Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.
Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.
Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.
If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.
But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so. Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismark never said anything about laws and sausages.
These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.
In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.
Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.
The RNS story begins:
After months of calm in Zanzibar, two homemade bombs exploded Monday (Feb. 24) near St. Monica Anglican Cathedral and the Mercury restaurant, a popular hangout for tourists visiting the Indian Ocean archipelago.
No one was hurt, but one day earlier, four people were injured in another explosion, targeting an Assemblies of God church.
The article then proceeds to lay out the name of the suspected attackers, offer a comment from the Anglican bishop of the island, and then provide background on past attacks by Islamic militants on Christians and tourists in Zanzibar. These paragraphs are fine, but the lede I find problematic.
A disclaimer — I have visited the cathedral in Zanzibar and know its dean (the priest in charge). This having been said, the name of the cathedral is Christ Church Cathedral. St. Monica’s is the hostel next to the cathedral.
The dean emailed me shortly after the blast with news of the attack stating the bombs exploded at the entrance to the cathedral compound. In 2012 St Monica’s was damaged by a mob of Islamic militants — but this time round it was the cathedral that was attacked.
It might well be the case that the bishop quoted in the article said St Monica’s had been damaged in the blast and this was interpreted by the reporter to mean the cathedral. This is not a fatal error.
What concerns me more, however, is the opening phrase “after months of calm”. The article appears to contradict this assertion by noting an Assemblies of God church was attacked earlier in the week. But if the author means to imply that this attack came out of the blue — and broke a tranquility of the island, then he is seriously misinformed.
There has been an on-going campaign of aggression against native Christians in Zanzibar waged by the Islamic terror group named in the article. Western news sources pick up reports of European tourists, Catholic priests and Anglican cathedrals being attacked, but the harassment of the Christian minority is a daily fact of life.
Setting the direction of the story by implying the bombing of Christ Church Cathedral was an aberration that broke “months of calm” creates a false framework. While this is a wire service story and there is only so much context that can be given — it would have helped explain the story by noting there will be a referendum in April in Zanzibar on Tanzania’s new constitution. The militants want Zanzibar to secede from Tanzania and establish the island as an Islamic republic.
The story would have been improved had RNS tied the political to the religious aspects of this story.
Sausage making photo courtesy of Shutterstock.