Reading the Charlotte Sun Newspaper

Community journalism: practices and standards

We’ve Moved …. but not far

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We’ve not gone away!  Check out recent posts at www.oldwordwolf.blogspot.com   That is, until we can figure out how to import the posts to this location!  Like many novice bloggers, I’ve been experimenting with “platforms,” and this little disjunct is one result.  Hopefully, I’ll get’em all rounded up in short order!  Cheerio.

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

June 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Windy Sailing Column Shows Poor Taste

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Imagine you own a chain of small-town newspapers. Times are tough, advertising revenues fall, and you are forced to fire half the staff. Your internal memos on the matter “mourn” the loss of “family.”

But soon enough, a particularly lovely day in December dawns (remember, it’s Florida). You decide to “take a vacation day” (!) from your labors and head over to the yacht club where you untie your sloop for a sail around the harbor.

Question: Do you write a column about it?
Answer: Yes, if you are Derek Dunn-Rankin.

Comment: Enjoying his sail under “a milk-blue sky” is one thing. Writing about what is often regarded as an elitist activity is simply rubbing the staff’s nose in the disparity between Dunn-Rankin’s holiday and theirs.

Perhaps feeling a twinge of conscience about spending 20 inches of ink waxing poetic about his personal pursuit of happiness under sail, the company patriarch opines: “If I could get just a few thousand of the millions shoveling driveway snow to spend a few minutes aboard, we would once more have a shortage of houses for sale.”

Oh my! One tack out of the yacht club and consumers would be back on board! Having a full-time job that pays more than collecting aluminum cans and the means to qualify for a mortgage aren’t part of the Dunn-Rankin sailing-to-economic-recovery plan.

If, after considering how many of his laid-off staff had to forgo yacht club memberships this year, Dunn-Rankin still decides to publish his lyric to leisure, then he should at least send the column to a decent copy editor. A “tiller arm” and “sheet line” are both silly redundancies. (A tiller is an arm and a sheet is a line, so there’s no need for the pompous inclusion of the extra noun disguised as an adjective.) He describes the boat’s “heel to the wind,” giving a backwards description of what happens when wind moves over sail. (By sailing left or right of the wind’s head-on direction, a sail produces different wind pressures on the front and back of its air-foil shape. The differential propels the boat forward. In the process, the boat heels away from, or “off,” the wind source, not into it.) But these are minor points.

The bigger point is Dunn-Rankin left his better judgment on the dock when he decided to tell his former employees and former advertisers how much fun he’s having, and suggest that all their problems would be solved if they’d only take a little sail, just like he does.

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 29, 2008 at 11:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Plagiarism Operates at Fawcett Hospital

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There’s a new way to treat heartburn in our little town. Local physician Alvaro Bada says this about it: This procedure can significantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

Strangely enough, Dr. William E. Kelly Jr. at Henrico (Virginia) Doctors’ Hospital, describes the same procedure this way: EsophyX can signficantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

And amazingly, Dr. Paul Cirangle of San Francisco explains the procedure like this: EsophyX can signficantly improve quality of life for our patients. Many reflux patients are unable to drink carbonated beverages, caffeine or eat rich foods or fruit without triggering reflux.

Back in our town, Bada’s partner, Domingo Galliano, adds to the discussion: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients’ dependence on medications with 80 percent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

But Kelley in Virginia “said” it first, back on June 23: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients’ dependence on meedications with 80 perc ent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

Even the San Francisco doctor said it more than a month before the local guys got around to saying it: Recent studies of EsophyX have shown that the procedure can reduce patients’ dependence on meedications with 80 perc ent of patients remaining symptom free after two years and experiencing a dramatic improvement in their quality of life. We are very excited to be able to offer our patiewnts the same incredible benefits with minimal risk.

There’s quite a bit more, but you get the picture.

So, what’s so bad about this obvious marketeering? Michelle Ritter, the local writer, put her name on the story and failed to use quotes or attributions; doing so tells Charlotte Sun newspaper readers she wrote it. That’s clearly a lie for which there is a specific name: plagiarism. But the plagiarist doesn’t sully only her own reputation; she draws others into the journalistic muck.


Ritter puts prefabricated quotes into the mouths of the local doctors, as if they had really said those things.

And Feeling Fit editor Jennifer Wadsworth publishes the fake as a news feature, probably unaware that Ritter is now a three-time winner in the 2008 plagiarism scorecard.

All in all, about a full third of the wordage Ritter claims as her own has a common source with the public relations writers for hospitals in Virginia and California. Old Word Wolf suspects a manufacturer’s brochure or news release. At least the California and Virginia practitioners distributed generic notices, possessing an ethical compass that steered them away from claiming the words and work of others as their personal productions.

In other medical news, the Lake Placid Journal’s edition of Feeling Fit wants readers to recognize the herb known as St. John’s Wort. Here is the identification.

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 28, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Write to Fit

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In the old days, stories too long for the space allotted were cut from the bottom , giving rise to the tradition that reporters organize information in what came to be known as the inverted pyramid. Give the important stuff first (the 5-W lede), with details to follow. Today’s headline on the Dear Abby column is an perfect example. The word “etiquette” is too long for the space. Cut off the end, all those repetitive “t’s,” and voila! a fit!

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 24, 2008 at 10:00 am

Five Ways to Spot Fake News

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Congratulations to Sun Newspaper’s business editor, Terry O’Connor. Relatively new to the staff, he makes a front-page splash this morning with a publicity agent’s dream. He interviews a local construction company president, the president’s son, and a county parks director in order to describe – in glowing terms – the firm that built Sun Coast Media Group’s own addition to its telephone-company building in Murdock.

Unfortunately, it’s all fake news. As the reader swims through a sea of up-beat, uncritical praise for this sterling firm, she senses the editorial lard – a story greased with quotes that broadly support the paper publisher’s own policy of reporting whenever possible that the economic water glass is half full. It’s fake news, from start to finish. So, how does a critical reader spot fake news?

The first step is to look for the news nugget. If readers can’t find genuine news, usually near the top of the story, then all the words that follow may well be ersatz news. In this case, the not-news is presented as the grizzled construction mogul advising President-elect Barack Obama to “take care of our veterans [ ... give] them an affordable house.”

It’s patriotism. It’s history. It’s good intentions. It’s a WWII vet’s recasting of the past as a viable future. But news? No – maybe a sympathetic set-up for the soft feature that’s about to swallow the news hole – but definitely not news. (If it were a real news story, O’Connor might somewhere have compared the number of returning WWII vets — 16 million — with 2.3 million troops since the 1991 Gulf war, and he might have pointed to the fallacy of wishful thinking as economic stimulus.) A real news hook might be that the county last week awarded its 25th contract to the company, or that the firm has merged or acquired or changed in some way. None of this is in evidence.

The second step is to look for hard facts, data, and numbers. Not too far down, O’Connor reports the company president says his firm’s gross revenues declined from about $20 million two years ago to about $10 million this year. Gross revenues are a suitably vague measure of a privately held business. What the company’s profits actually are relative to gross sales is “company business [that] stays in the company,” as the patriarch puts it. O’Connor fails to note if this construction firm is the only one in town (which his feature makes it sounds like), or if similar firms are experiencing similar 50-percent declines. It’s one thing to put a rosy glow on the recession with profits generated by a $10 million base. It’s quite another thing to survive with two trucks and a Rolodex. The reporter fails to compare this firm’s situation with any of the two or three major developers who have gone bankrupt or pulled out of major local projects. His hed says the contractor is “built to handle adversity,” but nothing in the story supports this claim — except that it thrives on government contracts: See Step Five, below.

The third step is to look for a cross section of what folks say about the “news.” The writer rounded up a county parks director (to give high praise for the nice construction company), a banker who needed a new building (to give high praise for the nice construction company) and the company president’s son (to give high praise for the nice construction company his dad owns and which has written him a paycheck since he was 10 years old).

The fourth step is to beware of “chamber of commerce” press release statements woven into the text. O’Connor manages to get the man who built his own boss’s new building to say “Charlotte County is one of the finest places in Florida situated between two huge growing metro areas.” It probably didn’t take too much prompting to get him to add, “Now more than ever, it’s a very affordable community. It’s beautiful and you’re not in the rat race.”

The fifth step is to look for the reporter’s dig. This one didn’t dig; he surfed. He used the construction firm’s Web site and copied its list of projects. Some are generous and big-hearted sounding: “support areas for Charlotte County Homeless Coalition,” and a safe house expansion for the homeless. What the reporter fails to report is the millions made seem to stem mostly from local-government funded construction. Tax revenue funds this firm’s profits – and the head of that firm is urging the next president of the United States to build bridges and homes for returning vets.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with government construction. OWW is a big liberal when it comes to homeless shelters, county parks, city marinas, and air-conditioned “justice centers.” She just wishes the reporter had made it clear this featured contractor’s revenue stream flows directly from taxpayer.

There’s no evidence of digging when a reporter fails to report on lawsuits, liens, layoffs, settlements, or even one less-than-perfectly satisfied client. There’s no evidence of digging when the reporter fails to investigate exactly what it was that happened in Mississippi to make the contractor decide he was “spread too thin.” There’s no evidence of digging when readers are given no hint of interests overlapping, country and yacht clubs in common, or mutual business interests between publisher and the featured gentleman of the day.

So what happened here? A promising new reporter, fast promoted to business editor, gets roped into his publisher’s dilemma. As a result, readers are asking if the cash-strapped, lay-off prone newspaper has had to exchange a little free, uncritical publicity — and a reporter’s soul — for a contractor’s debt.

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 22, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Fake News

Find 10 Things Wrong …

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It was a game page in Highlights for Children: Find 10 Things Wrong With This Picture. Maybe that’s what those fun-loving Charlotte Sun editors have in mind. Here’s three to get you started on today’s paper:

Front page: The headline writer tells readers “Community leaders see local economic recovery peaking through the clouds.”

Front page: A reprint from Fort Myers News-Press (implying that two copy desks read it? ) reports a stolen elf from a holiday lawn display. The mock drama of the mini-featurette is lost the moment the writer reports the scene was “grizzly.” That’s supposed to be grisly.

At the national roundup page: An event in Dale City, Prince William County (Virginia), is placed under a Washington, D.C., header. Even a sleepy copy editor should instantly recognize that D.C. doesn’t have counties.

The rest of the 10 Things Wrong are scattered throughout the paper in all the usual spots: cutlines, overlines, the home-grown editorial, and in-house ads. Happy hunting!

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 21, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Desperately Seeking Cute Trumps Accuracy

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Since the headline doesn’t refer to anyone in the story — no one expresses desperation in this light rewrite of a prepared city council agenda — and since the headline doesn’t fulfill the requirements of a grammatical English sentence, and since it misprepresents the story, readers can consider themselves officially irrelevant. It’s the copy desk’s need to be cute that counts. It’s the desk’s need to show she/he has seen a 23-year-old grade B movie that matters. That’s just plain desperate.

Written by Mrs. Tarnowski

December 16, 2008 at 8:45 am

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