searches for a day, Coast Guard suspends search. Correctly captured in the inside hed, "Coast Guard suspends search for ship's crewman lost off Alaska coast," but if you stop at the front page, you can be forgiven for deciding that the life of the sea is not for you.


Is it still libelous if ...?

Oh, are they still taking entries in the How Much Can You Do Wrong In A Single Hed contest?

This one's in a category by itself, mostly because the writer wants the comma to do one thing even as the comma insists on doing something quite different. It ends up being so wrong on two counts at once that, should it ever go to court, it might be able to cancel itself out.

What's the comma up to? In this sort of hed compound, it's like a coordinating conjunction:* It joins two elements of more or less equal weight. That could be two nouns, as on yesterday's Freep front:
Van Buren Twp. lands GE wind tech, new jobs

Or two gerunds, in one that Strayhorn actually got past someone and into the paper:
Wailing, gnashing of teeth greet Supreme Court ruling

Or two verbs, as in this case from the host paper mentioned above:
Sisters kidnapped, threatened at gunpoint

See the problem? You can coordinate two passive verbs ("kidnapped" and "threatened"), or you can coordinate two active verbs ("shoots" and "leaves"), but you can't put a passive verb together with an active verb. So the obvious reading of the hed is that the subject was arrested and then was offered a boy.

That's convenient, because the other major rule being broken here is about libel: Never -- that's never, as in "which part of 'never' went in one shell-pink ear and out the other?" -- declare people guilty of crimes they haven't been convicted of.

A libel is a false and defamatory statement. If somebody's been charged with child-molesting, it might ruin his reputation to report that he's been charged with child-molesting, but it isn't false. Cop reports (and trials, legislative proceedings, &c) are also covered by "privilege." It might be both false and defamatory to call someone a commie spy, but it's not libelous if it's said during the trial or the Senate debate -- or in the police report, which is why you see heds like "Police: Smith shot Jones."

When we jump up and down and tell you never to write "Smith shoots Jones" because it's libelous, then, we're not suggesting that we need to write plaintiff a check on the spot. What we mean is that you're making what might be a false and defamatory assertion about a specific person without privilege; if Smith is cleared for whatever reason and has the motive, time and money to come after us, we're in for some trouble that a little basic professional competence would have headed off.**

So is the hed libelous? Well, not if we have the sort of lawyer who can do one of those passive-transformation diagrams for the jury and demonstrate beyond a shadow of two mockeries of a sham that what we said was not "N offered boy for sex" but "N was offered boy for sex." Ya think?

On the other hand, we could try getting both the grammar and the libel/fairness bit right at the same time. Funny, there used to be people who were paid to do that. "Copy editors," I think they were called. Perhaps we should start hiring them again.

* Hed dialect can be tricky, but this is one trick that, I expect, almost everyone gets.
** And while we're at it, most if not all cop heds should be in the passive: "Smith accused of shooting Jones."

Friday, June 26, 2009

No, not really

When one of your experts writes something patently nonsensical and it isn't April Fool's Day, you should:

1) Quietly delete it, knowing that your reward awaits in heaven
2) Bring it to the writer's attention, in hope of saving future copy editors the trouble
3) Repeat it in a cutline so all the world can see!

Homer had the “Iliad,” Francis Ford Coppola had “The Godfather,” and Michael Jackson had “Thriller” – which is arguably the most influential album of all time and easily the most popular one in history.

It's nearly impossible to find someone over age 35 who didn't own the album at one time. Since it was released Nov. 30, 1982, more than 50 million copies of “Thriller” have been sold worldwide.

Well ... in a word, no. It isn't very hard at all. If I was home, I could look in the study and find another one,* but I'm not, so I found one in the department office. (Our little corner of communication heaven is less than a mile southeast** of the Motown studio museum,*** if you're scoring along at home.) We missed the Thursday old folks' shuttle to the discount grocery, but I'd hazard a small bet that many or most of the shuttle ladies never owned a copy of "Thriller." No idea how to predict the Harley Night crowd on Wednesdays, but if you want to gather the data, I'll do the numbers.

You can find some video from the gathering on the Boulevard here. From that, and from the tales of people falling in love with the album at age 7, and from a little basic addition and subtraction, you might get the idea that setting age 35 as your split point is the sort of random false authority that makes the paper look deeply clueless. Surely there's some way to capture the spirit of the age without plucking numbers out the air.****

* Born south of 8 Mile and everything.
** It's like Alaska and Russia: We can see it from here, but that doesn't make me Berry Gordy.
*** Click link, turn up volume.
**** I'm trying really, really hard not to bring up the "Iliad" thing again, but -- are you freakin' kidding me?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

That in/for swap in real life

In case you thought the weekend's discussion of random prepositions was just sort of made up for illustration, here's one captured in the wild (that'll be the Fox home page).

To recap, your grizzled editor (or stylebook, or whatever) warns you never to say "indicted for bombing." So you learn to say "indicted in bombing," but you miss the warning on the label that says "bombing" isn't the same part of speech it used to be. So we have three possibilities here:

Twins indicted for mail bombing Ariz. diversity office (correct, but editor is turning green)
Twins indicted in mail bombing of Arizona diversity office (on the story inside)
Twins indicted in mail bombing Ariz. diversity office (ta-da! Look, Ma, no "arrested for")

It isn't an accident, and it isn't just Fox being Fox. It's a genuine news routine. Doesn't mean we have to like it (indeed, we should feel empowered to point out that it's both wrong and really awful-sounding), but it's pretty widespread.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

But hey, that would be going into details

Well, this is interesting:

Below are excerpts of e-mails, obtained by The State newspaper in December, between Gov. Mark Sanford's personal e-mail account and Maria, a woman in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Let's see. Sumer is no longer icumen in, it is ysitting on the deck ydrinking our Beere. December would be, um, six months ago? So this is a story now ... why?

Oh. Because the governor of Carolina the Lesser hasn't just been out of pocket,* he's been yholden press conferences to explain that he was actually violating old No. 7, rather than innocently yhiking the Appalachian Trail!

Sanford's office Wednesday did not dispute the authenticity of the emails.

Does that mean Wednesday was the first day we asked the governor's office about the e-mails? In that case, we're into some really interesting territory, and not just the tracts of land the governor refers to in the e-mails. That would suggest** that the state capital daily has known for six months that Gov. Sanford was having it off with his Argentine friend and didn't do anything about it.

Which is potentially ... remarkably mature for an American newspaper, isn't it?*** It knew something scandalous, salacious and vastly entertaining but decided not to print it, on grounds that a consensual frolic or eight between adults might imply that the governor is a loathsome toad but doesn't have a thing to do with public policy and governance?

That'd be a brave and difficult call, particularly in an era in which technology makes it unlikely that your decision would have any long-term impact on what people know and when. It isn't unprecedented. One of the Observer's claims to fame back in its Pulitzer days was that it knew about Jim Bakker's sexual dalliance long before it broke its PTL stories but didn't run anything -- it was interested in fraud, which is a crime, rather than sex, which isn't. If that's how The State made The Decision, it's earned a respectful hearing and probably some applause, though it probably owes its readers an explanation along the way.

That being the case, though, is there some point in running the e-mails today? (Or to be more precise, promising "the full e-mail exchange" tomorrow?) Sanford has made clear that he's a weasel; is there a point in running

I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light - but hey, that would be going into sexual details.

... other than to turn your back on any ethical process that led you to sit on the stories for six months in the first place?

I don't mean to suggest that there's an easy answer, or a conclusive answer, to the questions this story raises. If "journalism ethics" was easy, we wouldn't have much of a case for offering three-hour courses in it. But I do think The State ought to get off The Fence. Either stick with the hard call you made or admit that you're going to fold at the first chance to say "two magnificent parts of yourself."

What do you say, gentle readers? Should the governor's steamy prose have been a story six months ago, or should it still be a not-story today? Thoughts and arguments are welcome.****

* Producing what might be the stupidest sidebar in the history of the Associated Press, which is going some.
** The State seems to have a bad case of The Coys about this. A timeline of what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know it would be a lot more useful than a breathless account of the past few days.
*** As well as giving the lie to the likes of Sean Hannity, which is always a bonus even if it isn't much of a challenge.
**** We would be remiss not to point out the truly inept construction of this paragraph:
McClatchy special correspondent Angeles Mase visited the 14-story apartment building in Buenos Aires Wednesday where the woman lives, according to the emails, which included her address. The woman at the address answered to the name in the emails and, at first, agreed to speak to a visitor, but she declined after the visitor identified herself as a reporter.

Have at it, diagramming fans


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Asking simple questions

Honest, I'm not trying to pick on this particular survey, or all stories depending from it, or anything like that. But we do seem, once again, to have a story that's eating up a bunch of front-page space without, apparently, adding anything to the conversation. Let's walk through it step by step and see if we can raise the questions an editor should have thought of earlier.
As the immigration debate heats up across the country, a new study shows Latinos in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are as divided over immigration reform as any other group — and possibly more so.
That's a lot of assertions and implications for one lede, so let's skip the bit about whether we measured the degree to which the immigration debate is heating up across the country. Is there a new study, is there a measurable thing called "divided over immigration reform," does the study measure it, and are Latinos higher on it? Let's see.

The Crossroads Social Capital study, which measured social ties in the community, found almost six out of 10 Latinos (58 percent) in Charlotte-Mecklenburg feel immigrants are “too demanding in their push for equal rights.”

Oh. Would this be the Crossroads Charlotte Social Capital Benchmark Community Survey, reported back in the first week of June? In which the "too demanding" question was the 17th graf? Can someone explain why "too demanding in their push for equal rights" is a measure of support for "immigration reform"? What does it mean for a greater proportion of a subgroup to agree with this question: is a 50-50 split more or less divided than a 60-40 split?

“I'm upset at some of the demands I hear some parts of the illegal community making,” said Ricardo Mata, a Venezuelan native who has lived in the country for two decades. “Sometimes, I get fed up at the double standards I see.”

So when we shift to real people, it becomes a little clearer that the survey and the lede are talking about different things.

... Critics of the study's findings say they reflect only a small segment of the community and not the majority of Latinos who do support immigration reform.

Really? Do we have comparable data on how this majority feels? Local or national? How are the assertions in this graf going to be supported?

“I think the people who were surveyed were mostly established Latinos who are not having to face this issue,” said Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of the Latin-American Coalition.

Here we're getting data confused with opinions again. The survey either did or didn't draw a representative sample; if you don't like the results, that's fine, but this isn't the sort of question that's addressed by asking people what they think.

One hundred seven people who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino participated in the Crossroads study. The full study's margin of error was plus or minus 3.24 percentage points.
Didn't we discuss something like this before? Why report the confidence interval for the full sample* when we're interested in a subgroup? For which, on this question, the margin of sampling error is 9.4 percentage points?**

While the findings don't appear to track national trends, they do seem to follow economic and generational lines. The longer and more successful Latinos have been in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the more likely they are to think newly arrived immigrants are too pushy.

What trends don't they "appear to track," and who(m) don't they appear to track it too? Are we comparing questions about immigration reform or questions about whether immigrants are too pushy? Should we note along here somewhere that not all Latinos are immigrants and not all immigrants are Latinos?

The study also shows that Latinos are not monolithic thinkers and that some disagree with parts of the immigrant rights movement.

Uh ... does anybody outside the Observer newsroom really need to be reminded of those points?

Anyway, then we're off into Random Interviewland, talking with people who do or don't espouse the views that the study doesn't address. None of it gets near addressing the points in the hed or the lede, which -- presumably -- were the selling points for putting the story on the front.

The hed, of course, is abysmal; it's a Stupid Question, for one thing, and it's an incorrectly formed question at that. The deck raises issues that the story at least touches on in passing, but if the study's reported correctly here, they're factors in how people view the "demanding" question -- nothing, to bang on the main point again, that has anything to do with views on immigration reform.

And that's really the problem. If the story was sold as a bit of survey data that shed light on how people view immigration reform, it was mis-sold. It doesn't. It rehashes a finding that was a bullet point in a story two and a half weeks ago and dresses it up with quotations that sometimes address the main point and sometimes don't. It's hard to see how the sum of human knowledge would have been hurt by holding this story up until a few fundamental questions were answered.

* Just report it to one decimal place, OK? Two is spurious precision (though it's not as bad rounding to a whole number, as the NYT does).
** At 95% confidence (kids, don't forget those confidence levels!)

Adventures in agenda-setting

Here's an interesting bit of hed writing from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. See, traditionally, a hed (even on a commentary) is supposed to signal something about the story, so you'd expect there to be something in this commentary about who's happy with Brit's "take" on Iran.

Needless to say, there's no such thing. The commentary -- are you shocked! shocked! yet? -- reminds you of what an awful weenie the president is, but the hed's all inference. And Chavez doesn't just go without his first name; he isn't mentioned at all.

Ain't that interesting? A story doesn't have to have anything whatsofreakingever to do with Hugo Chavez, or Venezuela, or anything remotely like him/them/it for this hed to make sense at Fox. All it has to do is fit a master narrative in which the far-left naif in the White House is eager to cavort with dictators at the expense of American interests. (It has nothing to do with Fox, but here's a particularly delusional take on the matter from National Review Online.)

Way back in 1953, A.J. Liebling drew a good distinction between "the reporter, who writes what he sees" and "the expert, who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn't seen." He should be living at this hour. The general run of "expertise" on Iran is several clicks past abysmal. But do send a kind thought for the reporters who are trying to handle the coverage on the ground -- or a couple of time zones away -- and the people they are covering.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Editing fail

And this just in from The State, in The Capital of The Lesser Carolina, with regard to The Governor's wanderings:

Neither the governor’s office nor the State Law Enforcement Division, which provides security for governors, had been able to reach Sanford after he left the mansion Thursday in a black SLED Suburban SUV, said Sen. Jake Knotts and three others familiar with the situation but declined to be identified.

Catch the problem in the attribution? Somebody reduced a relative clause, which is a pretty common way to Omit Needless Words:

Three others who are familiar with the situation
Three others familiar with the situation

With luck, you save a line of type, and eight lines is an inch, and an inch less foam is an inch more beer! Unfortunately, in this case, the missing "who" is also supposed to be guiding the second clause -- "declined to be identified" -- and it can't when the whole thing has been knocked out of parallel.

I expect this one's traceable to the desk, because writers don't usually do that to themselves. Another case of following the rulebook into the ground, and the sort of thing that gives Strunk & White a bad name.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dawn of the Stupid Question

Once more with feeling: No question heds on stories that make assertions. Ever. Under any circumstances. Sunday's fronts produce two distinct and distinctly awful examples.

First to Wichita, and there's a simple prescription for this: We don't do supernatural. We do mundane. People can say what they wish, and the Vatican can investigate what it wants, and it's fine to report all those things, but we don't do it by raising questions that are not answerable by earthly tools. (Yes, in a happier world, journalism would be a little slower to deify the medical profession, but we don't have to get there by belittling their work.) We don't do miracles and the pope doesn't slot 1A Mideast stories; sounds like a deal to me.

On to Detroit and a different flavor of Stupid Question: the question mark as attribution. Pause for a moment and think of how many ways this 1A lead story could be answered:
1) No, cops groped 11 men in Toledo!
2) No, cops groped 9 men in Detroit!
3) No, cops groped 97 men in Detroit!
4) No, cops didn't grope any men!

There's a fairly aggressive bit of reporting here (one of the few things left that the Freep still does beyond entry-level standards), and it deserves a grownup headline.

Please join the fight. Help stamp out the Stupid Question.

What he meant vs. what he said

Interesting question from distant climes* about this hed in the weekend Grauniad atop an interview with the prime minister. Nothing exceptional about it -- if, that is, the hed is an accurate representation of what he said. Here's the third graf from the 1A story:

"To be honest, you could walk away from all of this tomorrow," he said. "I'm not interested in what accompanies being in power. I wouldn't worry if I never returned to all those places - Downing Street, Chequers ... And it would probably be good for my children."

You -- I mean, I -- could?

In a fuller version of the interview (dear UK readers, did this appear in the print edn as well?), there's a parenthetical explanation of the quote:

"To be honest, you could walk away from all of this tomorrow." (He often says "you" to distance himself from the intended "I".) "I'm not interested in what accompanies being in power. I wouldn't worry if I never returned to all those places - Downing Street, Chequers ... And it would probably be good for my children."

That assertion about the distancing "you" might be entirely true (even though he uses "I" three tiimes and "my" once in the rest of the paragraph), and it's the sort of thing you hope a well-tuned-in reporter could provide to clarify a quote. But an quote with explanation in body type, inside the paper somewhere, isn't the same as a hed at the top of the front. So the question remains: Is the hed misleading?

I think so (even allowing for the vastly different ways British hed dialect uses quotation marks). Heds aren't good places for subtlety and ambiguity. The story (at least, the fuller, featurized version) has room for "He said A, but here's why it's reasonable to think he might have meant something like B." The hed proclaims he said B, and -- especially since the first appearance of the quote in text contradicts the hed -- that's a bad idea.

This one doesn't look amenable to fixing by fiddling around with the words. The exact quote, "you could walk away from this tomorrow," would be pretty strange -- not misleading, just baffling. Softening the "I" bit with "suggests" or "implies" seems to be where the writer is going, but it sounds more like warning than like speculation to me.. Best suggestion: Throw this idea out and start over.

* Onpassed by Garrett, to whom tnx.


Prepositions gone wild

From The Greenbelt comes a case of prepositional weirdness from the Washington Post:

Social Worker Fired in Slaying
2 Others Suspended Over the Pr. William Child Abuse Case
A Prince William County social services employee has been fired and two others disciplined for mishandling the case of a 13-year-old girl whose adoptive mother is accused of abusing and killing her, county officials said yesterday.

Is the main hed another example of in/after interchangeability? Could be, but I think it's more likely a different news routine being drawn out of position. Time for a short detour, then.

The proscription on "arrested for" is widely shared around the industry. Here's the AP:

"To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use a phrase such as arrested for killing. Instead, use arrested on a charge of killing."

It's usually read more generally than that, to include cases in which a noun follows "for," as in "arrested for murder" in addition to "arrested for murdering." Owing to the strictures of hed space (and partly because, for dumber or smarter, we end up reporting a lot of arrests before charges are filed), a common substitute for "for" is "in," as a sort of shorthand for "in connection with":

Smith held in death of Jones = Smith has been arrested in connection with the death of Jones

My guess on the Post hed is that someone's inferring a rule that says "To avoid prejudging a case, always say '(verb) in' rather than '(verb) for.'" (That's how we get the occasional weird crime hed with a verb following "in": Smith arrested in killing works, but Smith arrested in embezzling doesn't, because that's not the noun we get from "embezzle.") The trouble is that the hed is leaping one barrier too many; the death is too deeply embedded for "fired in slaying" to read accurately.

I'd probably be happy with "fired after death," or with a main hed that said "Social worker fired, 2 disciplined" and left the cause for the deck. But it has a lot of the hallmarks of a social practice issue, rather than a grammar issue, and dissenting views (or better hed improvements) are welcome.

The old dope peddler

This one arrived in the overnight mail,* along with the hope that no one will have changed it before its goodness can be shared:

Obama praises drug deal, declares 'turning point'

Well, good news, America! Because almost nobody bothers to read AP suggested heds before slapping them up on the Web site these days, the whole country is playing "Let's Make a Dope Deal" with Barack Hussein0vich and friends:

Obama praises drug deal, says health care changes at a 'turning point' (Star Tribune)
Obama praises drug deal, declares 'turning point' (CBS)
Obama praises drug deal, says it's 'turning point' (Las Vegas Sun)

... and many, many (many, many, many, many) more!

AP style used to caution against using "drugs" for "medicine," on grounds that it could be misunderstood. In most cases, that's not really very likely. But using "drug deal" as shorthand for "agreement on prescription coverage" is the sort of mind-bending cluelessness that makes the AP look foresighted.

* Thanks, Patrick!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Obama hates Cheerios!

He bowed to the king of the Muslins, turned GM into the Trabi of the Midwest and gave your job to the Mexicans. And he's still not satisfied:

President Obama isn't just rewriting rules regulating the environment and the financial markets -- he is also going after the food industry.

Target and example No. 1: Cheerios.

(Yes, little comrade, in United Socialist States of America is only one flavor of breakfast, and we are out of that too HAHAHAHA!)

"Based on claims made on your product's label," the FDA said in a letter to manufacturer General Mills, "we have determined (Cheerios) is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation and treatment of disease."

If the government's enforcement action against Cheerios were to hold up, the cereal would be pulled from grocery shelves and consumers would need a prescription to buy a box of those little oats.

Well .... in a word, "no." Or in another word, "bullshit." What the May 5 warning letter says is that the label is making specific clinical claims and that if General Mills wants to use those claims to sell Cheerios, it needs an approved new drug application. Otherwise, it needs to shut up and sell cereal.

That's unlikely, but experts say the message is clear: There is a new sheriff in town and when it comes to false, misleading and exaggerated labeling, you had better clean up your act.

"It is showing us that there is a new era," says dietician and a former advertising executive Ashley Koff.

At least this time Fox has two "experts" (making the use of the plural actually correct, unlike "government watchdogs" in this gem). But an ad exec isn't the sort of expert I'd turn to for FDA matters. Labeling claims, like the one Cheerios* is making here, are the FDA's remit; similar fibs in ads fall to the Federal Trade Commission.

Bruce Silverglade of the consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it was a welcome and needed change.

"The Obama administration is reversing course, thank goodness, and enforcing the law," he said.

Well, that'd be nice. But the FDA's actually been fairly busy over recent years; indeed, if you look at the FDA's warning letters for 2009 so far, you wonder how they managed to get around to cholesterol claims, amid the flood of products guaranteed to cure the pig flu.

Let's get down to some details. According to a Reuters report last month, the FDA's warning letter to General Mills says that the package label's claims about the effect of Cheerios on cholesterol are inappropriately specific -- the sort you only get to make about drugs -- and that General Mills had 15 days to explain how it would fix things. (Considering that our centerpiece here is in effect a six-week-old piece of administrative trivia, something about how those explanations are progressing might be nice.)

"The FDA sends dozens of warning letters each year," Reuters adds. "Most issues are resolved without further action, but the letters can lead to product seizures and other penalties." Which seems to be what General Mills had in mind too: "We look forward to discussing this with FDA and to reaching a resolution." Which, if you were dumb enough in the first place to ignore the fairly detailed guidelines that suggest how you can phrase things to make your cereal sound healthy without claiming that will "Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks," is a pretty soft landing.

Two general points need to be acknowledged. One, there's far too much attention to the White House in US political reporting (that's a general trend going back many years now). Two, it's past time some outfits turned down the goo-goo reporting on the incumbent a bit.** Both trends give Fox a smoke screen by making its reporting on the executive harder to distinguish at a glance from the run-of-the-mill stuff. But the message is still there: The Brain Police are coming after small business next!

General Mills is a titan of the food business with an army of lawyers. If the FDA can make it back down, others will follow. (Yep. Those who have done considerble in the doctoring way, cancer and paralysis and such, sometimes don't pay attention until they smell the tar. And if the FDA has decided to start bringing the feathers again, that'd be worth some reporting.)

"If I were an industry member and I saw what happened with Cheerios, I would look at this example and say the FDA is going after General Mills," said Koff. "If I'm a maker of a small product I better start to look at any study that I am basing my claims on and what I put on my packaging."

Sounds good to me -- the whole bit about not making medical claims you can't support on your package, I mean. And to his credit, in the video clip accompanying the story, the Fox reporter (the one surrounded by food packages, not the talking dogs in the studio) actually seems to get it: When you make unsubstantiated claims about medical outcomes, somebody ought to come after you.

That's rather comforting, in its own way. Hope the poor guy doesn't have too rough a time on the train to the reeducation camps, because I rather think his employer wants you to come away with a somewhat different message.

* The justification being something like "We've been saying this for two years and you haven't complained yet." Perhaps future generations will call that the Cheerios Defense.
** "Like Obama, Lincoln had run-in with fly"? Have you people no shame, or just far too much space for the trickle of news from the rest of the world?


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sure could. And then again ...

OK, let's see. Our 1A center- piece subject "always felt different," the lede tells us. "He didn't look like anybody else in his family." Turning to the full page inside devoted to this "national media frenzy," we find that "he was treated differently as a child, almost as an outcast" -- but he's "not angry at the man or* woman who raised him."

Starting with his mother's purported deathbed confession (Through the gibberish, through his gut feeling, he figured it out. He wasn't her son), he began checking things out. And finally he stumbled on the case of the toddler kidnapped in New York, and as Sam used to sing over at Rick's, it had to be you.
When you've got a media frenzy on your hands, who are you going to believe: him or his alleged dad?
Here it is as the AP tells it: ... he never really bonded with the mother and father who raised him. He said they didn't look like him and just didn't seem like family.

"I just had a hunch that something was fishy," said Barnes, a laborer who is now in his 50s.

"I never asked them if they kidnapped me. I asked them why I was so different from them."
Of course, the AP did one thing the Freep didn't (despite, in These Tough Times, siccing three reporters on the story). It asked the alleged dad -- at least, that's what "asked by a reporter" looks like -- if he was a kidnapper, and dad said no. He also gave a date and place for the birth of the youngun in question (naval hospital, Pensacola, August 1955).
Now if you were an editor (and despite all the outside entertainment we try to provide, this an editing blog), how would you weigh your evidence here? Which claims sound plausible and checkable? Want to think about, maybe, hanging on to the story for a day, just in case ...
The FBI said today that test results failed to produce a DNA match between John Barnes of Kalkaska and the woman whom he believed to be his sister.
And if you didn't see that coming -- or didn't think the chances of it were good enough to merit a little caution in your presentation -- too bad for you. Because part of an editor's job is trying not to be blinded by your own hype:
No story has Michigan talking like the case of John Robert Barnes. The Kalkaska man claims to have been abducted in 1955 outside a New York bakery. Read up on the stories to the right, and then let us know what you think.
No different from saying that everyone's enraged, or that entire town is stunned -- just another happy fiction about how things ought to be if everybody thought the way we in the newsroom wanted them to think. I wouldn't bet the McClatchy stock on it, thanks.

Thursday, of course, is the first weekday of home delivery for the Detroit papers. If they're trying to remind me that I don't really need a daily paper in my life, they're doing a fine job of it.
* Nominations for Inept Conjuction of the Month are still being accepted!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Forbidden heds: No math!

Strayhorn proposes a candidate for the Forbidden Heds list:

Republicans divide and conquer the American public.
(Daily Kos)

Obama divides and conquers American Jews.
(Canada Free Press)

Republican congressmen divide and conquer Democrats on cap-and trade.

Chrysler and GM divide and conquer automobile dealerships.

Interior designers divide and conquer small rooms to create an impression of more space.
(Boston Globe magazine)

Marines are not dividing and conquering in Afghanistan.
(Global Post)

"You said there would be no math!" is his plaintive cry. I think this one goes on the list. Discussion?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Adventures in agenda-setting: The science beat

Of all the accounts of peer-reviewed health research in all the gin joints in all the world, why is this the one you saw Tuesday if you read a certain major Southeastern daily?

Alcohol's helpful? No proof, scientists say
Several reasons -- well, one primary reason and a bunch of interrelated secondary reasons. Taken together, they all help shed some light on how and why "science" looks the way it does in the popular press.

The secondary reasons are familiar from other critiques of the press: conflict's unwarranted primacy as a news value, the Maverick Against the System syndrome, the assumption that all "-ologies" are equal, the inability to distinguish proof from probability, a fondness for simplifying good ideas into logical fallacies, that sort of thing. But first to the big reason. Why is this in the paper?

Have a look at Tuesday's New York Times front and you'll find a big old clue. Unless things have changed a lot, sometime around 8 p.m. Monday, papers that subscribe to the NYT news service got the frontpage budget over the wire, and the alcohol story would have been listed among the frontpage reefers. That makes it just about the easiest decision in American journalism. A zombie could walk into a 1A conference dripping with fresh brains and the rot of the grave, and if the first thing it said before ripping the photo editor's arm off was "Let's go with the alcohol story; the Times is fronting it," the strongest response at the AME level would be "Can we get a graphic?"

That doesn't mean the Times's decisions are always good. It means that -- science, Fractious Near East, politics, whatever -- it's easier to point to the authority of the wire than to try to build an argument based on independent judgment. This is understood up and down the food chain. Two decades ago, the word-of-mouth guideline at the fishwrap in question was that if a story was on the front of the Times, the publisher* expected it to be somewhere in the paper, and most NYTNS subscribers probably have similar tales.**

OK. So we've established that, if the AP says "Cancer cured" and the NYT says "Put down that glass of red wine," you're more likely to read about wine. That doesn't make "is wine good for you?" a bad story -- but the one you read in the Obs (or the Times) was a bad story, so it's worth looking at some of those secondary reasons to see why.

Let's start with the hed: "Alcohol's helpful? No proof, scientists say." Dreadful on all counts. First, the story isn't about "helpful" (if you're planning to get drunk, alcohol isn't just helpful, it's damn near indispensible). Second, sun rises in East: Of course "scientists say" there's no proof, because "scientists" wouldn't have said there was. To quote a cherished preceptor:*** "If you want proof, go to seminary." We're in the probability business. Research proposes and tests hypotheses, and it finds or doesn't find support for them, but it doesn't "prove" stuff.

That's not just quibbling. The classic example is the tobacco industry, which argued for many years that no one had "proved" that cigarettes kill people -- quite correctly, in that designing a proper study that would allow genuine causal inferences about smoking would require randomly assigning people to smoke, which is sort of Tuskegee-level immoral. When that avenue isn't available, you defer to looking at boatloads of correlational data. Nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you want to go back to reminding your readers that Tareyton is better and charcoal is why, or that global warming is a fraud.

The Times's hed isn't a lot better (the Obs did a bad job of editing the story, but it was condensing a bad story, not turning a good story into a pile of garbage): "Alcohol’s Good for You? Some Scientists Doubt It." Welcome to the land of logical fallacies. All scientists "doubt it," because none would say in advance that alcohol is "good for you"; something that correlates with longer life in the average overweight 45-year-old white dude might lead to a much worse outcome in "you," for any of a number of reasons. The science bit lies in telling you which "you" seems to be associated with which benefits.

You can pick up on a bit of that if you read the entire story (that's the 30 NYT-size paragraphs you find at the Times, as opposed to the 10 Obs-sized grafs you find at the Obs). There is, for example, this:

“People who would not be able to stop at one to two drinks a day shouldn’t drink, and people with liver disease shouldn’t drink,” Dr. Klatsky said. On the other hand, “the man in his 50s or 60s who has a heart attack and decides to go clean and gives up his glass of wine at night — that person is better off being a moderate drinker.”

Do you get the idea that what "experts" say is that limited drinking is probably a good idea for some people and very much not so for others? Good. With a more even-handed (I'm trying really hard not to say "more honest," and up until now I was doing rather well) editing approach at the Observer, you might have gotten the same fairly accurate impression of the general state of scientific play.

That points to a systematic failing of news routines: The standard response to "Gee, this sounds complicated, nuanced and inconclusive" isn't "Great! That's right!" but "Oh, hell -- we'd better make it sexy, exciting and conclusive, then." Which is what happens when the Observer selects all its quotes from one side of the story. It's suggesting not just that this apparent conflict is new, but that it's the central element of the issue, and even worse that it's a conflict between "hey, have another" and "STAY AWAY from that stuff," rather than a (fairly boring but legitimate) dispute about whether the categories being counted will yield the sort of results that people on either side want to draw appropriate inferences from.

Just as not all disagreements are equal, not all starting points are equal. Sociology and epidemiology aren't the same craft, and they don't necessarily argue about the same stuff.**** That's fine. Apples aren't oranges, with all due respect to the source that the Obs selectively quoted, but good apples and good oranges are both cases of good fruit. When we turn everything into a fight, we lose sight of the sensible things that apples and oranges have to say to each other.

And in this case, the final answer is something like: Nothing very dramatic is going on here. "Science" doesn't know anything today that it didn't know yesterday (the Observer might have cheated to make the story sexier, but the NYT story was fundamentally misleading to begin with). The maverick dissenter isn't always better or smarter or righter than the annoying spokespersons of the status quo. The Times probably had something better to do than turn this bunch of random speculation into news; the Observer could have exercised its own independent judgment, rather than deferring to the NYT. It's quite all right to be annoyed or angered at this display of carelessness. But at this point, no one has any grounds to be surprised.

* Rolfe Neill, one of the genuine good guys to ever hold that title. Also one of the few mentioned kindly in a journalistic memoir (for having taught Charles Kuralt how to draw a page, if I recall correctly).
** Raleigh in the Sitton era seemed especially zombified by the Times (Sitton was an old Times hand), but that vintage of N&O was good enough to justify a little heuristic cluelessness.
*** And Evil Dissertation Methodologist, if he's listening.
**** Language Czarina's dissertation actually has "science" in the title. Mine has a repeated-measures analysis of variance in the middle somewhere. If you think you can tell which one is better, you have to buy the wine.

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Looks like journalism, but ...

Here's another of those what's-wrong-with-this-picture tests, brought to you by the Fair 'n' Balanced cousins:
Carter to Obama: Remove Hamas From Terror List
Former President Jimmy Carter says he will ask the Obama administration to remove the militant Palestinian group from the U.S.-designated terror list, just as Hamas says it foiled a bomb plot against Carter.
You can tell this is a big deal for Fox; at this writing, it's already generated more than 330 comments.* And it has the potential to be a big deal for grownups too, depending on what follows: "without preconditions," for one thing, or "in return for this ironclad agreement," or "at some future date, maybe, after some unspecified stuff has happened." So unless your sole need for international news is to remind you to stock up on ammo and bottled water, your next question is likely to be: How about some details?

There's the fun part, and there's where you can tell Fox from what most of us think of as "journalism." The "inverted pyramid" of news is built with broad general stuff on top, supported by details toward the bottom. Bigger details come first, so wherever you might have to cut for space, you get the big picture and (notionally) the most significant stuff that supports or explains it. All that material gets slotted in discursively, in a sort of Dialogue of the Five W's: Who's affected? What comes next? Why now? When does this take effect? What do the other actors in the story have to say? News stories look like news stories because that's what news does. "House fire" is the sort of default example you find in news textbooks, but it works just as well for earthquakes, elections, coups, royal abdications, playoff games.

This story's different, but not until you read it:

Former President Jimmy Carter will urge the Obama administration to remove Hamas from the terrorist list, FOX News has learned.

"Has learned" is there to remind you who's looking out for you. If you watched "His Girl Friday" on the teevees the other day, it's what Walter Burns meant when he asked "Doesn't the paper get any credit?" Attribution aside, though: We're cued up for details. Especially since the deck hed proclaims that Carter himself said this ... on to the evidence!

Carter, a chief defender of the U.S.-designated terror group, said Tuesday he will meet with officials in the Obama administration in two days to discuss his latest trip to the Middle East.


Meanwhile, two Palestinian sources told FOX News that the group had discovered two roadside bombs planted near a crossing between Israel and Gaza on a path Carter's convoy took to meet with the group's leaders -- Hamas advisers, though, reportedly cast doubt on claims that extremists were trying to kill Carter.

Enough with "meanwhile": How does the treasonous old waffler explain himself?

Carter was granted special waivers by the U.S. Secret Service allowing him to enter Gaza. Employees of the U.S. executive branch are not allowed into the strip since a roadside bomb killed three U.S. security personnel in 2003.


Carter was visiting with Hamas leaders to try to persuade them to accept the international community's conditions for ending its boycott of the Islamic militant group.

And? (You see a lot of secondary W's being answered, just as a news story would, but we're still waiting to hear from the White House, or Hamas, or the PM's office, or anyone who can elaborate on the main assertion.)

... Carter said he feels personally responsible that American weapons were used to fight in Gaza Strip last year, when Israeli Defense Forces entered the strip to stop the launch of rockets from there into Israel.


... According to two eyewitnesses, including a 15-year-old boy, the bombs that were found were intended to hit Carter's vehicle as he exited Gaza. There is some suspicion that Hamas extremists linked to Al Qaeda may be behind the attempt.


... But two Hamas advisers, in interviews with WorldNetDaily, denied reports that extremists were potentially behind such an alleged assassination attempt.

Now isn't that interesting? WorldNetDaily is run by and for certifiable loonies, but it often has interesting reports on Hamas because its Jerusalem writer often picks up the phone and calls Hamas! Just like journalism! And in this case, the writer also went Fox one better by asking Hamas about the Fox report:

Yousef responded to the online report telling WND he is not aware Carter will specifically make such a request.

He said, however, Carter communicated to Hamas that "one way or another" the Islamist group must do its best to meet the three conditions previously set out by the U.S. for the opening of dialogue.

Well, that'll put you right off your fresh-fried lobster. Here you've got yourself an exclusive about Barack Hussein Osama ruining the world again with the aid of the Only Worser President In History, and the only people who try to check it out are the ones who think the missing birth certificate is the story of the century, and they manage to knock a hole in your lede with one phone call.

What's genuinely interesting from the editor's perspective, again, is how much the thing looks like a news story -- until you go to the trouble of reading it. That sort of fraud** is really rare in American journalism (the British are a little more prone to it), because it's easy to get caught out at it, and if you get caught, you end up looking really amateurish, stupid and dishonest. Just another reminder that we need to avoid confusing Fox with people who actually want you to learn stuff about the world. You know, people who actually report so you can actually decide.

* Here's one that isn't obscene: "Yeah, one traitor to another..... "
** OK, granted, the lede could be true: Fox might well have "learned" this from a ouija board or something. But as to Carter's having said it, that appears to be a flat-out invention. Which won't matter to the Wills or Krauthammers who pick up the lede next week to riff on the End of the World.

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Adverbs gone wild: A slight return

They're still lining up the survivors of traffic accidents and executing 'em down in Charlotte:

Man killed after he rear-ends CATS bus
A 38-year-old man was killed Monday when he drove his SUV into the rear of a Charlotte Area Transit System bus in south Charlotte.

Two killed after Saturday wreck in Conover
Two people were killed this weekend in Catawba County when the car they were riding in was struck by another vehicle.

Teen, grandmother killed after car hits golf cart
A 59-year-old Hudson resident and her teen granddaughter were killed this weekend when the golf cart they were in was struck by a car.

Once a philosopher, twice a pervert -- three times must mean it's "style." The ongoing confusion of "when" and "after" is so consistent that it really does look like a matter of policy. Any reason all heds of this sort can't say "die(s) after," rather than "killed after"?

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

People behaving badly

Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" is always fun to read, but this week he has a particularly relevant message for editors:

In areas of moral and political conflict people will always behave badly with evidence, so the war on drugs is a consistent source of entertainment.

Picking on any flavor of War On is always a good way to win a round on the house around here, and Dr. Ben does a particularly fine job on this one ("At the point where mild cocaine use was described in positive tones the Americans presumably blew some kind of outrage fuse"). But for us the takeaway point is the first one: "In areas of moral and political conflict, people will always behave badly with evidence."

Yes, that's George Will and his followers inventing assertions about first-person pronouns, or Brent Bozell making up things about other people's data, or Fox News stoking fear from nonprobability samples. But it's also the AP warning you that Twitter makes you stupid or the wrong kind of music will turn your kid into a sleaze. People do bad stuff with data for evil reasons and for kinder ones; our job is to cut down on that sort of misbehavior, no matter who does it or how pure their motives.

So when a story that lands in your basket starts dragging out evidence to back up its lede, you need to ask it a few things:
What kind of data would support that assertion?
Is that the kind you have?
Well ... does it?*

If a story can't answer these three questions to your satisfaction, kick it off the bridge.

* "Do they," if you insist. Doesn't help to have the right stats if they don't say what you proclaimed they do.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Whoppers General, attorneys junior

Behold, a candidate for Clueless Sports Claim of the (still-young) Century:

Game 7s — especially when a title is on the line — are rare.

Two assertions here, and it's sort of tempting to get tied up in the first: How rare are Game 7s? (I've been wondering for a couple of years how "Game N" became a count noun, but at least the writer's making it "Game 7s," not "Games 7"). The answer appears to be "not very." Three of the last five Stanley Cup finals have gone to seven games. The World Series has gone to seven games four times out of the past 20 (20%), but in the two decades before that, it was 50%.

But that obscures the more amusing point, "especially when a title is on the line," which takes journalism's fabled number-phobia to new heights. Dude! That's the only kind of Game 7 we have! See, it's a best-of-seven series, so as soon as one side wins four games, everybody gets to go home.

What is this sort of typing-without-thinking doing on the front page of a major metropolitan daily? (The only other story on the front, we should note, is about the paper's asking two psychics for the outcome of the game, which could spoil things for you junior players out there, so don't look.) The general decline of editing deserves some of the blame. So does the billboarding of the Freep: 1A stories no longer jump inside, so each one has a four- to six-graf condensed version that teases to the full version elsewhere, and that way lies nonsense.

In broader decline-and-fall terms, though, there's the general Dick Vitale-ization of sports journalism. Sports is no longer about the game but about The Moment; nothing is less than an epic. Let's zoom out to that paragraph in full:

Consider it this way: After tonight, you may not see anoth­er such epic game in your life. Game 7s — especially when a title is on the line — are rare. They also are magical, burst­ing with a season’s worth of stumbles, triumphs and inju­ries, where the hero is remem­bered for posterity and the vanquished falls into an abyss.

Oh, for God's sake. Could you at least read your own sports section? Inferring, perhaps, from heds like "Fedotenko, a Game 7 hero in 2004, plans to fire up Penguins" or "Both coaches know all about losing a Game 7" that the vast majority of your audience has seen some championship series go to seven games before and might well survive to see it happen again? (Like maybe even next week, should they follow pro basketball?) And ... no. Flying pigs are "magical." Championship games are sometimes really good, sometimes really dull, often memorable, but "mundane" in the nicest of senses. If you don't like the current one, wait a few months and there will be another.

All that said, it's a nice atmosphere. The cops will start closing off streets in a few hours, the hockey-stick-wielding octopus is still in the display case at the fish market, and the bakery that's been here since Czarina's mom was a sprout is doing the octopus cupcakes again. (Plus, oddly, the strange yellow orb in the sky has actually appeared again.) So we'll get some revisions and grading in, then throw a few penguin steaks on the grill and turn things over to the CBC -- which has this strangely level-headed Canadian idea that it's showing some hockey games, not the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ministry of fear

For the cousins over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, a couple of observations about the relationship between language and the real world:

I am not a rock formation. Language Czarina is not a blonde former Miss California. I have three appointments at various times today, and none of them are two riverboats and a Companion. "Name" and "thing" are not identical. Got it?

That might sound a little elementary, but you need to bear it in mind to appreciate the bank shot shown above and where it fits into the worldview that Fox wants you to share. Fox's report, the No. 3 story on Wednesday morning, is in most ways technically "true" -- that is, two passengers with names "tied to Islamic terrorism" were "reportedly" on the ill-fated jet. Fox isn't making the main assertion itself, merely rewriting the highly reliable Sky News:
Two names on doomed Air France Flight 447's passenger list also appear on a list of radical Muslims considered a threat to France, according to French investigators.

Whether you can actually be a "terrorist" without doing something terroristic -- well, that's probably a question for the ages. But Fox's lede is tamer than Sky's:
Two passengers with names linked to Islamic terrorism were on the Air France flight which crashed with the loss of 228 lives, it has emerged.
For you attribution fans out there, "it has emerged" is a peculiarly British way of doing timeliness without agency, often associated with being second; when the story's your own, you need something like "The Beast can reveal." Anyway, back to Fox:
French secret servicemen established the connection while working through the list of those who boarded the doomed Airbus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 31.

Agents are now trying to establish dates of birth for the two dead passengers, and family connections.
Hmm. Is "date of birth" the sort of information that's in that little strip on your passport, and if so is it already about one keystroke away from somebody? Or does that just ruin it for everybody?
There is a possibility that the name similarities are simply a "macabre coincidence," the source added, but the revelation is still being "taken very seriously."
You can tell Fox has done some value-added editing here. At Sky, the graf introducing "the source" actually comes first: A source working for the French security services told Paris weekly L'Express that the link was "highly significant". Either way, though -- isn't this the sort of thing that grizzled editors used to wad up and throw across the room before beating the reporter over the head with any big-city phone book sprinkled with Khaleds and McGuinnesses and Sterns? As in, before you write that your neighbor John Brown is a anti-gummint terrorist, would you mind verifying that he's actually the one born in 1800?
Which, of course, would defeat the purpose. By the time this tale reached CNN's feckless "iReport" site (exhibit B above), the two people who purportedly shared names with purported radicals had become "2 known terrorists." And just imagine how things look over in FreeRepublicStan. You can see why nobody bothers to ask whether Sky (along with Fox and the other bedmates) might have carried a follow-up today:
Meanwhile, two terror suspects who died alongside 226 other passengers on the stricken jet have been ruled out as a cause of the disaster.
Well, that just takes all the fun out of it, huh? You read all the way to the seventh paragraph and find out that "coincidence" was the right bet after all. Except ...
The two men only "shared the same name" as known Islamic radicals, posthumous security checks found.
... how'd they get to be "terror suspects" if they only "shared the same name" with the purportedly known radicals? Ah, sweet mystery of life.
It'd be nice to conclude that proper application of journalism routines would keep stuff like this from happening. But that's exactly the point. Fox isn't ignoring news routines; it's just being selective about the ones it applies. That way, it's able to carry out its ideological purpose -- making sure you're scared of the right things at the right times -- without having to resort to anything unsavory like out-and-out lying.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No, don't 'teach the controversy'

Allow us a mild ray of hope here. It's after 10 p.m., and precious few hits are showing up so far for US news coverage of the purported arrival of the millionth word in English. That's not to say there's none; CNN checks in with a genuinely hopeless piece, and a few columnists have checked in with the usual blather, but in general, the news world -- knock wood -- is ignoring this thoroughly fabricated event.

Why is a non-happening worth noting? Well, because the creator of the million-word myth has ginned himself up rather a lot of free publicity in recent years because (a) very few people seem interested in asking him the basic stuff that needs to be asked of everybody who makes assertions about how numbers illuminate the world, (b) when asked to explain why his patently nonsensical stats mean what he claims they do, he explains that they aren't meant to be taken literally, and nobody seems to mind that, and (c) he's Just Another American Dreamer, flying in the face of those damn scientists!

The last one's actually a familiar, and pretty well-founded, complaint about how the press handles news of the empirical world: You get your one bold researcher standing up to the establishment, and all of a sudden there's a Controversy to teach. This case underscores the silliness of teaching the controversy because, beyond any shadow of any doubt, there is no controversy. There isn't a debate. There's one guy making a fictitious claim and a bunch of people who actually know something about his topic looking at him and going "well, no."*

The million-word assertion looks fairly harmless, compared with some of the large-scale semantic mendacity making the rounds these days. I'm not entirely sure. It can't be all that healthy for a news site's credibility to run fact boxes and blurbs** from an organization that makes stuff up in the same format as the sorts of data the site has actually taken some pains to verify. And whenever somebody starts to make flag-waving generalizations about how great a culture is because of some alleged quantitative feature of its language, right-thinking people should reach for their wallets and Brownings, respectively.

It'd be quite nice if, on principle, news organizations would decide that outfits like the Global Language Monitor should buy their own advertising space, not hijack it from the news department. But if newsrooms are actually looking at the million-word assertion and deciding on their own that it's crap, that's potentially more promising.

* Given that Paul Payack claims not to be a linguist, CNN is pretty vigorous about promoting him as one.
** And no, you don't use isolated letter forms in the middle of things that are supposed to look like Arabic "words." You guys at CNN might want to think about hiring this one out.

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Not getting it

This isn't a "garden path" hed in the sentence-diagramming sense, but we ought to have a separate category for this flavor of desk-induced confusion:

Man dies after stabbing woman, starting fire

Eats-shoots-and-leaves-wise, are you missing some kind of causal connection between steps B and C? Maybe the lede will shed some light:

A North Carolina man has died after he stabbed his girlfriend and set himself on fire.

Erm, do you think we ought to make some sort of distinction between "setting a fire" and "setting yourself on fire"? Granted, the story's short on evidence to support the lede, but that calls for fudging the lede -- not leaving it in all its stark glory under a fudged hed.

As a general proposition, if a story doesn't make sense, it should be made to make sense. If reasonable efforts don't produce results in a short amount of time, well ... the "delete" key isn't there to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at you.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Night of the forbidden hed

What is it that's getting into the drinking water downtown? In one day's effort, we complete the hat trick of Datsyuk/Dat heds and drag out the summertime equivalent of "Christmas came early" -- particularly clueless in this case, given that, as a rule, people in coffee (or pretzel or bagel or doughnut) shops don't scream for ice cream.

Please. If this is a contest, would someone just declare victory and leave home?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Forbidden heds

Q: I thought heds that played on sports figures' names were forbidden under all circumstances.
A: They are.

Q: Does that mean two heds in four days mangling Pavel Datsyuk's name provide a sure sign of the apocalypse?
A: Almost certainly.

Q: Would the desk have been saved from the flames of eternal torment if it had settled on whether the short form should be "Dat" or "Dats"?
A: No, probably not.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Editing fail

What we have here is not a bad story -- at least, not necessarily a bad story. But because it's in the lead position on the front page, it needs to be a little more than not necessarily bad. That's where the editing breakdown comes in. At least three editors -- line, rim and slot (a fourth if the Obs is still using a "1A captain") -- could have pulled the story over for some mandatory reworking. Let's have a look at what ails the poor thing and then speculate about why it wasn't fixed.

In a new study on social ties in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, more residents report having friends from diverse backgrounds, but they still lack trust of other races.

Sound sort of like an ad so far? As in, people are saying things that sound like they ought to be important but not giving you any tools to judge those things by?

... The 2008 Crossroads Charlotte Social Capital Benchmark Community Survey is to be released today. It is a locally produced update of a similar 2001 Harvard study of 40 communities that ranked Charlotte-Mecklenburg next-to-lowest in inter-racial trust.

The Charlotte survey of 856 residents – 49 percent men and 51 percent women – measured community friendships, civic involvement and trust of police, among other categories.

And this is all the data we get on the bones of the survey, which means at a minimum that the story isn't ready to run. You can calculate the margin of sampling error from the sample size, but it's sort of a minimum courtesy to provide it anyway (you don't make readers figure out ERAs for themselves, do you?). When was the survey in the field? Who was sampled? Where -- Charlotte or Charlotte-Mecklenburg? Why do we get the one subgroup breakdown -- men and women -- that has nothing to do with the story, while the ones that might make for some relevant comparisons (white, black, Latino, Asian) are ignored?

Since the 2001 survey, the community appears to have made the greatest strides in diversity of relationships. (Whose opinion is this, and what does "diversity of relationships" mean?)

More than 50 percent of respondents reported having friends from diverse backgrounds, compared with 23 percent in 2001. Yet the numbers show no significant gains in trust between races. Fewer than one-fourth of respondents reported high levels of trust toward other races – the same as in 2001.

That's the second time in six grafs that "friends from diverse backgrounds" is mentioned, but we still have no idea what it means. Here's the explanation for "diversity of friendships" from the executive summary for the 2001 survey (if you think it's the reporter's job to have read this and explained the current survey's version in the story, it is -- but an editor should have raised that point before the story got to the top of the front):

The survey asked whether the respondent had a personal friend who is a business owner, was on welfare, owned a vacation home, is gay, is a manual worker, is White, is Black, is Hispanic, is Asian, is a community leader, and was of a different faith. Then the number of categories each respondent mentioned were added together, and this summed score became the index.

Are you wondering why the only bit of expounding on "trust toward other races" is that it's the same as in 2001? Here's where those subgroup comparisons would come in really handy. At least we'd have some idea of what we were measuring.

But researchers say the new findings show progress.

“It means that perhaps the relationships are beginning to develop across races,” said Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, which conducted the survey. “It's a step in the right direction, but perhaps they haven't translated into greater levels of trust yet.”

Well, it might or it might not. Given that one of the "friendships" areas in which the region was well above the national average in 2001 was knowing people who own vacation homes, I'd be wary of generalizing to relationships "across races" (again, a stable figure in the whole sample could be masking notable changes in subgroups).

And then we have ... five grafs of what newspapers always do with survey stories, which is introducing some Real People (a black woman and a white woman who are friends) to illustrate the social conditions the survey addresses. Which is about as illuminating as it is during campaign season. There follow a few random bullet points from the survey and an indication that we can expect a repeat in three years.

On the whole, it's hard to see why this story is worth anything near the front page -- unless you're actively interested in Robert Putnam's theory of social capital, which the story almost entirely ignores (odd, given that Putnam was the PI on the 2001 survey), or you think interracial trust is important (in which case you have reason to be baffled). So why didn't some editor pull the story off for revising? Here are some ideas.

There's the standard economic explanation: Fewer staffers but more stuff to do. Buyouts and layoffs tend to weed out the more experienced (alas, often the more skeptical as well). If it isn't going to get you sued, put a hed on it and hit the button. And yes, journalism as a whole has trouble playing by the rules of social science research. But I think there's something else in play as well. "Diversity" is a God word for journalism. Once it's invoked, there's no room for criticism -- even the constructive sort that tries to patch up holes in stories before they run.

That's especially unfortunate because it goes directly against any real idea of "objectivity." The point of being objective isn't to look for any occurrence of sentiment A and provide equal space for sentiment not-A; it's to make sure all news stories in any particular category play by the rules of that category. In surveys, that means telling people exactly what was measured and how, along with the appropriate ways in which those results can be compared to similar surveys.

If the people who take diversity seriously can't or won't enforce the applicable standards, they're leaving the field of criticism open to the wingnuts, who are quite eager to paint the whole enterprise as so much Kool-aid and Kum-ba-ya. Please don't feed them. They're eating quite well as it is.

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