Long ago, before the cooling of the earth’s crust, I took my first news copy-editing class as a young journalism student at Baylor University. Anyone who has worked as a copy editor know that one of the first things you learn is how to keep bad stuff out of print.
There are various kinds of bad stuff, of course.
There’s stuff that violates the principles found in the bible of daily journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook. Take that rule governing the use of the word “fundamentalist,” for example. There’s stuff that’s just plain bad, such as risque puns (think back page of The Columbia Journalism Review). There’s stuff that violates style principles that have been developed at the local level. For example, what do you call a person who lives in Charlotte, N.C.? Hint, this person is not a “Charlatan.” She or he is a “Charlottean.”
Finally, there is stuff that is considered “bad” by your local publisher or your editors — even if they do not want to admit it. Some of these concerns are valid. Some are a bit harder to live with.
There was a legendary story in Texas about a reporter at a newspaper that, for a long time, kept it’s policy forbidding any use of the word “rape” in stories. This reporter heard a woman at a crime scene shouting, “I was raped! I was raped!” Well, as the story goes, the editor spiked the quote. Thus, in anger, the reporter wrote — in warped loyalty to local style — that the woman had shouted, “I was sexual molested! I was sexually molested!” A copy editor left it in. Both, according to the legend, were fired.
So why do I bring this up? I recalled this anecdote while reading the top of The Washington Post report on the shooting at the Family Research Council. This particular story — after hours of work catching up on the event — is actually pretty good, but has some strange quirks.
Maybe it’s just me, but there was a strange void at the very top of this:
An armed intruder, spouting opposition to social conservatism, walked into the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council on Wednesday and shot a security guard before the wounded guard and others wrestled him to the floor and subdued him until police arrived, authorities said.
They identified the suspect as Floyd Lee Corkins II, 28, of Herndon, who has a master’s degree from George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development. Corkins was in FBI custody Wednesday night; authorities had not filed charges against him.
Now, I understand that the authorities have almost certainly clamped down on witnesses talking to the press. Still, let me ask the obvious: What does “spouting opposition to social conservatism” mean? Surely this gunman didn’t walk in there shouting, “I am opposed to social conservatism! I am opposed to social conservatism!” Were his words a bit more pointed than that? Will Post editors print them?
Journalism is all about the quest for specifics, for telling details. Thus, it is rather strange that the Post team went rather far into this story before mentioning this colorful fact about this event:
Two law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the gunman entered the lobby carrying a satchel, with a bag from a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside. The Atlanta-based fast-food chain has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks after its president spoke out against same-sex marriage. The Family Research Council also opposes such unions. …
Corkins had been volunteering at a community center on U Street NW for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, according to officials there.
So what was Corkins shouting? Think about this in journalism terms: If a gunman who was a volunteer at a fundamentalist Christian church had walked into the lobby of a major gay-rights organization, with an empty Oreos bag stashed away on his person, would reporters want that info right up top in the report? Would they want to include the actual words that this firebrand was shouting?
I would think so. I certainly would want those details reported accurately and fairly — in the lede or soon after.
The Post story, meanwhile, did a fine job of getting informed and accurate reaction quotes and commentary from people on the cultural left and right. Gay-rights leaders were quick to reject this use of violence and conservatives were given a chance to offer their opinions on the question of whether this attack was a political crime, or even a “hate crime,” under the laws of the District of Columbia. Like I said, there’s lots of good daily journalism in this piece.
But the top of the story? Rather vague and mushy — especially since there was crucial info stuck (some would say “buried”) further down. I mean, which is more relevant to this story? That Corkins had a master’s degree from George Mason University or that he was a volunteer in an organization that totally opposed the Family Research Council?
Meanwhile, if you are interested in the political and cultural overtones of the arguments about the media coverage of the shooting, let me recommend this article by religion-beat pro David Sessions at The Daily Beast. It has that whole Newsweek/Daily Beast progressive-tone thing going on, but contains tons of links and good info.
Also, check out this early piece by Timothy Dalrymple, the Harvard guy who leads the Patheos evangelical channel. He is also a major player in assembling the website’s new religion and politics channel, which is the new home for your GetReligionistas.