Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Questions are What You Do, Not What You Write

...Local readers appreciate that Our Man in Arcadia wrote a story today involving more than rewording a city council agenda. Unfortunately, no real editor was around to help him to see that reporters should report; they shouldn't be offering up baseless assertions and artificial questions.

A real newspaper editor would have asked him to address these problems in this morning's story, from the top, before going into print.

In the first sentence, he asks: "As education costs continue to soar, has a college education become just a pipe dream for the average student?"

Readers want answers, not questions. What's the "soaring" part? The story fails to report any costs or provide evidence that costs are soaring. Although there are several opportunities in the story to report tuition rates and the price of textbooks, the reporter never once does so. This is easy information to locate.

In the second sentence, OMIA asks: "Do average students stand a chance of being accepted into a college or university, and if so, can they afford it?"

Again, readers expect answers, not questions. Since the story includes interviews with several "average students," it would be more honest and less cutesy -- and more like a real journalist -- if the reporter informed readers that numerous opportunities exist in Florida for "average students" to get into two- and four-year schools. Don't ask; inform. This provides another good springboard for reporting the cost of tuition -- perhaps comparing Edison, SFCC, and FSU with the larger state schools -- but the story never gets around to doing this.

In the third sentence, our trusty reporter asks: "What is meant by "average student? Arguably, the traditional definition is the C student - the student with a grade point average somewhere between 2.0 and 2.9."

The made-up answer is unattributed. Report who says a "traditional definition" of an "average student" means a student with a C grade? Both logic and common sense say this is a fallacious conflation. (A blind student with C grades is hardly an "average student," although he may be a student with average grades. A 64-year-old grandmother with C grades is hardly an "average student," although she may be a student with average grades. A Chinese native studying here and using English as a second language may have C grades but is hardly an average student. And so on.) Inform readers by reporting facts from someone with expertise. That person is not the reporter.

The reporter writes: "There was a time when average students rarely went on to college."

Perhaps so, but the writer is obligated to tell readers exactly when that time was. He makes a broad generalization about a vague, bygone era but fails to marshal facts to support the assertion.

The reporter writes: "There was not much scholarship money available."

A real editor would have asked the cub to tell readers when this time was. And, how much, please, is "not much?"

Remember, there was also a time when millions of returning soldiers from WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict went to college on the GI bill. For a quarter century, we at colleges and universities across the nation experienced a huge influx of "average" students riding a tidal wave of government-paid tuition -- essentially open-enrollment scholarships. That fact alone makes your statement incorrect as presented.

The reporter writes: "In those days, a college education probably was a pipe dream for the average high school student."

See above: when exactly were "those days?" What expert, besides this writer, asserts that college was a pipe dream?

Those are the first six or seven sentences. The rest of the story (interviews with nice local kids) isn't so bad -- although the writer sidesteps his most important job, which is to provide news. It's called the "hook." It could be a simple as the news that DeSoto High School has N number of students this year who are eligible for Bright Futures scholarships, up from N-1 number last year. And B-F isn't the only way for average students with average grades to finance a college education, which cost $N more this year than last.

Good reporters find a hook and report it; then the interviews have a factual basis and a context. Right now, it's evident that some "editor" brainstormed a bunch of unfocused questions that OMIA wrote down and tried to turn into a lead. Noble effort, but not news.

And raspberries to the photo editor for cookie-cutter cute blonde to illustrate an "average" college student. I teach college less than a mile from the newspaper's office. Many college students there have dark skin, black hair, brown eyes and a child. Perpetuating stereotypes of what is "average" is for bigots, not newspapers.

p.s. Next week, a lesson on the difference between the meaning of "average" and "typical."

No comments:

Post a Comment