Monday, July 11, 2005

Thirteen ways of looking at a cops lede

Well, that could be a slight exaggeration. Or one of those bursts of false precision ("78.2 percent of all polling stories contain at least one bit of basic statistical distortion") we use to draw you into a story. But the point is that there are usually a number of different ways of presenting the same basic chunks of data, and some (few) of them are better than others (most).

Conveniently, half a tabloid column in one issue of the Missourian (June 26, if you're scoring along at home) yields three distinct things you shouldn't do with the cops lede:

"On Friday, authorities released the names of all the people injured and killed in last Sunday's van accident on Interstate 70 west of Columbia."

"Columbia police arrested Ronald C. Harris, 25, on suspicion of discharging a weapon within city limits at 10:50 p.m. Friday night in the 1100 block of Jefferson Street."

"Verinda Ellis, 29, and Darrick Andre Higgs, 28, were arrested when police served a narcotics search warrant Friday evening in the 600 block of Worley Street."

In the first case, the writer compounds the problem of being late (and until there's a Saturday Missourian, we'll always be late with Friday news) by preposing it. All of a sudden, the focus of the lede is that something happened on Friday, rather than what it was that happened. The last victims of a gruesome crash have been identified.

This is getting to be a fairly common mistake, too. Here's one from July 3: "Early Saturday morning, a driver swerved off the road, knocked out three trees and struck a pole, cutting a transformer and causing a blackout around the East Campus area, said MU Police Captain Scott Richardson." And one from Friday: "On Thursday, Gov. Matt Blunt banned prescription drugs such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra for most of Missouri's Medicaid recipients."

Contrast those with this feature lede (19A, June 26): "At 6 a.m. on a Friday in early June, a small group of volunteers waited in line outside a classroom at Christian Fellowship Church." It works in part because one of the things the story is about is being up at 6 a.m. on a Friday in June. News ledes usually aren't. So as a rule, never start a news story with a time element (and if you do, don't make the denizens of East Campus wade through all that swerving, knocking, striking and cutting before they find out that some idiot knocked out their power).

The second lede, "Columbia police arrested," wastes space by using the active voice. How can the active voice, universally praised as more concise, end up wasting space? Because arrests are what we call a "single-actor" phenomenon. The Shriners don't make arrests. Toots and the Maytals don't make arrests. Cops are what make arrests. Prepose the object -- that's the beauty of the passive voice -- and you're automatically telling a better story. (The clumsy, confusing welter of prepositional phrases at the end of the lede speaks for itself. That's not writing, that's stenography. And haven't we been over the bit about "10:50 p.m. Friday night"?)

"Verinda Ellis, 29, and Darrick Andre Higgs, 28, were arrested ..." gets the verb voice right but makes a different assumption: Your readers must all care a lot about what Verinda and Darrick are up to. That seems unlikely. Being specific works against you here. Start general: "Two people were arrested ..."

You might correctly notice that this suggests a rather formulaic approach: Find the elements that are most important. Be general until you need to be specific. Use the passive voice when the grammatical object is the focus of interest:

"The remaining victims of a traffic accident last week that killed five people have been identified."

"A Columbia man was arrested Friday night on suspicion of discharging a firearm within city limits."

"Two people were arrested during a drug search Friday at..."

And that's the point. Nobody's saying cops ledes aren't formulaic. But why use a bad formula when you can use one that works?


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