Sunday, November 29, 2009

Identification: How to get it wrong

Tell us about those suspects, Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

There are two suspects, one male and one black male, reported.

So in Fox World (you can attribute it to the local affiliate all you like, but when you put it on the Web site, you own it too), there are two kinds of males: regular men and black men? Just thought we'd clear that up for you.

It's not very hard to do this stuff right -- or at least to do it better than abysmally wrong. (To be fair, Fox has now updated its story to say "one white male and one black male," though what relevance that lone bit of information has for the national audience remains, erm, unclear at best.) Readers can't peek into your soul and figure out what you mean. All they can go on is what you say.

Lede of the day: Wheaties test!

You'd like to think some weary copy editor took up his (or her) dinted blade and went after this one out of a sheer sense of duty, fully expecting to be slapped down for his or her troubles:

Google the words Charlie Crist and vomit and you'll find an item that illustrates just how badly things have been going for Florida's governor and aspiring U.S. senator.

No, don't. That's don't, as in "don't write ledes that begin with 'Google the words ...'," and don't, as in "Didn't we get this out of our system back at the high school newspaper?"

The link features a bit from a Fort Myers radio host who mocks an ad touting Crist's conservative credentials — an ad broadcast during her show.

"After I swallow the vomit that just came up into my mouth … let me address a couple of points," says Mandy Connell. The spot, she goes on to say, "is disingenuous at best and an out-and-out lie at worst."

It's not a pretty image, (It's not?!?!?!?) but these are not pretty times for Crist.

All right. Copy editors don't expect to win many lede fights with Star Reporters, even when the lede is as manifestly stupid and tasteless as this one. Sometimes, all we can do is point to it after it's been sitting on the counter for a week and ask if it still looks as appetizing as it used to. In the broader sense, though -- if we're concerned about the general Limbaughfication of political discourse in America, maybe we should be trying to stamp it out, rather than amplifying it on the front page.

There's a lot to complain about besides the lede, and some of it is the desk's fault. Nothing in the story supports the assertion in the hed: "GOP base flees Crist for Rubio" (anecdotes don't count, and if something in the "recent polls" addresses the issue, we aren't told). That may be how the story was sold, or how it was talked about over the past few days, but if you can't back it up, don't put it in the paper -- let alone the hed.

Smaller, fingernails-on-the-blackboard kind of stuff: The umlaut on "über-conservatives" is a little too hyper-cute (can't tell if that's the writer or an editor). No hyphen, please, in "federal-stimulus package" (it isn't a compound modifier; "federal" modifies "stimulus package, and this is the sort of error that editors tend to insert). "Hammer and tong" gets a lot of Google hits, but the OED and I prefer "hammer and tongs" -- no doubt that Marxist influence* creeping in. We get our modifiers mixed up again in this one:

Convinced that the country is spiraling into socialism, some Republican voters have little interest in compromise and, instead, are looking for a scrappy, conservative fighter. That has never worn well on Crist, who has made a career of being affable and low-key.

I don't read "scrappy, conservative" as coordinate adjectives; "scrappy" is the kind of "conservative fighter" they're looking for. And I think we want "sit well" (to be consonant with), rather than "wear well" (to last or hold out).

News writers write in a hurry; editors are there to smooth out the little bumps. But when they hit a really big bump -- a vomit-in-my-mouth lede on the Sunday front, say -- it'd be nice if we could take a big hammer and smooth it back to the Stone Age too.

* Looks like a tong war to me. But Tolkien used "hammer and tongs" too.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The paranoid style today

If you can't see the conspiracy, it's because you aren't looking hard enough! Good thing we have the relentless media critics at NewsBusters to help:

Obama joins NFL players in Thanksgiving ad -- was Rush right?

... To be sure, NFL Play 60 is a fine, noble program. But it partnering up with the White House's community service initiative mightn't pass the smell test.

After all, what does fighting child obesity and encouraging kids to exercise more have to do with community service?

Of course, Obama's adoring press didn't see anything wrong with this.

The important part, of course, is that Rush Limbaugh saw all this coming a few weeks back:

I know all of the you people say, "Rush, don't be distracted!" I'm not being distracted because what is happening to the National Football League and what is about to happen to it, has already happened to Wall Street, has already happened to the automobile business.

But did we listen? Nooooooo! Back to commentator Noel Sheppard:

Exactly five weeks later, the NFL and the White House teamed up for a joint initiative.

Imagine that.

Be sure to read the comments for the full NewsBusters paranoid experience.

Friday, November 27, 2009

And this just in ...

One of the things I don't miss about copy editing* is the occasional need to bang your head against the same brick wall you had just put a dent in a week ago. Once again, someone in this great land of ours has seen the divine in an unlikely place and called the local paper, which dutifully uploaded its story to the AP, which sent it far and wide to member papers with absolutely no news whatsoever to run, and ... ecce ferrum!

For the record, it's her iron. She can see whatever she wants on it. (I think this one looks like Treebeard the Ent as drawn by William Blake for a custom A-4 peghead, but that might be just me.) And the local paper can do whatever it wants with her account. That creates no obligation in any of the rest of us to go along. Perhaps we should bear that in mind next week when it all happens again.

* If you haven't yet, see John McIntyre's paean to the craft here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another chorus of the RTFP blues

Granted, it's hard to imagine a worse lede for a news brief than this sort of weird participial sandwich. It's all context and no who-what-when-where -- more or less exactly the opposite of what a brief ought to be.

There's so little news, apparently, that the poor copy editor couldn't even figure out who was visiting whom in what country. That's a charitable way of looking at it, because otherwise we seem to be leaving the international news in the hands of people who don't seem to have paid attention to the "news" all day (let alone looking at a wire budget) before sitting down to work. If the rest of the nation and world is going to be permanently relegated to three columns at the bottom of the editorial page, could we at least try to get the basics right?


Holiday editing tip

We're all doing more with less and working smarter, not harder, these days. So if you're rotating over from sports or Washington news to cover the features desk, here's a tip for editing those pesky recipes:

1) Read name of dish
2) Check list of ingredients
3) If anything in (1) doesn't appear in (2), kick story back to originating desk

Right, Newspaper of Record?

The Minimalist column last Wednesday, about 101 suggestions for Thanksgiving dishes that can be made in advance, omitted an ingredient for recipe No. 12, for garlic-rosemary figs. Rosemary should be added to the garlic and olive oil, then heated.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Well, did you ask?

Inhaling a little too deep of the old Eau de Buchanan in Intermediate Writing again, are we?

The Lord couldn't save Courtney Rainey from the law's attention.

Did we ask? Or did we just get His answering machine again and give up?

Rainey, 23, had just left Sunday church services in Oak Tower with his girlfriend and her infant daughter, Oak Tower resident Jesse E. Thomas said. It was a beautiful November afternoon, a little warm, the ground covered with leaves.

At 1:45 p.m., things were peaceful.

At 1:46 p.m., Officer Tim Giger pulled up behind Rainey's car at the intersection of Sexton Road and Garth Avenue just outside Oak Tower.

OK, to save you the suspense, he ran away and the cops didn't catch him -- suggesting that perhaps the Lord woke up and got His head back in the game before halftime. Or not, because frankly the whole thing raises some questions about just what you're supposed to do as a responsible deity in a case like this. Do you trip the guy and hold him down until the cops get there, or do you go down to the cops and confuse their language so they will not understand each other and he gets away in the commotion? Or, loose again after untold eons and ravening for delight, do you squeeze your bulk through the church door and ...

OK, maybe not. But all that said, if you're going to stretch the old narrative muscles out for 20-plus grafs,* you might not want to leave the audience back at the starting line arguing about what the lede has to do with the rest of the text.

* Short, some of them.**
** Three, four words.


Well, this is interesting

Through the miracle of the Intertubes (at Wonkette, via Talking Points, crediting FishBowlDC) comes news that certain practices are going to have to stop at certain fair 'n' balanced networks. Specifically, that'll be errors -- which, as the document says, "can fall through the cracks on any day" but do draw unwelcome attention when they start to pile up, as they have been at Fox of late:

Effective immediately, there is zero tolerance for on-screen errors. Mistakes by any member of the show team that end up on air may result in immediate disciplinary action against those who played significant roles in the "mistake chain," and those who supervise them. That may include warning letters to personnel files, suspensions, and other possible actions up to and including termination, and this will all obviously play a role in performance reviews.

We're all for accuracy in these parts. Still, you don't want to gloat at the thought of people being fired for errors unless you're confident you're never going to produce one again. That's errors, as in honest mistakes; as a general rule, dishonesty is a firing offense, but cluelessness isn't. I wouldn't fire the guy who put a (D) after Mark Sanford's name, partly because I used to work with a pretty good reporter who had the bad habit of occasionally going on autopilot and putting "D-N.C." after Jesse Helms's name. I'd like to see the baseline level of editing improve at Fox, but I doubt a hunt for "errors" is going to root out the deliberate offenses against -- for example -- survey data. (And no, I don't think the video cookery involving the rallies was accidental; I won't object if heads roll for that, as long as nobody tries to get away with blaming the copydesk again.)

Anyway, can't wait to see how this new reverence for accuracy plays out in the online product.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Parsley, sage, rosemary and ...

Deep brain stimulation is working like a pacemaker on Lexi's brain, pumping timed electrical pulses into her damaged basil ganglia.

What, you were expecting reporters to look stuff up on their own?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Proof, evidence, judgment

Two matters are worth talking about here -- neither of which, it should probably be noted from the outset, has anything to do with people's inalienable right to believe whatever they want about the supernatural. But they have quite a bit to do with how journalism goes about its business.

First is the matter of proof. We can't tell from our distant living rooms if "proof" indeed is what the researcher claimed or if it's one of those happy embellishments provided by the AP. Either way, it's nonsense. This isn't like finding a notarized transcript of the Wannsee conference. To the extent it's even "evidence" (which actually does appear to be a point of contention), it has some distinctly gaping holes.

The researcher, to hear the AP tell it, is claiming to have proved a negative: the shroud isn't a medieval forgery, because "no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have labeled Jesus a Nazarene without referring to his divinity." That's an argument you can make from evidence, but it isn't proof. You can't "prove" that medieval knights didn't listen to cassette tapes by pointing out that crusader tombs to date have yielded only 8-tracks.

And no matter how good the evidence might be for the assertion that someone who would forge the burial shroud of Jesus would balk at leaving out the divinity, "proving" that something didn't happen in one century would be a far cry from proving that it did happen in a specific other century -- much less that it happened for a particular execution at a particular place. The AP is the prime offender here, but every editor along the way who put "proof" into a hed, or allowed it to stay in the story, deserves some blame too.

Now for that other little matter. This isn't just a stupid, credulous story. At the metropolitan daily that still deigns to show up in driveways three days a week here, the teaser above is the only international presence on today's front page, and the story itself is far and away the largest bit of news (700-plus words, to some 330 for the runner-up) from outside our little corner of the world. The looming Senate vote on health care is a four-graf brief. I don't see a word about either of the shooting wars the country is still involved in.

And that's the cherry-picking stuff. If you think California's higher-ed debacle might hold some lessons for the rather dire situation that looms up here, too bad for you. Are Iran or Honduras or any of the other 190-odd countries out there entering the sort of low boil that tends to spill all over the front page in a few weeks? You're just going to have to wait and see, aren't you?

No clueless wire story is going to bring the republic down by itself. But each blunder of this scale represents a missed chance to make people incrementally smarter, rather than incrementally stupider. The gasbags of the pundosphere excel at turning fictions into conventional wisdom. If you have a steady, reliable supply of actual news, it isn't hard to catch them out. If you don't, well -- lots of luck with that representative democracy stuff.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Intent vs. deed

A defensive lapse at Wichita gives the annoying weasel Todd Tiahrt a free shot at his opponent's fusebox. Let's have a look, in case something similar crops up around the country.

The problem isn't the story, which manages to note in the second graf that Rep. Tiahrt is lying. It's a little too long, which is a natural consequence of having to chase down some communist phone numbers on the fractional chance that in some alternate universe with lots of purple suns, Rep. Tiahrt might not be a lying gasbag, but it still gets to the point rather effectively: He is! In public! Unreservedly!

The trouble is the hed,* and the trouble in the hed is the verb "tie." It doesn't mean "assert a connection" (or even "tell a brazen lie on the off chance no one will notice"). It means -- oh, how do they put it over at the OED?

To join closely or firmly; to connect, attach, unite, knit, bind by other than material ties,

Rep. Tiahrt has done nothing of the sort. He floated a patently dishonest trial balloon and got a free headline out of it. If the story's worth the front page, it needs a hed that makes his dishonesty clear -- not one that politely holds a finger on the twine while he "ties" his opponent to the evil commies.

* True, the kicker says "false assertion," but it doesn't say which assertion is false or what's false about it. That's not much help.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Eek, a Jayhawk

And this just in* from MSNBC's sports desk: Kansas eeks win!

Tnx to Sean for the screen grab. Now stay tuned for UNC vs. OSU.

* OK, "just in yesterday" -- busy times around the old manse.

Lying with (other people's) stats, ch. LXXVII

What are you supposed to do when you want to report on a survey, but the numbers don't quite say what you want them to? Listen and attend as the Fair 'n' Balanced Network offers two solutions:
1) Ignore inconvenient numbers
2) Lie about the other ones
This is too good a front page to pass up. The "Santa Clause" in the picture isn't the "volunteer" purportedly found to have been a sex offender, who's on the other side of the country (what's a little visual libel among friends?), and the "a little turkey" hed seems to have produced exactly the comments that sort of prime is intended to, but we're going to focus on the third bullet in the second item there: "Poll: Majority of Americans dislike Obama policies." Here are the hed and the lede as they appear inside:

Majority of Americans like Obama personally
but not his policies, poll finds
An overwhelming number of American voters say they like President Obama as a person but disapprove of most of his policies, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.
So it's not just a majority but an "overwhelming" number who like the guy but dislike the policy -- fair enough? I wonder what the poll itself says!
Three-quarters of American voters - 74 percent - like President Barack Obama as a person, but only 47 percent like most of his policies, and voters disapprove 51 - 35 percent of the health care overhaul passed by the House of Representatives which he has endorsed, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today.
Hmm. Seems to be a bit of discord there. The poll offers four choices (like both, like A but not B, like B but not A, and dislike both). The "overwhelming number" who like the president but not the policies is actually, erm, 28%. Add together the groups who dislike the policies and you get 48%, compared with 47% who report liking most of the policies. An appropriate way of describing that finding would be "about even." Back to Fox:
The poll, which surveyed 2,518 registered voters nationwide from Nov. 9 to 16, found that Obama's approach to health care reform is among the president's most unpopular domestic priorities -- with 53 percent saying they disapprove of his policy on health reform while 41 percent said they approve.
Hard to see how you could draw a conclusion like "among the president's most unpopular domestic priorities" when it's the only "domestic priority" on the survey instrument Fox links to (there is a question about executive pay, but it'd be a stretch at best to expect respondents to interpret that as a priority). Nor is the paraphrasing very precise: "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling health care?" isn't the same as asking about "his policy on health care reform" (this question about Congress -- "Do you approve or disapprove of this health care reform plan?" -- finds a significant majority disapproving).
These findings are kind of interesting, if you're fond of the incremental, not-very-exciting stuff that makes survey research worthwhile. But if health care is the big domestic deal at stake here, you have to wonder why Fox doesn't report some more of the results. Respondents support "giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan that would compete with private plans," 57%-35%.* Opposition to the opt-out and the trigger is significantly higher than support. Most respondents think it's very (39%) or somewhat (22%) important that Congress "approve of a health care overhaul plan this year." People in general have unfavorable views of both parties, but they're much more unfavorable to the GOP (28% favorable, 53% unfavorable) than to the Democrats (39%-46%).

Here's the point. There are (broadly) two reasons for running stories about public opinion on core policy issues. One, to give people information they need to have a good sense of their place in a democratic society. Two, to support cultural preconceptions about how the world works: bad people and policies are punished in the court of public opinion, and good people and policies are rewarded. If you think public opinion about health care policy is relevant, you're going make one set of selections about which bits of information are more important than others. If you think it's important to make one party look good and another look bad, you make different selections.

That, in short, is how you can tell Fox from a real news organization. Well, that and flatly making stuff up about the numbers.**

* Confidence interval of +/- 2 points at 95% confidence, N = 2,518 registered voters, in the field 8 days.
** All right, that and using the wrong footage to illustrate points about public support for Sarah Palin and the tea parties.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

So who won?

"Falcons leave Carolina hurting," we're told. Today's hed quiz: Who won? Don't peek before you hit the comment button!

(There's a nice squinter in the text too, but at least you get the score: "Literally and figuratively, they kicked away several opportunities to take control of the game before falling to the Panthers, 28-19, before 73,329 fans at Bank America Stadium.")

Sunday, November 15, 2009

'I'm not a quitter'

I don't want to get into the habit of quoting myself, but -- Jesus Christmas on a steam-powered Segway, do these people have no sense of shame?

At right, thanks to the cousins at the Wonkette, we have a view of a page from Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" in which (can you see it in the back there?) the author says "I'm not a quitter." Which wouldn't be especially remarkable, except this is the same (ahem) vice presidential candidate of a particular major party who told a crowd in Iowa last year that their weather "reminded me a lot of Alaska, so I put my warm jacket on, and it is my own jacket. It doesn't belong to anybody else." Sweet leaping lizards, does this person channel Richard Nixon by accident, or is it sheer ancestral malevolence, or could it be her newfound claim to international expertise? Also.

Stupid heds? Aisle 4B

The biggest little daily in Collegetown is obsessed with writing active heds, often to the detriment of good sense:

Deer hunter suffers accidental discharge

No he didn't. There's an aisle in the pharmacy for those products. What this guy suffered was a gunshot wound to the abdomen, inflicted when a fellow hunter's gun went off accidentally, and that's the why-is-this-in-the-paper that the hed writer apparently couldn't find.

It's hard not to write a better hed -- at least, a more informative one -- if you use the passive voice:

Hunter wounded as deer season opens
St. Louis hunter accidentally wounded

You non-journalists out there might wonder why the pros do hed writing so badly. Or why the story is so turgid and poorly organized: We have to wait for the last graf to find out how serious the injury is, though the third graf reminds us that deputies "responded," and someone apparently thinks "an accidental discharge occurred" is the official way of saying the rifle went off accidentally. Hey, this stuff takes training!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Double dip

Marvel at the inventive brilliance of the AP as it manages to squeeze two of the Great Cliches into a single eight-word lede:

CARACAS, Venezuela — Call it the Bolivarian battle of the bulge.

It's easy to see why this was big news at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, where Hugo Chavez functions as a sort of one-man Insane Clown Posse of strategic peril to our entire way of life. Why it's a big deal to the AP is, or should be, harder to fathom:

President Hugo Chavez said in a televised speech Friday that "there are lots of fat people" in Venezuela and advised his supporters to exercise and eat healthy to trim their waistlines.

Cancer cured, Mideast at peace, and Latin America so completely without developments of interest that there's a place on the budget for executive-branch dietary advice! Whatever else we're throwing over the side, it's nice to see that the American journalistic tradition of rendering the rest of the world as a cartoon is alive and well.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Yeah? Eredf this, pal

And the dummy type claims another victim -- here, the Lexington centerpiece. Unless You Kids really have Destroyed The Language and "eredf" is the verb and "gbdb" the object?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Soldiers of the unknown

This showed up on the radio this morning. I'm pretty sure it was one of the national CBS people, but I didn't catch his name (or, owing to basic driving safety habits, the entirety of the quote). But it was a reference to the president's plans to attend a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington and lay a wreath at "the Tomb of the Soldiers of the Unknown."

I'm just about certain it was an error (rather than a clandestine plug for the Missouri grunge band of the same name). I'm at a loss for how it came about, though. There were some similar "of" references in the preceding item -- soldiers of Fort Hood, guardians of freedom -- but "Tomb of the Soldiers of the Unknown" is pretty hard to fathom. May we all be spared the need to speak live on the air, I suppose.


Dam busters

Wouldn't it be nice if we had people who read the stuff before it went to press? We could call them, oh, "copy editors" or something.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Non sequitur of the week

What's the latest in the Astronaut Love Triangle saga, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

Wearing a wig and trenchcoat, Nowak followed victim Colleen Shipman to the parking lot and tried to get into her car, then attacked her with pepper spray. Shipman had begun dating Nowak's love interest, former space shuttle pilot Bill Oefelein, and was able to drive away.

Glad that worked out.

Monday, November 09, 2009

'Break out the Kryptonite'

A president's place is in the ... wait, what? Let's see what the top news looked like back on July 15:

In his first six months in office, President Obama has traveled abroad the equivalent of twice around the world.

... Somebody break out the kryptonite already.

Obama, whose international upbringing was touted as an asset during the campaign, has by far logged more frequent flier miles early on than any of his recent predecessors.

At the same time, Obama's foreign travel means he's not spending as much time at home -- a review of past administrations showed previous presidents devoted more time to traveling inside the United States.

The usual commentators "weigh in" on the topic, so let's look:

Obama's mini study abroad adventures have cemented the notion that he's a international figure, but not an international leader. Bush may have been tough, but he was respected, and so was the United States. With all past Presidents, the ones who are limp and quick to concede our liabilties abroad weaken our standing and make us more vulnerable. Too bad Britain's leaders didn't give Obama a history book.

Perhaps the next stimulus will include 300 million T-shirts declaring: "Obama toured the globe and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." At least he didn't start a war and every day there was one less here.

And how did it seem during the campaign?

John McCain is working on solving America's energy crisis and getting gas below $4 a gallon, while "the Barack of Obama," as I know like to call him, is globetrotting in Europe, hob-knobbing with the finest and the elites, but not having time to visit with American soldiers.

Glad we could clear that up for you.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Topless-coffee shops and other delights

Not all ambiguity is equal. Come to that, not all ambiguity is even ambiguous. But there are cases in which the casual elisions and collisions of news language produce something that risks a serious misunderstanding.

First, the innocent ones. You're likely to get this one right:

Topless Coffee Shop Owner Wants To Re-Open In Office Trailer

... even without hyphens, even if you haven't been following this earth-shattering case over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. It goes (topless coffee shop) (owner), not (topless) (coffee shop owner): "Shop" is the business end of an attributive noun phrase modifying "owner," giving us a "shop owner," not a "topless owner." It'd be quicker and clearer as "Topless coffee shop's owner," but it's hard to make a credible case that "topless owner" is the likely reading.

The Freep online* hed shown above is a different matter. If you think we're talking about tapes of the alleged party itself,** you're making a very reasonable guess. Unfortunately, you're wrong. It's "a cache of 911 dispatch tapes or cops' computer files" stemming from the investigation.

There aren't a lot of great alternatives. "Did Manoogian probe tapes vanish?" is a bit of a crash blossom, and worse, it's still a Stupid Question. If you've dug up testimony this interesting:

A day later, when State Police went back to a vault where both sides had agreed to store the 36 tapes in a sealed box, the investigators found the seal broken and 30 tapes missing, according to the testimony.

... it'd be nice to tell me, rather than asking me.

* It's "Did Manoogian tapes vanish?" in print -- not great, or even good, but not as obviously misleading as "party tapes.".
** Judging from the archives, it looks as if there's a stylebook entry decreeing that the proper first reference is "long-rumored Manoogian Mansion party."

Friday, November 06, 2009

They looked from man to pig ...

How do you tell the difference between Fox News and the News & Observer, the purportedly liberal bastion of journalism in the capital of North Carolina? When it comes to clueless stoking of popular stupidity about social science research, you don't!

It's easy to see why "Sex Toy Study at Duke Raises Some Eyebrows" is a story at Fox:

DURHAM, N.C. — A campus religious leader is unhappy about a study at Duke University that invites female students to attend parties where they can buy sex toys.

Sex! Coeds! Offended spokesmen of the One True Faith! You can see why it was a big deal at Fox (and for the AP,* which appears to have transmitted it rather widely). And the hed, at least technically, could be true. The "campus religious leader" probably has two eyebrows, and if both of them went up, then it's safe to say that "eyebrows" (plural) were raised. It's harder to see why the hometown, or nearly so, N&O thought it was worth time, space and a byline:

DURHAM -- At Duke University, a school that likes to tout its cutting-edge research, a sex toy study being conducted by a behavioral economist and student health workers has roused criticism.

For much of October, researchers recruited female Duke students to take part in a "sexually explicit" study on Tupperware-style parties in which sex toys, not kitchenware, are the draw.

Explanatory fail in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

The ads, which were posted around campus and on a research study Web site, sought female students at least 18 years old to "view sex toys and engage in sexually explicit conversation with other female Duke students."

Things are starting to sound a lot more mysterious -- and, frankly, a lot more Professor LeFrenchy is coming to seduce your daughters -- than they are.

Participants will be asked to complete online questionnaires about their sexual attitudes and behaviors and visit the lab for a "one-hour party" with seven or eight women. Not only will the students be asked to complete a second questionnaire a couple of months later, they will receive a gift bag and be given the opportunity to purchase items at a significantly reduced rate, according to the ad.

So "not only" will they do exactly the sort of thing a study does when it wants to measure the effects of a treatment, they'll ... wait, what's in the gift bag? What kind of "items" do the little vixens get the discount on? Are they the same things as the ones in the gift bag?

Brief detour here while the newspaper looks for the answers it should have thought of a day ago. If you're going to do human subject research (and yes, undergraduates qualify), you need human subjects. You can wait for people who fit the study design to walk in and agree to help advance the sum of human knowledge out of sheer altruism, or you can recruit. If you recruit, it generally helps to offer an incentive. Money's nice, but it costs money. Extra credit is cheaper. At our former digs, a coupon for a slice and a drink is often a good compromise (free lunch, principle of).

It might sound kind of sinister to have been recruiting for "much of October," but be serious. Groups this size don't fill up overnight. Nor should the N&O be shocked to find out that the online recruiting notice has been taken down; there's nothing shady about stopping when you're done.

All of this -- did you notice the reference to "a peer review process"?** -- has been pondered and thought through and written out well in advance. If you want to do a study involving people, you get permission from an institutional review board first. The recruiting flyers would be considered just the first step in the consent process, if the B-school folks play by the rules in effect at the med school. Everything on the questionnaire would be approved. So would a protocol for the "party." So would the incentives. The researchers have to explain whether they expect to cause any harm and, if so, how they plan to mitigate it. If you want to know how to make this study sound like Girls Gone Mild in a hurry, try writing up the IRB application for it.

But back to the text:

Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Center, was so troubled by the ads that he contacted researchers at Duke student health services and Dan Ariely, the professor of behavioral economics at the Duke business school and senior fellow at the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics involved in the study.

Since he's the only interested party who speaks in the story, it's hard to tell, but it sounds as if Father Vetter was treated very politely. There's no indication, at least, that anyone told him to keep his nose on his own side of the epistemological fence.

... Vetter hopes to take up the topic on Sunday with students. (Help yourself. I don't notice anybody demanding that he distribute Duke-logo sex toys before the offertory, though.) He wrote for the Sunday bulletin: "Can We Talk About Sex in Church?" (Almost as good as the one we diagrammed this semester: "They talked about sex with Dick Cavett."***)

Efforts to reach Ariely and others in charge of the research project were unsuccessful Thursday.

So hold the bloody story. What's so important that you can't wait a day to talk to the people whose comments might actually be relevant to how people understand this sort of thing? As opposed to running a single-source story that makes you look as if you've forgotten the tale of Jesse Helms and the poor TA who assigned "To His Coy Mistress"?

That's the real problem, I think. Research tends to be incremental and undramatic. (Girls Gone Wild is not my field, but I'm willing to bet that by the 50th questionnaire, those ones and zeroes are just as exciting as any other ones and zeroes the business school collects). The N&O needs to step up on its own and point out that there's less here than meets the eye, ruined-coed-wise. If it can't do that basic bit of journalism, how are we supposed to tell it from the deliberate know-nothings of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

* I have no idea why the lede at Charlotte is different; maybe it was rewritten one way at AP Raleigh before it went out nationally. Nor do I know why Charlotte didn't pick up the Raleigh story wholesale. Hyphenating "sex-toy study" in the hed, though, is the sort of thing desks do to demonstrate that they're paying attention.
** Which AP made "the peer review process," apparently for no reason other than the need for variation.
*** I got this from the Steven Pinker book and trust that The Ridger or someone will advise if it's misattributed.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

'An intuitive sense of how things do not happen'

Seems like a good day to wrap up Paranoid Style Week, doesn't it? Let's turn to the comments section on the Lede blog at the Nation's Newspaper of Record, discussing the Fort Hood killings:

Stories aren't adding up here. First we're told by the government the main shooter was dead. Now they're 'admitting' he's alive, and in fact, not even near death. So how do you get that little fact wrong? Then, reports indicated from witnesses that there was more than one shooter. And now you hear nothing about that. I don't mean to be paranoid, but to what lengths would the Obama administration go to make this seem the work of one looney, and not a terrorist act?

In that light, the closing paragraph of Richard Hofstadter's essay is especially appropriate:

L. B. Namier once said that "the crowning attainment of historical study" is to achieve "an intuitive sense of how things do not happen." It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Today's editing tip

In these harried times, one of the most important services a desk can provide for busy readers is to "cut the clutter" so they can "get to the point" and "save time." Let's practice on this AP lede!

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Jim Stevens says he's not particularly religious and is clueless about why an image resembling Jesus Christ keeps appearing on his pickup.

That's a lot of information to absorb. Let's omit the needless words and see if we can make the main point "stand out" for the reader:

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Jim Stevens says he's not particularly religious and is clueless about why an image resembling Jesus Christ keeps appearing on his pickup.

Isn't that better? We've gotten rid of all the excess words and gotten straight to the point!

Which we had hoped was clear before this, but since it doesn't seem to have sunk in, it bears repeating: No deities on foodstuffs, kitties, load-bearing surfaces, windows, motor vehicles or ancient mysterious medieval cloths. Ever. Period. It isn't news. You can't make it news. Don't try.

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How not to write heds

It's easier to recognize inept heds than it is to write good ones. Here's a pair from Tuesday's Freep (and yes, that's how they appear on 2A).

In the first, the hed writer is trying to draw a verb from an adjective the lede:

President Barack Obama’s administration views Afghani­stan President Hamid Karzai as the legitimate leader of the country, White House spokes­man Robert Gibbs said Mon­day.

... without regard to whether "legitimize" has a different meaning -- say, "to make legitimate," rather than "to view as legitimate." It may be the Freep's view that the opinion of the US president is the defining condition of an international figure's legitimacy. If so, it's going to be increasingly hard to tell the Freep from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, which held that view of international legitimacy up through January of this year.

The second hed is about half a second's thought from being fine. The problem is that you can get a distributed reading out of "Ohio casinos, gay marriage" -- casinos in Ohio and gay marriage in Ohio are on ballots. That's not the only way to read the hed, of course, and I'm not suggesting that it's the easiest or most likely. But it's plausible, and it takes almost exactly the aforementioned half a second to remove any such doubt by switching the subjects: "Gay marriage, Ohio casinos on ballot."

Heds really aren't as easy to write as they look, in case you've never tried to knock out three or four dozen of the things while putting out all the other fires that crop up in the course of a shift on the desk. I'm sorry that papers like the Freep have decided that the craft of hed writing is no longer worth maintaining and encouraging. It's not the biggest canary to fall to the bottom of the mineshaft, but it's another sign that we're starting to pile up an awful lot of dead canaries down there.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Corrections you wish ... wait, don't

Could any correction possibly want to make you read the original errant hed more than this one? Where could it possibly have gone off the tracks?

Yosemite bears learn to love public transit
Yosemite bears spurn minivans for tried-and-true F150
Yosemite bears learn to love severed limbs of children
5 dead, 14 injured in Yosemite minivan plunge

Cold reality is such a letdown:

Yellowstone bears have learned to love minivans
What’s bigger than a picnic basket and even better than one in the eyes of black bears that call Yosemite National Park home?

Minivans driven by families with chil­dren who leave behind a trail of spilled juice boxes, Cheerios and coolers carry­ing other snacks, according to a study published in October in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Really? So distracted by the pickanick baskets that we couldn't get to the end of the sentence there, BooBoo?

Anyway, another reminder of why properly written corrections don't talk about what should have happened. They say what happened that shouldn't have (in most cases, without repeating the error itself), and then they correct it. How hard exactly is that to figure out?


'Time is forever just running out'

Some more of Richard Hofstadt- er's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics":

The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. One may object that there are conspiratorial acts in history, and there is nothing paranoid about taking note of them. This is true. ... The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Welcome to Tombstone

Back when "design" was called "layout" and editors were expected to know how a proportion wheel worked, one of the first rules you learned was about bumping heds, or "tombstoning." As in: Don't. Or if you do, maximize the contrast (size, shape, weight) between the heds so they don't read into each other.

Bump bans could get extreme. Nobody's going to have trouble distinguishing a 1/30/4 from the 5/42/1 next to it on an elbow page. But when you ignore the basics -- as the folks downtown apparently decided they could do today with impunity (that's the top of 4A) -- the results can be pretty grisly.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

'Uncommonly angry minds'

Not to run the whole War On Fox thing into the ground or anything, but -- if Fox News Senior Vice President Michael Clemente is so amazed that people can't tell opinion programs from news programs, it may be because he hasn't noticed how big a news story a lone interview with Rush Limbaugh is over at Fox.

At right, you'll find its play from this evening, followed by early afternoon, then Sunday morning and Saturday. You'd think we could be forgiven for assuming that unhinged commentary is more or less indistinguishable from news on Planet Fox.

Which brings us to this weekend's version of Stuff I Should Have Read 30 Years Ago But Am Just Now Getting To: Richard Hofstadter's essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." A couple of choice excerpts:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

... There is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him, whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.

More later. Time to go wish suffering and woe on the Yankees, which isn't working out too well so far.


Art imitates life at the hed desk over to the Fair 'n' Balanced Network.

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