March 22, 2005

AP offers alternate reality…

Let’s take a closer look at the Associated Press offer of optional leads for news articles. I’ve reproduced the memo and added comments in brackets [ ]. A further comment follows the memo.

The concept is simple: On major spot stories–especially when events happen early in the day–we will provide you with two versions to choose between. One will be the traditional “straight lead” that leads with the main facts of what took place. The other will be the optional, an alternative approach that attempts to draw in the reader through imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means.

[I teach basic news writing using examples from the associated press because most of its articles follow the “straight lead” news style and the inverted pyramid structure. I want my students to produce the basic product before we get into more advanced forms. Part of understanding those advanced forms is understanding the basic rhetoric of journalism, i.e. what its persuasive features are, how they work, why they work, and how journalists employ them. What I detect here is a level of simplistic thinking that should alarm us. Why should a “major” spot news article require “imagery, narrative devices, perspective or other creative means” to interest readers? If something is “news,” isn’t it by definition (according to the textbook I use) interesting, useful, and relevant. And what do we say to readers about these news situations by employing these rhetorical devices?]

This initiative comes in response to what we’ve been hearing from many editors–that you need to be able to offer your readers something fresh so they will want to pick up the newspaper and read a story, even though the facts have been splashed all over the Web and widely broadcast.

[Something fresh? You mean like news? If one already has the facts, then what is it that the AP is proposing to deliver?]

To further this goal, AP will NOT be moving these optional leads to our Internet services. They are designed strictly for print.

[Because we all know how boring print is? Heaven forbid print should have to compete with the web!]

Note that this is not an attempt to turn a hard news story into a feature. We will still present the main facts of what happened in the top few grafs of the optional. Following the alternative lead, the story will typically pick up into the body of the traditional lead. Here are a couple of recent examples from the wire:

[But does the memo writer understand that any change in a lead changes the meaning of the lead? Wrap your head around that one for a minute. If what I just said is an accurate description of journalistic discourse (or any discourse), then what does that suggest for any possibility of portraying news as anything more than institutional journalism’s subjective assertion of what news is.]

Traditional:

WASHINGTON (AP)– The Senate marched Wednesday toward passage of landmark legislation that would make it harder to erase medical bills, credit card charges and other debts by declaring bankruptcy.

Democratic opponents made last-ditch attempts to soften the bill’s impact and restrict practices of the credit industry that they said were especially hurting the poor.

[The AP makes it more difficult for me to do my job when I have to explain to students why otherwise professional journalists chose a verb such as “marched” or a cliche such as “last-ditch.” This lead is otherwise standard. We can hear the sound of the lecturer–the one sure of his information and unwilling to admit a single qualification.]

Optional:

WASHINGTON (AP)– Thousands of Americans could soon find it impossible to walk into bankruptcy courts and out of their debts.

Sometime this fall, that clean slate probably won’t be available to them because of legislation long sought by credit card companies and banks, now headed for passage in the Senate.

[Cool! A zeugma. You don’t see that everyday. I’d like this trope even better if I thought the writer could also name the trope, say why he/she chose it, and make some claim about his/her persuasive intention in using it. But the second paragraph makes me lose hope. We slide into a mixed metaphor. Oh well. But what we have here is a good idea for a second-day lead if we could humanize this article. We have a general narrative here; can we now be specific? Might a real story about a real person who might be affected by this legislation be something a citizen might want to read. Sadly, the AP isn’t set up for this kind of reporting. So the editor who chooses this option is not better serving local readers; the editor is fooling them into thinking something is coming that will not materialize.]

Traditional:

MOSUL, Iraq (AP)– A suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners Thursday, splattering blood and body parts over rows of overturned white plastic chairs. The attack, which killed 47 and wounded more than 100, came as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad said they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government.

[Sounds like a terrorist to me, but never mind.]

Optional:

MOSUL, Iraq (AP)– Yet again, almost as if scripted, a day of hope for a new, democratic Iraq turned into a day of tears as a bloody insurgent attack undercut a political step forward.

On Thursday, just as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad were telling reporters that they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government, a suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners in the northern city of Mosul.

[Nice lead for an editorial, I suppose. It’s a bit over-written–exactly the kind of close-but-no-cigar attempt you get when a tired reporter reaches for his/her inner Melville on deadline.]

We’ll let you know through digests and “Eds:” notes on stories each day which stories we plan to offer in two versions. And we’ll always update both versions of a story anytime there are significant developments during the cycle.

We’re eager to get feedback from you on this initiative. I look forward to hearing from you with comments and suggestions.

There are as many ways to write a news article as there are journalists willing to write it. And this should tell you that there is no single correct way to describe a news situation. Each telling must be different. If this is so, then there surely is no such thing as objectivity in journalism understood as a stance: i.e. the journalist is able to report it and tell it as it is. What the journalist is able to do is tell it as it seems.

How news seems to the journalist is, however, constrained by the norms of professional practice. Journalists should (and most working for credible organizations do) follow an objective process of reporting designed to gather facts, information and knowledge, and opinions. The journalist writes it up using a professional rhetoric designed, among other things, to persuade the reader that the news account is fair and accurate (indeed, the rhetorical intention is to create fairness and accuracy–but that’s another post for another day).

Fairness and accuracy, however, do not indicate that it is possible to capture reality as it is. The Associated Press, then, appears to be driving the final stake through the heart of objectivity as philosophical ideal. I wonder if the editors understand this.

4 Responses

  1. Sven 

    News “writing?” Feh. The future is here, and it’s spelled d-a-t-a-b-a-s-e. And here I thought you were a hep cat with all that podcasting and stuff.

    (I kid, but IIRC the AP was playing around with this sort of thing last fall. Someone hit the wrong button and published a story about election results a week before the polls opened.)

  2. rgrafton 

    Jeff Jarvis has a good post on this. His take (and I agree) is that these “literary” ledes waste reader’s time. When I read news on the internet, I just want the facts ma’am. One of my pet peeves about the current state of print journalism is that it is obvious that journalists are really just frustrated novelists. You have to scroll down several paragraphs to get to the meat of the article, and even then, it is full of opinion and not fact. I wish I would have known this back in the day when I was considering a career in journalism, but decided against it since I was more interested in creative writing. I coulda been a contender! http://www.buzzmachine.com/archives/2005_03_22.html

  3. rgrafton 

    Oh, I forgot. One of the joys of the internet is discovering unexpected gems like “zeugma”.

  4. acline 

    Sven- 🙂 I’ll be mentioning this reporter’s tool soon.

    R- Yes, the zeugma is an interesting trope.