Saturday, December 17, 2005

Drop the roscoe, AP

Why do writers keep writing ledes like this?

WASHINGTON - More people than ever are turning their cars into personal phone booths, with a million-and-a-half drivers gabbing on cell phones at any given time. Women and young people are the most common yakkers.

About 10 percent of the people on the road during the day are using cell phones, up from 8 percent in 2004, the government reported Thursday.

Six percent of drivers were holding the phones to their ears, up from 5 percent last year.

Probably because editors keep running them -- a couple hundred nationwide in this case, if a search for the fairly distinctive phrasing is reliable. So editors need to launch the cure: Don't run this sort of stuff, and publicly berate and humiliate the writers who turn it in.

Did the awful writing not get anybody's attention? Did anybody bother to look in a few reference books and see if "gab" and "yak"* are as anachronistic as they sound? So, first question: What's with the 1940s slang in a December 2005 lede?

On a deeper look, though, "gab" is more than just '40s slang. It's a real verb, several centuries old, meaning, per the OED, "to talk much or glibly; to chatter, prate." Thus we have the AP playing All Verbs Are Equal again. I'll be happy to assume that most of what's said on cell phones is prattle -- I'll go the NHTSA** one better and call for public horsewhipping for cell-phone-using drivers -- but the AP's cheating if it thinks it can make an even swap of a flashy verb for an accurate one.

Which gets to the more entertaining point. Any particular reason we should believe any of those figures? Hmm. By the second graf, we find it's a report from "the government," which seems to think this two-point increase is significant. And by the third graf, mirabile dictu, somebody seems to think a change from 5 percent to 6 percent is a change worth reporting.

Must be some pretty serious sampling to yield results that good, huh? Let's check the methodology:

The NHTSA survey was conducted between June 6 and June 25 at 1,200 road sites across the nation. Trained observers watched vehicles go by and charted what the driver was doing. The ages of drivers are estimates based on their observations.

Well, that's a relief. At least it was trained observers, rather than Dimbo the Flying Garden Slug and a couple of his roommates. And at least we admit that the ages are, uh, estimates. Anybody care to hazard a guess on how random the rest of the sampling is?

Again, don't misunderstand. Anything that makes people hang the [really naughty word] up and drive is fine with me, including corporal punishment, sale of offenders' firstborn to oilseed mills, and mandatory first-offense sentences of life without parole watching KOMU intersession news with high school choruses singing Christmas carols at the commercial breaks. But if we're going to campaign, let's campaign. Don't cloak it in fake statistics. Come right out and do it.

Confirmation class
After The New York Times reported, and CNN confirmed, a claim that Bush gave the National Security Agency license to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with people overseas, the president said that his actions were permissible, but that leaking the revelation to the media was illegal.

Well, that's a relief.

* Must admit, it took about four reference books to even find "yak." Sic semper people who keep stuff at the office.
** Is this really an acronym in Washington? Can you say "I'll go NHTSA one better?"


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