Journalistic conventions

Practice 1. Newspaper and magazine stories often have a human-interest lead-in, about a specific person or group involved in the story; that’s designed to engage the readers’ interest, before the real subject of the piece, the hard news or analysis, kicks in.

(I’m not sure how old this practice is, but it’s now very common, even though some critics find it objectionable.)

Practice 2. A convention of newspaper journalism is that on first appearance, someone is introduced with a full name and and a brief characterization (“john Smith, the victim of the crime”), but that later mentions will use Prefix + LN (or just LN), with no recharacterization (“Mr. Smith”, “Professor Smith”, “Smith”). This convention is designed for economy (“Omit Needless Words”), but it diverges from the usual practices of story-telling (also adopted by many writers of non-fiction), where people are re-introduced into the discourse if they have dropped from topicality,

The two practices taken together can make newspaper stories hard to follow. A case in point, from “The right choices: America’s bloated prison system has stopped growing. Now it must shrink” in The Economist of 6/20.

The headline announces the real subject of the story, but the story itself begins with a humanizing paragraph about a man caught up in the bloating of the American prison system:

Cleveland, Texas. David Peace, a 35-year-old from Dallas, has never used the internet. Neither has he ever used a mobile phone, possessed a driving licence or received a pay-cheque. Mr Peace, who is black, stockily built, with a broad smile, was convicted of an aggravated assault in 1997 after using a knife in a fight with a neighbour. The years most men of his age would have spent working, or starting a family, he has spent in various prisons in Texas. Next year he will be released from the minimum-security prison in Cleveland, a town near Houston, where he is currently held. The prospect of the outside world is still daunting. “I feel left behind,” he says. “I’ve been living in a place where all of my choices are made for me, and now I have to learn to make the right choices.”

Now readers accustomed to Practice 1 will understand that David Peace is not the subject of the Economist‘s story, but only an entry point easing us into the  tough stuff. The next paragraph shifts to the real subject:

No country in the world imprisons as many people as America does, or for so long.

And it goes on from there for several pages, with a graph and a map, and over a thousand words of text. The savvy reader has no expectation that we’ll hear about David Peace again, once we’re past that framing first paragraph. But then — surprise! — he returns:

Mr Peace, about to be released from his prison near Houston, is one of those who enjoys such a chance, thanks to philanthropy. He is enrolled in a privately organised “Prison Entrepreneurship Programme” through which he receives enthusiastic mentoring from well-off volunteers (dancing features surprisingly heavily: tattooed murderers bop around the floor with blazer-wearing oil executives from Houston). When he leaves prison, he will get help finding housing and work.

When this paragraph began, I had no recollection of David Peace, so I was pulled up short by the appearance of a character “Mr Peace”. Who was he? It could have been worse: at least “about to be released from his prison near Houston” reminded me of his role in the story.

Then things go back to the main story line, with a contrast to make a transition:

When most prisoners in Texas are released at the end of their term, though, they get just a bus ticket home and $100; those let out on parole get $50. It is a recipe for recidivism. According to a Department of Justice survey of those released from state prisons in 30 states, 77% of those released in 2005 were arrested within five years; more than half of the arrests were within a year of release.

Building a new life is made even more difficult by policies which continue to punish criminals long after they have served their time…

David Peace disappears once again for several pages — another thousand or so words of text — only to reappear in the very last paragraph:

In his cell block, Mr Peace complains that for most of the time he has spent in prison, he has never been treated as someone with a problem, but rather as a problem himself. He has earned qualifications as a plumber and a welder — both paid for by his mother. He is hopeful that when he leaves, he will never come back. If America is to be the land of the free, it will have to learn to forgive a lot more men like him.

I was caught unawares once again.

The difficulty could have been averted at the cost of only a few words, by using the man’s full name and providing a reference to his imprisonment in Cleveland TX. But I’ve talked to newspaper people who view Practice 2 as absolutely invariable: it’s what newspaper writing requires.

2 Responses to “Journalistic conventions”

  1. Jonathon Owen Says:

    Worse still is when journalists forego the name and use some sort of description for a later reference without connecting that description to the name.

    For example, one paragraph may talk about John Smith, and then a later paragraph starts with “The 38-year-old father of two . . .” But it’s never made explicit that John Smith is a 38-year-old father of two. Most people would say something like “John Smith, a 38-year-old father of two, . . .” But journalists elide that important connection and leave you to guess who this new mystery person is.

  2. Martyn Cornell Says:

    As a working newspaper sub-editor, I have to agree with Jonathon that the practice of referring to someone we’ve already met only via some completely new information is unforgivable, and when I come across examples in copy I am editing I always rewrite the sentence to make it absolutely clear who is being talked about. I suspect writers are attempting some (in)elegant variation by using a description rather than the person’s name, without realising that they’re simply confusing the reader.

    On the reintroduction of people we last heard from several hundred words previously, it IS difficult to find a way of reminding the reader who this person is without it sounding clunky, and those reminders do break up the flow: there isn’t an elegant solution, which is probably why most writers/editors ignore the problem.

    However, the practice that most irritates me is the unintroduced quote: a lengthy quotation germane to the story suddenly appears, with no indication until the very end who is speaking, which makes it impossible to judge their words, and give appropriate weight to them, until the end. I had a lengthy row with an American reporter who simply could not accept that she was doing her readers no favours by hiding the identity of the speaker until the end of the quote, and was actually harming their comprehension of the story.

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