Sunday, July 30, 2006
Journalism and tourism
The hiatus is over, and it's time to get back to blogging, among other things.

My family went to New York and Montreal for our summer vacation. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit inside The New York Times.

The bulk of this tour, of course, was walking around large rooms full of desks and computers, but it was fascinating to see the nerve center of one of the world's most important newspapers. We visited the boardroom, which is lined with autographed photographs of the famous people who have visited through the decades. We strolled the halls decorated with the seemingly countless Pulitzers the paper has won. And we saw some familiar names on the schedules for the Metro copy desk.

Even my 6-year-old son was impressed. Thanks to Arlene Schneider and Don Hecker at the Times for making this such a memorable part of our trip.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:21 PM | Permalink | 2 comments
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Vacation, all I ever wanted
This blog is on hiatus. Please check in for new posts at the end of July. Thanks for reading.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:43 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Prayers for judgment continue
Here's what a huge banner promises at a Crunch gym in Manhattan:


Some dictionaries note "judgement" as a variant spelling of "judgment." The ruling here: "Judgment" is still preferred.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:42 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 21, 2006
Wiki wars
Wikipedia, where everyone is a writer and editor, is ripe for mischief. Earlier today, an image from the original "Star Wars" was included under the listing for 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict, as noted at Wonkette. The cutline reads: "An IDF laser cannon fires into Southern Lebanon."

The prank has since been edited out of the entry, allowing Wikipedia advocates to point to the online encyclopedia's self-correcting abilitities. Other assertions, not as absurd but nonetheless faulty, slip by. Such errors, sometimes deliberate, appear frequently and often go uncorrected for extended periods, as NPR reported earlier this year.

As a source for fact-checking, Wikipedia is OK as a starting point, as many entries list primary sources at the end. But the site is inadequate as a "one-stop shop" for careful editors.

UPDATE: Stephen Colbert has a funny take on Wikipedia that's available on YouTube.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:34 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Plagiarism sacks Duke QB
Duke University is without a starting quarterback for the upcoming season because Zack Asack has been suspended for plagiarism. A lot has been said lately about Duke's balance of academics and athletics, but this is a heartening indication that the university takes such transgressions seriously.

Here are some interesting facts on plagiarism, a problem in the classroom and the newsroom.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 7:24 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Colbert cuts to the truthiness
Stephen Colbert has a funny take on the announcement that The New York Times is reducing its page size.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:42 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Location, location, location
Chimney Rock, a privately owned tourist attraction in the North Carolina mountains, is for sale for a cool $55 million. As the clever headline in The News & Observer says: "The price is steep, but you can't top the view."

The story, however, points us in the wrong direction:

Since 1902, the Morse family has owned the park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Rutherford County, about 250 miles east of Raleigh.

The Web version of the story corrects the error.

posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:59 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Don't be like mike
What is the better short form for "microphone" — "mike" or "mic"? The AP prefers the former, and that seems to be the consensus in a recent discussion at the American Copy Editors Society site. I appreciate the arguments of the "mike" advocates. "Mic" seems more contemporary, however, and "mike" reminds me of old Hardy Boys books that refer to blue jeans as "dungarees."

"Mic" would have been handy in this headline, which probably made some readers wonder: "Who's Mike?"
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:17 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, July 17, 2006
The president talks some s---
The dreaded "comment picked up by a microphone" has struck again. This time, President Bush was overheard using some rough language in criticism of Hezbollah while he dined with British leader Tony Blair at a summit.

Here's how the AP story used the direct quote:

"See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's over," Bush told Blair as he chewed on a buttered roll.

It's unusual to capture the president talking this way, and the choice of words reflects his frustration with the Mideast situation. The "shit" is part of the news, much more so than the buttered roll. It will be interesting to see which, if any, newspapers publish his comment as is.

UPDATE: Here's how a few papers and wire services handled this:
  • "Munching on a roll, Bush told Blair, 'What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this [expletive] and it's over." — McClatchy Newspapers, as published in The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
  • "Using a vulgarity, Mr. Bush said at one point that Syria should get Hezbollah to stop its attacks on Israel, describing American policy in the kind of unfettered language that he acknowledged only weeks ago sometimes gets him in trouble when he uses it publicly." — The New York Times
  • "His solution to the Middle East crisis was that Syria should press Hizbollah to 'stop doing this shit,' " — Reuters, as published on the Washington Post's site
USA Today has a story on the decision on what to run.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:47 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, July 14, 2006
Sneaking over the wall
Newspapers go to great pains to tell readers about the barrier between the news and editorial sides. Readers don't want to believe that the two departments exist on separate planes, however.

The recent stories about the U.S. government's use of financial records in terrorism investigations have brought us back to the issue of news vs. editorial. The New York Times editorial defending the publication of the story took careful note of the fact that the editorial board was not part of the decision to publish the story. The Wall Street Journal followed suit, although there's some indication that the news side isn't happy with the way the editorial side handled the situation.

In my experience, news and editorial are discrete operations. In nearly five years leading the wire desk at The News & Observer in Raleigh, I exchanged pleasantries with members of the editorial board, and once in a while, I had to ask them whether they were planning to run "Doonesbury" when the strip was in the news for some reason. That was the extent of our contact.

But the separation isn't absolute. I recall a time at the News & Record in Greensboro when the news copy desk breached the barrier. It happened when someone on the desk noticed this headline on an op-ed piece as the first edition of the paper rolled off the press: "A black priest pulls out."

The headline produced snickers, and the copy editor who normally handled the editorial pages was gone for the day and couldn't be found. So the news side went in, rewrote the headline and resent the page for later editions. Our decision to sneak over the wall was worth saving the paper from the embarrassing double entendre.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 4:11 PM | Permalink | 1 comments
New wiring
McClatchy's purchase of Knight Ridder includes the KRT wire service. It's now called McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Its Web site reflects the change, and it will be interesting to see how long the "formerly KRT" note endures.

UPDATE: Melanie Sill, executive editor at The News & Observer, discusses what the merger means for McClatchy's Washington coverage.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:35 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 13, 2006
I don't like Mondays
Time elements in photo cutlines (or captions, if you prefer) are trouble. A day of the week paired with a present-tense verb creates a time-warp tension.

More often than not, cutline writers can leave out the day of the week, or in the case of standalone photos, save it for the second or third sentence of the cutline. Otherwise, readers trip, however briefly, over the thought of someone smoking some Monday as the man is described as doing in this standalone photo from the Orlando Sentinel. Did he inhale?

The blog Headsup discusses a similar situation here.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 3:19 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Naming rights
Proper names, like all words, matter. In some ways, they pack even more meaning. Geography and history — truth itself — are at stake. We've seen that reflected this week in the news:
  • U.S. media continue to hem and haw over Bombay vs. Mumbai, as Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism observes. Many stories use "Mumbai" and then mention somewhere that the city was "formerly known as Bombay." That's fine in that it recognizes the official name while also helping readers who may not be aware of the switch. But this is a "teachable moment" for newspapers: With the train bombings there such a big story, why not take a moment to explain to readers why this city seems to have two names? A quick sidebar or textbox would do the trick. (It also wouldn't hurt to describe the city as more than "India's financial capital." What about the Bollywood influence?)
  • Poland has often objected to references to World War II concentration camps that imply that they were run by Poles rather than the Nazis. Imprecise language such as "Polish death camps" often brings a slew of corrections and clarifications from U.S. newspapapers, as Regret the Error has noted. Now the Polish government has a deal with the United Nations to label the Auschwitz site as "the Former Nazi German Concentration Camp of Auschwitz." The intent is good, but that name is so cumbersome that it seems unlikely that any journalist would use it.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:19 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Web heads
Headline writing and story play are a little different on the Web. Time is an issue, and so is automation. Here are a couple of examples where these factors make an impact:

This headline and story from The New York Times site disagree. How tall was that building? This is a discrepancy that can arise out of haste. The fluid nature of the Web also allows for easy corrections, making this a simple fix. If only newspapers could be so fortunate.

This slanted headline and story placement from Google are more problematic. The headline rings of bias, a frequent charge by people on both sides of the Midest debate. A click on the link sheds some light: The story in question is an editorial from Bangladesh, not a news story. In that case, the headline is OK.

Google News, however, presented the headline and first sentence as news, not opinion. A reasonable reader is led to believe that the link will lead to a roundup of the day's news from the conflict. Such are the hazards of aggregators, which tend to blend news and opinion. This is why human editors are still (thankfully) necessary.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:24 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, July 10, 2006
Travel writing: the rough and the lonely
The NYT has an interesting look at the reporting, writing and editing of travel books such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Let's Go. The task is not as fun and romantic as it may appear. Says one writer: "There's been a lot of quiet weeping into my keyboard."

Note the name of the woman in the top photograph in the Times story: Amelia Atlas. Could there be a better name for a travel writer?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 10:23 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Sunday, July 09, 2006
A sentence to balk at
Cubs fans suffer enough without having to deal with troublesome writing. Here's a sentence from a Chicago Tribune story about injured pitcher Kerry Wood:

Wood will take the next few weeks to decide whether or not to have arthroscopic surgery to repair the damage but said he's leaning towards not at this point.

The bad news would be a little easier to digest with a rewrite:

Wood will take the next few weeks to decide whether to have arthroscopic surgery. He said he is leaning against it.

Here are the problems with the original sentence:
  • Most of the time, "whether" doesn't need "or not" after it. The "or not" is implied.
  • "Repair the damage" doesn't add much. Why else would Wood have the surgery? The story had already mentioned that he had a partially torn rotator cuff, so the reader understands the objective of the surgery.
  • "Towards" should be "toward." But "leaning toward not" is still awkward and requires rewriting. "Against it" is more conversational and concise.
  • "At this point" is like "currently" — such modifiers can usually be deleted.
  • The sentence is too complicated. Simplify by making it two separate sentences.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 8:23 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Wolfgang Puck can't spell
My last name is hard to spell (as this restaurant reservation shows) and hard to pronounce. Perhaps the advocates of spelling reform have an answer for me: Becktoll.

posted by Andy Bechtel at 2:08 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Eclectic youth
Regret the Error has a good one today: the reporter who let the spell-check change "eclectic" to "electric" in a direct quote. The correction is a minefield of spelling hazards, including the name of the source and the name of the music festival mentioned in the story.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 1:39 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
May I call you by your first name?
In one of the numerous memorable "Seinfeld" moments, Kramer asks Jerry whether he can borrow his bathing suit. "I don't know," Jerry responds. "That's a little familiar."

The way these headlines use first names feels a little familiar in that same vaguely uncomfortable fashion. American journalism prefers the use of last names in headlines and on second reference in stories. That convention indicates a sense of detachment and neutrality. It's a good thing.

These headlines, published in the same newspaper on successive days, are hardly proof of a trend, but they do illustrate the problem of getting too casual with people in the news. That tone may work in celebrity news or in sports, where readers recognize and accept the paper knowing someone on a first-name basis. In political coverage and other sorts of harder news, such labeling is too casual. It indicates a coziness with the person in the story that may be inappropriate.

In defense of the headline writers, the Limbaugh head is a tough one because it's in a one-column position, and "Rush" is certainly convenient in that spot. The headline count is more generous in the story about Newt Gingrich. Both headlines also suffer slightly from ambiguity: Are we talking about the band Rush? The amphibian Newt?

Headline writing requires some degree of compromise, but using the first names of news figures may be a deal we shouldn't make. Let's stick with surnames unless there's an overriding reason to do otherwise.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:32 AM | Permalink | 0 comments