Another Reason Why The News Has Lost Credibility

Look at this lead from a brief AP story on the Utah mine collapse:

Rescue crews clinging to a mountainside struggled yesterday to drill two narrow holes – one just 2.5 inches across, the other less than 9 inches – in a painfully slows effort to bring air and food to six miners trapped in a cave-in.

What’s wrong with that, you say. A lively lead to a tragic story? What could be amiss?

“Clinging to a mountainside”?


“Painfully slow”?

Is this a news story or is it an ad for a TV drama? I suspect the writer (no byline) simply wanted to liven up the language to entice the reader.

This lead should have read something like:

Rescue crews yesterday worked to drill two 1,500 foot access holes to provide air, food, and communications to six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine collapse.

That’s all. Simple fact. No jazz. Closer to reality.

Unfortunately the whole story goes on in that vein.

“…thunderous collapse”.

“…punch through the rubble”.

“…extraordinary 1,500 feet straight down”.

“…posed the constant risk of a broken bit”.

Now all of that may be considered ‘lively’ writing, but it is not accurate writing. It’s dramatic, but it is not accurate. It’s catchy, but it is not accurate. It’s the sort of writing one finds in second-rate fiction.

But it’s not fiction. We don’t read hard news to be entertained. We read the news to gain information about the state of things in our community, in our world.

It’s easy to move from this kind of ‘news’ writing to the so-called newstertainment and phony news we find on television news channels. Reporters and editors are so busy trying to jazz things up that they forget the news, forget their craft, forget their ethical obligations, and grease our slide into illegal wars and other outrages.


5 Responses

  1. I’m a first time visitor to your blog, and I like your writing and intend to add you to my blogroll at Quarkscrew so I’ll remember to keep checking back here. I have to say, though, I think you’re way off base on this one. You didn’t link to the story, but I Googled your quotes and found it easily enough.

    I found, as you said, lively writing. Dramatic, even. Catchy is a stretch, but I’ll stipulate. What I didn’t find were any obvious inaccuracies. What, exactly, is more accurate or realistic about your paraphrase compared to the original?

    I’ve seen footage of the drilling effort. The ground’s pretty sheer there, difficult footing; “clinging to the mountainside” is a fair description. They are “struggling” to do it. The holes are indeed “narrow” and the effort “painfully slow,” especially to the miners who are “trapped” in the cave-in.

    If the reporter were sacrificing accuracy in the name of a more dramatic story, as isn’t entirely unknown in our news media, I’d say you were on the money. I’m sure a bit of effort could have turned up such a story, especially if you could bring yourself to watch Fox ‘News’ Channel.

    As it is, though, you’ve picked on a story by some uncredited AP writer who has actually accurately conveyed the hard facts, unless you have information to the contrary, but you’re dissing him because he tried through his word choice to also convey the emotional tenor of the rescue.

    If I were being asked to think of a tepid disagreement between political rivals as a “title fight” or “bloodbath” or whatever, and we both know there’s plenty of that going on, then yes, that’s just an idiotic attempt to influence my emotions. This, however, is a genuinely emotional story, and I don’t mind a bit that the writer has attempted to convey the tension of a life and death rescue.

    Hard news often is dull and emotionally remote, but it isn’t actually a requirement. Sometimes accurately portrayed reality is genuinely engaging.


  2. Thanks for your kind and informative comment. Do you have a link to the footage? I’d like to see it before I revise.

    I don’t entirely disagree with you, assuming your depiction of the scene is accurate, but I think I would still object to the style the reporter chose. Let’s assume that his description is accurate. Even so, it sounds (or reads) as if he were trying to jazz it up. Which is enough to lead one to believe it to be overhyped and not credible. That’s a finer distinction, but I think an important one. The news not only has be to accurate and credible, it has to sound credible. Writing for credibility doesn’t need to mean boring, stiff, or stodgy writing, or ‘dull and emotionally remote’. I think understatement has great value today when so much stuff is hyped in the news.


  3. Well, I did find some footage on Fox News, and as soon as I’m done here I’ll be washing my computer.

    From the footage I saw I can’t say I agree that the drillers were ‘clinging’ to anything. Looks like they had a big drill rig set up pretty solidly, albeit high up, and were going about their business. ‘Clinging’ brings to mind someone hanging on with both hands to a sheer cliff face, a la Stallone in that climbing epic a few years ago.

    But in any event, I’ll stick with the point that news has to be written credibly, not for drama. If reporters write for drama, where does it end? And where does credibility end?

    Drama lies in the facts of the story. There’s a line where the writer is just slapping the reader in the face with language, and that takes the drama out of, shall I say it… the drama.


  4. The words we chose. The actual facts could be debated because each one of us interprets what we hear and see differently.

    An insightful commentary about reporting fact. A number of valid points. A step towards improving the information stream that will serve us all better.

    And then the last line.

    “And grease our slide into illegal wars and other outrages.”

    Would your point have been effectively made without that last line?

    “Clinging to a mountainside”? “Grease our slide”

    “Struggled”? “Illegal”

    “Painfully slow”? “Other outrages.”

    I think you left yourself wide open. I would have ended it at….. “ethical obligations”.

    And I think, deep down iniside, you know why.


  5. Ah, but I’m not writing news or doing journalism. 🙂

    Considering the failure of the press to do news and journalism rather than feed us administration propaganda justifying the invasion of Iraq, it’s not much of a stretch to say the media greased the slide into war – considered illegal in many quarters, and not just on the left – and as for other outrages – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, renditions, and so on.

    The mining story’s language usage may be a minor thing, but acceptance of such practice at a low level makes it much easier to abuse the power of the press/media on the larger issues.

    The final phrase comes after what would have been a satisfying ending, like a final chord in music. You’re right in that sort of sense. But I wanted to expand the thought beyond the mine story with a bit of a slap in the face.

    And I’m pretty sure you don’t know what I know deep down inside. Not that I know what you think you know that I know. (I’ll stop before I confuse us both.)

    Thanks for the comment.



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