When I was a community news reporter, I found that one of the hardest things about the job was that, no matter how much reporting you did, you never had enough information. For example, imagine you’re reporting that a well-known chocolatier, whose store burned down the year before, is about to reopen. You sit down to begin writing and you come up with a lede like, “After a bitter setback and year of rebuilding, Shay’s Candies on Tuesday will begin making chocolates once more.”
But then you stop. Yes, the store will reopen on Tuesday. But no one you interviewed actually said they were going to start making chocolates on that day. Perhaps manufacturing started days prior. Perhaps they’ll reopen selling just jellies until their chocolate vat is back from the shop. You just can’t be sure. What’s more, is it really accurate to refer to “a year of rebuilding”? Perhaps the owners took a sabbatical before they started picking up the pieces. Perhaps they had to spend months wrangling with insurance companies before they could start.
So you do what I always did. You “write around” the holes in your information.
“A year after a fire destroyed the Shay’s Candies factory and store in Torrance, on Tuesday the beloved chocolatier will reopen / resume serving up the sweet stuff / start selling its famous candies once again / etc.”
This happens all the time in news writing. Your words try to make a liar out of you. And it takes constant vigilance to make sure you don’t accidentally stray into an inadvertent untruth.
It’s hard, it’s challenging, and it can make you feel downright wily at times. And it’s why I found the first few sentences of a Los Angeles Times cover story Wednesday so impressively slipperylicious:
Former Justice Department official Eric H. Holder Jr. emerged Tuesday as Barack
Obama’s leading candidate for attorney general, and the president-elect’s
transition team was trying to gauge whether there was sufficient bipartisan
support for him in the Senate, sources close to the transition confirmed. Those
sources said that the internal vetting process for Holder was still being
completed and that top transition team members and Democratic allies of Obama
were working to make sure that Holder would not face any significant obstacles
during the confirmation process.
Notice how the writer handled issues of factuality and verification. Holder “emerged.” That could mean a number of things, but it leaves wide open the possibility that it refers to nothing more than rumors. One or more members of Obama’s “transition team,” were wondering what kind of support Holder might get, “sources close to the transition confirmed.” Then comes a clever passive: The internal vetting process “was still being completed.” By whom? We don’t know. The article doesn’t say.
Usually, when you see wily writing like this, it leaves open the possibility of somewhat sleazy motives – a publication wants to milk a rumor for some ink, even though they have nothing to go on. However, it’s my opinion that the publication’s motives are usually much more responsible. The writer and editors believe there’s real substance to the rumor. They believe they’d be remiss in NOT reporting it. But they don’t have any facts to go on yet. So they “write around” their lack of information to focus on possibilities of interest to their readers.
Of course, all information attributed to unidentified “sources” should be weighed with caution. In fact, I believe that responsible news consumers should demand that sources be identified except under the most extenuating circumstances. But since this Holder rumor had already spread like wildfire, one could argue that this story justified it.
Either way, I think it’s good practice for news consumers to read between the lines, always asking, “What, exactly, is this news story claiming to ‘report’?”
Causes June Casagrande Supports
Planned Parenthood, ClimateCrisis.net, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Pet Orphans of Southern California, KIVA