How to write a news article

It’s unfortunately common that journalists are always so eager to seek out all sides on an issue. It’s this sort of blind following of protocol that has resulted in the anti-vax crowd rising to the prominence it has, or the fact that creationists will often get to spout lies concerning recent scientific discoveries. And do the journalists ever challenge those lies? Not really. It’s apparently enough that we hear what two groups think, even if one of those groups is incompetent.

That’s why I really like this article by Ashley Yeager of Duke. Without simply presenting us her point of view, something for which we have plenty of bloggers and the like, she informs the reader of what happened at a particular event – and she doesn’t ask for the needless opinions of dissenters.

People filed into Page Auditorium on Oct. 3 carrying The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution tucked under their arm. The scene was typical of a lecture given on a college campus, except the instructor was the controversial and outspoken British biology writer Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins’ lecture used no props or PowerPoint slides. For 45 minutes, he simply talked his listeners through his latest book, mixing scientific discussion with scathing jabs. He cited evidence for his argument that “we stop calling evolution a theory and call it a fact.”

He spoke about the family trees that linked all animals and how some would argue that “God deliberately deceived us.” Maybe God did, Dawkins conceded. But if so, “I’m not sure if that is the kind of God you want to worship,” he said.

“You have all the arguments on your side. (Students) may say well my parents, say or my preachers say this. Well, damn your preacher, these are the facts.”

You know when you watch a DVD of a TV show and it has that weird cut where you feel like you’re about to watch a commercial? Well, this is the point in this article where most other journalists would go to some priest or well-known creationist for a dissenting view. I can just feel it. But Yeager doesn’t do that. Here is the next paragraph.

One audience member asked Dawkins if he and religious groups that advocate for many of the same causes as his foundation — natural disaster relief, education reform, among others — could ever work together. No, Dawkins said. At a fundamental level, the two groups’ views would have them debating much more than aiding others, he said.

She just continues on with her account of the event. I love it. This is a good example of how journalism should be done.

Just because there is another side doesn’t mean it’s a side worth hearing.

Killing in the name of language

I post this for three reasons. First, I have a deep appreciation for language. Second, it mentions a common quote misattribution, and I recently corrected a quote attribution for which I had long been crediting the wrong individual. Third, it tickles my fancy.

Every time a post or comment on Language Log mentions, in any context, the prescriptive disapproval of preposition stranding (where a preposition is separated from its logically associated complement, as in What are you looking at?), e.g. in this post, we get commenters (who, incidentally, seem never to have read the site before) tussling with each other to be the first to inscribe two routinized types of comment.

One type says “I think a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with!”, or words very much to that effect (unaware that instances of this lame “look-I’m-violating-the-rule” joke have been going on since at least the 1700s). The other type says, “This is nonsense up with which I shall not put!” (invariably thinking that they are quoting Sir Winston Churchill, though Ben Zimmer definitively refuted that misattribution years ago in a post that Mark and I subsequently included in our book, and it is enormously annoying to us that still no one is aware of Ben’s discovery).

Unable to bear any longer the tedious work of seeking out all the instances of these two comment types so I can delete them, I have decided that from now on I will hunt down the relevant commenters and kill them.

I realize that it is unusual for a popular science blog to launch upon a policy of killing its own readers. That is why I thought an explicit warning should go up on the site first. This is that warning.

PZ has some of his own warnings.