Friday, December 31, 2010

Metastatic editing fail

Q: Is there a justifiable reason -- you know, the sort of thing you'd tell Saint Peter as he was deciding whether your immortal soul was going to take the northbound or the southbound exit -- for writing a hed this dumb?
A: To ... take everybody's minds off the prose beneath?

I suppose that will have to do. So as the year draws to a close, let's suggest that newspapers around this great land of ours ponder a single omnibus resolution: Don't be stupid. That'll take care of the hed and almost anything under it.

Even before we proceed to the prose, you've learned something pretty definite from the hed. Sad to say, it was probably wrong. Death is sort of a one-time thing; drinking tends to be an ongoing process. We can investigate it for a long time before we even get around to what it might have to do with a death.

Whether the hed's even true is a different question. According to the story, he's already been charged with DWI, suggesting that a large part of the drink-probing is over. The hed writer's trying to pack a lot of signals into a verb that doesn't have enough room. But at least it takes your mind off the lede:

A vibrant young woman ends up facedown in the street fatally injured and the man she lived with is charged with drunken driving after what police say appears to be a domestic disagreement between the two.

See why we tell you to lay off the adjectives? Here are three problems with "vibrant":

1) I don't know what it means. I know what "complete" means in "complete stop," and I know what the adjectives are up to in "domestic disagreement" and "drunken driving." But this judgment is pretty opaque, which makes me wonder why you think your opinion is worth sharing with the world.
2) I don't know how you verified it, or whether you bothered to try. I expect that hypothesis-testing here would be grossly offensive. The easiest way to avoid that issue is to keep your value judgments to yourself.
3) I don't know how evenhandedly you plan to apply your judgments. Pardon me for suspecting that there's a correlation between (to be polite) victims' socioeconomic status and the sort of adjectives they get in news stories. If you want me to accept the null hypothesis here, you have some work to do.

And don't get me started on "young." The victim was 34. You can run for president at 35. This isn't just an inappropriate value judgment, it's an amazingly stupid one.

I'm actually going to spare myself the pain of cutting and pasting any more of this tale.* Please go read it yourself (noting the bad things that happen to well-intentioned newspapers when they run unedited swill from their corporate partners as if it was indeed "breaking news" 150 miles away). Then close your eyes and imagine a world in which there were layers of adults reading things before they were published.

* Got some cool books for Xpesmasse, and I'm going to go read one for a while. So there.


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