Friday, March 5, 2010

Counting heads

This is a year for midterm elections, some primaries having already been conducted, so you can be confident of being battered with polling results from now till November. Like Satchel the dog playing “food, not food” in Get Fuzzy, you’ll want to be careful about what you taste.

Advice for reporters:

That 140-character tweet isn’t going to allow for much nuance, so plan on being more thorough in the full story. Keep in mind that your readers do not have the time, and often not the expertise, to evaluate opinion polls, so you are responsible for reporting them accurately. Ask the necessary questions.

1. Who sponsored the poll? If it is a genuinely nonpartisan organization, fine. But if it is a business or labor union or party/advocacy organization, you need to be cautious about the results, and so does the reader. Unless a turncoat slips you a copy, no campaign organization is going to reveal that its candidate is less popular than registered sex offenders.

2. Who conducted the poll? Was it an organization known to be reputable, with a history of reliable results? Or not?

3. How big was the sample, and who was in it? Too small a sample, or too narrow a choice of groups within the population, and the results will be highly questionable. Make sure that the respondents were randomly selected rather than a self-selected population like the people who participate in those worthless online or call-in surveys. 

4. How were the questions worded? Changes in the wording of questions can produce opposite responses from the same people. Loaded language will skew results. 

5. What’s the margin of error? The confidence level? Responsible polls report both these elements. If Candidate A has 42 percent and Candidate B has 40 percent and the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent, Candidate A might in fact be leading, but you can’t say that for sure. Confidence level for results in the overall sample will almost certainly be very different from the confidence level for subgroups.

6. When was it taken? Attitudes can fluctuate widely during a campaign. A poll more than a few days old may represent views that have since shifted. And, generally, the more distant from Election Day, the less reliable the data will be in predicting the outcome.

7. Why aren’t you asking these questions?  There is nothing novel about these questions about opinion polls. Multiple sources tell you how to deal with polls ¾ much of the information in this post, for example, can also be found in the Associated Press Stylebook. So why are Associated Press articles and journalism in general so careless about repeating just about anything any pollster says?

Advice for readers:

You may not have the background to evaluate polling data, but you know enough to evaluate the articles about the polls. Be skeptical. If the article describing poll results doesn’t give you indications that the writer has done the homework described above, then you have no reason to trust the claims being made. And if the article makes exaggerated claims for the significance of the poll, you’d be well advised to be even more suspicious.

Written sources — newspapers, magazines, online publications — obviously have more scope to do the necessary level of reporting than broadcast television, though cable news operations will often describe polling data in some detail.

In the 2008 election season you could find people publishing averages of polls ¾ different surveys conducted by different organizations at different times for different populations with different questions, under the highly questionable assumption that mashing inconsistent data into a single lump provides a nugget of reliable information.

The word poll, originally meaning head, is very old; the OED records a citation from the late thirteenth century. So an opinion poll is a counting of heads. Just make sure that you don’t allow your noggin to be stuffed with dubious information. 

Pulp Diction: The complete serial

1. 15 items or trouble

You get ’em in the checkout at Safeway — harried mothers with kids clamoring for candy, bleary-eyed old guys pushing a cartload into the fifteen-items line, kids with green hair buying exotic produce. Some chat with the cashier, but nobody talks to the bag boy. Fine with me. I liked anonymity when I was a copy editor. I like it better now.

I was pushing a train of carts back toward the store when she grabbed my arm. I turned. “You,” I said. It wasn’t friendly.

“Mr. McIntyre, I really need to talk with you,” she said. Mostly, she was a pert little thing, but this time her voice trembled.

“I don’t have anything to say to you, Fogarty.” That’s Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Dame, Grammar Girl, something like that. Big-time blogger, raking in big bucks from rubes who couldn’t tell the present from the preterite if it jabbed them in the keister.

“Please, it’s urgent. I’ve heard from Martha Brockenbrough.”

More female trouble. The last time I saw the Brockenbrough skirt, I was in the witness stand, and she was at the defense table, trying — not convincingly — to look innocent. I’d turned her in for a homicide. I didn’t stay for the rest of the trial, but I’d heard she copped a plea to manslaughter while the jury was still out. Now she’s in the Big House for a good long while. You know the story.

“Sister, I’ve still got nothing to say to you. How the hell did you know to look for me here, anyhow?”

“I asked about you at the Intelligencer-Argus, and they said you’d been let go. Somebody said you might be here.”

“Let go? Let go? Toots, I was unceremoniously dumped, made redundant, sacked, eighty-sixed, kicked to the curb, reduced in force, right-sized. A year ago I was a minor-league copy desk tsar, and today I’m wearing a cardboard belt. The big boys got this idea that editors were interposing too many touches between the writer and the reader, and they sacked the lot of us. Just as well. They were talking about touching more than the staff at a day care center that’s hired a pedophile. I’m well rid of ’em.”

“I’m really sorry about that. I know you were well thought of. But I’m in trouble, and I really need your help.”

“Why? Caught with counterfeit gerunds again?”

“It’s not like that. Ever since I heard from Martha, I’ve been followed. I think my phone is tapped. My mail is being tampered with. My car is making a funny noise. I think it needs an oil change.”

She was getting rattled. Nothing new there. “So who cares about you?” I asked. “You’re just some two-bit grammar fancier who made it big on the Internet. There’re dozens like you — scores.”

“It’s not over,” she said, her voice breaking. “That plot you stopped last time, the one to sabotage National Grammar Day, that’s not over. They just got some of the little fish.”

“And now that you’ve been seen talking to me, they’ll come after me. Thanks a heap, lady.”

“I know where to go to find out more, but I can’t go myself. I thought you might.”

“Where is it that you can’t go that you want me to?”

She looked at me. Something cold enveloped my whole body.

“Calvert Street.”

NEXT: The last copy editor

2. The last copy editor

At the old Sun building on Calvert Street the front door yielded with a rusty creak. Dust lay thick on the guard’s desk, and small birds flew through broken windows. Bundled stacks of the last print edition displayed the headline: SEE US ON THE WEB.

Windows were out on the second floor, too, and scurrying and skittering sounds preceded me as I rounded the corner into the main room. Row on row of cubicles stretched out, each with a computer terminal like a headstone, each with a sad little collection of photos, figurines, long-dead plants. It was like walking the deck of the Mary Celeste.

On a bulletin board near the old copy desk, dangling from a single push pin, a yellowed memo listed a set of banned holiday cliches. The office next to the bulletin board was empty except for a Webster’s New World College Dictionary missing its cover.

A quavering voice asked, “Who’s there?”

A stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler, rose from one of the copy desk work stations where he had been dozing on an improvised pallet of final-edition bundles. His hair was white, his beard untrimmed, his gaze wary. He wore a green eyeshade, and I recognized my quarry: the last copy editor. 

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I used to be a copy editor myself. Tell me how it all ended,” I said, with a sweeping gesture.

“Son, I started here when it was the A.S. Abell Company. Then Times Mirror. Then Tribune. When Tribune went belly-up and the Scavenger Group acquired the place, it was a new editor every six months. Each one came in, did a redesign, announced a new strategy to attract readers, and got bounced before his chair got warm.

“Last one was a fellow named White. Three-barreled name. Allen William White. Lasted a month and a half. They fired him for spending too much on farewell cakes for people leaving the staff.”

“And then?”

“Then they sent in this manager — name of Volponi — who walked into the newsroom, announced that the paper didn’t really need an editor, that editors were just vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial model, and fired just about everybody.”

“So why are you still here?”

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

“So what?”

“See here?” He pointed to a table with a roll of leftover newsprint stretched across the surface. It was covered with writing in a small, crabbed hand. “Now that I’ve got it, I’m revising it, making it right. I’m fixing all the stuff those arrogant fools got wrong for years.”

He was a loony, but I had to humor him. “May I see the book?”

”You have to give it back.” But he handed it over, reluctantly.

It fell open to the VERBS entry. Someone had put a dot under certain letters with a red grease pencil:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 


Next: The wider web

3. The wider web

“What happened to this place?”

I whirled around. “Fogarty! I told you to stay out.”

The Old Copy Editor said, “Fogarty? Mignon Fogarty? Great Fowler’s Ghost, is this Grammar Girl herself?”

“Yeah,” I said, “minus the cape and the winged boots.”

“Could I have your autograph, Ms. Fogarty? On my copy of The Grammar Devotional?”

“We’ve got more important things to do,” I said. She didn’t listen. She never listens.

“Why, certainly,” she said, whipping out a pen faster than the Earp boys slapped leather at the O.K. Corral. “But tell me, what happened to this place?”

“Well,” the Old Copy Editor said, “with nobody going into print journalism anymore, they ran out of unpaid interns, and then they couldn’t generate enough copy to fill as much as six pages. They tried to sell the building, but even the state penitentiary system turned them down. Plan to turn the printing plant into luxury waterfront condos went bust, too. They offered up the computer equipment, but it was so old and broken down from lack of maintenance that even the Third World wouldn’t touch it.

“But the worst was, they lost the Web. They cheesed off the funeral directors — tried  to jack up the prices for the death notices on the Web, and the funeral directors set up their own obituary Web site. Turns out the obits were the only things of ours anyone still read. Web traffic dropped to a couple of dozen hits a day, and the Scavenger Group abandoned the whole shebang. One day, everybody just left.”

“Fogarty!” I yelled. “Enough! You have to look at this.” I shoved the VERBS entry at her, and her big brown eyes widened.

“This is big,” she said, “bigger than just the Peevers.”

“Damn straight,” I said.

“Look,” she said, her broad brow furrowing. “Did you see? There are pinpricks under other letters.”

“What? Let me look.”

She was right:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 


“You know what this means?” she asked.

“It means the conspiracy is broader than anyone could have imagined. It’s big, all right. The AP itself. The Peevers. The self-appointed language authorities. The Illuminati. And now the aristocrats of the multiple-choice test. They’re all in on it. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve recruited the Myers-Briggsians, too — they’ll fall for anything. And it’s all coded in the AP Stylebook. You see what we have to do now?”

“You mean ...”

“Yes, sister. We’ve got to break into AP Stylebook Headquarters. Fast.”

Next: The dark tower

4. The dark tower

The Amtrak from Baltimore to New York was only ninety minutes late to Penn Station, and the sun was setting as Fogarty and I crept up on AP Stylebook Headquarters.

“We’re in luck,” I whispered. “They haven’t lowered the portcullis yet.”

“But there’s a guard,” she said.

“Maybe you could distract that slab of brawn while I slip past.”

“Leave it to me.” She loosened two buttons on her blouse and walked up to the muscle. His head turned; I slipped past. A minute later, after a dull thud and a splash, Fogarty was beside me.

“This place is a damn labyrinth,” I swore. Corridors, dimly lit by flaring torches, stretched in all directions, and there was no sound but the dripping of water on the stone floors.

A rumbling came behind us. “Quick, in here,” I hissed, and we ducked through a doorway.

A cart rolled by, just an intern delivering a hamper of inconsistencies to the Numbers department.

“Safe,” I breathed, and then noticed that we were in a stairway leading upward. “Come this way.”

A door at the top opened into a turret room. As we stepped inside, the door slammed behind us, and a dry, thin voice said, “I’ve been expecting you, McIntyre, but I didn’t realize that the Grammar Magnate would be with you.”

“Wane Waly,” I said. He stood behind a desk, a wizened figure radiating malice like a corporate vice president purging people who actually work.

“Who?” Fogarty whispered.

“A failed copy editor who turned against the craft. I should have guessed he would be the cat’s paw for this conspiracy.”

“And you, McIntyre,” he said, “you were never more than a caricature, a fossil who needed to be swept out of the newsroom. Whereas I am one with the future.”

“What future are you talking about?” Fogarty asked.

“Anyone who reads Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue can see how effectively language can be an instrument of social control. But the lexicographers and linguists went descriptive and democratic and frittered away their opportunity. Now, with the Peevers and the Mensans puffed up in their imagined superior intellects and on our side, and the AP Stylebook binding and distracting editors with trivia and idiotic restrictions, we can strike.”

“You’re mad,” Fogarty said.

“Cliche,” I murmured. 

“By sunset today, National Grammar Day,” he snickered, “all those smutty lexicographers — that McKean wretch with her crossword dress, and that radio blowhard Grant Barrett, and that upstart Ben Zimmer — they’ll all be clapped in irons. Along with that popinjay Sheidlower. Then,” his voice rising to a shriek, “the Illuminati will decree what people speak and write and thus how they think —”

With the thunder of many boots, a battering ram burst open the door. In strode Mark Liberman of Penn at the head of Language Log’s Modal Auxiliary Corps. Quickly seized and bound, Waly was borne away screaming, spittle flying from his contorted lips.

The room fell silent.

“How did you know we were here?” I asked Liberman.

“You’re not hard to tail,” he said.

“Is it all over?” Fogarty asked.

“The language is secure again, ma’am,” Liberman said in the clipped tones of command.

“Good for you,” I said. “I’ve got to get back to Baltimore. Safeway has a big coupon sale starting tomorrow, and all the bag boys have been called in.”

The End