Sunday, February 19, 2006

Everybody PANIC! No, let's don't

Today's theme is the defensive lapse, because defense, in general, is what copydesks play. Occasionally those plays are spectacular, but more often they look routine -- usually because some smart editor was already moving into position when the play began. In that sense, we have primarily ourselves to blame for the classic desk complaint: People never talk about the good plays, only about the bad ones.

This one's worth a moment's notice because it looks like a question that didn't get asked in a deadline story (readers who were on hand are encouraged to check in with details). The defense put 2 and 2 together and got 2+2 when what it needed was 4, and a lapse got through.

Bomb scare at Charlotte bus station
Streets blocked after false alarm
Authorities evacuated the Charlotte Transportation Center Saturday night because of a bomb threat that turned out to be a false alarm, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

Police responded to the scene after bus station workers found a suspicious package in the terminal, according to CATS officials.

See the disconnect? First there's a bomb threat, then there's a suspicious package (which turns out to be an empty bag toward the end of the tale). That's the 2+2, but what's missing is someone to ask the "4" question: Which was it? A bomb threat (somebody on the phone saying "There's a bomb in your transit center") or a bomb scare (somebody seeing a Suspicious Package)?

As a consequence, the story rapidly plummets into Dangeresque territory:

The Charlotte Bobcats Arena, across the street from the station, was filled with Charlotte Checkers fans Saturday during the incident. About 12,000 to 14,000 spectators attended the hockey game, oblivious to the threat lurking next door.

What exactly was it that was "lurking" next door (or across the street), a threat or a scare? Being oblivious to a false alarm isn't the same thing as being oblivious to a threat.

It would have been nice if someone had ironed out the routine bad writing: Police respond! To the scene! On the scene! During the incident! And along with the laundry list of agencies that showed up, this perennial favorite:

The police bomb squad was called to investigate.

Honest, I didn't think they were called because we were running out of doughnuts.

Those are minor irritants in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things, though. The big deal is to figure out which of two distinct things is going on before you pull the trigger on a story. "Tell both sides and let readers puzzle it out" is OK for some events (fewer than you'd think). It doesn't work for bomb threats that might or might not be bomb scares.


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