Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Written at random

Talking with an admirer of the poetry of James Thomson, Samuel Johnson, who found Thomson deplorably wordy, took down a volume of Thomson’s verse and read aloud a lengthy passage. “Is not this fine?” he asked. After the listener expressed admiration, Johnson said, “Well, sir, I have omitted every other line.”
I sometimes think that much journalism could be approached that way, by omitting alternate paragraphs, without much damage to the fabric. (I actually tried that once with a Sun columnist’s work, and no one could detect the difference, though we were obliged to print the full text anyhow.)
For your inspection, an item from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel  forwarded by one of my many spies, with commentary following:
An off-duty Miami firefighter who recently returned from a rescue mission to Haiti died Thursday night after his motorcycle collided with a car, police said.
Leslie Luma, an eight-year veteran with City of Miami Fire-Rescue, celebrated his anniversary with the fire department Thursday. He was married and had three children.
"He was well-loved by a lot of his co-workers and his family," Fire-Rescue spokesman Ignatius Carroll told WPLG-Ch. 10.
The firefighter's motorcycle collided with a 2001 Ford Mustang near the intersection of North State Road 7 and West Park Road just before 9 p.m., said Police Lt. Manny Marino.
The Mustang's driver, Sherry Lynn Marks, 19, suffered minor injuries.
Luma, 37, was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 2 and recently returned from rescue efforts in Haiti.
Preliminary investigation indicates that the crash occurred when the Mustang traveling southbound on North State Road 7 veered into the northbound lanes and collided with the northbound 2005 American Suzuki motorcycle, Marino said.
The crash is under investigation.


I suggest to the students in my editing class that jotting down a rough outline of the elements of an article is one way to get at structural issues. Look at the paragraph structure of this exercise:

(1) Firefighter killed in motorcycle accident.

(2) Anniversary of employment, details of family.

(3) Eulogistic quote.

(4) Detail of accident.

(5) Other motorist.

(6) Firefighter’s trip to Haiti.

(7) More details of accident.

(8) Investigation continues.

So the details of the fatal accident, which are what news this article has to offer, are broken up into four paragraphs, separated paragraphs containing other material. And the order of the paragraphs is apparently generated, like the winning Mega Millions numbers, at random.

It is then topped off with a headline written evidently by someone with a tenuous grasp of conventional English syntax. If it is necessary to pad out the headline by reference to the firefighter’s activities in Haiti (of which no significant details are given), then “Miami firefighter just back from Haiti is killed in Hollywood motorcycle crash” would have been less likely to puzzle the reader.


Once you eliminate most of the editors and copy editors, and overburden the remnant, this article and headline are the kind of dog’s breakfast that the reader can expect to find.

*Since this is becoming a stock observation at this blog, I thought I’d label it for you.

Santayana on the copy desk

Those who do not learn from the headline mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.

A reader forwards this Denver Post headline:

Bar as a noun meaning a saloon is widely recognized. But it is also a verb much favored in headlinese meaning “prohibit.”

The same ambiguity crops up in a classic headline collected in one of the Columbia Journalism Review’s features of defective headlines:

Minneapolis bars putting leaves in street

The errors of the past repay study.