Monday, October 20, 2008

How not to write cop stories

This compact set of object lessons in Getting The Basics Wrong comes to you courtesy of the local paper (the one up by the pub, not the mighty engines of freedom down in the 313):

Drunken driver strikes bicyclist
(Guilty, guilty, guilty: Thanks for sparing us the expense of the trial, Judge Trib!)

CLAWSON — Police are investigating a personal injury accident involving a 53-year-old Clawson man who was struck by a suspected drunken female motorist from Troy.

Here's a basic proposition: If the cops aren't doing their job, you can begin with an active "Police are" sentence. Otherwise, you really ought to start by telling me what happened (especially if it's Sunday and the daily paper is just getting around to stuff that happened Wednesday). "Personal injury accident" is jargon, and turgid jargon at that. How did the accident "involve" the man? Is a "suspected drunken female motorist" suspected of being drunk, of being female, or both? How and when does the Trib decide to mark gender? Do you write a lot about suspected male embezzlers and indicted lady doctors and suspected drunken male motorists, or are you just kind of making it up as you go along?

The incident occurred around 10:19 p.m. Wednesday when police were dispatched to the 900 block of North Main Street and found a bicyclist on the ground with apparent injuries and a motorist standing by who told police she had struck him with her car.

Let's stay away from "incident." Don't use "around" when you have the time to the minute ("around 10:15" is OK, but it's "at" 10:16). Usually, accidents occur before (not "when") the cops are sent (not "dispatched"). If this one's different, we got us a lead story -- certainly compared with "Residents fight to save Days Hotel."

Detective Lt. Scott Sarvello said the man had extensive internal injuries and was transported to William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he remained in the Intensive Care Unit as of Friday morning.

"Taken," not "transported" (if your goal in life is to sound like a police dispatcher, you're in the wrong business)."Intensive care unit" is a common noun, not a proper noun. And -- is this getting a little embarrassing? It's the Sunday paper, and the best we can do is report on the guy's condition as of Friday morning?

It doesn't get much better. We learn that the driver was "lodged at the Troy Police Department," but not whether there's been any change to that situation since Wednesday night. And we infer that the reporter never got the lecture about not saying "arrested for." By which time you've already had a chance to compose your own fairly concise lede, on the order of "A bicyclist from Clawson was listed in guarded condition [FILL IN DATE AFTER REMINDING REPORTER THAT HOSPITALS ARE OPEN ON WEEKENDS] after a collision with a motorist who was accused of intoxicated driving."

Small-town papers used to be the sort of place where greisly old editors wrung the bad habits out of fledgling writers (and if the story got past the first gate, the copydesk would take it out to the loading dock and pummel it into submission). If those papers still want to stake a claim on people's media dollar, they might want to start by observing some basic standards of reporting -- and storytelling.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

You do kind of get the impression that the story's been lying around till they had room for it...

5:43 AM, October 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a posting from a bitter, unemployed, wannabe writer.

1:29 PM, March 24, 2009  

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