Thursday, July 22, 2010

[Sic] semper

Let's call this genre the "sheds light" story -- meaning roughly "we can't show that it has anything to do with the main topic, but we think it's close enough to run anyway." The tale is the latest on the NCAA's don't-call-it-an-investigation of doings in the UNC football program, courtesy of the now nearly indistinguishable N&O/Observer sports department. Perhaps the most interesting light, though, is shed on the N&O's attitude toward dialect, slang and appropriate style rules for transcribing interactive media communications.

Side note: this post began Tuesday evening, but owing to the hospitality, grilling skills and plentiful cooler of operatives "Boris" and "Natasha," it went unfinished. The story has since been substantially modified (more bluntly, we could probably say it was actually "edited" for print in a way that it wasn't for online publication Tuesday afternoon). Some of those changes are noted as they occur.

Twitter posts shed light on UNC player under investigation
 (The new hed is Tar Heels' Austin a prolific Tweeter -- which, you'll have to admit, is rather a climbdown from "sheds light"*)
Before his Twitter account went dark, UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin posted more than 2,400 updates and built up a following of more than 1,800 people.

... It is not clear whether NCAA investigators were aware of Austin's Twitter account, but his posts provide a portrait of Austin's life off the field in recent months. Austin bragged about trips to Washington, D.C. (his hometown) and Miami and his penchant for shopping sprees.

"Not clear" meaning "we don't know," "we didn't ask," or both? Anyway, light is about to be shed, so shut up and pay attention:

In a May 29 Twitter post that went up at 3:07 a.m., Austin wrote, "I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin [sic] like its giveaway," a reference to a 30,000-square night club at Miami Beach and champagne bottles.

Well, thanks for reminding us what "bottles" might mean. But seriously -- "comin" is worth a [sic], but the incorrect "its" isn't? (In the updated version, this sequence has been pushed down to the 29th paragraph, and it's followed by this sentence: "The post, however, is a direct quote from "Sweet Life" a song by rap artist Rick Ross." I'd call a (sic) on the "however," which is supposed to indicate a contrast with something you've said earlier. And the missing comma before the appositive is just wrong.)

In the past four months, Austin also posted pictures of a watch for his younger sister, a bag from an upscale sunglass store in Miami and a $143 bill from The Cheesecake Factory in Washington, D.C..

[Sic]-wise, we might ask: What do you buy at a sunglass store -- sunglass? It certainly doesn't sound like a place where you buy sunglasses (or insert an otiose period after "D.C.", but that risks piling on).

"Jus got to DC an [sic] I'm feeln [sic] a shopn [sic] spree … nobody gon [sic] be fresh as ME!!!" Austin tweeted on April 23.

So "an," "feeln," "shopn" and "gon" rate a [sic], but "jus" doesn't? Jus trying to get a grip on your understanding of dialect here, N&O sports des!

Between Feb. 25 and March 8 (the exact date was not available on Google), Austin also lamented his lack of income.

He wrote: "Im [sic] so tired of being broke…somebody make it rain… where is packman [sic] jones when u need em."

"Make it rain" is a euphemism for throwing money, typically single $1 bills, at dancers in an exotic club, a maneuver made notorious by former NFL player Adam "Pacman" Jones.

No, that's not a "euphemism." That's a "figure of speech" or "metaphor." What we have here is a "clueless reporter" spending too much time at "Urban Dictionary" and coming back to "share the wealth." You think the subject is wishing somebody would go throw bills around in a strip club or wishing that someone might throw some money at him -- the sort of rain-making that's been hanging around American English since the late 19th century?

Austin, who's from Washington, could have left for the NFL after his junior season at UNC, which featured a career-best 42 tackles and four sacks.

We don't have a [sic] for this, but -- since you said earlier that Washington is his hometown, is there a particular journalistic virtue in repeating the point here?

Given a second-round grade by the NFL's underclassmen advisory committee, he could have entered the draft and expected to receive a signing bonus of at least $900,000.

He chose to return for his senior season, which is now in jeopardy if the NCAA finds he received improper benefits from an sports agent.

Austin referenced money when he announced his decision return to UNC on Twitter on Jan. 1.

"… yea I could go get paid but in some things it aint all about the money … I love carolina point blank!" he tweeted on New Year's Day.

Sigh. At this point it'd be appropriate to see a [sic] after the "aint," but what would it be siccing -- the use of "ain't" itself or the absence of the apostrophe? And -- being so attentive to young Austin's syntax -- could we maybe pay just a little attention to our own? For example, the missing "to" between "decision" and "return"? (NB, the longer version of the story now includes a list of all the people who wouldn't comment and a number of irrelevant comments from people who would.)

Well, enough. Our writer here seems convinced that he has a Story, even though the hed is substantially dialed-back and at least one of the more damning quotes is, um, somebody else's quote entirely. (Hint: If I tell you it's too rough to feed you, it's not because I think we're about to founder somewhere short of Whitefish Bay.)

What sort of story is it? At the end of the day (and at the beginning of the next day too, after substantial editing and further reporting), it's a story about somebody being loquacious -- and perhaps stupid, but that calls for a lot of inference -- on a social media site. I think it's also a story about how some loquaciousness -- specifically, scary "urban" loquaciousness -- is presumptively more interesting to newspapers than other forms.

The obsessive siccing suggests that the paper doesn't have a very good handle on what people do with things like Twitter. That's partly a style issue, and one that lots of papers could stand to discuss. It's also a matter of deciding whether any particular pile of information amounts to a story -- and if so, why. In this case, I'd say we've been misled under time pressure and did a poor job of putting matters into context when we had a moment to reflect.

We shouldn't expect reporters to kill their own stories. That's why we have editors, and why editors have cats.

* Nor, [sic]wise, do I see much reason to make "Tweeter" a proper noun.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Perhaps "sunglass" is what they make sunglasses and tinted car windows out of?

All those "sic"s make that reporter look scared to death.

3:36 PM, July 25, 2010  

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