Saturday, November 17, 2007

Another Cranky Newspaper Reader

A North Port reader is my buddy. We don't know each other, and he probably has not seen my little blog. But we seem to crave the same things: accuracy, clarity, timeliness -- things that once mattered in newspaper circles.

In a letter to the editor this morning, my new buddy wants Sun editors to tell him (1) why a headline says "Experts: Spector judge unorthodox," when nothing in the story mentions an expert or the judge's unorthodox conduct; (2) why editors describe a reader-submitted photograph as a pelican flying away with lunch in its beak, when the image clearly shows the bird's own wing flapping behind the bird's bill.

"One does not have to be a charter member of the Audubon Society to know that pelicans do not carry their meals home but swallow them whole at the point of capture," my new-found friend writes.

Welcome to Cranky Newspaper Readers, Mr. Becket.

This morning's editorial, as usual, desperately needs an editor.

The headline starts off badly because it's in the conditional tense: "Heartland Rural Mobility Plan could help many in need." Well, it could or maybe it couldn't. But let's skip all that silly business about using tenses correctly and skip the other silly business about writing headlines that say something meaningful.

The editorial opens:
It's a problem for the old and young alike. Getting around on your own. In the six-county area of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee it is estimated that as many as 20 percent of those over the age of 65 have no means of transportation of their own. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent of those 18 and under need help from others to take them to the grocery or doctor's office. This is also true of folks living in the communities of Belle Glade, Immokalee, Pahokee and South Bay. They must rely on friends or relatives or pay for a cab.
Let's ignore the vague, non-opening and the deliberately arty but ultimately ungraceful sentence fragment. Let's ignore the flabby sentences padded with the passive voice, impersonal "it" usage following on the heels of the chatty "you," and wordy prepositional and infinitive phrases. Let's skip the 10th-grade composition style and go right to the grown-up problem: clear thinking.

Think about it. Just 25 percent of folks under age 18 need a ride? The legal age for driving doesn't kick in until 16, making it quite likely that substantially more than 25 percent of youngsters need rides. If I look around at the editorial writer's designated destinations (grocery stores and doctor's offices) I see 100 percent of people under age 16 arriving in cars operated by others. As for those between 16 and 18, they just don't seem to visit the same doctor's offices that I do, so I'll have to suspend judgment. Next sentence:
This is also true of folks living in the communities of Belle Glade, Immokalee, Pahokee and South Bay. They must rely on friends or relatives or pay for a cab.
Think about it: "This" might refer to the sentence that says 25 percent of the folks under 18 need a ride; or "this" might refer to the sentence that says 20 percent of folks over 65 in a six-county area need a ride. The sentence's first message, however, is more general: everyone in these particular cities has no transportation at all. Next sentence.

The editorial writer dutifully attributes:
This according to the Heartland Connection, a newsletter produced about the Heartland Mobility Plan.

Again, which "this" are we writing (passively) about?

Discussions will take place in all six counties and other communities to gather information for how a rural transportation [sic] can best serve those in need. It's an exciting idea and one that is much needed.
I get it, and I'm sure every reader gets it. But getting it is a weak reason to excuse a professional, writing for publication, writing as a voice in her community, who will not take the time or trouble to write what she means. She doesn't mean the idea is much needed; she means the transportation is needed. She says it's, as if there's just one thing, but the noun she surely refers to, discussions, is a plural thing.

Worse, Sun Pundit sings the company song. Sure, it's great to discuss how rural transportation can "best serve those in need" (Keep the tires in good condition, get oil changes regularly, use seat belts, carry comprehensive insurance, don't charge too much ... ).

But what game is Sun Pundit cheerleading? Is she advocating regional connections to bus people 70 miles between Arcadia and Okeechobee and then roll 70 miles down the road to Belle Glade, then cross the 60-mile stretch between Belle Gade and Immolakee and complete the circle with the final 70-mile leg back to Arcadia?

Sun Pundit starts out writing people who need to go to doctor's offices and grocery stores but drops all references to these specific things in favor of something called "rural mobility." She writes about "rural mobility" as if it's a real thing. It's not. It's the newsletter's jargon, which the bureaucrats created in their own image.

Sadly, in the end, Sun Pundit delivers not one single fact that would help readers understand the need for regional transportation. Heck, we might even pay for it if we understood it.


  1. My community newspaper usually baffles me. I live in Belle Glade. :) Kimberly

  2. My community paper usually baffles me. I live in Belle Glade. :)

  3. A community newspaper that baffles readers has failed to do its job -- unless, of course, its job is merely to sell advertising. Explain city and county government; address school issues; describe the impact of state legislative action on local life. Help the community understand its community!