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It's a crime to write like that

Apologies in advance. This post is a long one. If you continue, allow yourself a little time.

My worthy colleague Peter Hermann, writing at his Crime Beat blog, has explained eloquently the difference between crime reporting and stenography. His post is worth your time.

A proper reporter does not merely record and publish uncritically the contents of police charging documents or court proceedings or other files, because they may contain irrelevant information or misleading factual accuracies. A reporter judges what is germane and reliable, insofar as his abilities and access to information and officials permit.

Let me show you why this is important.

Some years back, the copy editors of a newspaper where I had conducted one of my seances on editing sent me a text, which I have since used in my editing class at Loyola. I invite you to take a look and see what you make of it, what questions you would ask, what actions you would take as an editor.

I’ll just go into the next room and read a few more pages of Gerald Gunther’s biography of Judge Learned Hand until you’re done.

Don’t read ahead to the commentary on the story until you’ve finished your own.

 

******************************

 

PUPPY

THOMPSONVILLE — After purposefully running over a stray puppy resting in the dirt, say witnesses at the nudist colony where he lives, Andrew F. Sewall had this to say: I hope I killed it.

It began when Sewall, 49, spotted the little Rottweiler mix in the road as he was pulling into his driveway at 3210 Candlebrook Lane in the early minutes of Sunday morning, according to a Clements County Sheriff's Office report.

Sewall aimed his creme-colored Ford van at the puppy, sped up, ran over it, and intentionally dragged it 20 to 30 yards while it whimpered, the report said.

“The dog was screaming and yelping and making a whole lot of noise,” said Rosa Dodson, 51, a neighbor who witnessed the attack. “You could hear the thumping when it was trying to get out from under the van... There's no way he didn't hear the dog.”

Sewall, arrested on a felony charge of animal cruelty Sunday, left county jail Monday on $2,500 bail.

The puppy, meanwhile, while bloodied by the attack, apparently suffered no broken bones or internal injuries.

“The dog apparently seems fine,” said Elsie Burroughs, a supervisor at the Clements County Animal Control shelter, where the puppy was being cared for Monday. “If nobody claims it, hopefully it'll be put up for adoption.”

When neighbors confronted Sewall about the attack, the report said, he said the puppy should have gotten out of his way and that he hoped he killed it.

One neighbor told police Sewall appeared drunk.

After a deputy read him his Miranda rights Sunday evening, the report said, Sewall denied running over the puppy on purpose but could not explain why he didn't try to help it.

Dodson, the neighbor, said the puppy was a stray who in recent weeks had frequented the dirt roads of the Sunshine Naturist Park, a nudist colony. She took to calling the puppy Dakota, and described it as a sweet, peaceful dog.

“If she was a vicious, violent dog, I could see why (Sewall) might have a grudge against it,” Dodson said. “She definitely wasn't a violent dog. She was meek and mild.”

Most people at the nudist colony don't avail themselves of the clothing-optional policy. Sewall, Dodson said, is an exception. “He takes great pride in running around nude,” Dodson said.

The attack on the puppy is merely Sewall's latest brush with law officers. In 1993, records show, Clements deputies arrested him for probation violations relating to previous charges of grand theft and sexual battery. For parole violations in connection with charges of grand theft and lewd and lascivious behavior, deputies arrested him again in 1995. And in 1997, he was arrested for failure to appear on a lewd and lascivious charge.

Sewall could not be reached for comment Monday.

 

******************************

 

All right. That’s it.

You didn’t peek below, did you?

Let’s go to the commentary.

Item: First, keep this fact foremost in your mind: The dog is OK.

Item: We always take care to look at the opening. The first paragraph has Sewall expressing a wish to kill the dog, in what looks very much like a direct quote but has no quotation marks. It brands him as having an explicitly guilty intention, even though some weasely attribution is included. If this didn’t look suspect to you, along with the gratuitous reference to the nudist camp, you weren’t paying close enough attention.

Item: Sourcing. We have mention of “witnesses,” though only one is named, Rosa Dodson, and she does not appear to be well-disposed toward Sewall, complaining that he has the audacity to run around in the raw at a nudist camp—again a gratuitous reference.

There is an unnamed neighbor who told police that Sewall looked drunk. No further support to this assertion appears.

Item: We have details of Sewall’s previous brushes with the law, though the details are murky. He must have been convicted of something at some time if he violated parole, but we have only mentions of charges and arrests, without any explanation of which ones stuck. Or what, if anything, they have to do with this occasion.

Item: Details from the police report are presented as settled fact.

Item: Sewall is not quoted directly, and the reporter does not indicate that any strenuous efforts were made to reach him.

So we have a reporter who sets up an opening that makes Sewall look like a vicious person, quotes a neighbor who harbors an obvious animus, and includes unfiltered and incomplete details of a criminal history that may or not be relevant to this occasion.

Wait a minute. I know there was something else. Yes, yes: The dog is OK.

This text is not only a hatchet job on Sewall. It’s not even a story.

It is entirely possible that Sewall is a Very Bad Man, but there is no solid evidence in the text to establish that. There is, however, ample evidence that the writer is a Very Bad Reporter. This is the kind of work you get from a writer who either has no scruples or, more likely, is simply ignorant of the principles of the craft. Someone who dumps the contents of his notes into the text and thinks that that is reporting.

The copy editors who forwarded this article to me were very proud that they made the same arguments and got the story killed. (I, for my part, have altered all the proper nouns so as not to blacken the man’s name myself.)

And this—tell me you didn’t see this one coming—is how you put yourself at risk when you decide that you can dispense with the services of a copy desk. Reflect for a moment that in a newsroom today, the most likely action of the management would be to retain the reporter and discharge the copy editors.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

First, let me say how glad I am to see this here. As I mentioned to you earlier, it's good to see some exercises in story-smithing as opposed to wordsmithing.

Second, even if every word of the story were as good as gold, I'd still spike it. It's lurid and disgusting. Newspapers are meant to contribute to breakfast, not put an abrupt end to it.

>>A proper reporter does not merely record and publish uncritically the contents of police charging documents or court proceedings or other files, because they may contain irrelevant information or factual accuracies<<

Well, no, we wouldn't want any factual accuracies creeping in, would we? ;-)

Perhaps rwmg is being disingenuous. It is a fact that those documents exist. It is a fact that they contain statements of fact. But statements of fact are not the same thing as facts.

They may be erroneous. They may be incomplete. They may be lies. They may be factually accurate but, taken out of context, misleading.

Peter Hermann is quote clear about the risks of relaying unfiltered, unverified information, and the article cited in the post is a clear example.

Does it strike anyone else as possibly contradictory for the story to say the puppy was run over and dragged, then several graphs later it says he apparently suffered no broken bones or internal injuries? Are they sure? "Run over" seems to imply a wheel went over the puppy, not that he got a glancing blow from the corner of the bumper.

I am not being disingenuous. I can understand advising against reproducing something because it may contain irrelevant detail. I can understand advising against reproducing something because it may contain factual inaccuracies. But I cannot understand why one might advise against reproducing something because it may contain factual accuracies.

I'm happy to see rwmg taking the lumps for this, because otherwise I might have attracted them: I also thought that mentioning "factual accuracies" as an implied criticism was a bit strange.

I agree that a source may have deficiencies, and that, in any case, a source needs to be examined critically before use, but I would not count accuracy per se on the con side.

* * * SPIKE * * *

Let's say the facts more or less add up. They are not in order, context, or sorted for relevance. This is a slime on Mr.Sewall.

The questions (after killing this mo'fo' and letting out a few loud oaths) should be:
Is this reporter an incompetent idiot, a newspaper version of Inspector Jacques Clouseau?
Or,
What hard-on does the reporter have for Mr. Sewall?

John: Rwmg is trying to tell you, in an over-subtle way, that in your third graf "factual accuracies" should be "factual inaccuracies".

Now that's the way to make a correction, rwmg: firmly.

Actually, Messrs. Cowan and rwmg, my oversight was to leave out "misleading" before "factual accuracies"--awkwardly expressing the sense of facts out of context. I should have made the facts/statement of facts distinction in the original post.

Am I the only one who thinks that the details about the nudist colony are, for the most part, irrelevant? Certainly the perp's attitudes toward nudity. (?)

Despite violating all of the journalistic canons as enumerated, the "reporter" buried the lead; failed to establish intent; used hearsay, and inserted irrelevant information which showed either animus toward the subject, or total ignorance of the craft.

Q: How likely is it that this story is true?
A: Very unlikely. Running over a puppy without causing broken bones or internal injuries is a neat trick.
Action: chuck story back at Newsdesk or, better still, spike it.

Thanks, Drudge John, for another insightful post - great example and worth reading - making an important point.

@rwmg, your comment made me laugh

I'd say this example of reporting is definitely sloppy.
In general, however, holding back information doesn't work the same way now as it did before web journalism.
In the old days, you could afford to wait for the whole story, but now every story is an evolving, living thing. You get the initial reports, and yes, you might have to play the stenographer at first until you are able to update the story with pertinent info.
That said, there's no excuse for using lazy and potentially libelous language, or straying off into irrelevant details.

I'm just glad the poor puppy is all right.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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