Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wily News Writing

When I was a community news reporter, I found that one of the hardest things about the job was that, no matter how much reporting you did, you never had enough information. For example, imagine you’re reporting that a well-known chocolatier, whose store burned down the year before, is about to reopen. You sit down to begin writing and you come up with a lede like, “After a bitter setback and year of rebuilding, Shay’s Candies on Tuesday will begin making chocolates once more.”

But then you stop. Yes, the store will reopen on Tuesday. But no one you interviewed actually said they were going to start making chocolates on that day. Perhaps manufacturing started days prior. Perhaps they’ll reopen selling just jellies until their chocolate vat is back from the shop. You just can’t be sure. What’s more, is it really accurate to refer to “a year of rebuilding”? Perhaps the owners took a sabbatical before they started picking up the pieces. Perhaps they had to spend months wrangling with insurance companies before they could start.

So you do what I always did. You “write around” the holes in your information.

“A year after a fire destroyed the Shay’s Candies factory and store in Torrance, on Tuesday the beloved chocolatier will reopen / resume serving up the sweet stuff / start selling its famous candies once again / etc.”

This happens all the time in news writing. Your words try to make a liar out of you. And it takes constant vigilance to make sure you don’t accidentally stray into an inadvertent untruth.

It’s hard, it’s challenging, and it can make you feel downright wily at times. And it’s why I found the first few sentences of a Los Angeles Times cover story today so impressively slipperylicious:

Former Justice Department official Eric H. Holder Jr. emerged Tuesday as Barack
Obama’s leading candidate for attorney general, and the president-elect’s
transition team was trying to gauge whether there was sufficient bipartisan
support for him in the Senate, sources close to the transition confirmed. Those
sources said that the internal vetting process for Holder was still being
completed and that top transition team members and Democratic allies of Obama
were working to make sure that Holder would not face any significant obstacles
during the confirmation process.

Notice how the writer handled issues of factuality and verification. Holder “emerged.” That could mean a number of things, but it leaves wide open the possibility that it refers to nothing more than rumors. One or more members of Obama’s “transition team,” were wondering what kind of support Holder might get, “sources close to the transition confirmed.” Then comes a clever passive: The internal vetting process “was still being completed.” By whom? We don’t know. The article doesn’t say.

Usually, when you see wily writing like this, it leaves open the possibility of somewhat sleazy motives – a publication wants to milk a rumor for some ink, even though they have nothing to go on. However, it’s my opinion that the publication’s motives are usually much more responsible. The writer and editors believe there’s real substance to the rumor. They believe they’d be remiss in NOT reporting it. But they don’t have any facts to go on yet. So they “write around” their lack of information to focus on possibilities of interest to their readers.

Of course, all information attributed to unidentified “sources” should be weighed with caution. In fact, I believe that responsible news consumers should demand that sources be identified except under the most extenuating circumstances. But since this Holder rumor had already spread like wildfire, one could argue that this story justified it.

Either way, I think it’s good practice for news consumers to read between the lines, always asking, “What, exactly, is this news story claiming to ‘report’?”

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Joel said...

You are correct, of course.

But I'd say that it goes beyond what we hear "in the media." In fact, I encounter this dilemma on a regular basis as I'm writing business and even personal correspondence. And, to paraphrase something I've heard on On the Media (and it's in an ad now): I actually think that the news media, in general, are far more ethical about this than the rest of us. As Brooke Gladstone says, "No, really."

Thing is, most other folks without that background, in my experience, don't even care about the half truths that they sloppily scatter about. That is, they won't even bother to write around what they don't know or can't say for sure; they'll say it anyway. I'm not saying that it's all (or even mostly) malicious un-truth-telling. But there's sure a lot of it out there. And not all of it is innocent or well-intended.

Now, you might argue that the news media have a higher obligation to the truth because of the role they play in our society, and I'd agree (at least sort of; the dangerous side of that is that the rest of us can use this idea to justify our lack of transparency, accuracy and integrity), but I think most of the folks in your industry deserve a lot more credit than they get for the difficulty of their job and the high standards they uphold.

And, really, in a lot of ways, I prefer the kind of writing you're talking about. It's all a matter of paying attention. And the alternative really isn't writing that's more transparent (because that would be so awkwardly verbose and unreadable that--well, it would be a lot like what I often end up writing ;-) ) that it just isn't practical. The alternative is writing that simply shortcuts the truth altogether.

Not that there aren't infotainers and crass partisans and, as you so beautifully put it, PR whores out there. Ironically, IMO, the ones who complain most loudly about the bias of the rest of the media are the ones we should worry about.

June Casagrande said...

"IMO, the ones who complain most loudly about the bias of the rest of the media are the ones we should worry about."

TOTALLY. Because, here's the thing: If you're looking for bias, you're going to find it -- whether it's there or not. And, forgive me if I've said this here before, but I'm convinced that the best way to pull the wool over someone's eyes is to tell them someone else is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. The misplaced suspension of disbelief is staggering. You could build a whole news network on this single manipulative mind-f**k.

Oh, wait. Someone already did.

Joel said...

Amen. And very well said. So much so that it makes me smile. :-)

June Casagrande said...

Sorry it took so long to get your post up. Really weird 24 hours. Which I'll blather on about soon.

Di said...


June Casagrande said...


Good catch. "Lede," "hed," and "TK" (for "to come") are common editor terms. They're deliberately misspelled so that, when an editor types notes into an article, there's less chance that the notes will get past spell check and onto the page.


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