Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hyphens: Your little friends!

Who did what to whom?

In Tunisia, a hairdresser-turned-despot’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, now pronounced on all public matters.

It really does matter where and how often you use the hyphen. Here, Ms. Ben Ali is the wife of a hairdresser turned despot. If that's actually the case, I think the Times has been holding out on us.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

These go up to 11

Busy times around the old manse, but you'll all be relieved to know that certain media empires are turning up the volume on this class-war stuff.

Let a thousand content analyses bloom!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

¡Aiyee! ¡Los peevologistas!

Every language has them, I suppose. But that doesn't mean every newspaper has to fawn over them on the front page whenever they come forth with their malign assaults on poor innocent language users.

We're in trouble pretty much from the outset (here's the hed from the online version):

Scholars fighting to squelch Spanglish
In South Florida, where Spanish is a vital language in home life, business, culture and politics, one might expect a good report card when it comes to the quality of the Spanish being spoken. But the reality, as educators and linguists experience every day, is quite different.

Even if one were the sort of person who used "one" in ledes, why would one expect that? English was a -- actually, "the" -- vital language where I grew up, and I rather suspect that the Herald and its "scholars" would have given that brand of English a particularly bad report card.* We're about to get a lecture on what You Kids are doing to the Language of Shakespeare, only we're going to substitute Cervantes for Shakespeare.
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Homer nods

Should we start a pool on how long it takes for the correction to appear?

I have worked in a half-dozen countries since the late 1990s, including Lebanon, Gaza in Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Russia. In none of these places was I dragged off and raped, but I have encountered abuse in many of them. The assaults usually took place in crowds, where I was pinned in place by men.

The intended reference may have been to Israel and Gaza, or to Gaza, but I doubt it was to "Gaza in Israel," because there is no such place. And if we can't rely on our rare bastions of original international reporting (of which I'd put the Times at the top among US dailies) to keep basic distinctions like that straight, where are we supposed to look?

If I were guessing, I'd say this one was inserted by an editor; it isn't the sort of mistake people who go back and forth between those entities are likely to make. It's too bad, because it mars a sobering and relevant piece of reportage that helps give the lie to the "hurr hurr she ASKED for it" that's been circulating in some quarters. I'm not always fond of "Due to an editing error..." corrections, but if that's what happened here, let's have it.

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Peeve alert

What follows is totally and complete- ly a peeve. I don't know if anyone shares it, it has no empirical or theoretical foundation, the world is unlikely (p>.05) to become a better place if everyone pays attention, and you're under no obligation to agree anyway.

That said: Will you people please stop saying "do you want to become a statistic?" That's exactly what you want to be. I get up every morning with the intent of being a statistic -- several of them, actually. I want to cover my couple dozen passenger-miles without being hit by a gravel hauler. I don't expect to be shot during a faculty meeting. I'd like to make dinner and not come down with a great honking case of food poisoning. (OK, we screwed that one up a few weeks ago, but that doesn't change the broader fact that you're just as much a "statistic" when you don't get sick as when you do.)

I can't make a serious case that "don't be a statistic" actually makes people dumber, but anything we can do to take the fright out of numbers ought to help at least a little bit. A statistic isn't a bad thing to be. What we ought to be doing is encouraging people to take steps that make them more likely to be in the right column when the "calculate" button is pushed.

End peeve. But while you're at it, if you have to overlay the hed on the art (and you don't), never put red and pink over red. That's just dumb.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

No. Not at all, actually

Today's wire editing quiz: When the New York Times says something really remarkably stupid, you should

a) Quietly delete it and spend the space on something more informative, or

b) Blithely repeat it! Because if the Times says it, it has to be true! 

If you guessed (a), take the rest of the evening off:

The images from Wisconsin — with its protests, shutdown of some public services and missing Democratic senators, who fled the state to block a vote — evoked the Middle East more than the Midwest.

The parallels raise the inevitable question: Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?

Well, no. No they didn't, and no it isn't. I mean, if you wanted to invoke demonstrations by English-speaking people over proposed changes in public spending patterns (and you thought your readers so brain-dead that they couldn't handle the idea without some sort of puerile analogy), you could try London. And what would it mean for Wisconsin to be "Tunisia" -- rather than, one supposes, Trafalgar, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Ap Bac or "Animal House"?

There's rather an important story to be told here, and out here in the sticks, we're sort of counting on the Times to do the sort of reporting it prides itself on -- not the stuff that sounds like a holiday weekend shift at EyeWitlessNews9.

(Regular readers, especially those of you in the academic dodge, will want to keep up with the coverage over at Mr. Verb's fine site.)

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Bizarre noun swap

A reminder to hed writers that nouns don't always function interchangeably. In this case, the"restraint" isn't a thing that belongs to the victim. It's the name of the offense that the cop admitted. And there's plenty of room for either "Trooper admits felonious restraint" or "Trooper fined for felonious restraint."

No doubt one of the linguistics visitors can explain it more technically, but meanwhile -- grr.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

AP: Republic of fear

Here's an interesting tale from the Associated Press:

Extreme rainstorms and snowfalls have grown substantially stronger, two studies suggest, with scientists for the first time finding the telltale fingerprints of man-made global warming on downpours that often cause deadly flooding.

Especially when we get to the antepenultimate graf:

... Most of the 10 outside climate experts who reviewed the papers for The Associated Press called the research sound and strong.

Ahem. Excuse me? AP? Ten? I think we could use a little background out here in readerland. What's your standard for the number of "outside experts" who look over peer-reviewed research before the AP dares to move a story about it?

I'm wondering in part because I don't see any sign of this level of diligence elsewhere. I only see one "outside expert" in "Energy drinks dangerous for kids, teens," for example, and she doesn't check in until the American Beverage Association has had its say. We don't seem to have any outside experts at all in "Nearly 10,000 babies suffer crib injuries yearly" (though the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association gets its say). A couple of names in "Drug may slow growth of early prostate cancer" look like outside experts, but neither seems to be commenting on the merits of the study itself.
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No. No, they didn't. What jumped was the number of applications for benefits. This is a regularly reported statistic, it's been particularly salient during the recession and recovery, and there's not much excuse for screwing it up.

It's wise to tread with a bit of caution when picking on individual hed errors, because we've all clammed a hed at some point or another. (The only people who don't make hed errors are people who don't write heds.) This stat, though, is worth treating with extra caution, because it's become a special sort of whipping boy for a particular faction of partisan U.S. journalism.

I'm really at a loss to explain why, but over in Fair 'n' Balancedland, the report on new jobless claims produces a consistent reaction over and above all similar stats: "You LAH!!!1!!1!!" when it's on the favorable side, but solid gold -- as in "see? told ya! we're all going to hell" solid gold -- when it's on the unfavorable side. Fox helps, of course, by labeling the stat a "president" story when it's increasing and a "state and local" story when it's decreasing, but it's not creating an attitude -- just reinforcing one.

Real journalists shouldn't set their watches by what happens at Fox. But like it or not, they need to know this story is going to be held up as an example of their abject Marxist toolhood. That means we need to post -- and pay attention to -- the "do not feed the wingnuts" sign.


Cliche corner: Calling in the experts

I guess so. On the other hand, you could be wondering if you can gnaw your own leg off and escape before the writer manages to come up with a third cliche for this miserable lede.

The online version, should you be scoring along at home, is different for no apparent reason:

When you run into your worst nightmare, what are the chances it will also be someone else’s finest hour?

That, I think, suggests why this is such a singularly awful piece of writing. It really doesn't matter what order the words go in, or whether they form a question or a declaration. The Freep has decided that the best way to handle this story on Wednesday (the accident in question did close one of the interstates during rush hour, but that was Monday) is to let an editorial writer ruminate about it on the front page. And from that no good can come.

Any story of this nature -- the "news" version inside manages to use "Good Samaritan" four times, nearly all of them spelled correctly -- is likely to underscore the deeply ideological, persuasive nature of the news enterprise in general. As surely as the latest installment of the War On Christianity at Fox, this is a tale about how the world ought to be, rather than a report about what it is. If you put your dollar in the machine hoping for some news, you can be forgiven for asking why you were given a bedtime story instead. And why, if it must be a bedtime story, it couldn't be written with some minimal attention to form.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cliche corner: Your cheating IRS

That rule of thumb again: When you can put your thumb over a large portion of the lede with no impact on the alleged news that follows, you should consider killing the lede. So it is with

Seeming to disprove the adage that crime never pays, even behind bars, prisoners received $39.1 million in undeserved federal tax refunds during 2009 through false or fraudulent tax returns, according to an Internal Revenue Service report to Congress.

As adages go, that's a rather dumb one. For general career-planning purposes, crime pays fairly well if you don't get caught and less well (often spectacularly so) if you do. "Behind bars" wasn't part of the cliche to begin with, and even so -- if the scamming has been so closely identified, you're justified in asking whether it has paid at all.

WWMS (what would Mencken* say?): "As a Christian I forgive the man who wrote the story and the news editor who passed it. But both will suffer in hell."

The hed's also a nice example of the sort of ambiguity you can create by following the standard rules of hed dialect. My first-glance, coffee-deprived reading was "(the) cheating IRS," rather than "cheating (the) IRS."

* From a letter to H. Allen Smith (of "Rhubarb" fame), then writing features for United Press. The topic was the Charles Fort phenomenon, and Mencken, as usual, is worth quoting in context:

Your story describing the funeral of Charles Fort lists me as one of his customers. This was a libel of a virulence sufficient to shock humanity. As a matter of fact, I looked upon Fort as a quack of the most obvious sort and often said so in print.
As a Christian I forgive the man who wrote the story and the news editor who passed it. But both will suffer in hell.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Anybody hurt?

Wondering why your exercise from Thursday says "anybody hurt?" next to the first two or three grafs? It's probably because you spent those paragraphs explaining that at approximately 12:30 p.m. in the afternoon, one passenger vehicle did attempt to pass another passenger vehicle on the freeway and did slide across the median, thus sideswiping a tractor-trailer and leading to an ensuing conflagration that did destroy an entire load of household cleaning products.

You were concentrating on process rather than outcome, and thus the fourth paragraph -- the one in which all those individuals were transported to people were taken to the hospital -- didn't stand out as very interesting. Too bad, because that was sort of the point of the exercise.

That's also my reaction to "process" heds like "Man attacked with hatchet and shot": Gee, anybody hurt? As it turns out, yes. Somebody was killed. Indeed, somebody was killed in a "gruesome homicide scene" -- scratch that, in "what authorities say was a gruesome homicide scene." (That's as opposed to the tidy homicide scenes around Myers Park, where the maid puts away any flatware that isn't actually sticking out of anybody.)

But isn't journalism supposed to have attribution? Sure. Especially on the parts that might be open to dispute, or for which you want to be sure you can invoke the mantle of privilege should there be some chance of libel. That doesn't extend to the grue of the homicide scene.

Much of that should come under the general heading of common sense (like, say, telling your audience whether the photo you present belongs to the decedent or the roommate). That's not a bad place to start when you're telling stories. And a good way to keep it foremost is to think about outcomes rather than processes.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Preconditions of stupid

How should you set about the task of lying about science? Let us count the ways!

You can, for example, fabricate things that supposedly appeared in New York Times articles; if the article's in that multidecade gap that isn't covered in the Times's online archive, you can be fairly confident that no one's going to take even a quick step toward checking your claim. Or you can smudge over a massive difference -- say, the difference between "no" and "nearly significant at 95% confidence" -- on grounds that the journalist's job is to cut through all the egghead hoo-hah and get The Facts out to The People.

Those are actually rather rare. But like their lesser brethren, they flourish best in carefully cultivated soil, and that's where the heavy lifting is done. For all conclusions to be equal, all results, all methods, all data and all theories have to be equal too. Thus, the fourth most super-important story of the day at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:
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At play in the land of the tabloids

Q: All right for you, Mr. Broadsheet Pants! How would you do one of those foreigny-uprisy things in a way that makes your product stand out among all those other ones on the newsstand?

A: Oh.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Who did what to whom?

From the Why We Have Editors front:

Police say a man who shot a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police crime-scene technician was waiting for him to arrive at his east Charlotte home Friday night.

Might as well toss a coin. Was the crime scene technician arriving at a crime scene (say, the assailant's house), or was he arriving at his own home, where someone was lying in wait?

The victim, a civilian who works for CMPD, was shot outside his home on Driftwood Drive off Albemarle Road, police said.

Well, why didn't you say so? By the way, how's he doing?

When officers arrived, they found the man -- who was off duty but still dressed in his uniform -- suffering from a gunshot wound to his lower abdomen.

If you can hang on until the sixth graf, you'll find out that they were neighbors. In the seventh. we learn that the victim was "transported" (which is what people writing in a hurry -- or convinced it's really, really important to sound like a cop show -- say when they mean "taken") to the hospital with serious but not life-threatening injuries.

Since this is the first I've heard of the story, my natural inclination is toward a first-day lede, rather than a pronoun hash, and toward a passive clause that fronts the object, rather than what the cops did:

A police crime scene technician was shot and injured outside his home Friday night by a neighbor who was lying in wait for him, police said.

Then you can set to ease the concerns about whether it was job-related:

The two neighbors had had an ongoing dispute, police said.

I thought it was more fun when we did that before the stuff was printed.



Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Correction passes first test

The Log has a candidate for Correction of the Year, courtesy of Media Blog: the "30,000 pigs floating down the Dawson River" that turned out to be, um, "30 sows and pigs."

Potentially the awsumest telephone error of all time, unless your first reaction -- like mine -- was the tale of "two sows and 25 pigs" (shown here from The Rotarian, December 1955). Adding to the suspicion, there's no date, Australia's a pretty big place to have only one "Australia's Morning Bulletin," and the only person sharing the piggery owner's name in the database the Morning Bulletin link goes to seems to be a race horse owner.

Media Blog asks, quite plausibly:

It is a little surprising that the reporter didn't think to check. "Crikey, that's a lot of a pigs mate, are you sure you mean 30,000?". Similarly, if they really thought there were 30,000 pigs floating down the river, why did they only put it on page 11?

Ah, but now it starts to make sense, because -- if this link indeed reflects the Bully's original story -- the source didn't say it:

Mr Everingham said: "We've lost probably about 30,000 pigs in the floods, we tried to get as many weaners and suckers out by boat, but we could only save about 70 weaners ...

Some pigs were "lost ... in the floods," and apparently some undetermined subset of those pigs ended up in the river. But the
30,000 pigs floating pork shoulder to pork shoulder down the river sounds like a bit of repertorial filigree.

Absent the actual, physical sight of the waterborne pink legions of death, then, shouldn't the reporter have at least done a double-take at the 30,000 figure? I'd like to hope so, but we're asking more than we might think. The relative value of pigs -- where they stand on a scale of, say, white mice to thoroughbreds -- isn't exactly the sort of frame every reporter has access to right out of J-school. And the source seems to have been pretty matter-of-fact, so the reporter didn't get a cue about the scale of the event that way. (Think of it as the tone of voice that goes with a thousand-dollar loss, rather than a million-dollar loss.*) I'm starting to find it pretty plausible.

Over to you, antipodean readers: Has anyone seen the original in print?

* Dollars and pigs not to scale.


There's one born every minute

There's so much to love about the Fair 'n' Balanced Network! There's the revolving cast of candidates-posing-as-hosts, the merry statistical fraud, and the general state of low-grade panic that's always lurking just around the next bend. But mostly, it's just the stupids: the cask-strength, Imported from America, fist-face-repeat cloud of stupid that seems to hang over the entire place. As in:

CHERTSEY, England –  Bosses at a British theme park were forced to move a new ride after workers reported seeing what appeared to be a headless monk, Sky News reported Monday.

Staff building the ride at Thorpe Park, near London, encountered several strange phenomena, including the ghost and reports of objects being moved.

Good thing they called in the experts, innit?

...Paranormal expert Jim Arnold, who carried out tests at the site, said that "results were picked up immediately, with orbs, ghostly images in photography and Ouija reaction results being strongest around the site where they were proposing to build Storm Surge. The results were so strong we felt the only explanation could be that an ancient burial ground or settlement was being disturbed, prompting the extra paranormal activity."

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

It's a small world after all

Around the world with Everybody's Favorite Typo:

The 36 Hours column on Jan. 30, about Lisbon, misspelled part of the address of Casa das Histórias, a museum in the suburb of Cascais. The address is Avenida da República 300 (not Repúbica).

Thank you, Nation's Newspaper of Record.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Worst lede of the week

Becoming a baseball prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system was the stuff that dreams are made of* for young Roger Weber. Instead, he heeded the call to serve his country during World War II and showed all the right stuff as a captain in the Air Force.

It isn't just the cliches that annoy me here (mightily as they do), or the Salad Shooter way in which the whole thing is assembled. But do you think maybe, given that the guy came back with several Bronze Stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross, the audience really doesn't need the reporter's assessment of how much of the "right stuff" he had?

Quite a bit of wasted space for one lede. Wondering whether Mr. Weber got into the farm system after all, and if so, how far he went? Too bad for you; the reporter doesn't seem interested. How real was that choice? How much of a prospect was he? (He graduated from high school in 1936, so both he and the Cards would have had an idea by the end of 1941.) Did he try again after the war? Anything?

That strikes me as a fundamental failure in storytelling: packing the top with too much "now, children" when the events themselves -- wolves, witches, huts on chicken legs, whatever -- spin a far better story themselves. The stock of stories like Mr. Weber's is diminishing. A little less hotdogging by the reporter would go a long way toward helping ensure that they're told well.

* "This, Mr. Spade," the fat man said, "is a simple game." He placed one pasty hand delicately on the head of the falcon. "You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You catch the ball."

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Forbidden heds: Preemptive warning

Be forewarned. No name puns in heds. No "Bowled Over." None of that other stuff you kids are thinking about, either.

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No, but thanks for asking

Q: How to you bring that convergence-era magic to a story you've been running every few months since Ben Franklin was a copyboy?

A: Video!


Thursday, February 03, 2011

At the sausage factory

In our last thrilling episode, Fox science reporter Gene Koprowski was trolling ProfNet for comments from "someone who can point out the ridiculousness" of Al Gore's contention that, you know, changes in the climate can mean lots of assorted changes in the climate. Let's see how Gene did:*

If the planet is warming, why is a third of America locked in a deep freeze, with record-low temperatures as far south as the Mexican border, where the thermometer in Ciudad Juarez plummeted Wednesday night to a bone-chilling 9-below zero?

Self-proclaimed planetary climate czar Al Gore thinks he has answer.

Dude. You gave yourself an extra day on the story (the original plea said comments were needed by 11 p.m. Tuesday) and you can't proofread yourself any better than "thinks he has answer"? "Self-proclaimed planetary climate czar," to my knowledge, is simply a lie. But onward!
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The hed's written; we're just waiting for the story

Via Romenesko and apparently originating at Gawker -- let's go straight to the videotape! Fox science correspondent Gene Koprowski is alleged* to have posted this message on ProfNet, with a deadline of 11p (10 central) for responses:

1. ENVIRONMENT/TODAY: Global Warming Causing More Snow? Come Again? —
Deadline: Feb 01, 2011 11:00 PM EST
Former Vice President Al Gore told Bill O'Reilly that: "A rise in global temperature can create all sorts of havoc, ranging from hotter dry spells to colder winters, along with increasingly violent storms, flooding, forest fires and loss of endangered species." We need comments from someone who can point out the ridiculousness of his argument, even if you accept the somewhat-implausible argument. I've been assigned this story just now by Fox News in New York for the science and technology desk. I'm looking for comments. Please send comments via e-mail. Please send your name, title and company you represent. Please send comments by 10 p.m. CST.

Why bother to write the thing, in that case? Well, let's see how Fox readers talk about that global warming hooey. Here's a selection of comments from a year ago -- Feb. 6, 2010 -- on the main news story about the snowstorm in DC:

That Darn Global Warming...Maybe this is a sign for Obama and all the liars who support cap and tax. Mother nature is pulling punk cards by the hand full. GLOBAL WARMING IS A GIANT LIE. WAKE UP CONGRESS!!!

Al who????? Wot's that global warmin' stuff anyway?
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