Saturday, May 29, 2010

Journalism: Ur doin it backwardz

Sometimes I think this is the great conun- drum of journalism education: If we're trying to teach people to write well, why do we start by teaching them to write badly?

Let's look at three specific learned behaviors of news writing in this lede at the top of Collegetown's Baddest Morning Daily. For convenience,* we're going to call them cycling, officializing and jargonizing:

The Columbia Police Department confirmed there were shots fired at approximately 6 p.m. Friday night at Tiger Village Apartments near Worley and Stadium.

Cycling** is the practice of ledeing with a later stage of your event, rather than the initial (and usually most interesting) one, on grounds that your opposite-cycle competition probably had the fun stuff already. It's why morning stories begin with "firefighters sifted through the ashes ..." if the afternoon news had "fire destroys school." If you thought the confirmation was less interesting than the shooting, you were right.***

Officializing displaces the focus from what's interesting -- somebody got shot -- and puts it on what agencies do: Detectives investigate, firefighters respond, and so forth. "Police confirm" is about process, and ledes ought to be about outcomes.

"Shots fired" is one of those bits of public-safety jargon that need to be gently rendered into the language of civilians. It's easy for reporters to fall into the habit of talking like their sources: police responded to shots fired, two subjects were transported after an extrication accident, and that sort of scanner-talk. Editors are there to remind reporters not to do that.

There's a lot of other stuff to dislike about the lede: It doesn't need the agency's whole name (so "police," rather than "the Columbia Police Department"). Somebody learned how to follow style on "6 p.m." (rather than "six PM") but missed another point: Since there's no "6 p.m. Friday morning," you don't need to specify that it's 6 p.m. Friday night, and how long before sunset was that anyway? It's perfectly all right to say "about," rather than "approximately." And the oliphant in the dining room: Someone got shot. Shouldn't that be in the lede?

If you think of a lede as more like something you can yell in a crowded bar than like something you have to print out and turn in, you're going to get something more like.

A 19-year-old man was injured by gunfire Friday afternoon at Tiger Village Apartments, police say.

Expand on what you know in the second graf, leave out the irrelevant details (and no, the cops probably weren't looking for "weapon casings"), and you can get back to work. J-school actually does have some stuff to teach you, and if we're getting in the way of that by encouraging people to do stuff wrong before letting them do it right, we're letting somebody down.

* And because it's a chance to use lots of "-ize" verbs; flouting the journalism textbook is often a fun place to start.
** Or "second-cycling"; the term reflects the long-established AM and PM cycles of news agencies.
*** The Trib appears not to have caught the story until today, and it has a classic second-day lede: "Police are looking for a suspect in a shooting yesterday evening at Tiger Village Apartments."


Anonymous Prtitim said...

I think this is the great conundrum of journalism education. I like this blog.

2:13 PM, June 01, 2010  

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