Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Here's Fox, making up a story

The Fair 'n' Balanced Network is usually rather good at covering its tracks, fibwise, but for some reason it gets careless when Massster is in the spotlight. Here's a fresh example from Monday:

President Trump was asked why Dr. Anthony Fauci, who works for his administration, has a high approval rating on the handling of coronavirus but Trump himself does not. “It can only be my personality,” the president said.

“I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci,” Trump said at a White House coronavirus briefing Tuesday. “I agree with a lot of what he’s said.”

Trump said that “for the most part” his administration has done what Fauci has recommended.

"He's got this high approval rating—so why don't I have a high approval rating, and the administration, with respect to the virus?" Trump continued. He touted the administration’s work on testing, PPE supplies and producing ventilators.

"Nobody likes me. It can only be my personality. That's all,” the president said.

Everything after the first sentence is true -- not very accurately assembled (there's some unmarked snippage that makes Trump sound fractionally more coherent than he is), but true. Here, though, according to the White House, is what Trump "was asked":

Q: On that note, Mr. President, last night, in tweets that were deleted by Twitter, you said that Dr. Fauci misled the country about hydroxychloroquine.  How so?

THE PRESIDENT: No, not at all.  I think — I don’t even know what his stance is on it.  I — I was just — you know, he was at the — he was at the task force meeting a little while ago.

I have a very good relationship with Dr. Fauci. ...

In other words, the lede is bogus. It's not a case of the press sharing Trump's obsession with approval ratings, which would be a little snippy if true. ("Mr. President, lots of Faber coeds say Dr. Fauci is the only Delta they'd go out with.") It's a question about why Trump shared, and then deleted, derogatory claims about Fauci. Which might be a small thing in the context of the rest of Trump's performance, but still -- it's the lede, you guys.

As a rule, you should avoid lying about things people can check. Fox may be slipping a bit as the election draws near.

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Friday, July 17, 2020

The letter and the spirit

A reminder from the local fishwrap last week that it doesn't do a lot of good to follow the letter of the law if you ignore the spirit of the law.

Some background, in case you haven't been paying attention: The Gannett empire announced in mid-June that it would join other news outlets in capitalizing the "B":

Through a series of internal conversations that began with the USA TODAY diversity committee and ultimately cascaded across our network of local news organizations, we have reviewed our current stylebook and are making the following change:

Effective immediately, the USA TODAY Network — one of the nation’s largest print and digital media companies — will capitalize B when describing Black culture, ethnicity and communities of people.

My view, which is worth every penny of your subscription price: Good. This was overdue. Now provide the resources to enable smart, sensitive editing at the hubs that will put your style into practice, because otherwise you're just dressing up the cop blotter with a small orthographic change:

According to the City of Westland Police Department, two or three Black males began arguing inside a perfume store in the mall, which is located at 35000 Warren Road. 

Stylebooks and textbooks have long cautioned against randomly tossing race and ethnicity into news coverage. Here's the 1999 version of the Freep's own stylebook, for example, under "race":

Identify a person or situation by race, ethnic origins, religion, etc., only if that information is relevant and essential.

And under "crime":

When writing about suspects, physical descriptions are useful only if they give enough information for a reader to identify the person. Race, ethnic origin, religion, etc., are relevant in detailed descriptions -- ones that fit very few people. The following is NOT a detailed description: a man about 6 feet 1, in his mid-30s, Hispanic, wearing light-colored clothing. 

The AP (2019 version) is blunter about the underlying reasons:

Consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor and drawing unnecessary attention to someone's race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry.

This is your occasional reminder that proofreading is not the same thing as editing. The change in style didn't just fall out of the sky. It arose from a series of sharp reminders that news language ought to be taken seriously. (As we like to remind students in editing classes: No, I don't know what you meant, but I have a really good idea of what you said.) The new rule is about what to do when ethnicity is relevant -- not a lowering of the bar for relevance. If anything, it's implicitly a call to think more closely about what "relevant" and "essential" look like and at who should make those decisions.

Again, I'm not blaming the overworked hub editor who had neither the time nor the social capital to throw a flag on this one. It'd be nice, though, if the system was built in a way that rewarded the editor who pointed out that "two Black dudes arguing at the mall" is exactly what the spirit of the stylebook is meant to stop.

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Monday, July 06, 2020

The shield and sword of the Party

The sheer ingratitude of some people. Here's the poor Fair 'n' Balanced Network, working its head off on behalf of the Trump campaign, and all it hears from the top of the food chain is this kind of stuff:

You get the idea that the mean people at the White House simply aren't paying attention, so perhaps we can help a bit. Here's the No. 2 story from the Monday homepage (image at top):

Joe Biden tweeted Sunday night that if he gets elected, his administration “won’t just rebuild this nation — we’ll transform it,” raising speculation online about what exactly in the country will be transformed.

See? Active voice and everything!

The tweet comes after a politically charged Fourth of July weekend, as the country works to manage a new surge in COVID-19 cases and tries to emerge from weeks of tense protests that have resulted in a widening divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Biden’s tweet did not specify what exactly he means by transforming the country. His critics from the left have expressed concern that he served in the upper echelon of government for over 40 years and didn't help solve these major issues in the past. His critics from the right insist that a Biden White House will take marching orders from the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party. Some conservatives say his vice president pick will be an early indicator of his administration's direction.

Gotta love the style touch on "the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party." But at this point, you should have figured out why this is a top campaign story. One of the scariest monsters under the Fox News bed is the scary Kenyan dude's "promise" to "fundamentally transform" the country, so anything that calls that to mind is a win from the outset. (Somehow Ronald Reagan's similar claim from 1989 always goes unmentioned: "We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.") Still, of course, any claim about transformation needs context and sourcing:

... Scott Morefield, a media and politics reporter for the Daily Caller, responded to Biden’s post and said the transformation Biden was referring to would be the country's turn “into a socialist hellscape."

Read more »

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Monday, June 29, 2020

'What many are referring to'

It's certainly been fun the past few days, watching the Fair 'n' Balanced Network tie itself into knots trying to keep up with the official line on the newest "Russia hoax." And Monday morning's No. 2 story is a fine illustration of how the routines of news work to make the Fox perspective look perfectly normal.

There's a tweet from a top newsmaker to cycle the story ahead, so the central assertion never has to rise to the top (as on Sunday, with "Top conservatives demand answers" and "Trump pushes back"). We have denials from the Russians and the Taliban before we get to domestic statements: first an expert, then the rival candidate (though he gets a separate column reflecting the Trump campaign's main election narrative), then the official White House comment, to put all the back-and-forth into context.

The most charming sign of Fox's attention to detail, though, is the hedge in the paragraph addressing the scope of the situation:

The Times’ report sent a shockwave through the Capitol on Friday where politicians have been focused on the recent unrest after George Floyd’s death in police custody and what many are referring to a resurgent coronavirus outbreak.

(Here's a screen capture in case it goes away:)

And just like that, the magic of attribution -- which we all love, right? -- turns a piece of data into just another assertion.


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Saturday, June 27, 2020

It's the best there is

Every editor, no matter how open-minded, has a peeve or two that never escapes
unranted-about. This is one of mine, and since it's now showed up in my local paper twice this week (today, above, and Tuesday, at right), you get to share it too.

Granted, Catch-22 is some catch -- by some accounts, the best there is. But it is not the problem facing the restaurants and bars (not "eateries," or you're getting into multiple peeve territory). Here's a summary from today's piece, which, aside from the kicker in the print edition, doesn't even mention Catch-22:

Now as they slowly reopen, they're faced with the new reality of keeping their customers and employees safe, while trying to be profitable.

Those are some serious issues, compounded by more challenges for the employees: who do you call out for breaking the rules and when, and with what expectation of support? If an officer walks in and says "gimme eat," do you give him eat or tell him to put on a goddamn mask and ask politely? But "Catch-22" is not a fancy word for a problem with no easy or pleasant answers; it's a problem that eats its own tail. Let's say the state Health Department has issued an order saying that employees who have an irrational fear of catching the coronavirus don't have to work. All they have to do is ask for paid time off. But if they ask for paid time off, they must have a rational fear of the coronavirus, so they're not eligible. That's a catch-22.

The source quoted in Tuesday's story gets it literally right: "It's a no-win for everyone." Call it that, or a lose-lose. It stands out better when it isn't dressed up as something it's not.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

'Acceptable in all references'

The AP's style announcement today (actually several, so go view the whole thread) is a big deal --not just because of the AP's outsize influence on US news language, but because that influence has reflected the AP's historically conservative approach pretty much forever. Here are a few highlights of how the world has looked through the AP's eyes over the years:

1970: The courtesy title "Mr." is to be used "only with Mrs., or with clerical titles."
1977: "Use black or Negro, as appropriate in the context, for both men and women. Do not use Negress."
1980: "Black" is "acceptable in all references for Negro."
1986: "Native American" should not be used for American Indians because their ancestors "migrated to the continent over a land bridge from Asia."('86 was a momentous year at the Stylebook; women could appear in news stories without courtesy titles; "Dark Continent" was no longer a synonym for "Africa," and "paddy wagon" vanished altogether.)
1994: "Gay" is "acceptable as popular synonym for both male and female homosexuals."
2002: "Sharia" becomes "strict Islamic law" (and picks up a distinction that doesn't exist IRL: the tied-T is marked on adjectives but not nouns). It goes back to being "Islamic law" in 2003.

By "conservative approach" I don't mean "molasses that voted for Goldwater," and I certainly don't mean to slight the excellent work the AP is doing these days applying a just-the-facts approach to the rantings of the White House and its armed propaganda wing. The AP has always had a broad range of contributors and a broad range of users.* The earliest edition of the Stylebook I have is from 1960 (the year AP and UPI started collaborating on a common stylebook), and it notes that the AP had been working for years on ways to provide copy "more nearly conforming with majority usage and thereby make use of TTS tape efficient to the maximum degree": if you don't have to re-keystroke the copy, you cut a step out of the production process. On the user end, the same text is going to the big-city dailies as to the mom-and-pop daily in Kansas. Well beyond the era of hot type, if the New York Herald-Gazoo didn't want courtesy titles for women and the Emporia Democrat-Republican did, it was easier for the H-G to take them out than for the D-R to put them in.**

Style is also one of the main markers of objectivity: when you're citing a "precise" or "specific" usage, as in those non-Native Americans whose ancestors are really Asian, you're deferring to an outside authority rather than imposing your fallible judgment. It's unusual for stylebooks to go as far as the Guardian's "Our use of language should reflect not only changes in society but the newspaper's values"; the default is to decide that you're reflecting the world as it is.

My perspective, should you want it: Good for the AP. I think this was overdue, though I'd also point out that owning an AP Stylebook doesn't mean you have to follow it into the ground. If you've been holding off on a sensible decision on organizational style because the Journalist's Bible tells you so, stop it. You won't hurt the AP's feelings.

Now let's all sit back and wait to see what happens when Fox News hears about this -- given that the AP's 2013 decision to stop using "illegal immigrant" (which the Stylebook had mandated over "undocumented worker" in a 2008 entry) was worth a lead story at the Fox homepage.

* With a lot of overlap; the AP is a co-op, after all. Raise your hand if you've ever chatted with the nearest buro at the end of a shift about which stories it wanted to pick up.
** The NYT had nearly 100 Linotypes around the time the first reference-size edition of the  AP Stylebook came out in 1977. You make the call!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

These uncertain times

In These Uncertain Times, it's nice to know that the Elongated Yellow Fruit still stands ready to do its duty.