Friday, December 21, 2007

Blown saves on the editing front

Two cases from Thursday's product -- one grammatical, one semantic -- in which better editing could have made for marginally smarter readers. Instead, we end up with more of the sort of garden-variety carelessness that makes mainstream news so easy to hijack by those who seek to work us woe.

Grammar first:
And here's the lede:
The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq warned Wednesday that al-Qaida in Iraq was still capable of staging spectacular attacks despite a 50 percent drop in bombings and other violence in his region.

Notice how much fun you can have just sliding a prepositional phrase around?
[Al-Qaida still threat] [in Iraq]
[Al-Qaida in Iraq] [still threat]

The hed tells you where "Al-Qaida" is still a threat, but the lede talks about a different group that's still a threat in Iraq. Fun, huh?
The best long-term solution would be to refer to the Iraqi group as "Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," but that's unlikely. News has a strong tendency to adopt the language of its sources; just as cop coverage ends up strewn with phrases like "extrication accident" and "person of interest," security coverage adopts "AQI" and "al-Qaida in Iraq."

Combine that with another well-established bit of news routine -- heds shouldn't directly echo the phrasing of ledes -- and you see how easy it is to make the hop from [b] to [a]. But the end result here isn't an equally matched pair of alternatives; it's a slightly loaded meaning and a heavily loaded meaning. Still wonder why so many voters think Saddam and Bin Laden were poker buddies?

Here's the same sort of conceptual confusion in a vocabulary issue:

Veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating mental ailments are discovering that their disability payments from the government vary widely depending on where they live, a McClatchy Newspapers analysis has found.

So far, more than 43,000 recent veterans are on the disability compensation rolls for a range of mental conditions. Of those, more than 31,000 have PTSD, which has emerged as one of the signature disabilities from the war on terrorism. Given the number of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is likely to be a fraction of what the total will be.

Here's where some editor needed to put the question directly to the McClatchy writer: What are the boundaries of this "war on terrorism"? Because if Iraq's been part of it all along, don't you guys owe those nice people in the White House an apology for all that untoward skepticism on your part back in naught-three? And shouldn't you stop dining out on your reputation for "truth to power"?

This one's an easier fix, if anything (just insist that the writer replace "war on terrorism" with a specific conflict on all references) -- but only if someone steps up and does it. Support your local desk, even if it means taking a few extra minutes with that pesky Middle East coverage and putting a bit less time into the shopping roundup.


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