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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Words & Language Toolbox

Bad Beginnings

By Paula LaRocque

Every media writer knows the importance of bright beginnings, but there seems no end of things that can go wrong. Among the most common problems is the anecdotal lead. Others are failures in logic, precision and taste.

It’s hard to understand the media’s attachment to anecdotal leads. You know, the lead that offers no news but, rather, presents people we’ve never heard of doing or saying inscrutable things about some undisclosed subject.

Most anecdotal leads are attempts to humanize stories. We begin with one person, a microcosm intended to represent macrocosm. When it works, it’s fine. But it usually doesn’t work because most anecdotal leads are less interesting than the story itself and are therefore merely tedious impediments that delay the story:

• “It wasn’t gossip but good news that sent Georgene Farrill scrambling Saturday afternoon to call neighbor Charlotte Alumbaugh.”

• “Aimee and Mark SooSoo owed so much money on their credit cards that the minimum payments alone added up to $2,000 a month.”

• “It’s a sign of our changing times that LaRue Templeton showed up for the interview wearing a jump suit.”

• “As officials handed Indonesian computer expert Setiawan Sukarnoputri his green card on Monday, some expressed concern that the initiative to attract skilled technicians is being undermined by anti-foreigner attacks that discourage highly trained workers from moving to Germany.”

The first thing we may ask when reading such leads is “WHO?” Then our minds may wander to other imponderables: So is it usually gossip that sends Georgene Farrill scrambling? Is the SooSoo surname correctly rendered on their credit cards? How does LaRue’s wardrobe signal “our changing times”?

To see how wrong-headed this approach is, consider that you and I meet not on the printed page or computer screen, but face to face. Would I begin our conversation by telling you that Georgene Farrill, whom you don’t know, phoned Charlotte Alumbaugh, whom you also don’t know? That the SooSoos, who live near Detroit and whom you’ve never met, are in debt? That LaRue Templeton, whoever he is, wears a jump suit that proves times are a-changin’? That Setiawan Sukarnoputri got his green card Monday?

Of course not. Such approaches would be boring, bewildering and annoying. So why the media’s blithe assumption that they would somehow work in writing?

Anecdotal leads are only one way to send the lead astray. Below is an odd beginning that blends the “who?” of the anecdote with the “huh?” of a weird question:

• “How many times do you suppose Wilfred Rob Willis has remembered the crazy 1960s?”

Hang on, I’m thinking …

Another common lead problem comes from what can only be termed silly stuff:

• “It was almost exactly one year ago today that … ”

How “exactly” was that again? Almost exactly. If it really was one year ago today, it might be worth mentioning. But maybe not! And if it wasn’t exactly one year ago, this phrasing seems an attempt to trump up a little (false) excitement. Best to stick to simplicity and precision: “A year ago … ”

Like “almost exactly,” the over-qualifications of knee-jerk journalese often result in logic and precision problems:

• “Susan Boyle, arguably one of the most celebrated dark horses currently in TV’s race-to-fame competitions … ”

• “George Clooney, arguably one of Hollywood’s better-known movie stars … ”

How “arguable” is the claim that Susan Boyle is a celebrated “dark horse”? Her debut on “Britain’s Got Talent” made her an international sensation. And how “arguable” is the claim that George Clooney is among the “better-known” movie stars? Couldn’t we all agree on this?

In media writing, the word “arguably” is almost as great an overnight sensation as Susan Boyle. Yet it’s nothing but journalese, at once pompous and silly. What does it mean, after all? Maybe! Maybe not! We could argue!

Reporters often adopt such qualifiers to avoid writing anything, no matter how obvious or supportable, that smacks of opinion. But that’s folly. When expression is unnecessarily tentative, it stops being interesting — or even accurate. Credible reporting includes not only asserting or assuming the indisputable, but also knowing what is indisputable, at least to any sensible audience.

A final broad category of lead problem comes from a failure of taste:

• “Jon Jacobs not only left his heart in San Francisco; he left his liver and kidneys as well. The 46-year-old Dallasite became an organ donor when he was killed in a traffic accident in Marin County Friday night.”

Amusing leads are great; we don’t see enough of them. But there’s a time and place for cleverness and light-heartedness, and that time and place is in a light-hearted story — not in a tragedy.

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