Saturday, October 15, 2011

Stamp out 'police investigate'

Should we just have a nice old-fashioned rule about this? Any time you find yourself beginning a hed with "Police investigate," back up, delete and start over. No exceptions, no questions. Just do it.

Police investigating southwest Charlotte death

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police homicide detectives are investigating why a woman was found dead in the yard of a southwest Charlotte home early Saturday, after being dropped off at the unoccupied residence by a friend.

Police investigate body found in Steele Creek area

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police are investigating an early morning homicide.*


Here are the broad justifications, should you need them:

1) Whatever the cops are investigating is more interesting than the mere fact that they're investigating it.
2) This will still be true if someone manages to overlook your story for six or eight hours. Real people are not as obsessive about the news as journalists are; if the intarwebs have done anything to journalism that's unambiguously good, it's the conclusive destruction of the cycle paranoia of the three-network era.
3) From which you may conclude that your competition has not stolen a beat on you. Indeed, if the competition is writing "police investigated" and you're writing about what happened, you're ahead -- even if they got there first.

We could talk about the awfulness of the writing that goes along with these heds,* but a look at the pattern of recent weeks is going to give a better idea of when and how fixing the hed should point directly to fixing the lede.

Police investigate Bragg paratrooper's death
Police are investigating the death of a Fort Bragg paratrooper whose body was discovered at his Fayetteville apartment. (Oct. 13)

Police investigate dog fighting incident
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating an incident involving dog fighting in east Charlotte, but one suspect arrested Monday claimed those dogs were just fighting over food. (Oct. 11)

Police investigate 'suspicious device' at ASU
Police in Boone have blocked off traffic and are investigating what they call a suspicious device found near an Appalachian State University building. (Oct. 11)

Police investigate infant's death
Police are investigating the death of an infant girl who was found not breathing Thursday morning at a home just west of Charlotte’s uptown. (Sept. 29)

Police investigate slaying in northeast Charlotte
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are looking for clues in the fatal shooting of a man Monday evening at an apartment on Milton Road in northeast Charlotte. (Sept. 27)

Police investigate child abuse involving three-month-old triplets

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating a case of child abuse involving triplets. (Sept. 20)

Police investigate break-ins at 2 Lincoln schools
Footprints were discovered near an open window Tuesday morning at a Lincoln County elementary school that authorities said was burglarized. (Sept. 13)

Kannapolis police investigate fatal crash
Police are investigating a crash that killed a woman Tuesday afternoon in Kannapolis. (Aug. 30)

Police investigate 2-month-old's death

Statesville police are investigating the death of a 2-month-old after the baby was found unresponsive over the weekend by a babysitter, the Statesville Record & Landmark is reporting. (Aug, 30)

Deputies investigate Lake Wylie bank robbery

Deputies are investigating a possible robbery a Lake Wylie area bank. (Aug. 29)

Police investigate shooting in two-car chase

One person was critically injured when shots were fired from one car to another early Sunday in what police described as an aggressive "moving altercation." (Aug. 28)

Police investigate Cornelius arson

Authorities are investigating a case of arson at a home in Cornelius that police said has previously caught fire under suspicious circumstances. (Aug. 27)

Police investigate fatal shooting in west Charlotte
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating a fatal shooting of a man overnight in a vacant house at 2508 Columbus Circle in west Charlotte.
(Aug. 24)

Get the idea? Once your heds talk about outcomes rather than processes, somebody might conclude that your ledes should too. That won't be the end of the War on Editing, or the beginning of the end, but it might indicate the end of the beginning.

* Yes, these are two versions of the same story, both on the homepage: one apparently as written by the TV "news partner," the other given minimal touch-up by the newspaper staff. The War on Editing has taken its toll.
** Whatever the cops are investigating, it isn't "why" the woman was found dead.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Hear hear. And the write-around is usually very easy too: 'Fort Bragg paratrooper found dead at his apartment'; '"Suspicious device" found at ASU' etc (credit to the original headline in the third example for those perfectly deployed claim quotes, though).

The only thing I would say is that the 'police investigate' formula does have some limited usefulness when the incident in question is not obviously a crime, or not usually a crime.

For instance, in the second example, the simple write-around doesn't work very well. 'Dogs found fighting in east Charlotte' is hardly news; it's the presence of the police in the headline that signals we might be looking at a case of organised cruelty. And it avoids the kinds of legal hedging/qualification that doesn't sit well in the passive voice: 'Possible case of dog fighting being investigated in east Charlotte' is both duller and longer than the 'police investigate...' formula.

Most of the time, though, the fact that 'the police are investigating' is the most obvious, and least interesting, part of the story.

7:21 AM, October 16, 2011  
Blogger fev said...

Yes, exactly. In most of these is a passive clause just waiting to jump out and get the attention of the coffee-deprived reader.

I think you have the right idea about the exceptions too; the dogfighting and abuse stories are about stuff that's asserted but not yet demonstrated (in the way a body in the yard will tend to do). But even if there's nothing manifest in the lede, there should be something a few grafs away (the arrests, in those cases) to fit the bill.

9:01 PM, October 16, 2011  

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