Monday, August 29, 2005

Sounding like a journalist (without sounding like a journalist)

Moving rapidly up the list of Phrases I Will Ban Outright When I Become Pope Of Journalism is "shots fired." It's threatening to close in on "Police responded to," and it's on the list for a similar reason: It sounds like a journalist trying to sound like a cop.

Here's the opposition on two apparently unrelated shootings, one of which fell on Missourian time and one on Trib time:

Police received a report of a drive-by shooting at 1:47 p.m. yesterday on Third Avenue near Garth Avenue.

... Police responded just before 2:30 a.m. today to a report of shots fired in the area of Sexton Road and Banks Avenue.

"Receiving reports" and "responding" are part of the cops' job description. In every case I can think of (not just gunplay, though that does sort of underscore the point), what the cops are responding to, or receiving reports about, is more interesting than a sentence that begins by telling me the cops are going about their routine. If this sounds like a suggestion that many, if not most, cop ledes should consider the passive voice over the active, it is:

A drive-by shooting was reported yesterday afternoon ...
Gunshots were reported around 2:30 this morning at ...

Which leads us back to "shots fired" and:

A person inside the truck then began firing shots out the driver’s side.

The nice thing about "shooting" or "gunshots" is that you can get to the point -- gun goes "bam" -- with one word instead of two. And if you've shaken the "shots fired" mentality, you're more likely to write "began firing out the driver's side," rather than "began firing shots out the driver's side."

The Missourian's take is better, but not quite there:
Shortly after the report of shots fired, police stopped a blue car at about 2 p.m. near Providence Road and Switzler Street.

If you're still not comfortable calling it a "shooting" (though both the lede and the hed do), at least make it "shortly after the shooting was reported": It's passive, but it puts "shooting" before "report."

Here's another cop cliche that -- upon reflection and a not-too-deep breath -- can be edited out of every story it appears in:

Police at the scene recovered several shell casings from a handgun.

That's as opposed to what: The cops back at the station? The ones on the other side of town? Any prepositional phrase in a police or fire report whose object is "the scene" -- "Firefighters arrived at the scene," "the suspect fled from the scene" -- should be whacked forthwith unless someone can make a compelling argument for its presence.

One more peeve, and while phrasing of this sort has different values these days in the wake of all the navel-gazing about named and unnamed sources, I'd still argue that tighter is better:

There were no injuries or identifiable damage to any property, according to a release from Sgt. Ken Smith of the Columbia Police Department.

There were no injuries or identifiable damage to any property, police said.

(No one was hurt and no damage was reported, Sgt. Ken Smith said in a release.)

Since the first two words of the lede are "Columbia police," you can save five words in a hurry by lopping off "of the Columbia Police Department." More to the point: Assuming that we're satisfied enough with the official-ness of police press releases to rely on them, what's the actual, end-of-the-day value of identifying the guy who wrote the release? Does it have any real merit, or does it just make newspapers feel better about the WMD thing?

Then there's the strictly mercenary way of looking at it (if you know this part, you can close your eyes and come in on the chorus). In type, version #2 is two lines shorter than version #1. Two lines is a fourth of an inch. Whenever you serve an inch less foam, you're serving an inch more beer.


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