Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Vote on legislative pay can be mined for interesting insight

Everyone was so rushed yesterday about the House's overturning Gov. Nikki Haley's vetoes, especially the one effectively granting legislators a $12,000-a-year-pay raise, that the Statehouse press corps missed a good chance to provide some insight into what actually happened.

The House initially sustained the veto at 6:09 p.m., 73-39, with 11 abstentions and one excused absence. Twenty minutes later, the House overrode the veto, 73-29, with 19 abstentions and three excused absences. (This is a long list of the roll-call votes; you'll have to pick your way through by time or look for "Governor's Veto 76.")

In the Post and Courier in Charleston, it was summed up this way:
Haley had wanted the pay increase to go to state voters for approval by way of the ballot box. Rep. Jim Merrill R-Charleston, took to the floor to explain the effects of the pay raise, answering questions. He did not recommend to override or sustain the veto when it went up for a vote. He also said that the districts lawmakers represent are more populous and more pay would go a long way toward making the job of serving more desirable and competitive. Lawmakers' current yearly salary is $10,400.

Though the House initially voted on sustaining Haley's veto, members later returned to the measure and 73 members voted in favor of overriding it.
That might well lead a reader to think that somehow House leaders were able to round up more votes to reach 73 the second time. But the number of "yes" votes remained the same -- the real story may be that in 20 minutes, enough pressure was brought to bear so that eight to 10 (depending on how you want to count it) House members took a walk. That's a much different dynamic (and well worth a follow-up).

Meanwhile, The State, whose story was picked up widely, got the initial vote total wrong, listing it as 73-29 each time.

The paper has now corrected it online (though without any note of a correction nor, as of 6/19, a correction in the paper). My pointing this out is not to ridicule but because of a deep concern that such things burrow into databases (and that all those versions picked up elsewhere probably won't be corrected), thus distorting the historical record. Online has raised the bar for being careful even more.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Oops, needed a hyphen here

This from a recent ad:

“Join Dell, Microsoft and a guest expert for an in depth look at how OS migration can enhance security and end user productivity.”

That's either Freudian,  or "end user" should be "end-user." ("In depth" can use a hyphen too.)

HT to WorldWideWords, a fantastic newsletter you should get in your email each week.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bad layout - Football players, sexual predators

One wonders if those laying out The (Columbia, S.C.) State today folded the paper in half, stepped back and took a look at the layout.

Hint: Always try to look at the page as two half pages, because that's how many of your readers will see it.

(Thanks to Augie Grant for the photo, which I was about to take when his arrived in my email.)

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Friday, November 09, 2012

What happened to the complete story?

This is just the latest in what I see as a disturbing trend - and, yes, I will use that word because I am seeing more of it and fairly regularly - of either:
  •  Reporter (and by extension editor) timidity 
  • A failure to understand a basic underpinning of journalism - anticipate readers' questions, answer them and, if you don't know the answer, simply say so.
Consider this story from today's The State.

Lower Richland's playoff hopes smashed

Diamond Hornets learn at end of Thursday’s practice they are ineligible for tonight’s long-awaited game


COLUMBIA, SC — This was shaping up to be the season for which the Lower Richland football squad had long awaited.

After earning a playoff berth for the first time since 2007, the 2012 Diamond Hornets rolled into Blue Ridge as underdogs and came away with the program’s first playoff victory since 1995.

“To see those guys’ faces last week after the win, it was a great feeling. I’m glad to be playing in Week 12 that’s for sure,” said coach Daryl Page on Thursday as his team prepared for a second-round game at Daniel tonight. “There are teams with better records that have already taken inventory.”

But at the end of their practice, the Diamond Hornets’ determination turned to despair.

They were notified that the squad had been declared ineligible for postseason play due an ineligible player on the roster.

“Even though we are appealing, we will not be able to go and play a game tomorrow night,” Page said.

Blue Ridge will play Daniel instead.

The anticlimactic end of the Diamond Hornets’ journey through the postseason does not nullify the progress they have made in 2012.

“It’s a step for us, as far as where we’re going with the program,” Page said.

The coach, who led Wilson to a Class 3A title in 2007, said his goal at Lower Richland is a state title, and this season the Diamond Hornets were headed in that direction.

As the program’s third coach in four seasons, Page met little resistance from the Diamond Hornets, whose quick adaptation to his style and expectations put them on the path to success.

Lower Richland (5-6) started the season 0-3, but went on to a third-place finish in Region 4-3A.

Page said, “Once we experienced success, we really enjoyed the feeling. But we want to move from the feelings to the expectations.”

“We want it to be a yearly thing, where Lower Richland is one of the teams that you talk about at the end of the season. We want to be a program that is in that conversation every year. Daniel is already there, and that’s where we’re aiming,” Page said.

“Instead of it being a surprise, it should be an expectation,” he said.
For the players, that was already sinking in.

“We felt like could win every game we played,” said end Alonzo Gibson, one of 16 seniors on the team. “We worked hard for it, and we knew we could do it.”

“We went up (to Blue Ridge) expecting to win,” added receiver Devonta Hampton.

And though they reached the end of the road sooner than they hoped, the Diamond Hornets expect to win again.

Even if they must wait until 2013 to do it. 
 So now a couple of quick quiz questions for those playing along at home:
  • What player?
  • Why ineligible?
  • Why was an ineligible player playing?
Were those questions even asked?

If they weren't, there are bigger problems here that the reporter and assigning editor really need to address. But if they were and there weren't any answers, well, it's perfectly fine to say so in the story. Readers don't expect perfection; they just want to know the rent-a-clue truck has passed our neighborhood.

I don't know in this specific case, but I have run into cases where reporters have said they didn't want to "pry" and put some kid in a jam. Here's the deal: We pry. That's what we do. And you don't have to ID the student. But asking those sorts of questions could lead to others, especially the one about why an ineligible player played. If the coaches didn't know, was there a breakdown in important communication? Was there some kind of lag that could jam coaches and players up again? How do things like this happen?

(And such information could even give readers an idea of whether that appeal might succeed.)

It's more than a sob story. Sometimes we actually uncover things that need fixing.

But we need to ask the questions - and then tell readers that at least we have.

Writing coach Jim Stasiowski once had a great column on this. It's only gotten worse, from what I can see.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Numeracy Illiteracy - the headline edition

I suppose I should be grateful that my local paper, The State, gives me such timely material for teaching.

But even though we were discussing numeracy in editing class, the paper didn't have to be this accommodating with this headline today:

Here's the first part of the story:

South Carolina’s $25 billion retirement fund earned a 4 percent return on its investments from July to September, the fund’s chief investment officer told the State Budget and Control Board on Tuesday.

But Hershel Harper said the fund will struggle to make its goal of a 7.5 percent annual return over the next five years. State officials say the fund needs to average that return to stay solvent .... The retirement fund made a 0.37 percent return on its investments last fiscal year, which ended June 30. After paying its expenses , including benefits to retirees and fees, the fund lost $1 billion in value. 

So , no, earnings weren't up 4 percent. The percentage here is not being used as a relative comparison but as an absolute - it's a rate of return.

Had the earnings been "up" 4 percent, that would be 0.37*1.04, or 0.385 percent.

Because the rate of return is an absolute number, the "up" or increase in it would actually be 13,233 percent! ((4/0.37)-1)*100

Think of a thermometer - with the rates of return sot of like the "degrees." If the temperature went from 20 to 50, you wouldn't say "temperature up" 50 degrees. You'd say "temperature reaches 50" or maybe that it rises 30 (or, if you were into headlinese, "temperature up 30".
 So this headline really should be:

Earnings reach 4 percent in quarter
or a little less elegantly
Earnings rise to 4 percent in quarter
This kind of innumeracy isn't good in any case, but in 36-point type it really disappoints.

(The online version avoided the problem.)

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Monday, September 03, 2012

Sununu - red in the face? NY Times has him that way.

So I was pointed to this caption on a NY Times video by the weekly roundup from World Wide Words (one of the best sites on the Web, IMHO).

The former governor of New Jersey John Sununu is a fierce supporter of Mitt Romney, and prone to going rouge, often saying the things the Romney campaign can't.
Oops - that should be Sununu going rogue, not "rouge."

An easy-to-make error. But there's a bigger error (not caught by the folks at WWW): Sununu isn't former governor of New Jersey, but of New Hampshire.

While we're at it, drop the comma after "Romney" and go for a more elegant phrasing: Former N.H. Gov. John Sununu is a fierce supporter of Mitt Romney and is prone to going rogue, ...

Here's a shot of the Times' error on Shelf3D.

It's also on YouTube. (The perils of modern multiplatform distribution.)

Yet another reason all work should get a glance by an editor.

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Numeracy-challenged editing

It's Labor Day, and the livin' is easy. But that doesn't mean the editing is easy or should be any less vigorous.

So I present two exhibits from my morning paper that should have raised flags. The first is in a story about the challenges of keeping South Carolina's college graduates in the state, and specifically in the Midlands (Columbia area):

   The study shows that Charleston – thought to be desirable to young professionals with its beaches, culture, architecture and history – ranks 30th in the nation with a college-educated workforce of 31.9 percent. Greenville, perhaps surprisingly, is in a tie for 68th in the country, with 26.9 percent of its workforce holding college degrees.

   And the most recent jobs report from the S.C Department of Employment and Workforce shows that Columbia over the past year is leading the state in job creation, many in professional services. Of the 11,300 jobs created in the past year, 9,500 are in the Midlands, while Spartanburg created 6,400 jobs and Charleston grew by 4,500. By contrast, Greenville and Myrtle Beach shed more than 3,000 jobs each.

I've yet to figure out how those numbers add up to 11,300, even being liberal and subtracting 7,000 jobs (3,500 each for Greenville and Myrtle Beach). I'm guessing that the difference is in the rest of the state somehow. But why confuse readers? Perhaps it's best to just leave out the 11,300 figure and just write, "Of the jobs created in South Carolina in the past year, 9,500 are ..."

Then there is this from a story about paving dirt roads in Lexington County*:
  Lexington County Council is struggling to settle the fate of dirt roads where some landowners along the routes refuse to turn over slivers required to improve the country lanes.

  Some council members want to shelve the projects, while others want to relay that threat anew to the holdouts, in hopes they’ll have a change of heart.

  The fuss could lead to changes in the way county officials settle annually on paving a few miles each year of more than 600 miles of dirt roads.**
OK, until you come to these grafs late in the story:
   The list of roads earmarked for paving is developed through a checklist based on factors such as number of residents affected, traffic counts, proximity to schools and length of time a request has been pending.

  More than 300 requests are pending to pave about half of the county’s more than 700 miles of dirt roads.
So which is it, 600 or 700?

Numbers need three things:
  • Relevance (they must be the right numbers - I'm amazed at the number of stories I get or read where someone is writing about a local situation and starts with a national or regional number; also, if you are talking about a rate, don't give me just the absolute number.).
  • Completeness (it's not a "penny" tax increase, for instance, it's a "penny-on-the-dollar" increase).
  • Context (the number has to be properly surrounded by any qualifiers or explainers to make it understandable - somewhat related to the rate vs. absolute number problem)
For all I know, the numbers in both these stories could be rock solid. But here's the thing, rock solid doesn't do any good if they confuse readers. Research has shown that too many journalists think just throwing a number in adds credibility.

But throwing in the wrong number or doing it carelessly can leave readers confused, and that's a credibility (if not, eventually, a circulation) buster.

*For those of you playing along at home, the headline on that roads story is Residents block dirt road paving by refusing to give right-of-ways. AP style is rights of way - no hyphens and "rights" as plural. (The dictionary shows either plural form but lists first the "rights" one.) And while I don't think there's lots of confusion without a hyphen in "dirt road," just flip it for greater clarity: Residents block paving dirt roads by refusing to give rights of way

** Duly noted the sentence also is needlessly redundant: "Each year" and "annually" say the same thing, so drop one.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

That old subject-verb problem, CNBC style

This hed was on CNBC today:

Oops. "Fidelity Investments" is just one firm. It takes "keeps" (unless we're being very British about things).

You can't even really argue here that this is akin to "the Elks ...are" argument put forth in some quarters (and that I generally don't worry about as an editor these days). The "root" here, if I can use the term, is "Fidelity." The best test is how the company is referred to on second reference. So Fidelity ... keeps.

(One other thought -- this is a good place where "that" would not be out of place between "Tuesday" and "Abigail," just to make clear her first name is not "Tuesday." But feel free to differ.)

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edit Fail: Let's 'cache' this error

This blurb from Street Fight Daily today is another case of an error I'm seeing more often. Can you find it (hint - read the post headline):

Under a new partnership being announced with Discover, PayPal is super-sizing the number of merchant locations it will accepted at in the U.S. to more than seven million. Discover may not hold the same cache among consumers as Visa and MasterCard, but it reaches nearly as many merchants, or roughly 95 percent of the two other payment networks combined.

Yeah, there's also the missing "be" in front of "accepted." But the one I had in mind was that the writer used cache when the word needed was cachet. I'm seeing it confused more and more with cache, which is not quite 180 degrees opposite, but close, in that it means to hide something or store it away instead of elevating it in prestige.

(The original AllThingsD article got it right, by the way.)

I think some writers think the word from the French is somehow spelled caché, with the accent acute that tends to be pronounced by English speakers as a long "a." But the word (as does cache) derives from cacher.

So let's be careful out there.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

When 'which' vs. 'that' makes a difference

Found this sentence in a story today about the S.C. GOP executive committee endorsing the opponent of long-time Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts:
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry -- which state law enforcement officials say is illegal -- “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.”
There's plenty of usage debate about which vs. that. But there are occasions when distinguishing really does enhance clarity.

In this case, the construction can lead one to think the act of accepting the donations is illegal. Using "that" without the separating punctuation (and I find the use of the dash curious, but that's more of a nit) would clarify.
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry that state law enforcement officials say is illegal “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.”
But that's one mouthful of a sentence. This is a case where, for the sake of the reader, a few more words might help:
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.” State law enforcement officials say the industry is illegal.
That also has the advantage of not detouring momentarily, producing a stronger first sentence.

Now, about the misuse of weeks' vs. week's ... was there an editor in the house?

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Oops - Hand Perez Hilton the remote, please

The Perez Hilton blog has this breathless story:

Wow! The Good Wife is seriously gearing up for their fourth season with an INSANE amount of talent!
Maura Tierney and Kristin Chenoweth have already been confirmed to appear on the ABC drama when it returns in the fall, and now, it looks like producers are pulling in ANOTHER old Broadway favorite…Nathan Lane!
That's right, the Golden Globe and Tony Award-winning actor will reportedly be a recurring character, and knowing him - as well as the unique way in which this specific shows utilizes actors for unexpected roles - we can't wait to find out even more details!
What do U think?? Are U looking forward to the new season of The Good Wife??

Did you catch the error?

"The Good Wife" is on CBS. So maybe that's one of those details the blog shouldn't wait to find out more about.

The details, by the way, are at Zap2It. Maybe a little less breathless and a bit more fact-checking there, Perez?

(While you're at it, how about saying "The Good Wife" is gearing up for its fourth season?)

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Monday, February 27, 2012

A finger in the what again?

Jordan Kurzweil, in his weekend piece on Tech Crunch retreading all the usual - and important - arguments for why newspapers need to rethink their digital strategies, may also have given us a fine example of why we still need copy editors.

 In case you can't read that: The paywall, whether for Gannett or other publishers, is a finger in the dyke, a cover-up for tectonic shifts in their businesses.

Now, you can argue all you want that "dyke" is an alternate spelling of "dike." But in this case, when "finger" is also involved, a good copy editor would probably have suggested maybe not ...

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Editteach: Dissecting another fire story

This one is online today from a TV station site.* (Seems I'm specializing in fire stories these days.) Updated to also correct street name.
Columbia, SC (WLTX)--An early morning fire is smoldering at The Salty Nut Cafe in Five Points.
Not a bad lede. If you are keeping score at home and use AP style, that should be S.C., but no one says the station has to do that. One might also ask why "SC" is needed on a story from a Columbia station, but this is the "world wide" Web, so such things are in flux.

Authorites say there was heavy black smoke when they arrived at 4:30 Friday morning.
Again, not bad (not counting the misspelling of "authorities," but lord knows how many times I've done that). However, this is a breaking story, so why say "Friday"? Still, we come back to the "world wide" thing - it's not Friday everywhere. So defensible.

The fire is now under control, but the 2000 block of Green* Street remains shutdown. Authorities say the cafe suffered heavy damage because they did not have a sprinkler system.
Now we run into some problems. The street is Greene, not Green. Shutdown, one word, is a noun. It should be "shut down" as a verb. And a bar is not a "they," but an "it." That's especially confusing here because the plural antecedent is "authorities" - did they not have sprinklers? (And why not just say sprinklers, instead of the more officious "sprinkler system"?) You could also question here why the phrase "suffered heavy damage because" is needed since the next sentence is more specific on the damage. I'd delete it, leaving just: "Authorities say the cafe did not have sprinklers."

Chief Audrey Jenkins says there was thousands of dollars worth of damage and the building is totally damaged on the inside. This was a very popular spot for people to congregate and it will be a while before they reopen.
Oops. The fire chief's name is "Aubrey." The verb links with "thousands," so "were" is preferred - but "are" would be even better to keep things current in a breaking story. Phrases using "worth" get an apostrophe (thousands of dollars' worth). Even better: Chief Aubrey Jenkins says there are thousands of dollars in damage ... or ... Chief Aubrey Jenkins says damage totals thousands of dollars.
I have no idea what "totally damaged on the inside" means. Totally damaged usually means destroyed, and inside is where buildings usually are damaged, so the whole phrase does no work. Cut it. Recast the second sentence to correct the pronoun and insert a comma (and you can probably drop "very," though I wouldn't get all hung up on that): This was a popular spot for people to congregate, and it will be a while before it reopens. (Let's save the debate about attribution on that for a different time, though I tend not to like naked assertions.)

An investigation is underway and no injuries have been reported.
Again, if you are scoring at home and using AP style, that's "under way," though I have been suggesting for years that AP drop that as increasingly anacrhonistic. A comma would be useful after "underway."
*The story is being updated, so some things have changed from the original here.

**In one of those wonderfully annoying things media companies like Gannett do online to rake in more cash, "Green" in the original story was a double-underlined ad link. Clicking on it did not take you to something useful like a map but to an ad for a Prius. Gotta love it. (The correct street name spelling might have prevented that.)

(With acknowledgement and apologies to Deborah Gump, one of the world's superior editing teachers and creator of the Editteach site, I have decided to use that as the standard header and tag for these kinds of dissections. It just so succinctly sums up what these posts are about. But do visit the site if you want a rich experience learning about editing.)

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Friday, December 30, 2011

From the editing trenches: Dissecting a fire story

There was a terribly tragic fire in Stamford, Conn., on Christmas. The day later, the following story appeared in my paper.

I can't tell whether it was an original AP dispatch or was reworked on the local desk. I've found similar, but not identical, versions online that take care of some of the problems noted below.

But the story provides a good case study of editing problems, especially with structure. So I present the original below annotated with my notes (I use these for my classes), and then a re-edited version. Feel free to comment:

    STAMFORD, Conn. — Fire tore through a house in a tony neighborhood along the Connecticut shoreline on Christmas morning, killing five people, including three children, but sparing two whom firefighters managed to rescue.
The typical wire-service lede that puts the actor before the result. And why is it that fires always "tore" or "ripped" or "swept"? Will people be talking about how "a fire tore through a house" or that five people, including three children, died in a fire on Christmas? And why use the general "tony neighborhood" description (is it even needed and is "tony" a common word) when Connecticut shoreline, combined with the home of an ad exec, probably signals all you need? And why make readers wait to find out who was rescued or whose house it was?

    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness and the shocked, injured survivors were led away from the house.
Cut this at "pre-dawn darkness."

    The large Victorian home was purchased last year by 47-year-old Madonna Badger, an advertising executive in the fashion industry.
Really? This is the next most interesting thing in the story? How about what Badger was screaming? (If need be, we can add the purchase information after that and include the neighborhood.) And when we finally do use this, we can write it directly, not in passive form.

    Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed. He said her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, also died. Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford on Sunday morning.
The first two sentences are OK, though they can be tightened – and why back in with the attribution? The last sentence, however, raises lots of questions and distracts so early in the story. It would be better to explain who the other person was who was led from the house, then mention the husband.

    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. Firefighters were able to rescue the two adults from the house in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
The best information here was that the fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. The neighborhood information can be consolidated with the purchase information. And notice that the story still does not actually say Badger was one of those rescued. I'm not sure why the neighborhood information has to be attributed, since assessor's records are referenced later, but to be conservative, let's leave it.

    Neighbors describe Badger screaming repeatedly, “My whole life is in there.”
Move this up, and get the quote to the front. Also, the last "Badger" mentioned in this story is Matthew. That can cause a momentary hiccup in the reader's understanding. It's solved if we move this sentence before the appearance of the husband.

    Firefighters knew there were other people in the home but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Conte said. “It’s never easy. That’s for sure,” he said. “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day.”
The first part of that quote does little work given the second part.

    Conte said fire officials don’t yet know the cause of the blaze and likely won’t get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure.
    By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
Those two grafs are keepers but can be combined into one graf.

    A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by the sound of screaming and saw that the house was engulfed by flames.
    “We heard this screaming at 5 in the morning,” he said. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze.”
Good material that can be moved up. But the quote essentially restates the graf before it. Fix this.

    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
Can be kept.

    The 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom home sold for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website.
Worth keeping, but relocate the information.

    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
    “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous firetrucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”
    He told the newspaper he saw a barefoot man wearing boxers and a woman being taken out of the house. “The woman said, ‘My whole life is in there,’” Mangano said.
Earlier, she was "screaming." Now she's just saying it? Eliminate the dissonance by eliminating this for now, but query the AP. The quote about not being able to do anything makes a much better ending to the story and, since it just reinforces what came before, it can be cut, if necessary.

    Badger, an ad executive in the fashion industry, is the founder of Badger & Winters Group. Badger was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
Keep, but reposition and tighten.

    Guzda said the male acquaintance was a contractor who was doing work on the home. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger was treated and discharged.
This info should be up much higher. And what was the man's condition? Also, use "released" instead of the terribly officious "discharged." And once we move up that the second person was a contractor, we can more seamlessly work in the idea that Badger bought the home last year

    “It is a terrible, terrible day,” Mayor Michael Pavia told reporters. “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford.”
Stamford is about 25 miles northeast of New York City.
Move this up higher (one might argue that the mayor's quote is somewhat obvious – there unlikely has been a worse Christmas – but it still resonates and adds to the fire chief's). And the location, which inelegantly hangs at the end, can be worked more seamlessly into the sentence about driving Matthew Badger from New York City to Stamford.

Here is my redone vrersion:
    STAMFORD, Conn. – Three children of a fashion-industry advertising executive and her parents died on Christmas morning when fire burned through the family's house on the Connecticut shoreline. The executive, Madonna Badger, and another person were rescued by firefighters.
    Neighbors awakened to the sound of screaming and rushed outside to help, but they could only watch in horror as flames devoured the grand home in the pre-dawn darkness.
    “My whole life is in there,” neighbors said Badger screamed repeatedly.
    Badger's three daughters – a 10-year-old and 7-year-old twins – were killed as were her parents, who were visiting for the holiday, Stamford Police Sgt. Paul Guzda said.
    The other person rescued was a contractor doing work on the home, Guzda said. A supervisor at Stamford Hospital said Badger, 47, was treated and released. [Need man's condition or sentence that it was not immediately available. Also should say his name was not available.]
    The fire was reported shortly before 5 a.m. A neighbor, Sam Cingari Jr., said he was awakened by screaming. “The whole house was ablaze and I mean ablaze,” he said.
    Cingari said he did not know his neighbors, who he said bought the house last year and were renovating it.
    Firefighters knew there were other people inside but could not get to them because the heat was too intense, Acting Fire Chief Antonio Conte said.
    “I’ve been on this job 38 years … not an easy day,” he said.
    Fire officials don’t yet know the fire's cause and are not likely to get clues for a few days until fire marshals can enter the structure, Conte said. By Sunday evening, the roof of the blackened house had largely collapsed.
    Mayor Michael Pavia called it “a terrible, terrible day.”
    “There probably has not been a worse Christmas day in the city of Stamford,” he said.
    Police officers drove Badger's husband, Matthew Badger, from New York City to Stamford, about 25 miles northeast, on Sunday morning.
    Madonna Badger founded Badger & Winters Group and was responsible for high-profile ad campaigns when she worked at Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
    She bought the 3,349-square foot, five-bedroom Victorian home for $1.7 million in December 2010, according to the Stamford assessment office’s website. It is in Shippan Point, a neighborhood that juts into Long Island Sound, Conte said.
    Charles Mangano, who lives nearby, said his wife woke him up and alerted him to the fire. He ran outside to see if he could help.
   “I heard someone yell ‘Help, help, help me!’ and I started sprinting up my driveway,” Mangano told The Advocate of Stamford. There were already numerous fire trucks on the scene.
    “I just came out as a neighbor,” Mangano said. “There’s really nothing I could do.”

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Missing in plain sight - unemployment story

I have a class section and seminar (that I've done for the American Copy Editors Society) called "missing in plain sight."

I keep coming back to these because with the decimation of copy desks, I'm seeing more cases. So let's see how quickly you can pick out what's missing in this story - and figure out why a copy editor seemingly missed it:

South Carolina’s economy got an early Christmas present on Tuesday, as the unemployment rate dropped under 10 percent for the first time since April. The plunge came as retailers beefed up sales staff for an unexpectedly good holiday shopping season and others dropped out of the job search.

   More strikingly, the drop to 9.9 percent from October to November was the largest monthly drop in the 35 years that statistics have been kept in the state, according to a report from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce released Tuesday. The national unemployment rate also saw a significant decrease, to 8.6 percent in November from 9 percent in October.

   “This is truly good news for South Carolina, and surprising,” said Doug Wood- ward, an economist with the University of South Carolina. “We’ll take it.”

   Overall, nonfarm employment grew by 15,000 jobs from October to November and is up nearly 31,000 from a year ago – the largest increase for the same time period since 2006.

   Folks found 7,100 jobs in retail and 6,600 in professional and business services. Manufacturing, which has been a bright spot for the state, continued its climb, adding 900 jobs between October and November.

   The retail spike was fueled in part by people believing that the economy both in South Carolina and nationally is on the mend.

   “As the economy begins to rebound, they are less worried about being laid off” and more willing to spend, said USC economist Joey Von Nessen.

   Deedra Senter, co-owner of the Learning Express toy stores in Lexington and Irmo, is seeing that trend first hand. After a flat November, December sales are up 20 percent over last December and she and co-owner Paige Watson had to order additional stock.

   “We’ve had an unexpectedly good holiday season,” Senter said. “There have been some scary times this year.”

   The owners wanted to beef up their staff of 13 but couldn’t find workers with the right experience. So they have their present staff working overtime.

   “Our staff has to be very customer-oriented and experts in toys,” Senter said. “We put ads on Craigslist but had people not show up. It worked out great for our girls because they are getting time and a half.”

   Woodward and Von Nessen earlier this month declared that the state’s economy for 2012 was “looking pretty good” and predicted substantial job growth in the coming year – most in the manufacturing sector. However, in their annual economic outlook, the Darla Moore School of Business economists predicted the unemployment would remain flat as more people entered the workforce and began looking for work in a brightening job market.

   So Tuesday’s report was a surprise.

   “The good news is the major reason (for the drop) has been due to actual employment gains rather than just drops in the labor force,” Von Nessen said.

   Although the labor force did drop by 4,750 from October to November to 2.17 million, meaning some have dropped out of the job search.

   Gov. Nikki Haley and workforce executive director Abraham Turner issued statements praising S.C. businesses for ramping up employment and predicted more gains to come.

   “When we took office, the unemployment rate was 10.5 percent,” Haley said in a release. “To see it drop to 9.9 percent is a good way to end the year. We continue to have challenges, but we are committed to doing all we can to put South Carolinians back to work.”

   Lexington County once again had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, dropping to 7 percent from 7.5 percent. Orangeburg County and Calhoun County were the only two counties in the state to have unemployment rise.

   The jobless rate improved dramatically in South Carolina in November, dropping by the largest amount since the state began tracking the rate in 1976, as more people landed jobs. Two counties in the state saw an increase in unemployment, but most improved in November from October:

   Lexington: 7% from 7.5%

   Richland: 8% from 8.8%

   Kershaw: 8.6% from 9.1%

   Newberry: 9.2% from 9.6%

   Fairfield: 10.8% from 11.4%

   Calhoun: 14.1% from 12%

   Orangeburg: 15.6% from 14.9%

   SOURCE: S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce 

Did you ask yourself this: They're making such a big deal of this being the largest month-to-month drop, so what exactly was the unemployment rate last month? (It's not in the story or the graphic.) It was 10.5 percent.

Oops. Not sure why a desk missed that.

(The penultimate graf references that figure, but only from when the governor took office nine months earlier. The rate had actually gone higher than that in the interim - to 10.9 percent in September, for instance.)

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Numeracy - a minuscule problem

If you were reading along in The State this past week and came across this story,* you might have spotted a problem:

   If state lawmakers want to retire, they would have to give up their seat in the Legislature, according to a proposal moving through the state House of Representatives.

   The proposal would end the practice of lawmakers retiring but remaining in office and replacing their $10,400 annual salaries with much larger pension benefits - more than $30,000 a year, in some cases.

   State lawmakers are members of a separate - and much smaller - retirement system than state workers. Because of that, any changes to the General Assembly Retirement System would have little affect on the much larger state pension system’s debt of $13 billion.

   But lawmakers hope the change would send a message of shared sacrifice to the nearly 500,000 workers, retirees and other beneficiaries on the S.C. Retirement System. Come January, state workers in that system will be asked to pay more into the retirement accounts only to potentially receive lower benefits once they retire. ...

     State lawmakers still would benefit from a more generous pension formula.

   State workers calculate their annual pension benefits by multiplying their years of service times their average final salary times 0.0182 percent. State lawmakers multiply their salary and years of service times 0.0482 percent, giving them a higher benefit.

   Meanwhile, the proposal to change the retirement system for state employees calls for them to pay 1 percent more into the system - an increase of $408 a year for the average employee - while changing their pension formula, which could result in a lower benefit for some workers.

   The S.C. State Employees Association has agreed to endorse having state workers pay more into the retirement system, but only if lawmakers give state employees at least a 2 percent raise. Carlton Washington, the association’s executive director, called the current proposal, which lacks that guaranteed raise, “shortsighted.” But he said the offer from lawmakers to change their own retirement system could be a good sign to state employees.

   “If that is put on the table first, then that would send somewhat of a positive message to employees that (lawmakers) are at least interested in a comprehensive review,” Washington said. ...

It's a wonder S.C. state workers weren't already stocking up on canned pet food for their retirement. A pension based on "0.0182 percent" (or even the more generous "0.0482 percent" for legislators) would be very slim pickings indeed -- a factor of 0.000182 times the average of their last five years' earnings times the number of years worked. For someone making $50,000 who worked for 30 years, that would be a grand total of $273 a year. It's a case of mixing decimals and percents - the factor is 0.0182, or 1.82 percent - or $27,300 a year for our hypothetical worker.

It's what happens when a reporter tries to change the factor to a percent or vice versa** and forgets to move the decimal -- but a sharp-eyed copy editor should have caught it.

(For bonus points, you might also have caught the affect/effect error in the third paragraph, especially egregious from a copy-editng standpoint because it's used correctly in the headline.)

*The error has been corrected in the online story. Perhaps it was by an eagle-eyed copy editor when the story was posted. But since the affect/effect error is still there, my bet is on a correction made after the error was pointed out but never acknowledged online - a more common occurrence for this publication. The copy above is from the PDF replica edition.

** Don't ask me how I know this was it. Take this one on faith.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Selective use of data

Data is good in journalism. Selective use of data, not so much.

So let's look at the following story from The Nerve, a journalistic endeavor of the S.C. Policy Council. The council is a heavily conservative advocacy organization, but for those critics who would like to dismiss The Nerve's work out of hand as a result, stop.

The reporters, many of whom worked for "established" media, know their stuff and more often than not have uncovered those annoying little tidbits that send politicians into a tizzy. It also has become another media voice documenting and amplofying FOIA violations - can't be enough of those.

Yes, the stuff could use some solid editing from time to time. And it can be a bit shrill - one clearly knows the direction the writers are coming from ("Where Government Gets Exposed" is the site's tagline). But to dismiss it out of hand is ill-advised.

However, there are things like this that bother me because they show selective use of data to put a finger on the fairness scale, so to speak. And yes, I am a USC employee, and no, doesn't matter a twit to me what the subject is. We're talking basic journalism, editing and fairness in presenting data here. So consider the following. My comments and questions, had I edited this, are in brackets and italics:

As College Tuition Rises, So Does Administrators’ Pay
The body of the story bears that headline out at only one school.
By Amit Kumar
We’ve all heard it before: Tuition at South Carolina’s public universities and colleges is rising; state appropriations for higher education are falling; and it’s something that has been going on for years.

There is, however, at least one budgetary commitment that has remained constant or even increased at state institutions of higher education in recent years: total compensation paid to university presidents and vice presidents.
"Remained constant or 'even' increased" - so if it's remained constant, why is it worth mentioning?

The Nerve analyzed total compensation packages for the presidents and vice presidents at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and the College of Charleston, the largest undergraduate public universities in the state. The Nerve obtained compensation records by filing S.C. Freedom of Information requests with all three universities.

While tuition at all three public universities has nearly doubled in the past decade, university administrators have been receiving steady compensation packages worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the review found.
OK, so the news is what? If administrators' salaries had been going up, the news is clear. But if their compensation stayed "steady," then doesn't that bolster the idea that the extra money's been going for other purposes (like education and more faculty)? 
 The Nerve’s review also found that, while university administrators often point to decreases in state appropriations as justification for tuition increases, the amounts of federal stimulus dollars each of these three universities received in the past two fiscal years more than offset any cuts in state funding.
More on this in a minute, but hold this question - do stimulus dollars actually replace state appropriations?

For fiscal year 2011-2012, the total compensation package for USC President Harris Pastides is valued at $535,000; for the College of Charleston President George Benson, at $398,987; and for Clemson President James Barker, at $400,000.

Each of those packages is more than 12 times the per capita income in South Carolina, valued at $33,163 in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
OK, gives us a bit of context. But is 12 times excessive compared with similar officials in other states (which also have been cutting budgets) or with other S.C. officials? Has that ratio increased or decreased over time - that's a major weakness throughout the story; the real issue is whether there have been increases, and have those been excessive? I know it's hard to feel sympathy for someone making $300K or $400K a year, but as journalists, we're supposed to know when a snapshot can be more misleading than a time series. BTW, check the state salary database, and 17 state employees show up (most from the universities, including the Medical University of South Carolina,  as making more than $300,000, none of them the university presidents because the presidents' actual salaries are much lower).
At USC, the total compensation paid to Pastides each year since fiscal year 2008-2009, his first in the post, has been constant at $535,000. That number includes both money from state government and supplemental private funds from University of South Carolina foundations.
What's the breakdown? Has the public portion of that changed? What relevance does the "private" part of that have to the argument at hand, which seems to be tuition rises but these folks keep dipping from the trough.
A report by The Chronicle On Higher Education, though, found that the median total compensation package for university presidents – including presidents of university systems with multiple campuses, like that of USC – at 185 of the top research institutions in the nation in 2009-2010 was $440,487 – $95,000 lower than Pastides’ package.
Useful to know.
Meanwhile, both in-state and out-of-state tuition for attending USC have more than doubled in the past 10 years, with in-state tuition rising from $5,024 in 2002-2003 to $10,168 in 2011-12. After adjusting for inflation, that figure represents a 61 percent increase in tuition and fees.

A common refrain from universities regarding their yearly tuition hikes is that the increases are necessary because the amount of money the state appropriates to higher education has decreased each year. And this is true: For instance, for the 10-year period from 2001-2002 to 2010-2011, annual state appropriations to USC-Columbia have declined by 45 percent, from $183.7 million to $101 million, according to the most recent report by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

However, for the past two completed fiscal years, state universities have received federal stimulus dollars as a response to the recession. While those stimulus funds, which are non-recurring, have more than offset year-to-year reductions in state appropriations, universities have still elected to raise tuition in those years.
OK, back to the original question - are stimulus funds the same as state funds? I don't know, but the journalist could have helped me out as a reader. Many federal funds come with restrictions, as opposed to the state's "general fund" dollars. If the fed money is not a perfect substitute, is the argument here that the fed money used for purpose "x," should have then freed up the same amount of state money for other uses, thus negating or lessening the need for a tuition increase? Would have been nice to explain.
 For example, in fiscal year 2009-2010, state recurring appropriations to the entire USC system declined by $20.5 million; that same year USC received $29.2 million in federal stimulus dollars, more than offsetting the loss in state dollars. Still, USC increased tuition by 3.6 percent for in-state and out-of-state students in 2009-2010.

Similarly, at the College of Charleston, President George Benson’s compensation has not increased since he first took the top position in 2007-2008. However, the compensation packages for five of the college’s six vice presidents have increased since 2006-2007, including three packages that have increased by more than 14 percent each after adjusting for inflation.
OK, so the story vis a vis Benson is? The five VPs is interesting. But why does the story report only VP increases for College of Charleston? What about Clemson, USC, etc.? (Note: Clemson's data comes at end - would be useful if these were grouped if the point was that VPs overall were getting raises.)
For instance, the compensation package for George Watt, the college’s executive vice president of institutional advancement, has increased by $62,687, or 20.1 percent after adjusting for inflation, since 2008-2009 – right at the height of the recession.
Sounds not so good. But what does a VP of institutional advancement do? As a reader, helps me decide whether it's reasonable.
 In the past 10 years, in-state tuition at the College of Charleston has increased from $4,858 in 2002-2003 to $9,616 in 2011-2012, or by 57 percent after adjusting for inflation. Out-of-state tuition has increased even more, by 76 percent after adjusting for inflation, or $13,356 more per year.

College of Charleston, like USC, repeatedly justifies tuition increases at least partially because of lowered state appropriations. But although the amount of general funds appropriated to public universities has decreased significantly in recent years, general funds make up only a small portion of a university’s overall budget.

For fiscal 2011-12, general funds made up only 9 percent of the College of Charleston’s overall budget. For USC, that number was 11 percent; for Clemson University, general funds were only 8 percent of its overall budget.
Perhaps it is too obvious to note that one of the reasons general funds make up "only" (a loaded word) a small part of the budgets is because the state appropriations have been cut so much? Again, trend data useful for me as a reader to determine context.
 The bulk of these universities’ budgets actually comes from other funds, which are made up of tuition and fees. Of the College of Charleston’s $220 million budget, $183.5 million, or 83 percent of the overall budget, comes from other funds. At USC, $641.8 million out of its $907.2 million budget, or 71 percent, comes from other funds; at Clemson, other funds make up $650.6 million out its $805.4 million budget, or 81 percent.
And, again, that large proportion would be a direct result of state funding being cut, right?
Universities are crying out that they need to increase tuition because their state appropriations are dwindling; but those appropriations make up only about 10 percent of their overall budgets, and cuts to those funds have been offset by federal stimulus dollars in recent years.
So synthesizing my comments: This is a collection of random facts that when put in the same graf sounds sinister but fails to answer whether stimulus dollars can be directly substitutable for state appropriations and how much state money as a proportion of the schools' budget has changed. The implied argument seems to hinge on "only," but the "only" might well be the result of state cuts, especially if the federal money is not a one-for-one replacement  - seems a bit tautological, eh?

All these same financial trends are visible at Clemson, where in-state tuition has increased by 67 percent and out-of-state tuition by 75 percent in the past 10 years after adjusting for inflation.

In that same time, Clemson President James Barker has seen his compensation package increase by $120,986, from $279,014 to $400,000 – a raise of 14 percent after adjusting for inflation.
OK, that's useful.
Some of Clemson’s vice presidents have received large compensation increases in the past decade as well, even when adjusting for inflation.
In the past 10 years, the compensation package for Doris Helms, Clemson’s vice president for academic affairs and provost, has increased by 28 percent, to $270,389 today. The package for John Kelly, vice president for agriculture, public service, and economic development, has increased by 19 percent after, to $242,732 today; and for Neill Cameron, vice president for advancement, by 15.5 percent, to $211,185 today.
OK, that's useful. So Clemson raises some flags. But when did those raises happen? Isn't it possible the bulk were before the 2008 recession? Help me out as a reader to evaluate the information. It's far more significant if they've continued getting raises even after the economy tanked.

And why don't we hear about the VPs at the other institutions - USC? So at two out of three schools, there weren't significant VP raises? But not at the largest? And how do they relate? That's cherry-picking data.

Bottom line: Might be a story here. Take your pick based on your policy/political/fiscal orientation:
  • Tuition's gone up even though the schools' financial picture shouldn't have changed because federal stimulus dollars were exactly substitutable for the state money that was cut. (Nothing in the story says that about the fed dollars; we are left to artfully conclude it.) Ergo, any tuition increase somehow is tied to the pay, although how is that possible when the pay remained steady for the presidents of two schools and we have no data in the story showing significant increases for underlings at one of those the three schools (besides Clemson)?
  •  University officials' pay has continued to rise even while the economy has gone to crap. (Unfortunately, the data we have right now shows that's the case at "only" one of three, and even then it's not clear when the increases took place.)
  • State appropriations were cut and the stimulus dollars that came in could not directly replace them. So tuition was raised, in part to cover the salaries plus any increases in those salaries over the past decade. That was wrong, since the stimulus money could have freed up other funds that could have been transferred back to other lines to cover/offset the salaries. The implication is that those top officials should somehow have refunded parts of their salaries to cover that (unspecified) part of the tuition increase.
One of these might have been true. But this story, as a "random walk" through data, doesn't support any of them. If the stimulus was not a dollar-for-dollar replacement, you could also debate things like whether the money was effectively spent, whether the universities should have added positions at such a time, did the universities properly transfer money among lines to account for the stimulus, etc.? But that's a different story than what's here.

Bottom line - numbers don't make a story credible by themselves. Careful, clear numbers with accuracy, completeness and context - and the assumptions clearly spelled out - do.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

It seemed like a great headline - even if we made it up

What do you do if you have a pretty good story about a man who fakes his own abduction and when he calls mom to get $100 in ransom, she talks him down to $60 - but you just don't have that great quote for the headline?

Well, you make it up, of course. At least that's what The (Columbia, S.C.) State appeared to do on Saturday. I dare you to find the quote from the hed in the body of the story:

So this would be another reason to be judicious on quote heds - if the good quote isn't in the story, probably not the time for a quote hed.

The State had an editor who just loved quote heds - for a while it seemed like there had to be one on the front or Metro front almost every day. The editor, unfortunately, had a habit of reaching down the bottom of the story to grab the writer's punch line. That was bad enough, for several reasons.'

But making them up out of thin air? That's a new one on me.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ham-handed editing

So here's the Oscars story as it appeared in The State's printed edition:

Can you find what's wrong?
LOS ANGELES — After a tumultuous week that saw the departure and replacement of the Oscar show’s host and producer, the film academy enjoyed a night of good vibes Saturday at its third annual Governors Awards. You might even say the force was with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Armed “Star Wars” storm troopers ensured guests were in their seats and paying attention as Darth Vader opened the evening. Under Vader’s helmet was academy president Tom Sherak, who welcomed the audience of industry insiders with, “How was your week?”

Over the past week, Oscar producer Brett Ratner and host Eddie Murphy resigned and were replaced with producer Brian Grazer and host Billy Crystal. Ratner departed the Oscar show amid criticism of his use of a pejorative term for gay men at a screening of the director’s action comedy “Tower Heist,” which stars Murphy.

Saturday’s untelevised Governors Awards couldn’t have been smoother.

Jones, who famously voiced Vader, accepted his award by video from London’s Wyndham Theater, where he is starring in “Driving Miss Daisy” with Vanessa Red-grave. Baldwin and Glenn Close feted the actor before Sir Ben Kingsley presented him with his Oscar onstage in London.

Close called Jones “a world treasure” and Kingsley said the 80-year-old actor is “always so damn good.”

Smith, the groundbreaking makeup artist who counts “The Exorcist” and “The Godfather” among his credits, was lauded for his long career and his generosity in sharing the secrets of his craft. Writer-directors J.J. Abrams, Peter Jack-son and Guillermo del Toro saluted the 89-year old.

Abrams, creator of TV’s “Lost” and “Fringe,” said Smith “was the Beatles to me” and told of how he wrote a fan letter to the makeup artist and received an “old but clean” tongue from “The Exorcist” in return.

Winfrey was introduced by Quincy Jones, Travolta, Maria Shriver, producer Larry Gordon and a student she’d never met but whose education she funded.

Travolta said “the academy got it right” when it chose the media mogul to receive its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, calling her “the most wonderful person in the world, the most magical person in the world and the most powerful person in the world.”

Yep, in a bunch of ham-handed editing, The State in its print editions managed to cut the first names of Jones (actor James Earl), Smith (makeup artist Dick) and Winfrey (Oprah - need we say more?) and the awards (lifetime achievement) that Jones and Smith received.

It also managed to leave out the first names of "Baldwin" (Alec) and "Travolta" (John).

It did manage to get it right in the online edition.

Smooth, very smooth.

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Editing lesson - why Goog is not enough

Here's a lesson for your editing classes - or for any journalist, for that matter - as to why relying on Google (or any other single source, especially in these days of ubiquitous data that also contains easily propagated errors).

I gave my editing class a simple car-train accident story the other day. It happened on Bonhomme Richard Drive in Lexington County. But many students went into a tizzy because it was listed differently on Google:

Now, those of us who've been around awhile probably have some sense that Goog was in error. If you have a sense of French, you know it's Bonhomme Richard, or maybe stuck back in the corners of the brain is the factoid that several U.S. warships have had that name.

But these days it is easy - and imperative - to check multiple sources. In the editing room, we have paper maps on the wall (I know, how quaint, except Google does not list county boundaries or subdivisions, both important for a local journalist.)

A quick run over to Mapquest shows this (which is also on that paper map):

And just running "Bonhomme Richard Lexington" through a Google and Bing search pulls up numerous real estate listings with the correct name.

Of course, preponderance of the evidence is not good enough in journalism, so my students should have checked with us, which some did. But the disappointment was that they were relying only on Google. What if I had put "Richard Bonhomme" in the copy? They most likely never would have asked.

Anyhow, victory is ours! OK, too much caffeine there so early in the morning. But Goog did confirm the error once I pointed it out.

I hope you'll find this useful as an example you can use in class and elsewhere.

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