Correctness isn't enough

The Baltimore Sun

Let me take from its velvet box once more a treasured sentence from my tenure at The Baltimore Sun to see what it can tell us about journalism as she is practiced. 

This is the sentence, the opening paragraph of a news story: 

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate. 

This sentence is factually accurate. This sentence is grammatical. This sentence violates no rule of the Associated Press Stylebook. (In fact, the AP prefers the unnatural and unidiomatic placement of the adverb before the verb.) 

And yet, don't you think, it is not all it might be. Don't you, actually, think that it is damn near opaque?

And yes, reader, The Sun published this sentence, intact. 

Here is what goes into the making of such prose. 

The first failing, the writer's, is to assume that the goal of the summary lead sentence is to pack the entire contents of the article into that sentence, instead of picking a single element, followed by two or three sentences explaining the twists and turns in a more straightforward and digestible way. 

My guess is that the writer was thinking mainly of the source, because reporters love to please and be on good terms with their sources, in fact tend to write for them rather than for the reader. The source already knows what the story is about, sees that the opening is accurate, and all is swell. 

Then there is the assigning editor, who wants to move the thing fast and who doesn't want to get into a tangle with the writer by demanding time-consuming revision or, God forbid, challenges to the writer's prose style. Thus the process that I have described elsewhere as peristalsis rather than editing. 

The thing fetches up on the copy desk. (That is, assuming that there is a copy editor any more, an assumption you should no longer make.) The lead is spelled properly, grammatical, accurate, and innocent of violating any AP Stylebook canon. It is, of course, turgid, but long experience on the desk has inured the copy editor to turgidity. Besides, it's going to take time to rewrite the thing and get an OK from the assigning editor and reporter, and no one wants to get into a tangle with that reporter. Besides, there are twenty more articles in the queue, several of them likely to be worse off than this one, and deadline is looming. So once again the copy is processed, not edited. 

The reporter is satisfied, having achieved the long-held reportorial goal of being exempt from challenge or editing. The assigning editor is satisfied; the story is off the assigning desk without provoking annoying questions from the copy desk. The copy editor is satisfied; the article has been processed, spelled correctly and edited according to AP, and typeset before deadline. 

Everybody's happy, except for the reader, the one party who has been given no consideration throughout the process that produced and published this sentence. 



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