Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The plague of question heds

Veiled hints don't seem to be doing it, so let's be a little more direct here. Certain major East Coast founts o'knowledge need to rein in the plague of question heds in their A sections in a major hurry, lest the young and impressionable start thinking question heds are acceptable. Here are two particularly bad examples from today's online edn (and yes, one implication of that is that if one question hed is bad, two is more than twice as bad).

Is extra milk bad for kids?
Children who drink more than three servings of milk each day are prone to becoming overweight, according to a large new study that undermines a heavily advertised dairy industry claim that milk helps people lose weight.

First, biggest and only-one-you-really-need rule: Question heds are questions. They should only go on stories that are about questions. This story is about an assertion, to wit: A new study suggests that milk isn't a good tool for controlling kids' weight. That's what the hed needs to reflect.

The hed is misleading in two other ways:
* It uses an abstract term ("extra") as a synonym for a concrete one ("more than three N-ounce servings").
* It uses one aspect of health (weight) to stand for a whole array of factors ("bad for kids"). If high dairy consumption correlates with other factors -- higher calorie consumption in general and less exercise, say -- there's no reason to believe the "extra" milk is "bad."

The article itself isn't flawless, but it does contain the stuff a hed writer needs to produce something useful and informative. Let's try to do that, rather than raising questions-that-aren't. (Designers, if you're forcing the rimsters to do science in 23 spaces or less, shame on you.)

Does Bible show where to find oil?
Businessman says biblical clues point to `blessings of the deep'

Well, in a word: No. Bible does not show where to find oil. Nor does Bible foretell Rabin assassination. (If I recall correctly, the page of "The Bible Code" on which that preposterous claim is demonstrated also contains right nearby the Hebrew word for "bridge," of which I have one in Brooklyn to sell to the next person who writes a hed like "Does Bible show where to find oil?")

HEADSUP-L likes to think of itself as a big tent, freedom-of-conscience-wise. Holy writ is, and should be, many things to many people. But it ain't petro-geography. And if the Fractious Near East has overnight gotten so sodding peaceful that you can p*** away your international news space on some goober who wants to go wildcatting with the Good Book, at least try to avoid suggesting that you take his assertion at face value.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to question the master from a lowly student position. I don't like the question hed either, but I'm not sure I understand the rest of the complaint on the Bible story.

If I remember correctly from rimming this story during my internship here in Greensboro, the point of the piece is that a Michigan man does believe the Bible tells where to find oil. He uses a passage from Jacob's blessing to Joseph near the end of Genesis as evidence that there is a treasure under the land given to Joseph. If he ends up finding oil, he'll say (and other might agree) that the Bible can show where to find it. By phrasing it as a question, the hed doesn't seem to be accepting his claim, but simply saying that it's a valid question.

OK, I should go back to work...

7:17 PM, June 09, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: milk hed
We've had a lot of talk lately about making heds more lively and conversational, especially on turn-of-the-screw stuff. ("Study shows milk bad for kids," "Subdivision zoning application initially approved by third council subcommittee," etc.)

It's certainly not an original initiative among copy desks, but I imagine it helped contribute to the thought process of whoever wrote the hed.

And, well, the specs were bad, and there was no deck. (Talk about an unoriginal complaint.)

11:12 AM, June 10, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Hey all: Comments make the world go 'round. Tnx for checking in, and let me see if I can move the ball down the field a bit farther.

Milk first, for no particular reason. Several things are worth noting in the well-worn discussion about how to make heds lively and conversational. One is the slippage in meaning of "turn of the screw." Its best meaning is something like "mandatory procedural step whose outcome is fairly well known in advance." Be careful of those who would extend it to "I don't have the background to understand this story or the attention span to try, so I'll make fun of it instead." Thus are important developments in the Middle East buried 'neath tales of the Runaway Bride.

Research, in short, is generally not a turn of the screw. But it does often start with a "research question." Part of the prob here is that the hed misstates the RQ. Best I can tell, again, the study isn't about whether "extra" milk is "bad for kids" (quotes indicate that those are the copydesk's terms, not the researcher's or the reporter's). It's about whether milk correlates with changes in weight -- or, stated directionally, whether milk correlates with weight loss. Since the study offers an answer -- no, it doesn't correlate with weight loss, and in some cases it seems to correlate with weight gain -- it strikes me as a waste of time to pose the question. Let's leave the cliffhanger bit to the Eyewitless Action Cool News 5 team: "Did the Tigers win? We'll tell you after the break!"

Yes, the spex are awful. Ask for better spex, and meanwhile try to raise consciousness about what research does and why it's worth reporting on properly.

Raising questions about matters of religious belief is a different subject entirely (which isn't exactly what the Bible hed does, but it's a good place to start). Because an issue like literalism or inerrancy can only be settled by appeal to outside authority, posing it in question form is unlikely to shed light on the matter and almost certain to yank chains in one or more camps. Reporting on people's beliefs is fine; posing such reports as hypothesis-testing strikes me as insensitive and careless.

The hed at issue strikes me as a different matter. Whether the treasure is literal or metaphorical is a matter for individual believers. Whether the treasure is oil, and whether it can be found at Ma'anit because that's where the head- and foot-like shapes on the map suggest it should be, is a testable proposition, resting mainly on the appeal to authority. Not all authorities are equal: A researcher with established credentials in studying weight loss is a pretty good authority on weight-loss research. On whether the treasures of the deep are oil, and where they should be found, her credentials are about the same as Jim Spillman's (the authority Zion Oil's founder appears to be citing).

Nor are all propositions equal. "There's probably a ninth planet out there, because these irregularities in the orbit of the eighth planet predict it" is different from "The moon is made of green cheese." Turning the latter into a question hed -- "Is moon made of green cheese?" gives it a validity it doesn't deserve.

A better question might be whether this story is actually about oil geography and the Bible or about the relationship between American evangelicals and Israel. As such, it's pretty illuminating. (The goings-on involving Zion's IPO and corporate governance appear to be, erm, rather entertaining too.) But elaborate crypto-empirical structures built on holy writ are a sheqel a dozen. Reverence for the Bible need not entail reverence for pop-culture scams like "The Bible Code."

Which is kind of a long way from the initial question, innit?

12:19 PM, June 11, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Footnote: Amy, ask the Raj if he still has a copy of Dr. Julie's presentation (1989 or so) on science reporting. She made a bunch of excellent, and very desk-friendly, points. I use pieces of that every semester in 4400-nee-110.

12:39 PM, June 11, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will ask. Thanks for the tip.

Also, the milk story appeared on the News 2* Use page, where we try to provide service journalism but often come off sounding like the Action 5 team.


9:06 PM, June 11, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Bible Code also reveals that the Clean Desk Club will meet sometime soon at Elmo's in Durham, exact date depending on whether a certain editor comes east this summer.

2:41 PM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Elmo's? You're kidding. I could have sworn it said Bullock's.

2:50 PM, June 15, 2005  

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