Sunday, May 04, 2008

Immediately unclear

With just a few drops of Journalism® brand news routine, the slightly unusual can be transformed into the almost entirely incomprehensible! Let's watch as Fox (and the AP) show us how.

Cops: Naked man takes woman hostage in Illinois
ROCKFORD, Ill. — Police in Rockford, Illinois, have arrested a 32-year-old naked man who allegedly took a woman hostage and threw furniture out an apartment window during a standoff with authorities.

You can tell from the hed why this is a front-page story. It allows several triple-word-score-type hed terms ("naked," "woman" and "hostage") that automatically elevate a story's importance in Fox World. Regular readers can no doubt name some others: "missing," "pregnant," "mom" and "Marine," for example. So this isn't a perfect story -- "Naked Marine takes missing pregnant mom hostage"* would be closer -- but it's evidently a very, very good story.

The lede presents some problems, though. It's been second-cycled ("police arrest man," not "man takes hostage"), so it conflicts with the hed. Because it's active, it foregrounds the subject ("police") rather than the object ("fridge-hurling naked dude"). The adjective order is backward: It needs to distinguish one guy (naked) from other 32-year-old men, not one guy (age 32) from the other naked men strolling through downtown Rockford with ... you know, baseball bats in hand. (As we'll get to in a moment.) And I can't tell what's going on in the predicate of the relative clause. Does "allegedly"** go with both verbs, or just the taking? Did the hostage-taking happen during the standoff, or was that just the furniture-tossing?

Here's the lede from the originating paper. It's not exactly Homer (despite the syllepsis), but it is fairly clear about what went on:

A naked man locked himself in an apartment, hurling furniture and curse words out a window at police during a more-than-three-hour standoff Saturday afternoon.

But back to the AP:

No injuries were reported in yesterday's standoff which lasted more than three hours.

With fraternal greetings to both sides in the Great Which Hunt, let's suggest that the biggest problem isn't the use of "which" with restrictive (or "integrated relative") clauses. "A date which will live in infamy" is as clear as it gets. The problem is the lack of a comma to mark the nonrestrictive ("supplemental") clause, as above.

Kevin Bailey was charged with assault on a police officer, unlawful restraint and criminal damage to property.

According to the Rockford Register Star, police were called to an apartment after reports of a man knocking on doors with a baseball bat. (In the original, they were called to an apartment building, which is rather different, and it was "a man with a baseball bat knocking on doors," not "knocking on doors with a baseball bat." The urge to "improve" copy by screwing with it at random never goes away.)

Authorities say Bailey sprayed an officer with a fire extinguisher, ran into a woman's apartment and took her hostage. (Help me out on the sequence here, authorities -- and you too, AP. Bat in one hand, fire extinguisher in the other? Or did he drop the bat and then pick up the fire extinguisher?)

Bailey barricaded himself in a bathroom naked. He allegedly threw a television and dresser out the window.

Help! Has he been naked all this time? Or did nakedness ensue somewhere between the fire extinguisher scene and the bathroom? Has the hostage been released yet? (I'm not quite prepared to take the source paper's definition of "elderly" on faith -- there are reporters to whom it apparently means "50 or over" -- but from the original, this appears to have happened in city-run housing for the elderly, which seems worth mentioning.)

How hostage, and for that matter how naked, were the participants during the three-hour standoff? The AP doesn't say; we have to go back to the originating paper to find out that the initial call came at 1:48p and the woman had been freed by 2:15p; that's when the bathroom standoff began. It's still a little vague on when the protagonist went naked on us, but "police were called ... because of a man with a baseball bat knocking on doors" -- you figure we would have been told if it had been a naked man knocking on doors? But on to the thrilling conclusion:

It was immediately unclear if Bailey had an attorney.

This is not a pragmatic violation. The AP is second-cycling, remember, meaning it has to see if it can get some comment from the defense side. So it calls the cop shop and finds out -- well, most likely that nobody on duty knows if a lawyer's been appointed or hired or has seen the suspect. So AP can't provide a comment because it's not clear -- at least, not immediately -- whether there's someone it can find to provide a comment.

Somehow -- Strunk and Orwell, tag team of the century! -- somebody decided that the preceding concept had to be expressed in "positive form." Meaning, apparently, that we can't say what it wasn't (clear) when we can say what it was (unclear). The trouble is the adverb:

Wasn't immediately clear = wasn't clear when we called but might become clear soon
Was immediately unclear = all at once, it became unclear (as if the AP turned off the light on you, which is more or less what happened)

That's a lot of damage to do to a small amount of data -- particularly when you consider news writing's claim to put accuracy and clarity above all things. Makes you wonder why we spend so much time making fun of the academics.

* If you throw in a couple of automatic Fox villians, like George Soros and the U.N., you could get "Naked Soros takes missing pregnant Marine hostage at U.N." It's really motivational to know there's always a higher goal to shoot for.
** Yes, kiddies, it's still a dumb idea to think "allegedly" helps in a situation like this.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"Naked Soros takes missing pregnant Marine mom hostage at U.N."

But - honestly. "It was immediately unclear if Bailey had an attorney." Did anybody read that?

5:38 PM, May 04, 2008  
Blogger Tybalt said...

Source : "You gotta get over here, there's a guy barricaded himself in an apartment over at the Sunset Towers, he's got no clothes on, he's taken a hostage and he's throwing shit out the window!"

Reporter : "Wait, hang on a sec. You gotta stay with me here... DOES HE HAVE AN ATTORNEY!?!?"

6:56 PM, May 04, 2008  

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