Friday, January 20, 2006

What's a couple of letters between friends?

Associated Press story in today's CJ begins, "Google Inc. is rebutting the Bush administrations demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet's leading search engine..."

Really? Google is claiming the administration has made no such demand? Because as presented, that's what that sentence means. Of course the right word is "rebuffing." The only uncertainly is whether or not the AP got it wrong.


Those wacky CJ copy editors are at it again. Oddly, the headline has the word "rebuff" in it.

A Google news search turned up 221 iterations of the story online with the phrase "Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush" in use. How many with "Google Inc. is rebutting the Bush?" ZERO. I guess that Google is pretty smart if it knows better than to include stories in the TCJ in it's search results.

Well, what's this? It's not wrong in the online edition? Nice segue to a future item...


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Headlines matter

On January 12, 2006 The Capital Journal published a story written by Hal Lockard about Topeka mayor Bill Bunten's letter to the mayor of Buckhannon, WV.

The background to this story is that following the deaths of 12 miners in that area, Westboro Baptist Church Minister, Fred Phelps announced his intention to bring a group to picket the memorial service that community had planned.

The story ran under the headline, "Mayor sends note of apology to W.Va." (registration required)
Now to me, the word "apology" has a fairly specific meaning, and frankly, in this context I found the headline quite provocative. As a resident of Topeka, while I view the behavior of Phelps as a noxious blot on our civic landscape and his ventures outside of our community never fail to provide poor public relations for our city. But I'm not responsible for his existance or his behavior and neither is my city. I do not apologize for him and I don't want my mayor apologizing on my behalf.

The headline takes me into the story with a chip on my shoulder. Reading the story, only one, brief quote from the letter is provided:
"Please understand they are not representative of our community and we disavow in the strongest possible terms the hatred they espouse and their abominable activities in the picketing of funerals."
Mr. Lockard also provided several interview quotes from Mayor Bunten about the letter:
"It's not a policy. It's more a public relations thing," Bunten said.

"I talked to the governor's staff and told them I was concerned about what might happen, and gave them a heads up," he said. "We don't want them saying Topeka is Westboro Baptist Church."

So after reading the article, that's everything we know about the content of the letter and mayor's intent.

Do you see an apology? Me either. There is a major disconnect between the headline and the story that follows.

This is bad journalism. But lets be clear, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Lockard's work. This got botched at the copy desk.

Here's how it typically works...

The newspaper receives a copy of the letter from the mayor's office. An assignment editor puts a reporter on task to write a piece about it, perhaps giving some guidance about what is envisioned. The reporter reports and writes the story and submits it for editing. The editor reads it and and edits it as necessary and passes it along to the copy desk.

To this point the process worked. Here's where it broke down...

The copy desk is charged with a variety of responsibilities. They are the last line of defense when it comes to accuracy, spelling and grammar. They put together page layout and as such, often have to edit stories for 'fit the hole,' as it were. This can be done with or without the input of the reporter or editor. It's possible that content that supports the headline could be lost at this stage. The copy editor also almost always writes the headline. If the copy editor changes the story, there is no excuse for a disagreement between the 'hed' and the 'copy.'

When writing a headline, several purposes must be served. The headline's purpose is to entice a reader to begin reading the story. A headline must accurately reflect the copy. A headline is subject to physical space constraints. The challenge is to write a headline that advertises the story well while being accurate and fitting the space.

Endeavoring to find out, I spoke with Mr. Lockard and as suspected, he not only didn't write the headline, he hadn't seen it at the time of our conversation. Nothing substantial was cut from the article for space. Ipso facto, the headline is crap. Mystery solved.

All that remains is the question of whether or not the mayor did indeed apologize. Is it possible that Mr. Lockard simply didn't write about that aspect of the letter and that the copy editor knew things about it that were not reported? Yes, it's possible. It's exceedingly unlikely though. And in any case, this would in no way explain the disconnect.

I obtained the letter:

click to enlarge

There is no apology. Yeah, the Mayor is embarrassed on my behalf and he needn't be. He's expressing condolences for the communities loss and offering them information that will help them cope with the presence of the Phelps klan.

The point of discussing this is not that this example is a particular outrage. It's a good object illustration. This breakdown happens often. The simple fact that the hed and the copy disagree is a problem. After reading the article, I had no idea which was wrong. I was worse than uninformed, I now knew I didn't know things I needed to know...and that the paper wasn't telling me. This is a failure.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Not a manifesto.

I've been considering things.

I've been considering the motivation for launching this blog and I've been considering what I intend as its scope. I've also considered the consequences.

Let me be clear in the fact that it's the moments of disgust and outrage that reading my local paper frequently triggers, that animates the decision to go forward with this undertaking. But having made that decision it occurs to me that I wouldn't enjoy the creeping-curmudgeonliness that would ensue from an endless stream of cranky rants. As such, it's my intention to spotlight both the good and the bad. There is abundant, good work in the Capital-Journal. I will bring both brickbats and accolades to this page.

And though I've titled this blog 'The Red Pencil,' I am not really interested in being the paper's copy editor. I will only highlight spelling and grammatical errors when they are either egregious or...amusing. I fully expect my commentors to take me to task when I err. And I will. It's an area where I will try to employ a deft touch.

Factual errors are fair game. Yesterday (January17, 2006) , a story about the opening of the Johnny Canino's restaurant flatly stated that Tiramisu is lemon custard. Yeah...not so much.

Baseless or unsupported assertions come with a target painted on. Naked agendas will be noted.

I will welcome pointers from others to things I may miss. Reading and commenting on the Topeka Capital-Journal is not, nor will it become my mission in life. I won't catch everything.

I will also not limit myself to discussing the TCJ/CJonline. I may comment from time to time on other Topeka, regional or national media as well as other things Topekan. I may go off on a Chicago Cubs tangent...who knows...

There was an item in last week's paper that was the metaphorical straw that collapsed the apathy that was my camel. I have a document to scan then I'll write it up as an upcoming entry. Normally I'll try to be more timely than this but that occured just as my hard drive experienced its digital rapture.