Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Refocusing a lede

 In the rush on breaking news, we often get our syntactical feet tangled up. Happens to all of us.

Here's a lede that could use rework.

-- Have police been violating rights only following the investigation?

-- Is the Justice Department the most important thing?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department has found Louisville police have engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights following an investigation prompted by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Perhaps this as one possibility?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville police have consistently violated constitutional rights, the U.S. Justice Department says after an investigation prompted by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

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Sunday, March 05, 2023

Using a parallel series for more powerful writing

 Whew, the first sentence of this graf in an AP story requires some mental mastication through its 43 words.

Let's dissect how judicious use of parallel elements in series can produce tighter, more powerful writing that most of all is easier on readers.

In the process, true crime enthusiasts, concerned onlookers and many others found the latest subject of their fascination in the yearslong unraveling of a mystery that jurors weighed in a six-week trial that culminated in a deliberation that took less than three hours. Murdaugh, 54, received life in prison at a Friday morning sentencing.

The sentence uses a somewhat parallel structure built around the decreasing time elements, but it's blurred because the time element is obscured or changes form as we go along.

-- yearslong unraveling of a mystery (establishes a form for readers, time-object in a  nice tight phrase)

-- that jurors weighed in a six-week trial (six-week trial keeps the time-object pattern but it's pushed back and obscured by the verbiage in front)

-- that culminated in a deliberation that took less than three hours (reverses the pattern to object-time; might be "less than three hours of deliberation" or "a less than three-hour deliberation,"* but the verbiage still obscures the power of the decreasing time elements).

It might be better formed as a clear series:

In the process, true-crime enthusiasts, concerned onlookers and many others found the latest subject of their fascination in a yearslong unraveling of a mystery, a six-week trial, and less than three hours of jury deliberation. Murdaugh, 54, received life in prison at a Friday morning sentencing.

The very structure itself leads to a culmination, a form of "show," which we know is almost always more powerful that "tell."

That's also 35 words, 20% shorter, 36 if you don't hyphenate "true crime." But I would argue for hyphenation because what's being said is enthuiasts of true crime, not true enthusiasts of crime.

* "A less than three-hour jury deliberation" is a tad shorter, but it does seem a bit forced, and the short-short-longer structure is a long-used one. And the last part allows readers to catch a mental breath before moving on.

The story is at

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Saturday, October 22, 2022

How mosquitoes smell story shows the need for context in science journalism

The numerous stories this week about how some people are mosquito magnets highlight some things that are right with science and science journalism, but some weakness as well.

Let's start with this, which is a release from Rockefeller University. It's dated 10/22, though I'm not sure why since the study ( was published in July, unless the site is one of those that perniciously shows you the current date whenever you open it, a very bad practice.

The good in it and some of the stories that were generated from it: It illustrates the iterative nature of science, in this case how a researcher, Leslie Vosshall, who has been key to development of one theory (of how mosquitoes "smell" human odors) is not afraid, with new research to say, hey, maybe that's not right.

The not so good: The release, unfortunately, (and as a result, some of the stories) just uses a throw-away graf to mention the post doc researcher, Meg Younger, who was central to the discovery of how mosquitoes smell. (And, as is often the way of the world in science, she is also listed last on the paper, though a note says she and eight other authors contributed equally.)

To NPR's credit (in August), it zeroed in on that researcher and the importance of her work (

I don't remember hearing so much about that first paper, which appears to be foundational and provides important context to this week's stories A search limited from 8/1 to 8/30 shows mostly non-trad or very specialized sites on the first SERP, with only NPR and The Atlantic representing mainstream media.

(Search on "mosquitoes smell," open ended with no quote marks.)

Contrast that with this week and another paper in the same journal ( from the same lab that is attracting a lot of media attention. AP, the Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, the NY Post, CBS, and Euronews have all turned up at the top of the SERP depending on when I've searched and what search engine.

Granted, the current paper is a lot sexier and more focused on the finding that a particular chemical emitted by humans sends mosquitoes a signal the buffet is open. Even given the science speak, the title of the most recent paper, "Differential mosquito attraction to humans is associated with skin-derived carboxylic acid levels," is more approachable than that of the first paper, "Non canonical odor coding in the mosquito."

But if you read the current crop of stories, you might come away with the sense that if we can just get rid of that chemical (you can't; it's vital to your health) or mask it or somehow modify mosquito genetics, we can solve this.

Problem is, in the current crop of stories you will be hard-pressed to find any sense of iteration, that the July paper laid a critical groundwork and introduces some complications. (That paper, if you read it or the NPR story, basically says the old model scientists had that there is one neuron for every type of smell doesn't work with mosquitoes whose neurons apparently are Swiss Army knives when it comes to picking up smells. Thus, they can adapt.)

The only glancing reference to this at the bottom of the AP story (on which many others were based or just simply relayed) is this:

"The study proved this point: Researchers also did the experiment with mosquitoes whose genes were edited to damage their sense of smell. The bugs still flocked to the same mosquito magnets.

'Mosquitoes are resilient,' Vosshall said. 'They have many backup plans to be able to find us and bite us.'" (Vosshall is the lab head.)

The problem: Even with this buried at the bottom, the lack of more complete iterative context (which should be summarized somewhere higher up even if expanded on here) may leave people thinking solutions are easier than they are.

This provides a good illustration because many of the other variables are controlled for. Both papers were in the same journal, they both come from the same lab, and they both cover aspects of the same topic.

So it would have been nice, I think, to acknowledge the earlier work and Younger's importance to it and put in a graf or two saying how the latest paper advances, expands, modifies, etc , that earlier work, or provide clearer context as to why that earlier work complicates things going forward.

Such things can easily become insipid boilerplate, but if done well can help provide reinforcement that science is iterative, not a wowser "new" all the time.

So it's good to keep in mind when seeing MSM science coverage that with their tendency to be like moths to a flame -- timing, one outlet that everyone follows deciding to pick it up, a better PR effort, etc. -- what seems "new" might not be quite so much when put in context.

Part of this comes from my thesis that some of our covid issues, political and social aside, come from failing to provide that context of what's come before. I think a fair chunk of the public has come to see science as a one-and-done thing (for lack of a better term). That leads to the unrealistic expectation, in covid for instance, of quick answers and miracle cures, and when they aren't forthcoming because things tend not to be absolutes but statistical improvements (i.e., the vaccines don't prevent covid, they increase your chances of not getting it, and if you do, of surviving or avoiding long-term effects), the false impression leaves a big opening for the charlatans.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

A bit of backstory on the Vernon Jordan shooting

 With the word today of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan's death ( ), I thought I'd share a bit of back story on the reporting around the attempt to assassinate him in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I was working as a reporter in 1980.

Those were heady times, with a lot more access than we have today, but journalism still is about having that mentality that you're going to get the story, whatever it takes.


I was deeply involved in covering his shooting in Fort Wayne, for instance breaking results of the police interview of Martha Coleman, the woman he was with. 
She had been secreted away, and trying to get any information out of that hermetically sealed environment was, to put it mildly, difficult. We knew she'd been interviewed extensively and possibly given a polygraph. We HAD to get the results. The Times, NY Daily News and what seemed like half the nation's other major media had set up shop in the Journal-Gazette newsroom and were trying to pry out the same info. 
I finally told Dana Heupel, the city editor, I thought I could get it. 
The Oyster Bar on Calhoun Street was both a cop/prosecutor hangout (back room) and a press bar (front room). We mingled, and the rules of engagement were what happened and was said there stayed there. 
But this was different. This wasn't some local scandal, it was international news. 
I knew the prosecutor handling the case would be there. He and his wife were, along with another couple. I walked up to the table, made my apologies, flipped a chair around from the next table, looked at him and said, "We need to talk." 
Over the next 10 minutes (possibly aided by a drink or two before I arrived), he pretty much told me everything, much of it on the record. I raced back to the newsroom. 
The issue then was keeping it secret while I typed the story on deadline on my Selectric with all the prying eyes and ears around. But we managed to get it through the process and onto the front page unnoticed, and it was sweet to see the national corps swear profusely when the paper came out. 
The J-G got the drop on the initial story in a twist too. 
I had left WPTA-TV as assignment editor not long before. At 2 a.m., the phone rang in our apartment. ABC had my number from the affiliates' news operation directory and was on the line. 
What did I know about Jordan's shooting? Hadn't heard about it, but I would scramble, I said. I think I might have forgotten to mention I was now at the paper. I immediately called Dana. His wife answered.
"It's Doug Fisher. Sorry to call at this hour. But I need to talk to Dana. It's a big story." 
I heard her wake Dana. "Dana. It's Doug. He says he has a big story."
"It damn well better be," I heard in the background.
A groggy and obviously annoyed Dana comes on the line. 
"What is it?" 
"Vernon Jordan's been shot." 
"Vernon Jordan, the civil right leader's been shot. At the Marriott." 
"Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit." 
After that day, we had the "Oh, shit" scale for the importance of a breaking news event. 
Little remembered is this was debut weekend of CNN and its first major live effort when President Carter visited Jordan at Parkview Hospital (around the block from where we lived).

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Cannot vs. would not comment

Fairly regularly, I see sentences like this in stories:

"Mayor Jane Darby said she cannot comment because the lawsuit is ongoing." (Group sues Edisto Beach after town bans religious worship services from its civic center)

She certainly can comment if she wants to, unless there is a clear policy, law, etc., that prevents her.

And maybe there is. But too often stories say an official said he or she "cannot" comment. Often, a stock phrase that like "because the lawsuit is ongoing" is thrown in - phrases that when you parse them really don't say much.

And that subtly makes us complicit in one of the favorite parlor games of many politicians and too many public officials:  linguistic obfuscation.

She would not comment. It's a conscious decision. We should make clear to readers/users that's the case.

If an official says he or she can't comment, then the conversation should be like this:

Them: I'm sorry, I can't comment on that.

You: Why is that?

Them: It's an ongoing legal case.

You: Yes, but why can't you comment? Is there a policy or is this your decision.

Them: I just don't comment on ongoing cases.

You: OK, then you would not comment. I understand.

If, OTOH, there's this:

You: Yes, but why can't you comment? Is there a policy or is this your decision?

Them: Yes, we have a policy against commenting in such cases.

You: Oh, is that a written policy? Where can I get a copy of it?

Them: Uh ....

Then I'd probably still say the person would not comment and cited a (fill in your governing body) policy against talking about ongoing legal cases. (And you should continue pressing for that policy, just because ...)

If the person were able to produce details of that policy or say it was on the advice of a lawyer, etc., then "can't" is closer to acceptable. But you now know details of why and should tell folks.

And even then, I think I'd favor "would not" with the explanation.

The only times I think "cannot" is clearly called for is when there are legal repercussions if the person talks. So if the mayor says she can't comment because of a judge's gag order or she can't comment because state law says officials can't talk about such and such, then OK.

In most cases, whether to comment is a decision made with free will, which takes "would." Even with a "policy," a person usually is free to decide to ignore it. (All the time we use anonymous sources who are doing just that, don't we? So that little nicety doesn't seem to trouble us.)

"Can't" seldom should be used, and when it is it should always have solid explanation, not just a tossed-off stock phrase, because the subtle but important implication is that the decision is being taken out of the person's hands. If we acquiesce, it provides a veil of plausible deniability. It's a reason pols and public officials like to use it, just as they adore the passive ("mistakes were made").

Our job isn't to provide linguistic cover.

(Usage notes:

- The widely established form is "declined to", not just "declined," comment. You decline something offered to you (another piece of pie, perhaps), but you decline to offer something (in this case, a comment) to someone else. The argument could be that you are declining the chance to comment, shortened to declined comment, but that's really not the sense of the interaction. And why even use that bureaucratic form when "would not" is perfectly fine?

- Avoid "refused" - the connotation has overtones of malice on your part. But if you catch his or her honor carting away a bag of money and you ask what's up and all you get is stony silence, then, yeah, "refused" might fit the bill.)

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Monday, April 30, 2018

AP style change - collide

Buried in some of the AP style change entries last week was a bit of common sense:

Two objects now don't have to be in motion to collide: The previous entry stated "two objects must be in motion before they can collide. A moving train cannot collide with a stopped train." Now, "We dropped the previous rule that two objects must be in motion before they can collide. The entry has been deleted."

Homepage is also now one word, in keeping with a lot of evolving online usage.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Screw transparency - two lessons in hidden government and the piggy bank

I'd call your attention today from two stories from Columbia, S.C., that show how public officials do their best to hide the money that flows from the government "piggy bank."

Our first exhibit

A story from The Nerve on how EnginuitySC appears to be quietly stepping away from its much-touted nuclear initiative now that the V.C. Summer nuclear project has collapsed. But of even more interest to me is the info, deep in the story, that this government-backed nonprofit  has contracted out its management to a firm, Sagacious Partners, run by Engenuity's current and former directors.

(Also interesting to me is that Sagacious manages to neglect to mention Engenuity anywhere in its partners' bios that I can see (a search on the page turned up nada). And, yes, EngenuitySC is a quasi-public agency - it's often referenced that way in government reports and budgets, and it has received millions of state money, which makes it subject to the FOIA.)

The effect of contracting out management is to hide the actual salaries under a lump-sum payment to Sagacious (though an FOIA for the contract might be revealing, but not necessarily -- see the next entry). I invite you to tool through Engenuity's Form 990 tax return that The Nerve helpfully has linked to.

Our second exhibit ...

Comes from the investigative site Quorum Columbia, where investigative reporter Ron Aiken dropped an open records request on Richland County for details of what it's paid in legal bills recently.

The total? About $5 million.

Except the county won't say what it paid for. It redacted all the details.

 The site is by subscription, but here's an excerpt:
Quorum’s review of the County’s legal spending from May 2016 to August 2017 showed payments to:
  • McNair Law Firm (governmental affairs), $354,689
  • Gignilliat Savitz & Bettis (employment and labor law), $252,125
  • Attorney Malane S. Pike (governmental affairs, property tax/assessment issues), $260,933
  • Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (governmental affairs), $45,104
  • Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein (governmental affairs, accounting and finance compliance), $207,979
  • Willoughby & Hoefer (governmental affairs), $3,874,488.
The amounts are easy to discover.
The work performed for them is not.
For this story Quorum asked for both the latest invoice and copy of the contract between the County and each of the firms listed. In the 44 pages provided, any and every mention of specific work performed by a firm on invoices submitted was completely redacted. The only information even hinting at the nature of the work came in generalized summaries in the original contracts between the firms and the County, some of which were signed long after the firm or individual was receiving large, regular payments from the County.
Here's an example:

As pointed out in the story, there's a real question here about flagrant abuse of the attorney-client privilege exemption, not to mention that taxpayers footed these bills for outside counsel when the county also has a well-paid legal office. (Aiken also provided a link to a PDF of the full county response. It's a beauty of redaction to behold.)

Just a reminder that even when a Legislature says clearly that the public's business is supposed to be ... well ... public, that's open to creative interpretation.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Our media paranoia runneth over

This was a note in today's Connecting, the daily email newsletter for AP retirees and others who are interested. For copyright, I won't post the photos, but have given the links. (This is the Connecting archive, where a PDF of the issue should eventually show up thanks to Paul Shane, the indefatigable editor.)  

Was this AP photo 'sanitized' by cartoonist?

Here is HPD SWAT member Daryl Hudeck as he carries Catherine Pham and her son Aiden to safety:

Here is the Indianapolis Star's Gary Varvel's version of that photo (note, this is a collection page, so the cartoon may start moving toward the bottom after a few days). A

And This is what someone wrote in to Connecting:

OK, we've officially gone bonkers.

Yes, cartoonists are supposed to provoke strong reactions. But to accuse Varvel of "sanitizing" the photo with his editorial cartoon? Artists simplify for a reason -- to make a point. Should Varvel have put "SWAT" or "POLICE" on the cap? (That wasn't on the original that I can see, though it's hard to make out what is there.) Perhaps, but then can't it be argued that would marginalize EMS,  firefighters, and all the volunteer rescuers who have headed to the area to help?

Varvel's interpretation celebrates the idea that all of humanity, no matter or race, our occupation or our political persuasion, pulls together in times of such crisis.

He didn't put the person standing in the back in either? Should all the other rescuers be annoyed? He didn't put the submerged car in either - should the automakers be pissed? He didn't put the highway in. Should the road builders be ticked off? 

We have become paranoid -- looking for a bogeyman  and perceived grievances under every (media) rock.
This writer, and others, apparently, who share his views, have  tried to take what I consider a noble image, both the original and Varvel's, and  turn it into yet another point of divisiveness. Fortunately, I think Varvel's will prevail.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Flyer: AP finally bends to common usage

The pressure became too much to bear.

Time to update those style quizzes. From today's ACES meeting, AP finally bends to common usage:

"AP style now uses flyer with a Y for frequent flyer and advertising flyer. An exception is 'take a flier,' as in take a risk"

The full AP entry:

Flyer is the preferred term for a person flying in an aircraft, and for handbills: He used his frequent flyer miles; they put up flyers announcing the show. Use flier in the phrase take a flier, meaning to take a big risk.  

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Another SC FOIA audit has too many failing grades

 It's nice to know that in South Carolina, the more things change, the more things stay the same, at least when it comes to state agencies' arrogance over the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

When I supervised the first statewide FOIA audit at the AP almost 20 years ago, we found widespread violations (and even creepier stuff, such as police or sheriff's offices running license plate checks on those asking for basic information that is routinely supposed to be public, even without a request).

During the years, my reporting classes have routinely tested local police and sheriffs, with the same scofflaws, led by Columbia, at the bottom every time.

The SC Policy Council recently ran its own limited test. First, the conclusion because it is important and because I don't want it to get lost at the bottom:

There simply aren’t that many FOIA requests for agencies to deal with. One of the most popular arguments against tightening the state’s FOIA law goes something like this: If you require agencies to respond more substantively to requests, those agencies’ public information offices will do nothing but respond to fishing expeditions by people looking for scandal. Our study doesn’t support that conclusion. Only the Department of Transportation received a significant number of FOIA requests; other agencies received far fewer. As for DOT, a $2 billion agency with a robust public information office should be able to handle 400 or 500 requests in a year.

So here's what the Policy Council did:
On November 8, 2016, we asked for:
► the number of FOIA requests the agency has received in the past three fiscal years;
► the number of FOIA requests to which the agency the responded by producing documents over the past three fiscal years;
► the names/identities of those who have submitted FOIA requests to the agency in the past three fiscal years;
► an itemized list of each FOIA charge for the past three fiscal years; and
► an itemized list of each FOIA charge that was collected in the past three fiscal years and a detailed summary how the funds were spent.
The state agencies were these: Clemson University, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Education, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the State Ports Authority (SPA), Santee Cooper, the South Carolina Research Authority (SCRA), the University of South Carolina (USC), the South Carolina House of Representatives, and the South Carolina Senate.

The results -- and keep in mind that South Carolina's law has a 15-day limit for the agency to acknowledge the request but no actual time limit on when the agency must produce the records (the grades are mine based on something similar we did with the AP audit):
  •  Clemson: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: D
  • Commerce: Generally provided the information, but cited 52 cases of exemptions. However, Commerce does have a broad exemption for economic development deals in progress. So, even though I'm always somewhat skeptical because that exemption has been abused, give it a good-faith effort. And it did supply requesters' names, so it earned a B.
  • Transportation: Provided most of the info, but refused to supply the names, citing the law's privacy exemption. Because that privacy claim is doubtful (more on that later), a C+.
  • Education: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: D
  • MUSC: Said it got the request, never provided the records. Grade: D
  • Ports Authority: Responded fully. Grade: A.
  • Santee Cooper: Responded fully. Grade: A.
  • Research Authority: Responded fully except for one request. Again, because it deals in areas where the economic development exemption could creep in, grade it A-.
  • University South Carolina: Did not even respond. Grade: F.
  • S.C. House: Responded fully within the law's constraints, except that five members pulled the "legislative memoranda, communications, etc." card from the deck and blocked their specific information. Does that exemption rankle? Yes, but it is on the books and at least the House leadership and staff tried. Grade: B.
  • S.C. Senate: Pulled a blanket memorandum exemption and piled on with the potentially bogus personal privacy exemption. Grade: F
So if you're plotting out the grades in this class:
 A/A-: 3 .... B+/B: 2 ... C+/C: 1 ... D: 3 ... F: 2

A D is considered failing in your major, and government agencies' "major," as said clearly at the top of the FOIA and in court decisions, should be serving the public interest with disclosure. That 45% of the class has failed says a lot. On the other hand, there are also 45% A's and B's, which were rare in the original audit. So dum spiero spero.

But in this, the "So Sue Me (repeatedly, most likely) State," it has been difficult to get lawmakers, even those intent on improving the FOIA, to understand the extent to which the privacy exemption is being abused - and the extent to which the abuse is growing.

The Columbia Police Department is the champ in this area, blocking records that clearly should be open, even without a request. But there are plenty of other agencies and departments not far behind.

That link has a detailed discussion. But a quick recap:
  • Private information in public records must be segregated and the rest released.
  • S.C. courts have shown an inclination to narrowly construe any privacy exemption and certainly not extend it to matters of any public interest. (The attorney general's office looked at the court record and basically told a sheriff to stop trying to invent exemptions, including privacy.) A crime victim would seem to be, as unfortunate as this is, a person of limited public interest. So would a person, to my mind, making an FOIA request:
  • As the state Appeals Court put it in the Burton case: Our Supreme Court has defined the “right to privacy” as the right of an individual to be let alone and to live a life free from unwarranted publicity.  Sloan v. South Carolina Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 355 S.C. 321, 586 S.E.2d 108 (2003).  However, “‘one of the primary limitations placed on the right of privacy is that it does not prohibit the publication of matter which is of legitimate public or general interest.’”  Society of Prof’l Journalists v. Sexton, 283 S.C. 563, 566, 324 S.E.2d 313, 315 (1984) (quoting Meetze v. Associated Press, 230 S.C. 330, 95 S.E.2d 606 (1956)).  Indeed, the Court has held that, as a matter of law, “if a person, whether willingly or not, becomes an actor in an event of public or general interest, ‘then the publication of his connection with such an occurrence is not an invasion of his right to privacy.’”  Doe v. Berkeley Publishers, 329 S.C. 412, 414, 496 S.E.2d 636, 637 (1998) (quoting Meetze, 230 S.C. at 337, 95 S.E.2d at 609).
  • Who is making FOIA requests is a matter public interest, both to see if a handful of requesters are flooding the system and as another check on power and influence. Institutions (companies, foundations, etc.) generally don't spend their time and money making FOIA requests unless they are researching a matter of deep interest to them, which also usually means it or will become a matter of public interest.
 I know bad cases make bad law -- I'm always afraid of that. And nothing is a slam dunk when it comes to privacy, especially in these days of national security hacking and wiretap revelations.

But I sure wish some player with enough resources to wait out what could be a protracted court case can find a named plaintiff and take on one of these "failing" agencies or the Columbia cops. Until then, periodic FOIA audits are likely to be South Carolina's own "Groundhog Day."

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