Thursday, September 06, 2012

How a newspaper is a convicting a man before trial

The case of a missing Richland County teenager continues to make headlines here - and to tug at the heartstrings of those searching for Gabrielle Swainson. The local sheriff has called a man arrested in the case a "monster."

Sheriff Leon Lott, no slouch when it comes to media savvy, continues to spin the story like a twister coming out of the plains. And it's hard, from the details that have come out so far, to not feel a sense of dread about Swainson's fate and a desire to see justice done.

Which is even more reason for the local media to keep a cool head.

Apparently The State newspaper missed that basic idea of journalism back in school, because it seems hellbent on convicting the suspect before trial: specifically reporter Noelle Phillips - but even more important, the editors who are supposed to have the smarts to keep a level head in all this.

Let's start with this headline of Aug. 29:


The quote marks are unlikely to mitigate that the paper has just called him a "monster." In fact, during the years at American Copy Editors Society meetings, readers panels have told us they often don't see the quote marks as attributing it to someone else but as the paper being snarky.

That was followed by this lead:

A man described as a monster and a career criminal forced 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson from her home in the wee hours of the night on Aug. 18 and took her to his burned-out house on a dirt lane in Elgin.

 What happened in that house is unknown, but there is clear evidence of foul play, Sheriff Leon Lott said Tuesday.

 Now, 52-year-old Freddie Grant, is in jail on kidnapping and federal gun charges, refusing to cooperate with the FBI and sheriff’s investigators, who were searching for Gabrielle.

 “A monster came in that morning and did something that only happens in our nightmares,” Lott said.

I have real problems with that opening paragraph being unattributed. It's Editing 101 - when you make serious accusations, don't leave them naked - the two-graf, attribution in the second graf lede doesn't work well. First, some of your readers won't make it to graf 2 (a major part, actually, called "scanners"), and some others will have that first graf stuck in their heads and not make the clear connection that Lott is saying both things.

(While we're at it, I have the same problem with the third graf. Is Lott also saying that or is the paper divining it?) 

Apparently, The State thought better of itself, because online it tacked an "authorities said Tuesday" onto the end.

Then, today, we've got this:

The mystery of how an accused kidnapper entered the home of missing teen Gabrielle Swainson has been solved after investigators found a key inside the suspect’s house, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.
Maybe the editors at The State missed it in Editing 102 when this came up (probably slept in), but they could always have referred to the AP stylebook:

To avoid any suggestion that an individual is being judged before a trial, do not use a phrase such as accused slayer John Jones; use John Jones, accused of the slaying.
Add to that the overall tone "mystery .... has been solved" and compound it by the subhead above it:


Any number of good texts on journalism and language (the editors might try Jack Cappon's put out by AP that was originally known as "The Word" -- hey, I know times are tough in newsrooms, but you can get a copy of it used for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping; give  me a holler and I'll send you the $4) will tell you the connotation of words is as important as the denotation and that "claimed" has a pejorative, hands-on-hips, disbelief connotation.

Let's also add the definitive statement that he "entered" the house to the list.

But what's a little skill with the language among friends who are supposed to be professionals about it, eh?

Maybe something like this?:

A key to missing teen Gabrielle Swainson's house has been found in the home of the man charged with kidnapping in her disappearance, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.
Or
The man charged with kidnapping in teenager Gabrielle Swainson's disappearance had a key to her house, and it was found in Freddie Grant's house after Grant said it had been lost, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.

No wonder the suspect's lawyer has asked for a gag order. Too bad it can't also include a suggestion that Phillips, but especially the editors at The State, go back and think about some of the principles of fairness and balance that got most of us into this business in the first place.

Trust me, I think they'll sell just as many copies. Let the story tell itself instead of becoming a tool.

Update 09/07: Roy Greenslade of Britain's The Guardian also weighs in.

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