Monday, April 28, 2008

Heads, Small and Large












Kaboom. The one at the right really doesn't count as a newspaper headline; it was written by a chiropractor, not a copy editor. But still, someone at the newspaper should have saved him the embarrassment.


The expression is "a boon for all mankind." And what's with the sexism? Women don't count?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Quoting Sources We Didn't Speak To


The Sun-Herald's own Lang Capasso, a "general manager," (not a reporter trained in the ethics of journalism) wrote last Thursday that a neighborhood pizza parlor "now serves beer and wine to wash down the pizza. Owner Yvonne Haulunen tells me that it was something they have been trying to get for along time."

Today's correction: The eatery "is not serving beer or wine" and Capasso did not speak to Haulunen for his column.

This little experiment -- of firing real reporters and ordering area circulation and sales managers with no journalism training (any college writing experience?) to write weekly business columns -- has been fraught with danger. The gang of five consistently produces silly, error riddled (let's not forget plagiarized) and vacuous lists of address changes, boosterism, and service announcements that violate the ethical separation of reporting and editorializing.

There's an important place on our local business pages for tid-bit news and short announcements. But, just because it's a one-liner doesn't mean it's easy to produce or exempt from journalism's standards. A sales manager cannot be counted on to know these standards. When a publisher assigns even short roundups to the untrained, he has saved salary by trivilizing his paper, his sources, his readers and his profession.

And one more thing:

In the same column, the writer leads off by announcing a local spa's new service "called the Raindrop Technique. It was developed to simulate water falling. This cleanses the body and is a 45-minute session."

Old Word Wolf calls this a long shower!


Friday, April 25, 2008

Not a Verb


Uptick is a noun. It's entered in the house dictionaries -- Merriam-Webster's and Webster's New World -- as a noun and only a noun. It has no verb form.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Diet Story Suggests Improper Relationship

This seems almost too elementary to bring up: Every reporter learns on day one of journalism school that newspapers don't print a single-source story, copied from a corporate Web site, "written" by a salesperson who wants to expand her business and present it to readers as if it's regional news. You're supposed to draw a big black border around it and insert a 9-point flag that says "ADVERTISEMENT" and bill the writer for a one-time insertion.

When Cindy DeWeese, "area captain" for Take Off Pounds Sensibly showed up at the newsroom's front desk earlier this week to drop off her copy touting "real success" (as opposed to the not-real kind?) the staff failed to tell her to go buy an ad. Maybe they know something we don't.

Running the copy as if it's news prompts readers to wonder what Cindy's real relationship is to the editor or publisher. Why does she (and not Jenny Craig, Curves, Weight Watchers, and Slimfast) get to use DeSoto Sun's Regional News page to promote her business? After all, she's not a big advertiser, so there must be some other connection the editors would rather not disclose to their community of readers -- by which I mean that folks who belong to the same clubs, churches, lodges, Rotary, etc., as the editors seem to have an "in" when it comes to publicizing their causes. That's an improper relationship, in journalism's ethics. Good news, free news for one's buddies? No.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Let's Talk About Something Besides Your Face

The combination of miles of paper, a paid subscriber base, buckets of ink, and high-speed presses combine to breed a special kind of egotism in newsmen and women. It’s an egotism that's too often expressed upon peering into the mirror one morning and thinking, “Wow! That’s a good subject for a column!”

Sun-Herald columnist Steve Baumann is the latest at the Daily Excuse to succumb to the temptation of imagining his readers will better understand their little town if they first read a history of his mustache and sideburns.

Give him credit: he doesn't hide his topic: "Let's talk about my face."
No, Steve. Let's not. Next time you are looking for a subject, try one of these:

  • We in Arcadia need to know what’s up with the rural transportation initiative.
  • We need to know if the local high school’s drop out numbers are down or up.
  • How about telling us how the state-level budget cuts will affect local school resources?
  • We need to know what the property appraiser is doing to assessed home values in a time of falling market prices.
  • We need to know if a proposed 25-acre animal drop-off facility is everything its promoters say it is – and what county permits have been issued.
  • We need to know why DeSoto County commissioners refuse to institute a can-and-glass recycling program (or create an inter-local agreement so Arcadians can use Charlotte County’s drop-off facility).
  • We need to know if the teen pregnancy rate is still the highest in the state and what initiatives are taken to keep young women in school.
  • We need to know the outcome of the investigation into the policeman who shot a citrus worker during a traffic stop.
  • Whatever happened to those eight high-powered rifles stolen from the local pawn shop?
  • What are the jail conditions that were evaluated by the feds last month?
There is so much more ... taxpayers, families, and job holders in Arcadia need to know. And, Steve, your goatee is not on the list. <

Monday, April 21, 2008

Feature Fails to Deliver

Headlines lead readers to expect a story will deliver particular facts. Yesterday’s Big Story dominated the front page: “Casualties of war: How one Marine’s death is prompting a closer look at PTSD.”

The headline and art made Old Word Wolf expect the long feature story might describe how a recent tragedy – the accidental death of a traumatized marine -- might shed light on a national problem.

The article fails to deliver. Despite the writer's claim the tragedy is provoking national attention, he presents no evidence that this marine’s death prompted anything national or more than a family’s vague desire to “help others.”

Here's what is offered instead:

In 70 paragraphs, OWW finds a flawed recap of the life and death of an Indiana native who visited relatives in southwest Florida earlier this year as part of his effort to recover from the trauma of military service in Iraq.

The reporting flaws begin on the first page: The reporter -- an "assistant editor" -- says 20 percent, or “120,000,” of 800,000 returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002 have been diagnosed with a mental-health condition. His math error is picked up and featured in a box on jump -- but there’s not one mention of how the man’s death is causing people to look closely at the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

The first and only expert the reporter quotes is Ira Katz, Veterans Administration deputy chief patient care services officer, saying “Any number is high, but we expect we can manage it with the funding available.” So Katz is not the one taking the “closer look” at the system because of this marine's death, as the writer/editor promises.

Turning to the jump, the inside headline reiterates: “Eric Hall case prompts a closer look at PTSD.” But instead of addressing that promise, the reporter tells readers the marine’s hometown is “quaint,” while offering no evidence for this assessment. (A quick trip to the town’s historic-preservation committee Web site finds phrases like “architectural indifference is not hard to find downtown,” and longish descriptions of a riverfront town struggling to preserve its past.)

The second “expert” interviewed is identified only as Charlie Shaughnessy, a Vietnam vet. No city, no middle initial, no age, no address, nothing but a diminutive nickname. Is he local? What's his area of expertise? Was this character made up? readers might well ask.

Ok, this is getting tedious. The punch line is that somewhere south of the 65th paragraph, readers learn the marine’s mother “does not want to see the same thing happen to other young men.” The news on which the headlines seem to be based is:
[She] is in the process of establishing the Eric Hall Memorial Fund to help veterans and their families. Although tentative, the fund would provide money for returning soldiers to assist with their transition home. It would push for tougher legislation to increase the decompression phase to a minimum of 60 days, and allow family members to be present so they can better understand the issues [...] Hall also wants to enact legislation so every soldier is registered with the VA for any present or future combat related illness.

The initiative is already receiving national support. Locally, two major fund raising events are scheduled for the summer and fall
.
Sorry, that’s not enough. Everything is “tentative.” Most important, the reporter gives no evidence to support his assertion that the “initiative” is receiving “national support.” There is not one substantial connection in the whole story to tie the local death to a national examination of PTSD afflicted veterans.

This Charlotte Sun feature is big on promises but Assistant Editor Jason Witz fails to deliver. In that failure, he and the paper conspire to exploit a man’s death for not much.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Medical Journalism Fails Readers

Alert readers will notice several key facts missing or misrepresented in this morning’s “medical news” story, New Technology for Aching Backs, featured in Feeling Fit.

Right off the bat, the technology is not new. If the reporter had researched the field instead of taking her source’s word for it, she would have discovered two things: First, the spine-stretching table promoted by the local chiropractor is a Canadian knock-off of a several prior models -- around since the 1980's -- that do essentially the same thing, and secondly, it’s simply traction, a long-used technique well known to temporarily relieve some types of back pain.

But the reporter's failures go deeper than that.

The reporter says patients sign up for daily, 30-minute treatments. A thorough, professional journalist would have informed readers how many 30-minute, daily treatments are usually prescribed. Two? Twenty? Two hundred? The chiropractic literature typically mentions between 10 and 20. So what happens if the patient misses one session or the weekend intervenes?

On the same note, the reporter fails to report how much each treatment costs and whether insurance or Medicare will pay. The literature mentions a typical $250 per treatment bill. Multiply that by 10 or 20 treatments, and most readers would seriously weigh the benefit against the $5,000 cost for what most studies report is temporary relief, at best.

The reporter fails to mention FDA’s limited approval for the device. It is approved as traction that may "relieve" certain types of back pain. However, it is illegal to claim it can correct herniated (bulging) discs. The chiropractor, Stephen Stokes, seems to makes this claim in the news story when the reporter writes: “In the past, treatment for bulging discs or back pain was surgery of manual manipulation of the back.” (And, just because a treatment was used “in the past” doesn’t mean it’s a poor choice. What’s wrong with either? The reporter doesn’t say. )

The reporter fails to report how the local chiropractor diagnoses a “weakened annulus” before beginning treatment. This condition is internal and non-visible so there must be some use of x-rays, MRI scans or other (expensive) diagnostic methods not reported.

The reporter fails to inform readers about what happens when the patient stands up. The decompression or stretching that occurs on the horizontal table is surely compromised when a several-hundred-pound person stands and gravity takes over. Muscles are not strengthened to hold the discs apart in this treatment. It seems reasonable to ask the chiropractor how his device counters gravity when the patient returns to a normal, standing position. How long does the perceived benefit last? The reporter never asks whether the "cure" is permanent or temporary.

The reporter cites an article published a decade ago in a publication called the Journal of Neurological Research. Old Word Wolf hope she actually read the article because she attributes none of the information she “reports” to anyone but herself. Is this a peer-reviewed journal? Why cite a 10-year-old study? Is there nothing newer? How large is the study? How long did the benefits last?

OWW’s reading finds the improvements reported were “self reported” by patients, using self-assessed pain scales that range from 1 to 3 in some groups and 1 to 5 in others. The article mentions neither an objective measurement of intra-disc pressure nor a range-of-movement measurement -- or any other way that the researchers evaluated the result apart from patient's self-reporting. Most significantly, the reporter also fails to inform readers, based on the study’s numbers, that about one in four patients reported being not helped by the treatment.

More recently, Dwayne M. Daniel, a researcher at Parker Chiropractic College's Parker Research Institute noted in a 2007 paper published in a chiropractic journal: “There is very limited evidence in the scientific literature to support the effectiveness of non-surgical spinal decompression therapy. This intervention has never been compared to exercise, spinal manipulation, standard medical care or other less expensive conservative treatment options which have an ample body of research demonstrating efficacy. Considering the cost-benefit relationship, many better researched and less expensive treatment options are available to the clinician.” (D.M. Daniel, “Non-surgical spinal decompression therapy: Does the scientific literature support efficacy claims made in the advertising media?” Chiropractic and Osteopathy, Vol 15, No. 7, May 18, 2007) Full text available at: http://www.chirobase.org/06DD/vaxd/c&o.html

The reporter fails to inform readers if certain conditions preclude using the device -- osteoporosis? scoliosis? Do real M.D. specialists, say orthopaedic surgeons, use or make referrals to the chiropractor's device? Does an orthopedic surgeon use the device in his practice? If not, why not?

OWW isn't the only critic to cast a skeptical eye on the device.


And finally, a real reporter would have noted Stokes cannot be a "medical director" if he has no medical schooling; his self-ascribed title is misleading. It would be helpful if the reporter would inform readers what school the chiropractor actually attended.

Yes, OWW is being mean again. But medical reporting is a specialized area that bears a special responsibility to the reader. With this article, the reporter abrogates that responsibility in the most obvious ways – lazy, na├»ve reporting based on a single, biased source who has something to sell to a particularly desperate segment of the medical market.

Oh, and did we note? Stokes is a regular, full-page, full-color advertiser with the reporter's employer.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Staff Plagiarism: No. 19 in Eight Months

Glen Nickerson, a newspaper ad salesman, has been handed a weekly column on the business page. With this morning’s column, he expands the Sun-Herald’s reputation for blatant plagiarism.


Here’s how he plagiarizes: Nickerson eschews quotation marks around material that appears on a Web page he didn't write. He fails to attribute to a source any information that’s not common knowledge. He uses wording, sentence structure and narrative organization identical to his sources while leading readers to believe that the prose is his own.

Here’s his context: Nickerson touts a local firm that’s using a Greener Cleaner franchise to open an “environmentally safe dry cleaner” in Port Charlotte. When this news becomes more than Nickerson can wrap his head around, he relies on a company brochure or fact sheet (I’m guessing here) to explain the history and properties of dry cleaning solvent. He copies instead of paraphrasing. He fails to attribute or give credit to the people who actually wrote the words he presents to readers as his own work.

Here's the evidence.

Nickerson writes copies: In the 1930s, perchlorethylene (or perc for short) was introduced to the industry. It was based on carbon chemistry. Perc was a superior cleaning agent and had no flashpoint like chemicals of the past, thereby reducing the fire hazard. It rapidly became the solvent of choice for the dry cleaning industry. Currently, perc is used by 85 percent of the dry cleaners in the United States and around the world.

Here's Nickerson's likely source:

Green Cleaning Homepage: In the 1930's, perchlorethylene (or perc for short) was introduced to the industry as an alternative to the Stoddard solvent. It was also based upon carbon chemistry. Perc was a superior cleaning agent and had no flashpoint, thereby reducing fire hazard. It rapidly became the solvent of choice for the drycleaning industry. Currently, perc is used by 85% of the drycleaners in the United States and around the world.

Nickerson goes on: Perc, however, is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration due to environmental concerns. Further, it has caused the dry cleaning industry damage due to the costs o cleaning up sites that have been contaminated, the ongoing expenses and surcharges attached to buying and disposing of the product, and the public policy issues associated with using the solvent.

Green Cleaning homepage: Perc, however, is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) due to environmental concerns. Further, it has caused the drycleaning industry damage due to the costs of cleaning up sites that have been contaminated, the ongoing expenses and surcharges attached to buying and disposing of the product, and the public policy issues associated with using the solvent.

The Sun's owner, David Dunn-Rankin, promised readers ...in his personal column last fall that plagiarists are not tolerated at his newspaper and get no second chance. This is plagiarism Number 19 since Old Word Wolf kicked off this blog with the plagiarising preacher -- one of several offenders who continues to be published regularly. And these are just the ones who appear on the DeSoto edition -- the smallest of the zoned editions. Heaven knows what goes on where Old Word Wolf doesn't prowl.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So, What Happened?

DeSoto Sun's John Lawhorne reports Arcadia City Council listened to a lot of negative feedback from locals about tent sales by out-of-town auto dealers last night. Nowhere in the story does our crafty reporter report what the council actually did or didn't do. Was this a discussion-only session? Was there a motion? Was there comment from the councilmembers? Readers would like to know. A real reporter might have crafted a little line: Councilmembers took no action. Tucking the info into the lead would vastly improve the news value of the story.

Real Editors Keep The Paper From Looking Stoopid ...
And one would certainly have been happy to review this mess, we're sure:

Local woman nominated for Animal Planet's Hero of the Year

By Rick Kingston co-founder of Puffy Paws Kitty Haven.

Chrissy Kingston lives with more than 100 kitties in her Englewood home. She is just not another crazy cat lady, but the co-founder of Puffy Paws Kitty Haven.

PPKH, is a 2,800-square-foot, nonprofit, free-roaming, cage-less, no-kill haven for unwanted kitties for life. Chrissy has rescued and acquired unwanted kitties that have physical, emotional and behavioral problems since 1997. Her mission is to contribute to a better life for unwanted and homeless kitties, to protect them from neglect and cruelty, and to provide a safe haven for them in a no-kill environment until secure, permanent, loving and responsible homes can be found. More than 20 kitties have found fur-ever homes because of her work.

All this makes for a great press release, but behind the scene is a different story.

Most shelters who have this many kitties does it with a paid staff and host of volunteers. Chrissy takes cares of the kitties' daily needs by her self [sic] -- cleaning up, feeding and taking care of the cat boxes. She takes no salary. Chrissy goes on three to four hours sleep a night. She scoops and puts out more than a 1,000 pounds of litter a week by her self. The garbage man curses at her every trash day.

The local media loves her and her home, because when you walk in her home you cannot smell a cat. Chrissy hands suffer from chemical burns from the bleach she uses to clean up after the kitties who go outside their box. Most places would have put down the those kitties, but not Chrissy. Chrissy puts the kitties first and her last. She needs to see the dentist and doctors, which she has not seen in years due the cost of the kitties. She emotionally breaks down every now and then and that is due to her workload. Sometimes we have a volunteer help out, but they do not stay around.

Chrissy never woke up and said, "Cats, that's where the money is." It was more like fate has put her into a spot in life to take care of the unwanted kitties of the world with little recognition and rewards in return. Her only reward is that in her heart, she knows everyday she saved another kitty and that what makes up her inner strength to go on another day.

To see Chrissy life's work, go to www.puffypawskittyhaven.com or call 941-473-5406 to set up a time to come on over and see the kitties.


No Staff Writer was Bothered in the Composition of This Story -- or the irrelevant headline.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tin Ear Mars Memorial

John Lawhorne writes:
ARCADIA -- The community turned out Saturday to say goodbye to one of its favorite children -- Derrick La Shay Turner -- a young man who was killed on his 20th birthday.
The expression is "favorite son." Calling a 20-year-old man a child infantalizes and insults.

Later in the story, the slain man's mother, "distraught and overcome with grief through most of the ceremony, was surrounded by comforters."

In this region, a comforter is a puffy, warm blanket. The distraught mother was surrounded not by blankets but by people offering comfort.

The writer's tin ear mars an article that is sure to be preserved in family scrapbooks for years to come. What a disappointment that John Lawhorne -- or his editors -- could not rise to the occasion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Could We Get Somebody Out Here Who Knows News?

Our man in Arcadia reports to the community this morning:
Two DeSoto County School Board members left Tuesday evening to spend two days in Tallahassee, where they will visit the county's lawmakers and the legislature to see how law-making takes place.

The process is rarely news. The process of traveling to Tallahasee is one of those things in a news story that's a given. If our trusty reporter deems this to be the leading edge of the day's events, then he might as well tell readers the women drove north in a blue Ford Windstar and got 24 mpg.

The opening paragraph does double duty by making the junket sound as if it's the sophomore class trip. The next paragraph:
Thankful for a thin agenda, the two school board members Karen Chancey and Deborah Snyder were eager to get away.
OK; whose agenda? The legislature's? This doesn't make sense.
And, just in case any reader has missed the news that two school board members are going to Tallahassee, OMIA provides a clarifying quote:
"The Florida School Board Association is sponoring a day in the Legislature, so we are going up there and hopefully meet with our legislators," Snyder said.
And one sentence later, she adds:
"So we are going to see how the legislative process works and hopefully meet with our legislators and talk about some issues that are really important to us -- for example, the budget."

And just in case readers missed it, OMIA reports:
The two educators will be in Tallahassee for two days.
Could we please, please, please get somebody out here who knows how to detect and report news?
(Forecast: It's too much to expect a genuine follow-up article about two elected officials, a follow up story that reports who they talked to and describes the outcome of the junket and such. OWW is dying to hear if they learned how laws are made. Neither will we get from John Lawhorne any report about how much the trip cost or who paid for it. It sounds as if they've gone up without an agenda or much idea about how to lobby, so what's the point of this trip?)
Over in the head shop, things got a little smoky last night:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Seeing Double



Something strange is going on here.

Charlotte Sun's Photoshop wizard, Josh Olive, altered a picture taken six months ago by Sarah Coward. His cutline for yesterday's (April 7) edition, right, reports "East Elementary School fifth-grader Kyle DeVries runs off some post-lunchtime energey Wednesday near the school's bus ramp."

We don't think so. Compare the doctored photograph with the original, left. (Actually, at this point,we don't know what's original -- so much for trusting what we read in the newspaper.)

The October 19, 2007 cutline reported "East Elementary School fifth-grader Kyle DeVries runs off some post-lunchtime energy recently near the school's bus ramp."

Shame on everyone involved in this fiction -- and the blatant lie that it represents something that happened "Wednesday."


P.S. and the new "design" that scatters all that distracting stuff around the banner is sad and sorry. It cheapens the product.

Real or The Onion?...

Local couple proud of traveling family members

By SUSAN ERWIN Englewood Herald Editor

Englewood residents Carl and Jean Smith are proud that their
great-granddaughter, Maddy Kammerer, 16, enjoys going on exciting travel excursions with her grandparents, Hank and Shirleen Smith.

Last summer, the trio experienced the enjoyment of exploring Alaska.

Hank and Shirleen Smith drove their RV (recreational vehicle) from San Antonio, Texas through Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. They stayed and explored the state for four months.

A few weeks into their trip, the couple flew Maddy up to Anchorage for two weeks to join them on the adventure. While in Alaska, they visited Denali National Park and saw the awe-inspiring 20,320 foot Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Look it Up

Our Man in Arcadia, writing about a child-advocacy group called Guardian Ad Litem, incorrectly informs readers this morning that the Latin phrase, "ad litem," means "on behalf of." If the reporter looks it up, as he should, he'll find the phrase translates as "for litigation," according to Black's Law Dictionary. That close translation is broadened slightly to mean "for this case only." Look it up, John.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Plagiarism in the Park


One of Old Word Wolf's favorite places is Myakka River State Park. So it was with great interest that she turned to Susan Cairo's "Road Trip" story this morning, "Get Wild on a Myakka River tour."

Cairo gracefully recaps her experience with the park's famous and educational air-boat tour. But, apparently she didn't have enough time to walk the extraordinary bridge to the treetops.

For that mid-section in her report, she simply adopted without attribution whole phrases, sentences, and the narrative order of ideas from the same brochure I had collected during my last visit at the attraction.

Here's the evidence of Susan Cairo's plagiarism in the park; both texts are presented completely and in the order published.

Susan Cairo's 'Canopy Walkway' section of her story in the Charlotte Sun:


To observe wildlife from a true bird's-eye viewpoint, climb up 25 feet above park grounds onto the Canopy Walkway. The walkway provides viewing above old oaks and palms and a rich opportunity for the naturalist to view the wonders of the forest safely and to see what creatures live in the tops of the trees.

Her Myakka State Park brochure in a PDF format:

... Now scientists can climb safely into the high frontier to discover some of its wonders.

The Myakka Canopy Walkway provides easy access to observe life in the treetops of an oak/palm hammock. As an outdoor laboratory for research and education, it is a place for discovery and opportunity for visitors to Myakka to see its canopy inhabitants up close.

Cairo: The canopy walkway bridge extends 85 feet through the hammocks. A tower soars 74 feet in the air to present a spectacular view of treetops, wetlands and the prairie hammock interface.

Brochure: The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 85 feet through the hammock canopy. A tower soars 74 feet in the air to present a spectacular view of treetops, wetlands, and the prairie hammock interface.

Cairo: Staring face-to-face at eagles, hawks, vultures and other birds in flight is an exciting experience for the climber who braves the trip.

Brochure: You can look down on eagles, hawks, vultures and other birds in flight.

Cairo: Completed in June 2000, it has a practical side. It is also an outdoor laboratory for research and education. Scientists use the walkway to climb safely into the canopy to study life in the treetops. Scientists had a shock a few months after the canopy opened. An exotic weevil from Central America, accidentally released in Fort Lauderdale about 1990, had arrived in this area.

Brochure: The walkway proved its practical value with a shocking discovery a few months after it opened. An exotic weevil from Central America, accidentally released in Ft. Lauderdale about 1990, had arrived in SW Florida.

Cairo: Myakka is providing valuable information that may, one day, stop the weevil from harming vegetation.

Brochure: Myakka is providing valuable information that may, one day, stop the weevil.

Plagiarists should be called the journalism weevil. They have found safe haven at the Charlotte Sun, where editors don't check and publishers don't care. Even one fouls the nest of all.

__________




Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Questions are What You Do, Not What You Write

...Local readers appreciate that Our Man in Arcadia wrote a story today involving more than rewording a city council agenda. Unfortunately, no real editor was around to help him to see that reporters should report; they shouldn't be offering up baseless assertions and artificial questions.

A real newspaper editor would have asked him to address these problems in this morning's story, from the top, before going into print.

In the first sentence, he asks: "As education costs continue to soar, has a college education become just a pipe dream for the average student?"

Readers want answers, not questions. What's the "soaring" part? The story fails to report any costs or provide evidence that costs are soaring. Although there are several opportunities in the story to report tuition rates and the price of textbooks, the reporter never once does so. This is easy information to locate.

In the second sentence, OMIA asks: "Do average students stand a chance of being accepted into a college or university, and if so, can they afford it?"

Again, readers expect answers, not questions. Since the story includes interviews with several "average students," it would be more honest and less cutesy -- and more like a real journalist -- if the reporter informed readers that numerous opportunities exist in Florida for "average students" to get into two- and four-year schools. Don't ask; inform. This provides another good springboard for reporting the cost of tuition -- perhaps comparing Edison, SFCC, and FSU with the larger state schools -- but the story never gets around to doing this.

In the third sentence, our trusty reporter asks: "What is meant by "average student? Arguably, the traditional definition is the C student - the student with a grade point average somewhere between 2.0 and 2.9."

The made-up answer is unattributed. Report who says a "traditional definition" of an "average student" means a student with a C grade? Both logic and common sense say this is a fallacious conflation. (A blind student with C grades is hardly an "average student," although he may be a student with average grades. A 64-year-old grandmother with C grades is hardly an "average student," although she may be a student with average grades. A Chinese native studying here and using English as a second language may have C grades but is hardly an average student. And so on.) Inform readers by reporting facts from someone with expertise. That person is not the reporter.

The reporter writes: "There was a time when average students rarely went on to college."

Perhaps so, but the writer is obligated to tell readers exactly when that time was. He makes a broad generalization about a vague, bygone era but fails to marshal facts to support the assertion.

The reporter writes: "There was not much scholarship money available."

A real editor would have asked the cub to tell readers when this time was. And, how much, please, is "not much?"

Remember, there was also a time when millions of returning soldiers from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict went to college on the GI bill. For a quarter century, we at colleges and universities across the nation experienced a huge influx of "average" students riding a tidal wave of government-paid tuition -- essentially open-enrollment scholarships. That fact alone makes your statement incorrect as presented.

The reporter writes: "In those days, a college education probably was a pipe dream for the average high school student."

See above: when exactly were "those days?" What expert, besides this writer, asserts that college was a pipe dream?

Those are the first six or seven sentences. The rest of the story (interviews with nice local kids) isn't so bad -- although the writer sidesteps his most important job, which is to provide news. It's called the "hook." It could be a simple as the news that DeSoto High School has N number of students this year who are eligible for Bright Futures scholarships, up from N-1 number last year. And B-F isn't the only way for average students with average grades to finance a college education, which cost $N more this year than last.

Good reporters find a hook and report it; then the interviews have a factual basis and a context. Right now, it's evident that some "editor" brainstormed a bunch of unfocused questions that OMIA wrote down and tried to turn into a lead. Noble effort, but not news.

And raspberries to the photo editor for cookie-cutter cute blonde to illustrate an "average" college student. I teach college less than a mile from the newspaper's office. Many college students there have dark skin, black hair, brown eyes and a child. Perpetuating stereotypes of what is "average" is for bigots, not newspapers.

p.s. Next week, a lesson on the difference between the meaning of "average" and "typical."

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Geographically Challenged




Apparently, there are no maps at DeSoto High School and no culture of "check it before you send it." Public Information expert Jessica Shaver tells DeSoto Sun readers this morning (page 7) the district's teacher of the year grew up in a New York City suburb -- Rochester.

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Instead of helping readers understand a little bit about the upcoming Heartland Transportation Plan meeting, instead of fact-checking the news release from the school district’s junior PIO, instead of examining any of several impacts the state legislative session will have on local government and the school district (constrained-county tax-impact funds? per-pupil allocation cuts?), Laura Schmid asks readers to contemplate her nude swimming days. And just in case contemplating Schmid’s nude swimming isn’t enough, she uses her allotment of tree pulp and ink to challenge the local-color columnist to tell readers about his nude swimming days.

This is our DeSoto Sun editor’s idea of follow up on important news. Readers have been treated to a week of the Sun staff's giggling tee-hee-hees prompted by a non-existent nudist colony instead of genuine journalism that would help readers understand the town and country in which they work, pay taxes and raise families. Journalism and subscribers deserve better than a morning focused on Schmid mooning the neighbors (**Remember: most nudists are people you'd rather not see naked).

Is it Real or The Onion? ...
Old Word Wolf actually believed for a minute that the over-the-banner teaser, "A local couple is caught in action walking their cat," was going to be an April Fool's Day spoof. No. It's the local news editor hot on the kitty litter beat. She assembled a four-photo portfolio story and wanted to make sure no reader missed this important report.



Old Word Wolf almost feels like apologizing for posting all this stuff. This morning's edition has been an almost too-perfect example of just about everything that's not journalism, not quality, and not a service to the community or the readership.