Sunday, January 31, 2010

Macbeth: Ambitious or politician?

Yes! Both! Neither! Of all the clueless techniques the good Lord hath given us to sum up a news story with, the Freep may have finally maxed out today.

No, really. I do think there's a case to be made that most of the ills downtown these days result from being one layer short. Whatever the minimum number of eyes (or reads, or "touches") a story needs to have before it goes from screen to print, the Freep is always one measure behind. The 1A hed above from today is an obvious example. Here are a couple from yesterday's paper:

She also called for shorter prison terms for convicted felons, new ethics rules and docking the governor and Legislature a day’s pay for each day a budget isn’t ap­proved by July 1. (1A; "she" is the governor, Jennifer Granholm.)

The number of people who want to use marijuana for med­ical purposes — and are re­quired to get a doctor’s ap­proval — is swelling. (2A; readers will have to do their own cross-tabulation)

This is painfully routine stuff, and it's the sort of thing that's usually stopped -- or used to be, back when newspapers read stuff before publishing it -- a long way before it gets to the reader. Whatever the last line of defense is supposed to be at the Freep, it evidently isn't there any more. If your goal is to make yourself essential to the reading audience, do you think you might want to consider bringing it back? Just a thought, I mean.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Not very well, apparently

Sometimes it's a good idea to look a phrase up before you use it:

to stare (someone) down, out: to stare at someone without being first to blink or lower one's gaze, usu. as an expression of resistance or hostility; to outstare.

Sorry, kids. If the Queen City is in Full ZOMG Panic mode, vowing to have the road crews working all weekend to get rid of that official 1.1. inches of snow, it is probably not appropriate to conclude that the other guy blinked first.

Clause of the morning: "Street crews have responded to the snow and sleet by using plows on major thoroughfares." Well, that's a relief.

Who did what to whom?

If you've been keeping up with this story, you can probably assign all the players in the hed to their correct slots. If you haven't, you're going to have a bit of trouble. Whose wife -- the dad's or the son's? His son, her son, their son?

The Web version is even more bizarre in a different way: "Mansfield father found guilty in wife's drowning death of baby":

The baby's death by drowning
* The baby's death by wife

Is the hed writer trying to avoid saying that the wife killed the baby, owing to her having been acquitted by reason of insanity? ("Wife's killing of baby" might work.)

We need to back out and start all over on this one.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Consumes 47 times its own weight in ...

Behold the latest in hard-hitting political journalism (blended with quantitative content analysis, oh yeah) from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

Much attention has been given to President Obama's persistent use of "I" when giving speeches to sell his administration's agenda. Is he taking responsibility -- or, as his critics say, is he still in campaign mode? is tracking the president's speeches all this month and will report back after each to see whether The "I's" Have It.

Let's get the obvious journalistic fraud out of the way before addressing the fun stuff. No, "much attention" has not been paid to Obama's "persistent use of 'I'" (which is sort of like his persistent breathing; if you speak English, you use "I" persistently). Charles Krauthammer mentioned "I" last night, in Fox's analysis of the State of the Union address, and George Will has brought it up frequently, but two hacks isn't a measure of "much attention." And the "critics" don't call this a sign of "campaign mode"; they've persistently held it up as a measure of presidential narcissism. But our point here ought to be the numbers, which demonstrate more or less beyond the shadow of a doubt that Fox is more like an advertising agency than a news organization.

Remember hearing that Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid? Sounds impressive, unless you bother with small stuff like (a) whether 47 times the weight of a Rolaids amounts to much in the way of excess stomach acid and (b) whether "47 times" is more, less, or about the same as the handiest Brand X antacid (or placebo). Fox, of course, doesn't want you to think about that sort of thing. It wants you to think what Krauthammer and Will and the commenters think:

Barry the egocentonic malignant narcissist.
Terrible speech, but typical of this narcissist.
Is anyone really surprised that oduma is so self centered!!
He is a narcissistic egomaniac hellbent on getting his own way. God help our country.
I, I, I, me, me, me... why can't the man just lead -- he's president!!!
Narcissist and delusional, thats out president.

If you want to do journalism or content analysis, on the other hand, you start with the questions Rolaids and Fox leave out: Is that a lot, and what does it mean if it is? Obama said "I" 96 times in this appearance, we're told. Judging from the transcript, that's right: I get 96 instances of "I" pronouns (including "I'll," "I'm" and "I've"; "me," "my" and "mine" apparently don't matter to Fox). In an address of 3,399 words, that comes out to about 2.8%. Which means?

Let's turn to our friends at the Log, where Mark Liberman has been keeping track of Will's mendacity on this topic with appropriate scholarly detachment.* It's a little higher than Obama using "I" (2.1%) or first-person singular pronouns generally (2.65%) in his first press conference, and higher than Obama using first-person singular pronouns in his Olympics address (2.3%). By comparison, in his first two press conferences, Bush the younger was at 3.58% for "I," 4.49% for first-person singular pronouns all told. With a bunch more examples, we could probably determine whether the within-subject and between-subject variations are significant.**

That's statistical significance, not practical significance, which leads us to the validity question: Does pronoun use in presidential speech measure anything we ought to know about, and if so, what? First off, thanks to Jamie Pennebaker's guest Log post, we know that a president who used "I" a lot would be a pretty normal guy:
Across thousands of natural conversations that we have recorded, transcribed, and analyzed, the word “I” is consistently the most frequently used word (averaging 4.73% of all words, compared with 0.56% “me” and 0.69% “my”).
That's only relevant in the context of what "I" means, though. Not all "I" uses are equal. These aren't the same "I":

I mean -- I mentioned this last night -- none of us wanted to have to stabilize the banking sector, particularly since they helped create this mess.

and the "I" in "So that, you know, 'you lose, I win' mentality" isn't either of them. Pennebaker offers a detailed look at what different sorts of "I" mean, with this conclusion:
Since his election, Obama has remained consistent in using relatively few I-words compared to other modern U.S. presidents. His usage is overwhelmingly gentle-I as opposed to sledgehammer-I. Contrary to pronouncements by various media experts, Obama is neither “inordinately fond” of FPS (George Will, Washington Post, 6/7/2009) nor exhibiting “the full emergence of a note of … imperial possession” (Stanley Fish, NYT, 6/7/2009). Instead, Obama’s language suggests self-assurance and, at the same time, an emotional distance.
Fox, in short, is presenting a Rolaids ad, not a news story. It's scrupulously faithful to the number it presents while lying about every possible matter of context and implication. And that's a bigger deal than it might seem, because Fox is the arm of the party that passes itself off as a member of the press. It has all the simulacra of news -- the balancing routines, the facticity, the distinction between reporting and commentary, the displacement of judgments to "critics" or "some say" -- but that's the lab coat that turns an actor into a doctor who tells you what "doctors recommend." Please, do not pass up the chance to ridicule Fox and all its heirs and assigns at every opportunity.

* I don't know; maybe he throws things at the cats too.
** Pennebaker's data suggest that Obama's Tampa speech is right at his first-person-singular average (2.88%). Bush was significantly higher than Obama on all the relevant pronouns.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book shocks

Certain southeastern founts o'knowledge are using transitive hed verbs without objects again. This one bothers me not so much because of the construction as the sheer are-you-kiddingness of it.

There's a lot to dislike about the lede:

A presidential campaign-turned soap opera turned a new chapter Wednesday as John Edwards and his wife announced their separation, and a new book purports to explain how Edwards covered up his steamy affair and the paternity that resulted.

The compound in the subject is about three hyphens short, "turned a new chapter" is off base even as a cliche, and I can't tell whether the "new book purports" clause is supposed to be part of the new chapter or a thing unto itself. But the bigger issue is still the hed. Who exactly is supposed to be shocked? How many readers do you expect will pick up the paper and find out for the first time -- shazam! -- that John Edwards behaved like a sleazebag of genuinely epic proportions?

Granted, the Obs has a lot of breathless pro-Edwards shilling to make up for. Surely there are better ways to atone.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who needs editers?

Do journalism schools need editors too? Let's see:

The ideal candidate also has hands-on skills, has directed projects and cannot only edit video, audio, text and photos but can teach those skills to others.

Duties include teaching the editing class while the usual suspects are on sabbatical, eh?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Agenda-setting on Planet Fox

Wow, things sure look different through the clear ammonia-based air of Planet Fox, don't they?

Here's the front page from a bit earlier in the day. Don't you wonder why your Lamestream Media were ignoring these?

First up, "Heat's on U.N. climate doc" -- right, that's "doc," not "dog," though we have no idea whose idea it was to call him a "doc" (that's a job description, not a title). And he's not going to resign even though Rupert Murdoch thinks he should. You can tell how heavily the heat's on by the age of the sidebars; the first link under the mainbar is to a 5-day-old story.

Is "'Blame Bush' wearing thin?" We report, you decide!

Hard to see how the Italian official could be adding insult to injury. The Haitians are the ones who were injured, but he's not adding any insults to them; he's insulting the Americans, who weren't injured. This is exceptionalism writ large; foreigners simply aren't allowed to go around questioning our good deeds. (Don't you ungrateful Iraqis come complaining about how we're treating your country. If it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking Arabic.)

And speaking of which -- "un-veil" ban proposal! HAHAHAHAHAHA! The real point of this one, though, is the sidebar. Packaging is often a good clue to the framing process; you can tell a lot about how you're supposed to read a story from the kinds of stories it goes with. And on Planet Fox, a story about French secularism and religious practice is the same kind of story as ... a guy who tried to blow up an airliner full of civilians. Glad we got that straight.

None of this is an accident. It's a carefully arranged set of instructions for how to interpret the world. Fox doesn't tell you what to think. It just helps you think the right way about the things it tells you to think about.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

On polls and reading them

It's Public Opinion Week in your friendly neighbor- hood political reporting class, and as usual the examples keep pouring in. Let's look at a few things not to do with survey research, on the off chance it'll sink in next time the AME for presentation is demanding a big, conclusive graphic to go with your poll story.

That's not the problem with the front shown here; the 1A clip is just a reminder to the Columbus gang to (ahem) cut it out permanently and forever with using roller-coaster photos to illustrate thumbsuckers about the economy. We've been over this before. Stop it.

The lede hed -- "Ohio voters lean GOP once again" -- isn't really the problem either (though the "once again" isn't very well supported, and it probably doesn't take a lot for some readers to recall the D's longstanding reputation as a tool of the Republican Party,* and you can go from there). The problem is with the lede, which illustrates a basic mistake you should never make with survey data: Pretending your numbers reflect some purported trend you haven't measured. Here we go:

The Massachusetts revolution might be spreading to Ohio. (And then again, it might not! That's why -- even if we could define the "Massachusetts revolution" and had some claim to having measured it -- "might" ledes are on the forbidden list.)

Although the vast majority of Ohioans don't blame Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland for the state's economic woes, they favor GOP challenger John Kasich by 6 points in this year's gubernatorial election. (Funny, I didn't get the idea that the Massachusetts "revolution" could be summed up as "We don't blame the incumbent, but we're leaning toward a nine-term congressman who hung around on Fox a lot after leaving office." A safer conclusion based on the limited data available -- kids, don't go around casually comparing polls conducted 11 and 10 months before the election by different agencies -- might be that Strickland appears to have picked up a little more support than Kasich recently among people who might be making up their minds. And just to be strict: Never draw conclusions about what "Ohioans" think from a sample of likely Ohio voters. Don't generalize to a population you didn't sample. That's a rule. Do not break it. Ever.)

The result is fueled by a stunning shift in the Ohio electorate toward Republicans, a new Dispatch/Ohio Newspaper Poll shows. The survey reveals that Republicans now own a 10-point margin over Democrats among likely voters declaring a party allegiance. Just in September, Democrats had an 11-point bulge with registered voters. (That's a fairly dramatic shift, and it'd be nice to see the real numbers, rather than just the differences.** Whether it "fueled" the result isn't something the poll measured. It's something the reporter made up.)

Many national polls contain similar rapid swings as independent voters abandon the Democratic Party -- reversing a Democratic buildup displayed in the 2006 and 2008 elections. (How many national polls, how similar and how rapid? Sorry, I have trouble believing this assertion. The party-ID question in the poll I follow most regularly -- Opinion Dynamics, polling for Fox -- has changed significantly over the past 10 months, but not to the degree the Dispatch is reporting. That doesn't mean a lot. Public opinion in Ohio is probably different from public opinion in the nation, and any poll could be an outlier; the whole point of reporting your confidence levels is to remind people that, generally, one out of every 20 results is an outlier. But if you're going to make assertions about "many polls," you really ought to provide some evidence.)

And like many of those surveys, the new poll of Ohioans shows that Republicans are far more engaged in this year's election. The percentage of the GOP "extremely interested" in the 2010 vote is almost double that of Democrats. Typical Democratic constituencies, such as young voters, urban dwellers and blacks, also are showing less interest in this year's campaigns. (Once again, you're giving an assertion about "many of those surveys" without any evidence. Which ones? National? How big? Conducted by whom? In what population? Asking what questions? In the field when? This is an interesting result -- far more important, if you want my opinion, than how people say they'd vote in an election 11 months away, and probably a lot more relevant to the Massachusetts result as well. But I'm left to take it on faith, and nothing the paper has shown so far inspires much in the way of faith in its survey reporting.)

We should emphasize, as usual, that this isn't a bad poll. On the evidence, it's professionally conducted, valid, reliable, thrifty, brave, cheerful, reverent -- everything a poll ought to be. It's a relevant part of a big mosaic of public opinion. It's interesting, but it isn't very dramatic. And there's our other big lesson for the evening. The things that make polls valuable rarely make them worthy of the top spot on the front page. And the things that make them lede-worthy are usually not the things that make them worth taking note of.

There are far, far worse things you can do with assertions about public opinion -- this deck from the lede hed in today's Freep, for example. We can't say it's false; as far as we know, it might be perfectly true. Our problem is that we have no idea. "Anger at banks grows" isn't the sort of conclusion you can draw from talking to one guy who wishes he had gotten a loan for a new truck. The nicest thing you can say about this hed is that it's a fabrication. It's one I'm instinctively inclined to agree with, but that's not a valid excuse for making stuff up for the front page.

More about this later. And, of course, a large welcome to all you BBC fans who followed the space-time rift here yesterday and gave us what may be our one-day record for hits. Bloody Torchwood.

* There's a lovely anecdote in "The Boys on the Bus," if that hasn't made your reading list yet.
** Should you be even more cautious because we're comparing "registered voters" to "likely voters"? You're starting to get the idea.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

That space-time rift in action

So there I was, peacefully checking the timetables between Paddington and Cardiff, when apparently something I entered disagreed with the machinery, and back came the coolest error message in history:

Outward travel must not be in the past.

Is there something about Cardiff they're not telling us?


Thursday, January 21, 2010

When zombies write travel stories

Swell? I'll say! Restaurants spiffy too! And convenience of public transit just out of this world!

Sorry, just trying to take my mind off wondering how long it took some fair 'n' balanced mind to come up with "Mr. Brown Goes to Washington" and whether anyone, for any brief moment, thought better of it. A reminder to you real newspapers out there that might be pondering the same centerpiece: Don't.

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Go South, young man

Anything sound a bit strange about this lede?

Forty degrees 46 minutes 10.19 seconds north latitude, 74 degrees 16.69 seconds south latitude: Michael Leonard had been there before.

After a few days' reflection, the Paper of Record acknowledges that no, you can't be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all:

An article on Saturday about a reunion of the passengers and crew aboard the US Airways jet that crash-landed onto the Hudson River a year ago misstated the location of the crash and the event that occurred 90 seconds into the flight. The crash was at 40 degrees 46 minutes 10.19 seconds north latitude, and 74 degrees 16.69 seconds west longitude — not south latitude.

Handy tip for future ledes: If a location doesn't make sense, perhaps the writer should be asked to point to it on a map. Maybe you kids can use your Googles for this.

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Mayor arrested after found nude

OK, the Log gang is first* to move the wonderful Reuters crash blossom "White House says bears part of blame for Senate loss" from the political blogs to the sphere of language. Rather than duplicating efforts, which I think is generally counterproductive (what are we supposed to do, lede with "headsuptheblog has confirmed that bears part of blame"?), let's try to advance the conversation: Is this feature a function of Reuters' being British at heart, as commenter Dan** suggests?

That's plausible, I think, because the only place I see that construction -- the complement clause with the elided subject (and, usually, the linking verb too) -- in American news language is at Fox, which not only has a lot of British corporate influence but lifts a lot of its best material from the British redtops and right-wing quality/qualoids. Here are a few Fox heds of that pattern:

Florida mayor arrested after found nude at campsite
Police chief retires after caught kissing female cop
Boy dies after dragged by own cow at Alaska fair
Pastor tried to fight off killer before throat slashed

Bonus points for noticing that the first one is flat wrong; the lede refers to a "former Gainesville mayor," but the Gainesville in question is the one in Georgia. Otherwise, it's the standard Fox menu -- nudity, official sex, and episodic gooey death -- cast in some foreign hed dialect. They're all AP stories, but the heds look Foxed; the AP heds available at Lexis are:

Former mayor in Georgia arrested for nudity
Video: Ohio police chief, cop kissed in cruiser
Coroner's report: Pastor had gashes to neck, chest

Transmarine readers, canst clarify? Do these constructions make sense on your side?

* The reader is referred to last month's discussion of the relevance of scoops*** online.
** Dan from TCE, is that you?
*** This term wasn't part of my dialect; we called them "beat" or "exclusive." Probably a generational thing.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let it never be said ...

... that the Fair 'n' Balanced Network missed an oppor- tunity to remind you who's naughty and who's -- well, who else is naughty. 'Cause you know who's nice.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Active or passive?

Is it just me, or am I actually seeing more transitive verbs in heds without their objects, as in "New release disappoints" or "Movie amazes"? (Mostly entertainment and features, I think, with some in sports.) Anyway, I don't usually think it's actively misleading -- just annoying.

For this one, though, I'll make an exception. With I don't see an object with "attack" in a hed, I'm inclined to assume the hed is passive. ("Man attacked with stick" = "a man was attacked with a stick.") That's how I want to read "Drunk daughter attacked with chili" -- except that it seems really strange for someone to have called the cops and told them his drunk daughter had been attacked with chili. And indeed ...

A woman was arrested over the weekend after her father told police she threw a bowl of chili beans on him.

Oops. He didn't say she was attacked with chili. He said "she attacked ME with chili." Slight difference, you think?

The second graf, alas, makes the lede seem a bit too cute for its own good:

A 20-year-old York woman was grossly intoxicated when she threw the chili bowl at her father's face late Saturday night, according to a York police report.

News structure usually goes from the general to the specific, so, it ought to be "the" 20-year-old woman, not "a" 20-year-old woman. But that's not the problem. The lede says she threw some beans on him. The second graf says she threw a bowl at his face. That's sort of like saying "she threw water on him" without bothering to mention that she put it in a half-gallon jug first. No wonder the cops noticed lacerations and bleeding.

Ruling? The corporate cousin down in Rock Hill got too coy with the cop news. But the big paper needs to be able to set its own standards on what it picks up.

No, not really

Manipulating the screen with the flick of the wrist will remind many people of the 2002 film "Minority Report," in which Tom Cruise moves images and documents around on futuristic computer screens with a few sweeping gestures.

And why would you think it might do that? Or, for our purposes, given that you thought and wrote it, why did some editor not quietly put it out of its misery? Reminding others of that other Tom Cruise movie: "Baravelli, this is the finish: How much would you want to stand at the wrong end of a shooting gallery?"

On making people stupider

Posting has been sparse of late, because (inter alia) Your Editor is holed up and trying to get some stuff about the press and the public perception of terrorism into presentable form, but every now and then something just yanks the old chain. Today, it's the mind-bendingly toolish Jonah Goldberg, holding forth at the National Review Online (the "he" is Tom Friedman, whose Sunday NYT column is quoted in the inset):

In column after column it goes like this: China's awesome. America's not, but it could be if it became more like China and bossed around its citizens and businesses without paying heed to their wishes. Dick Cheney's wrong. ...You'd at least think he'd grow weary of telling us how envious he is of China's leaders. He at least waters down the sycophancy with a mention of Taiwan this week:

Am I going isolationist? No, but visiting the greater China region always leaves me envious of the leaders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, who surely get to spend more of their time focusing on how to build their nations than my president, whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.

Oh, foul democracy! How easily distracted you are by murderous terrorist conspiracies! If only we could have a system where such deaths could be written-off as the cost of doing business and kept out of the papers.

News flash. That's exactly the system we have. Death is one of the costs of doing business, and that's what keeps most deaths out of the papers. If you start counting at Christmas, as it turns out, theft prevention at Wal-Mart has cost more lives in the Detroit metro area than jihadist terrorism. Of course it was "kept out of the papers" where Jonah Goldberg lives. No doubt those papers were asking whether the president was spineless or just cowardly.

If you add them all up, we had half a dozen theft/auto/stupidity deaths last week alone -- six more people, not to put too fine a point on it, than died at the hands of the Pantybomber. By any rational standard, you're a lot safer on the plane from Amsterdam. As soon as you pick up your bags, leave the parking deck, and swing onto I-94 for the eastern burbs, you risk running into the "cost of doing business" coming the other way at 90 mph with $50 worth of stolen products from the drugstore.

Six deaths, of course, is a small fraction of the monthly traffic death toll* across the country, but it would be huge in terrorism terms. That's because very, very, very few Americans die from terrorism. Those deaths aren't, and almost certainly never will be, "written off as the cost of doing business" and ignored in the press. Three drunks being put off a plane in London wouldn't have been headlined as a "terror case" in the Freep if "the papers" didn't have a finger permanently poised over the panic button.

Terrorism is a risk that reflects the cost of doing business in the modern world --- like driving, or living near a coal-fired power plant, or working in the area that coined the term "going postal" for workplace violence. The risk of terrorism can't be eliminated, but it can be mitigated.

Mitigation is a fairly boring part of the risk equation. It doesn't have the bring-'em-on appeal of an old-fashioned ass-kicking; it's likely to involve stuff like construction codes** and passive restraints. And it's often difficult to see a linear relationship between mitigation efforts and concrete outcomes. If a national high-speed rail system actually cuts the amount of money going to rentier states in the Middle East, we may never be able to measure a change in the risk of terrorism. That doesn't mean it isn't a good idea.

Which is the problem with Jonah Goldberg's brand of clueless yapping. Goldberg and the NRO gang essentially want the "national agenda," such as it is, held hostage to the Global War on Terror. Not the part of global war that involves, you know, ration stamps or anything unpleasant -- the part where nobody gets to move until the president says the magic words in the right order and admits that Dick Cheney was right all along. That's a stupid way to run government, and it's not a very good way of running counterterrorism either.

Why do the experts at the National Review prefer it when the public is scared and stupid? Don't know. Perhaps someone should ask them.

* Which has dropped dramatically in recent years, due in part to the sort of evil commie bossing-around that brought us airbags and a more-or-less national standard for DUI that's about twice as strict it was 30 years ago. Damn government.
** Meddling bureaucrats!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Day 5: Alliteration

Entire Country in Chaos, that's Day 1. Local Residents Open Hearts, comma, Wallets: Day 2. (Optional: Local Residents Continue Reaching Out.) Now we're up to Stupid Alliteration Day -- can we have a "Rescue amid the Rubble," somebody?

You Usual Suspects out there know that we're never going to complain that there's too much international news in the daily mix. But it's probably time to point out that editors have a particular duty in cases like this to make sure that the news they're running really is news, rather than the handiest thing that fits their preconceptions of what must be going on in distant places when disasters strike. If you fell for this NYT lede:

As the focus Saturday began turning away from Haitians lost to those who were spared, a sprawling assembly of international officials and aid workers struggled to fix a troubled relief effort after Tuesday's devastating earthquake.

... you really ought to explain what empirical event or events justify the assertion in the subordinate clause. What happened on Saturday to make "focus began turning" truer than it was on Friday? Anything?

Did you start the Sunday run with the AP's "Precious water, food and early glimmers of hope began reaching parched and hungry earthquake survivors Saturday on the streets of this shattered city" and bump it later for the Times's "While countries and relief agencies have showered aid on Haiti, little of it is reaching increasingly desperate Haitians who lack food, clean water or shelter." If so, can you explain why?

All things equal, more news is better than less news. But not all news is equal. Not all of it is even news. And first impressions are, well ... "And there goes a United Nations armored tank."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Objectivity prize

By the sound of it, things out at the far end of New York Avenue NE have ranged of late from awful to dismal to genuinely wackoid, so let's all give the WashTimes rim a hand for doing some objectivity right.

Objectivity, you'll recall, isn't a function of how quickly you can get a reaction from the Moon Is Green Cheese camp to an assertion that the moon is actually an airless rock. In a nicer sense, it means (a) deciding in advance that some outcome is worth reporting, (b) agreeing on an appropriate metric for that outcome, (c) measuring it, and (d) reporting the results. And, though wailing and gnashing of teeth on the mezzanine* might have greeted it, there's the result at the top of the front page. This is a way of telling the Washington Times from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. One hopes it remains so, at least every now and then.

* Disclosure-wise, Your Editor was a foreign-desk hand at the WaTms late in the Reagan years. Some (ahem) other visitors here have similar tales.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Talk run for gov fuels buzz

OK, OK, it's not fair to take a single line of a hed in isolation, but -- you know, when the actual print paper arrives on its first visit since Sunday, and the coffee hasn't worked its magic yet, a line like "talk run for gov fuels buzz" just sort of sings. Talk, don't run? Are gov fuels like biofuels? So many nouns, so many verbs, so little time.

It would help, of course, if someone downtown still remembered the quaint charm of nicely phrased heds. Infinitives, phrasal verbs and the like fall so much more nicely on the eye when they're kept together. (Hint: Shift-return after "House.") But that's only the beginning.

For a long time now, ever since I worked for a paper where the chunk of Atex space set aside for business copy was ".bus" rather than ".biz," I've been in favor of the idea that the shortened version of a word is a word unto itself, spellingly. "Bus" isn't short for "business"; it's short for "autobus." Business news appears in a biz section, not a bus section; you talk into a mike, not a mic; the occupant of the White House is the prez, not the pres. So if you're a broadsheet pretending to be a tabloid, seems to me you want "guv" for your shorthand. How else are you going to write Luv Guv when push comes to shuv?

So far we're piling up nouns and shifting registers sloppily, and we haven't even gotten to the Stupid Question in the 1A lede hed. It echoes the second graf (for once, the online version is pretty much exactly the 1A story as it ran), which notes that fuel is being added to rumors of the said meddling, but that's the closest we come to addressing the question -- here or in the expanded version inside that serves as a quasi-jump. The story claims a buzz but never shows it. We can't even ask that the hed tell us, rather than asking us, because there's nothing there to tell.

"Meddling" is a weirdly out-of-tune verb too, and not just for the naughty meaning* I had never heard of until I looked it up. You'd expect it at Fox, which could get "Prez meddles with evening" out of a story in which the poor guy said "good morning," but not from the reliably sycophantic Freep. Which doesn't make it wrong; it just underscores the need for something that, under the right light, if you turn your head and squint a little, might actually look like evidence.

Things get even stranger in the text:
Gaffney's cautionary remarks suggest that although Ilitch's business pedigree is strong, the Democratic race remains wide open.

Oh, wow. So even though a businessperson/trustee visited the White House this, a race that was blown open only last week remains wide open?

Then there's the sort of lede that makes you wonder if anybody reads the stuff at all before the "send" button is hit:

Michigan Republicans, like political partisans everywhere, won't deny they enjoy confusion among Democrats.

That certainly does create a narrow meaning of "political partisans," wouldn't you say?

You can see why the journalism of politics sounds really dull if you do it right. But that's not a very good justification for the extreme level of dumb it sounds when you do it wrong.

* The stuff you learn! And transitive, at that.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Two Minutes Hate

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. ... The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. ... Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him.

Quick, kiddies, can you think of an international story of some significance that seems to have gotten the attention of nearly every frontpage editor in the land except this one? Clearly, there are other fires to be stoked at the New York Post, more or less a print version of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network without all the fair 'n' balanced. (This interesting bit of comparative 1A news judgment was first flagged at Instaputz, which often does a good job keeping track of the wildlife.)

Yes, if your newspaper had no mention of Haiti on the front today, it'd be fair to conclude that your newspaper sucks. But it probably has quite a way to go to reach the rogue-black-hole, Earth-swallowing suckage of the Murdoch products.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nom nom nom!

Just another reason to be careful if you're down at the Auto Show today, courtesy of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. And shouldn't that be "bitten"?

(Thanks to Michaela for the tip)


Monday, January 11, 2010

News first

Here's a familiar tip again: If you can cover up the lede and start right in on the second graf with no headache, dizziness or other side effects, you have chosen the wrong lede:

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local law enforcement officials have a message for snowmobilers: safety first.

Thanks for the tip, but why stop there? Wouldn't Gov. Palin agree? Why not call the White House press office too? Wouldn't Laurel and Hardy agree? Wouldn't Smokey agree?

Sure. Unless they were reading the second graf because, oh, it had some news and was interesting:

Two snowmobilers died early Sunday in Lowell Township, in Kent County, after the sled struck a tree.

Deleting the lede would be a good start, but only a start. I'm glitching on the hed too: Does "die because of accident on snowmobile" mean more deaths from the snowmobile accident last week,* or are these from a fresh accident? And then there's the third graf:

Their deaths likely will add to a growing count of snowmobile fatalities across the state.

How -- I hear you asking plaintively -- is that gonna work? Under what circumstances would two deaths not add to the current total of deaths? Read on a little and you can see where the reporter went off track:

As of Jan. 3, the DNR had nine reported fatalities so far this year -- up three from the same time last year.

There were two deaths in White Lake Township and one in Ogemaw County earlier this month. (Nine "this year" and three "this month" don't add up very well, since at this point "this year" is "this month." Did the writer mean "this winter?")

But Mary Detloff, a spokeswoman for the DNR, said last week that the current increase in the number of deaths doesn't indicate an upward trend in fatalities. According to DNR statistics, there have been 20 to 24 fatalities each season since 2005-06. (Ah. The third graf isn't confused about whether deaths count or not, it's trying to get at whether this season is shaping up to be worse than others.)

There's a lot to do there: Kill a lede, straighten out some logic, scrub out a little overt silliness, change "fatalities" to "deaths" in maybe half a dozen cases, check the titles on all the officials who helpfully remind you not to run into stuff at high speed at night, and write a nonambiguous hed. It wouldn't take long to make this a better -- to be specific, a much less bad -- story. But it does take time and editors and at least a bit of a mission to keep bad stuff out of the paper. When the paper doesn't care, we can tell. Really fast.

* Which had a genuinely awful explain-don't-tell hed too: "Caution couldn't prevent wreck." What the hed means is that the cautions that were taken didn't prevent the wreck; they don't make crystal balls big enough to indicate whether some level of caution could have prevented the wreck.

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Evil editing

Q: Is there a special part of hell reserved for editors who put the Great Cliches into other people's ledes?
A: Yes.
Q: Is it, you know, hot?
A: Really, really hot.

Just a suggestion for whoever decided to take this less-than-thrilling but pretty adequate lede:*

NBC confirmed Sunday what the television world already knew — that the network would end Jay Leno’s prime-time show in one month and return him to 11:35 p.m., bumping “The Tonight Show” and its host, Conan O’Brien, to 12:05 a.m.

... and turned it into this:

It's official: NBC will end Jay Leno's prime-time show in one month and return him to 11:35p.m., bumping "The Tonight Show" and its host, Conan O'Brien, to 12:05 a.m.

Hard to see why you'd do it to your own prose, but doing it to someone else's -- wow, something wicked this way comes.

In the age of local-local-local, why is a New York Times story from Pasadena about national late-night TV above the fold on 1A? Silly rabbit. National news never really went away; we've still got plenty of sports, television and colorful promos for new film releases on the front, along with the occasional Missing Mom. It's just that annoying policy stuff we got rid of. Make sense now?

* From, but it's also the version at Lexis.

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Thank you, Santa!

How did you know we were supposed to show evidence of an ongoing agenda of programmatic research for the third-year review process!

"I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news," Palin said in a written release.

Thanks, Santa!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Science, money, journalism

Coming soon to a couple of newspapers that may or may not be near you: A corporate-sponsored science section! Here's the editor of the Obs to explain:

On Monday, the Observer and The News & Observer will jointly launch a weekly, two-page package of science and technology news from the Carolinas and beyond called "SciTech." ...

We will feature science and high-tech at work in laboratories, at field sites and in classrooms. We'll profile blogs and other sources of special interest. We will use color graphics to illustrate scientific principles and breakthroughs.

To bring this to you, we employed an NPR-like model for fundraising: Find a company willing to underwrite costs for high-quality content in return for public acknowledgement that it supports that kind of content.

We found that company in Duke Energy, which has agreed to be the exclusive funding source for "SciTech" in both Charlotte and Raleigh. ... Duke will play no role in the selection of the news content, which will be handled independently by the Charlotte and Raleigh newsrooms.

We think this funding model could potentially work for other kinds of high-quality content that you would welcome into your newspaper.

Since we're doing so well at finding sponsorship in "the Carolinas" -- can't wait for that Middle East section underwritten by Blackwater! But early-morning snark aside, what about it? Is there a model here worth considering? Here are a few points to ponder.

One, more news is better than less news. Rick is being a tad bit disingenuous in citing "a time when economic pressures were forcing newspapers to condense and combine sections"; what he means is that newspapers were throwing content -- particularly non-staff, non-"local" content -- overboard as fast as they could. Reinflating the news section, even if it's only 12 columns a week, is a good thing.

Two, all funding systems involve compromises. We tend not to think about the ones that drive the current system because they're familiar. Sponsorship isn't the best or only answer (I'm partial to some sort of BBC-style public funding for broadcasting, for example), but there's no reason it can't be a good answer.

Three, it's nice to know that the content will be produced independently by journalists, but are we sure that's part of the solution and not part of the problem? It's unlikely that Duke Energy would lean on someone to tweak the adverbs in a climate change story. But independent journalism is still prone to the "teach the controversy" approach, leading to more "Climategate: Threat or Menace?" stories and less explanation of how peer review works and what it might mean to tweak various sets of data. Until we're good at making clear that science and politics operate under different norms of reporting, I'm going to be a bit wary of the "high-quality" part.

Want an example from today's headlines? This is from McClatchy's coverage of the latest language scandal:

Obama also quickly forgave then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2007, after Biden referred to him in racial terms as both men launched their quests for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said.

In a word, no. Biden didn't say that* -- at least, when his statement is examined under the terms of the science of language, he said something quite different. Here's a summary from Mark Liberman's account at the Log three years ago:

The quote as they printed it, though it reproduced Biden's words in the order in which he said them (ignoring some false starts whose removal was normal and expected), was objectively dishonest as a representation of his meaning.

I find his case persuasive, and I don't see why newspapers insist on repeating this mistake. If you're going to play by the rules of science, it strikes me as indefensible. It's no excuse that the New York Times** does it too, or that it's been reported dozens of times in the past, or that it's been made fun of on talk shows -- if it's wrong, it's wrong. You need to correct it, and you need to take steps to ensure that you don't do it again.

When I see the correction, I'll be confident in the quality of the new science section. Until then, I'll be happy to see a little bit more news that, in many cases, might make people a little bit smarter. At least until you start in on the talking animals.

* I have no idea what the writer meant by "referred to him in racial terms" -- it seems it'd be hard to point out that Obama is black without using "racial terms."
** At least the Times made some effort to put Harry Reid's comments (both stories repeat the Biden error in reporting the Reid story) into context.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

There's a song in here

Just one of those stray bits of found poetry in the skybox that really needs Tom T. Hall to do it justice. Or maybe Larry Cordle. Or Ginger Baker.

Thank you, Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Fear factor: Reeling in the panic

ZOMG! Look at the second most super-important story in the whole world over at Fox! They're everywhere! It's too late for me ... save yourselves!

Here I will admit to having had a particular suspicion, so I clicked through to the story:

Armed police boarded a plane at London's Heathrow airport on Friday after a verbal threat was made by three young English men.

Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt said the men were described as "people who had too much to drink."

And things sort of clarified at that point: Drunks on a plane! Specifically, drunks on an Emirates flight from Heathrow to Dubai, whereon I once watched a marathon performance by the most obnoxious drunk British dude I have ever seen.* He harangued his neighbors incessantly about matters political, ethnic and sexual, even after the purser -- disregarding threats to his own safety and repeated comments about his mom, manhood and affection for goats -- cut off the drink supply. Last seen stumbling from the air bridge and coming to rest against a No Smoking sign, where he lit a cigarette as the Dubai airport cops converged to silent applause from the lot of us.

Lesson? Even in the post-9/11 world, drunks get on planes -- even planes headed to the Middle East -- and do stupid, obnoxious things. Somehow the world manages to survive. Sometimes, with great good fortune, people still manage to come to sensible conclusions about the threat of terrorism and how it affects their daily lives.

I bring this up because news stories never exist in a vacuum. "Three detained at Heathrow" gets its real punch -- it makes the sort of sense it's intended to make -- in light of the story next door:

With the U.S. economy showing signs of continued weakness and with the country still reeling in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre and the botched Christmas Day airline attack, economists are raising concerns that a "third strike" -- another terror attack in the U.S. -- could deal a crippling blow to the nation's economic recovery.

The whole country? Reeling? This must be what it's like to be a Freedonian here on an H1B visa -- you open the paper and see FREEDONIA REELING when a bomb outside some provincial capital has killed three people, and you think: Seventy million people? Reeling? From the same bomb? Look, I don't mean to speak for everybody who lives under the east-west approach to Metro Airport, but ... we're hanging in there! Really! It's pretty freaking normal! It finally snowed! Don't send lawyers, guns and money! OK, you can send some money, but no lawyers or guns, all right?

I spend some time with this because one of the few remaining reasons to consider journalism as something more than a really slow, boring version of Twitter is its (at least notional) ability to put risk into perspective. People who cling to the idea that Fox is a form of journalism might wish to ask why Fox seems bent on ensuring that the population is scared and stupid. Put more simply: Why does Fox hate America?

* Including the tube stop near Stamford Bridge with Chelsea** playing at home.
The Dook of the Premier League. (Sorry, Wayne.)

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Today's Fox quiz

No peeking, Fox fans!

1) Which of these two stories has a Fox creditline and which is taken from the AP?
2) Which of these stories has comments enabled?

Feel free to post answers in comments. Remember, this could be on the final.

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Good old days

The mayor? And the publisher? In a fistfight? Outside the bank? Go it, publisher; go it, bear mayor! History of American Journalism is back and standing tall!

I need a new walking stick. There might be poltroons to cudgel on the way home.*

* And when it's snowing too hard to see Canada, it's time to head that way.


Get a room, you two

Something about weather stories just brings out the cliche in everybody. Copyeds, this is your chance to step up and ... lose friends and influence people. Retire Mother Nature and Old Man Winter. And never, ever write or approve any piece of text containing the consecutive words "big chill."

Right, Houston?
The big chill is on

Little Rock?
State braces for big chill

The big chill has returned to Colorado, courtesy of a strong cold front that roared through the region early Wednesday morning.

WNC's big chill persists as crews repair fractured waterlines

Sioux City?
Big chill, winds next for Siouxland

Scotland the brave?
Big chill tightens grip on UK

City agencies prepare for big chill

We could go on and on -- 700-some times. a search suggests. File this one so deep your best reporter couldn't find it.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Pump pain and dinettes

If you haven't been saddled with writing the hed on the latest swing in gasoline prices, want a suggestion? Anything but "pain at the pump."

It isn't fresh now. It wasn't fresh last time we wasted a morning cataloging it. It won't be fresh when you fill up your personal atomic helicopter on the way to Spacely's Sprockets and gaze in wonder as the meter goes around. So don't. OK? Thanks!


Che sera sera

A bit of hypercorrection on the dance desk at the Paper of Record, perhaps?

A dance review on Dec. 26 about Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca, at the Lucille Lortel Theater, misstated a word in a line sung by Manuel Gago. He sang: “Ay! Que pena!,” not: “Ay! Che pena!”

Could be worse. If it had gone through the foreign desk, it might have ended up "Ay! Ernesto 'Che' pena!"

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A stitch in time

Killing people, by whatever means, is just the terrorist's method. The goal is to disrupt, to strike fear, to sew discord among the enemy.

Ahem. Considering that over at the columnist's home paper it's "sow discord," we seem to have a case of Editing Fail on our hands here. Or perhaps sewn into our underthings.

Why -- on a slightly broader topic -- is a paper in North Carolina running a pedestrian, thoroughly unoriginal column by an edpage writer from Kansas City? Possibly because it looks so good next to the malevolent yappings of Michael Gerson, the ex-speechwriter now providing "balance" to the center-right zealotry of the WashPost opinion pages. That points to an ongoing problem with American journalism. The privilege of opining is based on almost anything except the quality of the opinions.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sunshine patriots of the First Amendment

And how are things on the free speech front over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network? Let's look at a few examples.

At top is a story from Thursday that -- well, as Uncle Aron used to say, it really puts the question to the bishop, doesn't it? A federal agency feels stung when a couple of bloggers -- Fox seems to have unilaterally promoted them to "journalists," but we've been doing that ever since a couple of political hustlers walked into J.P. Zenger's Print Shoppe with some cash and an offer one day -- post its new regulations online, and it wants to find the leaker, so it rolls out the artillery. Bad, stupid, dumb idea (see Doug's comments), but because the security card has been played, one that it's politically difficult to dismiss out of hand.

Like it or not, posting security procedures online is uncomfortably close to the troop-movements-in-wartime category of stuff that isn't looked on lightly by either public opinion or the legal system. By all appearances, these guys were right, and this certainly wouldn't be the first time public safety was improved by a little public ridicule. But you have to admit, it takes some sand to make that call from the outset -- particularly in an environment where the War on Terror® has been so readily used to shut off debate about freedom of expression.

Our second item is from this evening. It's an AP story about the doings of a "high-profile Arizona sheriff" and people who have set up a telephone tree, text-message-style, to spread the word whenever he's on the prowl. Any distortions in the frontpage presence are down to Fox. It's not true that "officials say" advocates are walking a fine line between legal and illegal activities. Only one official says that, and that's the sheriff himself, and if he thinks pigs can fly, he's welcome to that opinion too; there's no a priori reason to think his knowledge of aerospace engineering is any more thoroughly clueless than his understanding of the right to freedom of communication. I have cats who could get a charge like that laughed out of court. Hell, if I had a hot oven, half an hour, some milk and eggs, a cup of flour and three-quarters cup of corn meal, I could make a cornbread that would walk all over Deputy Dawg there as soon as he brought his Felony Texting While Hispanic charge.

Why hasn't Fox turned the rehabilitated Judy Miller loose to make fun of this clown? Perhaps we might find some clues in the comments on the blogger/TSA story:

THIS is what the Obama Administration is all about...they are rogue punks who intimidate. These reporters/bloggers are PATRIOTS.

That's nice, isn't it? Free speech as a patriotic (sorry, PATRIOTIC) virtue? Perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking Fox's devotion to freedom of speech and of the press would be a bit more credible if Fox wasn't such a gaggle of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

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Crash blossoms: Care and feeding

I don't think this one's going to cause long-lasting confusion, but it's good for at least a momentary double-clutch: Does "involved in third of cases" mean "involved in the third case of 71 cases" or "involved in one-third of the 71 cases"?

As the story, and the deck on the online hed, make clear, it's the second. Since there appears to be plenty of room for the clarifying "a" in the print version, it's worth speculating whether editors still expect print heds to sound more hed-like -- in other words, to follow all the traditional rules of hed dialect, even when they follow those rules into the ground.

That's unfortunate, because the rule that needs to be taught right after the one about omitting articles and "be" verbs is "except when you need 'em for clarity." Overlooking that rule tends to produce a particular kind of crash blossom:* the sports attack, as in "Smith gets shot at championship"** or "McGwire is hit with bat," which makes instant sense if you remember the Roseboro-Marichal thing but in real life was just an especially lame play on "hit" from McGwire's rookie season. (There's also the semi-oedipal "Player helps blind woman," from the NYT.)

The natural compression of heds is made glorious summer by the single-column hed, yielding gems like this one, which I think has the highest incomprehensibility rating in my Com3210 collection:


Works if you know that Wilson is a city (only about 40 miles from Raleigh, which ran the hed) with a tire factory. Otherwise ...

The one-column issue got worse with the general narrowing of webs in the '00s and the growth of page design as a craft independent of words.*** (If "Afghanistan" didn't fit in a 1/42 yesterday, what makes you think it's going to fit today?) The ship-in-a-bottle -- a nicely turned single-column hed with the phrases all breaking neatly and the modifiers all pointing in the right direction -- was and remains an admired bit of craftsmanship, but if they're one of those buggy-whip things that disappear in the Brave New Online Era, I won't miss them too much. That might be a step toward eradicating a species of invasive crash blossom.

* I'm delighted to see the widespread acceptance of "crash blossom," though the related "straw trumpets" noted by a Language Log commenter (as in "Straw trumpets workplace tinsel") is also worth mention.
** You incredible nincompoop, it's the end of the quarter.
*** Dear designers, I know most of you don't think this way, but I really did get a hed call from a Quark jedi once for a 2/60/1 with no descenders.