Sunday, August 31, 2014

Come and listen to my story 'bout a man ...

How do those urban sophisticates view the wilds of New Jersey, Nation's Newspaper of Record?

The Hunt column last Sunday, about the search by Angela Putman and Matt Jackson for a rental apartment in New Jersey, quoted incorrectly from comments by Ms. Putman about her new neighborhood, Bayonne. She said, “It is really cute,” not “It is really hick.”

I really do hope someone asked for an explanation of that one.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Canon to right of them

A bad week in spelling -- more broadly, in "having somebody look at the stuff before you print it" -- is coming to a painful end downtown:

Tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, the 2014 artist-in-residence, exploded out of the gate as if shot out of a canon in his inaugural set at Cadillac Square in the heart of downtown.

OK, maybe everyone was blinded by the explosion of good writering, which only gets gooder as it proceeds:

Beyond the music tonight, there was a noticeable change in the city’s psyche. The last year has not been easy for Detroit. The city’s bankruptcy has produced a hornet’s nest of conflict and pain, creating a thick fog of civic angst that has sometimes made it hard to remember the undeniable seeds of the city’s rebirth.

... but enough evidence has piled up over the past few days to call for a reminder of the Basic Rule of spellering: If you don't know how to spell a word, look it up. If you think you do, look it up anyway. As in this from Thursday:

For millions of children across the country, walking alone to school is a right of passage.

Wrong write. You want a ritual of passage, not some sort of entitlement to passage. And the online hed is too good to overlook:
And there's this from a 1A feature on Monday -- now fixed online, though the transposition bumble in the second graf remains:

Sanders bounced back from near-oblivion to a become growing national player in desserts and candy.

The con- fectioner, also known for its ice cream and hot fudge topping, has seen double-digit sales growth over the last three years, fueled in part by native Michiganders buying the products they remember from their childhoods, said company President Ron Rapson, who said annual sales are about $25 million.

Pick on spelling with care; the only sure result of catching an error is committing one yourself in the booking process. But this much negligence in this many prominent places in a couple of days suggests a flaw in the machine. If you don't take the finished product seriously, you shouldn't expect your readers to.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Don't do any of this

If you have to lead the front page with a poll (and you don't), you should at least try to avoid contradicting your main hed in your deck -- or your lead graf in your second graf:

LANSING — Democratic challenger Mark Schauer has edged ahead of Gov. Rick Snyder by two percentage points, according to a new poll of likely voters in the Nov. 4 election.

The results from EPIC-MRA of Lansing come just before the Labor Day holiday which is seen as the kickoff of the main campaign season and were released exclusively to the Free Press, WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) and statewide media partners. A 2-point lead is within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, meaning the race remains a statistical dead heat.

You can be leading, or you can be in a dead heat, but you can't be doing both at the same time. (No, there's no such thing as a "statistical dead heat," and if there was, it wouldn't be defined by a meaningless term like "within the poll's margin of error.") A safe conclusion from these results is that both candidates' support has changed since July. Schauer, the Democrat, is doing a little better, while Snyder, the Republican, is doing a little worse. Both changes (43% to 45% and 46% to 43%) are also "within the margin of error," but they're both also meaningful. The smaller one has roughly two chances in three of accurately reflecting the value in the whole population, rather than being an accident of sampling. A good headline summary might be "Race still hypothetically tight, and things probably changed a little, but still maybe not" which in turn is a good argument for not leading the paper with poll stories.
Read more »

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Word matters order

Does this mean official cookouts can finally begin after Labor Day? Or (alas) that another editor failed to step in and help a food feature say what it meant, rather than what it said?

Here's a handy tip. If you can put a comma between two adjectives before a noun, their order doesn't matter:

A cold, rainy morning

A rainy, cold morning

If you can't, that should be a sign unto you that their order does matter. Some textbooks call these "cumulative" adjectives, because the meaning builds up as they go along:

What kind of cookout? An unofficial one. What kind of unofficial cookout? The last one.

What the writer means, you'd like to suspect, is that Labor Day is somehow the informal end of cookout season, or the unofficial last cookout (why Michiganians don't mind being characterized as such complete weenies about cooking outside, I don't know). Sometimes, word order really does matter.

While we're at it?

Brining chicken can add a layer of flavor and provides a cooking cushion, taking the guesswork out of overcooking it, even boneless, skinless chicken breast.

If you've tried it before, you'll recall that there's almost no guesswork involved in overcooking a chicken breast. The story got its feet crossed somewhere between "takes the guesswork out of cooking chicken" and "reduces the risk of overcooking chicken."

And a few more points for the Never Do This list from the food section. Never tell people what "we" usually think, and never use exclamation points to end your lede! Especially if it's as exciting as this one!

(Updated to fix a couple of the things editors catch, with appreciation to the editor who caught them)

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Dear editor:

Well, what nicer present could the Boston bureau send along for the first day of editing class than a prestige-press headline reporting that a candidate for statewide office can, um, "still ball"?

Dear Boston Globe: If the layoffs really did allow you to get rid of everybody over 35, would you mind asking the survivors to spend a little more time in the dictionary? The OED dates the naughty definition of "ball" to 1955. Some of your audience appears to remember it, even amid the hyphens.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

No gurls allowed

The latest recycling of the Kids Hate Moochelle story makes sense in its own little Drudgean way, but what's with "IMF vixen"? Is that the Drudge Stylebook's preferred term for an IMF director who hasn't been "embroiled in a New York sex scandal"?

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Editing basics: Post hoc, ergo shut up

No, you can't go home after you run the spellcheck. Somebody still has to look at the stuff and make sure it's true about all the things it's allegedly being accurate about -- even if, or especially if, the glass offices desperately want it to be so.

Such, alas, is the case with the offlede from today's Washington Times:

... Since Illinois started granting concealed carry permits this year, the number of robberies that have led to arrests in Chicago has declined 20 percent from last year, according to police department statistics. Reports of burglary and motor vehicle theft are down 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In the first quarter, the city’s homicide rate was at a 56-year low.

Pretty interesting correlation there. Too bad a clear conscience and a pure heart can't turn correlation into cause, no matter what your first named source says:

Read more »

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pancho was a robot boy

What did all the federales say there, Mail Online?

You might think there's already enough random episodic stuff to be terrified of out there, but then you'd miss this candidate for Most Thorough Claim Quote of the (no longer young) Year:

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Today in security studies: The perfect front page

This home page from Thursday afternoon is Fox in a grain of sand. The downpage stories are perfect: there's a little reactive devaluation (sexual harassment in the military is a fey librul plot, until our side mentions it), some primal race-baiting (just go read the comments) and a reminder that 2016 is always in season ("the claims about Clinton's cigar preferences follow a string of reports about Bill and Hillary Clintons' sky-high speaking fees and special requests while on the road"). But the real gem is the lead story:

Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that his Justice Department is opening a criminal investigation into the brutal execution by Islamic State militants of American journalist James Foley, in the latest move by the administration to use the criminal justice system to pursue terrorists.

The announcement comes as the Obama administration steps up its airstrike campaign against the same militant organization -- and mulls additional American boots on the ground in Iraq.

That might strike you as a bit of a contradiction. If you keep up with Fox, you know that pretty much the worst offense you can commit is imagining that terrorism is a law enforcement problem, rather than the sort of matter you deal with by blowing the hell out of things with naval aviation, and the Kenyan usurper is selling us out by doing the former even as he cranks up the ... does your brain hurt yet?

Read more »

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Today in ... oh, forget it

Would you go over the relationship between diet and ... what's that technical term again there, Nation's Newspaper of Record?

An Op-Ed essay on Monday described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

Why does the New York Times think the symbol of our freedom poops purple? Why does the New York Times hate freedom?

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Editing basics: Stick to the question

Sometimes the nice folks at Ask the Editor just take their, and everybody else's, eye off the ball:

Q. Regarding the use of gender neutral nomenclature, how should we refer to manholes and manhole covers? – from San Francisco on Wed, Aug 13, 2014
A. Use the impersonal pronoun it for an inanimate object.

Yes, but that's not the issue, is it? Nobody's really wondering whether a manhole cover, like a noble ship of the line, ought to be "she" on second reference, or whether such decisions show us as we want to be seen in the great social scheme of things. The writer has a simple question, and a simple answer -- how about "utility hole"? -- will let everybody go about their business.

Lesson for editors: Don't overthink the easy ones. The nearest exit may be behind you. Time you waste is time you can't spend on something that matters.

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Editing basics: That's what 'corrections' means

That "corrections" label at the top? It means the story got something wrong (or "gave erroneous information," or "had incorrect information"). You don't need to repeat that in the text. The correction needs to explain what you got wrong and then provide any necessary non-incorrect information.

The "erroneous information" about the first appears to be its appearance in a breakout box of downtown stores that "have recently closed" (why that includes a Caribou that closed a year ago is a different question). As for the "incorrect information" about the second -- imagine if you had people around the office who read stuff before it was published and considered it their job to ask questions like, you know,  whether two Spanish-themed coffee shops was a little much, even by Royal Oak standards. You could call those people "copy editors." (One of them might have also pointed out that the last sentence in a paragraph only needs one period, not two, and that you don't usually follow a question mark with a comma, but that's getting into the rest of the article.)

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Streak and eggs: Spellcheck won't save you

Today's lesson in editing basics: Spellcheck is a tool, not a colleague. Ask it whether you spelled anything wrong in the hed above, and it's not going to go out of its way to say "No, but ..."

Speaking of which: What's the latest from Iraq, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

In addition, a senior U.S. official said the effort to retake the damn is mostly a Kurdish Peshmerga operation.

When you're dealing with human prose, there's no substitute for the human brain. If you wouldn't ask a screwdriver to do your thinking for you, why rely on a computer?


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Editing basics: Let me be your salty dog

 How salty were those fries, Nation's Newspaper of Record?

Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about the elimination of reduced-fat French fries in some Burger King outlets misstated the number of stores that decided to eliminate the item, called Satisfries. It is slightly fewer than 5,000, not about 7,500. The article also misstated the amount of sodium in Satisfries and regular fries. Satisfries have 300 milligrams of sodium, not 300 grams; regular fries have 480 milligrams, not 480 grams.

We'll be reviewing some of the basic rules of copy editing in the weeks ahead (there is, after all, a new semester closing in), so here's one to start with: Whenever you see two numbers, do something with them. That doesn't mean you should turn every proportion into a percentage, or every mean into a median, at first sight. It should suggest that your first reaction upon seeing a number -- let's say, "six" -- in a news story shouldn't be "omg SIX!!!!!" Rather, you should look the number, and the person waving it at you, squarely in the eye and ask: Six of what?

In this case, you might be asking: What does 300 grams of something mean in real money? Whether you get to the answer by flipping open your stylebook or by looking things up on the Googles, you're going to arrive in a similar place: An order of regular fries doesn't come with a pound of salt, even if all the weight of salt came from sodium by itself.

Broadly speaking, there's little you can do as a copy editor that's more valuable than to have some suspicion about the things you're looking at. It's risky to overstate the role of common sense, but here, it's a rather good starting point.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Today in visual communication

Hey, kids! How many times do you figure a 1,500-word story ought to mention the wicked harridan in that nice Mr. Drudge's picture?

a) 0
b) 1-3
c) 4-6
d) 7-9
e) 10 or more

Read more »

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Drums, drums in the deep

You get back from a week at a conference and it looks like somebody just dropped a theory bomb all over the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. Let's enjoy a few not-quite-random selections from the day's top stories, interspersed with random commentary.

Like the human brain, the "media agenda" (and the political agenda, from which we kinda-sorta liberated the idea back in the early 1970s), has a limited carrying capacity. At Fox, it's pretty much four stories at a time. That adds up to a lot of discrete stories if you count all the bobbing and weaving that goes on through the course of a news day, and it gets more complicated when two agenda levels are happening at once. With the Graham story above, there's both issue salience -- Iraq, and specifically the ISIS insurgency, is the day's biggest story -- and attribute salience: basically, run! So life's not just scary, it's complicated.

Conveniently, there's a master frame to help organize things. The Kenyan has screwed things up again: 

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham sounded the alarm Sunday about the growing threat of Islamic State launching an attack on American soil unless President Obama takes more decisive action to stop the terror group’s surge across Iraq and Syria.

Read more »

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

And the sonic screwdriver was a nice touch

Sounds like a nice evening in Edinburgh, Nation's Newspaper of Record:

The Check In column on July 20, about Motel One Edinburgh-Royal in Edinburgh, misstated part of the name of a park that the hotel overlooks. It is Princes Street Gardens, not Princess. The column also referred incorrectly to the climate control in the rooms. There is no air-conditioning at the hotel, so it could not have “worked well.”

All errors are regrettable, but some of them make a lot of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sense: "Princess Street" for "Princes Street" above, for example. Elsewhere in the column, 1,800 becomes  18,000;  a Price becomes a Prince, Morgantown becomes Morganstown, and a double in which the batter takes third on a throw to the plate is mistaken for a triple. I could even see mistaking "there was no air-conditioning" for "the air-conditioning didn't work." But how the AC could have been judged to work well when it wasn't there at all -- surely a paper that's so careful to distinguish editing errors from just-us-writers errors could offer just a little more explanation.

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