Sunday, September 02, 2007

You want a friend? Get a ...

Just one of the many ways in which life on the copydesk is like life in Hollywood: You want a friend, get a chupacabras. (Or just get a dog and tell the AP it's a chupacabras.) Otherwise, it's going to get lonely, because an important part of your job is poking holes in the claims that appear to be propelling articles toward the front page.

One classic case is the "We've Got The Bastard" story. Reporters tend to forget that there's only one correct response to "We're gonna charge him any minute," and that's "Thanks, chief; where can I call you tonight to confirm that the charges have been filed?" In the immortal words of Gus Harwell, it ain't a lawsuit until it has a number. And until the paperwork is in place, talk -- no matter how highly placed the source -- is cheap.

Thus, when you see a graf like this one (from Friday's lede story):

Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said the man in custody would be charged today in a Monday assault that killed Sandra Eichorn, 64, a General Motors Corp. retiree. Dunnings said charges for the other attacks would be issued later.

... your first reaction should be to start a pool on when the charges will be filed. Your second is to ask the originating desk how it plans to handle that assertion over the ensuing days until such time as any charges might be filed. Here's how things looked in Saturday's lede story:

Macon's arraignment on the killings was postponed until next week, as Lansing police and Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III compile their case for a string of homicides that unnerved the city for more than a month.

Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley withheld details about the attacks and Macon, saying only that Macon would be charged in Monday's slaying of Sandra Eichorn, 64, a GM retiree who lived alone, and the assault of the 56-year-old woman whose dog chased away her attacker.

And inside Sunday, under the hed "Inmate's family accuses suspect in serial killings" (now there's a source that meets a high burden of proof):

Macon is expected to be arraigned Tuesday on charges related to this week's slaying of 64-year-old Sandra Eichorn and an assault on a 56-year-old woman. Charges against Macon in five other homicides could be filed by Friday.

They sure could! Considering that to date, we've let the cops directly declare this character guilty ("'We’ve arrested a serial killer,' said Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley") and let the prosecutor do so indirectly ("Dunnings said it was unusual for such a case of multiple homicides to be solved so quickly"), one would sort of hope so.

There are copydesk sins of commission here as well. "Lansing residents exhale after arrest of suspect in serial deaths," says the jump hed off Friday's front (reflecting the fourth graf, "And what had been a summer of fear -- especially for women who live alone -- was calmed"). That's a pretty firm conclusion, considering it's drawn from an N of two interviews, the first of them including these sentences: "I hope they got the right guy. I'm still scared. They might have the wrong guy."

It's hard to know exactly what to prescribe. The cops, the mayor and the prosecutor are the ones who've gone out on the limb, and part of our job is to record the wanderings of public officials along whatever limbs they place themselves on. We could consider downplaying the story -- off the front, or at least out of the lede spot -- until the charges come in. We could decline to name suspects unless they're charged. And we could refuse outright to print third-hand swill like this: She added friends and family have called to say they've seen news reports that Macon confessed to several murders including Kronenberg's.

Or at least we can try. That's why you tend to see copy editors in the supermarket on Friday nights, buying those Dinners For One and economy-size bags of Chupacabras Chow.



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