Monday, December 31, 2012

No, but thanks for asking

Just a couple of general observations:

1) Don't write question heds
2) Particularly when the whole point of the story you're referring to is "no"
3) Which is the only reason to run a Bigfoot story in the first place, isn't it?

Fast away the old year passes, and -- if you're the resolving sort -- banning question heds and Bigfoot stories would be the sort of resolutions that would not only let you sleep easier (and awaken with clear eyes and conscience) but make journalism a happier place to be in general. But we have other things we can be thinking about as well.

Our friends to the frozen north go the wrong way, I think, in their annual word ban. I'd love a world in which journalists simply didn't use terms like "job creators" outside of direct quotes and parody, but the time for that resulution would have been -- oh, late May or so. I'm fine with banning "kick the can down the road," but without a parallel ban on "throw under the bus," it doesn't seem to solve the sort of problems that need solving. Let's start the new year with a simpler rule: If it's what everyone is saying, don't say it.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Learn now the lore of clueless features

Today's hed tip: When you feel compelled to write a deck that knocks down the question in your question hed, that should be a sign unto you that the story beneath it is losing air rapidly:

One of the biggest holiday films this year,
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is based on British writer J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel. But it turns into a mystery when Kentucky is linked to the worldwide literary classic. (1)

No, it doesn't -- at least, not much of one.

"There has been a lot of speculation that Kentucky had something to do with inspiring Middle-earth, the setting of the book, and the hobbits and their practices," said Devin Brown, an English professor at Asbury University.

That's as may be (though how much speculation counts as "a lot" is a different matter). There's plenty of speculation about plenty of things out there. What you do with that speculation before you put it in the front page actually tells your readers a lot about how you treat speculation -- and readers -- in general. Let's have a look:

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Math is hard. Let's go editing!

Kids, are you ready to be a copy editor? What's your first reaction to the hed above?
Read more »

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Left hand, right hand

Whatever you make of the tales of who's stifling whom over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, you may draw some conclusions from the evidence.

At top, the Fox News homepage asks whether the NRA idea is possible. The sidebars cover the NRA press conference itself and point out that the feckless commies of Hollywood are avoiding their share of the blame (the latter offering a genuinely remarkable assertion: "Not unlike the NRA, lawmakers fear the Motion Picture Association of America and their political allies"). At bottom, the New York Post is a little more direct. Whatever the Murdoch empire may be united on (and there's a lot), this issue isn't it.  

Fans of hed dialect will note that the Post, despite the American flag in its nameplate, follows a distinctly British tabloid pattern by using a preposition where an American hed would be looking for a verb: "NRA loon in bizarre rant over Newtown." Its tabloid rival, the Daily News, follows American style: "Vile NRA nut blames EVERYONE and EVERYTHING except the guns."

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Made-up stories and Stupid Questions

You can see why this story found its way to the WashTimes's front page: a little pop culture, a little random fear of the swarthy hordes, and a chance to say TERRORISM! But the rule for question heds also holds for ledes:

Could the release of “Zero Dark Thirty” provoke violent protests against the U.S. in response to the film’s searing depictions of “enhanced interrogation” — the coercive, super-secret and bitterly debated methods used by the CIA against al Qaeda terrorism suspects?

If the answer is "no," you probably shouldn't ask the question. Onward:

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bitten by the passive

Another expert who wouldn't recognize the passive voice if it jumped up and he was bitten on the nose by it:

As the report put it, using the passive tense, “There was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests.”

Uh, no. It doesn't use the "passive tense," of which there is no such animal. As far as the passive voice goes, clausewise these are trying times we're 0-for-2: The first clause is existential*; the second -- the headless relative cunningly hidden in the prepositional phrase -- is as active as it gets.

What the writer means, of course, is that the sentence in question doesn't blame the people he wants blamed for the Benghazi debacle. That's a political question, not a grammatical one, and it suggests that we might should have a separate grammatical category for the political passive: any syntactic construct that the speaker (a) can't identify at better than chance levels but (b) thinks would be a really good way to make sport of the opposition, because (c) the rubes will be cowed by anything that sounds like "grammar."

You're welcome, of course, to your own views on the adequacy of the Benghazi investigation to date. Whatever those views, if you've gotten this far, you can probably tell "grammar" from "routine language bullying." Please go forth and share that view.

* Or "expletive," for some old-fashioned stylists; think
"Dunbar says there is no God."

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How not to introduce a paywall

Just thinking out loud here, but -- do you suppose, if it's the day you unveil the paywall that's supposed to keep the unwashed at bay, you might want to make extra-sure the content that reaches the homepage is worth paying for? Rather than, for example:

... Professional astrologer, Steve Nelson,* author of “The New World Cycle of Celebrations,” says that no traditional Mayan prophecies or present day Mayan elders predict calamity for the end of this calendar cycle.

Instead, what he says is predicted is a global shift in awareness, a transformation of consciousness such that the world may actually end as we know it on the psychic level.

Do tell!

Nelson, 65, who refers to himself as a cycles counselor, says that several cultural and mystical traditions converge in this time all portending the beginning of a new age. However, we must work to clear through the darkness that precedes this anticipated new era.

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Elongated-yellow fruit

When in-doubt, about? A punctuation question; "the" first step should! not be to slap hyphens between words because there's a noun in the neighborhood:

An article on Friday about the blunt-speaking style of Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, who withdrew from consideration as a possible nominee for secretary of state, described incorrectly her participation in President Obama’s pastime of basketball. She has dribbled the ball and taken shots in his presence, but she is not one of the few women invited to compete in his pickup games

It's true that both noun-participle ("man-eating") and modifier-participle ("smooth-talking") compounds are hyphenated, but "blunt-speaking" is neither of them here.
Dr. Rice doesn't have a style that is blunt-speaking; she has a speaking style that is blunt. The Times could attribute a blunt style to the blunt-speaking Dr. Rice, but it should file "blunt-speaking style" with "elongated-yellow fruit."

Interesting day in the corrections:

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On clues and having them

Just a little aside first -- what could be more perfect (OK, aside from an interview with the Soviet agent who forged the birf certificate) than a Fox homepage with four question heds out of four?

Anyway. There are some interesting tidbits in the middle tale on the bottom row -- "Marine Misled?*" -- that put the broader debate over Those Librul Media into a brighter light. Hear now, for example, one of the foil-helmed orcs of the National Review Online:

As is by now abundantly clear, the mainstream media lefties don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about when it comes to firearms.

OK, sure. If you think the average American news story is lost in the weeds on a topic as simple as bluegrass, wait until you see it try to explain a concept like "assault rifle." But there seems to be something more afoot here:

Many, probably most, are simply too frightened of inanimate objects ever to achieve even a passing journalistic familiarity with guns and, besides, their smug moralism in the pursuit and advocacy of unilateral disarmament would never permit them to become confused by, you know, facts. There’s a narrative, featuring themselves as heroes, and by God they’re sticking to it.

Now we're getting into different theoretical territory. This flavor of journalistic ineptitude above all others** is bounded by ideology. "Media lefties" aren't just stupid; they're smug and self-absorbed. Let's have a look, then, at how the right-thinking comrades at Fox handle firearms issues, under the entertainingly tabloidized hed "Pal of jailed Marine Jon Hammar recounts pal's last day of freedom in Mexico:"

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Monday, December 17, 2012

One born every minute

Sigh. Dear cousins downtown:

1) "Bigfoot" is a fictional creature. If you would not approach an editor with the idea of writing a story about invisible pink unicorns (look! there's one in the shrubbery behind Bigfoot!), why would you allow your name to be placed atop a story about Bigfoot?
2) It proceeds from (1) that Bigfoot is not a story.
3) It should proceed from (2) that Bigfoot does not become a story simply because "researchers" from a "popular Animal Planet reality show" have decided -- yes, Virginia, there's one born every minute -- to spend "nearly a week in April ... searching for the elusive ape-like beast":
Read more »

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Noms noms noms!

Surely I'm not the only reader on the planet who bumbles into the morning's news before the coffee maker has finished its magic work. Yes, I know what a "doc" is -- but until I know whether it's "doc" as in "hero doc" or "Benghazi docs," I have trouble decoding the hed above, in which it means something else altogether.

Even with the extra space provided by the Intarwebs ("Understated doc 'Central Park Five' sets the record straight"), we're no better off. Given that on the same page -- that's the deck (from an unrelated story) -- we're supposed to figure out that "noms" is how the cool kids say "nominations," we can be forgiven for concluding that the local fishwrap really doesn't care if we understand what it's saying, as long as we know it's being said in a really awsum fashion. Nom nom nom!

That's a roundabout way of getting to the reminder that hed writers do more than just explain why today is different from yesterday.* They also remind us that we're reading the publication we thought we were reading when we dropped our quarters into the rack in the first place. You really would have to be a particular grade of slimeball to write a hed like "PATERNITY SHOOT" as shown here, but there would be no question that you're making the Post sound like the Post.

Which is an important goal, but it should never get in the way of telling your coffee-deprived audience what has gone on. Your readers might want to sort your moral failings out for themselves. That's fine, but neither you nor they will ever be able to get started if they -- and you -- don't know what you're saying when you set pen to paper.

* Which is a substantial burden itself, as you will no doubt agree if you either (a) write heds for a living or (b) are charged with teaching the younguns how to carry on the craft.


Tentacled yellow marauders

This late-breaking entry* just in for the Elongated Yellow Fruit of the Year competition!

... Some crabbers say as many as half of their traps are coming up empty, save for the remnants of dead crabs. That's because the marauding tentacled beasts have moved in to stake their claim.

Kathy Birren, owner of the Hernando Beach Seafood Co. in Hernando County, said that while intrusion by the eight-legged creatures has always been a problem for trappers, she estimated that stone crab harvesting is down about 80 percent from usual this time of year.

All this and a "Gulf of Mexico delicacy" too. Wouldn't it be fun if we had time to concentrate on the real writing stuff, like the weirdly doubled attribution in the second graf above? For today's editing exercise, see how quickly you can cut that grafs's Flesch-Kincaid grade level in half!

* Thanks to Lisa at the Bremner Center for the tip.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Annals of attribution

Thanks for the attention to detail there, liberal media!

Anyway. If you think the War on Editing is a hidden tragedy, wait 'til you see the War on Statehouse Coverage. Done correctly, editing and reporting both involve a lot of meticulous attention to fairly mundane procedures that, every now and then, reward all the attention by turning up something really important. That's no longer assumed to be a virtue per se; copy editors can point out that they prevent libel suits, but on any random day, they're hard put to identify the libel suit they prevented yesterday.

Thus, it's nice to know that even as all the Snidely Whiplash-ism surrounding "what some call anti-labor bills" was reaching a peak, the AP was paying attention to other legislation in the lame-duck session. To wit:

A House bill to bar use of “foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights” was on Tuesday’s House agenda. Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, sponsored the bill, which doesn’t specifically mention the Islamic legal code called sharia. However, the bill’s supporters have said they are concerned about the use of sharia spreading.

So even as the home of organized labor was preparing to deliver a swift kick in the fusebox to organized labor, the home of both Dearborn ham and the country's largest mosque was preparing to deliver a swift kick to ... the phantom menace of Creeping Sharia? Was somebody not paying attention when the loonies were at play with this one last year?

It's nice to see that the AP ran this down and that the Freep gave the story a pretty good chunk of space inside -- in sort of the same way that it's nice to wake up and find out that a killer asteroid came within the Earth's orbit overnight and did a couple of somersaults over Dearborn before expiring. Given the choice, I want editors looking at everything that's written and reporters in the statehouse looking at everything that's filed.

If we lose the War on Editing, reporters will have no adult supervision. If we lose the broader War on Journalism, people like Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, will have no adult supervision. Consider well, but not too long.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The weed with its roots in heck

OK, suppose you wanted to go out to the movies in Chicago in December 1951. Maybe you wouldn't have found "Reefer Madness" itself, but it looks as if you could have had a pretty good time down at the Linden anyway. 

We do, in short, have rather a tradition of lurid presentations of drug use in American popular culture. One might even suggest that media representations have something to do with how the public at large thinks about this sort of thing. So it's a little odd, here in the broad sunny uplands of 2012, to run across these snippets from advice columns in the first few pages of the local fishwrap's feature section:

Dear Amy: I am a graduate student in my late 20s. My mother has been addicted to marijuana my whole life. She says it's for lower back pain, but when she gets high it is impossible to talk to her.

Dear Carolyn: ... We are both marijuana addicts. After a few relapses over the last couple of years, I've been clean of marijuana for four months.

Which does sort of cause one to wonder: Is this the current state of play in the medical literature? If not, do you suppose there might be some benefit in -- oh, say, editing the agony aunts* before you run them?

* It may be a little weird to think of Amy and Carolyn this way, but there you are. I was a bit surprised that the OED only dates "agony auntie" to 1972, though "agony column" -- for their output -- can be found as early as 1854. Apparently, some journalistic products never grow stale.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

History's worst hed

For those who didn't catch last week's inaugural edition of the ACES editing chat* on Twitter, too bad. You missed a good time and lots of fun stuff. One point I wish we could have drawn out further was the positive side of the copy editor's presence -- the stuff we do that doesn't go into a file of great catches to be brought out for the annual review.**

Editors do more than lie in wait to pounce on the unwary split infinitive. Many of the most important things we fix aren't "mistakes" in any syntactic or factual sense. When readers are judging the professionalism or writing quality of an article, one of the things they're seeing is whether you write for the people you cover or for the people who buy the product. Are you impressed that the cops are doing their job, or are you going to tell us about the events that brought the cops to the scene in the first place?

There is, thus, no worse hed imaginable in the history of the world in space than "Police investigate." That is what cops do. When four people are found dead in a house late on Tuesday, that's the sort of thing that gets my attention on Wednesday morning -- not the procedural fact that the people we pay to investigate stuff are investigating stuff. There's a reason that, back in April 1865, the New York Times wrote that "the President ... was shot by an assassin," rather than "Police investigated the shooting of the president."

I don't mean to single out either the writer of the amazingly silly Freep hed at left or the equally silly Observer homepage hed that showed up -- oh, confirmation bias! -- mere hours later on the same day. If those were accidents, we wouldn't have had identical "Police investigate shooting death" heds appearing three months apart in the Freep, much less the remarkable array of "Police investigate" heds that a quick search turns up at Charlotte. This is stuff writers do, and editors let writers get away with doing, because they're obsessed with process at the expense of outcome.

Granted, it's hard to go wrong when you write the story exactly as it appears on the press release. But it's even harder to go right that way. If editors want to underscore the importance of their craft in a way that makes a difference when layoffs are on the table, it's nice to be able to point to errors kept out of print. It's equally important, if not more important, to turn process into substance. Readers can tell the difference.

* Join in future editions at #ACESchat, 4 p.m. Eastern (US) time on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.
** Though by all means you should have such a file; it's where you store the instances of "duck fight" that you kept out of stories about the Blitz.

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That duck won't hunt

This candidate for Eggcorn of the (rapidly fading) Year comes from the Nation's Newspaper of Record:

An article on Nov. 25 about the artist Malcolm Morley, who has a new exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Long Island, misstated what kind of aerial battles he watched from the rooftops during the London blitz. He and his friends watched dogfights — not duck fights.

The Times's dance-around-the-error style of writing corrections can get a little annoying sometimes. Are we trying to say there are two kinds of aerial battles to choose from here -- dogfights and duckfights -- and the writer simply picked the wrong one?

At any rate, imagine a world in which people were paid to read the stuff after writers wrote it, but before it was printed. We could call them ... copy editors!

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Starts with an 's' ...

Hey, kids! What's that word for when, you know, you call all the girls by their first name and all the boys by their last name?

Should someone say "Well, that's what everybody calls her," either of two responses would be appropriate:

1) So what?
2) Could I see the survey results that support your claim, please?

Even in the age of the Intarwebz, readers expect standards. They can't tell what you're thinking, but they have a really clear idea of what you say.

And while you're at it -- downstyle: Not just for breakfast anymore.


Send down another case of aluminum foil

And what sorts of tales do you suppose they're telling each other down in the Breitbart bunker these days?

Why spend all the money to conduct a poll if you're not going to report the results?

That's certainly an interesting question! Did you have anything specific in mind?

Oh, maybe this is why:

[A]ccording to polling by CNN, registered voters oppose Obamacare by a margin of 10 points — 52 to 42 percent.  Independents like Obamacare even less, opposing it by a margin of 22 points — 57 to 35 percent.  Clearly, voters didn’t think they were ratifying Obamacare when they pulled the lever for Obama.
Gee, ya think maybe if those numbers were reversed we'd be hearing more about them?

Rhetorical question.

Well -- no. Stupid question, sure.* Maybe we'd be hearing more about those numbers if the results of this survey (in the field Nov. 16-18) weren't effectively identical to results from the same survey in May and March of this year. Or maybe we're already bored with long-term comparisons, in that the favor-oppose gap is consistently much smaller in 2012 than at comparable points in 2011.**

And where did all those pesky numbers come from? Um, from the 26-page pdf of results that CNN posted along with the story it ran last Monday about its "own Obamacare*** poll."

I do think we passed a bit of a turning point in late summer, when it became acceptable in the mainstream of political discourse to simply declare that any empirical result you disliked was probably brought about by cheating. There's a certain brazenness to this sort of lie that goes beyond that. No one should be surprised when the Breitbart folks set new standards for no-purchase-necessary mendacity, but journalists should be reminded that we don't owe these folks a respectful hearing. One looks forward to the app that mimics a telephone being slammed down in its cradle.

* Though unlike the first, it isn't a multiple or begged question.
** Not significant at 95% confidence, but big enough to take to the track.
*** To the extent it was an "Obamacare poll"; you could as easily call it a "Susan Rice poll" or a "Mitt Romney poll" or a "direction of the country poll."

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Monday, December 03, 2012

Stupid hed tricks

Seriously. Are you people not embarrassed to be fakin' that down-home stuff in the 1A skybox? Especially when the story itself comes with a hed that (a) is properly qualified* and (b) uses the grownup spelling for the gerund "fishing"?

Why does the Observer persist in the repellent nonsense of g-droppin'? Is it supposed to make the peasants in the eastern part of the state think you aren't a big-city paper, flush with strangers from New Jersey? What is with you guys?

* Since the qualification includes the auxiliary "can," it also avoids that pesky agreement question. There are lots of reasons not to write stupid headlines!

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Sunday, December 02, 2012

The lightning bug and the lightning

We missed the great man's birthday last month,* but this quote is always in season:

The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Or between the aircraft and the aircraft carrier.

 * Celebrated by The Ridger with a particularly apt Huck passage.

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