Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to say 'Mars is flat' without libeling Kansas

I wanted to note that FLORIDA TODAY's front page about the Phoenix rover's second day on Mars was part of Poynter Online's "Page One Today" feature.

It's nice that the newspaper with a local connection (NASA) to the project was chosen to represent such a historic achievement.

However, I need to point out a certain sentence of the story. A space team reporter writes, "Its three legs level on the largest lowland region of Mars, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft is eyeing Vastitas Borealis, mottled red terrain as flat as Kansas."

After three days of trying, the reporter finally got the cliche "as flat as Kansas" into the newspaper without the copy desk deleting it.

Aside from the need to avoid overused expressions in newspaper writing, we should also examine the accuracy of such a statement. Is Kansas really THAT flat? According to a co-worker of mine, no (I've never visited, so I can't judge).

If we must compare Mars' state of flatness with an American state, why not use Florida? It is the flattest of the 50, with its highest point of 345 feet at Britton Hill (the lowest highest point of any state). And wouldn't readers in Florida be able to relate better to Florida than to Kansas?

Or maybe we should just stick to "flat as a pancake." Or we could take a chance and say, "flatter than a pancake." Most people could understand that even if they hate pancakes. Oh, but wait, it seems that the entire Earth - not just Kansas - is flatter than a pancake.

So that - and its French brethren, the crepe - are out.

I guess we'll just have to say that the Mars terrain is "flat." No cliche or analogy required. Is that so difficult to grasp?


Anonymous said...

Crap! How did I let it slip by? I killed it at least one time.

In a few weeks or so, I'll have Internet at home and can post photographic evidence for the world that Kansas is NOT flat.

Anonymous said...

Although "flat as Kansas" is an overused and inaccurate cliche (having lived in that part of the world), it's more entertaining then simply writing "Mars is flat." How about "flat as a fly-catcher" or "flat as an ironing board" or "flat as an iced over pond." Although, we may be libeling all of the above items...:)