Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday Media Rant: Telling a Story

A family from New Jersey was in Madison a weekend ago for a wedding; while taking family photos in front of the capitol, they accidentally caught the image of a low-life who was in the process of stealing their travel-bag full of money and belongings. They showed the picture to Capitol Police, who promptly caught the guy and arrested him and returned the possessions to the family.

That’s the story, in about 60 words. It’s such a compelling story that after the local TV outlets got done mangling it, the networks picked it up and did their own stories on it. The network stories bore little resemblance to the local stories, because they recognized the story for what it is – a “human interest” story, more than a “crime story.”

I saw the story on three local stations, and on three networks. One of the biggest differences is the way the network folks approached it: they didn’t talk about “suspect” or “theft” or spend a lot of time on the criminal aspect, but instead wove that into the story, making the family – not the thug – the centerpiece of the story.

Local newswriters are too often influenced by the police report of the incident, which is written in a cousin to English, in a content and style developed by lawyers and taught to police officers. It’s a language that uses phrases like “the incident remains under investigation” – which is usually quite obvious, if they haven’t caught the “perpetrator” (it would be news if they DIDN’T continue to investigate, wouldn’t it?), and words (like “perpetrator”) we seldom if ever use when telling stories.

Cops don’t say “the robber got a bunch of money and ran off” – they say “the unknown perpetrator demanded money and fled on foot” – often, appending “in an unknown direction.” And that’s the kind of language lazy newswriters who are not story-tellers use/steal when writing their “story.”

And then, there’s the old “suspect” thing. So many local newswriters use that word incorrectly, and an awful lot of cops do, too. A suspect is a known person. “John Jones is a suspect in the downtown bank robbery”. A named person. Until the cops name a suspect, they’re not looking for a suspect. They’re looking for a robber. Or burglar. Lawyers, the same class of people who taught cops the new language they must use in writing police reports, advise news managers to caution their staffs about being very careful about who they call what, and that’s how “suspect” is now as widely misused as “closure.”

If somebody robs a convenience store, the cops are looking for a robber, not a suspect. If they arrest and charge someone with robbery, that person then becomes a suspect. They’re not a “robber” until they plead guilty or are convicted in court.

That’s why, not once in the network versions of the story about the New Jersey family’s visit to Madison, did you hear them use the word “suspect” or say that he “fled” with the family’s possessions. Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News went so far as to call the guy (and he called him “the guy”) a thief.

Those who learn the difference between “writing a news story” and “telling a story” usually go a lot farther in their careers.

1 comment:

  1. Your summary is perfect. Please read the newspaper story on this topic, from my reporting in the WSJ. This started by taking a vague mention from the gizmodo blog (which, by the way, was credited in the newspaper story but not anywhere else) and tracking down the names, dates, times, reports, records and court appearance and reporting the sum accurately. (The blogger, a nice woman writing for her niche, did not know the date, time, names etc.) AND, getting the photographs. No one else got that because it took time. A few, especially one local television outlet, mangled the narrative impressively. Add to this the dismal response by the the poorly-equipped media-handlers at the Department of Administration, which would not allow Capitol police to talk about it and then did not release a police report until six hours after the story broke! A redacted police report, on a simple theft. Sad but true.