Friday, October 31, 2008

Head Shop

Clearly, the stadium wasn't running fast enough.

That's the print edition. Here's the e-edition.

Millions missing in embezzlement mystery

The story says $1.6 million and change is gone. That's a singular million, not a plural millions.

Worse, the story carries no report of embezzlement. A bookkeeper is named by a principal in the story, and her Facebook page is discussed at length. However, no charges had been filed against her, and why and how the money disappeared remained a mystery. Old Word Wolf doesn't know how a copy desk editor can predict embezzlement, but she smells a potential libel suit should the story unfold along other lines.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reporter Uses 1994 Government Press Release as News

Two short bits before the larger story:
Bit Number One: Skimming through John Lawhorne’s front page feature this morning about the effect development has on bird watching (news flash: development is not good for birds), Old Word Wolf happened on his unattributed assertion, “The good news for birders is that, for the time being, Southwest Florida still can be considered one of the premier birding areas in the country, if not the world.”

A Google search of “premier birding areas” turns up Sierra Vista and Tuscon, Ariz., Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, the Rio Grande Valley; Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo, Wash., Cheraw Reservoir in Colorado, a dozen places in Montana, Lodi Lake, San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz, Calif., several spots in Wisconsin, Acadia National Park, Maine, Merritt Island, Fla., Cape May, N.J., Lake Alice, N.Y. – you get the idea.

“Premier birding area” is an empty, overused phrase that a naive reporter has culled from his reading. He thought it sounded nice and decided to share.

And, before we get to that serious headline, there's one more giggle:

Near the close, Lawhorne innocently reports, “Birding requires a minimum of affordable equipment to get started. All you need is a pair of binoculars and a field guide to the local bird fauna and you are ready to head for the outdoors.” Ahem. Lawhorne's birder is ready for the “naturist camp” they’re trying to build in DeSoto County.

But there's much more that is deeply troubling about this story. Lawhorne was recently caught using Wikipedia as an unattributed source (the practice is called plagiarism everywhere except the Charlotte Sun) for a rock band story, of all things. So OWW decided to check the data he used to report the size and scope of the bird watching industry: Lawhorne: “The FWS noted that Americans spend an estimated $18.1 billion a year to watch wildlife.”

A key-word search produced this archived news release from the U.S. Department of the Interior dated May 12, 1995: Bird Migration Thrills Millions, Boosts Economy, but Loss of Habitat Threatens Popular Species and a Rapidly Growing Industry. Along about the second page, this paragraph appears:

“In a study released by the Service, “The Economic Contribution of Bird and Waterfowl Recreation in the United States during 1991,” indicates that, of the estimated $18.1 billion Americans spend annually to watch wildlife, $5.2 billion is spent on bird watching, using the most conservative economic assumptions. That figure could run as high an $9 billion, according to the report’s author, Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates. Using conservative assumptions, the number of jobs supported by bird watching is 200,000, according to the study.”
Without telling, Lawhorne feeds readers a 13-year-old press release whose information is based on a study published four years prior to that. And, he misrepresents the information. Here’s how he does it.

Lawhorne: “About 200,000 jobs nationally are supported by birdwatching. The FWS noted that Americans spend an estimated $18.1 billion a year to watch wildlife.”

Any editor worth his paycheck would notice that “wildlife” is not restricted to birds. Lawhorne’s own source attributes less than a third of that amount (about $5.2 billion)to bird watching. But Lawhorne doesn’t tell readers this, and neither does he tell readers that the job data is 17 years old.

The government press release goes on to report, “All indications are the bird-watching and -feeding hobby is growing fast. The number of specialty stores selling wild birdseed, feeders, and equipment has exploded in recent years ...”

And Lawhorne dutifully copies: “According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all indications are that the bird watching and feeding hobby is growing fast. The number of specialty stores selling wild birdseed, feeders and equipment has grown dramatically in recent years.”

Lawhorne, the copyist, is unable to supply what any wide-awake editor would ask for: What numbers constitute dramatic growth? He can’t because his 1995 press release about the 1991 data doesn’t say.

In addition, Lawhorne is unable to report what the 2008 economic downturn, which has shuttered thousands of small specialty shops, has done to his claim of dramatic growth in recent years – that is, almost 20 years ago. For example, Wild Bird Center Inc., a retail-store franchise operation that targets the bird watching and feeding hobbyist, has declined from “more than 100” retail outlets five years ago to about 80 today, according to OWW's historical review of the firm's press releases.

Why is OWW picking on John Lawhorne? For one thing, she likes her news reporters to be accurate, fair, and honest. Today’s big-play feature and its author are none of these. Lawhorne is thumbing his nose at his readers, his editors, his publisher, and the profession of journalism.

Silly Lede o' the Day

Mention the numbers "90210" and most adults will recall the hit FOX TV series "Beverly Hills 90210." But it's likely those same people would draw a blank if asked what the numbers 5-2-1-0 stand for. -- Brooky Brown, Venice Gondolier.

Silly 1: "most adults" to most adults -- and to journalists who care about accurate, precise reporting -- means a majority of grownups. Pardon me, but I'm skeptical. And even if I'm wrong, I'd like to know what survey Brooky took to arrive at this sweeping generalization.

Silly 2: The second sentence is a non sequitur. It doesn't follow. It has no logical, emotional, social, geographical, biological, economic or philosophical relationship to the prior sentence. Whether people remember a television show with a number in its title is unrelated to whether they know what 5-2-1-0 stands for.

Silly 3: The numbers are not in the same format, which might have passed for a semblence of semblence. One number is five digits attached to a geographical location. The other is four digits separated by dashes attached to nothing.

Please, whenever an irrelevant pop-culture reference, served up with a sweeping generalization, appears in your copy, use the delete key before you use the send key. Readers want news, not the frazzled associations of a TV junkie.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Navigating Florida -- The Charlotte Sun Way

One assumes Charlotte Sun's newsroom is equipped with an atlas and it has a page or two devoted to Florida. That good book may even be somewhere near the copy desk, where those fact-driven, accuracy fiends called copy editors regularly thumb the pages to check on stuff, like where Pensacola is.

Oh? You say that page was ripped out years ago, and now the best you can do is guess where Pensacola is? Well, then, no free beer for us, because the Charlotte Sun map man points us 250 miles east of where that fair city was last reckoned.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wiki-Plagiarist Writes Local "Cover Story"

Sun Staff Writer John Lawhorne -- the man who brought the art of the agenda-rewrite to new lows -- landed on the cover of the local entertainment insert today. A rock band, 38 Special, is due to hit town next week. So Lawhorne hit Wikipedia.

Most of the last two legs of type, readers will note, sound very like the entry posted in that repository of all modern knowledge.

Here's the comparison. Newspaper first. Wikepedia second:

John Lawhorne: In the early 1980s, the band began incorporating elements of blues-rock and arena rock into their sound. A string of successful albums and singles followed.
Wikipedia: By the early 1980s, the band began incorporating elements of blues-rock and arena rock into their sound, kicking off a string of successful albums and singles.

John Lawhorne: Best-known songs by the group include "Caught Up in You" (1982) and "If I'd been The One" (1983). Both songs hit number one on the Billboard magazine's album rock chart.
Wikipedia: Among 38 Special's best-known songs are "Caught Up in You" (1982) and "If I'd Been the One" (1983), both of which hit #1 on Billboard magazine's album rock chart.

John Lawhorne: "Second Chance" (1989) became number one on Billboard's adult contemporary chart. It was sung by Max Carl, now a member of Grand Funk Railroad.
Wikipedia: "Second Chance" (1989), a #1 hit on Billboard's adult contemporary chart, and sung by former member Max Carl who is now a member of Grand Funk Railroad.

Lawhorne retains the wording of most of his source material -- Wikipedia. He breaks up a couple of long Wiki-sentences into two shorter sentences, but retains the exact order of clauses and ideas. The sentences appear just as they do here -- in order, with no breaks. That's a big chunk of someone else's writing to put your byline on, John.

Oh, he does move one Wikipedia paragraph higher up in his own story.

Lawhorne: The current band lineup includes co-lead singer and guitarist Barnes, co-lead singer and rhythm guitarist Van Zant, guitarist Danny Chauncey, bassist Larry Junstrom, keyboardist Bobby Caps, and drummer Gary Moffatt.
Wikipedia: The current lineup consists of co-lead singer Don Barnes, rhythm guitarist and co-lead singer Donnie Van Zant, guitarist Danny Chauncey, bassist Larry Junstrom, keyboardist Bobby Caps, and drummer Gary Moffatt.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Get Agenda, Insert Typos, Phone It In

Ignore the bad head and go straight to the Staff Writer's first two sentences: Tonight the Arcadia City Council will give a first reading to an ordinance regulating temporary sales of motor vehicle. The ordinance is to specifies regulations applicable to temporary sales of motor vehicles because of the impact on surrounding land uses.

It's not the typos that dismay (but see below, anyway). It's not the prepared agenda decked out with a "staff writer" byline that appalls. It's not the legalese copied straight from the government e-mail that makes us sigh, or even the writer-induced syntactical chaos. It's not even the issue -- which has generated what passes for controversy in these parts -- presented without attribution, without a comment from anyone affected, and without evidence of research or background.

What makes me sad is people who don't learn from their mistakes. Two weeks ago, John Lawhorne wrote about a proposed ordinance and erroneously called it an ordinance. The newspaper ran a nice correction, pointing out a proposed or draft ordinance isn't an ordinance until the powers that be vote, count the votes and find a majority in favor.

Here we go again. It's too much trouble to type the word "proposed." Who cares? Not DeSoto Sun editors and staff stenographers.

Publisher's Nephew Has a Bad Day

A few weeks back, the Charlotte Sun's head headline writer spelled the Nutmeg State with three t's, tacking the superfluous one on the end: Connecticutt. Old Word Wolf turned the page without comment. It had been blog policy that typos wouldn't be a source of finger pointing. Since then, unfortunately, things have been going so very wrong in the spelling department that it would be a dereliction of duty to continue that policy.

In other copy desk news ...

The annoying lede -- "leaf-peeping" -- and the pronoun error in the fourth graf -- "it's" instead of "its" -- weren't enough to spike a lame fall foliage feature. Nooo. The Sun runs it twice. It was the top story in the Northern Report roundup yesterday. Today, it's all the news New Hampshire could produce. It's not even remotely possible that the local copy desk checked the math of a reporter who thought asking how many leaves fell in the Granite State constitutes journalism. Checking the math would require ... well, professionalism.

The AP reporter figures it this way: "The result: 1,400 pounds of leaves per acre ... times 2.5 million acres [equals] 1.9 million tons. At a tenth of an ounce per leaf, that's 609 billion leaves in New Hampshire."

Actually, it isn't. 1,400 pounds of leaves per acre multiplied by 2.5 million acres equals 3,650,000,000 pounds of leaves.
10 leaves per ounce amounts to 160 leaves per pound. (I'm skeptical of this figure, but we'll go with it for now.)
160 leaves per pound multiplied by 3,650,000,000 pounds equals 584,000,000,000 leaves.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Bear Stops Here

LETTER SUBMISSION POLICY: ... Letters will be edited for length as well as grammar and spelling.

The Arcadia Golf Course is really in bad shape. Most of the greens have bear stops, the fairways need fertilizing, there are brown and bare spots, fire ant hills are everywhere, fairway and rough, needs treated for fire ants.

And against all recommendations ....
by the Associated Press Stylebook, Merriam Webster's 11th, and New World: "Slightly cooler temperatures have been forecasted ..."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Dear Abby: I Haz Not Copee Editur Bluz

Deer Abby: I know you get alots
of letters from peeple complaining
about there bosses. I'd like to offer some thin a bit different, and maybe briten, yur day. I work as a copy eidter at Charlotte Sun Newspaper and my bosses are the nicest peeple around. They idid not mind that i hated speling in schol. Now I get to rite hedlimes. Hope you like the on I rote for your colum this morning. Betz Wishz: Copee Eitur and Yur Fan.

P.S. ... I have a intern to tuttor. Today she writez "violent crimes against individuals is down in the first six months of this year compared to last year states a recently released report by Florida Department of Law Enforcement." Iznt she good!

P.P.S. Im voting for the demicrat for sherrif. Because DeSoto Assistant Editer Hoffman sez to and sheez a good writer to:

Algar has not had direct law
enforcement experience, although she has
training in crime scene investigation
and has worked as an private investigat-
or. Compare that with Wise, who
has 30 years as a law enforcement
officer (including 12 years as the
chief deputy in DeSoto County).
She has some hefty competition.
So why does Algar think she's

Today's non sequitur:

Help your
get better

by Chris Porter

In an effort to improve your
paper, the Sun is kicking off a

Uh, Chris, "kicking off a survey" won't help "my" newspaper get better. Surveys don't improve papers. But editing and news judgment might. Today's raft of readers' letters to the editor informing us that the Democratic presidential candidate is a Muslim and hangs with terrorists violates of the ethical and factual standards at every legitimate newspaper in the land. Shame on you.

More about that survey:

When the survey is over, we'll
take all of the participants and
have a drawing for some $50
Publix gift cards

Hmm. How to fit all those participants in the hat ... ?

And One More Observation: Not only does the pen-wielding editor/writer all but endorse Candidate Wise in the news report, she -- the editor -- runs a prison-quality mug shot for one and the flag-in-the-background studio pose for her favorite.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Art Attack

Old Word Wolf isn't a page designer, photographer, illustrator or artist -- but she knows what she likes. She likes photos in the morning paper to tell a story ("stand-alone art") or enhance the reporter's effort. This morning's front page art does neither.

In fact, it's been doctored beyond recognition. Somebody at the Charlotte Sun took a perfectly adequate (if trite, by now) picture of NYSE brokers and dropped out the background. The doctoring eliminated context, created fuzzy black halos around everyone's heads and hands, and left one guy making an obscene gesture at the empty sky while the middle man watches the finger -- is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it art? It certainly isn't journalism. And what's with the black patch? What's supposed to be a snapshot of the Big Board's Dow-Jones rally, looks like it's about to fall painfully into the right figure's forehead. No one's safe.

SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY AMORETTE ZINDLE Specialist James Denaro, left, handles trades at the post for Morgan Stanley on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Monday.

All other AP photos describe the guy on the left doing his thing, and none say he did it Monday. In fact, based on the number and variety of similar photos of Denaro released by the AP, I suspect it was taken last week. What the AP cut line says is: "Specialist James Denaro, left, handles trades at the post for Morgan Stanley on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Monday, stocks rallied..."

Bad editing -- on so many levels.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Quotes: Someone Said It. Or Not.

The headline over Charlotte Sun's top story this morning, an Associated Press piece by Ben Feller, tells readers:
"For Bush, last 100 days to feature 'no letting up.'" I defy anyone in the tri-county area to read this story and tell me who actually said the administration's last 100 days would be characterized by "no letting up." The headline uses this quotation, but no such words appear in the story.

The story's first quote is President Bush saying he's got a lot of work do between today [last week] and when the new president takes office. There's no evidence he said there will be "no letting up." The story's second quote, by a Bush staffer: "I suspect the last 100 days are going to feel more like the first 100 days than any of us would have hoped." That insight, essentially a non sequitur in this piece, isn't even close to "no letting up."

And finally, the only other quote is actually a paraphrase rendered without quotes: a staffer expects no drama in the end-time. In three dozen words, he says nothing in particular -- and nothing specific about "not letting up."

I suspect the story may have been trimmed a bit, which doesn't let the local headline writer off the hook. A headline opinion derives from some source within the story. If it doesn't, readers must assume it's the headline writer's opinion.

There's a lot in this story that's weak, soft, mushy and just plain silly (for one thing, it predicts the future), but we'll stick with the local effort: First: Editors shouldn't write their opinions into a headline. And: Editors shouldn't make stuff up. Corollary: Editors shouldn't use their opinion to make stuff up and then pass it off as someone else's speech.

Update: The editor e-mails OWW. The AP story moved with the suggested head and the Sun ran it. The problem is, the Sun cut the story from the bottom. The deleted last line reads: Said Gillespie of Bush: "People will not have any doubt that just because he's at the end of a second term, he's not letting up at all."

Cutting the source of the quote is bad. Worse is running the quote without checking it against what the guy said. No, the quote wasn't fabricated by the local copy desk. But it wasn't checked, either.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Charlotte Sun Editor Reaches New Low in Tasteless, Callow Reporting

Two months ago, three news services apparently carried unrelated reports of families living in squalid conditions and raising neglected children in Georgia and Missouri. Last night, an unnamed Charlotte Sun news editor decided this is the best way to deliver the information to southwest Florida:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxNews of
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe Weird

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe Aristocrats!

In three instances reported in August, American kids were found living in such filthy squalor and isolation that authorities feared they were nearly as developmentally stunted as feral children raised in the wilderness. A 36-year-old man in Lavonia, Ga., was arrested for having imprisoned his wife and three never-schooled children inside their small trailer home for at least the last three years. And, in Burke County, Ga., a woman and 11 never-schooled children were found in a filthy trailer home without electricity or running water. And, in Polk County, Mo., six children were found among three families living in a clump of 12 isolated, junk-packed trailer homes with 360 animals and the only water coming from a series of connected garden hoses.
For readers unfamiliar with the Charlotte Sun’s reference to The Aristocrats!, Wikipedia helps:

“The Aristocrats” is a long-standing transgressive joke among comedians in which the setup and punch line are almost always the same. The joke involves a person pitching an act to a talent agent. The man describes the act. The teller of the joke is expected to ad-lib the most shocking act they can possibly imagine. This often involves elements of incest, group sex, graphic violence, defecation, coprophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, child sexual abuse and other taboo behaviors. The joke ends with the agent asking “And what do you call the act?” The punch line is then delivered: “The Aristocrats!”

Not quite so awful, but another editor is having a bad day, too:

"Joe Pendergrass got to know Sarah Palin when she was mayor of his hometown, Wasilla -- a town that, until a few months ago, nobody had heard of." The byline: by Dana Sanchez, Assistant Englewood Editor.

Nobody? Readers expect an editor -- even an assistant -- to know how to do a little research and then how to report accurately. It's a patent fallacy to report Wasilla is a town "nobody had heard of" until a few months ago. Whether the population is 5,469 (U.S. Census 2000) or 9,780 (U.S. Census estimate for 2007), that's a far cry from "nobody." I'll wager good money that several hundreds -- maybe even several thousands -- of folks in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau know Wasilla. And then there's everyone who voted the Wasilla mayor into the governor's residence: Nobodies.

Readers crave journalism, not an editor's -- assistant editor of a city desk covering a city nobody heard of, maybe? -- rather careless, self-centered opinionizing about a news story (since Sanchez hadn't heard of Wasilla, nobody had).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Left: Washington, with beard. Right: Lincoln, with white-powdered hair

These iconic photos have been reproduced in thousands of American texbooks and are routinely used in classrooms across the land starting in about the seventh grade. During the last 50 years, the photos have appeared regularly in magazines and newspapers and today are posted on countless Web sites.

It took the Charlotte Sun to get them wrong. OK, so editors missed that day at school. But it didn't occur to anyone on the layout desk, on the copy editing desk or at page-proof time that the woman cradling a baby and flanked by children might be the mother.

Let's set the record straight and not further embarrass our fine Florida social studies teachers: Left: "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange. Right: "Allie Mae Burroughs" by Walker Evans.

And while we're looking at the pretty pictures ....

"Growing in the sand: One of the main characters in the novel "Jurassic Park" is fond of saying "life will find a way" in explaining how wrong things can happen when scientists start tinkering with the DNA of dinosaurs. These beach grasses prove that statement correct. They have found a way to take root and grow even in the midst of miles of sandy beach."

Let's ignore that the photographer isn't telling readers where, when or why he took the photo and forgive that the photo editor and the layout editor are not about to ask him.

Instead, let's try to figure out why the editor thinks a pop-culture reference to "how wrong things can happen" when "scientists start tinkering with the DNA of dinosaurs" explains Florida native sea oats growing in their natural habitat.

Meanwhile, in local news ...

"...I'm cluing you in about two new local locations ..." -- columnist Joe Gallimore.

"Local man protests code enforcement" -- headline writer.

"... local Arcadia resident ..." -- editor's note about children's story writer.

And one more thing: We're getting used to the Sun's strange habit of using British spelling (humour, colour, etc.) in stories about Canada. But today's state-page photo has nothing to do with Canada. "Endeavour" isn't listed in the desk's dictionary as an acceptable second spelling. The word's not used in the text of the cutline. But there it is. Eh?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Journalism Requires Three Things: Evidence, Evidence and Evidence

Editors and reporters are not supposed to assert without evidence. If a headline (the editor's part) says "complaints rise," then readers are justified in expecting a line or two in the story (the reporter's part) that shows this is so.

"In the month of September, we had 17 calls referencing people trespassing to pick the berries," the reporter reports a sheriff's deputy reported. What the reporter doesn't report is whether 17 calls are more than the prior month's tally or more than calls during same month last year. No rising numbers here. Let's read on.

"We've only had four arrests this year," the reporter reports the deputy reported. Hmmm. Evidence of rising tide of berry picking complaints or arrests? Not yet.

The next graf produces a non sequitur. Its sentences fail the logical-connection test as well as evidence test: The berries are plentiful during the months of August, September and October. [an editor should delete "the months of" because most readers will recognize that August, September and October are months] This is when the picking begins, but there have been reports throughout the year. "There has been a problem with this for a few years now," said Wilson.

Are the reports of picking throughout the year? And this is a problem how? And, as always, we're still looking for evidence of those rising complaints.

The story goes on to quote a Web site about the herbal-medicinal use of saw palmetto berries, the market price of the harvest (30 cents a pound), last year's crop (3 million pounds), and a factoid: a Naples company ships "directly to the consumer and only charges $5.99 a month." Another non-sequitur -- compounded by the reporter's adverbial opinion, "only."

And the cherry, err, berry on the top: "The majority of the people picking the berries are Hispanic but the economy is bringing out anyone in need of money to harvest the berries," quoth the deputy.

Anyone in need of money? The evidence being ...?

The only things on the rise here are bad reporting and worse editing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Ruppel: "I Am Meticulous About Giving Sources"

Frequent Venice Gondolier columnist Mary Kay Ruppel wraps up her Friday column with assurances to readers that she's meticulous about naming sources. It's her closing note in a tirade constructed largely around at least five unnamed sources. Thanks for the reassurance, Mary Kay!

"....Fannie Mae Chief Franklin Raines is reported to have accumulated a personal wealth of $100 million..."

"...Jamie Gorlick, another Clinton buddy is also said to be worth in excess of $100 million ..."

"...Barack Obama is said to be the third-largest recipient of Fannie Mae's political contributions reported at more than $100,000 ..."

"... Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Barney Frank have also allegedly benefited from this financial crisis ..."

" ... P.S. I am meticulous about giving sources when I quote other columnists, newspapers, etc."