Monday, February 21, 2011

Sun Correspondent Finds Sources Worse Than Wikipedia

Today's stoopid story diligently lists "references" to half a dozen websites that a "correspondent" scraped to produce a holiday feature based on sources lower than Wikipedia.

OK, Barbara Bean-Mellinger gets credit for attributing, after a fashion, but the sources she uses would make a tenth-grader blush.

For example, Bean-Mellinger turns to American History Fun Facts, a website run by "Julie," who says right up front, "I’m not a historian." Julie says she's a stay-at-home caregiver for elderly parents and sells homemade jewelry. When not blogging presidential fun facts, she Tweets with the group, Right Wing Women. The bead-stringing nonhistorian frames her site with ads, pleas for donations and shopping links. Not a single fact that Sun-Herald correspondent Barbara Bean-Mellinger uses from this site is attributed to a credible source -- although a bunch of stuff seems to originate with other "fun facts" sites and Wikipedia -- based on the usual clues, including wording.

No, we don't like to use Wikipedia as a major source. But there are worse sites and Bean-Mellinger has located a nice array of them. The result isn't research or journalism; it isn't fact checking; it isn't news or reporting. It's what sixth graders do when they write their first "research paper."

Bean-Mellinger attempts editing, but her idea of it seems limited to lopping off the last half of sentences (in order to create a wow factor?). For example, an ABC News site Bean-Mellinger cites says President Barack Obama's high school nickname on the basketball court was "Barry O'Bomber." Bean Mellinger reports it was "O'bomber." Shortening the name makes it at least half wrong. The ABC news article goes on to quote its real-person source as saying former team members "still see him as Barry."

Bean-Mellinger lops off half of another story when she reports John Quincy Adams "swimming nude in the Potomac every day." Mellinger's Fun Facts source includes a significant qualifier: "in good weather," and goes on to note that several presidents did much the same. Again, Bean-Mellinger edits not for accuracy and clarity, but to slant material in a failed, amateurish attempt to make it more interesting (I'm guessing).

In other editing, Bean-Mellinger sweepingly reports "Not surprisingly, our presidents were avid speakers." The unchecked correspondent seems oblivious to Thomas Jefferson's famous aversion to public speaking. The carefully documented and researched website, (among other respected sources) reports that John Adams during the first Continental Congress said "I never heard him [Jefferson] utter three sentence together." Jefferson himself documented his wish "to go on a strict but silent performance of my duty..." Which he did: Jefferson did not speak the annual messages to Congress but wrote them out and sent them by secretary. The point is that one exception to the correspondent's sweeping generalization relegates Bean-Mellinger's reporting to the silly file.

But, as they say on the shopping networks: "Wait! There's more!"

When Bean-Mellinger reports the "fun fact" that Grover Cleveland "had been the public executioner in Erie County, N.Y.," she misrepresents by omitting context. Erie did not have a position called "public executioner." Death by hanging was an order that a county sheriff was required to oversee if needed. He could either carry out the execution or pay a deputy $10 to do the deed. Sheriff Cleveland did not shift the onerous task to an underling and did pull the trapdoor lever for two hangings, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Allan Nevis. (Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dobbs Mead & Co., 1932. Page 61.

Wait. There's more. Bean-Mellinger reports Martin Van Buren was the first president "actually born" in the United States. By once more omitting context, she suggests the first seven presidents were not. Any professional and ethical reporter would feel obligated to work in a phrase or two clarifying that every president has been born on American soil; the first crop of them merely came along before the republic was formalized.

Any writer who manages to dumb-down sites like "" to compile a Presidents Day feature for grownups earns neither her paycheck nor the trust of Sun-Media Group readers.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Telegraphing Errors: Columnist Didn't Check the Facts

Irrelevant to his actual topic, in-house columnist Lang Capasso claims in this morning's Gondolier that Samuel Morse chose the question "What hath God wrought?" as the first telegraph message. Wrong.

The first error in Capasso's unchecked reiteration of folk history without checking the facts begins with who he says chose the ceremonial phrase. It wasn't Morse. It was the daughter of the nation's patent commissioner at the time and her mother, both good friends of Morse, who selected the rather silly rhetorical question for telegraph transmission on May 24, 1844 from a B&O Railroad Depot in Baltimore to the U.S. Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol (Encyclopedia Britannica).

But, more than three weeks before the ceremonial public message, the telegraph had been used to send word that the Whig Party convention had nominated its candidates: Henry Clay for president and Theodore Frelinghuysen for vice president. The results were famously telegraphed on May 1. Upon hearing the telegraphed news, the dot-dot-dit-dit reply came: "The passengers in the cars gave three cheers for Henry Clay," as Morse himself records in his letters. (The cars are railroad coaches, traveling the B&O Line from Baltimore to D.C.) And, a year and a half earlier, in December 1842, Morse had been busy stringing wires and sending messages back and forth to demonstrate the invention's potential for rapid communication. His audiences for the telegraphed messages were potential supporters and backers.

But surely a newspaper man's own capacity for logic would prompt him to reason that a new invention requiring innovative technologies for the time, like a telegraph, would undergo tests and demonstrations before a public unveiling. That thought would motivate most thinking writers to pause and check the facts rather than rely on elementary-school folk history.

How does Old Word Wolf make these claims, contradicting the newspaper? OWW checks a primary source: "Samuel F.B. Morse, His Letters and Journals in Two Volumes." Volume II (1914) has been available on the Internet at Project Gutenberg as an Ebook (No. 11018) since February 2004. In Chapter XXX, Morse's letters and correspondence to his brother and colleagues confirm these items and dates, as interested readers can see, below the fold.

"Things went well to-day [May 1]. Your last writing was good. You did not correct your error of running your letters together until some time. Better be deliberate; we have time to spare, since we do not spend upon our stock. Get ready to-morrow (Thursday) as to-day. There is great excitement about the Telegraph and my room is thronged, therefore it is important to have it in action during the hours named. I may have some of the Cabinet to-morrow.... Get from the passengers in the cars from Baltimore, or elsewhere, all the news you can and transmit. A good way of exciting wonder will be to tell the passengers to give you some short sentence to send me; let them note time and call at the Capitol to verify the time I received it. Before transmitting notify me with (48). Your message to-day [May 1] that 'the passengers in the cars gave three cheers for Henry Clay,' excited the highest wonder in the passenger who gave it to you to send when he found it verified at the Capitol."
....."You will see by the papers that the Telegraph is in successful operation for twenty-two miles, to the Junction of the Annapolis road with the Baltimore and Washington road. The nomination of Mr. Frelinghuysen as Vice-President was written, sent on, and the receipt acknowledged back in two minutes and one second, a distance of forty-four miles. The news was spread all over Washington one hour and four minutes before the cars containing the news by express arrived. In about a fortnight I hope to be in Baltimore, and a communication will be established between the two cities. Good-bye. I am almost asleep from exhaustion, so excuse abrupt closing."
....."The conventions at Baltimore happened most opportunely for the display of the powers of the Telegraph, especially as it was the means of correspondence, in one instance, between the Democratic Convention and the first candidate elect for the Vice-Presidency. The enthusiasm of the crowd before the window of the Telegraph Room in the Capitol was excited to the highest pitch at the announcement of the nomination of the Presidential candidate, and the whole of it afterwards seemed turned upon the Telegraph. They gave the Telegraph three cheers, and I was called to make my appearance at the window when three cheers were given to me by some hundreds present, composed mainly of members of Congress."

You can't believe what you read in the papers if the guy making the report can't be bothered to check the facts before his bosses print and distribute 30,000 copies all over town.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Plagiarism Seasons "Corey's Kettle" Recipe Column

The January issue of Smithsonian Magazine is on the coffee table. Old Word Wolf has just finished reading its article "A Plague of Pigs in Texas" by John Morthland and Wyatt McSpadden. Anyone can read it on the Internet -- and in today's Lake Placid Journal. That's because the Journal's one-named writer seems to have plagiarized it. Even the photo "Corey's Kettle" submits to Journal editors as his own work is a rip-off from the Internet, posted there and credited to Richard Wooders dot com. After seeing the gruesome stuffed pig, both in Corey Kettle's plagiarized version and the unappetizing orignal, OWW questions Corey Kettle's taste as well as his ethical compass.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Press Release Plagiarism: Byline Steve Reilly

The news is on a state Web site, and it doesn't carry the byline of Charlotte Sun writer Steve Reilly. That means Reilly didn't write it. So far, so good.

The news also appears on page 3 of this morning's Venice Gondolier -- with Reilly's byline. Not so good. OK, Reilly seems to have written part of it -- about half, by eyeball estimate.

Yes, dumping another writer's work into the middle of one's own is OK -- if accompanied by credit and quotation marks. Reilly eschews both.

In addition to plagiarizing wording and the order of ideas from the state's web site, Reilly copies the officials' commentary -- canned quotes -- that the state placed in the news release. Reilly's tactic is designed to mislead readers into thinking he had conducted interviews and gathered expert insights into the story. Well, you can't believe everything you read in the papers.

Here is what commentators far removed from Old Word Wolf say about the practice.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Helpful Photo of the Week

Editor's Math Skills Decline Faster Than Teen's Alcohol Use

Today's Charlotte Sun editorial repeats errors and miscalculations made by staff writer Greg Martin in his Jan. 26 article about a statistical decline in self-reported drug and alcohol use among area middle- and high school students.

Both the news article and editorial trumpet good news: Self-reported substance use among school-attending teens is in a fairly steady downward trend in Charlotte County, according to the survey. And so are the grown-ups' math skills. Here are the editorial writer's claims, repeating the reporter's flawed grasp of FCAT math:

According to the 2010 report, the percentage of county middle and high school students who said they had used alcohol within the past 30 days has decreased 16.7 percent from 2002. Binge drinking decreased 7.2 percent and tobacco use decreased 8.9 percent.

Not even close. First-year journalism students know percentages and percentage points are quite different. Consider this example: Suppose a report says 10 percent of Easter Islanders got tattoos last year, but this year only 8 percent got inked. Reporters would correctly report a 2-point difference -- representing a 20-percent decrease from last year.

Here's what the local writers might have correctly reported:

The survey says 42.2 percent of the surveyed students in 2002 reported using alcohol in the last 30 days compared to 27.6 percent in 2010. That is a 14.6-point difference, representing a 34.5-percent decline.
In 2002, some 23.8 percent of the surveyed reported binge drinking in the last 30 days compared to 15.1 percent in 2010. That's a 8.7-point difference, representing a 36.5-percent decline.
In 2002, some 20.7 percent of the surveyed reported using tobacco compared to 13.8-percent in 2010. That's a 6.9-point decline, representing a 33-percent decline.
The first error by both reporter and editor is not doing the math -- not even a round-number estimate in their heads (OWW's first red flag). The second error is not comparing what they wrote with what they read.

Which brings OWW to the next question: Where the heck did the reporter get his numbers? Looking Table 5, we see these percentages -- none of which substract out to 16.7, 7.2 or 8.9:

Substance _ _ 2002 -- 2010
Alcohol .............. 42.2 -- 27.6
Binge Drinking ... 23.8 -- 15.1
Cigarettes .......... 20.7 -- 13.8

The closest OWW can come to tracking down this error is at least some of the reporter's misinterpreted data comes from Table 4, which reports "lifetime trends," and not Table 5, which reports 30-day past usage.

The news is good but the math is awful -- as with another headline story in a sister paper, The Journal of Lake Placid ....where Editor George Duncan claims via cliche that time travels faster when there's a crafts fair on the horizon. But, the last time we checked, every day lasts 24 hours and every hour lasts 60 minutes.