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Sunday 19 February 2012

Relatively speaking

Two people drown.  We know their relationship, but not their names, and details of their lives are scant.

The Telegraph coverage ran thus:

Grandmother and boy drown feeding ducks
A grandmother and her six-year-old grandson drowned in a village pond while feeding ducks, police said last night.

The report goes on to say that the woman was 71, that she was a widow, and that a neighbour thought she was fond of ballet.
Not a lot to go on, perhaps, but enough to allow the writer and sub to have done better.
First the heading: Was she a woman who happened to be a grandmother? Was the boy her grandson or someone unrelated? Funnily enough, Boy and grandmother drown... would have made it clear.  The published version doesn't.
Then the intro: This time the relationship is hammered home too much. An obvious, but dull, variation would have been A woman and her six-year-old grandson...
We know she's a widow, so maybe that would have been a better opener? But perhaps we care more about the death of a child than that of the woman looking after him, so should he come first? 

Even in simple stories, we need to be aware that the way we express relationships implies some level of judgment. We carelessly write about 'a plumber and his wife' as though the woman were no more than an appendage.
The same applies if we start a story, for example,  A mother of four ... Maybe we are just using the one piece of information that saves us from A woman..., in which case fair enough. But unless motherhood is the prime reason for the woman being in the news, we should try to avoid it. How often do we start stories A father of four...?

Back to the village pond: The Times approached it thus:

Widow drowns with grandson in village lake
A boy of six and his 71-year-old grandmother have been found dead in a village lake.

The headline was double column, so the configuration was more restricted than the Telegraph's banner. 
But after that, it gets interesting. There is no doubt, looking at the pictures, that it was a lake rather than a pond, but that doesn't have the same ring. Is it stretching journalistic licence too far to go with pond? 
We also know the purpose of their outing only from what the police have surmised,  so  The Times plays it cautiously, waiting until the second par to say they were 'thought to have stopped to feed ducks'. Again, is that being too prissy or simple accuracy?
Unlike the Telegraph, The Times names the pair. It turns out that the grandmother is a retired nursery school teacher. I think I'd have liked to have known before the third par that this woman had professional experience of looking after  young children. It may add to our feelings of sympathy -  or the reverse  - but it is definitely relevant. I'd have made it the intro, thus:

A retired nursery teacher and her six-year-old grandson drowned while feeding ducks in a village lake yesterday.
Then the boy could have taken precedence in the heading...but the permutations are endless.

Meanwhile, two and a half cheers for the Telegraph's coverage of Dr Finella Brita-Babapulle's brush with the law:

Doctor waged gay smear 'war' on ex-husband after divorce cash row
A respected consultant haematologist subjected her former husband to a series of homosexual smears because she felt she was cheated out of £430,000 in their bitter divorce.

Hurrah, no dreaded 'female' or 'woman'. The reporter (presumably a casual as no named byline) gets it spot on with her profession up front, letting the 'her former husband' do the gender bit. We might question the need to say it was a 'bitter' divorce - most that end up in a criminal court are - but that's a quibble. 
Similarly, do we really need those quotes round 'war'. She's been convicted of harassment and she has challenged him in every court in the land, so it wouldn't have been too naughty to leave them off. 
But both head and intro were compelling enough to encourage the reader to  learn more. 

*image by Bobbie Peachey,

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)

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