Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Some Thoughts on Your Shoplifting Stories

1) Did he do it or not? I created the fact set, and I don’t know, or at least I can’t be certain based on the facts I created. The only eyewitness to the actual theft is the security guard, and it is possible that, as he tried to follow the shoplifter out of the store, he lost sight of the actual thief and started running at Timothy Milan, panicking him into fleeing, and to fighting back when a stranger grabbed him. The fact the cops have not located the sweaters that the guard says were taken is consistent with that scenario.

On the other hand, the kid may be guilty, so be careful about how you phrase things and what you do with the official statement about those missing sweaters. I can support those of you who put that reference at the end as a kind of implied question mark. I can support those of you who ignored it. Both approaches will be defensible if, on the morning your story is published, video emerges – from passersby or from in-store cameras – that makes clear Milan’s guilt or his innocence.

Probably a bigger problem has to do with leads in which you said something like, “According to police, a USF student shoplifted two sweaters…,” or some variant of that. You might stick an “allegedly” in there. Or you might say, “A Macy’s security guard told police that….” This is the seductive beauty of newswriting, of finding a way to say things that is accurate not just in detail but also in implication. By the way, here are some thoughts from a veteran reporter on the use of “alleged” and “allegedly.”

Seeking to avoid prejudging the facts in a crime and to protect the rights of the accused, reporters sometimes overuse “alleged” and “allegedly.” If it is clear that someone has been robbed at gunpoint, it’s not necessary to describe it as an alleged robbery or the victim as an alleged victim. This practice insultingly casts doubt on the honesty of the victim and protects no one. An accused perpetrator is one whose guilt is not yet established, so it is redundant to speak of an “alleged accused.” If the perpetrator has not yet been identified, it’s pointless to speak of the search for an “alleged perpetrator.”

2) For certain stories, I am going to stringently enforce the hundred-word rule. Given that rule, in this case you **must** tell me early on that the DA’s office says no one will be charged with anything. (Of course, you need to source it so you’re good if the DA changes his mind.) And that means that even earlier than the DA’s decision, you must give some detail on how Milan died. Died. That’s the word some of you used without elaboration, leaving the reader to wonder if he had a heart attack or an asthma attack or tripped and hit his head. You have multiple sources, from cops to hospital to coroner, to justify saying that he was choked to death. Softening it to “died after being placed in a headlock” is all right, too. That said, you don’t need to get into the autopsy’s technical language too high in the story. Save that for after the hundred-word line.

3) Editorializing and opinionating! You don’t need to call it a tragedy, a word that means different things to different people. Provide the details, and let your readers arrive at their own judgments. (Disclaimer: Some first-rate journalists disagree with me. They like the word!) Now let’s take a look at a couple lively grafs from one of your stories.

According to SFPD Lt. Mason Monroe, no sweaters were recovered after the young man was pronounced dead. However, despite a lack of evidence that Milan was, in fact, hiding sweaters in his pant legs, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office released a statement today stating that they would not recommend charging anyone involved with a crime at this time because it “seemed to be a case of excusable homicide.”
It is unknown if Daugherty’s involvement in the case will affect his position as a clarinetist with the San Francisco Chamber Ensemble. The two other bystanders remain unidentified and their involvement in Timothy’s death remains unclear at this time. 

Notice my cuts. First cut: No sweaters were recovered. Period. Not before he died and not after. Second cut: Now you seem to be directly challenging the police investigation. Several reasons exist for not doing this, not the least of which is video may emerge that makes you look foolish and “not objective.” (Later on we will talk about how slippery that word is.) Third cut: I’d say the better question is how Daugherty feels about having killed someone. But don’t speculate. Call him and ask and, if he responds, that’s another story. Same thing for wondering about how his employer will feel about his new notoriety. Don’t waste words speculating. I don’t think I’d spend words on the two mystery bystanders, though I didn’t cut it. They are potential witnesses to how the chase began. The involvement comment? The police account seems pretty clear to me. They chased, but they ran slower than Daugherty, and there are better things to spend words on.

I am not saying we never speculate in a story. If we did not have the DA quote, we could reasonably say no word yet on anyone being charged in the death. That thought would obviously be in everyone’s mind, and readers would want to be reassured that you, the reporter, recognized the importance of determining so important a fact. One assumes in that case the story would actually contain something like, “The District Attorney’s office has not yet responded to questions (or has not commented) about whether….” because a good reporter would have made that phone call, even if it’s five minutes to deadline.


Carlos Murillo said...

I did not include the fact that the sweaters had not been recovered in my story. Initially, I didn't think it was a vital detail, but i now see why it would be important. It's a small point, but it has big implications.

Also, the use of "alleged" has always fascinated me. It does feel like news outlets overuse the word, especially in instances where there are unspeakable tragedies like mass shootings or terror attacks and the perpetrator is confirmed. Sometimes news outlets continue to use the word.

In this case, however, it makes sense why it would be wise to use "alleged."

....J.Michael Robertson said...

The other usage that drives me crazy is promiscuous reference to "suspect" and"suspects" in cop reports and news stories. "USF Public Safety said a male suspect approached a USF student last night and stole his backpack." No. No suspect has been identified. Am I the only one who sees that suspect means a particular person has been settled on as possibly having done it. Thus, the first use of the word makes no sense, though the second one does. You have just said that someone who may or may not have done it did it. But this misuse of language is common, in news stories in print, online and on air.

Sarah Armendariz said...

I understand now the tired use of the word "tragic" or "tragedy". It is a personal assumption based on the writer's response to the death of the person being scoped out in their story. This is furthering the reader to either agree with the writer or be turned off by their personal assumption. Especially if the writer includes this within the first 100 words, I personally feel that the words are being wasted and could have been used on something more factual.