Sunday, February 14, 2010

The eight-inch rule

Here's another of those trade secrets we don't always tell you guys about. It's called (with some variation among shops) the eight-inch rule: If you see a story longer than eight column-inches on a topic you know something about, you'll probably find a mistake in it. So here's the Nation's Newspaper of Record on the Huntsville shootings:

Mr. Garner said Dr. Bishop, who arrived in the 2003-4 academic year, was first told last spring that she had been denied tenure. If a tenure-track professor is not granted tenure after six years, the university will no longer employ them, Mr. Garner said. This would have been the final semester of Dr. Bishop’s sixth year.

True, true, not so true. If she started in 2003-04 and went up for tenure in her sixth year (08-09*), she would have been denied last spring. The lab-coat sciences may differ, but on our side of the tracks, that would likely mean a terminal contract: a seventh year with no renewal, in which -- with the handwriting distinctly on the wall -- one looks for a job. So appeal or not, this would have been the final semester of her seventh year, and even if you didn't have an obsessive interest in the tenure process, the arithmetic should have tipped you off.

As news stories go, this isn't an especially interesting or important one, but it does seem to be one that's producing a lot of bad journalism. Here's the AP, represented at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Bishop, a rare woman suspected of a workplace shooting, had just months left teaching at school in Huntsville because she was denied tenure.

The sentence isn't trying to say she's a rare woman** who happens to be suspected of a workplace shooting; it's trying to say that it's rare for women to commit mass workplace murders. "Suspected of" is one of the strategic rituals of objectivity; we skirt the laws of libel by saying that suspects are "suspected of" offenses, which is true (and thus by definition not libelous), rather than saying they committed the offenses (which, if false, is libelous). Readers, as a rule, aren't as interested in how often people are suspected of things as they are in how often people do things.

This one appears to be all Fox:

Bishop, who has four children, was arrested soon after the violent Friday shooting at the University of Alabama and charged with capital murder.

Are we paying attention, S&W-bashers? Nobody's complaining about adjectives. We like adjectives! But if you're looking for an early candidate in the Stupidest Adjective of 2010 contest, could we suggest "violent" for a shooting that left three people dead and two in critical condition?

One more brief point. We spend lots of time here picking on Fox News,*** and occasionally on the people who comment on its interesting perspectives on how the world works. It's worth noting, based on this story, that people who comment on NYT stories are every bit as arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded and self-serving as the people who comment at Fox. They use longer sentences and don't appear to be spraying quite as much saliva on the keyboard, but that doesn't make them smarter. Professional journalism organizations should simply disable comments on news stories forthwith. Right now. Period.

* Assuming she hadn't stopped her tenure clock for some reason; news accounts seem to be making much of her having four kids.
** Language Czarina, on the other hand, is an extremely rare woman, to whom happy Valentine's Day.
*** Well, we all have our paths toward tenure.


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