Monday, January 7, 2008

Okay, You Can Run the Press Release

Charlotte Sun’s Feeling Fit Editor made the front page this morning with a story that could have used a lot of prenatal care and some skilled midwifery. A PR professional might have helped prevent the stillbirth.

The opening (can’t call it a lead): “Having a baby is a joyous experience.” Actually, having a baby might be a joyous experience for some. Maybe it was for Dawn Krebs, who opts to snag readers' attention using the tritest possible beginning. But, Dawn, for others, maybe not so joyous. And for yet others, maybe not joyous all.
Real reporters – and even editors – know better than to make blanket generalizations. And especially not to make them in the lead where readers are hoping for hints about the story, not rosy generalizations about your birth experience. Next sentence:

“Giving birth sooner than expected, however, and transporting the newborn to an entirely different hospital for its care, can cause stress and anxiety.”

Editors, if the baby is born prematurely, there’s a lot more at stake than stress and anxiety. All Krebs is telling readers about the upcoming news is that it will be delivered in the most shallow and trite way possible.

But what’s this reference to “an entirely different hospital?” The story hasn’t mentioned even one hospital yet, so the reference seems premature. And speaking of stressed and anxious, who feels this – baby or joyful parent? (the reader?) And readers everywhere want to know, what’s with that last comma? It’s like a sixth finger on a newborn.

“But in a few months, that is about to change," Krebs breathlessly, dramatically announces. The joy is tainted by the twisted tense, but more importantly, what is about to change? The joyous experience? The stress? That last comma?

“In a few months” doesn’t do as effective a job as the “when” of a real news story, especially when there's no lead. How many months is few months? Two or twenty? It’s okay to report the hospital's new infant nursery is scheduled to open in March (no, Krebs can’t say it will happen because she don’t have a crystal ball). No frills, no drama, just a nice clean report of facts, at least the few this "editor" has been willing to share so far, will do.

Next graf. The reporter-editor defines neonate as a premature infant born at 37 weeks gestation. No. Neonate is medical lingo for newborn and applies to anyone under 28 days old. Neonate is not a synonym for premature – and what’s so premature about 37 weeks? “Full term” is generally considered 38 weeks after fertilization. Readers may ask, but this reporter will never tell.

The reporter-editor writes that neonates are “further defined by different levels,” but goes on to describe not the baby but the neonatal unit as a level two. One sentence purports to define the child; the next applies the definition to the facility.

Old Word Wolf often criticizes newspaper stories that seem to have been written by public relations writers: lack of neutrality, a focus on one product or event instead of casting a wider look around, creating spin aimed at making the news-releaser look good, and so on. In fact, Krebs’ report would have been better reported by the hospital's own ....

Professional PR writers, unlike Krebs, give readers core facts in the first paragraph. They unfold the story in an orderly fashion, inverted pyramid style, building up a foundation of lesser but often equally interesting facts, quotes and anecdotes.

For this story, a PR professional might tell readers how large the neonatal unit is, how much it cost, what it looks like, whether it is the first or fifth in the region. A PR professional, especially one capable in a medical setting, would not call a seven-pound baby premature, and would never have let a nurse utter such meaningless nonsense as mars this story.

A professional PR person would never insert an erroneous reference to neonatal intensive care into a quotation. A professional PR person would help readers distinguish between common perceptions of “preemies” and other types of newborns who require assistance. A good PR person would clarify that a 37-week gestation does not define premature birth. A good PR person would never leave the clichéd abstraction, “neonatal issues” to define the care rendered by pharmacists, radiologists and dietitians.

Skilled PR people spell out corporate names, such as HMA, on first or second reference and identify local significance in terms of size, beds, revenues and services. Skilled PR people systematically identify and eradicate passive voice, wordiness, clichéd and unclear writing and other ambiguities and silliness. They research and fact check. They don’t publish first drafts.

There are too many errors and too much silliness to wade through them all. OWW will simply close on one FCAT-level error to suggest this story, even in the hands of a hospital flack, would have been more accurate, interesting and readable than the Charlotte Sun’s reporting, writing and editing: “So in addition to any health problems that occurred by being born early, the family and hospital staff have to work out the logistics of moving the infant.”

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