Archive for January, 2009

Hey. I’m Talking To You.

Posted in Leads That Succeed (Or Don't) on January 30, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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The Bangkok Post wants YOU…to know that Pattaya City has a whole new image. “Connecting up Pattaya City” starts off with a direct address lead, trying, if i dare say, to connect with its reader. “If you think that Pattaya is just about night life, you may have to re-think,” warns the article. “Pattaya City today is working hard in a bid to attract visitors with a new image, as a place for families, an international convention centre and a place for world-class events.”

In theory, I like the use of a lead like this for such an article. Because the piece is about people and perceptions, the attempt to form a human connection with its reader is appropriate. In practice, however, the opening sentence is a little bulky. I could chalk my objections up to the fact that I don’t know precisely what (or where) Pattaya City is, but I would be lying to myself. The writer simply does a poor job of really grabbing the reader’s attention. The construction is less than snappy and any delightfully surprising content is not-so-delightfully absent. Since the article really is about your perception of Pattaya City (whatever that might be), I would consider sticking with a direct address lead, but this time with pizzazz. A scene-setter or startling statement, however, would probably work even better.

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Caution: Words At Play

Posted in Leads That Succeed (Or Don't) on January 30, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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CNN barks up the right tree with this witty word play lead: “Every dog has his day, but Sir Lancelot — or at least his carbon copy — has a second one.” The article – “Florida couple clones beloved dog for 155,000” -teases us rather politely with this play on a common expression before going on to elaborate upon Sir Lancelot’s reincarnation, as it were. I hate to be overly enthusiastic, but I have to admit that I love nothing more than a punningly cheesy opener–not to mention that it brings an added element of a shocking statement lead.

The article could have started off with a blind or scene-setting lead, which would have worked for the subject matter as well, but the word play lead appeals more to the type of audience who loves to read feel-good, human interest stories such as this one. Furthermore, because the subject matter is mildly controversial, the light-hearted and playful lead works well to diffuse any hard feelings and affirm that, though the article addresses the contention, it is not the primary focus. Were it me, I might have punned on the dog’s waggish name instead, but one thing is for sure: there will be puns.

Round ‘Em Up

Posted in Leads That Succeed (Or Don't) on January 29, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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Jack Healy’s article “Reports Underscore Weakness of Economy” starts off with a snappy roundup lead that is, well, stronger than the current state of our economy to say the least. “Thursday brought a hat-trick of grim economic news,” he writes. “New-home sales fell to their slowest pace on record, businesses cut their orders and jobless claims continued to rise.”

Such a lead appropriately tackles the three major components of the country’s economic failure and introduces the trio of recently released reports with ease. Skillfully, the lead manages to provide a thorough summary and introduction without all the blah-se of a more traditional hard news lead. It is to the point and sharp and, despite the grimness of the subject matter (not to mention my general distaste for economics), I found myself reading further. And that’s quite an accomplishment. If I were capable of writing an article about the economy (the law of supply and what now?), I wouldn’t change a thing. Nice work, Healy.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Posted in Leads That Succeed (Or Don't) on January 29, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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Damon Darlin’s bacon-licious article, “Take Bacon. Add Sausage. Blog.” starts out rather tongue-in-cheek with a blind lead that goes a little something like this: “FOR a nation seeking unity, a recipe has swept the Internet that seems to unite conservatives and liberals, gun owners and foodies, carnivores and … well, not vegetarians and health fanatics.” It is not until the third paragraph that Darlin finally reveals his topic of choice: the notorious Bacon Explosion that has generated so much buzz in the foodie blogosphere as of late.

Had the article not been prefaced by a larger-than-life, full-color photograph of said bacon phenomenon, the story’s lead would have been even more mysterious and intriguing, but as is, it worked pretty well for my tastes (no pun intended). Given the over-the-top nature of the recipe, Darlin’s quirky, ironical lead works well with the subject matter: more tasteful than another bad bacon pun and certainly more appropriate than the solemnity of a basic news lead.

Admittedly, the end of the sentence turned out a little bulky, but this quasi-vegetarian reader will leave bacon leads to the bacon aficianados and call it a job well done.

A Less Strict Objectivity

Posted in Theory and Ethics on January 20, 2009 by jessicapruitt

If not a truth robot, there should be some sort of equation for objectivity. I’m thinking something along the lines of: # of sources times pi divided by political influence^2=objectivity. The truth is, however, that language doesn’t work in the same way that math does. No matter what a writer writes, no matter how hard he or she strives to be objective, the output will be somewhat lacking the precision of, say, one of Newton’s laws or Pythagorus’s theories. As Cunningham so aptly notes in his article, “Rethinking Objectivity,” we are human. We are human, we are subjective, we are fallible, and we’re not going to get rid of these traits anytime soon.

Given the media’s long-held goal of objectivity and its prominence in the industry, however, it’s impossible to write off objectivity entirely. It is quite obviously preferable to see a news article that provides a wide spectrum of information with multiple perspectives than a one-sided article based on only one opinion or, even worse, speculation. At least for me, I would still prefer to believe that I’m not simply a gullible, spoonfed consumer. If nothing else, a goal of objectivity in journalism helps me to feel as if I am a free and independent thinker, respected by journalists and free to form my own opinions. In many ways, media’s goal of objectivity indicates this respect: the onus of deciding what is true and right is placed on the reader.

When objectivity gets in the way, however, of providing the public with as much significant information as possible, it is no longer the noble aspiration it once was. Regarding this, Cunningham makes an interesting point, saying: “I think most journalists will admit to feeding sources the information we want to hear, for quotes or attribution, just so we can make the crucial point we are not allowed to make ourselves.” When journalists are forced to rely on the one-sided information they are fed by the government and forced to provide only one point of view because officials refuse to speak on the issue, as Cunningham notes, objectivity loses out. It would be preferable to allow those journalists to ask questions and to make their own observations. After all, what makes an “official source” any more viable than the journalist himself? A journalist who has been researching the article for months, after all, likely possesses a more informed understanding of the issue than just one “official source.” Given this, while objectivity is a noble goal to strive for, it needs to be looked at less strictly and reevaluated. When it gets in the way of presenting valuable information, it should be put aside in the interest of informing the public.

Elaborating on the imperfection of humanity, Cunningham explains that “We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious.” Here, he makes the important point that it is awareness of bias, more than elimination of it, that leads to good news writing. Unconscious biases not only fool and mislead the reader, but they allow us to mislead ourselves as well. Again, journalists must not (and can not) try to become robotic in their intake and output of information, but rather must accept the fact that the world of words and humanity works quite unlike a mathematical equation. If, instead, we look at objectivity less strictly, with the idea of human error in mind, something more complex and more intelligent than simple objectivity will be able to develop.

Cunningham confirms this idea, stating that “Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies — and the public wants to believe.” I have little choice but to agree. Pretending towards objectivity often has the effect of preventing the public from seeing valuable information and furthermore gives them the impression that everything they read is true. Neither of these outcomes are desirable in terms of an educated, democratic society. We therefore must redefine objectivity, if not cast it out altogether, in order to include a certain deference to our humanity and our intelligence. Doing so will improve not just journalism, but society as well.

King Holds Talks With Saudi Monarch

Posted in Hard News on January 20, 2009 by jessicapruitt

This Jordan Times article, like the previous two I’ve looked at, utilizes a brief, formal tone, including only pertinent information.

The beginning of the article concisely notes that Jordan’s King Abdullah attended an economic summit entitled “Solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza” in Kuwait on Monday. The middle of the article then goes on to elaborate on key points, such as the king of Jordan’s side meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, which concerned solutions for the current crises of the Arab community. The article concludes with a broader perspective on the issue from Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Salah Bashir, who noted that it was necessary for the Arab community to present a unified stance on the issue.

The lede of the story, like the previous two, is a simple summary of the most pertinent information: “KUWAIT (Petra) – His Majesty King Abdullah, along with 16 other Arab leaders, on Monday participated in the economic summit, “In Solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza”, which commenced yesterday in Kuwait.” The writer provides the who (King Abdullah and 16 Arab leaders), the when (Monday), the where (Kuwait) and the what (participation in an economic summit). This focuses in on the information that is most relevant for Jordanian readers and serves as a good way in which to introduce Jordan’s stance on the current Israel-Palestine issue.

Because of the brevity of the article, the author could have left out certain information, such as the fact that Jordan’s King Abdullah “attended a lunch banquet hosted by the Saudi King.” This information does not contribute relevant new information and interferes with an otherwise logical inverted pyramid structure.

Plaid Pantry Removes Suspect Snacks

Posted in Hard News on January 20, 2009 by jessicapruitt

From this week’s Oregonian comes breaking news on a salmonella outbreak in the Portland Metro area. Given the import of the subject (public health), the article couples a formal and serious tone with terse language and short, choppy paragraphs (most not longer than a single sentence).

The story uses an inverted pyramid structure that classifies information based on local significance. It starts off by introducing the issue in a broad manner that focuses on local actions: Plaid Pantry stores in Oregon and Washington are pulling peanut butter snack products. It then goes on to add more specific information about the issue, such as the particulars of the product, its sources and the manufacturer. The middle of the article focuses in on the outbreak, addressing its ramifications (deaths and injuries) and the how and why, such as its cause and where, exactly, products were sold. In accordance with an inverted pyramid structure based on locality, the article concludes by broadening out to the outbreak’s effect on a national scale.

The story’s lede, much like that of the New York Times article in the previous post, offers a brief but comprehensive summary: “Plaid Pantry stores began pulling popular peanut butter snacks off their shelves Thursday as the list of people sickened in a nationwide salmonella outbreak grew longer.” The lede includes the critical information, such as who (Plaid Pantry), what (pulling peanut butter snacks), when (Thursday) and adds why (more people getting sick) because the reason for these actions would otherwise be unclear. Because the article comes from a more local newspaper, the information it views as important differs somewhat from the previous one, which has a more national readership.