Reporting simple news

Howell Raines, the former editor of the New York times, recently said that

the biggest threat to US journalism was news pieces which betray a political

point of view, the way things are done in Britain. (The story was reported by

the FT, which now requires a subscription to read it; if you have one, you can

find it here.)

Raines was brought down by the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg affairs –

the two were both star journalists who were deft at purple prose and who therefore

got their pieces on the front page without the scrutiny their work deserved.

And one of the things which I think Raines should have spent much more time

doing – and which his successors ought to be doing as well – is

thinking about the very American idea that front-page stories should be long

and elaborately written, rather than simply reporting the news.

Look at a front-page

story today, about the fact that the official death toll from the World

Trade Center attack is now 2,752 rather than 2,792. It’s an interesting fact,

and I can certainly see why the Times put it on the front page. But once that

decision was made, it seems that they needed to gussy it up a lot, since a just-the-facts-maam

approach would have been too boring.

The headline –  "A New Account of Sept. 11 Loss, With 40 Fewer

Souls to Mourn" – is portentious, and the article itself is worse.

It starts with this:

The sun inched across a cloudless sky yesterday, the breath of October rustled

trees, and the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster

dropped by 40. Just like that: 40 fewer souls to imagine rising from the dust;

40 fewer people to include in nightly prayers.

Eight hundred and eighty words later, it ends with this sentence: "The

fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better."

Of course, since the story is so long, it can’t all fit on the front page.

Most people, it is well known, don’t read past the jump, especially when, as

in this case, the rest of the story is on an inside page of a completely different

section of the newspaper. So the last thing that most people will read of the

story is this:

But what do we do with this information — this 2,752, down from 2,792?

Do we grieve less? Are we happy? What does it mean?

"The question is, does it make it any less tragic?" said Jonathan

Greenspun, the commissioner of the

Five questions, no answers. One assumes that Greenspun goes on to answer his

own question, but many of us will provide our own answers – mine would

be "yes, about 0.18% less tragic, assuming that the degree of tragedy is

proportional to the log of the number of victims".

By that point, we’re 268 words into the story – more than enough space

to put the whole thing on the front page if you’re anybody but the New York

Times. But given all that extra space, the writer, Dan Barry, actually contrives

to add literary ambiguity to a very simple story. Look at that first sentence

again: "the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster

dropped by 40".

This is the kind of reporting you’d never find in the business section. If

the US government thought that the economy grew at 2% in 2002 and then gets

new data showing that in fact the real figure is 1%, you’d never find the Times

saying that "the 2002 US growth rate fell to 1% from 2%". But in order

to accommodate Barry’s extravagant riffs, the front page is perfectly happy

making it sound as if the number of people killed that day has actually changed.

What’s more, Barry is a lazy writer. Most accounts of September 11 start off

with a description of the beautiful cloudless sunny day that morning, and so

today we have to slog our way through suns inching across equally cloudless

skies. It’s a completely random and pointless way to begin a feature; it has

no place whatsoever in a news article.

This week, the Times appointed its first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Speaking

to the New York Observer, Okrent said that "I’m not going by whether

those people are good journalists, whether they write well." This, I am

sure, is a failing, and I would urge Okrent to change his mind.

If Okrent takes his job description this narrowly, he will end up skirting

some of the most important questions about how journalism is practiced at the

New York Times. At the moment, it is clear, there is very much a culture of

overwriting front-page stories. Since a byline on A1 is a key sign of success

at any newspaper, there’s a strong incentive to follow in the footsteps of Bragg

and Blair, writing stories which read like cheap literature rather than simply

giving us the who what when why where how. It is that incentive, and not opinions

finding their way into news stories, which is the real threat to journalism

at the New York Times.

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4 Responses to Reporting simple news

  1. Steve says:

    And the NY Times adds insult to its journalistic injury of literaturizing the news by including obvious (to many people) political slant.

    Here is my impression of an example:

    Baghdad: The stillness of the morning was still baking when the marketplace was interrupted by another ambush against the imperialistic U.S. troops.

  2. great post, felix. well done, top notch, et cetera et cetera. though my praise may sound glib, you seriously threw together an excellent sampling of the editorial slant of this coverage. my fave quote from the times: “”The fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better.”

    i’m not kidding when i say i laughed out loud for many many seconds.

    the repeating of the first clause reads like some wizened tribal elder commenting on the sad end to some long long war. i can practically see the “fade into sunset” which follows the line-reading.

  3. stefan says:

    Now THAT is a blog post.

  4. Simon says:

    While you’re at it, could you also get them to fire the headline writers and whoever it was on the editorial page who endorsed the Boston Red Sox against the Yanks? Thanks.

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