Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You can waltz in like Ozzie ...

... or you can waltz in like Harriet, but you can't waltz in like Ozzie and Harriet. That's more or less the problem with the Freep lede here: You can explode over the riverfront, or in the skies, but exploding over the skies is going to be a challenge in space-time.

Nor am I blown away by the choice of illustration for the day's Brexit coverage:
Apparently, photos of the Elizabeth Tower reflected in puddles are already A Thing. I'm not sure if it's the complete irrelevance of "Big Ben is reflected in a puddle in London on Monday as Britain, in line with Thursday's vote, began preparations to leave the European Union" or the overall Magritte-meets-Terry Gilliam vibe, but I'm unmoved. And turning the paper upside down doesn't help.

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Today in sourcing

Before you make that toll-free call to ensure that YOUR FAMILY will be EATING DELICIOUS FOOD rather than fighting for scraps in a FOOD RIOT, catch the sourcing. It's not just the Daily Mail, it's the Daily Mail quoting the Express!

EUROPEAN political chiefs are to take advantage of Brexit by unveiling their long-held plan to morph the continent’s countries into one GIANT SUPERSTATE, it has emerged today. 

I think my favorite part is this:

Responding to the plot Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski raged: "This is not a good solution, of course, because from the time the EU was invented a lot has changed.

“The mood in European societies is different. Europe and our voters do not want to give the Union over into the hands of technocrats.

“Therefore, I want to talk about this, whether this really is the right recipe right now in the context of a Brexit."

Whatever plot he's actually reacting to, you have to wonder what he sounds like when he's being reasonable.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Today in framing

Pretty scary story there, Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

A former top Clinton administration diplomat who used his political sway to garner support for the Iran nuclear deal apparently was being bankrolled the entire time by Boeing -- which is set to make billions off a jet deal with Tehran now that sanctions have been lifted.

Campaign-season-wise, do you think the hed would have a different impact if it said "Reagan's ambassador to Israel got $$$ while pushing Iran deal"? Because Thomas Pickering's career kind of goes back a ways (he was Tricky's ambassador to Jordan after the October war, if you want to put it that way).

Read more »

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

1066 and all that

Because at the Daily Mail, going out in the rain to vote was their finest hour.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The little ones chewed on the polls, oh

Does Drudge's hed syntax these days remind you of making spaghetti in college? Just throw some grammar at the wall and see if something sticks?

As a reminder, of course, always be careful about how you abbreviate states:

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

One can only hope

Perhaps, having raised the question ("Dat's All?") upon the Wings' exit from the playoffs two months ago, someone felt obliged to answer it. Either that or we have a new data point for measuring attention spans downtown.

I'll miss Datsyuk, who was an important part of the overall cultural picture as I tried to adapt to the folkways of the new hometown. I can do without the annual welter of "Dat's" heds. On the bright side, the hed could have said "It's official: Dat's all."

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Or not (one born every minute)

What's the latest in statistical inference there, Washington Post?

The Republican National Convention begins in Cleveland in 31 days. That means that one month from today, Republicans will (almost certainly) start the process of nominating Donald Trump as their presidential nominee to take on Hillary Clinton in the fall campaign.

That prospect looks increasingly problematic — somewhere between a stone-cold loser and a long-shot gamble. With not only the White House at stake but also Republicans' Senate majority and maybe even their House majority in real peril, the idea of nominating Trump should be cause for a growing sense of panic within GOP ranks.

No doubt they appreciate the advice. But surely there's some evidence, right?

Here's why, courtesy of a chart from RealClearPolitics detailing the polling averages for Clinton and Trump over the past three months.

Trump's numbers shot up in the wake of his victory in the May 3 Indiana primary, a win that effectively sealed his nomination. But as May wore on, Trump's poll numbers not only hit a wall, they began to collapse.


OK. Here are some suggestions if you want your analysis to be taken seriously:

1) Ignore the Real Clear Politics "polling average." It is not a meaningful number.
2) Never write paragraphs like "oomph," whether you understand the results you are describing or not.
3) If you insist on ignoring (1) and (2), at least look at the damn Y-axis.

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Slow down that shutdown

OK, certain dumb automotive metaphors are always going to have some -- ahem -- traction here in the Motor City. Stuff is going to rev up, whether it should or not. Things are going to reach high gear, whether they're kicked there or not. But what happens, we're entitled to ask, when you put the brakes on a shutdown?

As it turns out, A.J, Liebling addressed the point in 1947, discussing the coverage of postwar food prices:

The Herald Tribune ran a front-page head on September 26, saying: HALT IN SPIRAL OF PRICES LED BY MEAT, EGGS.  Leading a halt, I imagine, would be rather like winning a race at a standstill.

Can't wait to see what the shutdown does when you take the brakes off!


Friday, June 17, 2016

How not to write corrections

Amusing as the Times's rococo approach to burying errors in a thicket of relative clauses might be, the Freep's style of correcting mistakes -- the "should have said" bit -- is even more damaging to clarity. We have no idea what's being corrected; what "should have" been said doesn't tell us what was said and shouldn't have been. And corrections are supposed to be about facts, not value judgments. In the normative world of "should have said," any lede that begins with "it's official" would beget a correction on the order of "An article in Wednesday's Sports section should not have said 'it's official.'"

So what went wrong here? Let's look at the top first, and no, the Freep doesn't correct "all errors of fact." (If you went over to Dearborn to see the B52 Mitchell, you would have done better to spend your Memorial Day watching "Catch-22" and "Dr. Strangelove" back to back.*) It corrects errors if they come to its attention and if it considers them actual errors of fact worth correcting. That process by which "facts" slip into the gray area of subjective judgment is a bigger worry than the rate at which any institution does or doesn't run corrections:
The letter is specifically not about attacks "in Israel"; the writer is complaining about the lack of coverage of attacks against Jews in the West Bank, by way of hoping that attitudes toward settlement policy aren't tilting the board. Given the Freep's sometimes hilarious understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I'd bet on ignorance rather than bias, but if the Freep failed to correct this fairly binary headline error because, well, the whole Mideast thing is just something people disagree about, we have a much larger problem on our hands.

Anyway, while you put together a pool with your friends on how soon those errors** are corrected -- what do you suppose went wrong enough to merit a correction today?

Oh. It screwed up from the first word. It "should have" said Vernon Harris grew up loving hockey, because apparently it's about Vernon Harris, rather than Willie Norris. (Yes, that means the second sentence should have been corrected too.) And what could have been a touching and reasonably salient sidebar amid the welter of fulsome Howe coverage is borked forever.

The corrected version online is at least mildly frank in describing the nature of the error. But for print readers -- I'm counting those of us who read the print version online here, few as we may be -- "should have said" is really not enough.

* Actually, that's not a bad idea for most holiday weekends.
** Feb. 4 and May 28, if you're scoring along at home. 

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Let's start a pool

Could it be ... a Fox-bylined story pointing out that Fox's favorite talk-show guest is, um, a deranged liar?

Despite Donald Trump's claim this week that the Muslim community has failed to report terror threats, U.S. officials said Muslims have relayed critical tips to investigators time and time again.

Two seats for the next unheated cattle car to Siberia, please! Anyone want to start a pool on how long this one stays available on the homepage?


Today in overtly racist lying

Well, this one didn't take long to get from the Teenage Mutant Ninja press to the glorious mainstream, did it? Here's the Daily Caller:

Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, announced Monday that “body shaming” advertisements will no longer be allowed in London’s public transport.

... Khan was not clear in what would determine which ads would be banned, as it doesn’t include all images of people in underwear or swimming clothes. Most underwear and bikini models though can be assumed to have non-average bodies.

Because why -- even when "go online and Google it" is a thing stupid candidates say in actual debates -- would anyone bother to look up TfL's advertising policy? Large amounts of it will look familiar if you've worked in a shop that sold enough advertising* to have advertising standards. When might a ban come into play, you ask?

The advertisement refers to or portrays (or gives the impression of portraying) a living person unless the written consent of that person is obtained and is produced to TfL.
Indeed, lots of societies that aren't run by Muslims -- say, the society that spent eight years trying to fine a TV network a thousand dollars per breast-millisecond over a Super Bowl halftime event -- regulate public portrayals of the body. It's hard to imagine an adult being surprised at the idea, as the source paper isn't:
Read more »

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Well, that'd be a start

See? Good things happen to those who link to the Daily Mail for their heds:

Donald Trump leveled a national-security flamethrower at Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, blaming her for embracing an immigration policy that would drive more Islamic radicals to stage terror attacks like the one from which Orlando, Florida is only beginning to recover.

Yes, but where's the ignorance?
Read more »

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Today in verb voice: Flak is unfairly gotten

A lot of flak is gotten by the passive voice over its alleged role in manipulating or obscuring agency. Most of that concern is misplaced; for every "mistakes were made,"  you can find dozens of cases in which the passive voice appropriately fronts the object as the center of attention. Unless you need to specify the office that did the arresting, "Suspect arrested after holdup" will always be a better headline than "Police arrest suspect after holdup." 

The passive isn't inherently suspicious. Nothing was being covered up when Macduff explained the circumstances of his birth to Macbeth. News outlets understand this, even if they (like the pundits they employ) generally can't identify verb voice* at better than coin-toss levels. News tells stories, and the passive voice has been an excellent storytelling tool for decades:

WASHINGTON, Friday, April 14 -- 12:30 A.M.
The President was shot in a theatre tonight, and is, perhaps, mortally wounded. 
Read more »

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Vampires > zombies

How's the sourcing in Thursday afternoon's top story, Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

ISIS fighters desperately clinging to the embattled city of Fallujah in the face of an overwhelming liberation force are literally stealing blood from civilians to heal their wounded, witnesses told FoxNews.com.
What's the subject of that clause again?

Reeling from a months-long siege and facing a force of 20,000 Iraqi government troops, Iranian-supported militia and a civilian population sensing pending freedom, the black-clad occupiers of the city some 40 miles west of Baghdad have resorted to the unthinkable. ISIS fighters are accosting people on the street and in their homes, forcing them to give blood for wounded fighters and leaving some drained and dying in the streets, a witness inside the city told FoxNews.com.
Do tell.

“ISIS now have a large number of wounded fighters and is desperate for blood,” the Iraqi source said. “Many of the civilians couldn’t get even two meals a day for a long time, so they’re very ill and weak.”

Even if Fox had remembered the part about what you do when your mom says she loves you, it wouldn't be able to prove the negative: that no ISIS vampires in Fallujah were draining blood in the streets anywhere to prevent the creation of ISIS zombies. Might as well enjoy the Blackadder ensemble in "The Nun and the Hun."

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Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Biscuit debt: A billion here, a billion there ...

This is a full-time job at the Nation's Newspaper of Record, right? Ensuring that corrections are so baroque that civilians will give up in frustration before they get to the error?

An article on May 13 about the sagging fortunes of the Workers’ Party of Brazil, whose standard-bearer, President Dilma Rousseff, was suspended by the Brazilian Senate, misstated the amount of foreign debt that was hobbling the Brazilian economy in 1998, when Ms. Rousseff’s mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ran for president. It was $250 billion, not $250 million.

In other words, an article May 13 about Brazilian politics misstated the size of the country's foreign debt in 1998, because somebody counted the toes and forgot to divide by 10 or something.

Amid the syntactic thickets, the restatement of the error takes on an interesting form: What the article misstated was "the amount of foreign debt that was hobbling the Brazilian economy in 1998," which is apparently somehow distinguishable from overall foreign debt, or from merely annoying foreign debt, or something along those lines. I think that's a cousin of the "biscuit conditional," resembling the 2+2=22 error: Foreign debt hobbles economies, Brazil had X amount of foreign debt, therefore economy-hobbling debt comes in divisible units.

The Times certainly does give the impression that no error is too slight for a correction:

A film review on Friday about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” referred incorrectly to the turtles’ names. Three turtles are named for Renaissance artists whose major works included paintings, not four. (Donatello was a sculptor.)

No doubt "Star Wars" fans are relieved that the spotlight is on someone else. But it's fair to wonder a bit about where the Times draws the line between trivial errors of fact and substantive errors of interpretation. It'd be nice someday to see a correction along these lines:

A post on Aug. 4 described the result of a public opinion survey incorrectly. There is no such thing as a "statistical tie," and if there was, a 6-point difference (Clinton 42, Sanders 36) in a subsample of 276 likely Democratic primary voters would not be one.

My favorite point in Margaret Sullivan's farewell post as the Times's ombud was her caution about New York Times exceptionalism: "The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing." Reporting on survey results would be a good place to start replacing conventional Times wisdom with independent judgment.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

One born every minute

Stop press! That's Drudge above, coyly using the question mark to kick some paranoid speculation closer to the mainstream. The Gateway Pundit is less circumspect:

... but probably still shouldn't go to the county fair by himself. The evidence appears to be that, um, someone created a file while the story was still being reported. Because that's never happened in the history of journalism.

For the record, I'm singularly unimpressed by the idea that AP's declaration of a "presumptive" nominee is somehow relevant.  I have enough trouble keeping up with fictional categories and made-up titles as it is.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Please don't feed the weasels

OK, assuming that you've been keeping up with the general tone of political communication this year, you know that only one thing could make the Drudge Report happier than a picture of Hillary Clinton looking desperate (with some inept and nearly incomprehensible typography). That'd be a picture of Hillary Clinton coughing (with some inept and nearly incomprehensible typography). With that as a given, let's approach the problem from a different angle: Would the allegedly professional media please stop feeding the bottom-feeders?

Specifically, that'd be the Los Angeles Times piece linked to at Tuesday morning's Drudge homepage:

Hillary Clinton’s campaign had once hoped the California primary could be a coronation for the former secretary of State, the last major stop en route to claiming the Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, it has turned into a dogfight with Bernie Sanders, who has been campaigning nonstop through the state. With at least one public poll showing the race now a tie, the Clinton campaign has decided to step up her appearances in the state.

Unless "public poll" means something other than "public opinion poll," or "publicly available poll" -- perhaps the Times could provide some data about the alleged poll that allegedly shows the alleged tie? Otherwise, we could fall back on the polls aggregated at Real Clear Politics, captured Tuesday morning around the same time:
Short answer, none of these five allegedly most recent polls* of the California Democratic primary show a tie. Two of them show Clinton leading by 2 points, which is not much of a lead -- it's fractionally better than even money that those differences match a real difference in the population, but you shouldn't bet on it unless randomly giving away money is your idea of a good time.**

Most of the other polls, including the one that apparently sat there for two weeks before Real Clear Politics knew it, show Clinton with a lead that is statistically significant at 95% confidence, meaning one chance in 20 that the difference in sample values doesn't reflect a similar difference in population values. The poll that doesn't is "within the margin of error," given that the "margin of error" applies to both points in the distribution," but is still almost certain to reflect a Clinton lead. Whatever "Cali" is, it is not "thisclose."

Does that mean we know who's going to win the California Democratic primary? No. Neither do you, and neither does the Los Angeles Times. It means we should be careful about how we interpret survey data.  Some things you should remember::
  • Any poll result might be an outlier
  • Then again, it might not
If I had to guess, meaning if I spread the results out and tried to estimate the range and midpoint of the results for Clinton and Sanders, I'd guess that the highest Clinton result might be an outlier -- meaning that of the 10 results shown in the crosstab, it seems the most likely to fall outside the normal distribution you'd expect if you drew several dozen random samples of likely California voters. But I don't know.

A corollary of that, of course, is that neither does the Los Angeles Times. What we know is that among the five results shown above, there are no ties. Of the two most recent results, one shows Clinton with a huge lead (which might or might not represent an outlier); the other shows a negligible lead (which also might or might not be an outlier).

You should at this point yawn and indicate that you're tired of polls. Fine. I'm tired of polls too, though I'm endlessly fascinated in how people make meaning out of them. My plea to the institutions that ought to know better -- the NYTs, the WashPosts, the LATimeses -- is to stop making pop fiction of them. Every time you guys turn out a fabricated drama from data that a well-trained undergraduate would question, you enable the genuine sleazebags like Drudge to do their thing.

Please stop. Please. Democracy is actually at stake.

* As of Tuesday evening, RCP was showing four polls: the top three above and one that was in the field May 4-16, of 694 likely voters, showing Clinton with 51% to Sanders' 38%. RCP does not provide a margin of sampling error for that poll, which should raise some doubt in your mind about RCP's general competence at reporting quantitative data. (The maximum margin of sampling error at 95% confidence for a random sample of n = 694 is -- who wants to be first in the comments?)

** Everybody has a hobby. 
*** Pay attention, FiveThirtyEight 

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