Friday, December 09, 2005

Kudzu in the Lead Graph

Last Thursday Richard Sisk of the Daily News filed this news article on President Bush's speech at the Naval Academy.
WASHINGTON -- Seeking to rally fading support for the Iraq war, President Bush told the nation yesterday to "expect" troop withdrawals next year while pledging to carry the fight to victory.

Delivering the mixed message to cheering midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush said, "We expect, but cannot quarantee, that our force posture will change over the next year."
This is a typical opening to a news article, with the lead graph giving us at least two of the five W's.

But can you locate the telling assumptions and questionable phrases that allows Sisk to add commentary to this hard-news item?

Analysis:

What are called "hard news" articles are far more dangerous than editorials because the authors are writing with the cloak of objectivity and neutrality around them. The news-article genre purports to offer the reader facts through a neutral, nonpartisan conduit. But news articles are written by humans who may approach objectivity in many cases but who also just as often allow their personal commentary in through the small cracks between words and careful lexical and syntactic choices.

First, in the fronted participial phrase -- seeking to rally fading support for the Iraq war -- Sisk sneaks in an assertion about something that is not at all confirmed. The claim that the support for the war is diminishing is not argued; it is simply asserted in the participial phrase.

Second, in the paraphrase of Bush's statement -- President Bush told the nation yesterday to "expect" troop withdrawals next year -- Sisk uses sneer or scare quotes around the word "expect." Why put this word in quotes? Why not simply write, "President Bush told the nation yesterday to expect troop withdrawals next year"? What other word would the author have used in its place? This is a simple case of a journalist using sneer quotes under the ruse of simply attempting a partial direct quote.

And third, in the next paragraph, Sisk characterizes the president's speech as a "mixed message" -- this is the standard use of quotation marks, by the way. To say that the president offered a mixed message to the assembled troops is certainly to give it a pejorative spin.

Note on spelling: Some journalists and historians of journalism refer to the initial paragraph in a news article as a "lede" and refer to an individual paragraph as a "graf." For now, I will use neither of these terms. I will use "lead" -- or "lead graph" -- and "graph" until someone can argue me out of their usage.


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