Monday, January 01, 2018

Truth in advertising

What could possibly go wrong when you turn a brite from the hinterlands over to the general assignment desk for some writering? Take it away, The Washington Post:

On late Saturday morning, a bird flew out of the cold Detroit sky, across an airfield and into the cockpit of a jetliner bound south for Atlanta.

Some believe it was a sparrow. Some, a hummingbird. A Delta Air Lines spokesman referred to it only as a “stowaway” — and, in any case, it would be a long delay before anyone on Flight 1943 could catch the thing to get a look at it.

The cold Romulus sky, maybe. The terminal Delta uses is a bit over 20 miles* from Charles Lindbergh's birthplace in midtown Detroit. Whether the bird flew "across an airfield and into the cockpit of a jetliner" is a matter of speculation, to put it politely. The days of the open cockpit are largely behind us, but wherever in Wayne County you were, it was at least pretty cold.

Which gets to the dueling belief systems, sparrow vs. hummingbird. If you were writing cutlines in the good old days of journalism and you didn't know whether the scary thing in the picture was a rifle or a shotgun, you would find someone in the building who knew the difference and ask. Everyone's short-staffed at holidays, but maybe the nice folks at the Cornell Lab could help improve the odds a bit. Having a birder in the next room, I took the old-fashioned route: Hey, those birds in the terminals at Metro -- what are they? (Answer: "Mostly sparrows.") The closest the story itself gets is that someone thinks the pilot might have said "hummingbird."

So, since "we were just outside Barstow, on the edge of the desert" is taken, maybe we could try "A stately, plump sparrow found its way to gate A4 at Detroit Metro Airport and down the jetway sometime Saturday morning." Or, if we insist on not making stuff up,** stick with the AP's "It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's a bird on a plane." And, basically: Forget flood. Interview hummingbird in suburban Detroit at the end of December.

I'm kind of stuck on the not-making-stuff-up part, because this does seem rather a lot of time and effort to put into a story that's already been covered elsewhere. The hed promises a "how" story, but the only "how" part seems to be the fictionalized lede. Shouldn't we be off writing about hunger, world peace or the price of checked baggage instead?

OK, that's not entirely fair. Come to that, I ought to be writing about Fox's coverage of Iran, rather than complaining about long-range featurization.*** But this story is No. 4 on the "Post Most" morning newsletter, the top story being "Niagara Falls is coated in ice — and absolutely jaw-dropping."**** So I'm a little concerned about handing your news judgment over to the "most popular right now" algorithm, but I really don't want to think about what's going to happen if Iran is given to rewrite with instructions to pep it up a little.

* Dulles is 27.5 miles from the Washington Post (per Google Maps), if you're scoring along at home.
** Meaning "I've had it up to here" probably wouldn't qualify, so don't.
*** I think the preposition is out of place, too. The modifier can replace the (optional) preposition, so "on Thursday" becomes "early Thursday," but if you keep the preposition, it's "late on Saturday morning," not "on late Saturday morning."
**** Which, given that you have a picture of Niagara Falls coated in ice, is why trainees are told to show, not tell.

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