Saturday, March 04, 2006

Error-free CJOnline?

In Police official cites lack of accountability (Published Friday, March 3, 2006) as it appears currently on CJOnline, the 16th graf reads as follows:

"Human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues. She asked Herman if police were prepared for a riot."

Yet today, the following appears near the bottom of the left column of page 5A of the print edition:

"Topeka human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested at a meeting Thursday that Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues and asked Topeka police Maj. Gary Herman if police were prepared for a riot. Friday's Capital-Journal incorrectly reported the identity of the human relations commissioner who made the statement and asked that question."

It's clear what happened here. Rather than publish the correction on-line, on Saturday as was done in print, the on-line version of the story was just quietly, retroactively altered to reflect the correction with no acknowledgement of the error.

This is policy at CJOnline. This is how it is always done. And--it--is--wrong.

Unlike print, the Web provides the technology to perform the correction in this manner. This action however, diminishes the stature Web as a medium. The refusal to exploit the malleability of the medium in this fashion would lend credibility to the reliability of the content CJOnline provides. By attemting to create the false and ridiculous appearance of flawlessness it sends a signal that the site can't be trusted. If I post a link here, will it say what it said when I posted it, when you read it?

The Web also provides an opportunity to handle corrections on-line differently than in print that would actually give the Web publication an edge in this area. In addition to posting corrections online as short content items just as they are published in print, the correction can be added as an addendum to the story itself, without altering the original text of the story as published.

An old copy of the print edition will always contain the error with no pointer to the correction that came after. Future readers of the story online could have the benefit of the correction and the confidence that the paper isn't burying it's mistakes and hiding from them.

My recommendation is that CJOnline choose a location on the Web site where one may consistantly find any corrections and also amend the corrected story with an editor's note above the story along the lines of this:

Editor's note: Paragraph 16 in the article below contains an error and should have read, "Human relations commissioner Georgia Shannon suggested Topeka could face major problems if it didn't do something about race-related issues. She asked Herman if police were prepared for a riot." (correction dated March 4, 2006)

The appearance of perfection is incredible. Credibility extends from accountability.


The jaundiced eye.

Relatively few people can construct prose well. Many people that do so in a official, quasi-official or even a professional capacity fail to. This can create a kind of tightrope for journalists and copy editors.

One need only become a regular reader of letters to the editor to see the frequent, ungrammatical writing and the tortured syntax. A reader is often challenged to see past this to the eloquence or wisdom behind the writing. Editors do not, normally correct or massage such material, nor should they.

Reporters frequently gather quotes in the course of an interview for a story that just ain't pretty when written down. Sometimes the speaker has poor mastery of spoken English and sometimes someone that does, is translating a thought into speech off the cuff and gets a little diverted in the process. Speaking isn't writing, even when it gets written down.

This common occurrence makes it quite easy for a journalist to make someone being quoted in a story look foolish, if the appearance of foolishness would serve an agenda. Occurrences of this are thankfully rare, though sometimes subtle and not easily spotted. It's also exceedingly easy to simply misquote someone either through honest error, inattentiveness, laziness or deliberate misfeasance.

Sadly, it's also all too common to find embarrassing sentence construction in material written for publication by someone singled-out for that responsibility. It would surprise many poorly written press releases pass through the newsroom in-box or fax machine.

Educated writers and editors know when they're quoting a textual train wreck. When I see it happen, I want to understand what's going on.

In the March 4, 2006 Capital Journal the lead story (in print, not on the Web site...a discussion for another day) follows the coverage I discussed in yesterday's blog item:

Two officers disciplined

On the page nine "jump," comes the only quote in the story from the NAACP press release:

"because of the potential harm that could be exposed to the community."

Yes, we know what thought the author of that quote is attempting to convey but we can still mock and pretend we don't know whether the author is worried that the community will become aware of potential harm or if the concern is that potential harm should be protected from the community. The words simply don't mean what the author is clearly trying to express.

Are those 12 words the most important passage of the press release? Were they the only relevant portion to quote? Was the rest of the document similarly convoluted? Was some purpose served by singling out a passage that could invite ridicule and create an impression about the source? Without seeing the entire press release it's not possible to answer those questions.

I'd like to think this was the most important and only relevent quote and that it wasn't possible to identify another without flaws, but I'm finding that difficult.


Friday, March 03, 2006

It's called reporting. Report.

If you read this blog then you probably read the Capital-Journal and know about the row between Topeka NAACP chapter President Glenda Overstreet and Topeka Police Detectives Kenneth Eaton and George Campbell.

In short strokes, in her capacity as a Capital-Journal columnist, Ms. Overstreet wrote about a court proceeding which she viewed as racially skewed. Two Topeka police officers sent her some provocative correspondence that raised her hackles. She asked that they have their employment terminated. The officers have been placed on administrative leave. The city had a meeting.

Since this issue is political and its outcome has everything to do with public perception then it follows that the basis of that perception, matters.

Since it follows that in a circumstance such as this, news coverage combined with each individual member of the community's views on relevant subjects, including but not limited to, race, police authority, the first amendment, etc. is the basis for public perception, then it also follows that what is and is not included in the news coverage matters.

As I read articles, op-ed pieces and letters to the editor pertaining to this story certain begged questions come to be. One area of interest that remains unaddressed is in what context were the e-mails that the officers sent Ms. Overstreet composed? Were they sent from city e-mail accounts? Were they composed while on duty? Did the authors identify themselves as police officers?

Neither the city nor the department is speaking plainly about this aspect of the dustup yet and this is frankly understandable, if the investigation is still unfolding. The Capital-Journal has made it clear that the answers to these questions are not being made available by the city or the department.

What the reporting has not told us is what Ms. Overstreet could reveal about the context of the e-mails. She received them. She could show them to the paper. Has she? Has the paper asked to see them? The paper is not at the mercy of the city. The e-mails were sent to Ms. Overstreet in response to her writing for the Capital-Journal.

This is an important data-point in the development of an informed opinion. For the paper to devote as much ink to this issue as it has, and to not ask it's own columnist to clear up this point is a disservice and merits some explanation.

Here are links to the stories to date.

Who will seek justice? (Published Friday, February 17, 2006)

Detectives, columnist feuding (Published Wednesday, March 1, 2006)

Officer advises caution (Published Thursday, March 2, 2006)

Police official cites lack of accountability (Published Friday, March 3, 2006)

Racism: A community forum (Published Friday, March 3, 2006)


Thursday, March 02, 2006

C'mon, put your ink where your mouth is

This op-ed piece from March 1, 2006:

Teddy Eck -- Another star

Is simply a rehashing of this bit of February 27 small-town news:

Ex-Topekan lands on 'Law and Order'

Only the addition of this final graf is new or transforms this into an editorial:
"So Topeka could puff out its chest a bit when Eck's name appeared at the beginning of the show, because the seeds for his talents were planted here. Thank goodness the school's and the community's programs for the performing arts were there to nurture them."
I'd be inclined to ignore this incredibly lazy act of recycling if, on a completely related matter, the Capital-Journal had done likewise. Where is the editorial reconfiguration of this February 28, 2006 article reporting on the complete defunding of the Topeka Arts Council:

Arts Council drying up



All it takes is an ill-considered adjective... order to abandon reporting in favor of editorializing.

Today's object of scrutiny is the article on the Legislature page, headlined "Bill condemns funeral pickets."

What we have here is another Phelps story (why must it so often be). This is today's item about the legislature's draft resolution, denouncing his message. I should probably get it off my chest that I think Phelps is an ass...Phelps is wrong...I won't shed a tear when someone veers off the road to turn him into a speedbump...that I understand the contexts in which he leverages his hatred for maximum effect, etc., etc.

I should also give you my standard civil-libertarian boilerplate about despising everything he stands for while defending his right to stand for it.

As such, I think this resolution is poorly-conceived and well-meaning at best, and unconstitutional, cynical ass-covering by our political class at worst. I don't believe the imprimatur of government should be used to condemn any constitutionally protected speach.

With that off my chest, back to the article...

In the fifth graf, Ric Anderson writes:
"The resolution came days after the Senate approved a watered-down version of a bill originally designed to create a protest buffer extending 300 feet from the entrance to a mortuary, church or cemetery where a funeral is conducted."
There are many, less loaded adjectives that could have been used in place of "watered-down" to express the idea that the bill had to be modified to satisfy whatever concerns needed to be satisfied in order for the Senate to pass the measure.

"Watered-down" indicates a diminishment and as such, reads like a value judgement. As soon as there is room in story copy for value judgements, it's an op-ed piece.