Saturday, January 05, 2013

Tabloid story of the (still-young) year

You should probably just go enjoy this one in its entirety, because perfect examples of the tabloid story -- the sourcing, the breathless shrillness, the painstaking ineptitude -- don't come around too often. But there are a few things to remark on.

For one, there are the claim quotes around "drunkard," an unusually British affectation for a paper that sports an American flag in the nameplate. Do not expect to win a libel suit on this one, kiddies. If you call the guy a "murderer," you've called him a murderer. (Likewise the online hed, 'Boozed-up' plane passenger duct-taped to his seat to stop rampage: sources; the quotes wouldn't save you even if they represented a real quote.)

While we're on the subject of holes you're asking your lawyer to dig you out of? "Drunkard" doesn't mean "somebody who's drunk." Look it up.

Let's admire the balance of sources for a bit:

He couldn’t break this seal!

A JFK-bound passenger flying high on duty-free liquor had to be duct-taped to his seat to stop a midair rampage — which included shouts that the plane was going down, sources said yesterday.

Good so far?

... “He drank an entire bottle of hard liquor two to three hours into the flight,” said Manhattan resident Andy Ellwood. 

Great! Let's count everyone else who speaks for the story, in order:

... a source said.

... the source added.

... a source said.

... a police source said.

... Ellwood said.

... according to accounts from terrified passengers.

 ... a police source said.

... Ellwood said.

... a law-enforcement source said.

... a law-enforcement source said.

... the source added.

... a source said.
By the normal rules of grammar, I get three "sources," two "police sources" and two "law-enforcement sources," along with the terrified passengers and the actually identified Manhattanite. Good thing we don't need attribution for the really important parts!

An off-duty captain helped the good Samaritans hold him down while Icelandair’s flight crew closed in with green duct tape and Flex cuffs, which they used to bind the man around the ankles and knees.

They duct-taped Sauronsson to his seat and gagged his big mouth — just for good measure.

Elongated-yellow-fruit-wise, we could also count up the number of ways we refer to the perp:

... The relentless drunk  

... the alleged drunk

... the divorced boozehound

 ... the menace

Quite a lot we have going on, innit? 

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Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Agreed, the claim quotes aren't going to save you, but in this case that's mainly because the Post hasn't even bothered to attribute the allegation consistently throughout the article. No point in calling him the 'alleged drunk' halfway down the piece when you've already called him a relentless drunk, no quotes, some paragraphs earlier. In court, this one wouldn't even get as far as a discussion of the uncertain protective abilities of the claim quote.

On the subject of anonymous sources, we also ought to say that even if you supply a name and address for everyone you quote in the article, that still won't you save you if what they allege turns out to be untrue and defamatory (not even if they're a police officer).

5:44 AM, January 06, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

But we could certainly add a Criminal Allegations Codicil to the Manual of Claim Quotes Usage, to the effect that claim quotes aren't suitable for heavy criminal allegations against named persons.

In fact, in the UK you see fewer claim quotes in crime reporting than you might think, in part because contempt of court rules are so fierce that once charges have been brought, you're only allowed to report the barest facts: name, age, address, charge etc.

7:08 AM, January 06, 2013  

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