SubScribe: Animal magic Google+

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Animal magic

A sniffer dog saved a man in the first minute of its first mission yesterday after a gas blast destroyed a Victorian house in Clacton that had been converted  into  flats.  
Kersley Vythilingum, 30, was trapped for two hours in the top-floor rubble  before being found by Kirby, a springer spaniel that completed its training on Thursday. 
Andree Massey, 80, was rescued from the ground floor and taken to hospital with severe burns.
Clarel Sainte-Marie, 37,  led his pregnant wife and two children from the first floor to safety on the roof. Their hamster Lilly was found safe 12 hours later.

Just wanted to check I could tell the whole story in 100 words, and - at the risk of being accused of Brick-like conceit  -  I think the end result passes muster. 
If I'd allowed myself more words I could have added  that  Ms Massey lived on the ground floor,  that Mr Vythilingum was a care worker and that  Mrs Sainte-Marie is seven months pregnant. I could have included the names and ages of her children, and quotes from her husband -  who woke 'without a ceiling' -  or Kirby's handler, Graham Currie, who hailed the dog a hero.
When space is a constraint, it is the sub's job to make decisions on what to tell the reader and what to leave out. If you take the view that no one will have heard of these people so their names don't matter in a short, you end up with an anonymous piece that is meaningless. But while the identities of all the characters in this little drama were available, it wasn't essential to include every name. I'd have liked to have known the ages of the dog and the hamster.
This story was given big play across the papers yesterday and the different treatments are intriguing. I was particularly interested to see which facts made which paper - and in what order. 
No one died - although Ms Massey was critically ill - so it wasn't a particular tragedy. Houses do blow up thanks to leaky gas pipes, so generally the availability of pictures will determine the newsworthiness of an explosion.
In this instance there was an abundance of pictures. There was a 'before' photograph of the house with a red car outside and an 'after' with the building reduced to rubble with a different red car buried in the detritus. There were pictures of Mr Sainte-Marie, of Kirby and his handler, of Lilly in her cage. There was even an aerial shot. Picture desks must have been beside themselves with joy: all praise to the agency that was on the case.
No matter how much space they devoted to the story, no newspaper included every fact that appears in my opening paragraph. Some sacrificed snippets of detail for writing style  - a legitimate choice - while others left out the basics.

To my mind, the following were essential:
1: the event and where it happened
2: the human cost, including at least one name
3: the dog's actions, including its name
4: the hamster, including its name
After that, it would be good to see other names, detail, background, quotes as space allows.

Even though I've placed it at no 3,  the key element of this story has to be the dog. It is the USP, if you like, the factor that lifts this from any old 'gas blast in essex, nobody killed' filler. All stories must tell us what happened, where and to whom, so the event and the people had to head the list of priorities - but that doesn't mean they have to be at the top of the story. 

Pictorially, I'd want
1: the destroyed building
2; the dog
3: the hamster
4; anything else available

So here's a random survey of some of the coverage with a SubScribe rating. Marks are given up to a maximum of 5*  for the heading and use of pictures, while stars for content are awarded arbitrarily for extra detail and deducted if essential facts are missing.


Six people (and a hamster) survive gas blast

Three-col photograph of wreckage with hamster inset, single column pix of house before blast, Mr and Mrs Sainte-Marie and aerial shot of rubble
12-par delayed drop story:

When the firemen arrived, they must have feared the worst. 
An explosion tore this three-storey Victorian property apart at 2.30am yesterday - but incredibly nobody was killed.
The seven survivors even include a nine-year-old's pet hamster, which was plucked from the wreckage alive in its cage....

Does mention all names and ages of the human cast and quotes several. Gives detail of timing and the scale of the ensuing fire. Fire brigade praise for Mr Sainte-Marie for rescuing his family and condition reports on the injured. The dog merits only a passing mention in the middle, so there's a big black mark for failing to recognise its importance or to publish its name or picture. 

SubScribe rating Heading **** Pictures *** Content ******* Total 14


Dog is hero - and hamster rescued - after explosion at house

Three-col photograph of dog and handler with wreckage in background; singles of hamster in cage and 'before' shot of house

110-word 'summary' story:

Clacton A sniffer dog that qualified only five days ago found a man who was trapped after a gas explosion ripped through a house early yesterday morning. A hamster, still in its cage was also rescued alive. Kirby, a Springer spaniel, found the man on the top floor of the three-storey building. Graham Currie, her handler, said: "It is incredible to think those skills have already potentially saved a life."
The man was among six people, including a woman who is seven months pregnant and two children, who survived. A woman in her late seventies suffered serious burns after the blast in the ground-floor flat at Clacton, Essex.

Names the dog, the breed, and its handler - and quotes him -  but identifies none of the blast survivors or name the hamster. Does say that Mrs Sainte-Marie (although without her name) is seven months pregnant and suggests where the blast originated. Has Kirby as 'her'; other papers say 'him'. 

SubScribe rating Heading **** Pictures ***** Content ****** Total 15


A house..or flat?

Four-col photograph of the rubble with 'before' picture of house in inset circle

100-word caption story:

Trapped and forgotten in the rubble as this collapsed block of flats burnt, Kersey Vythilingum was only saved when a rescue dog sniffed him out.
Neighbours were lifted free after a gas explosion tore through the three-story building yesterday but thought Mr Vythilingum, 30, was at work.
Instead he was several feet under, bashing debris to alert firefighters. It was not until the springer spaniel Kirby came to the scene at Clacton, Essex, he was found and taken to hospital.
Neighbour Clarel Sainte-Marie, 37, said: "He owes his life to that dog."

In this case, there is too much emphasis on the rescue, to the detriment of the whole story. Fails to tell us how many people survived - or indeed that the neighbour quoted was among those who escaped the wreckage. Contradictory in that Mr Vythilingum was apparently both  "forgotten" and "thought to have been elsewhere". Given the focus on the hero dog, might have found room to mention that it had found the man within a minute (which we learn from the Guardian, below).No picture of dog or any human being. Headline is flippant.

SubScribe rating Heading * Pictures * Content ** Total 4


Dog rescues man from gas blast house

Six-par single-col story with picture of dog inset, byline credits PA.

An elderly man was rescued yesterday from the rubble of his house, which had been destroyed in a suspected gas explosion, by a sniffer dog which had only finished its training last Thursday....

The rescued man was 30; hardly elderly. Clumsy subordinate clause in the intro, misplacement of the word "only"  (the Mirror made the same error). Names the dog and handler, but none of the occupants of the house. Does tell us that the dog had special shoes to protect its paws and that it found Mr Vythilingum in less than a minute. Also says  that 60 people had to leave their homes as a result of the blast, but misuses the word 'evacuated' to impart the information. Plenty of quotes, but no mention of the critically ill old lady, the Sainte-Marie family's escape to the roof - or the hamster. 
A lost opportunity for pictures - it's not a page lead story for a quality paper, but a home could have been found for the pictures somewhere. Extra points for the shoes, the timing and the byline counter some of the missing elements

SubScribe rating Heading *** Picture ** Content ***** Total 10


House blast Dog saves man trapped in rubble...and hamster has lucky escape too

Three-col aerial shot of wreckage, single col pix of hamster and of his cage in the debris
160-word caption story

A man who was trapped under rubble after an explosion caused a house to collapse was freed yesterday with the help of a novice rescue dog.
The dog, Kirby, which qualified last Thursday, was called into action with firemen and police after a suspected gas explosion at a house, divided into three flats, in Clacton, Essex.
a family of four was rescued from the roof and firemen saved a woman and the man under the rubble.
A hamster was also rescued 12 hours after the explosion and is reported to be well with no ill effects. It was taken to Haven Veterinary Practice for a check and a clean-up. 
About 60 people were evacuated from nearby homes.
Assistant divisional officer Neil Holloway said the house was "almost totally collapsed" and added: "It is extremely lucky that no one died."
Graham Currie, Kirby's handler, said: "It took him less than a minute to locate the man in the rubble."

Clumsy intro, I paused and thought the trapped man had caused the house to collapse, then had to re-read. Interesting to learn that the hamster was found 12 hours after the event - no one else had this - but with  this sort of space perhaps we could have had a bit more about the people and the fact that an old woman is in hospital with serious burns rather than details of the hamster's medical treatment. Misuse of the word 'evacuated' again and some rather pointless quotes. There is a huge picture; we don't need to be told the house is "almost totally collapsed", we can see for ourselves. The hamster cage lodged in the wreckage was interesting, but there should have been a picture of Kirby.

SubScribe rating Heading *** Pictures ** Content ******* Total 12


Accident Gas blast demolishes house

Double col pic of collapsed house with Mr Sainte-Marie in the foreground, halfstick of Kirby and handler

One par caption
Clarel Sainte Marie, above, walked away unharmed from his flat after a suspected gas explosion in the early hours of the morning demolished a house in Clacton, Essex. The sniffer dog Kirby, right, discovered an injured resident buried in the rubble and a family of four were rescued from the roof. PA

The sub here had the least space to work in, but squandered some of it with words such as 'of the morning'. Has failed to realise that Mr Sainte Marie (the papers are divided about whether the name is hyphenated)  is one of the family of four saved from the roof. It is also not entirely clear that his flat was in the demolished house. The copy says he is unharmed, but the picture has him with a huge plaster under his lip. Not a life-threatening injury, perhaps, but it means the word could have been deleted to make space for something that worked harder. No mention of the old lady.

SubScribe rating Heading * Pictures * Content * Total 3

The Sun

You little bootie
Sniffer dog saves man buried in gas explosion

Four-col pic of wreckage, overlaid with pix of Clarel and Laura Sainte-Marie, firemen with the rescued hamster in its cage, 'before' pic of house; big cutout pic of Kirby, halfstick of Kersley

A spaniel saved a man buried under rubble after a three-storey house was demolished in a gas blast yesterday.
Clever Kirby, wearing special boots to protect his paws, sniffed out care worker Kersley Vythinlingum, 30, as he lay in a daze....

This story has almost  everything in 250 words; not only just about every fact in every other paper, but also Mrs Sainte-Marie's first name and her occupation plus her account of what happened and how her husband had taken them to safety - meaningful description,  not 'it's a miracle' banalities. It also quotes the dog handler and  tells us that Kirby is four. The discovery of the hamster is the payoff and the only fault (apart from a repetition of Mr Vythinlingum's age)  is the failure to tell us its name.

SubScribe rating Heading ***** Pictures ***** Content ********** Total 20

None of this really matters a jot, of course, but it was a fascinating exercise. My one golden rule is that if you have a story that includes an animal ALWAYS NAME IT!

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!)

1 comment:

  1. You're right, of course, about "evacuated", but I fear that battle is lost: I doubt one person in 50 could tell you why the Guardian's and Telegraph's use of the word is, properly, incorrect.

    Similarly, no football writer uses "substituted" properly: they all (even the Times) say the person on the pitch is "being substituted" - no, he's being replaced, and the person coming on is being substituted. This misuse of "substitute" for "replace" is now widespread outside footballing contexts, too, and once again, if one in 50 people knows it's wrong (though even the generally non-prescriptive OED declares it "incorrect") I'd be very surprised.