There’s no contest between nolo contendere and an Alford Plea

If you write enough crime stories, you’ll eventually encounter a variety of different references to a kind of plea that stands in the no-man’s-land between guilty and not guilty (note: there is no such thing as a plea of “innocent”).

They go by various names: “no contest,” “nolo contendere,” and the “Alford Plea.” The first and second in this list mean exactly the same thing (nolo contendere is legal Latin). There are some minor technical differences between the first and last, but they are basically the same thing.

In a nutshell, these pleas do not admit guilt, but do admit that the state has enough evidence to convict. Defendants generally accept such a plea as part of a plea bargain, admitting to a lesser charge that will let them avoid the harsher punishment of the original charge.

No contest and Alford pleas differ from ordinary guilty pleas in that they are thought to offer some protection from a civil suit arising out of the crime.

In newswriting, I almost always go with “no contest,” which doesn’t involve Latin or the name of some guy nobody’s ever heard of. However, there are plenty of newsrooms where “Alford plea” is the preferred usage, so it may just be a regional thing.

Ode to a Mozzarepa


A Mozzarepa in the wild

In my previous entry explaining my love affair with New York City street fairs, I somehow forgot to mention the Mozzarepa.

This distinctly New York innovation (someone please correct me if I’m wrong) is basically a variation on the popular Latin American staple, the arepa. It’s a round slice of pizza-type melty mozzarella cheese between two sweet cornmeal pancakes. A salty-sweet treat that can’t be beat.

I’ve never seen them anywhere but New York street fairs, and they’re yet another reason I look forward to my near-weekly excursion.

Several street vendors do knock-offs, but they’re often left on the griddle until they singe, or the cheese is the flavorless kind you get in cheap pizzas, or the sweet cornmeal isn’t sweet at all. In my opinion, the original is the best. And according to the manufacturer’s website, you can now order a case of 12 online for 27 bucks. I’d be tempted if’n I didn’t live right in the heart of Mozzarepaville already.

Link of the Week: Measuring Worth

I now unveil one of my all-time favorite sites. It’s something I only use occasionally in my current deadline news job. But I used to use it all the time when I made historical documentaries. And you could get lost for hours just playing with numbers on the site.

So with that buildup, what is it?

Measuring Worth is the latest incarnation of an online calculator run by two University of Illinois economics professors. The site lets you put in a currency amount from any year back to 1774, and convert that to the value in any other year. Most commonly, you’d use it to figure out, for example, what $30 in 1910 is worth today. The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as $710. That’s just the figure calculated using the Consumer Price Index. But the authors’ basic calculator gives you five other measures (GDP deflator, comparative payment for unskilled labor, etc.) which generate a figure as high as $13,200 (for relative share of GDP). It can also handle various foreign currencies and various other ways of calculating relative value.

So, unfortunately, while Measuring Worth a great tool, there’s a learning curve (handy essays included) to figuring out what all the numbers mean and which is appropriate for your purpose. But if you need to calculate the historical Value of a Dollar (the site’s original name), this is the tool for the job.

Names in ledes: Famous, or not so much?

Editing stories from wire services and other outside sources often means ‘translating’ the item from the audience it was written for (Cleveland general audience, members of the military, Italians, etc.) to our particular niche audience, the LGBT community.

I’ve already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is ‘to proper noun, or not to proper noun.’

In general, you should only include the name of someone or something in the lede if it is a household name to your audience. Otherwise, it’s usually best to substitute some kind of generic descriptor and come back to the proper name in the second or third sentence.

That means, for example, that you can always use “President Obama” in the lede without further ado. But you probably wouldn’t want to use “the Human Rights Campaign” in your lede. In that case, you’d say “A gay rights group is lobbying the White House blah blah blah” in the lede, and use the group’s name in the second sentence.

I say you wouldn’t put HRC’s name in your lede. But we probably would, because virtually everyone in our LGBT audience has heard of it. On the other hand, when we’re adapting a story from the local paper in Columbia, South Carolina and it puts “State Rep. Todd Rutherford” in its lede, we’d probably ‘translate’ that by saying “a South Carolina lawmaker” in our lede, and using his proper name further down.

In some cases, a generic descriptor is too generic to put in the lede. Consider this wire service lede:

(Boston, MA) — Members of the Governor’s Council are criticizing Governor Deval Patrick’s latest selection for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Fine for a Massachusetts audience, which hears about the ‘Governor’s Council’ all the time. The Council is an elected advisory body–but that seemed too vague to put in the lede. On the other hand, ‘Massachusetts Governor’s Council’ isn’t so big a puzzler that it’s what we call a ‘show-stopper’ (causing the audience to loose the thread of the story), so I put that in the lede, and used ‘elected advisory board’ as the subject of the second sentence.

Then there’s the middle ground: a name that’s kinda-sorta familiar to your audience, is to use the name in the lede, but add a descriptor before it. So: not just “Silvio Berlusconi” as the AFP dispatch from Rome might have it, but “Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Likewise, “California Governor Jerry Brown,” “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Apple C-E-O Steve Jobs,” and so on.

I Love NYC Street Fairs

The Annual 9th Ave International Food Festival

Not every New Yorker enjoys our street fairs. In fact, a lot of us hate them. Every season, the New York City papers are filled with stories about what a nuisance they are. With two or three running simultaneously each weekend day during the summer, the street fairs snarl traffic and displace parking spaces. And, it’s said, they’re all the same, with the same vendors pushing the same merchandise.

City government here has recently responded to citizen complaints with a plan to reduce the number and operating hours of the fairs. Activist groups are also pushing for greater variety among and within the fairs.

But, honestly, I couldn’t care less. I love New York City’s street fairs just the way they are (although I wouldn’t complain if there were more and varied local vendors). I pick up a new wallet, new socks, a new messenger bag each year. I can’t wait each week or so to enjoy a big plastic cup full of fresh-cut watermelon spears. And the people-watching simply can’t be beat.

In fact, I love them so much that in 2009 and again this year I created a custom Google Map that shows the dates and location of every street fair in Manhattan from April through November. If you love street fairs like me, or if you hate them and want to avoid them like herpes, check it out.

So far as I’ve been able to determine, this is the most complete listing available online, since it draws information not only from the websites of the three main street fair producers, but also includes several one-off events I happen to know about, like the Barbecue Block Party, Gay Pride, and the Ninth Avenue Food Festival, among others.

Here’s all the fairs, color-coded by month. Click the link below the map to jump to the full Google My Map, which includes a sidebar with all the events listed by name in chronological order.

Full Google My Map with event listings in chronological order

As I said, this map includes only Manhattan street fairs. But there are events scheduled in most of the other boroughs, not to mention Long Island, New Jersey, and beyond. My map is open to public collaboration, so please feel free to add any events you know of.

How my little blog entry kicked up a s**t storm on Fleet Street

Last September, outraged by a tabloid lie that I was uniquely positioned to debunk, I wrote a blog entry criticizing Britain’s Daily Star. I noted that they had simply fabricated two American gay rights groups that  were purportedly criticizing the U.S. version of the sketch comedy show “Little Britain” for running “homophobic” skits. Other UK newspapers and web sites picked up the Star story, and it went semi-viral.

Cut to last month. To my astonishment, my little cyber-shout had actually created consequences in the real world. The Daily Star has paid damages and apologized to Little Britain’s stars for lying. Here are more details from the Press Gazette and BBC News.

Not only that, but a more-respectably daily, The Independent had to apologize — for quoting me! I had speculated that the Star story was really a publicist’s plant intended to drum up attention for the U.S. debut of the show. I didn’t name any names, of course, because if it was a plant, it could have been planted by a lot of different people. But that didn’t stop The Independent from passing along my clearly-labeled speculation. Oops. Under Britain’s rather onerous, plaintiff-friendly defamation law, they wound up having to apologize to Little Britain’s publicist for implying that the firm did a bad thing.

There’s a lesson in all of this, though I’m not completely sure what it is. Maybe just that I should have thought twice about setting off a shit-storm in the first place. None of the shit that hit the Star and The Independent landed on me, but that’s just because I got lucky.

UPDATE: Apparently, London’s The Times had to apologize as well.

Link of the Week: Defamation Law

This page on the ExpertLaw website provides a handy overview of U.S. law on defamation, libel and slander. It includes short sections defining defamation, describing the legal defenses available (including most especially the ‘actual malice’ defense relating to public figures), and an explanation of why it’s not always a good idea to file a defamation suit. The material is brief, not thorough, but accurate so far as I know.

Who said that?

We’ve already discussed a few of the ways in which direct quotes are used differently in broadcast scripts from the way they’re handled in print. We’ve talked about dangling attributions, signifying the start of a direct quote and paraphrasing.

Another important difference is the necessity to restate — frequently — who’s being quoted. This is very simply because listeners have no quotation marks to tell them when a quote begins and ends. As I mentioned before, the best way to signal the start of a quote is with a slight pause, or with a phrase like “in his words.” Don’t use the word “quote.” Likewise, we don’t use “unquote” to end a quotation — that’s even hokier than using “quote” at the beginning.

Instead, we rely on the modern audience’s default assumption that direct quotes in broadcast news stories are short — one or two sentences at most. This means that for quotes longer than one long sentence or two short sentences, you must re-identify the speaker.

WRONG: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Using long quotes works even better if you reduce the number of times you use the word “says.” For example, because the first sentence is fairly short and pithy, you can replace one attribution with the word “adding”.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community,” adding, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

(Of course, in this example, the second sentence is on the long side, which makes the “adding” formulation less than ideal.)

Another way to prune back the use of “says” is to use the paraphrase that’s really a direct quote.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Don’t use the quote-ees name every time, nor a pronoun (e.g. “he”) every time. Instead, ping-pong back and forth between the last name and a pronoun.

The last point I should make is that it’s best not to overuse direct quotes in broadcast copy. Again, broadcast isn’t print. Ideally, you should have actuality (i.e. “sound bites”). If you don’t limit your direct quotes to only the pithiest stuff, and paraphrase the rest.

BEST: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says he’s proud of the out candidates who are “stepping up to run for office,” and of his group’s role in backing them.

Link of the Week: AP Broadcast Handbook

This is a first for Link of the Week: a link to the dead-tree version of a book you should buy. About one-third of the Associated Press Broadcast Handbook is an extremely concise and well-written guide to broadcast newswriting (kind of like this blog–ahem–but organized into a logical sequence instead of blasted all over the map in no particular order). The second part is a wide ranging style guide similar to the AP Stylebook for print. It contains hundreds of dictionary-style entries that prescribe the right way to refer to well-known companies and groups on second reference, what to call minority and handicapped people, and lots of other writing style questions. Many newsrooms rely on the handbook as the authority on “house style” questions that have not already been settled internally.

Group names on second reference

One question frequently asked by my interns and trainees is how to refer to organizations ‘for short’ once their full names have been established (“on second reference,” in Associated Press parlance). Given the nature of the news we handle — gay-related — a lot of organization names come up, with varying degrees of familiarity to our audience and to a general audience.

There’s often a temptation to use a group’s initials on second reference: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force would, for example, become “NGLTF” once its full name is established. But I think this is generally bad practice in broadcast writing unless and only unless the initials are already familiar to your listeners. So, for instance, I think it’s okay to call the National Association for the Advance of Colored People the “N-double-A-C-P” (note how ‘double’ is spelled out here) on second reference. In fact, the initials are so familiar you could probably get away with “N-double-A-C-P” on first reference. Likewise, the United Nations can be called the “UN” even on first reference. And for our audience, the letters “HRC” are synonymous with the Human Rights Campaign (less so than with Hillary Rodham Clinton), so we always refer to them by their initials on second reference.

But usually the best practice is to refer to a less-familiar group by the part of its name that denotes it as a group. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists would be “the association” on second ref. In my earlier example, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is called “the Task Force” after the first reference.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule of thumb. Unfortunately for us, there are many groups in the gay community whose names don’t include that group-denoting word: Empire State Pride Agenda, Basic Rights Oregon, National Stonewall Democrats, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Lambda Legal, to name a few. The answer in these cases is a mixed bag. For the first two, we generally use the groups’ full names on each and every reference — a particular pain in the case of the long-named Empire State Pride Agenda. National Stonewall Democrats is called just “Stonewall Democrats” on second reference. Gay Men’s Health Crisis is called “GMHC” on second reference; its initials are familiar enough to our audience. And Lambda Legal is known by its nickname for short: “Lambda.”

There are also cases where the name makes a tidy acronym (initials which can be pronounced as a word — only!) In these cases, it’s okay to use that acronym on second reference (as long as it’s not too much of a puzzler). So, for example, both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders are referred to as “GLAD” (or “GLAAD,” pronounced the same) on second reference.

To sum up: For unfamiliar group names, use the group-denoting part of the name on second reference. For familiar names, it’s more of a mixed bag. Use whatever nickname is most familiar to your audience, or at least the nickname the group uses for itself.

Link of the Week:

In the home stretch to Election Day, here’s my new favorite-favorite-favorite poll analysis web site: There are many such sites now, like, and CNN’s Electoral Map page.

But (a reference to the total membership of the Electoral College) is amazing. It’s the work of a professional baseball statistician (quite famous in that world) named Nate Silver. Silver doesn’t just compile all the state-by-state presidential polls, counting each state as red, blue or tied — as most of the other sites do in one form or another. Instead, he runs all the polls through an incredibly sophisticated spreadsheet that weighs the reliability and recency of the poll, demographic cross-tabs, regional voting patterns, and many other factors, to create a big probability matrix that spits out both the likely electoral vote if the election were held today, and the likely outcome on November 4th. Details are on the site’s FAQ.

The intricacy of his system is mind-blowing, and more than a little intimidating. But Silver’s work has a stellar reputation for reliability and perspicacity in the baseball statistics industry, which he has revolutionized more-or-less single-handedly. And although he is an Obama supporter, Silver’s observations about polling, statistical massage and campaign strategy are extremely interesting, useful (for journalists) and trenchant. A highly, highly recommended site.

Beware the Tabs

Some of the most entertaining news items come from the tabloid press. Unfortunately, they’re also very often the most fictitious. Take for example a story that appeared today in the UK tabloid The Daily Star, “GAY AND FATTY JOKES UPSET YANKS,” claiming that gay activists are upset at the new American version of the hit British comedy Little Britain. If true, this would be an interesting little show biz item. And a couple of other online sources have picked the story up from The Star. But after working in this job for six years, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of smell for fabricated tabloid (or blog) stories, and boy, is this one of them.

Firstly, the quote from an FCC spokesman at the end uses the word ‘remit,’ meaning ‘area of responsibility.’ Americans never use that word in this sense, so unless the supposed spokesman just happens to be Brit-bred, I’m not buying.

Second, and more obviously, are the two quotes from gay activist groups which form the heart of the story. The organization behind the New York City gay pride parade is called “Heritage of Pride,” not “New York Gay Pride.” And the “West Hollywood Gay and Lesbian Alliance” simply does not exist at all. Furthermore, with 25 years (on and off) in the gay media business, I’ve never heard of either of the two supposed spokespersons, Gina Gallo and Irwin Blair (nor has Google, for that matter). I know the spokespeople for every prominent gay group in America (many of them personally), and either Gallo and Blair don’t exist, or they beamed in from Mars in the last two weeks.

In other words, I’m convinced–at least for my own editorial purposes–that this story is total fiction, most likely planted by somebody’s publicist to generate attention in Britain that would cross over to the US via blogs to help the HBO show.

I know, a tabloid paper printing publicist fiction: Who’d have imagined? But in this competitive, blog-addled, short-attention media world, there’s a lot of pressure to fluff up newscasts with show biz gossip. Here’s a reminder not to fall for it, if you value your credibility at all.

Oh, and if anybody at The Star would like to put me in touch with your sources for this story, I’d be much obliged. I’m waiting by the phone. Really.

UPDATE #1: Heritage of Pride’s actual spokesman, Dennis Spafford, confirmed to me that “Gina Gallo” is not a spokesperson for his organization — nor has he ever heard of her.

UPDATE #2: This entry is making its own way around the blogosphere. It’s been picked up as a separate news item by several popular blogs.

UPDATE #3: Now this story has been picked up by the UK newspaper The Independent. It’s the lead item in Henry Deede’s “Pandora” column. I’m not sure whether it appeared in print, or just on the Independent’s web site.

UPDATE #4 (30 Sept.): Curious. I revisited the Pandora column noted in Update #3, only to discover the lead item — about this blog entry — has been vaporized. The headline for the column has been changed to refer to the replacement item, and the URL has been changed to reflect the new headline (which means there must be a referrer from the old URL). I wonder why they did that. Legal department concerns that they were accusing The Daily Star of lying? I know libel is much easier to prove in UK courts. But it’s hard to see under what circumstances the Star might have sued. I suppose this will have to remain one of life’s little mysteries.

UPDATE #5 (How long can this go on?): Hmm. The original Daily Star item has been removed from their website as well. Perhaps that’s why The Independent removed it’s item. Curiouser and curiouser.

Link of the Week: VOA Pronunciation Guide

The Voice of America maintains a fairly extensive pronunciation guide for foreign names, places and terms. It’s far from totally comprehensive, but it’s an excellent place to start… not least because it includes audio files demonstrating the correct pronunciation, and not just written approximations.

Pronunciation: Always worth checking

Pronunciation is the news announcer’s lurking nemesis.

It’s not always the foreign words or names that trip you up. Those, at least you know to try hunt down the pronunciation for. It’s the familiar-seeming ones that will get you, especially American place names. For example, Quincy in Massachusetts is pronounced KWIN-zee, not KWIN-see. And Cairo, Illinois, is pronounced KARE-oh, not KIE-roh, as in the capital of Egypt.

The lesson here: when in doubt, check. And when not in doubt, think twice.

Tips and links on how to find pronunciations coming in future posts.

Link of the Week: British Isles-Common Confusions

England, British Isles, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Scotland… what is what, over there, off the coast of France, anyway?

Americans like me sometimes have a hard time sorting out what proper name applies to which geographical entity. This brief web page explains it all clearly and concisely, with maps.

Incidentally, those five names at the start of this entry all refer to distinct, but in some cases overlapping, entities.