Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lede inflation alert

Desk hands, stand by to ruthlessly enforce the First-Biggest-Only Rule of international reportage, which goes like this:

Whenever a lede declares some event to be the first, biggest or only of its kind, the originating desk is required to provide an explanation of the scoring and a list of the three runners-up or the three closest similar events.

Why do journalists need a rule like this? Because, um, well, some agencies are in the habit of trying to get good play by generating exclusives, and one of the best ways to get an exclusive-sounding lede is to announce loudly that you have a First, Biggest or Only. And if you simply proclaim it, there's no need to do all the pesky research that goes with supporting it.

This sort of thing doesn't happen in real life, does it? Hoo hah:

Americans ship out from Lebanon chaos
1,000 reach Cyprus as evacuation gains steam; thousands remain
McClatchy Newspapers
LARNACA, Cyprus -- In the first mass evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago, a cruise ship with nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon arrived at this small, muggy Mediterranean island early today.

(Oops! Somebody forgot to warn McClatchy that Knight-Ridder was especially prone to fact inflation when it came to covering the world.)

Some papers had the good sense to wave the caution flag a bit:

Evacuation gears up as military steps in
About 6,000 Americans and thousands of other foreigners will leave Lebanon by weekend.
McClatchy Newspapers
LARNACA, Cyprus -- A cruise ship brought nearly 1,000 U.S. citizens fleeing the Mideast violence to this small, muggy Mediterranean island early today.

It was thought to be the biggest evacuation of Americans from foreign soil since the fall of Vietnam three decades ago.

Which is certainly better,* though it raises the obvious question: Thought by whom? That's why we have to have a rule. Somebody needed to ask the originating bureau some basic questions: What's a "mass evacuation"? What are some from the past 30 years that don't qualify? If it's only "thought" to be the "biggest," what did it displace? In other words, where's the scorebook and what are the runners-up?

A little time in the files (by which your adviser here, a practical sort when it comes to desk resources, means 10 minutes or less) would have strongly suggested that the writers are purely and simply blowing smoke. Would 300 people or so count as a "mass evacuation"? If so, it seems to have happened every few years since Saigon changed its name: Ethiopia, 1977; Pakistan, 1979, Sudan, 1986; El Salvador, 1989; Kuwait, 1990; Sierra Leone, 1992; Albania, 1997.

Or do we have to get into four figures? Here's the Post from Tehran in February 1979: Nearly 900 Americans left here today for Western Europe to begin a massive U.S.-government-organized evacuation of its nationals.

And from Angeles in June '91: The United States announced today that it will evacuate all of the more than 20,000 dependents of U.S. service personnel in the Philippines because of an erupting volcano, and an aircraft carrier battle group was dispatched to the islands to assist in the evacuation.

First mass evacuation since Vietnam, eh?

There is sort of a bottom line here, and it seems kind of embarrassing to have to repeat in the broad sunny uplands of 2006, but: Don't make stuff up. It's not worth it. Some readers might be impressed. Others might ask: Do you make everything else up too, or do you just not bother with details?

By the way? In the sweat-the-small-stuff department, that thing in 1975 was the fall of Saigon or the fall of South Vietnam, not the "fall of Vietnam." Vietnam can justifiably claim that it won.

* One does wonder if the Star really thinks all "Mideast violence" is interchangeable.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three words for you:

11:18 PM, July 21, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Missing the old K-R days again, are we?

9:04 AM, July 22, 2006  

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