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David Hines [userpic]

Things I hate about journalism

April 23rd, 2006 (03:10 am)

Over the last several years, I've really come to hate the tendency of so many modern-day print journalists to write atmospheric ledes. By which I mean starting off the article with a breathless, or scary, or heart-rending scene, rather than actually going on and giving us the news. Stuff like:

"There's nothing left," said William Boyd softly. "There's just nothing left."

The 89-year-old man shook his head as he stared into the blackened rubble of what used to be his home.

William Boyd wasn't alone on the street that cold morning. The fire that gutted Broadmoor Apartments left fifty tenants homeless...

I just made up that example to illustrate what I'm talking about, so we don't feel bad for Mr. Boyd. But am I the only one who's really annoyed when reporters take three paragraphs to report that there's a fire?

Here's a real-life example, with bonus stupidity, from the Washington Post.

'Give Me Your Money or I'll Kill You'
Victims of Roving Robbers Describe Terror at Midday

By Del Quentin Wilber and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 19, 2006; Page B01

Aiming an assault pistol directly at the college freshman's face, the robber cocked the gun. The student heard a clack as a round entered the chamber.

"Are you serious?"

"Yeah, man, I'm serious," replied the gunman, who was probably no more than 18 or 19. "Give me your money or I'll kill you."

Sitting in the passenger seat of his brother's car, the student did not argue. Two more robbers walked over and reached through the car's windows. He gave them $10 and his cellphone. His brother handed over at least $80.

"We have your IDs. If you call the police, we'll kill you," the gunman said before fleeing.

The freshman said he couldn't believe he was being robbed -- in the middle of a spring afternoon, just outside his dormitory at Catholic University in Northeast Washington. He was one of more than a dozen victims of carjackings and robberies during a terrifying few hours Monday in the District and Prince George's County. The Washington Post is not identifying him or the other victims because police consider them witnesses.

First things first: if you go read the article, you will see that this is a hell of a news story. A group of six or so men went on a criminal rampage, during which they robbed people, stores, and vehicles in broad daylight. They didn't hole up after one crime, but went looking for more victims. They threatened to kill several people and actually fired on an off-duty police officer (fortunately, they missed; the officer was armed but it's unclear if he returned fire), and on a quick read of the article I lost count of the number of cars they stole or carjacked. I mean, it's pretty amazing.

The reporters don't get around to mentioning this until the sixth paragraph. Instead, they're concentrating on making you feel for the college student who got robbed. That's not the remarkable part of the story; people get robbed every day in the District, and the Post doesn't spend any ink making us empathize with them. It's a syrupy, emotional lede, and it's stupid to have here. This is not a human-interest story, it's a frigging crime news story.

It's also inaccurate. Let's look at the first sentence again:

Aiming an assault pistol directly at the college freshman's face, the robber cocked the gun. The student heard a clack as a round entered the chamber.

"Assault pistol," if you're wondering, is here used to mean "big, black, scary-looking handgun." An actual assault weapon is capable of fully automatic fire; while pistols with that capability do exist, they're expensive and pretty rare outside of military circles. The writers probably mean that the bad guy had a gun that looked really mean, like a TEC-9 or something like that. (There's no functional difference between these guns and any other semi-automatic pistol; the added menace is purely cosmetic.)

The first and second sentences are contradictory. Did the bad guy cock the gun, or chamber a round? If he cocked the gun (moved the hammer back), the student would definitely hear a click, but the round would already have been in the chamber. If he chambered the round, the student would have heard a click, but the bad guy wouldn't necessarily have cocked the gun. I've never owned an "assault pistol," but looking at pictures of a couple I notice a lack of external hammers, so my bet is the bad guy probably grabbed the charging handle, worked it, and chambered a round. (That sound would be closer to a clack than would cocking the gun, too.)

The journalists don't know the difference, and that's pretty sad. If you're working the DC crime beat, you've got no excuse to not have some basic familiarity with firearms; like it or not, the cops and the crooks have 'em and use 'em. They need to learn, but they haven't; so the article's not just atmospheric for no reason: it's atmospheric for no reason *and wrong.*

And the worst thing is, there's no reason for that -- the story is freaking amazing. It's the kind of thing that sells papers. Why gussy it up, when the news sells itself?


Posted by: huzzlewhat (huzzlewhat)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2006 04:22 pm (UTC)

Completely agree. I'd say this isn't what I hate about journalism, per se, but bad journalism which, sadly, makes up too much of today's journalism. When I went to school (she says, sounding like her own grandmother...) we were taught to put four W's in the lead, follow up with the 5th W in the second paragraph. Newspaper reports should be built around the reality that most people aren't going to read past the first few paragraphs, not trying to fight that reality by luring them to read further through heightened melodrama.

And yes, completely on the gun thing.

Posted by: mystavash (mystavash)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2006 04:24 pm (UTC)

Sure you aren't MORE annoyed by the technical mistake than the human interest grabby?

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2006 04:50 pm (UTC)

I'm annoyed by both, but the technical mistake requires a little more explaining.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Posted by: mystavash (mystavash)
Posted at: April 24th, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC)

Did you ever hear that country song where the singer is explaining himself to his wife, and changes his story every time she proves him wrong?

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