Friday, November 30, 2007

Getting Only One Side of the Conversation

One of the frustrations of being a DeSoto Sun subscriber is the disjunction between the editorial pages and the news editors put into the newspaper. Too often, as happened twice this week, editorial essays are based on information editors failed to share with readers. That means readers don’t have the same sources as the editorial writers and are unable to fairly evaluate the editor's assertions and conclusions.

Earlier this week, DeSoto Sun Pundit opined about the horrific number of juvenile gangs and criminal gang members. To instill the proper level of hysterics into the piece, the writer cited “research” conducted by Robert McMillan, a third-tier syndicated columnist -- I suspect McMillian's "research" was probably copying some numbers from a think-tank report. Unfortunately, McMillan’s column has not yet appeared in the paper, so readers have no idea what the local writer was talking about. There's no way to evaluate the editorial position or the imminent danger of this threat to local peace and tranquility.

Yesterday’s editorial is a naively framed bit of Pollyannaism based on "housing investment" reports the writer says have been published by Credit Suisse. Try as she might, Old Word Wolf cannot find the article in the newspaper’s archives, and Credit Suisse puts out so many reports that it was hopeless sorting through all the current ones on the Internet to decide how the writer was using the numbers he claims to have dug up.

In a variation of the same problem, readers’ letters to the editor all week have been full of responses to an editorial that seems to have had something to do with drivers who run red lights. Unfortunately, while DeSoto readers can read reader reactions, they have no way of reading the editorial because it wasn’t placed in our zoned edition of paper. It’s like listening to one side of a conversation.

Head Shop Update:

"Housing history has and will repeat itself"

Cramming two tenses into one clause is like putting two cats in a sack.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Kudos for Captain Crunch

Instead of writing a real lead, the business editor tries to wring a bit of levity from the word “kudos” in a misguided effort to set up his column this morning. The result is his readers are treated to a writer’s warm-up exercise instead of journalism.

“There’s a whole bunch of congratulations and kudos to pass out in today’s “Biz Bits.” But before we get on with this – is "kudos” singular or plural? And how did such an obscure word come to get slung around by so many people who barely know what it means? That’s the problem with English – too many words.

The journalist-editor’s job isn’t to toss rhetorical softballs to the ignorant masses. And when his own ignorance, whether feigned or real, is easily remedied by reaching over to the top left corner of the desk and opening the dictionary, laziness becomes the only explanation. This opening doesn’t inform; it insults. It doesn’t draw readers in; it shuts them out. Charlotte Sun readers, the editor asserts, are people who barely know what “kudos” means.

Even worse, the rhetorical antics infected a headline writer over at the page-designer's playpen and no grownups were around to stop the high jinks.

Old Word Wolf has a well-developed sense of humor, really she does. But when it comes to business journalism, she tends to get cranky when she spots lazy writing and sloppy thinking where a column lead should be.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Medical Reporting Gone Bad, Way Bad

Medical reporting requires special skill and vigilance on the part of the journalist. A well-reported medical story helps readers put complex information into perspective. It balances the inevitable attraction of hope and discovery against the inevitable limits of investigation and study.

On the other hand, a poorly done story can lure readers into spending money, investing precious time, and nurturing false expectations for phony baloney medical devices and nostrums. Readers are not always as skeptical as they should be when it comes to hoping there's relief just around the corner for whatever ails them.

In the universe of good medical reporting and bad, the centerpiece of Sunday's medical tab in the Charlotte Sun falls into the bad -- very bad -- categtory.

The topic is a local man's promotion of a device called an interactive metronome. Half a dozen studies have demonstrated that practice with the device can improve some people's ability to concentrate on laboratory tasks. The results suggest learning to mimic rhythms might help some suffers ease the symptoms of some kinds of attention-deficit disorders. This is genuinely interesting news and certainly worth a nice feature story in the local paper.

Unfortunately, the reporter-editor fails to report the relevant who, what, when, where, why, and how-much sorts of information that would help readers understand the device's benefits and limitations. By avoiding journalism's basics, she ends up writing an advertisement for the salesman -- without even including the key element of a good ad: How much does it cost?

Here are the details.

Improving the efficiency of the mind
By Dawn Krebs
Feeling Fit Editor

It helps to improve concentration in autistic children. It also helps to improve overall athletic performance in athletes. It also has been used in a pilot study of Parkinson's patients.

These assertions require attribution. Whose pilot study? Which atheltic performances? Not one of the "teasers" in the lead is addressed in the body of the story.

While it seems that nothing could achieve results in such a broad spectrum of people, ...

(nothing? not asprin, not ice cream, which also achieve results in a broad spectrum of people?)

... the Interactive Metronome program uses a unique device to help reach a variety of people with different needs and goals -- their brains.

What does it mean that the brain is a “different” need or goal? This sentence doesn’t make sense. "Unique" it isn't. Down below the story says the device is a traditional metronome -- hardly unique. And, as anyone with an electronic keyboard knows, computer-generated rhythms are commonplace.

The program is research-based, and utilizes rhythm and timing to improve focus, coordination as well as athletic performance.

The first clause’s assertion that the program is research based is unrelated to the three items in second clause. These assertions echo the lead closely enough that it's time to start coughing up some 5W facts.

And one Nokomis man is not only proof of the program's success, he helps others by coaching them through the program, certified as a program provider.

What regulatory or academic institution issues the certification he claims to hold? There is no professional license issued in the state of Florida to anyone with this name.

"The better our mind and our body work together, the better they perform," said Mike Danski.

And the basis of this assertion is? My body does not work very well, but my mind is pretty sharp.

Danski has traveled from Tampa to Ft. Myers, administering the program to a wide swath of individuals. Because of some of his clients, Danski literally brings the program to them.

Because of some of his clients? Because of what? Why “literally?” What is a “wide swath” of individuals? Swath usually refers to the width of the path cut by a reaper or similar instrument.

"Some of the families I work with involve autistic children," Danski explains. "There's no way they could travel to get to the trainings. So I go to them."

What are his credentials for “training” autistic children?

The Interactive Metronome program typically involves 10-12 sessions lasting about 45 minutes to an hour each.

Attribute this statement. Describe what a session entails.

The program combines the traditional music metronome with computer technology to help with concentration, focusing on tasks, rhythm and timing.

Make the clauses parallel, please. How does this combination occur? Does a "traditional" metronome sit next to the computer?

The program works when a client places the headphones on their head. They will then hear a rhythmic sound through the headphones. They are instructed to respond to the sound by tapping or clapping as closely to the beat they hear as they can. Other sounds direct the client on if they are on the beat, falling behind or responding too quickly. Over a series of sessions, the brain learns to keep rhythm and timing. As these skills improve, so does physical functions such as motor control, coordination, concentration, attention span, and even athletic performance.

FCAT-level grammar faults in every sentence. What makes this “a program,” and not just a bio-feedback session? How is this program different than learning to play drums or other rhythm-percussion instruments?

Danski didn't happen into this field by accident.

This field is what? Using one device hardly constitutes a field.

An elementary school teacher, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder shortly after his son was also diagnosed with the same thing. Other members of his family also tested for ADD and bipolar disorder.

Tested but not diagnosed?

But Danski didn't want to live life like that.

Like what? Living life like any particular thing has not yet been mentioned.

"I didn't like the thought of being on medication the rest of my life," he said. "So I went to the computer and Googled non-medicine alternatives to treat my condition. Interactive Metronome came up.

Close quote. Is Google, a search engine, really a good basis for conducting medical research? The ways its entries are sorted have nothing to do with medical reliability, peer review, types of studies performed or any other criteria usually used to evaluate medical matters.

Even then, Danski took his time -- 10 months in all -- to research all he could find about the program.

Wow. Ten months.

"One of the good things for me is that it was based in Florida," he said. "When I was done reading up on the program, I drove over to their facility with my son, and met everyone involved."

This statement should alert a reporter to suspect Danski’s research skills are rudimentary. What city is “their facility” located in?

He became a program provider soon afterwards.

Was he certified by the manufacturer, or is there an oustide, objective agency involved?

Danski sees the program as a way to help children who have ADHD or are struggling with concentration or focus in a way that doesn't involve medication.

This sentence does not say what the writer thinks it says.

Scientists have found the same results that Danski is now experiencing.

And those scientists are? Those results are?

In a study published in the March 2001 American Journal of Occupational Therapy, a significant pattern of improvement was found in a double-blind study of nine-year-old to 12-year-old boys diagnosed with ADHD. The study found the boys showed improvement in "attention, coordination, motor control, language processing, reading and control of aggression."

The article’s abstract does not describe a “double blind study.” In fact, if the reporter knows what a double-blind study is, she would know it’s nearly impossible to conduct one using a device of this sort. The study described is a randomized study, using a “no intervention” group and a "computer games" group as controls. Here’s the abstract:

[Am J Occup Ther. 2001 Mar-Apr;55(2):155-62. Links
Effect of interactive metronome training
on children with ADHD.
Shaffer RJ, Jacokes LE, Cassily JF, Greenspan SI, Tuchman RF, Stemmer PJ Jr.
College of Human Medicine,
Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, USA.
OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of a specific intervention, the Interactive Metronome, on selected aspects of motor and cognitive skills in a group of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). METHOD: The study included 56 boys who were 6 years to 12 years of age and diagnosed before they entered the study as having ADHD. The participants were pretested and randomly assigned to one of three matched groups. A group of 19 participants receiving 15 hrs
of Interactive Metronome training exercises were compared with a group
receiving no intervention and a group receiving training on selected computer video games. RESULTS: A significant pattern of improvement across 53 of 58 variables favoring the Interactive Metronome treatment was found. Additionally, several significant differences were found among the treatment groups and between pretreatment and posttreatment factors on performance in areas of attention, motor control, language processing, reading, and parental reports of improvements in regulation of aggressive behavior. CONCLUSION: The Interactive Metronome training appears to facilitate a number of capacities, including attention, motor control, and selected academic skills, in boys with ADHD. PMID: 11761130 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]]

The Interactive metronome program was developed in the early 1990s. Now, there are more than 2,500 certified providers in more than 1,700 clinics, hospitals and universities throughout the United States and Canada.

The source of this information? What institution has issued the 2,500 certificates?

One such hospital is HealthSouth Corporation, a nationwide provider of outpatient surgery, diagnostic imaging and rehabilitative health care. In November of 2004, the company announced it will offer Interactive metronome therapy at locations for patients who suffered from neurological and motor impairments such as stroke and Parkinson's Disease, to name a few.

This sounds as if it has been copied from a three-year old press release. How can a hospital be “nationwide?” Where is this hospital based? Is this the same HealthSouth whose board members were accused of stock manipulation and whose CEO was investigated for a billion-dollar fraud a couple of years ago?

In another correlation study, 585 children were found to have a positive correlation between Interactive Metronome scores and academic performance in reading, math, science and study skills.

Why is this “another” correlation study? Where is the first “correlation study?” The alert science reporter knows correlation is not the same as causation and would never report it as such.

The shift from children to adults was seen when the program showed results in the improvement of the brain's ability in motor planning and sequencing.

What shift is referred to? This sentence simply doesn't make any sense. The shift is a definite noun and must refer to something that has already been mentioned. Does a shift from child to adult mean the child grows up?

In a pilot study, the effect of the motor training was observed in patients with mild or moderate Parkinson's Disease.

No cap on “disease,” please. But more important is the pilot study: whose study, what methodology, was used, what duplication of results has occurred?

The severity of the disease was compared before and training sessions that totaled 20 hours.

Is there a word missing? Before and after, perhaps? Knowing what little I do about Parkinson's, I doubt that the disease was mitigated; symptoms perhaps, but not the disease.

The study found that computer-directed movement training improved the motor signs of Parkinson's Disease.

Whose study is this? Where was it conducted? Is computer-directed movement training the same thing as the interactive metronome? There is nothing in the paragraph that says they’re the same.

The patients using the treatment learn to focus for longer and longer periods of time. Danski works one on one with each patient, working off of a lap-top computer he brings with him in order to complete the session.

Are we still reading about Parkinson's patients?

Danski also points out the athletic-training abilities the program has.

"A lot of golfers use it," he said. "I work with a lot of golfers in town. I love helping athletes." Name one.

Danski explains that if your are a athlete [sic] that is struggling, it helps bring your abilities up to par. But if you are already doing well, the program helps take your learning and mental skill to a higher level.

Danski has worked with student athletes in public schools as well as private schools in the Venice area.

Name one.

"More than 50 school districts have the program to help the students academically and athletically," he said.

Name one.

According to Danski, the Interactive Metronome program improves the working memory part of our brains, the part that manages our lives, the part that allows us to walk up a flight of stairs or form a sentence.

Language skills, gross-muscular coordination and balance are not carried out by the same parts of the brain, according to the general sources I’m familiar with. What part of the brain "manages our lives?" These statements are nonsense.

"The sessions can last from 40-50 minutes," Danski said. "The training is not easy."

If it’s not easy, how did studies of young children and Parkinson’s sufferers come about? If it’s difficult to train, explain what the difficulties are.

But being able to qualify for it is.

"Anyone that moves or thinks is a candidate for this training."

Said the salesman. This man is selling something; how much does his service cost? What’s the benefit to “anyone that moves or thinks?”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Once More: Your Byline Means You Wrote It

And if you didn’t, it’s plagiarism. Real newspapers fire reporters for doing it.

But the weekly tab “Feeling Fit,” overseen by Editor Dawn Krebs of the Charlotte Sun, has made a cottage industry of the practice.

Today, it’s a double-header. The first example is the work (if we allow that using an affiliated hospital's Web page word for word is actual work) of Danielle Dreher. Joining her in the double-header is Glenna Schnebly, R.N., a local nurse working at Charlotte County’s Home Health Network. Schnebly copies her discussion of wound control for diabetics pretty much straight from Find Articles dot com, a Web site that published a fuller version of essentially the same article back in 2004 with Mary Ellen Postheur's byline.

Exhibit One is a story about bar-code scanners that can reduce medication errors. If Sun Editor Krebs had done a Google search using nearly any phrase in the story submitted by the hosptial's professional publicist, with no more trouble on her part than a click on the search button, the search engine would have yielded two Web pages with copy identical to Dreher’s article (further mis-identified as "Special to Feeling Fit").

The news appears in no-byline pieces posted on the Web some weeks ago by two affiliated hospitals, Brooksville Regional Hospital, Brooksville, Fla., and Spring Hill Regional Hospital, Spring Hill, Fla. I suspect that because everyone involved is an HMA-affiliated hospital, there has been some file sharing.

How easy -- and honest -- it would be to say these affiliated hospitals are all making the same announcement about a golly-gee-whiz device, and report it as news affecting three businesses, one of which serves the local area. That way the local editor doesn't get caught publishing rave-review quotes by local hosptial administrators that have already been attributed to half a dozen other people in far and distant cities.

Readers hate reading stuff in the newspaper that's so clearly space filler plucked from the Web. And they hate seeing articles labeled "special to" that aren't. And speaking of stuff plucked from the Web ...

Similar Game, Different Plagiarist

In this case, there's no "we're all in the same marketing program" kind of excuse. Glenna Schnebly, R.N., copies an article from Find Articles dot com, which offers “free and premium articles.” The one Schnebly chose to copy is posted on the Web with the byline of Mary Eller Posthauer. Here’s the comparison.

How Important is Blood Glucose Control in Wound Management?
By Glenna Schnebly Glenna Schnebly RN, BSN, a member of Home Health

A person with a poorly controlled blood glucose level and poor eating habits is at risk for numerous physiologic problems.

An elevated blood glucose level creates a negative effect on the wound healing process by not allowing glucose to diffuse easily through the pores of the cell membrane, thus creating a dehydrating effect by increasing osmotic pressure in the extracellular fluids causing water to transfer out of the cells.

Both extracellular and intracellular dehydration can occur, which affects the healing time of skin. Also, an elevated blood glucose level damages both the blood
vessels and the nerves. It places the person at risk for developing peripheral vascular disease.

Are there more infections with people who have elevated blood glucose?

Poor glycemic control, which impairs the body's ability to eliminate bacteria, leads to an increase in infections. Urinary tract, respiratory, and soft tissue infections are particularly common in people with diabetes. Soft tissue infections of the lower extremities
and gangrene are serious complications, which sometimes lead to amputations.

How does this happen? Hyperglycemia decreases oxygen to the tissues. Delivery of leukocytes and antibiotic agents to the wound is a impaired because
of the lack of blood flow. Oxygen is necessary for granulation tissue growth during wound healing.

How does this affect nutritional status?

Hyperglycemia can cause neuropathy or damage to the intestinal nerves, causing diarrhea, vomiting or bloating, all of which affect the overall nutritional status of the person with diabetes.

What steps can be taken to help improve nutritional status?

A consult with a dietician and a registered nurse, both certified diabetes educators, needs to be arranged. They meet with the patient and establish treatment goals that include diet, medication management, blood glucose monitoring and appropriate skin care.

And here is the original from Find Articles dot com. The brick-red text is the cut-and-paste portion that Schnebly used. Note that every sentence she used appears in exactly the same order in the original. The numbers refer to footnotes in the original.

Risks from Hyperglycemia
By Mary Ellen Posthauer

A patient like Mr J who has a poorly controlled blood glucose level and poor eating habits is at risk for numerous physiologic problems.1 An elevated blood glucose level creates a negative effect on the wound healing process, causing wounds to heal slowly.2-8 This is especially a problem for patients with diabetes. Combined with medication, dietary intake plays a significant role in the repair of wounds because the diet also provides protein, calories, fluids, and other nutrients. When the blood glucose level is elevated, glucose docs not diffuse easily through the pores of the cell membrane. This creates a dehydrating effect: The increased osmotic pressure in the extracellular fluids causes water to transfer out of the cells.

Loss of glucose in the urine causes osmotic diuresis, increasing urinary losses of electrolytes and water. Both extracellular and intracellular dehydration can occur, which affects the healing time of the skin.9 An elevated blood glucose level also damages both the blood vessels and the nerves. In addition, it places the patient at risk for developing peripheral vascular disease.

[snip two paragraphs]

Poor glycemic control-which impairs the body's ability to eliminate bacteria-leads to an increase in infections.5, 11-14 Urinary tract,15 respiratory,16 and soft tissue infections arc particularly common in people with diabetes.17,18 Soft tissue infections of the lower extremities and gangrene are serious complications.19 In addition, hyperglycemia decreases oxygen to the tissues. Delivery of leukocytes and antibiotic agents to the wound is impaired because of the lack of blood flow. Oxygen is necessary for macrophage mobility and growth of granulation tissue during wound healing.

Hyperglycemia can cause neuropathy or damage to the intestinal nerves, causing diarrhea, vomiting, or bloating, all of which affect the overall nutritional status of the patient with diabetes.20

Nutrition Strategies Because Mr J has had problems adhering to his diet and monitoring his blood glucose level, his health care provider schedules a consult for Mr J and his family with the dietitian and a registered nurse, both certified diabetes educators. They meet and establish treatment goals that include diet, medication management, blood glucose monitoring, and appropriate skin care.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Magic is Missing

Crude flirts with magic $100 price
NEW YORK (AP) — Energy futures wavered, hesitating on a drive to $100 a barrel today after the government reported that oil inventories fell unexpectedly last week, but that supplies at a closely watched oil terminal in the Midwest rose for the first time in weeks.
XX Light, sweet crude for January delivery rose 55 cents to $98.58 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange but alternated frequently between gains and losses.
XX Earlier they had risen as high as $99.29 a barrel in electronic trading to break the previous intraday record of $98.62 set earlier this month

Sleight of desk, I guess.

They Read in the Newspaper
That It Worked in Atlanta

The journalist reports 60 residents are praying.
Since about 20 appear in his photograph, readers must assume either he can't count or that trinity business is involved.

Did I mention this is the DeSoto Sun we're reading?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Numbers That Aren't (and Aren't Reported)

MIAMI (AP) -- A woman whose husband has kept about $600,000 in lottery winnings from her says she has a number for him: Half.
Um. "Half" isn't a number.

And a less obvious item, mainly because it's still a deep, dark secret around Our Town:

The Orlando Sentinel has posted a user friendly Florida high-school graduation-rate search page, part of its larger data-on-the-Web effort. I went there to learn DeSoto High School's graduation rate for the class of 2006 is 69.7 percent.

Cheers to DHS for keeping its proportion of graduating students moving in the right direction -- although it remains below the statewide average and dismal compared to neighboring districts.

And raspberries to the local newspaper's "education reporter" who has not bothered to inform the people who pay for schools -- most of them newspaper readers -- of this news. And no, a press release from Sara Spas, the district's very nice spokesperson, won't make OWW the least bit happy.

Let's practice some genuine journalism on this important topic. In case the assignment editor is unsure how to make these numbers come alive, the tie-in is our local school district's recently announced plan to move toward SACS accreditation. The plan has drawn both smiles and frowns, depending who perceives their workload increasing as part of an "unfunded mandate."

Go get that story.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

It's Not a Lot of News, But It's All We've Got

Don’t bury the lead.

Today’s Big Story, splashed across the local front this sunny Sunday morning, is Arcadia's city council voted two weeks ago to annex 5.8 acres along the city’s southwest boundary so an affordable-housing project won’t have to straddle the border.

Sadly, everyone who cares read the story, first reported by the DeSoto News Editor, back on Nov. 7. Surely a news editor, by definition a skilled and seasoned journalist, noticed the only news in today’s story is that the annexation ordinance’s second reading will be aired at next Tuesday’s city council meeting. Surely an editor would care that this timely information is interred on page 14, after the jump, in the story’s eighth paragraph, third from the end.

Dear Editor: Don’t bury the lead. Every reader who slogged through this front-page news left the page saying not, “Wow, let’s find page 14,” but “didn’t I already read this, way back when?” A meeting announcement and the second reading of a non-controversial ordinance aren’t a lot of news, but they’re all this story has to offer. Do readers a favor; put the news in the lead. It’s journalism.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Another Cranky Newspaper Reader

A North Port reader is my buddy. We don't know each other, and he probably has not seen my little blog. But we seem to crave the same things: accuracy, clarity, timeliness -- things that once mattered in newspaper circles.

In a letter to the editor this morning, my new buddy wants Sun editors to tell him (1) why a headline says "Experts: Spector judge unorthodox," when nothing in the story mentions an expert or the judge's unorthodox conduct; (2) why editors describe a reader-submitted photograph as a pelican flying away with lunch in its beak, when the image clearly shows the bird's own wing flapping behind the bird's bill.

"One does not have to be a charter member of the Audubon Society to know that pelicans do not carry their meals home but swallow them whole at the point of capture," my new-found friend writes.

Welcome to Cranky Newspaper Readers, Mr. Becket.

This morning's editorial, as usual, desperately needs an editor.

The headline starts off badly because it's in the conditional tense: "Heartland Rural Mobility Plan could help many in need." Well, it could or maybe it couldn't. But let's skip all that silly business about using tenses correctly and skip the other silly business about writing headlines that say something meaningful.

The editorial opens:
It's a problem for the old and young alike. Getting around on your own. In the six-county area of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee it is estimated that as many as 20 percent of those over the age of 65 have no means of transportation of their own. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent of those 18 and under need help from others to take them to the grocery or doctor's office. This is also true of folks living in the communities of Belle Glade, Immokalee, Pahokee and South Bay. They must rely on friends or relatives or pay for a cab.
Let's ignore the vague, non-opening and the deliberately arty but ultimately ungraceful sentence fragment. Let's ignore the flabby sentences padded with the passive voice, impersonal "it" usage following on the heels of the chatty "you," and wordy prepositional and infinitive phrases. Let's skip the 10th-grade composition style and go right to the grown-up problem: clear thinking.

Think about it. Just 25 percent of folks under age 18 need a ride? The legal age for driving doesn't kick in until 16, making it quite likely that substantially more than 25 percent of youngsters need rides. If I look around at the editorial writer's designated destinations (grocery stores and doctor's offices) I see 100 percent of people under age 16 arriving in cars operated by others. As for those between 16 and 18, they just don't seem to visit the same doctor's offices that I do, so I'll have to suspend judgment. Next sentence:
This is also true of folks living in the communities of Belle Glade, Immokalee, Pahokee and South Bay. They must rely on friends or relatives or pay for a cab.
Think about it: "This" might refer to the sentence that says 25 percent of the folks under 18 need a ride; or "this" might refer to the sentence that says 20 percent of folks over 65 in a six-county area need a ride. The sentence's first message, however, is more general: everyone in these particular cities has no transportation at all. Next sentence.

The editorial writer dutifully attributes:
This according to the Heartland Connection, a newsletter produced about the Heartland Mobility Plan.

Again, which "this" are we writing (passively) about?

Discussions will take place in all six counties and other communities to gather information for how a rural transportation [sic] can best serve those in need. It's an exciting idea and one that is much needed.
I get it, and I'm sure every reader gets it. But getting it is a weak reason to excuse a professional, writing for publication, writing as a voice in her community, who will not take the time or trouble to write what she means. She doesn't mean the idea is much needed; she means the transportation is needed. She says it's, as if there's just one thing, but the noun she surely refers to, discussions, is a plural thing.

Worse, Sun Pundit sings the company song. Sure, it's great to discuss how rural transportation can "best serve those in need" (Keep the tires in good condition, get oil changes regularly, use seat belts, carry comprehensive insurance, don't charge too much ... ).

But what game is Sun Pundit cheerleading? Is she advocating regional connections to bus people 70 miles between Arcadia and Okeechobee and then roll 70 miles down the road to Belle Glade, then cross the 60-mile stretch between Belle Gade and Immolakee and complete the circle with the final 70-mile leg back to Arcadia?

Sun Pundit starts out writing people who need to go to doctor's offices and grocery stores but drops all references to these specific things in favor of something called "rural mobility." She writes about "rural mobility" as if it's a real thing. It's not. It's the newsletter's jargon, which the bureaucrats created in their own image.

Sadly, in the end, Sun Pundit delivers not one single fact that would help readers understand the need for regional transportation. Heck, we might even pay for it if we understood it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Head Shop

The headline screams This woman is a developer's worst nightmare. No one in the story is quoted saying this; no evidence in the story is presented that comes close to supporting this editorial position. The story is about a lawyer, Lesley Blackner, who wants the law changed so local voters would have to approve or deny changes to local comprehensive land plans. The AP wire story contains an unattributed paragraph that a kid on the copy desk thinks justifies the headline: Developers, builders and others in the business community say it would delay or halt development and ruin the state's economy.

The second problem is the Charlotte Sun publisher has promised readers on several occasions his newspaper would not publish stories based on anonymous sources. The copy desk didn't get the memo.

Strong cylcone landfalling in Bangladesh. The worst part, is this is a Web site headline; there's no pressure to be artifically sort. There's plenty of room to write "making landfall" and not embarrass everyone on the copy desk.

More from the Head Shop...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Headline Bombs Ally

"Phillipine congressman killed in bomb blast." No. No. No.
All a Web editor has to do is copy the dateline Manila, Philippines, or read the lead. In lieu of bothering to learn how to spell the name of a major democratic ally, the Web editor can program his word processor's spell-checker to correct this mistake as he types.

. Call me and I'll explain how. Readers care.

School Reporting Means Asking Questions, not Cheerleading

Our local school district, the DeSoto Editor reports, is planning to apply for a grant that might bring a little money into the district – she doesn’t find out how much money – for the purpose of hiring a “curriculum specialist” who’ll analyze data “to drive instructional decisions.” The DeSoto Editor does not report asking anyone to explain what this gobbledygook means.

The DeSoto Editor dutifully copies two “goals” from the grant application's form into her notebook: increase academic achievement and increase the percentage of graduating students. Since these are the day-to-day aims, most people might agree, of public education, the DeSoto Editor might reasonably raise her hand and ask someone to address how the “news” will change anything.

Instead, the DeSoto Editor copies more from the grant application: The (unreported amount of) money will help students “close the achievement gap.” The gap between what two things? The DeSoto Editor doesn’t otherwise mention a gap and doesn’t report asking anyone in the school district which gap it is we’re dealing with here.

A Sample of What We're Missing ...

It was only last week that the national wires were abuzz with a Johns Hopkins University study characterizing Florida schools as “dropout factories.” Readers might reasonably expect the DeSoto Editor to recognize today's grant-application news is a great place to explore some context for that study. Is the local graduation rate she reports of “nearly 71 percent” – actually it’s 70.6 percent – up or down from last year’s graduation rate? (It’s up. Up from 63.5 percent of the local student body whom Florida Department of Education counted as graduates in 2005, and up from 68.9 percent in 2006.) Is this morning’s reported figure above or below the state-wide rate? (It’s below: In 2005, the state-wide graduation rate was 71.9 percent and in 2006 it was 75.2 percent, according to FDOE data.) How do the local numbers compare with neighboring districts? (Charlotte graduated 79.5 percent, Sarasota 82.5 percent, and Hardee -- demographically a better match -- graduated 68.9 percent of their Classes of 2006.)

The newest graduation-rate data for the class of 2007 was released about two weeks ago to school districts, but is not yet on-line. The DeSoto Editor hasn’t found time or space yet to report to readers these latest figures. She hasn’t had to time to learn how graduation rates are calculated (she might be surprised), why “graduation rate” and “dropout rate” don’t add up to 100 percent, or what it means to send a student off into the world with a “standard diploma,” as opposed to some other kind. There are all kinds of meaty stories in the halls of school administrators – for a reporter who is willing to develop sources, ask relevant questions, and cultivate the skills of a reporter.

There are even interesting ways to "put a face on the numbers" that reporters and editors routinely use to draw readers into stories they might otherwise skip. Call me, and I'll describe a few of them.

Readers and subscribers deserve school-district reporting that does more than the hired cheerleaders already do. School districts, in case DeSoto Editor forgot, are funded with property tax collections. Taxpayers – sorry to beat this old drum – deserve to know, in plain English, how the money is spent and what the investment yields. If DeSoto Editor can't tell readers more than what's on the published agenda for tonight's school board meeting, she's a cheerleader, not a journalist.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Designer Wallpaper and Pictures That Lie

A new writer at the Charlotte Sun is doing very good regional reporting. He’s writing stories that examine issues that cross county lines and which take more than half an hour and a telephone call to investigate. No puns, pop-culture analogies or self-centered philosophical meanderings mar his journalism. Unfortunately, irrelevant photographs and wallpaper words from the page design department got in the way of today’s story and injected an unacceptable bias into an otherwise balanced and informative story.

Neil Hughes’ story this morning is about the tax local governments charge builders to build. The one-time, building-impact fee is earmarked for installing and maintaining roads, utilities, schools -- infrastructure that supports new occupancy. During the current housing market downturn, a couple of localities are temporarily lowering their fee, hoping to put builders back to work by making it less costly to get started. Some municipal consultants aren’t convinced the tactic is particularly effective.

The page designer evidently thinks two pictures of abandoned construction – one of a house with raw cinderblock walls and weedy yard and another of a poured foundation with plumbing connections reaching to the sky – tell the story. They don't. Nothing in Hughes’ excellent reporting says building-impact fees have led to any abandoned construction sites, much less a general condition in the industry. The pictures, in fact, corrupt and subvert the message the reporter has carefully researched: If sidewalks and utilities are not bought with impact fees, they may have to be purchased with ad valorem taxes.

The saddest part is the cutline of the larger photo says the unfinished home “sits stalled for unknown reasons.” That should have told someone that the photo probably doesn’t go with the journalism.

It gets worse.

The picture-chooser apparently has access to a keyboard and decided to exercise something like poetic license to write the “call out” that decorates the picture.

“Direct Impact: Charging impact fees and covering infrastructure costs has proven to be a delicate balancing act for local governments in Florida, and results across the state have varied wildly.”

Ignoring that Florida 10th graders learn plural verbs follow compound subjects or they won’t pass the FCAT, there is, once again, nothing in the story about results across the state varying wildly. The story notes wide differences among impact fees charged in a cluster of southwestern counties. They don't change week to week, month to month or even year to year. The story says nothing about wild variations here or "across the state." Like the pictures, the copy desk's call out is nothing more than designer wallpaper that corrupts the reporting and misinforms readers.

The problem is easily solved: Read before writing. And if there's nothing in the story about abandoned construction, then don't use pictures of abandoned construction.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

250,000 Could Lose Drinking Water in Two Weeks And ...

...the DeSoto Sun's publisher promises readers a great big electronic newspaper, one that’s easy to read on the computer screen or a wall-mounted plasma television – in ten years or so.

...the publisher’s son promises readers more good news, now that as he has told all his editors to write weekly good-news only columns.

... the local reporter/editor was dispatched to cover the rubber-duck race, budgeted for a dozen inches plus color photo.

... anyone in DeSoto County who wanted to know the status of their drinking water supply – shrinking fast – had to read all about it in the Miami Herald this weekend.

The total local coverage for this important story is three sentences -- a shortened version -- from the Associated Press in the Sunday state briefs:

SARASOTA—Low levels in the Peace River due to drought conditions are threatening drinking water supplies for tens of thousands of people in southwest Florida. Officials said it’s likely water levels will drop too low to be tapped in a week or two, forcing suppliers to use groundwater sources that are also strained. The Peace River-Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, which supplies more than 250,000 customers in Charlotte, Sarasota and DeSoto counties plans to drill an emergency well capable of producing 3 million to 4 million gallons of water a day.
Notice that Sun editors couldn't figure out how get a local place name into the headline.

This important story ran Saturday in the Charlotte-Herald with a local by-line. A reporter interviewed knowledgeable people who described what's going on, just like a real newspaper. The visual editors created an informative graphic, and the story reported factual details about flow levels with follow-on about the water managers' response to the problem.

Perhaps the strangest part of the DeSoto Sun's noncoverage (this is the paper that brags it's a Pulitzer Prize finalist) is The Naples News – part of the Dunn-Rankin chain and whose readers are not directly affected by the news, also ran the wire-version of the story on Saturday.

The story seems to have been released Friday by Peace River/Manasota Water Authority -- an age-old strategy for minimizing the impact of negative news. It worked. DeSoto reporters were very busy this weekend covering the rubber-duck race winner -- by telephone.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

No News is Good News II

The state released a scathing report Monday detailing shortcomings in an organization – the YMCA no less — that administers area foster-child programs for Florida’s troubled Department of Children and Families. The lives and well being of several hundred children in DeSoto and surrounding counties are affected by the people criticized in the report. Not one word, however, about the report, the nature of the problems, or the effect the troubles are having on DeSoto’s most vulnerable citizens — children in foster care — has appeared in the newspaper.

The DeSoto Sun maintains an office of four full-time reporters, most called “editors” of one sort or another. But on Tuesday, the day the foster care story should have run, DeSoto editors ran front-page items by Annie Curnow, a nice PR lady for the local hospital, who donated a press release about hernia screenings, and the main-sheet business editor’s puff piece on vintage B-17 airplanes. Karen Blanchette, a tireless volunteer, gave us a long, inside piece on her organization, and Sandy Copperman contributed a long review of his evening at the Asolo Theater in Sarasota. The local YMCA coach sent in 90 inches (count ‘em) about Pop Warner football, and coach Steve Vickers produced another 40 inches about middle-school softball. All this and not one inch about the children in foster care.

On Wednesday, one person on the payroll managed to assemble a thin story about a five-acre annexation to the city and copy out a sheriff's report about a prank phone call to the high school (giving two different versions of the time the school was evacuated).

Other than that, Wednesday's generous news hole was once again filled by an all-volunteer troupe headed by Sara Spas of the School District, who wrote four stories, Robyn Hanke of Southwest Florida Water Management District wrote a nice long piece about forming a committee, Barbara Oehlbeck, a local historian and fiction writer, filled 50 inches with two items, and the Florida Department of Agriculture contributed a 50-inch weekly farm review, recapping the effect last week’s tropical storm had on east coast and panhandle farmers, with one brief sentence about DeSoto rye grass, decidedly not our largest crop.

All this help from volunteers and our paid reporters and trained journalists couldn't lift the phone off the hook high enough to get a dial tone and call the local DCF advisory council on foster children.

A little deeper inside, a children’s group sent in photos from a coaching session and the women’s club fashion-show organizers reported their own activities with three large, contributed photos. Jessica Shaver, another nice lady with the school district, pitched in with yet another item. The community college sent out a press release about an exhibit in Avon Park (50 miles from here) that local editors ran in full with its supplied photos. Nothing about the foster children and the YMCA's problems carrying out its contract.

Today, Thursday, DeSoto’s local front leads with two stories from staff writers based in North Port, a town 40 miles from here, and a petty fraud from Port Charlotte, the next county west of us. Inside, two stories from Venice and regional pieces on a presidential veto and an “invitation” from the Environmental Protection Agency to form a Peace River committee dominate the inside. Turning the page, the datelines are once more from Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda (three times), and Englewood. Jessica Santillo, described as communications director for a local congressman’s office, gets a by-line and 15 inches for her press release about the nice politician’s good deeds. A ribbon-cutting photo is contributed by a local real estate agent. Nothing about our community's children in state foster care.

If our publisher is hard up for story ideas to assign to the journalists people he actually pays to cover the community, I know where he can get a nice long list. Starting with the phone number of the local foster-children's advisory council and a copy of the New York Times paper, the Charlotte Herald, which ran the story under a local byline on the front page.

More local news:

Sun publishers announced today they've bought Frostproof News, a weekly paper in Polk County, northeast of here. The announcement promises that the tiny newspaper will be able to share stories with the big guys in the publisher's "media group." I hope the folks in Frostproof are hankering for news from North Port.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Two-Headed Monster Escapes DeSoto Newsroom

You really don’t want to read this. Basically, two writers got together and tried to create the day’s Big Story from two separate events: cool weather (Bob Bowden’s beat) and a spate of fire calls (apparently, Laura Schmid’s beat). The spawn of this marriage is a two-headed monster that should have been impaled on an editor's spike.

What follows is simply an autopsy of the misbegotten, starting with its meaningless, four-sentence lead followed by DeSoto’s daily dose of faulty sentence construction, irrelevant comparisons and confused non-reporting.

The lead:

Cool air sometimes comes with a price in our part of Paradise.

I guess so, and lots of other things come with a price, too. Is there news here? What will readers learn by spending time on this story? After all, it’s the double-deck, above-the-fold Big Story in Our Town Today.

Second graf:

The cost is a sharp decrease in relative humidity – the amount of moisture in the air.
Wow, sure glad readers have that thing about relative humidity explained. The cost, such as it is, doesn’t seem like such a terrible price to pay. Let’s forge on and learn the awful penalty for cool, dry air.

Second graf, second sentence:

The drier the air, the more likely viruses can make their way through cracks in parched throats, making us ill.

Hmm. The two-deck headline, “Fire Danger Increases; Prepare your property now for the dry season,” didn’t mention a disease potential. Maybe a doctor waits in the wings to explain this. And that bit about making us ill: Who is “us?” What if my throat isn’t full of cracks? What does humidity have to be to make parched, cracked throats? Is this a widespread danger of Florida winters? I’ve lived here more than a few decades and never heard anyone complain of this problem.

Second graf, third sentence:

And the more likely a woods’ fire will start and spread.

OK, no doctor, no viruses finding our parched, cracked throats. But at last, readers get a connection between what the headline's promise and the story. Let’s read about “a woods’ fire” that’ll start and spread because the humidity has declined from an as-yet unreported level to an as-yet unreported low.

Third graf:

Monday, the Florida weather map was stippled with “Red Flag Warnings” of extreme fire danger brought on by low humidity.
And that humidity reading would be?

Fourth graf:

Given this fire danger, DeSoto County residents might have been alarmed to see a huge smoke cloud looming over Arcadia Monday afternoon, but it was caused by two authorized controlled burns near Joshua Creek, by State Road 70 and County Road 760, said Patrick Mahoney, a Division of Forestry wildfire mitigation specialist.

Readers will surely keep reading to find out how two roads caused a fire. Meanwhile, they’ll rely on their early reading lessons, which taught the conjunction “but” negates or contradicts the action of the prior clause. Most residents who had no idea what caused the “huge smoke cloud looming” may well have been alarmed regardless of the cause, “no but about it.”

Would it have been too much for the reporter to ask the nice fire manager why he held a prescribed burn when our area is in extreme danger from low humidity? Maybe the danger isn't a great as hyped reported.

Fifth graf:

However, those weren’t the only fires in DeSoto Monday: firefighters put out a brush fire on State Road 31 and a house fire at 316 13th Ave. Monday morning.
The story about the fire caused by two roads has been abandoned. Readers are, instead, treated to a sentence that uses a colon where a period should be. Not that we expected it, but it would have been nice to read how the brush fire and house fire (in Arcadia? Lake Suzy?) are associated with low humidity, parched throats, invading viruses, and those "woods' fires." Readers surely want to understand how all this is the "cost" of our part of Paradise. (BTW, the last time paradise got a legitimate capital was in a long poem by John Milton.)

Sixth graf: Five-w details about “controlling the blaze” and the cause being “under investigation.” See “copspeak” entries in the archives.

Seventh graf:

Our usually moist tropical air was wrung out by passage of a cold front Saturday and the relative humidity this afternoon is expected to drop to 30 to 35 percent for four hours – air only slightly more moist than the Sahara Desert.

The Internet makes it easy to check facts, so I looked up articles about the Sahara’s climate. Maybe Encyclopedia Britannica, Columbia Encyclopedia, NOAA and National Weather Service all have it wrong, but here’s what they report: The Sahara’s low relative humidity rarely exceeds 30 percent and is often in the range of 4 – 5 percent. The only people I could find who report the desert's average humidity are room-humidifier salesmen, who clearly have a motive for convincing people that perfectly normal humidity is too low.

Readers who read this should rightly feel betrayed by a reporter who uses the Sahara’s high extreme (30 percent), or worse yet, room-humidifier sales pitches, to juke up a false comparison for the morning news. Publishing meaningless comparisons in news really should be against a nice newsman’s principles.

Eighth graf:

In such conditions, foliage already stressed from an extended drought loses still more moisture in a process called transpiration. As it dries, its potential as a fuel increases. That’s happening in forests throughout Florida and all of the southeast now.

The noun just before “it” is “transpiration.” Readers can eventually figure out on their own that the writer intended the antecedent of the pronoun to be “foliage,” five nouns ago. There's no need to bother the nice reporter about writing a clearer sentence. What about attribution for that big technical word and the suddenly wide scope of this story? Readers are, in essence, being told the reporters measured transpiration in forests throughout Florida and Southeast. Doubt it. So tell us how you know this, please.

Ninth graf:

Over the past year, our area has been 18 inches below what we consider normal rainfall.

“has been ... below what we consider?” Please, don't write the way you speak. It confuses people who know how to read. Who is “we?” The reporters in the two-headed byline? Why should their consideration be taken seriously? Let’s have some appropriate attribution – and a meaty, precise verb would be nice, too.

10th graf:

“We are looking for a rough season, Mahoney said. “We’re coming into the season with below-average rainfall.” He said DeSoto had an unusually high Keech-Byram Drought Index, about 540 out of 800. Normally it is 200 to 300 at this time of year, Mahoney said. It is 453 for Charlotte County and 444 for Hardee County.

Readers might benefit from a little help. What factors make up this index? Even the more widely known Beaufort, Richter and Fujita scales that measure hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes get a snappy, one- or two-sentence explanations from reporters who care about communicating. And more sentence-construction advice.

The area didn’t have a high index, it had a high index reading. Another “it” with no clear reference.

11th graf:

The driest area Monday, according to the National Weather Service in Tampa, was along the I-75 corridor.

Hmm. Interstate 75 extends from Palm Beach on the state’s east coast to Naples on the west coast, and then turns north to Tampa. Where exactly along this state-straddling roadway is “the corridor?” If we’re talking about the Tampa area “corridor,” what’s the relationship to DeSoto, some two hours south at 70 mph?

More 11th graf:

The dry air will shift slightly inland today, the service reports. The forecast states that a cold front will move into the region Tuesday night, ushering in more cool, dry air and expanding the fire risk to include inland portions of west central Florida.

This reads exactly like a NWS sentence, syllable for syllable, but the reporter fails to tell us if “west central Florida” includes any readers in the newspaper’s circulation area. Most maps place this region somewhere between Ocala and Leesburg.

12th graf:

In other words, fire danger is here to stay.

Actually, the forecast just given says nothing of the sort.

13th graf:

And the long-range forecast for December through February is for above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall for our area.

OK, so the 12th graf should have been the 13 graf and the 13th graf should have been the 12th graf. Like one of those mix-and-match puzzles, readers can re-order the paragraphs themselves to make sense if they really care. It’s clear the reporters don’t.

14th graf:

Mahoney said, “Now’s the time to look around your house and make sure they’re clean and green.”

“Your house” means the reporter’s house, right? “They?” “Clean and green?” What is he talking about? Maybe the reporter will explain.

More 14th graf:

He recommended removing debris, pine needles and leaves near the house, cleaning out roofs and gutters and clearing off wooden decks attached to houses.

This means tear down that deck, right? No? How does one clean out a roof?

The headline writer read all the way to the last graf to find the best way to sum up this story. I take back all the bad stuff I ever said about the desk not reading the whole story before writing the headlines. But if this is the nut and meat of the story, shouldn't it have been up a little higher? Oh, never mind

Monday, November 5, 2007

It's So Easy to Verify Some of This Stuff

Jon Sica interviews a local hero, Red Cross manager Bill Sullivan, and gets a good picture of the local response to California's fire emergency. To do the story, the local reporter uses Associated Press material. Unfortunately, he mangles the dates and weather reports because he did not verify the information he used.

Sica reports this morning “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Riverside County on Friday because of harsh winds.”

No. The Governor declared the county's state of emergency not last Friday, which was Nov. 2, but a full week prior, way back on Oct. 26, according to news releases from the governor’s office.

The “harsh winds” Sica reports for his date, Nov. 2, were described by the National Weather Service this way: “Weak Santa Ana winds are expected to develop Friday night into Saturday in southern California. Local wind gusts in canyons and passes may top off at 40 mph on Saturday; well below what was measured during the wildfire "outbreak" early last week.”

For the real date, Oct. 26, The Los Angeles Times reported: “Weather conditions are far better than earlier this week,” “weather conditions are improving,” and “the weather seems to be hold steady.” The NWS reported the Santa Ana winds were subsiding that Thursday and Friday.

Relying on Associated Press info isn’t the biggest crime in community newsrooms. Young’uns assume the big guys will get it right (a big assumption), and riding on their coat tails is a good way to learn. Well, the AP did get it right, but the kids forgot to (1) read the dateline and (2) double check what they were putting their names and the paper’s name to. The sad part is the Internet makes this kind of fact-checking very easy for those who care about accuracy in their news reports.

And Finally, Even Editors Need Editors ...

Four paragraphs into word processing, the local business editor gets around to telling readers there’s a quarrel between a Republican and a Democrat who scheduled two events for the same day. Burying the lead in order to tell readers, he pontificates writes:

.....Whenever the Florida Legislature is in session, protocol and procedure rule the day, sometimes to the point where they overwhelm the issues being debated.
..... In other words, it’s not always what you do, but how you do it. [Readers are so very grateful to have the deep complexities of the first sentence explained in simpler terms.]
..... Last week in Tallahassee began and ended on a sour note. Monday ended with House members angry over the Senate’s refusal to extend negotiations on a property tax reform package. [Which exemplify the lead’s protocol and procedure, how?]
..... By late Friday, the House Republican leadership was crying foul after a Democratic Rep. Scott Randolph, D.-Orlando, [sic] sent out invitations to all members to hear a speech Tuesday from a policy analyst from an ultra-liberal Washington think tank.
..... In this case, no one is questioning the Democrats’ right to invite anybody they please to the Capitol. But Rep. Paige Kreegel, R.-Punta Gorda, new chairman of the House Committee on Energy, said that the timing of the visit was inappropriate because it conflicts with an all-day House symposium on energy and the environment.
Okay, if no one questions the Dem's right to invite speakers, please share with readers how the lead about “protocol and procedure” grows out of a scheduling snafu, especially one in which the invited speaker is, as is later reported, the first one scheduled? I think I can guess, but readers are not supposed to have to guess when there’s an actual journalist at the controls.

In addition, readers deserve some justification for the editor’s unattributed and highly arguable description of the invited speaker’s organization as “ultra-liberal.” A few grafs later, the Republican describes the schedule conflict as a “political stunt” and disses the Democrat’s invited speaker as a political operative tarnished by association with a “progressive” organization. Are any senior editors on duty able to spot this editor’s slippery slide from adjective to adjective into a muddy morass of name calling?

The unattributed editorial keep flowing. “The Republicans should have no reason to be upset because Hendricks [the invited speaker] is scheduled to present his briefing [during lunch].”

Whether a Republican should or should not feel any particular way is an imperative that the editor/writer should attribute to someone, lest readers mistake it for his opinion.

Editors, presumably senior, seasoned and savvy journalists, should know better than to mix news with unattributed name calling, long fancy leads that go nowhere, and commentary that we’d be happy to read on the op-ed page.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Editorials Should Be Well Researched

Editorial writers, in temple of fundamental journalism, are something like elder statesmen. Readers read them for higher guidance and deeper analyses than deadline-driven news can provide. Unfortunately, this morning’s editorial endorsement of a local “bed tax” on tourists fails offer anything approaching that fundamental standard.

Sun Pundit parrots a badly written news story’s assertion that there’s $98,000 a year to be had from a two-penny bed tax in DeSoto County. He translates it to collecting $1.50 from out-of-towners on a $75 per night hotel room.

Sun Pundit fails to note the county has fewer than a dozen motels and bed and breakfasts, representing maybe 200 rooms. He fails to tell readers many of those rooms accommodate migrant workers whom Florida Statutes explicitly exclude from paying transient rental taxes.

He fails to tell readers $98,000 revenue at $1.50 a night means 65,333 tourist nights – 90 percent occupancy in every hotel and motel year round. (Yes, I have failed to count numerous snowbird trailer parks; a six-month lease is all that’s required to escape the tax.)

Let’s assume tourists stay two nights. Sun Pundit fails to mention they’ll drive around town in approximately 30,000 cars. Our little county, at the last U.S. Census amounted to 32,000 souls.

Sun Pundit fails to tell readers tourism taxes can be used only on state-specified tourist-related projects such a convention centers and beaches. It’s a diverse list, but these are not unrestricted funds “that can be used to improve DeSoto County.”

He fails to disclose the relationship between taxes collected in the City of Arcadia and those collected out in the county. He fails to tell readers half the money collected from city motels belong to the city for its projects, even if the tax is based on a county ordinance.

We wonder why Sun Pundit is not the least bit curious about why neighboring Collier County created the same tax one year and abandoned it the next.

He doesn’t bother to estimate the very real expense of maintaining a tourist development council on the county’s legal and administrative staffs, and its government-in-the-sunshine requirements for public meetings, public minutes, and oversight.

I neither oppose nor endorse the tax. What I oppose is shallow, uncritical thinking that urges local citizens to vote for a position based on ignorance. What I endorse is locating an editorial writer willing to do more homework than copy a one-sided news story simply because it sounds like it might be a good idea.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Little Things Reveal a Lot

The details throughout the newspaper tell readers whether the folks who put out the paper care -- nor not -- about what they do. Are editors reading copy before hitting the send key? Does anyone backstop the new kid on the block? When a headline like yesterday's Web embarrassment is posted, "Quake! California is shake 'n' bake state," we readers learn the newspaper staff is more interested in getting its giggles than in producing grown-up journalism.

Synonyms that aren't

Local head: U.S. seeks European sanctions vs. Iran.
Please tell the kids who design the pages that "vs." does not equal "against" in this context.

It’s the AP’s turn

After an incoherent, non-sequiter to set the stage, an AP story reports 283 war vets who came home between Oct. 7, 2007 and the end of 2005 took their own lives, making “a homecoming suicide pattern of a magnitude that is just starting to emerge.”

But the numbers are “not dramatically different from society as a whole.” In response the VA is “ramping up suicide prevention programs.”

I’m not downplaying the tragedy of suicide or the need to prevent every single one. But as a reader, I don’t see the news. If the emerging magnitude is not dramatically different from the rest of the population, that’s actually a pretty good thing, given the stress of war and the trauma of service.

One Doesn’t

“One in 60 older people may be walking around with benign brain tumors and don’t know it.”

One don’t? Yes, you may edit the AP. The very best copy editors do it every day.