Thursday, July 13, 2023

Shootings first, questions after

 The recent violence at the Brooklyn Homes housing project in Baltimore, in which two people were fatally shot and 28 wounded, is being commonly described as a "mass shooting." That is a slippery term. 

The Associated Press Stylebook says that there is no firm consensus on what constitutes a mass shooting: "Definitions vary. A database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University defines mass killings as four or more dead, not including the shooter."

When The Sun described the Brooklyn Homes shootings as perhaps the greatest mass shooting in Baltimore history, I wondered whether the Pratt Street riot of 1861 should be included. When the local mob attacked the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry as the troops were marching between two train stations, the casualties included eight rioters, three soldiers, and a bystander killed, with scores of soldiers and civilians wounded. 

But no, the term mass shooting is a 20th-century U.S. coinage. Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Austin in August 1966, fatally shot 15 people and wounded 31 others before being killed by police officers, setting the pattern for mass shootings: A gunman (mass shooters are typically male), for motives that may be unknown and unknowable, begins firing in public, at specific individuals or at random, with multiple fatalities and woundings, at a single event. 

That pattern fits the shootings in 2017 in Las Vegas, in which Stephen Paddock, firing from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, killed 60 people and wounded more than 400 before he killed himself. 

But groups of people die in shootings in other contexts. We don't necessarily call it a mass shooting when gunfire breaks out in public between gang members, when people are killed in an armed robbery, or when an entire family dies in a murder-suicide. 

Do the Brooklyn Homes shootings qualify as a mass shooting? There appear to have been two or more shooters, and their motives are unknown. If the violence turns out to have been gang-related, will we still call it a mass shooting? Or if it started as a domestic dispute? Are two deaths rather than four or more enough to qualify?

It would be tidy if we could define the term as a single shooter, at a public event, with four or more fatalities. But the proliferation of firearms in this country and the increasing propensity to use them on impulse make it difficult to characterize these events neatly. And the tendency to lump so many multiple shootings under the category "mass shooting" can blur what is distinctive about each case. 

I don't think that it is a very useful term. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Yeah, you're not alone

You are writing a story about someone, let's call them X, who has a problem. X has a medical condition and cannot find or afford treatment; X is looking for housing and is unable to afford current rents; X is living in a neighborhood where police presence is sporadic and ineffective, and is afraid to leave the house. 

By the most remarkable coincidence, X exemplifies the larger issues in the story you are actually writing, so after three or four paragraphs about X, you drop them, perhaps to return for brief mention later in the article, and write the nut graph that explains the issue that your article is really about. 

But first you must write the essential transition: X is not alone. 

The thing is that this device, known as the "anecdotal lede" in the paragraph game, has become so familiar to readers over the past quarter-century or so that no transition is really necessary. The reader grasps what the game is. That means that the "X is not alone" transition is something more than a gimmick; it has become a cliche. 

When I was an editor at The Baltimore Sun and an "X is not alone" transition came across the desk, I immediately deleted it, to no harm to the structure of the article and no obstacle to the reader's understanding. We actually disparaged it in the house style guide, to which reporters paid fitful attention. 

But the "monkey-see, monkey-do" tendency in journalism is powerful, and you will see "X is not alone" all the damn time.

On one occasion I deleted it from an article, and the next day the reporter asked for an explanation of the change. A writer is always entitled to an explanation of changes in editing, and so I patiently explained that that transition had become a stock device that was not particularly helpful to readers and that we had been discouraged from using. 

The reporter answered: "It's not a cliche when I use it." 

You see what editors are up against.