Saturday, April 26, 2008

Copy Editing: Policese

Back from a few days in Virginia, where the Miller & Rhoads department store building in downtown Richmond is being turned into a multi-use development (as is much of downtown Richmond, which has much more going on than I had realized); from reading the somewhat free-form Newport News Daily Press and the rather traditional Richmond Times-Dispatch; and from thinking that in an earlier era, the rapid growth around Williamsburg would have led to someone's starting a daily newspaper there. There is a prosperous twice-weekly (owned by Tribune Co., it appears, as is the Daily Press) but it made me wonder if we have seen, in Pikesville and Georgetown, Ky., the last conversions-to-daily-publication that we will see.

Back to the desk. Many, many years ago, an editor with whom I worked, with the wonderful name of Stanfield Gordon Gapper, pointed out two things about police reports: One, that people are always driving at a high rate of speed, as opposed to fast; and two, that people are redundantly reported as "treated and released." If John Smith was treated at Jones Hospital, Gordon said, then he clearly is not there anymore, and thus was released; otherwise it would be either that he "is being treated" or "was pronounced dead." So I have tried over the years to say "Smith was treated at Jones Hospital" and drop the "released" part, though this has caused some controversy.

Lately I've added my own nail to this pot on the construction "Smith was rushed to Jones University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later." This sentence is written a lot in a city with 400 homicides a year.

First off, people are always "rushed" to a hospital; that's what ambulances do. It would only be newsworthy were he not rushed. But more to the point, why would he be pronounced dead at Jones University Hospital if he had not been taken there? So I have been making it "Smith was pronounced dead an hour later at Jones University Hospital," and no one is complaining that we are implying that poor Smith lay bleeding on a manhole cover for an hour.

So much of police writing stems from the police report's need to account for every action in a court of law. We do not have that same need. With newsholes shrinking, economical writing is imperative.

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