Monday, January 11, 2010

News first

Here's a familiar tip again: If you can cover up the lede and start right in on the second graf with no headache, dizziness or other side effects, you have chosen the wrong lede:

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local law enforcement officials have a message for snowmobilers: safety first.

Thanks for the tip, but why stop there? Wouldn't Gov. Palin agree? Why not call the White House press office too? Wouldn't Laurel and Hardy agree? Wouldn't Smokey agree?

Sure. Unless they were reading the second graf because, oh, it had some news and was interesting:

Two snowmobilers died early Sunday in Lowell Township, in Kent County, after the sled struck a tree.

Deleting the lede would be a good start, but only a start. I'm glitching on the hed too: Does "die because of accident on snowmobile" mean more deaths from the snowmobile accident last week,* or are these from a fresh accident? And then there's the third graf:

Their deaths likely will add to a growing count of snowmobile fatalities across the state.

How -- I hear you asking plaintively -- is that gonna work? Under what circumstances would two deaths not add to the current total of deaths? Read on a little and you can see where the reporter went off track:

As of Jan. 3, the DNR had nine reported fatalities so far this year -- up three from the same time last year.

There were two deaths in White Lake Township and one in Ogemaw County earlier this month. (Nine "this year" and three "this month" don't add up very well, since at this point "this year" is "this month." Did the writer mean "this winter?")

But Mary Detloff, a spokeswoman for the DNR, said last week that the current increase in the number of deaths doesn't indicate an upward trend in fatalities. According to DNR statistics, there have been 20 to 24 fatalities each season since 2005-06. (Ah. The third graf isn't confused about whether deaths count or not, it's trying to get at whether this season is shaping up to be worse than others.)

There's a lot to do there: Kill a lede, straighten out some logic, scrub out a little overt silliness, change "fatalities" to "deaths" in maybe half a dozen cases, check the titles on all the officials who helpfully remind you not to run into stuff at high speed at night, and write a nonambiguous hed. It wouldn't take long to make this a better -- to be specific, a much less bad -- story. But it does take time and editors and at least a bit of a mission to keep bad stuff out of the paper. When the paper doesn't care, we can tell. Really fast.

* Which had a genuinely awful explain-don't-tell hed too: "Caution couldn't prevent wreck." What the hed means is that the cautions that were taken didn't prevent the wreck; they don't make crystal balls big enough to indicate whether some level of caution could have prevented the wreck.

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Anonymous raYb said...

That has all the earmarks of a new reporter told to write a story and didn't have an editor who did more than check spelling. It's an old story and the only fresh thing is the "safety first" add. Outside all the foolishness pointed out, the reporter even called a snowmobile a "sled." That's good writing; it's got variety. An "elongated red sled" would've been great, though.

10:22 AM, January 12, 2010  

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