Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Today in cognitive dissonance

Nothing "premature" about it, judging by noted international-relations scholar Charles Krauthammer's analysis at the very same network:

Retaking Ramadi won’t “tip the balance,” but the victory nonetheless plays an important role in ISIS’s eventual defeat, Charles Krauthammer argued tonight.
“In a war like this, it’s all about psychology,” Krauthammer said on Monday’s Special Report. “It’s what Osama bin Laden talked about, who is the strong horse? Who is the weak horse?”

Astute readers might note that nothing in the AP story referred to above suggests that the party is a little premature (perhaps the foxnews.com hed writers were thinking of this commentary, or this amusing confusion of correlation and cause). They might wonder why comments aren't enabled on this, of all stories. And they would certainly applaud a wary skepticism toward official claims that the light at the end of the tunnel has been sighted. Or maybe they're just trying to figure out how to say "Mission Accomplished" in Arabic.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Relative clause of the week

Because we have so many other largest bridges by surface area, most of them barely rating a mention on the pothole notoriety chart!

Restrictive "which" tends to take up a lot of the air in the room when relative clauses are discussed.* That may be because it's easier to yell about pronouns than to figure out what a clause is actually trying to do. If editors spend more time pondering and less time ticking the pronoun box, the world would be a happier place this Christmas.

* Restrictive Which would also make a great band name, you have to admit. 



Friday, December 18, 2015

Today in cognitive dissonance

Bliss it must be to work at the New York Daily News, where you can be outraged on the gals' behalf even as you outrage them yourself.

Today in headlines: Fear factor

Hey, kids! Wonder why the hed says "break in murder case" and "believed linked to burning death" when the lede says this?

The hunt for the killer of a 19-year-old Mississippi woman who was burned alive last year has resulted in the arrests of 17 suspected gang members, authorities said this week, though none have been directly linked to the woman's death.

Maybe it's because of the second graf:

FBI officials announced the arrests Tuesday of suspected members of the Black Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Sipp Mob street gangs, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

Funny, here's how the original source of the morning's fourth most important story put it:

Officials say the operation focuses on Panola County and is a byproduct of the deep investigation that has come through the probe into the death of Jessica Chambers. ...

Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby said Tuesday's arrests are not directly related to Chambers' death but to information gathered as authorities have interviewed more than 150 people and sorted through more than 20,000 phone records trying to find her killer.

Don't they have a term for this at Fox? It's just not coming to mind right now...



Monday, December 14, 2015

Just say no

Refreshing as it is to see international news -- regional elections in a non-English-speaking country, at that -- atop the front page, no. Write heds in English for English-language papers unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise, and you don't.

The less pertinent argument is that a large part of your audience doesn't speak French, and among those who do, there's no guarantee they'll get the right reading the first time. The real point is that if you think you need a dumb language stereotype -- "sacre bleu!" to show you're writing about France, or even "eh?" to remind your readers that Canada means Canada -- to draw the audience into your headline, ur doin it wrong. And given the literalism of the robot brain, you could also conclude that "French say non" is a far awfuller SEO hed than "French far right loses."

Want to show me you're a citizen of the world? Fine. Run more stories about other parts of it, even when they aren't having coups or earthquakes. Dare to put other people's provincial elections in the paper. But please do us the favor of assuming that we can tell a Russian election from an Ohio election without a "nyet" in the hedski.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Polling sins: No, no and don't

Sigh.  In order, more or less: 

1) Polls don't have "error rates." That figure isn't a rate, and it doesn't count errors. (Your fielding average actually does produce an error rate, if you subtract it from 1 and move the decimal point around.) 
2) You can describe the figure as "percentage points" if you want, but "4.9%" is simply wrong. Take some finding in any poll that reaches 50% -- "do you approve or disapprove of the job Rudolph is doing as lead reindeer?" -- and add 4.9% to it, and you'll get 52.5%. Should Rudolph poll at 10% approval, adding 4.9% would give you 10.5%. The "margin of error," on the other hand, applies equally to any point in the distribution. That's what the next sentence means, but ...
3) Adding and subtracting percentage points is not "statistically adjusting" a finding. It's "addition and subtraction." Third-graders can do it. It really is that simple.
Read more »

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

A million here, a million there ...

How many Volkswagens in a bazillion there, Nation's Newspaper of Record?

An editorial on the Volkswagen scandal in some editions on Monday misstated the number of vehicles the automaker said it equipped with illegal software to improve emissions results. It was 11 million, not 111 million.

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Monday, December 07, 2015

The magic of names: Now with added Grammar®!

I do have some grammatical observations from the past few days, and they're actually relevant to understanding how some parts of the media spectrum want you to understand political violence. But first (we'll come back to this later), enjoy Friday's New York tabloids and consider whether the heds are saying the same thing or different things.

Anyway, grammar. If your question is "Did Fox News actually refer to the perps as 'husband and wife Muslim gunmen' at the top of the homepage Thursday?"
... the answer is: Yes, until somebody apparently decided several hours later that the (ahem) far more ambiguous "married Muslim gunmen" would be an improvement. That should make for an interesting discussion about epicene pronouns next time the Fair 'n' Balanced stylebook committee meets, don't you think?

If you're wondering whether the 1930s version of Fox would have referred to Bonnie and Clyde as "married Christian bank robbers," probably not -- "Muslim" is just something Fox needed to remind you about until those dilatory federal officials got the thumb out and said the magic word:
But there are other ways of reminding your audience that the world is falling in on them, and that's the really interesting grammatical point. Consider this hed from Thursday's Washington Times homepage:

Let's do some discourse analysis here: What does a clause of the form [proper noun] identified as [actor] mean? Here's a similar one from our time in the London bureau, noting that an actor had been chosen to play Doctor Who in the revived series:

TV Chris is new Dr Who
Which is sort of Redtop for "That guy Christopher* somebody you've seen on TV? He's the new Doctor." You could flip the clause around, because it works both ways: whether he's somebody you already know (or think you should know, to keep up with your friends), or whether you're just in it to find out who the new Doctor is. "New Dr. Who is TV Chris" would work about the same way.

Journalistically, both are a little different from the ones we saw last week. "Robber identified" would be standard turn-of-the-screw stuff: The cops have put a name on the person who held up the bank yesterday, so everybody call in if she's on your friend list. "Robber identified as bank chairman" is different. Like "Bank chairman identified as robber," it's flippable: you can be interested in what robbers do, or in what bank chairman do, and it's still more or less the same clause.

It's different, again, if we get specific:  "O'Reilly identified as gunman" or "gunman identified as O'Reilly." As with"TV Chris is new Dr Who," you're interested in both ends of the clause: What's Christopher Eccleston up to, or who's the new Doctor? O'Reilly, thus, should be somebody we've heard of -- whether we've just found out what he's been doing, or whether we;ve just found out that all those random misdeeds belong to him.

Thus the leap to "Farook and Malik identified!" is a little -- oh, should we go ahead and call it racist? In that the only reason they can go at the front of the clause is that they have scary names, so that the WashTimes audience can now wet its pants on cue?

The Times and the Post and Fox, then, are unusually thuggish, but they aren't unusually stupid -- as evidenced by the presence of the Daily News above. The Post was eager to proclaim that brown people are terrorists, and the News was eager to proclaim that everyone in its sights was a terrorist too. Each should take a deep breath and hire some adult editors. If we want to do something toward mitigating the effects of terrorism, we should start by figuring out what terrorism is, and one good way to do that is by ignoring everyting that New York tabloids say.  

* Pretty good at it, too. Lots of planets have a north

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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Banana banana banana

Thanks to the Bremner Editing Center, my personal favorite contender for the 2018 Elongated Yellow Fruit summer games.