Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wire Week: News judgment and you

We talked a bit last week about the pressure in newsrooms to play ABA, or Anybody But AP, with international/national coverage. The main presumption underlying that is that the creditline is the primary or sole measure of a story's quality; reporting, proximity, context, clarity are all secondary. It's not a very good way of making decisions, but as a heuristic, it makes sense: Cognitive resources you save by making a quick judgment-by-creditline are resources you can spend somewhere else.

Here's a nice example of how ABA can go wrong:
Washington Post
Ira Levin, 78, a writer of entertaining if highly implausible suspense novels, including "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys From Brazil," as well as the long-running Broadway play "Deathtrap," died Monday at his home in New York after an apparent heart attack.

Levin's novels, whose plots centered on urban Satanists, creepily submissive wives and a Nazi doctor's efforts to clone Adolf Hitler, were praised for their taut and imaginative writing. At times, the books were criticized for questionable taste and stretching credulity to its limits, but they were unremittingly popular with readers.

The second graf is garden-variety mud-on-the-wall bad journalistic writing. Levin's novels don't center on Satanists, suburban wives and fugitive Nazis; those are the plots of the three mentioned in the lede. But the problem is the lede and its undisguised snark. "Entertaining if highly implausible" is elite-speak for "you and I don't actually read this stuff, do we?" Whether we do or don't, that's missing the point. Suspense novels often have this certain -- you know, implausibility about them. And it's OK! Dudes get raised from the dead! Dudes turn into bats! Yur geometry it is all wrong!

Here's a better choice, from the Freep:

Ira Levin, a mild-mannnered playwright and novelist who liked nothing better than to give people the creeps -- and who did so repeatedly, with best-selling novels such as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives" and "The Boys from Brazil" -- has died at 78.

None of which makes Ira Levin a better or worse writer, which isn't a problem. The obit isn't a place for the obit writer to demonstrate how far his/her tastes are from the madding crowd's. It's a place to chronicle stuff and put it into context. Sort of like ... journalism!

Lesson for editors? Discrimination is part of your job. Judge stories by content, not by creditline. No matter what the Stepford Wives tell you.


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