Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stop press!

What rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches toward the 1A budget meeting to croak its unholy demand: "Hey, let's lead the paper with the Burger King story!"

While we're on the subject, here's a hed-writing rule: Use the deck to expand on the main hed, not to echo it. You can go deeper into a topic (specifying what "new look" would mean, for example) or broader (particularly in politics, where you might let the deck contradict an assertion in the main hed). But avoid repeating ideas or words. Yes, that means you don't say "is going for a new look" in the deck to complement "goes for new look" in the main hed.

It could always be worse. There's a basketball column on the front page, and we could have led with that.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

One for the spike

You mean you've missed Weinergate? Must have spent your day working, or lounging about, or getting ready to grill, or just reading a little news from the grownuposphere.

In that case, go look up all the naughty little details yourself. If you're a working journalist and you're wondering what to do with some version of this tale, though, here's an idea: Spike it.

Alert readers will have noticed that the story began at the Breitbart empire, where as of this writing it's not just the top but the only story at Big Journalism and Big Government. If it wasn't clear enough the first few times a fabricated story from this camp became News of the Week through media flailing, bumbling and me-firsting, it should have been painfully clear when even Glenn Beck's "The Blaze" called out their most recent bit of fakery. Lying is what they do. It's their stock in trade. They aren't always very good at it, but they keep on trying, in no small part because they've often been successful at getting something to stick. And as long as they're getting a sense of success, they'll continue.

Read more »

Why do we keep writing question heds?

And why do we imagine all our readers are fourth-graders when we do?


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ill-chosen term of the week

One person was killed and another wounded in an incident apparently related to a night of civil disobedience by large numbers of people in Charlotte's uptown.

We should stipulate a few things here:

1) It's entirely appropriate for journalists to exercise restraint in categorizing violent events, particularly when the first instinct is "riot" or "looting."
2) Skepticism of the official account is usually warranted. So is skepticism of the myriad unofficial accounts that flow in. More reporting is better than more speed.
3) News organizations that simply don't allow reader comments on news stories may be on the right side of history.

That aside, for a news account to suggest that this:

Police say two large groups became involved in an argument sometime shortly before 1 a.m. -- about two hours after Speed Street had ended. The two groups, centered along East Third Street, continued the argument until someone pulled a gun, police say, and started firing.

... is a result of this:

rebellion of the populace against a governing power; (in later use) spec. refusal to obey the laws, commands, etc., of a government or authority as part of an organized, non-violent political protest or campaign.

seems remarkably insensitive to almost everyone's interests.

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Fun with j-grammar

It really is easy to get your feet crossed when you're writing in a hurry:

For a $12 roundtrip ticket, patrons could catch a ride and not have to worry about the sparse and sometimes high cost of parking as well as the dangers of driving after drinking.

I think you can just about make it work, in a sort of rococo way:

the sparse (and sometimes high cost of) parking 

... but "the sparse and costly parking" seems a lot easier on the ears.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Hed salad: Brews fight rules

Today's hed quiz: Who's doing what to whom?

The hed writer's toolbox is full of short, punchy stuff -- "punchy" being the term we use for vivid, slightly downmarket words like "rap," "blast," "slay," "spar," "nab" and "feds" that show up in few places outside of, well, headlines. (The technical grammatical term is "active," meaning a passive verb that native speakers don't use in conversation: "Pair Slain As Eatery Rattled By Knife Spree.") The problem is that quite a few hed words are grammatically ambiguous. Are rules fighting brews, or is a fight brewing over something?

Try not to make readers work too hard on the front page. No telling what sorts of dangers lurk in the inside stories.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sign of the times

Make of this what you will. At the 20th largest newspaper in the country, the victim of a highly publicized 2002 crime is a headline name, but the head of government of a nuclear-armed English-speaking ally (and permanent Security Council member) is stuck with "British leader."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. People don't keep up with that European trivia anymore, and we need to write for real readers, and who's got more Twitter followers anyway? Fine. But at the same time, could we acknowledge that large swaths of the nation are less captivated by "American Idol" than the frontpage play would indicate? And that every now and then, we might want to throw the grownups a bone too?


Science bad!

OK, it's not fair to say Fox hates all science. Science is good when it's proving Genesis is true or making ray guns for army men.* Stories from Japan about robot sex or asynchronous cybersnogging are always in season. But that other stuff -- that theory-driven, peer-reviewed, null-hypothesis, communist-type science they do at universities -- is just not going to end well for anybody. So let's see how Fox handles a report from Sen. Tom "A Practicing Physician" Coburn that rips the lid off taxpayer-funded scams like the one shown above.

Well, sorta:

Scientific studies conducted in the public interest appear to have veered off course, according to a new report that documents government-sponsored research gems such as having shrimp walk on tiny treadmills to measure the impact of sickness on crustaceans.

While the exercises may be adorable to watch, Sen. Tom Coburn says he's not so sure it advances the cause of science.

Got an idea what's coming next?
Read more »

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Forbidden hed tricks

Even by the jaw-droppin' standards of g-droppin', this is an especially dumb hed. There's room for the "g" horizontally. There's room for it vertically. Your poor readers can't even tell what annoying stereotype you're unable to get out of your head. Please, never do this again.

And special Department of Redundancy Department mention for the hed at left, which despite appearing next to the skybox actually appears to go with a story running down the side of the page. The deck kindly points out that the "April-May deluge" is "part of 2011's wild weather."

Imagine -- April and May 2011 being part of 2011! The mind reels.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The world turned upside down

Ding ding ding ding! Urgent, four bells, this just in from Nova Scotia: Labor "offers" and management "demands."

Canada Post rejected its union’s latest contract proposal on Tuesday, saying the offer would increase the Crown corporation’s labour costs by $1.4 billion, but made a counter proposal that may get negotiations back on track.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers said late Tuesday that Canada Post had dropped some demands and amended others. It also said statements from the employer’s chief negotiator "appear to justify" a return to intensive negotiations at the three sub-tables.

As a regular reader, you might have noticed that we're fond of A.J. Liebling around here -- most pithily,* the well rooted observation that in strike stories, "offers" come from management and "demands" come from labor. So it's worth paying attention when that wisdom is reversed, as in this tale appearing in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, forwarded by the bodacious linguist Q.Pheevr.

As Q points out, both sides get to do a little demanding and a little offering, but they also spend much of their time making "proposals." Seems like a pretty plausible idea.

* OK, except for "I can write better than anybody who writes faster and faster than anybody who writes better." 

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Two possibilities suggest themselves:

1) The story contains the answer, in which case it'd be nice to be somewhat more direct.

2) The story doesn't contain the answer, in which case the appropriate reply is: Why are you asking me?

OK, maybe (3): Somebody bet that the desk couldn't spell the guy's name right on 1A.

On the Stupid Questions scale, this is distilled essence of stupid, matured in charred stupid barrels and served neat. You should charge more than a buck a copy for it.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Hed of the week

In case you haven't seen this gem from cnnmoney yet-- cheers!

It's actually the hed of the previous week, in that it appears to have remained up since early  Saturday afternoon. But who's counting?

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

On clues and having them

Let's take a moment and say nice things about the AP for being unusually forthright with those annoying facts (most of them) and their pesky context:

In a Mideast policy speech on Thursday, Obama gave unprecedented prominence to Washington's long-held stand on the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Although his comments did not substantively differ from previously articulated U.S. positions, he sent shudders through the Israeli leadership by acceding to Palestinian pressure to explicitly enunciate this stance.

An essential part of what Obama proposed was that Israelis and Palestinians would also have to agree to land swaps that would allow Israel to hold on to major Jewish settlements, a point Netanyahu failed to mention when he declared the 1967 lines to be militarily "indefensible."

OK, it's not perfect. Talk about the West Bank and Gaza borders has generally left Jerusalem aside as an issue to be dealt with later, and why this is "acceding to Palestinian pressure" -- or why this statement counts as "acceding to pressure" while telling the Palestinians not to mess around at the UN or make too nice with Hamas doesn't -- remains a mystery. But you have to admit it's a pretty good start.

So good, indeed, that the Fair 'n' Balanced Network was stuck with that admission in its lede story until it could improve things with a staff version:
Read more »

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A century here, a century there ...

Let's cruise Woodward with the Nation's Newspaper of Record!

Because of an editing error, the 36 Hours column on May 8, about Detroit, misstated the history of a restaurant that recalls Detroit’s French colonial roots. Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes opened in 2009, not 1702, and it was not called Le Detroit. That was the name of the city at its founding in 1701.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

When in doubt, make stuff up

Minor flaw with the "shocker" hed from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network: It isn't true. It's, um, false. It's made up. It's bogus. If you're wondering why you haven't seen that claim in grownup coverage of today's events, that could have something to do with it.

Here's the relevant bit from today's address (give Fox credit for posting the text, which shows the hed to be an out-and-out lie):

The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.
Read more »


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dewey Defeats Iceberg

Happy birthday, Baltimore Sun, and thanks to John McIntyre for posting this fine gallery of front pages -- including the wonderfully epic fail from 1912 shown here.

This bit of wishful thinking seems to have befallen front pages across the land. Here's a summary from the Sun tied to the opening of the "Titanic" movie in 1997.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fun with news standards

And how do the big-name correspondents at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network handle campaign news from the home team?

Senior insiders to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann say the Republican founder of the House Tea Party caucus is now very likely to run for president.

In the wake of both Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump opting out of the 2012 race, calls to Bachmann's offices "have been burning up our lines" according to a Bachmann confidant who marveled, "one guy called her our Margaret Thatcher!"

Like a lot of other rules and guidelines (that pesky innocent-until-proven-guilty stuff, for example), the standards for anonymous sourcing tend to be thrown out the window pretty fast when something seems like Big News. I don't know what rules Fox plays under,* but here's a representative entry from the AP Stylebook:

... Material from anonymous sources may be used only if:

  • The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
  • The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
  • The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
... Explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it's relevant, describe the source's motive for disclosing the information.

The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting  "a source" is not allowed.

It's fair to infer, I think, that the intent of sourcing policies like this is more to keep you from looking evil than from looking stupid. It's to encourage "the secret report says X, Y, and Z" as opposed to "he sure sounds guilty to all right-thinking patriots." And it's hard to say that even a casual reader would be surprised to find that Fox -- its news operation, not its opinionators -- is in essence the armed propaganda wing of the Republican Party. But one function of the lowly copy editor is to remind even the stars on the payroll that appearances are to be kept up. That means not letting too many unnamed confidants do too much marveling, particularly with direct quotes and exclamation points.

*If anyone knows of a Fox stylebook or standards-n-practices guide, I'd love to see one.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Aw, it's not that fred

Think of all the things at the contemporary National Review that might have old Bill Buckley picking up a little speed as he rolls over in the fine and quiet place that is the grave. He could get a little annoyed that his journal has become the serious grownup face of modern racism. He might shake his head to find that NR offers a welcome to the paranoid style of American politics, rather than gently ridiculing it. But above all, wouldn't he just rip the tonsils out of the editor who left the Donner Party comma out of a hed line this?

Buckley, thou shouldst be living at this hour. Since thou art not, could thee at least send thy zombie self to bring the crew of thy once-respected publication back into line?


Disgramming party to action stations ...

... NYT correction off the port beam!

A picture caption in some editions on Thursday with the continuation of an article about the potential influence of his wife, Cheri, whom he has married twice, and his family on a decision by Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana about whether to run for president misstated the source of an image promoting a keynote speech.

There's actually a straightforward active subject-verb-object clause -- "caption misstated source" -- amid the welter of prepositional phrases in this 55-word masterpiece. The judges are particularly entranced, though, by the buried antecedent for "his" (does that make it a postcedent?) and the bizarre relative clause.

Clearly that quirk in the Daniels's marital status was pertinent to the story itself. Since it has nothing whatsofreakingever to do with the nature of the error, it looks like piling on in the correction. If you'd like to make the things readable, you could start by omitting genuinely needless words.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thanks, Santa!

Aw, how did you guys know we'd be talking about free-speech law and framing at the same time on Wednesday?

With a stroke of the governor's pen, Florida is positioned to become the first state in the nation to prohibit physicians from asking patients if they have guns in their homes, a move some doctors say will interfere with health care.

The frontpage tease (it was the No. 3 story as of this capture) and the story, needless to say, are at odds: owning a firearm and having firearms in the house aren't necessarily the same thing. Withal, Liebling himself couldn't ask for a nicer bit of lexical framing:

Supporters of the legislation, including the National Rifle Association, say they're seeking to stop doctors from invading their privacy. Critics of the bill, however, claim that doctors need to ask patients about guns to ensure their safety and to make sure they remain out of the reach of children.

And no one seems to have seen the need to ask: ZOMFSnG, is there some part of "no law abridging freedom of speech" that you people don't understand?

Col. R.R. McCormick, the self-indulgent, Roosevelt-hating, isolationist gasbag who ran the Chicago Tribune in its glory days as the World's Greatest Newspaper, was for all his faults a stone First Amendment guy, to the point of supporting the remarkably loathsome Jay Near in the case that became Near v. Minnesota. (Among other things, Near settled once and for all the idea that "no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press" applies to the states as well as Congress.) You do sort of have to wonder what he'd think today.

[NB: Original post lost in the Blogger debacle of Thursday and Friday, so it's back as reconstructed from a draft. Not like the world was ending or anything. Sorry, I think Blogger ate any comments, too.]

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Ready, fire, aim

Bad case of runaway metaphor here on the day's top story at Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper. Here's the lede:

In a suburban Cincinnati facility where tooling for engines used by the military is made, Gov. John Kasich unleashed a volley of verbal missiles at Ohio's nursing-home lobby yesterday.

OK, it's not an ammunition plant, or even the place where they carve your favorite Bible verse on your gunsight; it's a place that apparently turns out "tooling" (are we sure what that means here, guys?) for "engines used by the military." So "volley of verbal missiles" is a bit of s stretch, partly mitigated by actually having a prepositional phrase that more or less brings it back to earth.

But the hed spends all its space on aiming and firing with no suggestion of what might be downrange, and thus we're left with the idea that a Really Big Story for the Dispatch is simply the governor blasting away. Intentional or not, that seems a bit of a backslide to the days when any bit of random blasting by a Republican governor was a Really Big Story.


Sunday, May 08, 2011

1,933 words for 'global war on terror'

This note from the AP's "Ask the Editor" feature last week recalls the persistent fables about those canny Eskimos and their kazillion words for snow: What's interesting about it isn't very true, and what's true about it isn't very interesting. And, to borrow from Kindly Dr. P, it's the sort of claim that says more about the social circumstances under which it's made than about any observed facts of language use.

"Global War on Terror" may be an artifact of the Bush administration, but "war on terrorism" (dating to the Carter administration) has been around almost as long as "war on drugs." Here's a USA Today timeline item from May 2001:

• Aug. 20, 1998: President Clinton and his advisers name dissident Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden as America's top enemy in the U.S. war on terrorism and accuse him of being responsible for the embassy bombings.
Do AP stories "confine it to direct quotes"? I don't see how anybody who reads AP copy regularly could think so. "War on terror" has been used casually in AP suggested heds:

Britain's role in war on terror under new scrutiny (May 21, 2010)

... and, at a glance, it's been as routine in AP's texts as in anyone else's:
Read more »

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Hed of the week: Active aggressive

Yeah, I used to have a foundation like that too.

If you have any idea what's going on beneath the lede hed in today's St. Pete Times, congratulations. Otherwise, here's the story.

"Night ends" is a bad way to spend 50% of your hed, in that -- like "sun rises" it happens more or less on schedule every day. But "scores settle" is the real problem. Bricks settle. People can settle, though they usually settle somewhere.* But scores don't settle. The score (account, bill, whatever) is settled, but people, or aggrieved nation-states, or angry deities, settle the score. The passive is a perfectly good choice. It's the shortest way to capture this:

Legislating had given way to gamesmanship, settling scores and an embarrassing Republican Party family feud that overshadowed Gov. Rick Scott's first session.

And if you can't jiggle the coding enough to make "scores settled" fit, maybe you should stop limiting news heds to words of six letters or fewer.

* So "scores settle into bar" would be fine.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

Why we (used to) have editors

Dear CNN:

No, it isn't. It's nowhere near that. I hardly know where to start with this one, but you have to start* somewhere, so -- no.

Even if the hed hadn't overstated our household April gasoline cost by a factor of five or more, that's not the "monthly" bill. The point of the story, to the extent that it has one, is that rising prices produced a certain national average for April. The monthly bill for 2011 would be lower, and the monthly bill for academic year 2010-2011 would be lower still. If you have some reason to think April was typical, you sort of ought to tell us. But that points to a different issue, so let's look at the prose itself:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Round-trip airfare from New York to Los Angeles. More than a dozen dinners for two at Applebee's. Two 16 GB iPod nanos.

These are just a few of the things you could have bought if you weren't spending $368.09 a month on gasoline.

See above: I'm not, and the amount I spent in April 2011 isn't an accurate reflection of my spending "a month" anyway. But there's a larger and stupider assumption in play. I'm happy to stipulate that it's possible to buy a ticket for a round-trip cross-country flight for $368, but I was buying gasoline in March too -- and in February and January and December. So it isn't as if I'm giving away two iPods a month that I wasn't giving away before. The April-to-April difference in dinners for two at Applebee's is less than four.
Read more »

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Do you suppose it's time ...

... to start adding copy editors?

In some editions Wednesday, a front page story about tensions between the U.S. and Pakistani governments incorrectly referred to Osama bin Laden as Obama.

Or is one of these every few days going to be the new status quo?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Why I hate polls

And what's the powerful social science tool of survey research up to over at the Most Trusted Name in News?

Of all the newspaper headlines covering the death of Osama bin Laden, the most provocative may have been the New York Daily News.

And I care because ...?

Their "Rot in Hell" Monday headline, with a full front-page photo of bin Laden, was mentioned by the cable news networks and generated buzz on the on-line social networks.

Oh, come on. It isn't even that original. "Burn in Hell" was in the News's frontpage hed for the February 2008 decision on a capital trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Your point is ...?

So do Americans think that the founder and leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network is now in hell?
Read more »


Had to happen to somebody ...

... and give or take a slip of a finger, it could have been you:

A front-page story in some editions Monday incorrectly referred to Osama bin Laden as Obama.

Are there worse things you can do in covering this event than typos? Well, sure. As noted elsewhere, you could tumble for a basic fallacy of logic. Worse, you could be indulgent toward columnists who, despite an evident shortage of clues, seem to think their thoughts on the matter are relevant. It's early days yet, but so far young Ross Douthat is looking like a champion:

I moved to Washington, D.C., a year after the twin towers fell, and there was a touch of London during the blitz in the way that people carried themselves in those days.

Ross? I don't think so.
Read more »

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Post torture, ergo propter torture

Saw this one coming too, did you?

Years of intelligence gathering, including details gleaned from controversial interrogations of Al Qaeda members during the Bush administration, ultimately led the Navy SEALs who killed Usama bin Laden to his compound in Pakistan.

This, in its own strange little way, is a version of what the Hutchins Commission was calling for 60-plus years ago: not just events, but events in a context that gives them meaning. And the meaning here is clear. Torture saved America, Bush was right all along, and maybe you liberal cheeseballs will vote for a real leader instead of a community organizer next time!

Nevertheless, note some careful phrasing in the text:
Read more »



Seriously -- how long did you figure it would take for the "narcissist" theme to surface in (ahem) some commentary on the recent events in Pakistan? Take it away, hastily pardoned Iran-contra convict Elliott Abrams!

President Obama will bask in the satisfaction of all Americans that justice has finally been done—and done through an assault that combined the best of intelligence work with a courageous and well planned military operation.  It is entirely appropriate that Mr. Obama and the Administration get and take a fair amount of credit.

It is therefore unfortunate that Mr. Obama seems to want more than that fair share the American people will naturally and rightly give him.  His remarks last night were far too much laced with words like “I met repeatedly,”  “at my direction,” and “I determined,” trying to take personal credit for the years of painstaking work by our intelligence community.

Has this one been thoroughly beaten into the ground yet? (1) Despite the best efforts of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network (which has substantial trouble deciding itself), we really don't know what "I" means in isolation -- let alone what it means to have more or less of it. Which gets us to (2). Sorry. At this stage, it's pretty fair to conclude that huffing about Obama's alleged infatuation with first-person pronouns is the modern right-wing commentariat's way of saying "Boy, you lookin' at something?" The pronoun count here has nothing to do with what Obama says or how his pronoun use compares with anyone else's. If Coca-Cola had taught the world to sing "Land of a Thousand Dances," Charles Krauthammer would be along tomorrow bitching about how often Obama says "naa."
Read more »

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Breaking news

Those who want to want to watch journalism embarrass itself in the middle of a potentially major story should turn over to Fox News while Geraldo is still running the story.

Fairleigh Ridiculous

Dear Freep: It wasn't funny on Friday's sports front (top). What made you think it would be funny today?


Seed me, feel me

And this just in from the Nation's Newspaper of Record:

An article on April 17 about the Niles Canyon railway stated incorrectly the type of oil the Niles Canyon train runs on. It is Bunker C oil, not bunker seed oil.

Everybody makes telephone errors; indeed the Times made one in nearly the same form just last year. And, to be fair, seed oils are a much more available category than fuel oils. Bunker oil might crop up occasionally, but only in particular contexts. Here it is in one of my favorite Liebling pieces, Westbound Tanker:

There was a man on the forward deck with a megaphone, and as the boat came under our bow he called up inquiringly, "Captain, Captain?" Petersen pointed to his peaked cap, his emblem of office. The fellow shouted, "We got orders to send you on to Curacao. You got enough bunker?" Curacao is nine days from New Orleans for a ten-knot boat. Petersen showed no sign of surprise or disappointment. "We need bunker," he shouted back, "but we can get out in twenty-four hours!"

You could find an explanation fast enough in the Googles, but you'd have to have time and motive to look. Maybe it would have been caught in the Good Old Days of full staffing and grisly old editors who knew everything. And maybe not.