Saturday, March 04, 2006

The jaundiced eye.

Relatively few people can construct prose well. Many people that do so in a official, quasi-official or even a professional capacity fail to. This can create a kind of tightrope for journalists and copy editors.

One need only become a regular reader of letters to the editor to see the frequent, ungrammatical writing and the tortured syntax. A reader is often challenged to see past this to the eloquence or wisdom behind the writing. Editors do not, normally correct or massage such material, nor should they.

Reporters frequently gather quotes in the course of an interview for a story that just ain't pretty when written down. Sometimes the speaker has poor mastery of spoken English and sometimes someone that does, is translating a thought into speech off the cuff and gets a little diverted in the process. Speaking isn't writing, even when it gets written down.

This common occurrence makes it quite easy for a journalist to make someone being quoted in a story look foolish, if the appearance of foolishness would serve an agenda. Occurrences of this are thankfully rare, though sometimes subtle and not easily spotted. It's also exceedingly easy to simply misquote someone either through honest error, inattentiveness, laziness or deliberate misfeasance.

Sadly, it's also all too common to find embarrassing sentence construction in material written for publication by someone singled-out for that responsibility. It would surprise many poorly written press releases pass through the newsroom in-box or fax machine.

Educated writers and editors know when they're quoting a textual train wreck. When I see it happen, I want to understand what's going on.

In the March 4, 2006 Capital Journal the lead story (in print, not on the Web site...a discussion for another day) follows the coverage I discussed in yesterday's blog item:

Two officers disciplined

On the page nine "jump," comes the only quote in the story from the NAACP press release:

"because of the potential harm that could be exposed to the community."

Yes, we know what thought the author of that quote is attempting to convey but we can still mock and pretend we don't know whether the author is worried that the community will become aware of potential harm or if the concern is that potential harm should be protected from the community. The words simply don't mean what the author is clearly trying to express.

Are those 12 words the most important passage of the press release? Were they the only relevant portion to quote? Was the rest of the document similarly convoluted? Was some purpose served by singling out a passage that could invite ridicule and create an impression about the source? Without seeing the entire press release it's not possible to answer those questions.

I'd like to think this was the most important and only relevent quote and that it wasn't possible to identify another without flaws, but I'm finding that difficult.



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