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

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