Tuesday, April 29, 2008

WTF editing

Here's the lede from today's entry in the Strange Editing Contest, just to set the scene:

New research challenges the notion that you can be fat and fit, finding that being active can lower but not eliminate heart risks faced by heavy women.

And here's the fourth graf:

The new study involving nearly 39,000 women helps sort out the effects of physical activity and body mass on women's chances of developing heart disease, said Gulati, not involved in the research.

Strike you as a little strange? Here's the AP original, as run by ... well, almost everybody who ran the story:

The new study involving nearly 39,000 women helps sort out the combined effects of physical activity and body mass on women's chances of developing heart disease, said Gulati, who wasn't involved in the research.

So what happened? At a guess, somebody forgot that relative clauses aren't exempt from the general principle that "omit needless words" is not just an excessively wordy way of saying "omit words." Lots of reduced relative clauses are perfectly innocent -- for example, the one in the second graf:

"It doesn't take away the risk entirely. Weight still matters," said Dr. Martha Gulati, a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Only the New York Times would insist on "... who is a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital." So predicate nouns are generally safe. Passive verbs are a lot riskier, as in "The horse raced past the barn fell."* It's the adjective that makes this a tricky case. I think it sounds really, deeply weird, and it'd sound even weirder if it hadn't been negated: said Gulati, involved in the research. But I can't say (and can't find a reference to support, not for want of trying) that you could never reduce a relative clause with a linking verb and an adverb: said Gulati, happy to be involved in the research. If anybody out there can document the point, pls jump in.

I'm inclined to chalk it all up to generalized WTF editing: not necessarily wrong, but strange enough to make the reader stop and puzzle at this odd new thing newspapers have inflicted on an otherwise fairly sensible language. All to pick up a single word in a wire story? Hardly seems to be worth it, considering the vast amount of genuine silliness that crosses the desk in an average shift.

* I think this is properly attributable to Steven Pinker; gratefullest a correction if that assumption is wrong.

Policy: Ur makin a complete and utter hash of it

Despite some bumpiness, there's room for hope in this tale from the Obama campaign's visit to one of our old stomping grounds:

It was a rowdy crowd of several thousand at UNC Wilmington's Trask Coliseum. The group wore Obama T-shirts and stickers and knew all the applause lines.

He spoke for more than half an hour, then took questions for an hour more, discussing foreign policy, education and tax breaks for the poor.

Cool! An hour's worth of questions about substantive policy issues! Such as?

A young woman in the second tier of bleachers asked about her father, a textile worker who is suspicious about Obama's patriotism. What would the senator say to her dad?

Oh. Next?

In response to another question about his faith, Obama said no one should believe he is anything but Christian.

And that's just about that, except for the obligatory Real Person quote at the end. ("I love him. I'm charged by him. I think he's the best thing going for America.")

There are three main possibilities:
1) Reporter completely missed the summary points about the Q&A
2) Reporter ignored any stuff that was pertinent to the summary points in favor of irrelevant hectoring about flag pins, scary middle names and the like
3) Reporter (and editors) can't tell the difference

OK, maybe a fourth:
4) Copy was hijacked en route and replaced with clever forgery

But I doubt it.

Seriously. I'm generally a big advocate of the role of professional media in, if nothing else, mediating: putting out the resources to get a first-hand look at events, but passing them through at least some rudimentary positivist filter designed to ensure that what the audience gets corresponds (roughly) to what it needs. But some days it's harder than others to make a case for leaving journalism up to the pros. This is one.


Duke Energy Corp. chief executive Jim Rogers has proposed a national use tax on every kilowatt of electricity sold across the nation. It would pay for a massive federal clean-energy research project, such as burning coal more cleanly and inventing a better light bulb.

... "It's one of those catch-22s. If I pay for it now, then there's the potential that I won't have to pay more later. I think we're at a state when everything's changing. I think the society we live in now is going to be different than this in 10 years."

No it isn't. "One of those Catch-22s" would be -- oh, if CEOs could avoid being sentenced to the reeducation camps by admitting they're Part of the Problem, but any CEO who admits to being Part of the Problem is automatically sent to the reeducation camps. What this guy has suggested is "investment in research." Not the same thing at all.

The lesson for editors? The paragraph is just sitting there, in isolation, no attribution. (Wouldn't it be nice to see four uninterrupted complete sentences from a candidate in day-to-day political coverage, though?) What would you lose by just deleting the first sentence?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Go away or I shall taunt you again

Hey, see if you can guess what the favorite verb over to the Fair-n-Balanced Network was today?

Rev. Wright Taunts Journalists, Blasts Government
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright grabbed the spotlight for the fourth day in a row Monday with a taunting and mocking speech that once again cast a shadow on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Sigh. You can have all sorts of fun with Fox's coverage of the Wright events, down to and including this rant from the "executive" "vice" "president" for "news." But that would end up obscuring the ultimate point, which is that Jeremiah Wright really isn't a pertinent political story. In a way, that's a shame. On the (plenteous) evidence, Wright is strikingly witty, adept at improvising, well read, and not inclined to take much in the way of stick from anybody. (Come on, NPR listeners; wouldn't you rather listen to his analysis than Cokie Roberts'?) But he's right. He isn't running for office, so it's about time to ring down the curtain and return to the folks who are.

Should you want to persist, though, I have a suggestion (and it's a framing suggestion, so you know it's methodologically sound). Every time you see a phrase like "embattled pastor" or "controversial pastor" introducing Wright on first reference, try replacing it with "former Marine." (It'll work with appositives on second reference too.)

Really. Try it. Framing isn't an accident, and it isn't a reflection of some impartial reality toward which we bow. It's a series of deliberate choices. Why not make them sensible ones?

Edit before you publish

Web first:
Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under the Clintons and a North Carolina native, introduced Clinton.

You hate to suggest that civilian control over the military can be taken too far, but ... anyway, here it is with a little reflection before publication:

She was accompanied by eight retired generals -- including Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President Clinton -- as she courted voters living near military bases in and in the mountains.

Isn't that better? It'd be nice to note, of course, that Shelton wasn't the "former chairman" of the Joint Chiefs in the Clinton administration. That's when he was the "chairman." If you really, really think there's a risk someone will misread the sentence if you leave out "former," you could always fill out the relative clause: "who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs ..."

Clinton's appearance will come just over a week before North Carolina's May 6 primary.

Her Democratic challenger also will be in the area this week.

Does that mean she's the incumbent or the champion?

Really. Editors have always worked fast, and they've always taken pride in working fast. But the evidence from the Web-first front continues to suggest that whatever the upper limit is on editorial speed, we're bumping up against it pretty badly.

The conventional wisdom for a while now has been that it's going to take some sort of train wreck to draw the glass offices' attention to the ever-worsening shortage of troops and time. I worry that we're on the brink of escalating the question: How many states does the fireball have to be visible in?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Speech acts: Ur doin them wrong too

A couple days back, a visitor wondered what exactly was the problem with putting a hed like "Myrick takes aim at terrorism" over a tale in which a duly elected solon announces her 10-point anti-terror program. With apologies for not answering sooner, let me offer a hed that illustrates the same point: the failure to distinguish which sort of facts arise from what candidates proclaim about themselves, each other, and the issues that are supposed to be pertinent to voters.

Brief detour. Probably the simplest way of thinking about speech acts is as "performative" speech. Somebody with the right level of authority says something, and the thing comes about: I declare that a state of war exists, I pronounce you spouse and spouse, I dub thee Brave Sir Robin, I bet my money on the bobtail nag (assuming you're standing in front of the betting window). The idea has been modified and hedged a lot since its introduction, to account for changed minds, broken promises, or the tendency of higher authorities to decide that the marriage you've just solemnized is invalid, owing to whatever theological or biological issues are on the authorities' minds that week. But it's still a handy way of telling stuff that's independently true or false, like "it's raining outside," from stuff that can be made true merely by being said.

See the distinction between "Myrick announces 10-point plan" and "Myrick fights terrorism"? The first one's either true or false, independent of what's in the 10-point plan. The second requires that the plan include something other than "rotate your tires" -- or that Myrick has special powers to declare what is and isn't part of the Global War On Newts Terror.

As in the example above. The hed declares "a question of civil rights" (it's expletive, in the same way "pain at the pump" means "[there is] pain at the pump"). Is there such a question? Or is this just sort of the press-conference equivalent of e-mailing 400,000 of your closest friends to see if anyone wants to help you split the contents of the Freedonian treasury?

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue's record on civil rights came under criticism again Friday from her opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor, State Treasurer Richard Moore.

Oh, really?

The flashpoints this time were beer bottle koozies and a legislative maneuver by Perdue in 1989 that the then-chairman of the legislative black caucus called "a slap in the face of black people."

Giving us the idea that the writer doesn't necessarily take this too seriously. Which, while appropriate, is also a bit unfortunate, because there's always the possibility that (a) your subtle wit will miss a reader or two and (b) somebody might actually believe that a story hedded "A question of civil rights" is about -- who knows, maybe a question of civil rights?

Well, you be the judge. One part of the "question" is a short-lived dispute two decades ago about how far below a majority the level for avoiding a runoff should be set. Another is the discovery of Confederate-flag-type garb at stop-n-robs (in another state) owned by a company chaired by the candidate's husband. But because we decided to label it a "question of civil rights," rather than a "garden-variety late-primary political attack," we've managed to elevate sartorial asshattery to somewhere near the level of the Voting Rights Act.

Handing the terms of the debate over to the inmates is a basic failure of the "mediating" function of media. There's a slightly bigger issue as well. The "securitization" approach conceives of security as a speech act: Politicians want to be able to call "security" on an issue, because when you get to define security, you get to say how far outside the norm a "security" issue is. Or, among other things, which civil rights you'd like to take away and how long it'll be before you consider giving any of them back. So it's more than just, um, whistling Dixie when the likes of Sue Myrick is allowed to call security on "terrorism."

There isn't a lot to the Wake Up America Act: A little guilt-by-association, a demand to keep an eye on Those Damn Arabic Translators,* a few dabs of irrelevance mixed with racism, and basically nothing at all related to detecting and stopping substate political violence, whether against Americans or anyone else. So it'd be nice if the media would do a little better at checking IDs. It's our job to report what these folks are up to; if they want to wrap themselves in a particular mantle, they can buy an ad.

* You think maybe Sue Myrick, Sweetheart of the Seventh Commandment, would be OK with not throwing translators overboard just because of their sexual orientation?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gee, this looks like a story too

It certainly did to the Beeb, which updated this version most recently at around 3:30p on Wednesday:

Israel has passed a message to Syria that it would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for peace, according to a Syrian government minister.

Funny, it seems to have looked like a story to the AP as well. This one's from about 6:30p Wednesday:

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A Cabinet minister said Wednesday that Israel has passed a message to Syria saying it is prepared to return the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the report, but the message could be a sign of progress in back-channel contacts that the two nations have reported in recent days.

No need to tear up the front page just yet. This isn't even the beginning of the beginning, let alone a formula for dissolving four decades of political, security and economic tangles (HEADSUP-L recommends the chardonnay). But when this much of this sort of signaling is going on this publicly, the cats fighting under the blanket are probably up to something pretty interesting. Why doesn't it seem to have gotten anyone's attention, given that Syria is -- oh, sort of salient in the news today?

It's not that the media are ignoring the "Mideast peace process"; Jimmy Carter certainly got a lot of coverage on his recent visit. I think the problem is that wire editors aren't paid to connect the dots anymore. Maybe "connect" is the wrong term; "find and publish enough dots so a regular reader can make sense of the next day's developments" is more like it. That requires space to publish the dots, but it also requires time to think about them and some sense of what dots do and don't look like.

No wonder the world looks confusing. We don't just show it out of context, we show it as if there was no context at all.

Hed tense: Ur doin it wrong

Couple basic points about how to use verb tense in headlines:

1) Present tense signals immediate past, the what-happened-today that makes something into a story for the next day's paper: Sox Thrash Yanks, Dewey Defeats Truman, Six Held In Murder of U.S. Nuns* -- you get the idea.
2) Future tense is -- well, don't use the future tense, because you don't know what's going to happen. So revert to Rule 1: Write about something that happened in the immediate past. Save "A Tanktown man will spend the rest of his life in prison" for the TV stations. We take into account the possibility that he might escape or win his freedom on appeal or what- ever and write "Man sentenced to life in prison," which will still be true tomorrow. Granted, it doesn't sound quite as breathless, but why be breathless when you can be right?

The point is illustrated by these heds from competing (well, allegedly) newspapers on the same story. The top one has it wrong. We don't know what the GOP will or won't do. All we know is what the story says:

The N.C. Republican Party says it will not back away from a planned TV ad that uses footage of Barack Obama's controversial former minister, despite objections from the expected GOP presidential nominee, John McCain.

Quick, raise your hand if you've never heard of a political party saying one thing and doing another. (Or, to be a little more charitable, of people changing their minds.) Thought so. That's why the second approach -- take a bow, N&O -- is the right one. "Refuses McCain's demand" will still accurately reflect the Wednesday event, no matter what happens tomorrow.

You have to admit, though, that GOP shill Linda Daves sure makes one homesick for a big old stack of Jesse Helms ads about "North Carolina values," doesn't she?

"This is not about the RNC," said Daves, of Charlotte. "It is about North Carolina, our values and two Democrat candidates who are out of sync with the values of North Carolina."

Where do you stand, Jim?

* CHN in-joke: Anybody remember the photo that Six Held ran next to?

Demons are often summoned ...

... by the mention of their names. You try to point out gently that when a particular bit of display type is the first thing to come to mind, it probably comes to mind because -- up, up and away! -- it's the display type you always see with a particular story. And thus it gets to be a cliche in a real hurry. As happened long ago for, say, "pain at the pump."
The paper that provides today's example (from a 1A "alternative" form) is as prone as any to a syndrome the wise John McIntyre has identified: It isn't a cliche when I use it! But could we at least point out that it used "pain at the pump" in a subhed as recently as Sunday?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gee, this looks like a story

Here's an item for consideration as we ponder the vagaries of campaign coverage and political journalism. An interesting discussion of international relations took place yesterday, but if you weren't lucky or obsessively attentive, you could easily have missed it entirely.

It got pretty good play at the Beeb, none that I could see at Fox or CNN, none at the Freep (which I read on dead trees) or the Obs (which I read online). The AP seems to have ignored it entirely, and it rated two grafs at the end of a Times campaign story. No hint of it over at McClatchy, which was busy being remarkably stupid:

Obama, also in Scranton, ate waffles at a local diner — perhaps some symbolism to remind voters of his claims that Clinton often changes positions on key issues, such as the Iraq war.

Anyway, here are two candidates discussing the appropriate response to a hypothetical Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Which one is the seasoned foreign-policy veteran, trustable with those late-night phone calls, and which one is the naif? Here are the quotes, per the Beeb:

"If I'm the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them. ... That's a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic."

"Using words like 'obliterate' -- it doesn't actually produce good results, and so I'm not interested in sabre-rattling."

Here's the elided part of the quote, per the NYT (which doesn't seem to see any need to quote the candidate who -- how to put this? -- seems capable of passing the introductory seminar in Having An International Clue):

''I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.''

The concern here isn't so much whether the media system is providing lots and lots of political information. It is. But there's a vast gulf between relevant information -- like whether one candidate is fairly sane while the other is a raving nutter, or whether Hillary Clinton's Mideast policy is actually identical to Charles Krauthammer's -- and the sort of stuff that floods the zone before each electoral contest and is picked over to death afterward.

So if you thought, say, the lapel/flag thing had been relegated six months ago to some distant Siberia where Fox News is taken seriously, you have some room to be concerned. Somehow, that hard-working media system failed to take advantage of the six-week break between voting matches. It's still fitting data into story lines, rather than fitting story lines to data (or, better, discarding the things altogether). The frames that organize storytelling about the Democratic campaign remain essentially unchanged: the Song of Innocence against the Song of Experience, or the candidates are indistinguishable on policy issues (neither being true, as today's example underscores). When news comes along that actually reflects -- oh, policy or something, rather than whatever facet of the Epic Battle is on the little minds today, it tends to be ignored. That doesn't bode well for the system.

You're kidding, right?

So there must have been a contest or something downtown? And there was a prize for the person who could write a worse Earth Day lede than "It's not easy being green"? And ...

As the famous frog Kermit once said, it's not easy being green.

Still, in a celebration of Earth Day on Tuesday, Sierra Club officials gave high marks to cities, businesses and individuals who are doing their best to love the Earth, including the Ferndale brewery that hosted the event.

Sure is hard to imagine such a thing skating through cityside, rim and slot otherwise.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The pump pain gang

Remember Orwell's advice -- never use a figure of speech that you're used to seeing in print? Here's a headline corollary: Whenever a story seems to call forth a particular hed, stop writing and find another hed. Immediately.

The hed that seems to be forever called forth is this, from the top of today's Palm Beach Post front. Look familiar? It should:
Those Who Live Here, But Work Elsewhere, Are Feeling Pain At The Pumps
Lancaster (Pa.) Sunday News, 4/20

Pain at the pump
Albany Times Union, 4/17

Pain at pump nears new high
Wisconsin State Journal, 4/15

More pain at the pump: Prices continue to rise
Atlanta J-C, 4/15
Drivers are coping with pain at pump
Dayton, 4/11

More pain at the pump
Santa Fe New Mexican, 4/5

U.S. consumers face chronic pain at pump
Richmond Times-Dispatch, 4/3
How do you suppose it looked last month?
Pain at the pumps continue to grow
Contra Costa Times, 3/25

Pain at the Pump and Beyond
NYT, 3/25

Pain at the pump
Telegram and Gazette (Massachusetts), 3/24

Pain at pump goes both ways
Columbus Dispatch, 3/15

More pain at the pump
Baltimore Sun, 3/13

In some towns, there's a pain war:
Utahns feeling pain at the pump
Deseret Morning News, 3/11

Pain at the pump: Utah catching up as gas prices break records
Salt Lake Tribune, 3/11
So March (as several newspapers noted) is the cruelest month, gas-pain-wise. How about February?
Expect more pain at pump
Milwaukee J-S, 2/29

More pain at the pump
San Jose Mercury News, 2/28

Pain at the pump grows
St. Pete Times, 2/23

Pain at the pump likely to intensify
Tacoma News Tribune, 2/1

Surely it's all a function of this year's price spiral?
Pain at the pump
Rock Hill, 11/17

Pain at pump continues; state's prices 3rd in nation
Freep, 11/12

More pain at the pump
Birmingham News, 11/10

As gas prices continue to climb, drivers feel pain at pump
Flint Journal, 11/9

Pain at the pump: $3+ gas
Miami, 11/7
Starting to get the idea? This one's embargoed until, like, the end of time. No exceptions.


Monday, April 21, 2008

No, but thanks for asking

The nice thing about a really, really attentive propa- ganda operation is that it's always working -- for you! As midnight draws near on the day before the enemy votes again, then, the little cousins at Fox made sure to swap out the dominant visual presence on the front page so you could -- well, so you could know that Pastor Byrd just wants to make you think! He's not a babbling loony with eyeholes in every pillowcase he owns. He's not political or anything. He just wants you to think! Just ask him, or let WSPA ask him:

"His name is so close to Osama I have a feeling he might be Islamic therefore he doesn't recognize Christ," Pastor Byrd said.

Um, somebody get Language Log on the radio and call in an emergency phonology strike on Pastor Byrd's position.


Turrists in the Rue Morgue! (with quiz)

From Somerset comes a note reminding us that there's more to the BBC than just strange misunderstandings of science. There's also room for "fatuous cultural prejudice" (nicely put, Graham), as in this example from Saturday:

Next-door-neighbour Rachel Clifford told BBC News that she met the suspect only recently, after she knocked on the door to complain about loud, Islamic-sounding music.

"Islamic-sounding music," you say? That's worth a bit of a detour into the land of cultural generalization, leading to the quiz below. Turning the generically "foreign" into a specific kind of foreign isn't new, but it does happen in interesting ways. One of the cool points of Poe's* "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is that the mystery voice is heard to be speaking in a different language by all the alleged witnesses, but it's always a language (those damn Spaniards/Russians/Englishmen!) the witness doesn't speak.

For our times, of course, the other-of-choice is "the Middle East." It used to be sort of a parlor game on the copy desk: When a terrified mall vendor tells the reporter she heard a man with a "Middle Eastern accent," try to figure out which bad movie she had in mind when she conjured up the accent -- bearing in mind, of course, that the same guy can be a "Middle Eastern terrorist" in one movie and a Salvadoran army officer in another.

What, then, might this "Islamic-sounding music" sound like? Let's nominate the utterly cool Ellington/Tizol tune "Caravan." Really weird and Middle Eastern, right -- like there's only a half-step between the first two notes of the scale or something?** So for tonight's quiz:

1) What's a common name for the mode that shows up at the beginning of "Caravan"?
2) Which continent do we trace that mode to?
3) Which of the great Abrahamic faiths is that mode associated with?

Have at it.

* Oh, go on. Pretend you're the New York Times and try to spell his middle name right. All the cool kids are doing it.
** Sounds more deceitful than it is; there's a 12-bar vamp on the V chord before you get to the real home key.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Intent vs. deed

Part of the mission is covering what Our Boys (and Girls) in Washington are up to. We could probably do with more of it. But part of the whole "objective" enterprise is being able to distinguish between what people say they're doing and what the evidence says they're doing.

Rep. Sue Myrick wants America to "wake up" and stop allowing terrorism to proliferate -- and if that means revoking the passport of a former U.S. president or examining the preaching of prison chaplains, that's what she's prepared to do.

(Oh, and while we're at it? Don't run pictures of 'em posed in front of the flag, all right?)

The Charlotte Republican on Friday released a list of 10 items she hopes will help peel back the layers on how radical elements of Islam might be infiltrating the military, school rooms and other elements of society. She also wants to stop the government from supporting terrorist organizations through financial investments and military sales.

... The co-founder of the House anti-terrorism caucus has spent an increasing amount of time trying to tackle what she views as threats posed at home by extremists, an issue that fuels her commitment to deporting illegal immigrants.

...Myrick acknowledged that her 10-point plan, "Wake Up America," might hit stumbling blocks in Washington. But she thinks it's time to start demanding answers.

That's certainly what Sue would like you to think. Wanna see the 10-point plan?

1. Investigate all military chaplains endorsed by Abdurahman Alamoudi, who was imprisoned for funding a terrorist organization.
2. Investigate all prison chaplains endorsed by Alamoudi.
3. Investigate the selection process of Arabic translators working for the Pentagon and FBI.
4. Examine the nonprofit status of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
5. Make it an act of sedition or solicitation of treason to preach or publish materials that call for the deaths of Americans.
6. Audit sovereign wealth funds in the United States.
7. Cancel scholarship student visa program with Saudi Arabia until they reform their text books, which she claims preach hatred and violence against non-Muslims.
8. Restrict religious visas for imams who come from countries that don't allow reciprocal visits by non-Muslim clergy.
9. Cancel contracts to train Saudi police and security in U.S. counterterrorism tactics.
10. Block the sale of sensitive military munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Mmm! Lots of threats to our schoolrooms and society in general in there!

I suppose it wouldn't be objective to say "provincial McCarthyite twit stampedes reporter," though that is kind of the standard-issue critique of press failures in the 1950s, isn't it? It'd be fun, but it's not the right way to balance "Myrick takes aim at terrorism." Report what she did (one thinks we could find a more impartial assessor than Ted Arrington) and have done. And don't mistake political actors' claims for their deeds.

Grammar in real life

The end of the semester looms, so it's a nice time to look back on our favorite saying of the first day of editing class: Pay attention to grammar, because if you don't get grammar, you're not going to get the rest of it either. Not news judgment, not heds, not ethics or fairness or libel -- you won't get any of it if you can't figure out how one chunk of meaning gets wired to another to create a bigger chunk of meaning.*

For example? One of my favorite bits of hed-writing advice is "never write a news hed from a relative clause." Relative clauses can tell you what makes a particular noun important, but news -- stuff happening today that has a claim on your reading time tomorrow morning -- lives in main clauses. You don't write "Man performs heart transplant" atop a lede that says "The man who performed the world's first heart transplant died yesterday." Make sense?

Here's a textbook example from today's news:

Local teen implicated in murder
A Columbia teenager implicated in the July killing of a Colorado Springs, Colo., man was taken into custody Wednesday, months after authorities in that state issued a warrant for his arrest.

"Implicated" was what happened last year. What happened to make this relevant was his arrest. The hed writer should have gone to the independent clause.

Worried that "arrested" makes the line a little short? After we fix the other stuff, that problem will probably be gone too. Since this is a local paper that writes overwhelmingly about local stuff, lose the baleful adjective "local." The location that needs to be distinguished is the distant one, so let's spend our modifying time there. That might leave us a little long, but there's a convenient cure. We know the event was a killing, but whether it was a "murder" is likely to be up to a jury. Thus:

Teen arrested in Colorado killing**

Brush after eating, watch those between-meal treats, and never look for heds in relative clauses.

* Yes, you should infer that many of those ringing admonitions about "grammar" are more appropriately described as "bizarre language whims." If's important to know what they look like, but that's partly because many of them are secret handshakes of the editing craft.
** I'm not crazy about calling a homicide suspect a "teen," but it seems like an OK way to shorthand the weird condition of his being a juvenile at the time of the offense and an adult now.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Would somebody explain this, please?

Quoth the Miami Herald:

Confronted on Wednesday with a second mistrial, prosecutors must now decide whether to seek a third trial for a Miami group accused of plotting with al Qaeda to blow up federal buildings in an insurrection against the United States.

Are we stacking the deck a little with that lede? In light of ...
... Prosecutors tried to prove the Liberty City group joined forces with al Qaeda in 2006 by taking a loyalty oath to the terrorist group and providing surveillance of target sites such as the FBI building and federal courthouse complex in Miami-Dade County.

Defense attorneys countered that the six men -- led by a Messianic-like figure named Narseal Batiste -- tried to con up to $50,000 out of an FBI informant who posed as an al Qaeda operative and set them up in a terrorism plot they had no intention of carrying out.

Was there a really, really clever Qaida dude who lured the FBI informant off the path and snuck in to administer the loyalty oath? Or did the alleged bozos swear allegiance to a guy posing as a Qaida operative? Seems to me that if it's the latter, the lede fundamentally misstates the issue. I can don the ornate robes and proclaim my role as St. Peter's heir all day long, but if you offer to join my secret army, you aren't swearing fealty to the Vatican. I checked.

The jury pools seem to have this figured out, but you do sort of wonder if journalism wouldn't be doing better by its part in the Great War on Terror if we were a bit more firm in distinguishing Qaida -- a dangerous bunch of people who pose a serious national-security threat -- from the vast array of lesser perils that arise from time to time.

If your mother says ...

Since we're supposed to be a craft that avoids cliches, as well as one that prizes a reasoned skepticism, you can fill in your own "If your mother says ..." formulation. But the point remains the same: If you're supposed to play Trust But Verify with your closest friends and relatives, what do you figure you ought to be doing with other people's undergraduates?
Here we have what looks like a pretty typical day at the Fair-n-Balanced Network. You can't see the rest of the day's top stories, but Fox World looks much the same as it always does. There's a desperate search for a missing mom. A Bible-believing teacher is being persecuted by the enemies of freedom. Eco-freaks are getting therapy for their greenhouse guilt. And, of course, Muslim demands for special privileges are causing Shock Outrage in Britain. The sun comes up, the sun goes down.
Not much surprise in the top stories, either. Somebody at Fox might want to look up the meaning of "salty" (hint: the dictionary's in alphabetical order for your convenience), but that's another case in which it's impossible to tell basic editorial incompetence from deliberate bias. Jimmy Carter has been a top Decline of the West story for a week now. But the Yale story ... hmm, let's have a look:
A Yale student who claims she artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" and then took drugs to induce miscarriages for her senior art project says she will showcase the stomach-turning display next week — complete with her own blood samples and videos from the terminated possible pregnancies.
The story of art major Aliza Shvarts' upcoming exhibit, which the Yale Daily News broke Thursday, has sparked widespread disgust and outrage.
That's open to debate -- or at least to counting Google hits. It's worth noting, though, that gullibility is an equal-opportunity employer, as the Huffington Post makes clear. (I can't tell whether Huffington or Drudge got to it first, but apparently the Yale Daily News is getting so much traffic at this writing that the original tale is only available in plaintext.) So let's take a look at exactly what's being claimed and what's offered in support.
Art major artificially inseminates self "as often as possible" while "periodically taking abortifacient drugs." How many donors, how many times? Not saying. How often actually pregnant in this nine-month project? Ibid. What sort of self-medication? "Legal and herbal." (Curly parsley? Thai basil?) Can we get a doctor's view? No, didn't see any need to consult a doctor.
Has it occurred to anybody yet that perhaps the point of the whole project is to -- oh, see what people say when they're told they're looking at a cube with the blood from the alleged miscarriages and the home bathtub videos? That absent some -- let's revise and resubmit that, absent any -- evidence that any of the events took place as described, what we have is a pedestrian account of an undergraduate art exhibition that has gained some national attention because of a provocative-sounding entry that has all the earmarks of a creative hoax? (Hint: When even the bobbleheads of the right admit the possibility that they're looking at a fake, that might be a bit of a hint for the alleged professionals at Fox and the outraged amateurs at Huffington.)
I usually don't have much time to waste on folks like NewsBusters, because that particular critique of media bias strikes me as fundamentally selective and ill-informed. (Unhappy with the 90 percent of media coverage that goes their way, they're making their Last Territorial Demand for the other 10 percent.) I take the liberty of quoting Warner Todd Huston here because in this case, he's right. Not only is the tale in all likelihood a hoax, "it's also proof that our sources of news rarely if ever employ any common sense in how they write up the news." He can't prove a negative, and neither can I. But "not provably false" is a long way from "true."
If you work for one of those grownup news sources out there, see what you can do to strangle this tale in its crib. Or at least to insist on, and make public, a full account of any attempts at verification and what sort of dead ends they led to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Were we going to edit this ...

... before we published it? Just wondering.

Citizen Exemplar ignored the persistent knocking on his door.

He was home Tuesday in the Back Creek Forest neighborhood near UNC Charlotte, studying for an MBA degree. He peeked outside and saw a car with a stranger in the passenger's seat.

"Study for" has a couple different ranges of meaning, which are conflated here. You can move to the UNCC area to "study for" an MBA (a long-term prospect), but when you're home on Tuesday night, it's to "study for" a particular test (short term). Pick one.

Exemplar grabbed his Glock pistol, but left it unloaded.

Grab: "To grasp or seize suddenly and eagerly," sez the OED. Does he keep the thing next to him when he studies?

The knocking finally stopped, the car drove away and Exemplar returned to his books.

A few minutes later, the knocking resumed.

Exemplar was scared. ... He put in a round of bullets.

Bartender! Erm ... no, he didn't. Doesn't the stylebook still have a "weapons" entry?

Exemplar is 41, an engineer, and he is fed up with crime. If he could stop one thief, he wanted to try. (Is this starting to suggest a question that ought to be answered?)

All right. Let's skip a lot of prose, some of it in longish sentences. And some not. Exemplar calls the cops, there are some thuds at the back door, then nothing happens, then a car screeches away. Cops pursue, nab, etc.

... Though officers believe Exemplar might have deterred any thieves by making them aware he was home, Exemplar believes there would have been no arrests if he had scared away the people charged in his case.

Uh, OK. Why was it they left in such a hurry, then? You mean if he'd let 'em in and waved the Glock at them, thus scaring them away, they wouldn't have been caught on the same schedule? What is it we're trying to say here? Who is it that he didn't scare away (notwithstanding that they fled) -- some unidentified people who tried to break in, or the people identified in the preceding graf, who(m) the paper has just declared guilty of almost everything they're charged with?

But soft! The protagonist is going to speak again:

"I had decided, 'This is going to stop here.' This will be their last job, period. If not, they would go on to somebody else's house."

Did we ask him what he means by that, please? I'm starting to form an idea, but -- are we implying because we don't think we need to ask, or because we forgot to?

More prose. Then a conclusion:

This time, Exemplar said, the good guys won.

But they did steal one thing: his sense of security. And how do you ever replace that?

Those damn good guys! Always running off with someone's sense of security.

I'm at a loss for why this should have been considered a story in the first place. But if we're going to run it, could we at least clean up the rough spots and loose ends?

Who's got the gun?

Driver hit bicyclist with gun, police say
A Columbia man was arrested last night on suspicion of hitting another man in the head with a gun after an apparent traffic dispute, police said.

Quick, which one has the gun?
[Driver hit] [bicyclist with gun]
[Driver hit] [bicyclist] [with gun]

It's easy to tell in the lede, because of the extra prepositional phrase between "man" and "with a gun." It's tricker in the hed, and thus a good argument for trading the ambiguous detail for a different approach:

Driver accused of assault after dispute

You can't have everything in a hed. Might as well have one thing you know, rather than one thing that could be a couple of things.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The mysterious (north)East

This one seems to be part of a Trend at one of America's Dailies:

Gunfire a mystery in northeast area

Wasn't it just last month that ...

Gunshots a mystery in south Columbia

Why, so it was. And once again, the hed writer is changing the subject: from "somebody heard gunshots" (which, you have to admit, is kind of interesting) to "where is gunfire a mystery in Our Town?" (which isn't).

Monday, April 14, 2008


If you didn't get the no-joke April 1 e-mail from OUP (first highlighted by The Ridger), perhaps you saw him on the "Daily Show": the "legendary" Bill Safire, "America’s foremost expert" on the language of politics, is out with an updated version of "Safire's Political Dictionary."

Might not be a bad thing to have around if, as Safire contends, he was just another impartial observer keeping score in the world of words. The problem is that he's not. Sometimes he goes to the trouble of looking things up or calling people who actually know stuff. At other times, he simply flat-out makes things up -- funny, always in a way that makes his friends look good and the opposing party look malicious and evil. But since it all comes in the same package, it's impossible to know whether you're getting some middling competent piece of observation and verification or an out-and-out lie. Like, say, this one Sunday:

Another McCain linguistic thrust: in diplolingo, realist was a word adopted a few years ago by foreign-policy wonks tired of being called accommodationist by Kissingerian exponents of tough-minded realpolitik. By effectively stealing the word realist to become their label, those on the dovish side of the spectrum found a way to heap scorn on hawkish believers in the export of democracy: they derided those pressing a ''freedom agenda'' as dreamy Wilsonian idealists.

Whee! Even by Safire's standards, that's a breathtaking bit of invention. (Unless he means it, and would you buy a political dictionary from somebody who apparently slept through the entire Reagan administration*?) So before we get into the evils done to "those pressing a 'freedom agenda'"** and those poor believers in democracy, let's look briefly at what "realism" tends to mean in American political discourse.

The first thing to remember is that "realist" means several things. Everybody wants to be a realist, meaning somebody who sees things as they are and won't be fooled by the knavish tricks of the British (French, Germans, Russians, North Koreans, Iranians, whoever). Rather fewer want to be a Realist, which sounds scarier and more Kissingerian but is essentially rooted in the same place: The world needs to be dealt with as it is, not as we'd like it to be.

The Dr. Strangelove bit isn't the only reason big-R realism is fairly rare in day-to-day campaign discourse. Realism's assumptions make for genuinely bad soundbites. Who wants to start a speech by noting that Saddam Hussein is a rational actor who happens to make it very easy for subordinates to give him bad information? And who wants to walk into a town hall meeting hand in hand with a philosophy that "refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe"? (Take a bow, Hans Morgenthau.) For such occasions, as Safire might tell us, was "that won't play in Peoria" coined.

The easy part of realism is, well, easy: It consists of comparing your rationality with the woolly idealism of the candidate or party you're trying to replace. That's why Reagan could paint himself as a realist, as opposed to all that annoying Carter-era stuff about human rights, and why Condi Rice could slag the incumbents in the 2000 campaign thus: "The belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else was deeply rooted in Wilsonian thought, and there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration.”*** (Rice and Thucydides, fighting it out for the right to slap Safire upside the head!) The challenging part is acknowledging that (a) most of the other actors out there are just as rational as you are (meaning they can figure out what their interests are and how to act as best they can to bring those interests about), and (b) God doesn't like you any better than S/He likes the next guy.****

What Safire has done, once again, is lie about the fundamental terms of the debate. Realists don't have any problem with "the export of democracy," but they do try to have some awareness of what makes up "democracy" and the conditions under which parts of it can be successfully exported. They're skeptical about a Republican "freedom agenda" for the same reason they're skeptical about Santa Claus; fictional characters who are invoked when power-holders want to coerce compliance can go wait in line with Phil the Groundhog. They're quite capable of discussing the Iraq debacle on moral and ethical grounds, but first things first: Did this act serve the national interest, or didn't it? And if it didn't, should someone be held to account?

That's the problem with Safire. He likes to talk about things like "diplolingo," but he doesn't, or can't, do it honestly. He's always going to have a thumb on the scale for his friends. That pretty much rules him out as a realist, and -- in case you hadn't noticed already -- it's another entry on that long list of evidence that nothing he says about language should be taken seriously either. Why does the Times tolerate this stuff?

* Other than Reagan, I mean.
** The words of this wizard stand on their heads, huh?
*** Rice, C. (2000) Promoting the national interest. Foreign Affairs, 79, 45-62.
**** And even if He did, He wouldn't conjure up a few more divisions of mechanized infantry for the occasion. Sorry about the pronouns.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

When you care enough ...

It's the playoffs, so only the stalest will do!

Friday, 1C:
Henrik Zetterberg celebrates his third-period goal that gave the Wings a 2-1 lead.

Saturday, 1B:
Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg, right, celebrates his game-winning goal Thursday with Pavel Datsyuk.

Sunday, 1D:
Tomas Holmston, right, celebrates his goal with linemate Pavel Datsyuk.

Can't wait for Monday's sports section. On a streak, gotta respect the streak, right?


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Calibrating the radar

This is the sort of thing the much-maligned "assembly line" model of doing journalism was supposed to correct or catch: a not-very-substantial story that isn't really sure what it's about, and thus bounces from one concept to another without addressing any of them. It isn't an out-and-out Faux News fabrication, but ... well, let's look at it for a bit before we talk about why we shouldn't do this sort of thing. Here's the lede:

Media attention and new campus alert systems established after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech may be responsible for a recent spike in false crime reports on college campuses nationwide.

Catch a bit of question-begging there? The lede's "about" the stuff in the main clause -- the media attention, the new campus alert systems, and what they allegedly may be responsible for -- but it can't be "about" a recent spike in false crime reports unless there is one. So there are actually two assertions that need supporting. How does the story handle them?

In the past two months, at least three false reports have been filed on crimes at North Carolina college campuses. About a half dozen more have been publicized across the country within the past six months.

The so-called editing radar is usually just a kind of rough deduction: Lede mentions a particular phenomenon, second graf offers a statistical representation of that phenomenon, therefore the stats must be some sort of support for the lede. Half a dozen of something in six months -- one a month, if you're scoring along at home -- must thus be some kind of "spike" in false reports of campus crimes. That's worth a little jaunt to library-land.

What's a "spike"? A sharp increase, originally one followed by an equally sharp decrease (the OED suggests it snuck into general use from the lab-coat sciences) but for the past couple decades also meaning just the increase. So one false report of campus crime a month must be a pretty sharp increase. Conveniently, the writer gives us a nice place to split groups for testing, the implied hypothesis being that there are significantly more false reports of campus crime after Virginia Tech (a year ago next week).

Preliminary examination of the data (lighten up; we're trying to sound scientific here) suggests that an out-and-out test would be a waste of time. People lie about crime on or near campus -- well, a lot:

A 19-year-old man from Rockville, Md., lied to University of Maryland at College Park Police when he told them he was robbed at gunpoint near Comcast Center last week, police said. (The Diamondback, October 2006)

An Ohio college student who admitted he faked his kidnapping will be arraigned today on the charge of filing a false police report. (May 2006)

A Florida Atlantic University student who reported she was sexually assaulted Feb. 26 in her car behind a campus library told authorities this week that it was a lie, university police said Tuesday. (Palm Beach Post, March 2006)

It's not new to North Carolina:
A 19-year-old UNCW student who reported she was attacked on campus last week has recanted her story, campus police said Tuesday. (Star-Snooze, August 2005)

... in part because it's not new anywhere:

Authorities say two Presbyterian College students lied about an attack to police because one of them was stressed out about school work. (AP, January 2008)

A former Claremont McKenna College visiting professor who led a campus protest against racism after painting slurs on her own car in March was sentenced Wednesday to one year in state prison. (Press-Enterprise, December 2004)

A ballpark search is always going to have reliability and validity issues; if you ask Lexis for stories in a particular database that include "campus" and "false police report," you don't get stories outside that database, and you don't get stories that say "false report to Smallville police." But we can safely pull the story out of the check-in line and subject it to (ahem) further scrutiny.

"For some people, it's the attention-seeking. For others, it's revenge. For still others, it's the feeling of power they get by watching a college campus react," said Daniel Kennedy, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. "It's like starting a fire, then sitting back and watching the commotion."

No doubt he said it -- this is American journalism, after all, and we don't make quotes up -- but what's the context he said it in? Did we ask him why people in general turn in false cop reports (in which case, we're deceiving the readers, whom we've led to expect a story about why this alleged spike might be linked to Virginia Tech or the new trend in campus alert systems)? Or did we ask him why there's a spike in false reports of campus crime (in which case, we deceived him)? Or did we ask him if there is a spike in false reports of campus crime, and he patiently explained that there wasn't any reason to believe so, and we went back and forth for a while until he produced a quote that fit the story line? One certainly hopes not.

False reports that trigger campus alert systems may not cut into the budget, but they can be costly when it comes to credibility, Capt. Jon Barnwell of the N.C. State University Police Department said.

Interesting, and probably true, but the credibility of campuswide blast alerts isn't any of the story topics we've introduced so far, is it?

Three weeks after UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson was killed, the Tar Heel campus was again on high alert. Senior Brian Sharpe reported a robbery attempt last week. Campus officials sent out e-mails to alert the campus community of possible danger.

The crime was never substantiated. Sharpe was charged with filing a false police report. A second e-mail blast debunking Sharpe's report was sent to students, staff and faculty.

Were these genuinely the same level of "high alert"? An overnight murder a good ways off campus*, and a real-time robbery attempt somewhere near campus (which is what the e-mail blasts are usually trying to address)?

Meagan Shallcross, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, said it was disturbing to learn that the report was fake, especially coming just weeks after Carson's death. "It's always going to scare people, but I think it seems so disrespectful," she said.

Brain hurts at this point. The story's already bloated out of control. What does "it seems so disrespectful" have to do with any of the topics we're trying to cover? Or was the goal to get a quote of some sort, regardless of relevance, from some UNC student?

On Feb. 14, a gunman killed five people and wounded 16 others gathered in a Northern Illinois University lecture hall before taking his own life.

Several weeks later, on March 3, Matthew Haney told authorities at Appalachian State University in Boone that he had seen a gunman near the west end of campus. School officials sent out a campus alert and canceled evening classes.

Authorities later said he made the false accusations because he feared having to pay for damage done to the front door at his campus apartment.

True enough, but doesn't this sort of flatly contradict the premises of the lede? Desire for "media attention" is usually not a factor in what we will hypothesize here as "garden-variety undergraduate cluelessness." And the campus alert system might be the mechanism that spread the false report, but if it is -- a somethingori -- it can't be the cause of the false report.

Well, we could go on and on, as the story does, but things aren't going to change much. There's no evidence of any increase, much less a "spike," in false reports of campus crime (or any indication that anyone made the remotest effort to see if there was one). And of the local examples cited, none support the idea that a desire for media attention, or some sort of teething pains in campus cop technology, has anything to do with any such increase, in the unlikely event that it might have happened. Revenge and power? Out there in some abstract world, perhaps, but no reason to think they're related to anything we bother to address. In short, we have a story that actively subtracts from the sum of human knowledge. On average, you're dumber after reading it than you were when you started.

Which is to suggest, overall, that openly dishonest journalism a la Fox isn't the only kind of bad journalism out there. This isn't a malicious story; it's a potentially interesting story that turned into a bad one because it spends all its time reaffirming received wisdom, rather than asking a few basic questions about how the "conventional wisdom" managed to pass itself off as either conventional or wise.

* About a block from the original HEADSUP-L office; I don't want to hear any challenges about the geography.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Best kind

A reminder that the reading public doth not always admire our work for its news content alone:

Three fire engines and two booster trucks were dispatched to the scene and an airplane with a tank dropped hundreds of gallons of water over the burning flames to help contain the fire, Lopez said.

... onpassed to a birding list by a reader who was pleased to note that no water was wasted on the wrong kind of flames.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Verbs gone wild

Rough night for verbs downtown, as this cutline suggests:

Traffic is ground to a standstill on I-94 near Harper Avenue as police keep an eye on an inmate who jumped out of a police van Tuesday.

Oh, admit it. You really, really want to put that one into the active voice, don't you?

The story comes complete with the sort of lede that reminds us why briefs need to be written simply. (Yes, technically, it's a separate, with a two-column hed and a photo, but in real life it's a three-graf brief; the fourth graf just lists all the cop shops that "responded.") As a general rule, if you can't write a subject-verb-object-type hed from the first independent clause of a briefs lede, you have the wrong lede. If you have trouble deciding, try hollering "Extra! Extra!" Like this:

A handcuffed and shackled inmate escaped serious injury Tuesday afternoon after he kicked out the window of the moving St. Clair County sheriff's van he was being transported in and hurled himself into traffic along westbound I-94 at Harper in Detroit.

"Extra! Extra! Inmate escapes injury!" I mean, legendary was Xanadu.

Fortunately for the writer, there is actually a worse lede on the same page:

The former prosecutor of Ogemaw County got a harsh lesson Tuesday in what happens to public officials who buy machine guns and silencers for personal use.

Official use only for those machine guns, you public officials! You heard it here first.

Photos upcoming

Yet another installment in that never-ending series "Why real news outlets edit AP copy before publishing it." This example's from the Miami Herald, but several dozen other sites evidently haven't touched the original prose either:

The prohibition is traced to the roots of the holiday, which marks when God sent an angel to kill first-born Egyptian sons, but spared the houses of the Israelites. Soon after, Pharaoh freed the Jews, who fled in such a hurry that the dough they took didn't have enough time to rise.
(Eds: AP photos SN201, Red Sea parting; SN202, waters closing over hapless Egyptians; WX101, file mug of angel.)

Dear AP: If you weren't actually there to witness the divine intervention yourself, should you oblige your readers with a little attribution?

OK, maybe that's a little harsh on the AP. Maybe the AP is distracted temporarily by other developments:
An Iraqi judicial committee has dismissed terrorism-related allegations against Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein and ordered him released nearly two years after he was detained by the U.S. military.

Wonder how many papers we'll see that in Thursday morning?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Guessing game II

That's right, kids! It's another fun-filled guessing game. Here's the center- piece from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network's Web site a few moments ago. Today's quiz:

1) How many times is the Venezuelan president mentioned in the accompanying story?
2) How many times are "President Chavez's national regulations" mentioned in the accompanying story?
3) What person or agency decided that the program was "unfit for children"?
4) How many Western Hemisphere nations can you name that regulate broadcast TV programming during hours when children are likely to watch?

Here's the earth-shattering story in its entirety.

Guessing game

Hey, editors! See any relevant details that might be missing from this story?

If John Bomar stabbed his live-in girlfriend in the back last fall, it must have slipped his mind, he told authorities in an hour-long statement after his arrest.

"She had the knife first," he told Clinton Township Police Detective William Furno. "We got to tussling in the hallway ... She gets stuck, and we kept wrestling."

Go on ...

Bomar's statement was played Monday for Macomb County Circuit Judge Mary Chrzanowski, who ruled that it could be used as evidence against him in his trial, which is scheduled to begin May 28.


Bomar, 58, is accused of chasing Grace Bommarito, 43, down the hallway in their apartment complex, the Peri Manor Apartments in Clinton Township, and stabbing her 10 times in October. A neighbor told police that she opened her door and saw Bomar's last stab to Bommarito's back.


The butcher knife pierced Bommarito's lung, Furno said during Bomar's interrogation.
Bomar said he didn't remember it that way.

"If I stabbed her in the back, it slipped my mind," he said.

And then ...?

Furno said that despite Bomar's testimony that he and his girlfriend tussled in the hallway, the only blood police found was outside of a neighbor's door about 120 feet from the couple's apartment.

It's not our job to rewrite everything that comes down the old editorial turnpike. But it is our job to stand in for the poor beleaguered reader by asking the occasional obvious question. Post your guesses here, and if you're still stumped, you can find the remaining two grafs here.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Lying (by implication) with statistics

Just another day over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Woman stuck in bathtub waits 5 days for rescue
Woman sues Victoria's Secret over bra injury
Men arrested after schoolgirls find severed head

And, of course, the one shown at upper right (screen-grabbed to remind you that we don't make this stuff up):

Survey: 60 percent of Arabs OK violent response to West

Which is one of the main things that Mideast coverage at Fox does: Remind you that you sit alone in the shrinking circle of light shed by Western Civ, and Those People are out to get you.

It's a tad bit duller in the hed on the story itself, which also has a bit of a different object:

Survey: More Than 60 Percent of Arabs OK Violent Response to Western Interference

A new poll has found that more than 60 percent of Arabs believe violence is a permissible reaction to Western interference in a country, and 55 percent believed offensive words or behavior was another acceptable response, Qatar's Gulf Times reported.*

Oh, so it's not a "violent response to the West," but a "violent response to Western interference"? Let's have a look at what Gulf Times actually reported and see if we can figure out why this article was worth the investment of staff time that rates a Fox creditline:

Arabs find issue of religious extremism exaggerated: poll
A YOUGOV poll commissioned by the Doha Debates has concluded that nearly one-third of all Arabs believe that Saudi Arabia is at greater risk from religious extremism than any other country in the world.

There's an interesting result, you think?** Having almost nothing to do with what Fox chose to prioritize when it appropriated the data?

Dishonesty with the results aside, let's return to the matter of "question error" and interpretations based on same. What does it mean to say violence is a permissible reaction to interference in a country?

We could consider "interference" first. That could mean, oh, subverting an elected government, supporting a military coup, colluding with an upset neighbor to be shocked! shocked! at the possibility of damage to an international resource -- pretty much anything up to and including an outright 21st-century combined-arms invasion.

What violence is permissible? That seems to be heavily conditioned on who's "interfering," where, to what degree, and how much we like the people doing the interfering. Substate violence against Soviet interference in Afghanistan seems to have been pretty good. State violence against Iraq's interference in Iran, not so good. State violence against Iraq's interference in Kuwait ... well, break out the color graphics, it's rally-round-the-flag time!

Perhaps a better way to look at it is: Under what conditions would any part of any population say "yes" when asked if violence is an appropriate response to "interference"? You could play a little TV bingo and see how long it is until you can catch "Red Dawn," the archetypal movie about how high school athletes respond to outside interference with Our Way of Life. Or you could ponder what today is the 40th anniversary of and note that in a large part of the country, well within living memory, the response to people who interfered with Our Way Of Life was to shoot them, blow them to pieces, drop them in the river, or otherwise terminate their commands with extreme prejudice.

So for tonight's assignment -- design a survey that, in your state or region, would yield 60% and 55% responses you could class as "justifiable" to questions about whether violence is acceptable in response to "interference" or "offensive words or behavior." Fox doesn't bother to report it (and I have some concerns about aggregating responses from that many countries), but you can have a margin of sampling error of 3.2 points at 95% confidence. Ready, steady, go.

* Alert readers will note that Fox got the second element completely bassackward. This is the proportion of respondents who say violence is an acceptable response to offensive words or behavior, not the proportion who think offensive words or behaviors are an appropriate response to Western interference. (I seem to recall some really cool posters in Berlin of Brezhnev tongue-wrestling with Erich Honecker; does that count as offensive words responding to interference?)
** Also part of a growing body of research about public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries, which most people who are interested in democracy (good) or conflict (generally not good) already know about. Which in itself says something about the degree to which the cousins at Fox either know or care about either democracy or conflict.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Transition of the morning

The robbery was a relative rarity in Charlotte's south side. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police's South Division has the lowest number of violent crimes in any of the department's 13 divisions.

But that wasn't an issue for the two men who entered the Lotus II Chinese restaurant shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday and demanded money at gunpoint.

Ignoring the odds, following your dream -- kids, that's the sort of thing that will make you stand out in these tough economic times!

Why I like journalism -- mostly

Sometimes it takes a little bit of prestige-journal snarking match to remind you that journalism is actually a pretty remarkable line of work. Commentators are arguing, with some justice, whether the Big Dailies gave enough credit to the less prominent outlets whose work actually put HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson on the slippery slope. There's a good point there, but I hope it doesn't obscure a larger and better one.

To wit, as of this writing at least: There's actually a decent-paying gig* or so in the private sector whose job description is something like "keep an eye out for corrupt sleazebags, and raise hell when they try to line their incompetent friends' pockets with public sheqels." Which is a bit of an exaggeration. Bloggers say stuff like "corrupt sleazebag" and "incompetent friends." Journalists are the ones who track down the records and make the phone calls and match document to document and -- at the editing stage -- tone down "corrupt sleazebag" into something that, ideally, even the sleazebag's friends will acknowledge is a bad thing to do with public money.

Lots of the other things journalism does are silly. Our pals over to the Log have no end of fun with the damage that news routines do when they run across assertions from the scientific domain. As they should. And if the social science side wants to start by administering a serious Milgram-level electric shock to any journalist who uses the phrase "within the margin of error," we'll hold the electrodes and buy the first round. But all that said -- isn't it kind of nice that "find and objectively describe public corruption" is part of somebody's job description?

I'm put in mind of all this, of course, by my local newspaper, which in Its infinite wisdom managed to devote two paragraphs onTuesday to Secretary Jackson's resignation. (I don't have the scorecard at hand, but you'd like to think that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is one of those executive-branch jobs that's, oh, 15 to 18 heartbeats away from the presidency, depending on how you count.)

There was, of course, genuine super-important news to report on Tuesday, which is why two-thirds of the front page is given over to Mitch Albom invoking the zen of baseball:

The day began in drizzled depression, gray misty skies, a shivering wind, scattered puddles of melted snow and "For Sale" signs everywhere you looked.

Mitch? The puddles? They weren't "melted snow." They were "rain." Srsly! I checked.

All right, to be fair, I would have fronted an Opening Day story too.** But that doesn't entirely explain why the resignation of a Cabinet secretary rates two grafs at the end of the briefs column, while the resignation of the Finnish foreign minister is a six-graf separate, with two mugs, in the Wednesday paper.***

Let's recap the relevance of these two stories to Detroit readers, shall we? Corrupt US housing secretary quits, two grafs; formin of some country that a Gannett publisher couldn't find on a map if you gave him/her a head start and waterboarded his/her whole family, six grafs. The major difference seems to be that the US housing official was giving money to his friends, whereas the Finn was, in the delicate language of the AP, sending text messages in which he "discusses women's' clothing." And that seems to settle that.

Whatever evil stuff journalism does sometimes, we're lucky to have it. And if you'd rather your local paper save its breath for real news, that's all right too. But there's some risk that if journalism -- the craft itself, not the silly stuff advocated by the glassholes and the News2Use crowd -- isn't wanted, it might eventually go away. And that wouldn't make for a very good doctor-patient relationship.

* At one point, something one could consider retiring on, as long as one got rid of the K-R matching stock at the right time. Of course, nobody bothers about trivial stuff like that anymore.
** Think we should ask Mitch the call letters of the station he listened to the seventh game of the 1968 Series on?
*** No, little friends at the Freep, you can't say "Finnish leader out." Heds usually avoid articles, so we can't tell whether you mean "a Finnish leader," which is your point, or "the Finnish leader," which is what you have the misfortune of saying.