Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tastes like a freight train, sounds like chicken

An old pal from down in hurricane country questions the NYT's lede on the Alabama shootings:

A gunman shot and killed at least 10 people, including several members of his family, on Tuesday afternoon in what officials said was the worst shooting in Alabama.

"Does this need a time qualifier," she asks, "like 'in Alabama history' or 'ever in Alabama' or 'in Alabama in the past week'? Or is this just the new way of writing such things?"

On reflection, I'm inclined to say yes and no. No, I expect it's a standard news lede that got left in the dryer at the NYT a little too long, and yes, it's missing a time limitation. I can't provide a rule,* but I'll try an analogy: "That was the best performance in the ACC tournament." The thought isn't closed** until I know how much tournament you mean: This year? Ever for all time amen? In the hubris-laden phrase of Mike O'Koren, "so far"?***

So this is probably just a one-off, but it's an interesting one-off -- not just because it's unusual for the heavily edited Times, but because cop coverage in general is so thoroughly built from off-the-shelf parts. Language Log readers have probably noticed this morning's comment on the Google frequency of the phrase "before turning the gun on himself." I'm not sure that suggests how thoroughly we've become inured to the frequency of shooting rampages (the technical journalistic term, of course, is "spree") as much as it indicates that everyone involved knows what the building blocks of that story look like, where to find them and how to put them together -- the way tornadoes sound like freight trains and slightly exotic foods actually taste like chicken. (I was going to point out unlike most such stories, no one had yet described the gunman as a quiet fella who kind of kept to himself, but I see from the latest AP update that he was "shy, quiet and laid-back.")

You've probably seen most of these in crime stories, of whatever scale:

You-are-there details: At the hardware store, yellow tape was strung across the front of the store where at least five bullet holes punctured the glass windows to the store, with its wheelbarrows and Adirondack lawn chairs on display. An orange-and-black sign to the store reading "Closed" lay on the ground outside the store atop the glass shards.

This just in: Police had hung white sheets to the entranceway to shield the scene where authorities said a black hearse that pulled away late Tuesday was transporting victims' bodies. ("Transport," in cop-blotter-speak, doesn't need the "to ..." argument; "two people were transported" means something on the order of "two people were taken to the hospital").

Syntax that doesn't quite logically mesh with the data:

The bloodshed began when McLendon burned down his mother's house in Kinston, according to Coffee County Coroner Robert Preachers. Authorities found Lisa McLendon's body inside, but they had not determined how she died or whether she was a 10th victim of her son's spree. (If we aren't sure if she was a victim of the spree, are we sure that's where the bloodshed began? And if that's where it began, how could she be the 10th victim?)

Once investigators got a look at the ammunition he was carrying, they feared the bloodshed could have been worse. (They might have "realized" it at this point, but it's unlikely they "feared" it.)

The witnesses know their parts too:

"We could have been caught up in it just as well as anyone else," he said.

"I first thought it was somebody playing," McCullough said.

The value of novelty moves stuff to the top, even if its relevance isn't known. As best I can tell, these are sequential updates:

Tuesday's shootings in a mostly rural area near the Florida border were believed to be the work of Michael McLendon, who lived with his mother and once worked at a local metal plant.

The man believed responsible for gunning down 10 in rural Alabama quit his job at a sausage plant days before the deadly spree.

Authorities say an Alabama gunman who killed 10 people and himself in a rampage had once trained as a police officer.

A man who killed 10 people in two rural Alabama counties before committing suicide had been keeping a list of those "who done him wrong," a district attorney said Wednesday.

That last one is actually pretty striking, but not for the appearance of the grudge list. If the fuller quote in the third graf -- "We found a list of people he worked with, people who had done him wrong" -- is correct, the lede is an unusually direct violation of standard news practice and AP's specific stylebook entry: Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.**** Here, though, the lede isn't even cleaning the DA up; it's making him sound like a freaking country song. Inferences may be drawn about your local news outfit's remaining interest in the craft of editing by that quote's appearance tomorrow. [UPDATE: The AP appears to have written the story through, correcting the lede to conform with the 3rd graf, half an hour after this version moved. It's worth noting that USAT is using a staff-written version, with a hed based on the "done him wrong" quote from the AP.]

News is (generally, hopefully, probably) about what's new. But it's also about what's familiar about what's new. When somebody says the tornado sounded like a chicken or the rattlesnake souffle tasted like a freight train, the world is off its axis.

* You Real Language People out there are welcome to jump in whenever you wish.
** Does that make it one of those Steven Pinker excuse-me-but-your-parser-is-open things?
*** No doubt Jane is among many of you loyalists out there who remember the matchup in question.
**** If you have worked in the sausage factory, you already take that with the appropriate amount of salt.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

In general I agree with you, but there's a difference between "a tenth victim", which means only that there are ten, not nine, and "the tenth victim", which means sequentially number ten.

4:59 PM, March 11, 2009  
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8:19 PM, March 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the O'Koren shout out. :)

After editing straight-up blotters for a few years now, I could write a small book on police-speak. For one thing, "transported" becomes "taken" and I wanna know where to ... which hospital (the Holy City could just as well be named the Hospital City), the morgue or to jail. Or to their mama's house.

9:23 AM, March 12, 2009  

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