Media Writing 101: Accuracy and clarity are not the same thing

Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale had a “2-for-1” system when it came to pitching. If your team hit one of his batters, he would hit two of yours. Nice guy.

One of my favorite stories that distinguished accuracy and clarity involved legendary pitcher Don Drysdale, a mean and nasty SOB, who had no compunction about hitting batters as part of his game plan.

In the middle of a game, manager Walter Alston came out to the mound and told him, “I want you to put this guy on,” meaning Alston didn’t want Drysdale to pitch to the batter, but instead walk him and pitch to the next hitter.

Drysdale nodded and then subsequently drilled the batter in the side with the first pitch.

Alston ran back out to the mound and said, “What the hell are you doing? I told you to walk the guy!”

“No,” Drysdale replied. “You told me to put him on. He’s on first base. Get your ass back into the dugout.”

Media writing requires us to be accurate above all else, but being right doesn’t always mean we’ve clearly communicated with the readers. Something can be right while simultaneously being as clear as mud.

Let’s look at this short crime story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that ran over the weekend. Starting with the lead, we’ve got some issues:

Two men were shot and killed, and an innocent bystander was injured, about 10:25 a.m. Saturday outside one of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores in Milwaukee, police said.

Solid information about key things (two dead, shooting occurred). It includes a time element and an attribution. However, what’s not there is probably more important than what is:

  • “One of the El Rey Hispanic grocery stores” implies that there are multiple stores with this name, which is true. However, as a reader, I’d like to know WHICH ONE of the three stores experienced this shooting. I don’t get that until the fourth paragraph of the story.
  • The passive voice in the lead (“were shot and killed”) leaves me hanging a bit, as I don’t know who did the shooting, how many people were shooting or if the person/people doing the shooting are still running around out there. That could be frightening if I knew where this thing actually happened, which I still don’t…
  • The term “innocent bystander” has a lot of trouble here. First, as opposed to what? A guilty bystander? Someone who probably deserved a little lead justice? Second, this implies that the people who were shot probably had it coming, as they are not designated in this way. Third, it’s an opinion, so get rid of it.

The second paragraph gets us some additional info that would have been helpful up top, but still has some clarity issues:

Following a disturbance in the store, two security guards and a man went into the parking lot, where the man and guards exchanged gunfire. The man, who has not been identified, and one of the guards — a 59-year-old man — were struck and died at the scene, according to Milwaukee Police District Two Sgt. John Ivy. Police did not specify which man fired first or how many shots were fired.

One of the hardest things to deal with in a story like this is trying to balance lack of information against potential libel. If we had names for these people, it would be easier to explain what happened. (“Smith entered the store and argued with Jones and Jackson before the three men left the store. Smith then shot and killed Jones before Jackson shot and killed Smith.”) It’s not poetry, but it prevents confusion.

Here we have “man” as the only real descriptor that we can use because we can’t call someone a shooter (there were at least two, probably three from this reading), an assailant (libel issues) or other similar terms. That said, we have to do something to make this clearer for the readers, and that probably starts with the lead. Try this:

A 59-year-old security guard at an El Rey Hispanic grocery store died Saturday after he exchanged gunfire with a patron who was also killed, police said.

This does a couple things:

  • It closes the loop on the shooting so we know who was involved and that there’s not an active shooter in the area.
  • It gets a better set of descriptors up top for the guard so we can call him “guard” as opposed to “man” later in the story. It also pulls the bystander out, who was injured but not killed, and focuses on the bigger issues.

I hate the term “exchanged gunfire” as it sounds like a rebate program or something, but since the cops can’t say who shot at whom first, it’s the best we’re gonna do here. I’m also not thrilled with “patron” as I suppose we could argue if the guy is a patron because he might or might not have bought something. Other news coverage of the event seems to say this was a robbery of some kind (not sure if it was shoplifting or whatever), so maybe that would help shape how we define this guy if we could independently prove it ourselves.

(Remember, never take stuff from other media outlets, as you have no idea if they’re right. In this case, we also appear to have a discrepancy over the exact time, so make sure you get it on your own.)

Now in that second paragraph we can do some good work to improve clarity:

The shooting took place around 10:25 a.m. outside the store at 916 S. Cesar E Chavez Drive following a disturbance inside. Police did not say if the man or one of the two security guards who confronted him in the parking lot fired first, but added that a 41-year-old woman suffered minor injuries from a stray bullet.

This cleans up the “where” issue a bit better, moves the minor injuries down a bit and helps avoid the overuse of “man” in the second paragraph.

The rest of the story covers most of the rest of what little we know about the situation in functional fashion, so it’s not worth parsing. The thing to remember is that most people aren’t going to read deeply into a story to find all the details, so you need to give them the most-important information up top and as clearly as you can.

Leave a Reply