Wake Up the Copy Editors

The New York Times may be going a little too far in trying to make its Tuesday “Science Times” section accessible to the mythical average Joe-and-Jane.  I’m sure many of my (perhaps mythical) readers know the section I’m talking about: It’s the one with all the health care and technology/engineering articles with some occasional science thrown into the mix.

The beginning of two articles in today’s “Science Times” both take a chatty, “here’s what the in crowd thinks” approach to introducing the subject, a writing style that really belongs in gossip, society and fashion magazines.  Neither article offers up any study or expert to support the assertions made at the beginning of the article, but rather presents them as self-evident, at least to those of us who are “in the know.”  Both articles go on to present theories of experts that contradict or stand in contrast to the ideas presented as known gospel in the first paragraph(s).

The first article concerns recent theories on the “evolutionary” advantage of sleep.  Before we go any further, I must state that I am a firm believer in the theory of evolution and the fact that humans and all living things descended through time and mass extinctions from single cell creatures.   I just don’t like to see pop-Darwinism thrown around to make silly conjunctures about the complex behavior of humans.

 “If there is a society of expert sleepers out there, a cult of smug snoozers satisfied that they’re getting just the right number of restful hours a night, it must be a secretive one. Most people seem insecure about their sleep and willing to say so: they would like to get a little more; maybe they wish they could get by on less; they wonder if it’s deep enough.”

This next story, from the same issue, also is about the evolutionary origins of an aspect of human behavior, in this case, the serial monogamy that many people in western societies practice.  The assumption that “we” (or at least “our crowd”) believe the ridiculous sexist nonsense proffered in the first two paragraphs is its own kind of reinforcing ideological subtext, and an offensive one to my way of thinking.  And note again the lack of any expert or study to support the “theories,” or even support the assertion that most people believe these theories.

“In the United States and much of the Western world, when a couple divorces, the average income of the woman and her dependent children often plunges by 20 percent or more, while that of her now unfettered ex, who had been the family’s primary breadwinner but who rarely ends up paying in child support what he had contributed to the household till, climbs accordingly. The born-again bachelor is therefore perfectly positioned to attract a new, younger wife and begin building another family.

“Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building. By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to “maximize his reproductive fitness,” to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible. It is the preferred male strategy, especially for powerful men, right? Sequentially or synchronously, he-men consort polygynously.”

While we’re on the subject of leads, I’ve seen another sign that cutbacks in newsrooms are leading to a lowering of editorial standards.  Here are the first two paragraphs in today’s Associated Press story on the Yankees-Orioles baseball game last night:

“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.

“Pettitte (12-6) was poised to finish the seventh without allowing a baserunner, but former Oriole Jerry Hairston Jr. let a two-out grounder by Adam Jones slip through his legs for an error. Hairston was playing in place of Alex Rodriguez, who was given the night off.”

Now here’s the entire story about the game that ran in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and many other newspapers, which have taken up the practice of using the first sentence of the A.P. article as the compete story in a round-up section of baseball games:

“Andy Pettitte retired his first 20 batters before a lamentable seventh-inning sequence spoiled both his perfect game and no-hit bid, and the New York Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-1 Monday night.”

Someone at the Post-Gazette really should have taken the time to revise “before lamentable seventh-inning sequence” (not such a great phrase to begin with, but acceptable when followed by a sentence of explanation) into something like “before an error and a hit…”


Wall to Wall Sound

Last Sunday afternoon under a perfectly mild late summer Atlanta sun, I saw the Atlanta Braves play the Florida Marlins in a tight back-and-forth ball game topped by a late inning rally by the home team. 

Yes, I saw the game, but what I heard was an aural bastinado of song snippets and sound effects, and what I viewed behind the field was a constant whirr of color dedicated to selling products and services.

Once I noticed in the third inning that virtually all air space was cluttered with blaring sound, I began to count the seconds between each public address system eruption: only once did more than 10 seconds go by before the completion of one sound and the beginning of the next, many serving as the aural accompaniment to the Jumbotron activity above center field. 

These sounds included:

  • Snippets of recorded songs to announce home team players
  • Snippets of songs played by the organist to announce road team players, often puns, such as “The Weight” for a Marlin named Ross Gload (take a Gload off Fanny…).
  • The Braves’ famous Tomahawk chant and hack
  • Snippets of other songs redolent of American-Indian culture, such as “Apache”
  • Snippets of still other songs, all tending to middle-of-the-road pop, e.g., country pop and pop grunge
  • Three or four different clap chants
  • The “Charge!” bugle call
  • Other sound effects, e.g., someone slipping on a banana peel or a growl of anger
  • Two trivia contests with fans, both with a corporate sponsor
  • Two other fan drawings, with corporate sponsors
  • Music to camera scans of fans in the park
  • The “stuffed animal” race that most ballparks seem to have now
  • The same vote on which of three songs to play that most ballparks have, except that in Turner Field, they don’t wait a half inning to play the winning tune, but do it right away.

None of this sound and sound-with-pictures ever lasted more than two minutes and about half of it was less than 10 seconds.  It was as if the Braves’ management decided that the game was not enough and that most people have the attention span of a three-year-old. 

And of course, virtually all of the sound that was more than a grunt or a few bars of a pop song was sponsored by a corporation, including some of the biggest names in the business world.

By the playing of “God Bless America,” I was numb from the shock wave of commoditized sound emanating constantly from the speakers.  But many people seemed to like it, dancing in place to the music, clapping when the announcer exhorted them to clap, cheering when told to cheer, doing the tomahawk chant and hack. 

Just as many movies have become little more than video games (“The Taking of Pelham 123” or “300,” for example), so have sporting events become little more than VH1 documentaries or “Pop-up video” TV shows, spectacles of short but garish entertainments strung together and hung on the background narrative that is the topic of the documentary or the game.

They’re Still Doing It!

They’re still doing it!  Corporations are still saying no comment, or worse yet, not being available for comment.  I just did a Google news search for both “no comment” and “not available for comment” and found pages of recent examples of both. 

  • No-commenters included the TNA Wrestling Association, the German Economic Ministry, New York Police Union, New York Racing Authority and Hicks Sports Group, among many others.
  • Those unavailable for comment included Whirlpool, a Michigan school district, several Indian ministries, the South Korean government and the head of the Minneapolis Labor Federation, among many others

Those people should just stop not talking.  Not talking to the news media today is a bad business move.  Whenever a reporter calls an organization, that organization has a golden opportunity to enhance its reputation and say something it wants to say to people to whom it wants to say it.

And when the news is bad, the news media are giving the organization the means to defend itself or give its point of view.  The news media are likely going to report the bad news no matter what.  In most cases it will be in the organization’s best interest to tell its side of the story.

Even if you can’t give a comment because the subject is confidential or related to a lawsuit, you can at least tell why you can’t comment.  When you say “no comment,” the organization comes off as secretive.  But when you say why you can’t comment, you evoke empathy, because most people intuitively understand that sometimes constraints exist.  They just want to know what the constraints are.

Sometimes the news media will call with what they think is bad news, but which really isn’t.  By responding with accurate information, the organization can persuade the reporter not to cover a story or to see that it’s really a positive development.

Often when the news media call, the news is good, or neutral — a reporter may need an expert to comment on a news event, for example.  If it’s good news, the organization can enhance its reputation, using the story as a platform to present the good news and to make some basic messages about its mission and objectives.  And there is no organization that will not benefit from one of its staff being proclaimed an expert by the news media.

In short, there is never a reason not to respond to the news media when they call, as long as the organization treads carefully.  It is all too easy to turn a golden opportunity for positive media coverage into a disaster.

Organizational Uncommon Sense

Two recent news stories in Pennsylvania demonstrate how very difficult it is for an organization to impose its version of reality on the public and the news media if it runs against the common sense reality of the situation. 

As reported in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mylan Inc., a generic drug maker, and its chief executive officer, Robert Coury, have said repeatedly that a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) investigation into manufacturing procedures has been completed, even as the FDA has repeatedly said that the investigation is not over yet.  (I should disclose that Jampole Communications worked on a project for Mr. Coury more than 10 years ago when he was a financial planner.) The investigation follows a July 26 Post-Gazette report that Mylan employees had overridden automated quality control mechanisms and falsified reports.

Based on my experience helping companies communicate about investigations by the FDA, OSHA, EPA, state consumer bureaus and other government agencies in a large number of states, I believe that I can construct a scenario in which Coury and Mylan may have inadvertently come to believe that the investigation was over.  For example, perhaps an on-site inspector made some comments to company officials or maybe they saw a preliminary report or recommendation. 

But once the FDA said the first time that the investigation was not over (see July 28 story in the Post-Gazette), Mylan should have backtracked, and said that Coury misspoke or that had meant that the FDA had completed the inspection part of the process.  By digging in its corporate heels, Mylan has lost a great deal of credibility with anyone who has read or heard the continuing news stories on this issue.  And Mylan has kept the story in the media: The coverage of most inspection and inspection violations typically make one or at the most two 24-hour news cycles. By repeatedly contradicting the FDA, Mylan has kept what is basically a bad news story for the company in the news.

The other recent Pennsylvania example of an organization trying but failing to run against the grain of common sense is a bit subtler.  In a news release on July 17, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (PID) said it was launching an investigation of the state Blues.  As many people know, there is less competition for health care insurance in Pennsylvania than virtually anywhere else in the U.S.  The investigation is part of PID’s recent efforts to bring more competition to health care insurance in the state.

Only the commission didn’t call it an “investigation,” but used the term “examination.”  In fact it repeated “examination” twelve times!  It’s as if the commission was going out of its way to say it was not conducting an investigation, which always has negative connotations.  The problem is that to most people, the use of examination in this context is just a squeamish way of saying “investigation.”  And that’s how the major media saw it as well.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune Review all called it an investigation.

Anytime an organization goes against the common sense definition of a word, it risks losing credibility or losing control of the information it gives the public.  For the PID, the way around this challenge would have been to define your terms right up front, for example, “examination is a standard insurance term that describes…..” If the PID had explicitly told us why they were calling it an examination instead of an investigation in the second paragraph of the news release, then all stories would have called it an examination, many also including the definition.