Your ‘givens’ ain’t like mine

Slow down and ask yourself: Just what does the reader bring to my story?

What’s wrong with this story?

SAN DIEGO–The man who became the first person to legally receive Laetrile imports in California is dead just short of his 75th birthday–a victim of the cancer he hoped the drug could halt. Ray Carnohan of Pacific Beach died of cancer of the pancreas late Saturday, three weeks after winning permission from a federal judge to bring the controversial apricot extract into the United States from Mexico. He is believed to be the first Californian to have been granted permission to import the substance. Carnohan, a furniture dealer, had told newsmen . . .

Your 'givens' ain't like mine

Your 'givens' ain't like mine

On the story goes, describing Carnohan’s motivation for using the drug. Interesting piece, except for one chunk of information the reporter knew very well, yet didn’t put in the story. It should have followed the second paragraph:

Laetrile is banned by the federal Food and Drug Administration as ineffective in cancer treatment.

Once again, a “given” has sabotaged a story.

To guard his sanity, a reporter has to establish some frame of reference, some set of “givens” that hold true in the world. The trouble is, one reporter’s given may well be a subscriber’s key fact–a piece of information crucial to the reader’s full appreciation of a story. The reporter, feeling the information is too obvious to mention, will leave it out.

The failure to add the perspective phrase or paragraph–the language that attempts to gently explain the significance of a story in terms of related events or opinions that had been voiced in the past–explains why we have conversations like the one you’re about to overhear, as the editor reads the Laetrile death story in its original form, walks over to the reporter who wrote it and asks him to make the change we suggested:

Editor: “Say, Jim, you don’t explain here specifically that Laetrile is illegal.”
Reporter: “Aw, everybody knows that.”
Or: “Well, the story implies that much.”
Or: “Well, hell, we can’t spell out everything. We have to give the reader some credit.”

What makes the perspective graph such an elusive little devil is the fact that it is often not conspicuous by its absence. For example, a California newspaper’s veteran political reporter writes an excellent analysis of the battle among Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates for endorsements from organized labor. As far as detail and an explanation of how the labor endorsement process is structured, the article is fine. But it doesn’t address the question of what specific benefits candidates receive from a labor endorsement: additional volunteer workers, money, and the precious mention of the candidate’s name in the newsletter that unions send to each member prior to the election.

Obvious? Yes–to the reporter, the candidates he covers and most union members. But how about the rest of us? How about one sentence, three or four paragraphs from the top, beginning something like:

“A major labor endorsement usually provides a candidate with…”

Here are a couple of recent examples from the New York Times, which prides itself, justifiably, on probing unusual and fascinating crevices of life-crevices whose appeal lies in the fact that much of the information is new to many of the readers.

Watch how failure to explain a “given” produced breakdowns.

The first story revealed the existence of a tape recording made in the hours after President Reagan was shot in 1981. It described tense conversations among government leaders, moving in the fourth graf to a meeting conducted by Richard V. Allen, then Reagan’s national security adviser, who tape-recorded the discussion:

…The taped discussion makes clear that [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig’s famous televised comment to reporters in the White House press room about being in charge was one he first made in the secure confines of the Situation Room.

“Constitutionally, gentlemen,” Mr. Haig told reporters, “you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order . . . As of now I am in control here in the White House, pending return of the vice president.”

The underlined language begged to be explained. Where was the vice president? It’s been 20 years-do you remember? It would be 308 more words before you found out.

First, the story made another reference to the missing vice president in the next graf, quoting Haig as saying in the meeting:

“So the . . . the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.”

From that point, the story kept you in the dark for another 264 words as it took you through Allen’s recollections of the discussion, the lack of information about would-be assassin John Hinckley and the location of secret nuclear attack codes-nearly four paragraphs. Only then did you finally get your answer:

…One [set of codes] had been carried by an officer with the president. A second was with Vice President George Bush, who was flying back from Texas, but had no secure voice communication with the Situation Room.

The second story was a sports column about a pro football owners meeting. I’ll let you read it graf by graf, with italicized approximations of how I reacted as I made my way through it:

There may not be many black coaches and executives in the National Football League, but enough to induce thought-provoking discussion and action. At the owners’ annual meeting in Palm Desert, Calif., last week, everyone noticed.

Oh, a race story. I like race stories. It’s clear that the writer has a racial angle in mind, so I will follow the story to the second graf in anticipation:

The league’s new edict that bans bandannas and stocking caps was, in part, the result of a rancorous exchange between Bob Wallace, a St. Louis Rams senior vice president, and Dennis Green, the Minnesota Vikings coach and a co-chairman of the league’s competition committee. Both men are black.

Hmmmm. There must be a connection between the race of the coaches and the significance of the bandanna ban, but I can’t figure it out yet. I’ll give the story one more graf:

The exchange took place in front of the full complement of owners, coaches, club executives and league personnel. The closed session undertook a sensitive, serious and even personal tone.

Grrrrrr. I’m frustrated. What’s the writer trying to tell me about the racial significance of headgear? I would normally quit reading but since I’m already doing a section on “givens” in the newsletter, I’ll keep reading as a test to see if this can be an example.

Green, who has not allowed Vikings players to wear bandannas or stocking caps in his 10 years in Minnesota, gave a speech about image, how he would not let his own child wear them and asked the group would they allow their children to wear them. He asked what the value in them was. If the image they project is O.K., he asked, why do only a few of the league’s hundreds of black players wear them? Would they allow their daughters to date a man with a bandanna?

Aaaarrrrrrrgh. Would someone please tell me (1) what’s wrong with bandannas and (2) what being black has to do with it?

It would be 711 more words-in a 928-word column–before the writer clued me in on the racial symbolism of bandannas:

Bandannas and stocking caps are linked to the hip-hop rap culture and also to gangs.

That was the next to last graf.

As you construct a perspective phrase or paragraph to combat these “givens,” be ambitious. Compare these two versions (perspective underlined) and see how much harder the second story works to frame the significance of what you’re reading.

First, the L.A. Times version:

Silicon Valley’s economic slowdown claimed a high-profile figure Monday as San Jose Mercury News Publisher Jay Harris resigned in protest over plans to lay off employees to meet Wall Street profit targets.

In an e-mail to newsroom employees, Harris, 52, said he hoped his departure would cause the paper’s parent company, Knight Ridder Inc., to “‘closely examine the wisdom’ of the profit targets we’ve been struggling to find a way to meet.”

Harris’ resignation came as Knight Ridder, the second-largest U.S. newspaper company, said it expects first-quarter earnings to fall 15 cents to 20 cents per share. Analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial had expected Knight Ridder, based in San Jose, to earn 71 cents a share, down from 74 cents in the period a year ago.

Other newspaper publishers have warned of lower profits in the first quarter because of a slowdown in advertising revenues, including Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and New York Times Co.

Two weeks ago, Harris warned employees that…

The New York Times’ same-day story put it this way:

Jay T. Harris, the chairman and publisher of The San Jose Mercury News, announced yesterday that he was quitting his posts and warned his corporate bosses at Knight Ridder that their profit targets for the financially squeezed newspaper risked ”significant and lasting harm to The Mercury News as a journalistic enterprise.”

Journalists at the newspaper in California’s Silicon Valley, who had been nervously anticipating layoffs that Mr. Harris warned of earlier this month, were stunned to hear instead that he had quit. News of his strongly worded explanation for his resignation ricocheted around the newspaper industry, a business that has been grappling with a sharp decline in advertising revenue, particularly in the larger markets.

Mr. Harris’s action was hailed by many journalists who believe that newspaper companies too often choose to serve their shareholders at the expense of their readers and viewed with sorrow by at least one Wall Street analyst who saw it as a sign of some journalists’ stubborn refusal to accept financial realities.

The push-and-pull at Knight Ridder between cost-cutting and maintaining the investment in journalism is not unique to the company or even to the newspaper business. Other industries that rise and fall with economic cycles, like semiconductor manufacturing, are faced with the same choices between meeting profit margins and reinvesting in the product in tough times. So Mr. Harris’s action may well resonate far beyond the profession he joined three decades ago as a reporter.

Mr. Harris’s e-mail dropped into his employees’ in-boxes shortly after….

Coverage of a dramatic military maneuver in the Mideast illustrated the same kind of gap, this time in favor of the L.A. Times. Our version was superior because it explained not only why the maneuver was dramatic, but important. Our version appreciated that many readers who were drawn to this story (which led both papers) might not have been paying close attention in the past:

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip-In a blaze of rocket fire, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and ground troops seized Palestinian territory Tuesday, for the first time taking back land that Israel vacated seven years ago. But under harsh U.S. condemnation, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reversed course and 18 hours later abruptly ordered its troops to withdraw.

The capture of a small northeastern sliver of the Gaza Strip came as part of an escalating response to persistent Palestinian mortar fire at Israeli targets and followed Israeli retaliatory air strikes against Syrian positions in Lebanon over the weekend. Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas killed an Israeli soldier Saturday.

Hostilities on the two fronts have inflamed regional tensions and prompted diplomats to plead for calm.

Tuesday’s actions in the Gaza Strip marked the third time in a week that Israel’s military had moved in force against Palestinian-controlled territory as the Jewish state battles a 6-month-old uprising. But this was the first time Israeli troops took up positions and announced that they would remain as long as necessary to stamp out the violence.

International criticism came quickly.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an unusually stern reprimand, called for an immediate Israeli pullout and described the incursion as ”excessive and disproportionate.”

”There can be no…

By contrast, the New York Times did not deal with that perspective until the 24th paragraph of a sidebar. The New York Times’ lead story was deeply concerned with the U.S.’ diplomatic response to Israel’s actions. But its failure to explain the nuanced historical significance of Israel’s action-to effectively treat it as a given-made it difficult for the casual reader to appreciate why the U.S. government was so outraged by what Israel did.