Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Headline howlers and other bloopers

UPDATE (October 15, 2013): Friend and former colleague David D'Souza has helpfully posted a link on Facebook to a website that has unearthed more publishing howlers. Check it out here: "Unfortunate publishing layouts of our time".

UPDATE (June 18, 2014): Commitscion Ashwin Shanker (Class of 2015) posted this link on my Facebook timeline today: “Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police,” and Other Horrible Headlines. Thanks, Ashwin! 

UPDATE (July 2, 2014): Sai Sir has just e-mailed this list to me with the subject line, "Have fun in class!"

58 Headlines They Didn't Mean!

Headlines are important. They advertise and market the information that follows. Sometimes, it goes horribly wrong...

1. Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
2. Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
3. Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
4. Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
5. Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
6. Farmer Bill Dies in House
7. Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
8. Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
9. Stud Tires Out
10. Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
11. Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
12. Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again
13. British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
14. Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
15. Eye Drops off Shelf
16. Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
17. Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
18. Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
19. Shot Off Woman's Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66
20. Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax
21. Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told
22. Miners Refuse to Work after Death
23. Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
24. Stolen Painting Found by Tree
25. Two Soviet Ships Collide, One Dies
26. Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter
27. Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
28. Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One
29. Drunken Drivers Paid $1000 in `84
30. War Dims Hope for Peace
31. If Strike isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last a While
32. Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
33. Enfields Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
34. Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
35. Deer Kill 17,000
36. Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
37. Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
38. New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
39. Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
40. Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
41. Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
42. Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
43. British Union Finds Dwarfs in Short Supply
44. Ban On Soliciting Dead in Trotwood
45. Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees
46. Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
47. New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
48. Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing
49. Deaf College Opens Doors to Hearing
50. Air Head Fired
51. Steals Clock, Faces Time
52. Prosecutor Releases Probe into Undersheriff
53. Old School Pillars are Replaced by Alumni
54. Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board
55. Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
56. Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction
57. Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training
58. Include your Children When Baking Cookies

Speaking with authority

Mint has this great series called Spot Light for advertising and marketing professionals. An expert is asked to comment on an ad campaign, the new Adidas TVC, for example, and his or her views convey a great deal to us about why something works (or doesn't).

Here's Prakash Varma (the Hutch pug, the Vodafone zoozoos) on the Adidas campaign.

Advertising and marketing students will benefit from bookmarking Spot Light and reading the comments every week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Real? Staged? The NYT Public Editor weighs in on a serious journalistic issue

"The front page of Sunday’s Times carried an arresting photo atop an investigative article about the dangers of driving while distracted by a cellphone. Shot from the back seat of a car going more than 60 miles per hour — the speedometer is plainly visible — the picture showed a 16-year-old driver texting with both hands while another youth in the passenger seat steadied the steering wheel with his left hand.
"Readers wondered if the picture was real or staged, whether the photographer did anything to stop the risky behavior and who these teens were and how they related to the accompanying article, which never mentioned them and focused on another young man living with the consequences of causing a fatal accident while talking on his cellphone."

Go here to read the full column:

See how this column incorporates readers' reactions and then clarifies the position by talking to the photographer involved. What do you think?
  • Photo courtesy: The New York Times

Friday, March 26, 2010

The plagiarism case that shook the New York Times to its foundations

Go to this page for links to New York Times stories related to the Jayson Blair plagiarism case.
  • The best book on the subject is Hard News, by Seth Mnookin. It's available in the Commits library. Hard News also gives you an amazing insight into how one of the world's great newspapers works.
  • And here's the NYT's national editor Suzanne Daley (pictured) answering a reader's question about the case:
    The Legacy of Jayson Blair

Q. Is it too soon to ask about the legacy of Jayson Blair for the National Desk? Do you think The Times learned the right lessons? Is it possible for a news organization, stung so badly, to become too cautious in its pursuit of the news?
    — Donald Frazier, Denver

A. I don’t think anyone around here is going to thank Jayson Blair any time soon for the shame he brought to this institution. But much good came out of his deplorable behavior. His legacy permeates our newsroom.

    In the aftermath of Mr. Blair’s fabrications, we did a lot of soul searching and developed all sorts of new policies and training on ethics, conflict of interest, anonymous sourcing.

    We now have a public editor, Clark Hoyt, who takes in complaints from the public and publishes weekly critiques of our work. We also have a high-level editor inside the newsroom, who is responsible for standards and ethics. On top of that, each desk must track its errors and who made them. I get monthly summaries so I can identify the worst trespassers on the National Desk.

    We also decided to be a lot more transparent about who was contributing to the stories in our paper. When I started here, there were all kinds of crazy byline rules, grandfathered in long ago for who knows what reason. There was a policy, for instance, that you were only allowed one byline in the paper even if you had written two stories (even on the front page.) And only staff reporters could have bylines at all in the news sections. That meant a sizable number of stories had no bylines and a reader could not tell who wrote or reported them. Now, we spell it all out in sometimes lengthy contributor boxes.

    And we have increased our efforts to respond to the public with features like "Talk to the Newsroom."

    Have we become too cautious? Nope. Not in my book.
  • For more Q&A with Suzanne Daley, go here
UPDATE (August 2, 2013): Commitscion ASWATHY MURALI (Class of 2015) has made the valuable suggestion that there should be something on the Reading Room blog about the hoax that shook the Washington Post to its foundations: "Jimmy's World", the story by Janet Cooke that won her a Pulitzer Prize but was later proved to be a fabrication. You can get all the details on "Story Lab", a very interesting blog published by the newspaper: Story pick: Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World".

(What is Story Lab?  According to the "About" page, this is "where readers and reporters will come together to create and shape stories. Washington Post writers will talk about some of the hard choices involved in journalism". Read the description in its entirety here.)

Also read:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"How TV news is distorting India's media"

This is a 2006 post by a BBC South Asia bureau editor, but some of the points he is making are still valid.
  • If you go to the end, you will see he has a dig at himself too.
I asked Ayesha Tabassum (Class of 2007), who is a producer with Times Now in Mumbai, to comment on this piece. Here's her feedback:
It's a fair picture he has given about the current situation in television news. But certain points seem to be exaggerated...


The former Home Minister Indrajit Gupta was one day doggedly pursued by a young journalist on his way out of parliament.

When he finally agreed to stop for the news crew, he was asked the probing question. "Sir, would you please say something". The second question was "and Sir, who are you?"

No channel would send out a reporter who is ignorant about the basic facts... even if you are not active on the field you cannot afford to ignore basic facts and information about your government and ministers or any other topic under the sun. Google is always out there to help you out (Wikipedia is not always reliable, though).


One young woman described herself in the opening line of her CV to my office as being "young and vivacious".


Particularly at Hindi news channel offices (sorry to sound biased but, trust me, it happens most of the times).

Monday, March 22, 2010

How do you get a one-on-one interview with someone who has been on the run from the law?

"[Koteshwar] Rao has been on the run from law enforcement bodies for 31 years and is guarded by a protective circle of 25 bodyguards. The 51-year-old Maoist leader refused to be photographed and set his own terms for the meeting. Mint’s reporters were asked to arrive at a school in Chakadoba where they waited for around 5 hours. At around dusk, they were escorted to where Rao was — a clearing in the jungle that was reached after a brisk 30-minute walk."

Read the full interview by Romita Datta and Aveek Datta in Mint here.
  • Photo courtesy: Mint
  • UPDATE (NOVEMBER 25, 2011): Koteshwar Rao, better known as Kishanji, was killed yesterday in a gun battle with security forces in West Bengal. Read details here.

Here's a well-written feature from the WSJ...

...on how "rural advertising comes to life in India". Note the micro-to-macro approach. Eric Bellman begins his feature by telling us about wedding singer turned travelling salesman Sandeep Sharma before going on, in the fifth paragraph, to enlighten us on the lavish spending habits of India's rural consumers.

"What should be done about Americanisms?"

What I admire about The National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi, is, first, its neat and clean look; second, its attention to detail; and, third, its obsession with good writing. We have copies in the library — when you read it, you will quickly realise that the stories follow the rules we discuss in class.

The language column in The National is a must-read for all those interested in improving their writing skills. My Word, is written by the paper's executive editor, Colin Randall, a former Telegraph (UK) journalist. We have often discussed in class the use of Americanisms — here's Randall's take.

Go here for his latest columns, including one on exclamations.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A savvy, must-watch documentary on the peerless P. Sainath

For three decades, he has written about the impact of "development" on the rural poor. In 2007, he won the Magsaysay Award. And he is currently the Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu.

Now he is also the subject of a new documentary Nero's Guests produced by his former student, who has been filming him since 2004.

Here's an excerpt from an interview in Time Out Bengaluru with the documentary maker, Deepa Bhatia:
P. Sainath is notoriously averse to being filmed. How did you manage to make a documentary about him?
Finnish documentary commissioning editor Iikka Vehkalahti has known Sainath for a very long time and he has been trying to get Sainath to be a part of a film for years, but Sainath consistently refused. I met Iikka and I told him, let’s start filming Sainath and see where it goes. Sainath was reporting very aggressively at that time on the agrarian crisis. He would go to the countryside and I would shoot him or get him filmed. I shot sporadically, without any intent of making a film or knowing what it would be about.
  • Find out more about Nero's Guests here.
  • Mint's Lounge supplement has also published a brief article on the documentary.
  • I have bought a copy of the DVD for the college among the many important reasons for our AVC students to watch it: learn how to make a documentary on a public figure tacking a public crisis.
  • Photo courtesy: Time Out Bengaluru
Shivram Sujir (Class of 2011) watched the documentary a few days ago. Here's his take on Nero's Guests:
This is one of those documentaries that every so-called 'educated' citizen in India should watch. The one who thinks India is all about information technology. The one who takes pride in the fact that our GDP growth is the highest. The one who feels great that we are one of the fastest growing economies of the world and is enthralled by the idea of globalisation.

Magsaysay award winner P. Sainath, whose work is the subject of this documentary, may come across as a grumpy, angry, and frustrated man but what else can you expect of a warrior who has been fighting a lone battle for three decades watching his countrymen fall one by one to the arrows of corporatisation and industrialisation? His account of how our definition of development has caused complete devastation in the lives of farmers and led to the agrarian crisis is like a tête-à-tête with the real India and the slow death she is dying at the hands of Nero's guests.

Wonder who Nero's guests are? Watch the documentary. You'll be surprised.
  • Nero's Guests is now available on YouTube; watch it here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The best writing tip of all time: Sit

Having trouble getting the writing done?

Chip Scanlan of Poynter Online, the best resource for journalists that I know of, has some helpful advice for you.

Here's what Stephen King has to say about The Elements Of Style... his wonderful book, On Writing:
SECOND FOREWORD: This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course, its short; at eighty-five pages it's much shorter than this one.) I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is "Omit needless words." I will try to do that here.

  • The adverb is not your friend. (Page 117)
  • The best form of dialogue attribution is "said", as in "he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said". (Page 120)
  • If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I am aware of, no shortcut. (Page 139)
  • If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (Page 142)
  • The real importance of reading... (Page 145; please buy On Writing to read more.)
(Photo courtesy: Stephen King website)
  • On Writing was reviewed in Your Opinion by co-editor Padmini Nandy Mazumder, Class of 2011. 
ADDITIONAL READING (September 30, 2012): "A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great".

Have you tried Google Squared?

"Google Squared takes a category and creates a starter 'square' of information, automatically fetching and organizing facts from across the web." Should be helpful for your PowerPoint presentations at Commits.

Can you imagine writing a feature on Kolkata's street typists?

Rajdeep Datta Roy does a good job of it in Mint's Lounge. Here's an excerpt:
While those who sit in the business district and near the courts are comparatively better off, the typists who ply their trade in neighbourhoods such as the Shyambazar crossing, under the watchful eyes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose astride a stallion, are finding it difficult to make ends meet. “Typists working in a bureau don’t have to worry about the space or the machines but, in turn, have to part with almost 50% of their meagre earnings,” says Sushil Das, who works in a bureau.

Read the feature here.
  • Mint was launched in Kolkata in June 2009.

How easy is it to write an interesting article on acronyms?

Here's how one Wall Street Journal reporter pulled it off.

Read that intro:
The New Deal gave the country the CCC, the TVA and the WPA. The waning days of the Bush administration produced TARP, for Troubled Asset Relief Program, also currently known as "the bailout." The stimulus package, the name of which is already a source of sniggers, has brought to life the RAT Board, LUST Trust and ARPA-E.

And here are the concluding paragraphs:
Departments that do choose to spell known words should take care -- poking fun at poorly chosen acronyms is already an Internet sport.

Jennifer Alicia Johnson, a former English teacher who now manages an afterschool program in Seattle, set up a blog in January to collect humorous examples.

"One does wonder, if they aren't fully thinking through their name, why should we believe they are fully thinking through their efforts?" she said.

Among her recent posts: the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research, a 15-member council created under the recovery act that will (as the name suggests) coordinate research on the comparative effectiveness of medical treatments.

"Sounds like an OK idea to me," she wrote. "But the acronym? Say it aloud with me, now. FCCCER."

In the hands of an inexperienced writer, an article on acronyms can quickly turn into sludge. But Louise Radnofsky uses humour intelligently to lace her well-researched feature -- as a result, one is tempted to read from beginning to end.

If you're serious about improving your writing skills...'s a book which will be a big help: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White (it's available on Flipkart).

Read here what Stephen King has to say about The Elements of Style.

And King himself has written a book, On Writing, which is invaluable for both fiction and non-fiction writers; read the review by Your Opinion co-editor Padmini Nandy Mazumder, who also tells us, bottom, why spending Rs.499 on The Elements of Style is "well worth it":


Another book you must read if you want to be a better writer: On Writing Well (25th Anniversary: The Classic Guide To Writing Nonfiction), by William Zinsser. To know more about Zinsser and his masterpiece, click on this link: "Lord of the Language".

Start familiarising yourself with the contents of these books right away. You may not understand everything now, but continual reading will be a big help.

And here's one more really good book: Pocket Writer's Handbook, from the Penguin Reference Library. I bought this in Bangalore for Rs.195. It has a lot of sensible grammar advice, too.

As for dictionaries, I recommend that each of you buy a copy of what is referred to as an "advanced learners' dictionary" because this dictionary not only gives word definitions but also tells you how to use these words in a sentence. At Commits, we use the Macmillan English Dictionary For Advanced Learners (International Student Edition).

  • Padmini Nandy Mazumder (Class of 2011) commented via e-mail regarding her purchase of The Elements of Style: You were right, Sir, thank you for the recommendation. The Elements Of Style is really worth every single rupee. I bought it today [August 29, 2009]. And I'm glad I didn't procrastinate about it. Spending Rs.499 was well worth it because this "little book" has completely changed "English" for me.
(Padmini is now the editor of Books & More, a literary magazine published from Bangalore.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

If you're thinking of writing a feature...

...on the pulp magazines sold at our railway stations, here's a good role model. What a wonderful intro that is (complemented by a smart headline and standfirst)!

And look at this reference to Kafka in the second paragraph:
While I derived immense titillation from the pulpy prose and gross gore of stories headlined “Tormented teenager nephew slew paternal aunt” and “Misdeeds of a rapist blackmailer minister”, I gradually became aware of how the cultured Tamils were looking at me as if a Gregor Samsa-sized cockroach had taken my place. [Emphasis mine.]

Now every feature needs a good conclusion. This one is bang on target:
Truman Capote meets Bollywood? Yes, interestingly, this genre, which was pioneered by the American popular author with his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966) about the apparently motiveless massacre of a Kansas family by two young psychopaths, is being taken forward in India by Verma with his true stories of tough ruffians, damsels in distress and the long hand of the law.

Clearly, you can learn a lot about writing features from the author, Zac O'Yeah, who is a thriller writer based in Bangalore. His novel, Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan!, is due for release soon.

PS: Zac is married to Anjum Hasan, the author of Lunatic In My Head and Neti, Neti. Anjum, who had come to Commits recently to talk with the students about writing, is now the books editor of The Caravan.
  • Photo courtesy: Zac O'Yeah

Time Out's reviews are always...

...something special. Read this one of a bar in Bangalore called B-11 and tell me why I think it's a very clever piece of writing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A fine example of long-form journalism from a great magazine

From Esquire:
It has been nearly four years since Roger Ebert lost his lower jaw and his ability to speak. Now television's most famous movie critic is rarely seen and never heard, but his words have never stopped.
Roger Ebert is a world-famous movie critic and his recommendations are looked forward to eagerly by film buffs. In this article, Esquire looks at how he continues to watch and critique films though he can't talk, eat, or drink. This is a terrific piece of writing and also a great human interest story.

Here are some interesting excerpts (though you should read the whole article; the photographs are very special, too):
Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can't remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn't happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory — it wasn't as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into Chaz's ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink, and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren't they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word.

He calls up a journal entry to elaborate, because it's more efficient and time is precious:

When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.

He is a wonderful writer, and today he is producing the best work of his life. In 1975 he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer prize, but his TV fame saw most of his fans, at least those outside Chicago, forget that he was a writer if they ever did know.

But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it's like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It's not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn't exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.
  • Thanks to Anjali Muthanna (Class of 2006) for the tip-off.
PS: In September 2010, Roger Ebert reviewed I'm Still Here, the documentary on self-destructing Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix. Read the review and you will marvel at Ebert's powers of description and his clear-headed view of everything that's wrong with Phoenix's life:
     One doubts he will be walking the red carpet if the film has a premiere. It documents a train wreck. A luxury train. One carrying Phoenix, his several personal assistants, his agent, his publicist, and apparently not one single friend who isn't on salary. A train that flies off the tracks and tumbles into the abyss.

    Phoenix comes across as a narcissist interested only in himself. He is bored with acting. He was only a puppet. He can no longer stand where he's told, wear what he's given, say what is written. It's not him. He has lost contact with his inner self. He allows that true self to emerge here as a fearsomely bearded, deliberately shabby chain-smoking egotist who screams at his patient assistants, blames himself on everyone else, and has deluded himself into thinking that there is a future in his dreadful hip-hop lyrics.

    Read the review in its entirety here: I'm Still Here.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Shutterbugs will lurve this one

    Here's something weird: I didn't like her work at Bangalore Times which she edited for some time. And I wasn't too fond of her column in BT either -- it was too much like a personal blog, I thought. There didn't seem to be any "journalistic style". But what she has done with these pictures and the descriptions is simply amazing.

    Hats off to SUDHA PILLAI!

    This is a Facebook album, so you will need to have an FB account to be able to drool over these compositions (photos and text).

    PS: I'm betting you will love "Day 97: 2 a.m. friend" (pictured here). Am I right?
    • Thanks to Anagha Gunjal (Class of 2011) for the tip-off.

    Simple and fun...

    ...tests of vocabulary and grammar.

    Let me know how you fare. :-)

    The best review I have read of "Angels And Demons"

    And it has an intro to be savoured:
    Since “Angels & Demons” takes place mainly in the Vatican, and is festooned with the rites and ornaments of Roman Catholicism, I might as well begin with a confession. I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.

    Enjoy the review by NYT's A.O. Scott in full here.

    Why news organisations should thrive

    "It is in no one’s interest for news organizations to collapse. Who would cover the news? The blogger next door?

    "If you eliminate straight news from journalists backed by newspapers or broadcast organizations, the Internet has very little professionally produced, straight news reporting."

    To read Ann Woolner's passionately argued article, go here.

    "Why does a successful woman...

    ...always have to feel indebted to a husband or father for 'allowing' her to pursue a career?"

    Here is an excerpt from Namita Bhandare's column in Mint:
    We have no measure to track their progressions and we know also that success in exam results, particularly at the school level, is no guarantee for “success” in life. But given that girls seem to be better than boys at cracking the exam code, and have been doing so for years, wouldn’t it be logical to presume that we should be seeing more women in middle to senior leadership positions?

    Read the column in full here.