Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One born every minute (a slight return)

Two distinct levels of clueless- ness are in play here.

In the first, we take the lede and its supporting evidence:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber," shares traits with other terrorists including a keen focus and sense of purpose, says a local handwriting expert, who compared his handwriting to some of the United States' more notorious criminals.

... Those same characteristics are evident in the writings of convicted terrorists Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, said Holmes, owner of Pentec Inc.

Those traits in the bombers' handwriting aren't unique to terrorists, she added.

The hed represents a basic editing fault. The lede says "shares traits with terrorists," but it only takes a few grafs for the story to admit that "terror traits" are the sort of thing shared by a couple of notorious terrorists and, well, some amount of other people, ranging from a few to almost everybody. If the breathless nonsense in the lede is directly contradicted a few grafs later, the editor's job is to strangle the lede in its crib -- not to amplify the nonsense in display type.

And that takes us to the more important fault: Why is this story in the paper in the first place? (You may draw your own conclusions from its presence on the front.) Let's look back to the source's credentials:

The confessed terrorist's manifesto was written in a tight, spidery scrawl that reveals a "frightening intelligence," said Ruth Holmes, a Bloomfield Hills-based handwriting expert whose testimony in court cases has been used to verify the authenticity of written documents.

The methodological warrant for which would be ....?

Holmes also was quick to note that testimony about an individual's physical or mental condition based on handwriting is not allowed in court.

You mean made-up nonsense about supposed psychological states is ... actually treated differently from actual evidence about how people form letters and words?

Word spacing, letter slant, slope and pen strokes are caused by neurological impulses that start in the brain and are carried by nerves to the hand, she said. So emotions and personality are revealed.

Really? Would there be some evidence for this supposed relationship -- some way in which we could reliably demonstrate a link between "word spacing" and "letter slant" on the one hand and "emotions and personality" on the other? There's our real problem. A good slot editor would have kicked the hed back on grounds of simple cluelessness, but any of three editors -- at the line or the rim or the slot -- could have pointed out that the story is nonsensical on its face. The whole "terror traits" thing is a fairy tale. It's made up. It wants to sell you a bridge.

Your job, as an editor, is to ask simple questions. Why is this interesting? What would it take for this to be true? Are any of those conditions met? Won't people think we're stupid and naive if we don't ask questions like that before we publish stories, rather than after?

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Anonymous tiffany jewellery said...

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2:17 AM, December 30, 2011  
Anonymous Alec said...

Graphology... an even more ridiculous idea than incinerating your penis on a trans-Atlantic flight.

5:27 PM, December 31, 2011  

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