Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The vanishing editor

Bible, handcuffs, diaper in abduction baffles Toledo police
Pretty striking hed to appear in the late edn of a once-major metropolitan daily, huh? What do you figure: implausible elision, inability to figure out that three things in the subject ought to take a plural verb once we get to the predicate,* or spectacularly misplaced comma? ("Bible handcuffs diaper in abduction, baffles Toledo police") Let's go to the lede and see:

TOLEDO -- A Toledo man accused of kidnapping, handcuffing and holding captive in an adult diaper a 22-year-old woman he picked up off the streets in Detroit said he was trying to "save her," according to authorities.

There's something about the mention of adult diapers that appears to bring out the inner junior-high student in every reporter. Think back to the Astro-Nut case (can it actually be two years ago this month?**), in which the diaper angle seems to have persisted as a defining symbol despite there being, um, apparently no reason to believe it after the first few days. You have to wonder why people still worry that The Children will stumble across a spicy tale in the newspaper; were I the Freep desk, I'd be worried that the grownups might find it.

Suspect's Name, 34, also read the Bible to Complainant's Name, the Detroit woman who told investigators Name handcuffed her by the wrists and ankles in his west Toledo apartment. He also took off her clothes, dressed her in an adult diaper and gave her no food and little to drink, she told investigators.

Names elided because -- has it occurred to anyone at the Freep desk yet that we're very close to the dim gray line at which a victim of a crime becomes a victim of a sex crime as well? About which the paper occasionally claims to uphold the prevailing industry standard? ("The Free Press does not typically identify alleged sex-crimes victims" is a pretty good approximation of the garden-variety insert; well-edited papers don't say "alleged victim," any more than they say "alleged rapist.")

Editors are supposed to do more than display minimal grammatical competence in the big type. They also need to be the ones who ask whether news coverage is written up to standard. Policies and guidelines aren't there for easy cases. They're there for hard cases: when the assigning desk goes all goofy (d00d! Diapers! Get 'em in the lede!) and somebody has to be the annoying Pulitzer-killer who says no, kidnapping and the lot really aren't very funny.***

When it comes to naming crime victims and accusers, I'm in the unpopular camp: The burden of proof is on people who want to put names in the paper, not on those who want to keep names out of the paper.**** Grammar is nice, but it'd be even nicer if editors held to some basic standards, even in the face of temptation-by-adult-diapers. Let's try to think that one through a bit better next time, shall we?

* The verb in the online hed is "baffle." I'm sitting here looking at the print edn, though, and it's "baffles" as quoted above. I don't know if we're in final-final-final edn territory, but we're well south of 11 Mile, if that helps.
** Time's fun when you're having flies.
*** Not to be rude, but if you think the hed would have read "Bible, handcuffs, diaper" had the accuser been from the Pointes rather than Detroit proper, I will politely suggest that you are deeply and genuinely bereft of clues.
**** I/we have some dear professional and academic friends who disagree, and they are welcome to chime in.


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