Saturday, June 05, 2010

Don't flatter yourself, Otter

This isn't just a Stupid Question, it's a self-sealing, perpetual-motion, Escheresque collision of bad decisions on the grammar, design, and news fronts.

"H1N1 threat wasn't great?" isn't an ungrammatical way to form a question, but it it is an ungrammatical way to form this question. When Mandy tells Otter it wasn't that great, "Not great?" is an echo question:* a restatement of her assertion, not a new question in and of itself.

Now, we could form a more appropriate question by asking "Was H1N1 threat not great?" -- but it wouldn't fit, and it's ambiguous in a way that relies on the sort of context heds can't supply: "Was it not a great party?" Again, bad idea, but we're still waltzing around an even larger point: The hed misstates the underlying assertion. The story isn't about whether the threat was great; it's about whether the threat was exaggerated (less great than it was made to seem).

That suggests some news judgment issues. Not every story in the world can be told in four lines of 6 units each. To an extent, that's a design problem, but here it might cause us to wonder why a tale that rated page 14A at the originating paper is a lede in Illinois. We're shooting in the dark a bit here, because I can't find the story at the Herald site (here's what appears to be the Post's print version) and don't know how it was promoted on the bgts (so maybe it was fronted in the first edition). As it stands, though, it looks like a bad case of the sort of he-said-she-said that really calls for the news organization to introduce a third party as referee.** The Post does that in what looks like an early online version, though by the time we get to print, the substance of the defense is gone.

The classic sort of hed that's made for this count is "Quake kills 8,000" or "Thousands flee Gotham" -- you don't need a weatherman to know what "thousands flee" means. Here, you do. If this is the day's top story, it's obliged to give people enough context to make sense of it.

It's tempting to declare this one Worst. Question. Evar. But you guys stole that one for your centerpiece, didn't you?

* Hey, what are the chances we could get a searchable Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Grammar online?
** You'll notice that Fox does this a lot -- it just always selects a referee (Dana Perino, Karl Rove, Dan Gainor) from the home team's bench.

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