Wednesday, October 24, 2007

If you read the Picayune online, you probably don't know about the copydesk's latest blunder. Yesterday an A1 headline said, "Downpours outpace new pumps' capacity." Not quite.

Today, there was a front page correction. The new pumps, installed by the Corps of Engineers, are only used in a tropical storm. The old, repaired pumps, which are operated by local governments, were the ones that were overcome by rain.

When was the last time you saw a page 1 correction? Of course, no only won't you see the correction online, but you'll still read the erroneous headline.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Your Right Hand Thief takes the Gambit to task for twice endorsing a politician and now begging for us to boot him out of office:

The Gambit Weekly endorsed Derrick Shepherd twice. In 2003 they endorsed him "wholeheartedly", and then later in 2005 they endorsed him with the laughable hope that he would "bridge divisions" in the legislature. The Times Picayune also endorsed Derrick Shepherd in the summer of 2005.

These publications helped the political ascendancy of Derrick Shepherd with their endorsements, and now, once State Senator Shepherd is entrenched, these ultra-informed publications suddenly tell us that Derrick Shepherd's district "desperately needs a new senator. The incumbent is among the least effective-- and least trusted-- members of the Legislature" (quote from this week's Gambit).

Thanks a fudging lot, Intrepid Fourth Estate!!

Like in so many other areas, the Gambit would have more credibility if it could just admit its mistakes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A couple of links. Ashley Morris would like to remind the TP that Cowen, as in Tulane president Scott Cowen, is spelled with an "e" and not an "a." Over at Library Chronicles, there is more discussion of Reckdahl's article (and thank you LC for the link).

Monday, October 8, 2007

The property assessment saga continues, and the TP weighs in with an update that's the work of not one, but two reporters.

"Appeals pay off for many in N.O.," says the headline. Ok, many got a lower assessment. Let's move into to the story.

"The endless hours that thousands of New Orleanians spent standing in line in early August..." (uh, if the hours were endless, then aren't they still there?) "...paid off for at least some of the disgruntled owners." Guess the headline was wrong. We talking about at least some, not many. It looks like the overall property base is now $2.684 billion instead of the $2.602 billion that it was before the initial appeals. Finally, real numbers.

"Some of the reduction resulted from assessors correcting mistakes, or adding homestead exemptions or 'age freezes' for property owners who forgot to file them." Ok, some. But what percentage is some? It's less than many, I'm guessing.

"In other cases, owners apparently persuaded assessors that their property simply was not worth as much as the assessors first decided." Ok, how many cases? Two? Two thousand?

Despite the slightly lower tax base (a roughly 3% decrease in property values after initial appeals, if my numbers are right), we're assured that millage rate will still decrease significantly. How much will taxes decrease?

"Such a decrease would greatly soften the blow of higher assessments for most residents." Most, huh? "Many would actually see a reduction in their tax liability, although many who have received upward reassessments greater than 41 percent would still have to pay more." Many would see a reduction, you say? Is that more or less than the many who will have to pay more?

And while we're asking questions, who provided all this reliable data? We're 7 paragraphs into the story and not a single source has been named.

In general, too many reporters are sloppy about numbers. Sometimes, it doesn't matter that much. This story, though, is all about numbers. If you don't have even vague numbers, then you don't have much information. From my perspective, you either wait until you know more, report only what you know in detail now or admit explicitly in the story that at this point your numbers are vague.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

On Wednesday, Katy Reckdahl filed an article in the TP about police breaking up a second-line parade and the arrest of two musicians:

The confrontation spurred cries in the neighborhood about the over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by police, who had often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies. Still others say the incident is a sign of a greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Treme by the very history they seem to threaten.

She quotes one long term resident by name and several unnamed residents as sources that newcomers dropped a dime on the parade:

But Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood's historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood's architecture.

Any evidence in the story that newcomers are to blame? Nope. Any attempt to even define who these newcomers are? Nope. Any research that the demographics have changed in the Treme? Not in this article.

The next day, Reckdahl filed this article, which ran on the front page, about the good character of the two musicians arrested and their plans to plead innocent:

In many ways, the Police Department could not have nabbed two musicians more reflective of the neighborhood. Part of a large extended musical family, the brothers were raised in Treme by their mother Vana Acker. And the men are determined to give today's children a Treme-style cultural education. "If you're around music, like we were in the 6th Ward, you're going to be a musician," Andrews said.

So, one more day of reporting and not a single shred of evidence that this is actually a conflict between newcomers and the old residents. But Reckdahl takes one more crack at the story in the next day's metro section. The musicians plead innocent and neighborhood leaders again denounce the newcomers:

Speaker after speaker also described the turnover in population they've seen, as outsiders have bought an increasing number of houses in old Treme, where renters and homeowners often lived side by side for generations.

Neighbors believe that some of the newcomers triggered Monday's police response with 911 calls. Police said they were required to respond to the complaint and considered the celebration to be a parade that requires a city permit.

Again, after three days of covering this story, we have nothing but unsubstantiated hearsay and no attempt to verify this facts.

John McIntryre, a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, recently listed the red flags that make copy editors take a closer look at a story:

Exaggeration. Any claim that something is the first, the only, the largest of its kind is automatically flagged for inspection. Superlatives are not to be trusted.

Anonymous sources. Readers wonder about stories with anonymous sources, and with good reason. By definition, an anonymous source has something to hide. It may be a good reason — and at The Sun, there are two legitimate reasons: apprehension of physical harm if the source is identified and apprehension of significant economic harm. Reporters are not supposed to grant anonymity casually, just to spare someone embarrassment.

Unsupported statements. Single-source stories make editors sit bolt upright. Anything that comes only from a single source — a person, a document — without support, without independent confirmation of its factual accuracy, can’t be trusted. Has The Sun been burned by stories with single-source information in the past? Oh yes.

Quality of the support. Who or what actually backs up the source? Is the person a figure of credibility? Does the person verifying the source have an interest in the statement? Have reliable reference works been cited? Better not mention Wikipedia.

Copy editors as well as reporters live by the motto of the Chicago’s City News Bureau: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.

In the Reckdahl articles we have anonymous sources, unsupported statements and questionable quality of support (a random resident isn't exactly an authority). Did the copy editors raise concerns? Reckdahl might be right that "newcomers" are to blame, but her articles doesn't try to answer that question.