Friday, December 30, 2011

No, no and no, but thanks for asking

While we're on the subject of New Year's resolutions?

There may have been stories of greater societal significance in 2011 — the tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring protests and the elimination of Osama bin Laden come to mind — but nothing captivated this town, this nation and much of the world in the same way the Casey Anthony trial did this summer.

a) Don't talk about what captivated "the nation" and "the world" unless you know
b) You don't

Her story had a narrative we could relate to: a middle-class family, an attractive young mother, a precious child named Caylee Marie.

c) And don't talk about what "we" can relate to unless you have a signed statement from your tapeworm.

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Don't bogart that calculator

Copyeds, still searching for a last-minute New Year's resolution? You've come to the right place. Here are two:

1) Never put the alleged "street value" of naughty drugs in the hed
2) Never pass a story containing an estimated "street value" without making sure that the cops are placed on record for the rates they use in calculating "street value." (If there's a fivefold change, of course, you'll want to see that the cops also get to explain that.)

Here's why:

Police say officers confiscated more than 100 pounds of marijuana from two houses. ... Authorities say they found the marijuana -- which they say has a street value of more than $1 million -- along with heat lamps and other equipment used to grow pot.

Let's round down to an even $1 million and 100 pounds (contents may have settled during shipment, or whatever). A million divided by a hundred is $10,000 per pound, or $625 per ounce. In the "His Girl Friday" days, reporters would have had shady underworld acquaintances who could provide current market quotes on short notice, but failing that, we could look into the archives, where we'd find guesses of $1,100 to $2,000 a pound, depending on which agency did the speculating and where.

Breathless reporting of "street value" predates the War on Editing, true, but it's another chunk of evidence that journalism needs more layers of processing, not fewer.


More stupid stuff not to do with polls

Here's another good example of garden-path journalism -- writers being led up the garden path by something they'd desperately like to be true, even if all the available evidence suggests that there is no there there:

This could be huge for Santorum. I’m guessing people in Iowa like what he says, but needed permission to support him in the form of some assurance that their votes wouldn’t be wasted. If he’s trending upwards in the polls, they get that permission.

OK, it's the National Review shilling for a hard-right candidate, but this isn't a fault of partisanship. NR is doing what journalism does: hammering the data into a story line it wants to see, rather than asking the data what the story should look like. That's not a partisan issue, but it is an ideological one. We won't fix it by demanding that National Review* stop inflating the appeal of repellent sleazeballs; we can begin to address it if we ask our news organizations to stick with the numbers and treat the campaign "story line" as the cultural fiction that it is.

To assess all that, let's have a look at how and under what conditions some (otherwise rational) news organization might want to claim that "Santorum jumps to third." On to some recent polling results, for which we'll draw on the data kept at RealClearPolitics.

Read more »

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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.

Read more »

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Snakes, spiders on ceiling

For those who still think the Dacron Republican-Democrat was a work of fiction:

Sign missing; skateboarders seen in area
A sign was stolen from the area of Walnut and University recently. The sign, valued at $300, was taken around 4 p.m. Saturday. Several skateboarders were seen in the area shortly before the theft.

Thank you, America's Newspapers.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why do you think it's on the test?

Given this from the Nation's Newspaper of Record:

Because of an editing error, an article on Saturday about the concern of some economists that a failure to extend the payroll tax cut could undercut the country’s fragile economic recovery described incorrectly the increase in taxes that would occur without such Congressional action. Taxes on the payroll income of America’s 160 million wage earners would increase to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent; the change would not amount to a 2 percent tax increase.

And this, from the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas:

Employees have paid a 4.2 percent Social Security tax this year, a 2 percent cut.

... three questions (rounded for your convenience):

  • What's the percentage increase when a tax rises from 4 percent to 6 percent?
  • What's the percentage decrease when a tax falls from 6 to 4 percent*?
  • If a tax rate is cut by 50 percent one year and that result is raised by 50 percent the following year, is the resulting tax rate the same as the initial tax rate?
These will continue to be on the final until there's evidence from the field that America's Newspapers -- whether international, regional or hyperlocal, whether delivered in print or through some yet-unimagined satanic tablet device developed in some garage in California -- can get the answers right at better than chance levels.

* Your audience is significantly -- χ
2 (2 df) 53.25, p = .001, v = 0.648 -- less bothered by "30 to 40 percent" than by "$2 to $3 million," if you're looking for style rules to reconsider.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

No, but thanks for asking

If the worldwide OMG MUSLIMS!!!! conspiracy is quiescent for the day and both sides in the War on Xpesmasse are refitting, you can always fall back on the godless Communists. Unfortunately, answers to the Stupid Question in the creatively boldfaced hed range from "not really" to -- is it Anne Beatts we're paraphrasing here? -- "looks like a carrier, Bluto, only smaller."

The trouble with secret weapons is that they're supposed to be secret, and there seems to be hardly anything secret about this one -- not this voyage, not the first, not the appearance of the fearsome behemoth itself, not anything. It may yet be a mystery what the heathens in Beijing have in mind for it, but it's pretty clear what it's doing at Fox: Sign your kids up for those Mandarin lessons now, moms and dads, because this is what's ahead if the feckless Kenyan socialist wins another term!

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One born every minute

No. No, it wouldn't. For one thing, I just looked, and it didn't.For another, nonce words come and go all the time without landing in "the dictionary." And for another, do you really want a dictionary that defines one bit of jargon with another?

No, what's happened is that another reporter has decided that a press release from Global Language Monitor, a self-promoting language-hackery website that specializes in made-up lexical milestones and ideological fictions, is worth a story. And, of course, that a string of editors promoted the result to a 1A centerpiece. And once again, arrant nonsense is loosed upon the world:

Remember, this isn’t a fan blogging about the greatness of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. USA Today compares the Global Language Monitor to an online equivalent to Webster’s Dictionary.

And if USA Today told you that some random website was as good at diagnosing that troublesome pain as your kindly old family doctor, you'd believe it -- why?

Our intrepid reporter manages to find someone who has a clue:

“The dictionary’s job is to record usage,” University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor of English Tom Napierkowski said Monday. “An editor of a dictionary is not some supreme language authority. The editor of a dictionary doesn’t have a privilege or right to create new words. The editor’s job is to tell the rest of us how, and under what circumstances, a word is being used.”

... but seems not to have paid attention to what the local expert was probably implying, which -- I'd like to think -- was along the lines of "why would you think this is a story?" Because surely there's something better to do with your dwindling stash of newsprint than to demonstrate to your audience that you'll buy more or less any handful of magic beans that comes down the turnpike.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elongated yellow safety restraint

The people in the first motor vehicle?

Neither of them were wearing their seatbelts, according to the highway patrol report.

And in the second?

Rippee was using her safety restraint, while Kitchens was not, according to the highway patrol.

Unless "seatbelt" goes behind a paywall after the first 15 uses a month, it's hard to see why "safety restraint" made its appearance here.

If house style calls for making the Kansas Highway Patrol into "the highway patrol" on second reference, by the way, house style should be reconsidered. Shortened versions of proper names are still proper names; if you're John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith in the eyes of the DMV and the draft board, you're still Jake Smith, not jake smith, in the news columns. The Kansas Highway Patrol, the Highway Patrol, the agency. Clear?

And thanks to the Elongated Yellow Fruit Bureau for the tip.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Of inventors and clues

All those nice rules that make heds tighter and shorter -- drop the auxiliaries, drop the articles, drop the linking verbs, and the like -- can also turn a once-simple phrase into a crash blossom on short notice. Such is the issue here as our friends at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network do their best to perform damage control on Newt Gingrich's foray into the Balfour-era politics of the Near East. Gingrich dresses up a familiar set of talking points:

"Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community," Gingrich said.

... and in the breathless syntax of the homepage, we get "Candidate draws fire for saying Palestinians 'invented' people." I mean, you could see them inventing the Internet or the compact disc or algebra, but the whole human race?
Read more »

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Polling sins: Lying is so rarely a good idea

Today's quiz: Is the president's approval rating higher or lower than it was last month? What do you say there, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

... Forty-four percent of voters approve and 51 percent disapprove of President Obama’s job performance, according to a Fox News poll released Friday.

Last month, 42 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved.

Judging from the headline, then, his approval rating fell from 42 percent to 44 percent. Aren't you just on the edge of your seat waiting for the next Fox report on gasoline prices?
Read more »

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Jackanapes pwned, booyah!

Under the heading "we must keep our instruments in tune," Jack Kilpatrick recalled a note he got in his early editorial days from the historian and editor D.S. Freeman: Mr. Kilpatrick: If you start purple, finish purple. In other words, don't start downmarket and expect your audience to follow seamlessly when you go high-end broadsheet.

We're used to the armchair belligerence favored by Fox Nation hed writers whenever the home team is smacking around, or schooling, or obliterating, or deveining some pesky liberal, but seriously -- "chap"? What's next: Rush Makes Example of This Hepcat?

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

If you don't know by now ...

Maybe it's true. Nobody at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network actually knows the answer, so they're just kinda crowdsourcing it. Be sure to help them out if they call!

A Christmas display outside the courthouse in Leesburg, VA featuring Santa Claus crucified on a cross was torn down by an angry resident in spite of arguments by elected leaders that the display was Constitutionally-protected free speech.

Anyway. Believe it or not, the War on Christmas itself doesn't actually appear to be a separate beat at Fox. It's part of a larger beat, the shape of which you can discern in this set of recent representative stories from the same writer who produced today's frontpage piece:

School Bans Song Lyrics with Jesus, Santa or Christmas
A New Jersey high school admits that it “inadvertently” censored Christmas songs that include the words God, Jesus, Santa, Christmas and Chanukah – in place of music that would not be “belief-specific.” (Dec. 6)

U.S. Military to Rescind Policy Banning Bibles at Hospital
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center said they are rescinding a policy that prohibits family members of wounded military troops from bringing Bibles or any religious reading materials to their loved ones. (Dec. 2)

Fort Worth Bans Santa From Classrooms

Students and parents in Forth Worth, TX are outraged after the school district declared that Christmas celebrations – including Santa Claus would no longer be allowed during the school day. (Dec. 2)
Read more »

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Polling sins: Don't do this either

Second in an occasional series

OK, Santa isn't exactly a polling issue. He's there to remind you that Fox® brand news is always going to be a little different from grownup news. "Gingrich surges to the lead in Iowa GOP poll," on the other hand, is worth noting because NPR made the same bizarre misrepresentation of some pretty straightforward data this morning. (I heard it around 8:20, shortly after opening the Fox homepage.)

The offense here isn't using notionally "objective" data to cloak a partisan agenda, though that happens. It's pretending that a poll supports a storyline it doesn't support, and that occurs across the news spectrum. It's part of the broader journalistic instinct to make things sound more exciting, or authoritative, or novel, than they are. The editor's job is to remind writers that there is no Santa Claus. Polls say only what they say, and that's rarely as interesting as you think it is. Let's proceed.
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