Saturday, July 25, 2009

In journalism a found body is assumed to be dead

Knowing the reporter that wrote this story, I can't imagine this is anything but an editing error.

Also it was my understanding this reporter, a former colleague at the Flint Journal, was a staff member at AnnArbor.com but there is no AnnArbor.com staff designation on his byline, so I'm not sure.

In Journalism 101 you are taught that when writing a news story about a death when you write "body" that means it was dead.

"Dead body" is always redundant and should never be used. On AnnArbor.com this morning there is a story that (at least as of 7:40 a.m.) uses that term. (Update: Checked back at 1:10 p.m. and the "dead body" is now just a "body" and the AnnArbor.com label is included with the writer, so all is well. Guess I am now a "citizen editor").

The story also uses a phrase I always found troubling. A body is found along a trail and the story includes the phrase "detectives are investigating." Boy, you would hope so, wouldn't you?

Another cop story pet peeve of mine is one you hear all the time on television and radio broadcasts about drunken drivers involved in serious crashes.

"The driver's blood alcohol was .20, more than twice the legal limit." No, it's not the legal limit, it's technically the illegal limit. I always preferred the more direct and correct phrase, that indicated that the driver's blood alcohol was above the limit that presumed intoxication.

Let's get this straight, there is no "legal" limit for getting drunk.

15 comments:

Quitter said...

I noticed the "dead body" thing too. I expect we're going to see a lot of these "rookie mistakes" in the copy at Ann Arbor.com.

Another story mentions a "right of passage." It's written by a veteran writer. But this shows that even the work of veteran writers needs to go in front of a qualified copy editor before being displayed for public consumption.

I doubt the folks running Ann Arbor.com would agree with me. The philosopy appears to be "if we make a mistake, a reader will tell us and then we can just fix it." I doubt there is any concern about the loss of credibility that comes with making such "rookie mistakes," especially since the mistakes can just "disappear" instead of being preserved on paper as they once were.

It's all about doing things as cheaply as possible. And good copy editors cost money.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point about the mistakes. The future, which includes "citizen journalists" and copy written by "trusted sources" will likely also include manipulated news and mistakes that are unlikely to be caught.

And with the ease of correcting copy on the Internet, there will be little evidence of mistake, unless people like JS here at FFE copy and save originals.

Many, many decades ago journalism was a trade, not a profession. But eventually those in the trade began to care about ethics and the profession grew.

Should be interesting to see where this goes.

Anonymous said...

At least it didn't say "3PM in the afternoon" like TV reporters always do...

Larry said...

Jim
There but for the grace of God...I flubbed a few during my day as a reporter, but your observation made me think of why institutional knowledge and veteran leadership in a newsroom is so crucial. Had I made the "dead body" mistake, I usually had a trusted colleague (aka the "crusty old fart") put his arm around my shoulder and inform me of my faux pas. That would resonate with me far more than some snarky copy editor shouting out my mistake across the room.

Somehow Jim, I would expect you to have been that esteemed colleague...

Jim of L-Town said...

I flubbed more than a few and, yes, there was usually a crusty old fart nearby to put an arm around you and lead you to the promised land.

I remember a reporter colleague at the Oakland Press who pulled back a story I had written and then offered to show me a quick rewrite that would improve my story.

An editor had not yet seen my story, the veteran reporter made a couple snappy changes and helped make that story much better.

Never forgot that and tried, when people were receptive, to do the same for them.

The old mix of old and new reporters was a vital part of the successful blend that made newspapering fun and productive.

Anonymous said...

In a "Lou Grant" episode, Rossi heard someone say something about "a body," and he wrote about it, assuming that person was dead. Alas, he/she wasn't, and he had to write a big correction.

Edward Vielmetti said...

Google News search at the moment returns this:

News results
Results 1 – 10 of about 1,397 for dead-body.

including the lead paragraph from a Xinhua story on the troubles in Honduras.

Jim of L-Town said...

Edward: And if I google "Alex Baldwin" I get 4,030,000 hits on the incorrect spelling for actor Alec Baldwin's name.

Google is not my number 1 source for all things journalism.

My point was that "dead body" has always been a "no-no" in news writing. If AnnArbor.com wants to change that. Feel free.

I did notice that you fixed it, so tell me why?

Jim of L-Town said...

Dear anonymous:

Yes, it is also important to make sure the "body" is actually dead.

There are other terms that are frequently misused. I've seen news stories where someone was in the hospital recovering from an "electrocution" or "strangulation."

The terms (at least in the news world) electrocution or strangled always means the person died.

I'm going to write more on this later. They are frequently made mistakes, and usually only once by each reporter.

Jim of L-Town said...

Edward, just for fun I did the "dead body" google search that you suggested.

I found that most of the "dead body" comments could be found in the headline of the story and not in the body copy. Example:

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/laworder/story/3BAEAC32E0C992FB862575F6005BEDD1?OpenDocument

Which only goes to prove my point that there is probably a greater need for "citizen editors" than there is for "citizen journalists."

I also noticed that there were other examples where someone had written a headline saying "dead body" while the reporter had correctly referred to only a "body."

Quitter said...

"Right of passage" has also been corrected.

See what I mean? Some reader brings it to their attention and it is quietly corrected. The new business model includes invisible corrections and free copy editing.

Genius.

truthiness said...

Good grief, so is Google now the official stylebook of AnnArbor.com? That must mean Wikipedia is the new library. Or if you're one of those mythical "old farts" who doles out kernels of wisdom instead of snark, the "morgue."

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, in the print edition, that "right of passage" wording was fixed by a copy editor during the editing and layout process Saturday for the Sunday paper. Before it came before readers' eyes.

Quitter said...

Exactly. A copy editor fixed it and prevented some embarrassment, just like copy editors are supposed to.

But evidently this means only the copy for the print version goes through a copy editor, and not the copy for the online version? I'm wondering if there are simply looser editing standards for the online copy, since it can be so easily and invisibly fixed. Get it posted first, get it right later?

Pam said...

Re "dead body" blog around July 25... I'm not a journalist but I'm so glad others are bothered by those stupid redundant statements. My current favorite was the Jackson's family lawyer that said he told MJ "One of these days you'll wake up dead". HUH? Ok, not really on the same topic, but just another example of....what do we even call this? Is there a name for things like "Dead Body" or "3pm in the afternoon"?
The only time I would think the phrase 'dead body' would be appropriate is if someone were discussing bodies in general and the distinction needed to be made. Like "the woman had pale skin like that of a dead body".

Keep 'em alert! We need to be diligent. We are dumbing down further by the day in this country.