Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dunn-Rankin: Global Warming is a Media Concoction

Well, he didn't say conspiracy: he said "media consensus."
The "he" in the "who" is our esteemed newsman, Dunn-Rankin the elder. The "where" is his column this sunny Sunday morn. The "what" is a Goldilocks opinion, "Not too hot, not too cold," wherein our scribe purports to do some myth busting.

Because ice ages and thaws come and go, the nice newsman concludes global warming is a myth, sprung whole from a "media consensus" (and a wrong one at that) that ignores what he knows for sure: this is just the warming trend side of a natural cycle.

Time for a short lesson in close reading.

First, readers will recognize that it's illogical to believe that "the media" have come together to create a consensus (or did we just miss the memo that the meeting was called?). Second, it's illogical to believe that a newspaper's or a television station's efforts can answer a scientific question. That's not their job. (The "media" practice journalism, not science -- two different things with different methodologies, aims, etc.)

However, we'll play along with the media angle for a moment and cite (for bevity's sake) one medium, The New York Times, which the columnist seems to have overlooked. Two years ago, scores of reporters covered a meeting of international climate scientists in Paris. The story ran under this hed:

Science Panel Calls Global Warming Unequivocal.

The reporters summarized the work of "hundreds of scientists and reviewers" who convened first in 1988. Over the next two decades, they collected and weighed data and evaluated possible conclusions. Their 2007 Paris meeting was summarized like this:

"The panel's four [published] assessments since 1990 ... asserts with near certainty -- more than 90 percent confidence -- that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities have been the main causes of warming in the past half century," the Times reported.

Dunn-Rankin is, of course, entitled to deny every bit of the massive scientific evidence for rapid-onset, human-induced climate change. He is also entitled to print and publish his denialism. And, being in a position of great privilege -- he owns tons of newsprint and barrels of ink -- he can broadcast that global-warming evidence is a media conspiracy (which seems weirder and weirder the more we think about it), and along the way he'll undoubtedly garner a few "atta boys" and "way to go's" from the conspiracy theorists at the yacht club.

This reader, however, chalks it up to weak analytical skills combined with willful ignorance of evidence. The two may be marks of a local curmudgeon, but they render the opinionmaker more pitiable than believeable.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Plagiarism is Ugly

Not a pretty sight: Kristen Spahr, the newest in a series of public relations and marketing youngsters over a the local hospital, makes it clear she can't be bothered with citing sources, paraphrasing, or producing original material for her employer. But she does make the effort to paste her own by-line on top of material that she took straight from a product brochure.*

Sphar's plagiarism graced page 6 in the Our Town section of yesterday's DeSoto Sun. Although Sun editors had been made aware of Spahr's plagiarism a couple of weeks back, not one of them seems to have "Googled" even a phrase from the most recent submission.

*Is the manufacturer of the knee-surgery equipment going to object to its name (in capital letters, no less) splashed all over the news hole? Not likely. Does the source's complicity mitigate the ethical failure of lying? Kristen, do I hear your answer?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Muzzle the Press

The DeSoto County School Board on Tuesday voted to expand its dual-enrollment agreement with the local community college to include 9th and 10th graders. This move -- affecting children who attend a high school that has been "graded" by the state as a D school, has not been reported to the community.

"Well, I'm not a editor, and I don't set these things up," Sun-Herald Reporter John Lawhorne said when Old Word Wolf telephoned him two days after the meeting to ask why the local paper had not yet run the news -- but found room to publish reports from two other districts on today's "Our Town" front. Lawhorne attended the meeting with tape recorder and notebook and appeared to at least one member of the audience to be alert during most of the proceedings.

The dual-enrollment item came to the 5-member school board's attention during the agenda item Superientendent's Report. There was no wording on the published agenda that would alert the public to a deal that could send 14- and 15-year-olds into a college classroom.

Also not reported -- because John Lawhorne seems to have been muzzled by the school superintendent -- is the citizen who addressed the school board that evening. A college instructor took the podium to accuse the school district of not adquately teaching Sunshine State Standards at its D-rated high school.

"I see students come into my college courses from DeSoto High School who are woefully underprepared," said Marilyn Tarnowski, an adjunct faculty member in English and Humanities at South Florida Community College.

Tarnowski told the school board that she regularly teaches DeSoto High grads who are unable to locate major features on a globe, read well enough to decipher even short passages from Shakespeare or such standard American classics as Thoreau or Hawthorne. She went on to describe the lack of "critical reading and critical thinking" know-how, despite the fact that these skills are a core part of the state-mandated skill set that describes teaching standards for every grade level in the public schools.

"I talked to nearly every board member about the high school's FCAT reading scores before coming here tonight, and every one had a range of reasons for the poor results. The finger-pointing ranged from blaming the test itself to blaming our demographics and even blaming the students. Not one school board member suggested the problem might be rooted in the classroom and what goes on -- or doesn't go on -- there," Tarnowski said. State standardized test scores released last month indicated that 80 percent of DeSoto High's 10th graders were reading below grade level and 41 percent could not compute using 10-grade math.

Reporter Lawhorne acknowledged that when he tries to track down stories that might construed as critical of the school district, the elected members of the school board nearly always defer to Superintendent Adrian Cline -- an elected official who by state law is answerable to the school board, not it to him.

Lawhorne defended the lack of a local school board story as a space consideration and for reasons known only to editors, Charlotte County and North Port school board stories were deemed of more interest to DeSoto readers. "That where the readership is," Lawhorne said.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

News: Shoots Fired; Editors Didn't Hear a Sound

The hed says: Police investigating shoots fired in neighborhood.
The lede says: Authorities are investigating a call of shoots fired near Midway Boulevard...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Academic Excellence" Praised, Not Practiced

Lake Placid Journal editor George Duncan has worked consistently to establish his reputation for putting out the sloppiest newspaper in Sun Coast Media Group -- which takes effort because he has only one day a week to make his mark. Old Word Wolf doesn't usually pick on typos (unless they're in display type), and only occasionally does she let careless but common grammatical errors elicit more than a private growl. Such admirable restraint (given the number of temptations) keeps her major focus, which is on the fundamental quality of local journalism, i.e., the job of actually reporting on the stuff that betters communities and makes democracy work.

And the Golden Sloppy Goes to ....

But this week's Lake Placid Journal effortlessly sets new records by which to measure the sloppiest editor in five counties. Duncan's page commits all his usual errors, but the irony of this edition's output rates a three-bark alert because Duncan uses his editorial to praise "Educational Excellence." (Now, who could argue with that? but I digress.) But why even bring it up, if our focus is on journalism, not typos? Because, at some point, readablity counts. Accuracy has always contributed to credibility. Duncan's constant harping on "left wing" this (bad), and "conservative" that (good), and "the main stream media" (bad, as if he's not one of the rivulets), and "liberalism" (worst of all) completely eroded his journalistic credibility by about his third edition. Today, we're simply going back to school -- in pursuit of excellence.

In one seven-paragraph opinion piece, Duncan commits nearly a dozen minor and six or seven major writing faults, not the least of which is a failure of fundamental logic. Our cheerful opinion maker leads by bemoaning "grade inflation" and cheerfully side steps over to Lake Placid Christian School where, he assures readers, no one would ever, ever, ever participate in such moral and academic bankruptcy. But Duncan's third graf about the graduation of the Class of 2009 makes it clear that something like a record number of academic awards were handed out in every major subject area. "LPCS students are clearly exceptional," the editor reports. Exceptional? Hmmmm. Now, about that grade-inflation lede, George.

But even that bit of community boosterism at the expense of actual coherence wouldn't have stirred OWW. It's the overall irony that infuses the page that sets her abarking.

Excellence -- particularly among newspaper editors who brazenly promote their own books on the boss's real estate -- includes the ability to spell the California governor's name correctly (or if you're not sure after all these years, the motivation to look it up), a willingness to adhere to the basic rules of English capitalization, recognize broken compounds, use commas in a consistent and conventional manner, understand the principles of subject-verb agreement, recognize and correct faulty tense shifts, and -- at a minimum -- save dear old Randy Ludacer from making a waterboarding joke in the letters column that says exactly the opposite of what he intended.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Aliens Did It

Yesterday's political cartoon rates a full five barks from Old Word Wolf, based on the apparent failure of a Viewpoints page editor at the Charlotte Sun to apply his history teacher's lessons to the real world. In the cartoon, a tall skinny figure representing the president says, "Let me get this straight -- they built this without government funds?"

Let me set you straight, dear Viewpoints Editor: Archaeologists and historians teach us, starting in about the third grade, that Egyptian pyramids were built by pharaohs -- heads of government. The government had at its disposal thousands of slaves who quarried thousands of acres of limestone and granite. The government ordered the slaves to shove thousands of tons of stone across the desert and make a pile of rock into a figure determined by thousands of engineers because the government, in the person of the pharaoh, wanted a place to rest its bones. Slaves and engineers alike received bed and board from the big guy on the throne -- the government. All these resources, both human and material, were spent at the behest and expense of the government.

So, anyone who can remember the story of the pyramids and how they came to be -- such as an editor who is relatively awake and not a victim of early onset senility -- would take one look at this cartoon and wonder why any ink in this time of frugality and cutbacks -- should be wasted on such an obvious error of generally accepted historical fact. Not at the Sun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Plagiarism Redux

DeSoto Sun's local editor, Laura Schmid got taken -- again. More than a dozen writers have submitted plagiarized articles to her over the last couple of years. She dutifully publishes each one of them, and this morning is no exception. But today she adds a twist: instead of just publishing plagiarism, she actively promotes the authors. Here are the facts. First, in her column, Schmid urges readers to buy new books recently published by Arcadian plagiarist Barbara Oehlbeck and another by Arcadian plagiarist Chip Ballard. Then on page 6, Schmid runs an article "provided by" Kristen Spahr, marketing director at the local hospital.

Spahr's hospital promotion piece leads off with a fear-based tear-jerker. The words came not from her heart, but apparently from the Web:

As people grow older, they may suffer through many losses -- a spouse, family members, friends, health, mobility, status, and sometimes respect from others and ultimately respect for themselves.

This sense of loss can be overhwelming as the struggle for control in their lives may seem to be a losing battle.

Growing old does not mean emotional despiar has to be an acceptable condition of life. The good news is this downward spiral is not a necessary part of life, but a treatable condition that can be reverse. The quality of life can be renewed as the feelings of despair and hopelessness are changed to hope, joy and inner peace. Anxiety, depression, lack of motivation and sadness due to grief and loss issues can be minimized or resolved by effective treatment

Spahr fails to acknowledge any source for the wording of "her" article. That leaves Old Word Wolf to assume it might come from or have a mutual source (a brochure?) as a page published by the marketing department at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital, which serves the rural southwest Illinois towns of Carbondale and Murphysboro. (Click on the image for type large enough to compare.) The good sisters at the Catholic community hospital posted news of their senior services program on the Internet last year, and Spahr appears to have simply scooped up their good words -- or used a mutual marketing source -- without so much as a thank-you.

And Schmid, who despite having been burned before, apparently didn't bother with a Google search on the first sentence. If she had, she would have encountered both the duplication and a "teachable moment." That's when she could have explained to the new marketing director that journalism, even small-town journalism that relies on free fillers, requires better than copying from a brochure.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Conflict of Numbers

This morning's business section carries an in-house ad that urges readers to write a letter to the editor and "share your thoughts with 80,000 of your friends and neighbors." It's a bit of boosterism spun from a deliberately misleading number.

Since the entire population of Charlotte County is about 150,000 and DeSoto's is a fifth of that (we're not counting cows), the 80,000 number suggests that every second or third person is strolling around with a paid-for copy of one of the Suns under his/her arm.

Well, that doesn't sound right to Old Word Wolf. The nice folks at The Lakeland Ledger were happy to look up some current reports on file at Audit Bureau Circulations, a company that maintains a proprietary database of newspaper data. Here's what ABC says about the Charlotte Sun:
-- For the six-month period ending Sept. 30 2008 compared to the same period the prior year, ABC reports the Sun's 2008 Sunday circulation fell to 43,331 from 46,490.
-- The paper's average Monday through Friday circulation in 2008 declined to 37,241 from 38,115 the year before.
-- Saturday circulation in 2008 shrank to 31,204, downfrom 32,513 the same period a year earlier.

The figures for the first six months of 2009 are not posted yet, but Old World Wolf will be very, very impressed to hear that Charlotte Sun circulation has more than doubled to 80,000.

Of course, the ad creates wiggle room: "Friends and neighbors" probably isn't the same as paid circulation. The publishers may well be calculating a pass-along readership, freebies, or even Web traffic. The problem is, the president of Sun Coast Media Group last Sunday claimed his newspaper's growing circulation figures had reached "record levels." The numbers don't tell the same story.

Now, OWW doesn't want to see any newspaper's circulation decline; there is no joy in watching a vernable institution that's so closely tied to the workings of democracy wither away. But there is no room for misleading readers. If circulation is so good, where have all the reporters, photojournalists, and real editors gone?

Dr. Seuss's Message for Grads

Derek Dunn-Rankin, top guy at the local press, told readers last Sunday there would always be a place for a well-edited newspaper. Unfortunately, that place isn’t his DeSoto Sun.

Today’s two-page photo feature of DeSoto High School’s Friday graduation and the after-party activities forgo editing entirely. One page shows photos taken at the high school gym (“Project Graduation,” designed to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble during their celebration), and the other page shows snaps from Turner Agri-Civic Center, the local auditorium and site of the cap-and-gown ceremony.

The editor had all weekend and all day Monday (no Monday publication in this one-daily town) to design, lay out, write and proofread. Readers can judge the quality of the layout at a glance, but it takes some time to figure out that the very last picture on the page shows the grads preparing to enter the opening processional. ... they who are last shall be ....?

Reading the cutlines (captions) takes a bit of intestinal fortitude. Three page-10 cutlines refer to "Friday." Six cutlines identify "the Turner Center" using two different names interchangeably. Two cutlines describe moving morterboard tassels as a sign of graduation. One young woman is described as graduating with an “associate degree” and hoping to go on for a “master’s degree.” (I’m barking at the omitted apostrophe, the omitted bachelor’s step and the omitted name of the A.A. granting institution.)

Over on the party page, cutlines repeat, repeat, repeat "where" and "why" in much the same fashion. The finished product reads as if 21 people organized 21 photographs with no idea that they'd be packaged together.

But maybe all this is in unintended homage to Dr. Seuss, who provided the theme for the evening. (Remember, 80 percent of DeSoto High 10th graders who took this year’s FCAT can’t read at grade level.)

The feature story, which starts on the local front and jumps, refers to a gym "bedecked with artistry." The writer reports parents saying "goodbye," and fleshes out the story by quoting nearly half of a lengthly Dr. Seuss poem, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," instead of reporting on the news. The free-lancer claims to be a humor writer -- but an editor, not so much. The writer's Web page includes obvious typos ("I'm way to conceited for my own good"), strange grammar ("My publicist says this is the page I am supposed to tell you all about me and how great I am. The fact I even have a publicist is scary."), and her computer-services Internet site is riddled with random Germanic capitalizations, irregular spellings, missing apostrophes, and badly punctuated sentences ("...which I do to bug people, primarly my editor," tossed hopefully in.)

That's OK, a humorist admits the need an editor. Paper President Dunn-Rankin as much as promised one -- after all, that's what newspaper editors do, right? Unfortunately, both he and the staff of editors in Arcadia -- assembling the biggest story of this little town this season -- all failed to deliver.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Do We Have an Editor?

Today’s self-referential column by Sun Media Group president Derek Dunn-Rankin kicks off with a 20-point hed question: “Do we have a future?”

To reach the story, readers must digest this headline’s silly question. They must pass through the navel-gazing, first-person voice it establishes. They’ll have to forgive that it ignores a general prohibition against questions in heds. And, they must overlook its yes-no fallacy.

But for all its failings, the headline isn’t what set Old Word Wolf abarking. The noise started about halfway down in the column, where the president of the paper attempts to answer his own question: “Nothing matches a well-edited relevant local newspaper in helping us understand and enjoy our community.”

OWW couldn’t agree more. So let’s see how the “well-edited relevant” part is working. We start by mentioning the missing comma, but that’s the least of the irony.

Instead of opening with something fresh on a tired topic (1.1 million Google hits for the phrase “the future of newspapers”), this large-press owner expects to grab readers with one of the topic’s most overused clichés: Mark Twain’s “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” (69,000 Google hits for “Newspapers” AND “reports of my death”). As recently as April 13, San Diego News Network’s top executive, Barbara Bry, hauled out the same cliché to kick off her “Shop Talk” opinion piece on the subject in the industry organ, Editor & Publisher, a publication that inside sources tell me regularly lands on the boss’s desk.

Other things a real editor might have caught, questioned and repaired in a well-edited, relevant, local newspaper:

-- Newspapers prospered over the last 60 years, as we became a nation of consumers. (There’s that missing comma, tucked where it’s not needed. And, another cliché.)
-- Buying habits were driven by advertising. (Unnecessary passive voice; wordy. Are not buying habits still ad-driven for the most part? I mean, how are we going to buy something we’ve never heard about?)
-- Google has not a single reporter or editor. (Apples and oranges fallacy. A search engine’s job isn’t journalism. And, the blue pencil guy/gal might gently note that Google actually does employ editors, and quite of few of them at that. Ask Google.)
-- A dedicated staff of former and current employees has helped us navigate rough and rocky terrain. (Hmmm. Former employees are assisting the Dunn-Rankin family in their private enterprise? Is he trying to remind readers or trying to sidestep mention of the multiple rounds of mass firings he instigated in the last 18 months?)
-- Our circulation is at an all-time high ... (Unsupported assertion. The writer provides no supporting data; readers are expected to take his word for this. Sharp-thinking readers will recognize that newspapers still strongly appeal to an older population, and his is the only one – a monopoly – available in one of the nation’s greyest markets.)
-- The writer claims “we offer more content to our readers” than daily newspapers he reads in Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, Fort Myers, Bradenton, Lakeland, and Tampa. (Unsupported assertion number two. Further, the average reader is likely to be unsure what “more content” actually measures. I know I am. He probably counts the two sorry partial pages of three-graf bitties that have been assembled as “Northern Report” and “News Across America.” Until recently, those items ran without headlines because the publisher – Derek’s son -- said writing heds was time consuming and printing them took up space. Fortunately, that policy has been revised. But I digress.)
-- Newspapers ... reach more adults every day and every week than any other single advertising buy. (Unsupported assertion number three. This reader suspects a single ad buy in AARP magazine, a single ad buy on a super bowl day or any random Oprah show will reach far more adults than a full page Thursday insertion in the Charlotte Sun. )
-- As Internet advertising became fashionable with the young professionals who manned the advertising agencies, the industry was hit by the worst depression since the 1930s. (I can overlook the missing AP apostrophe as local style. But "fashionable?" Surely a strange way to express “effective,” “accessible,” “efficient” or any other of a wide selection of quasi-measures that would be more appropriate. And what’s with “manned?” Sexism in writing is nearly always caught by a good editor. "Staffed" would work just as well.)

There’s more, but that’s enough for Old Word Wolf’s first day back on the job.

Publisher's Quote of the Year

The year isn't half over yet, but I don't know how he's going to top this one. The publisher is writing about the daily page of three-graf bitties of "News Across America," a clone of a format popularized by USA Today. The local imitation provides volume without substance and tends to reflect the taste of copydesk kids: murder, mayhem, abuse and alternate realities. The copy kids convinced the boss headlines just take up space. Plus, they're hard to write.

To be fair ...

... the rest of the story is the publisher decided to change this policy and "headlines" now appear over the items. Let's see how that's working.

Today's sampling: Military training (Arizona); Pizza parlor shooting (Connecticut), Fort Wayne fire (Indiana); Bike-basking bees (Michigan); Snow in June (North Dakota) ... and so on. These aren't really headlines, of course. They are random phrases harvested from the lede.

This is what the publisher referred to when he wrote, "Our crack news team put their brainpower into finding a way to give you daily headlines but not create massive manual work."

Meanwhile, over at the Venice Gondolier, alien reptiles have invaded:

Since sheriffs in the "old west" never once assembled Sarasota County citizens to help round up alien reptiles, Carol Sakowitz's lede mixes fact and fiction and ends up being silly instead of clever. It fails journalism's sniff test for "clever." That is, does it help inform the reader and illuminate the story, or does the trope merely attempt to show off a writer's wit?