Sunday, February 17, 2008

Another day in the news mine

Today's news quiz: What's missing from this AP lede? [Answer below]

NEW YORK — A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

One of the advantages of regular visits by our non-journalist friends is that they don't take for granted all the things that journalists do -- for instance, the idea that "news" is some sort of naturally occurring substance that's found by trained engineers, then dug out and refined and shipped to your doorstep in easy-to-use lengths. Hence, I think, a complaint last week about this paragraph in a cop tale:

A person who did not identify himself at Nelson's Wallbrook Avenue home last night declined to comment.

"What?" asks The Ridger (who wins top coolness points for getting "Gricean violation" into the hed). "What are the reporters (there are two) trying to tell us with that comment? Why is it there?" From the minehead, of course, the answer seems simple: Because that's what cop news looks like. It follows maxims of conversation, but in this case the conversation is with craft norms, rather than with the audience. Two questions are being answered: Did we check at the home for comment, and did we explain why somebody who's being quoted (even if he's quoted as not-being-quoted) in the paper isn't identified by name? The result is certainly "transparent," to drag in one of the industry's vogue terms. But it doesn't seem to be transparent about anything particularly relevant.

You can see something similar in this concluding paragraph from the tale quoted at the outset:

There was no telephone listing for Matias at the address provided by police.

And this, from another AP story on the page:

No one answered the door Saturday morning at the Urbana home of Kazmierczak's sister, Susan. But sobs could be heard through the door, where a posted statement said:

"We are both shocked and saddened. In addition to the loss of innocent lives, Steven was a member of our family. We are grieving his loss as well as the loss of life resulting from his actions."


The signal isn't there to provide you with data; it's there to remind you that the rules of cop news are being followed. Sort of like the second graf of a four-graf AP story (yes, today's harvest is a convenience sample from Fox News):

A 4-year-old girl was in critical condition, fire Lt. Larry Cry said. Officials had earlier said the girl died but recanted.*

By volume, that's a lot of story to spend on saying why something isn't. Do readers need to know that what they didn't know was wrong? No, but again, the point isn't to add more ones and zeroes to the mix; it's to explain why the story should be considered more important than it looks, even though we now know no one died.

That's sort of a long way of explaining why news sounds the way it does. Facts in the wild don't always look like "news"; they need a little social construction before they become the gleaming product you see before you. No wonder it looks strange to people who don't know the assorted secret handshakes.

So here again is the quiz from the top of the program. What's missing from this lede?
A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

Here's a similar story from December, if that helps:
A Canadian man has been charged with murdering his own daughter, and her friends say the two clashed over her refusal to wear a Muslim head scarf.

And one from January:
A man on the run from police since his teenage daughters were found shot to death in a taxicab on New Year's Day had threatened to hurt one of the girls for dating a non-Muslim boy, according to police documents.

So when the AP writes about fathers accused of killing their purportedly immodest daughters, religion usually has some prominence in the lede. Wonder why the social construction of news leaves that datum out for Miguel Matias. Perhaps other readers do too.

* Shouldn't we save "recant" for the sort of thing you do when the inquisitors are about to tie you to the stake? Just wondering. (Assuming you can figure out from the sentence who did the recanting.)

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4 Comments:

Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

I thought these things came from the paragraph factory, but maybe you're getting the raw material straight from the mine.

9:21 PM, February 17, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Well... if nothing else, it was a good excuse to dig out the Johnson Mountain Boys' version of "Blue Diamond Mines."

11:33 PM, February 17, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Funnily, I was just listening to Roy Orbison's "You're the only one" in which he gives this advice to the broken hearted: "Take a look through history, recant some bit of poetry - you'll find the words still ring true: Some thing don't last, some things do."

If he meant "recant" the lyric works, still, but very differently...

7:42 AM, February 18, 2008  
Blogger Phillip said...

NEW YORK — A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

*** I'll bet there was more to it than that. ***

10:17 AM, February 18, 2008  

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