Friday, February 25, 2005

Suspicious Minds

Despite what you may have heard on TV news, a suspect does not rob a bank. A suspect does not kill a person. A suspect does not commit whatever misdeed you care to mention.

A person does. A man. A woman. A somebody.

A man robs a bank. A woman kills a person. A man and woman commit whatever misdeed you can imagine.

When police apprehend someone and accuse them of committing one of these crimes, that someone becomes a suspect. But the crimes themselves were still committed by a person, because we know that the crimes occurred.

When someone goes on trial for an obvious criminal offense, such as burglary or murder, the actual damage is seldom the issue. The house has been broken into. The person has been killed. We can take these things as facts. The court decides whether the person on trial did those things.

The applications to news stories, I hope, are obvious.

What we don't write: "The suspect killed fifty people on the subway. Police arrested Bob Dylan and said he was their prime suspect."

What we do write: "A man killed fifty people on the subway. Police arrested Bob Dylan and said he was their main suspect."

You'll notice that by saying "suspect" instead of "man" in the first example we actually implicate Mr. Dylan more than in the second version. Not that I think he would do such things.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Similar, Yet Different

Let's turn to Merriam-Webster for a quick definition:

"Acronym: a word (as NATO, radar, or snafu) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also : an abbreviation (as FBI) formed from initial letters : INITIALISM."

And another:

"Anagram: a word or phrase made by transposing the letters of another word or phrase."

Thus, an anagram of the word "god" is "dog." "God" on its own is not an acronym.

But wait a second. If you have an organization called the "General Order of Dirigibles," then GOD indeed serves as an acronym. Isn't language fun?

OK, I'll shut up now.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Farewell ...

... To Hunter S. Thompson. Whatever one can say about the gonzo journalist/essayist/hell-raiser, the world will be a profoundly less interesting place without him in it.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

I Can't Stop Thinking ...

... About the whole CBS / Dan Rather / dubious memos business.

I understand that I'm months behind the rest of the world on this. I thought about tackling the subject at the time, and I pondered it in the weeks that followed. But everyone else had their axes to grind and political bile to spill.

Let's look at this with fresh eyes. If you examine the documents in question, they should make you suspicious. I'm not saying they're fake. I haven't heard the definitive word one way or the other. But come on. They look much like documents produced on a popular, name-brand word processing software.

That's just the first point. These suddenly unearthed documents that appear to have President Bush in their sights just happen to look newly minted.

The second point? The signature of the guy who supposedly wrote the memos doesn't seem to match the signature on them. Sure, his handwriting might have been on the fritz that day. But what are the chances?

That's the second point.

So. You're a professional journalist. You see these two points in front of you. Let's not consider what the late man's family and friends might say about the memos' contents. Let's not bring up the inaccurate military terminology used. Just consider these two basic points.

What do you do?

If you have sense, you raise hell. You tell whoever found these documents to check them and check them again. You bring in competent document and handwriting experts who can reassure you beyond the shadow of a doubt the papers are authentic. In short, you work night and day to uncover the truth.

You do all of this because viewers (or readers, or Web surfers) deserve the truth. They also don't have reason to trust you if you don't present them with the truth.

Like it or not, these situations apply to all of us. In the seven-plus years I've been copy editing and reporting, I've handled similar problems. If you're a professional journalist, you probably have too. You come upon a story that's too good to be true. Or that seems to have someone else's words inserted without a credit. Or that relies on dubious sources. Or that just isn't ready for publication.

Not all of these instances rise to the level of the CBS memos. They don't have to.

Ask yourself, when such a story appears: Does it pass the smell test? What would a reasonable person off the street think? What does my gut, apart from any political considerations, tell me?

It should tell you to make damn sure the story is right. This holds for assigning editors, reporters, copy editors, slots, managing editors, on up the line. Check it out.

Do the right thing.

Saturday, February 5, 2005

Drawn and Headquartered

Why, oh why, does anyone use the word "headquartered"? A business has headquarters. They are located in a specific city. They are not headquartered there.

This is how English works: "Headquarters" is a noun. It's a place. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined in the mid-1600s. "Headquarter" is a verb twisted out of that pleasant old noun just this last century.

But you don't hear people use that active form of the word often, do you? Why? Because it sounds bad. So why use a passive form of a verb that shouldn't even be one in the first place?

I'm not being a fuddy-duddy. Honest. The verbed word sounds clunky. It doesn't save the writer any space. It brings up, at least to me, unpleasant associations with being drawn and quartered.

Just write, "The business has headquarters" in such and such, and all will be well. Trust me.