Sunday, November 07, 2010

More random syntax of news

Another distinctive feature of news language is the top-to-bottom way in which it adds details to the "inverted pyramid" it's building. Because it's distinctive, it's especially striking when you get it wrong, and the local fishwrap has particular trouble distinguishing time as a detail from time as a transitional element. Hang on for a few examples.

The details are supposed to be worked in top to bottom, and usually from general to specific. If the lede says two people were shot during a bar fight Saturday on the west side of town, subsequent grafs will tell you which bar, who the victims are, how late in the festivities it happened, and how the victims are doing -- all interspersed with quotes from cops, witnesses or nearby merchants and seasoned with archival information on crime in the neighborhood and over the year.

The trouble comes when those details get mixed up with storytelling techniques: "Shortly before 11 p.m." isn't the same thing as "And before you could say Jack Robinson." As in this one from Saturday's paper:

Later that Sept. 4 morning, federal agents busted a counterfeiting operation in Room 329 at a Best Western hotel in Allen Park, where, according to court documents, they found suspicious money on a bed.

That rang a bell. And this is how it looked two weeks ago:

Moments later, bullets started flying about 7 p.m. Tuesday
outside of the Detroit gas station on Fenkell near Schaefer.

Notice how the details get a little out of order amid all the prepositions at the end? "A Detroit gas station" doesn't add information in the way "the BP station on Fenkell near Schaefer" would, because if it's at Fenkell and Schaefer, it can't help but be a Detroit gas station. But let it not be said that good journalism isn't all about the details:

Lonya Smoot said she heard the gunshots when she was in the gas station buying a lottery ticket Tuesday night, playing her favorite four digits: 1-0-1-1.

Wonder why so many In The Snow, Barefoot, Uphill, Both Ways* newsroom tales have a crusty old editor who made the protagonist a better writer by demanding to know what the dog's name was? Apparently we've managed to convince all the reporters that we really mean it.

Anyway: Rotate your tires, brush after between-meal treats, never follow a kid or animal act, and don't mistake details for journalism.

* Rev. McIntyre recounts a lovely example here, as shared by Doug Fisher (who of course should be on your reading list too). John was kind enough not to name the paper in question. Heh heh.



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