The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, published an investigation into the behavior of sheriffs across the state. Their automated story-reading-estimator said the story would take 22 minutes but the headline covered the point of it all much faster:
SC sheriffs fly first class, bully employees and line their pockets with taxpayer money
And the lead picked straight up where the headline left off:
South Carolina sheriffs have embezzled, bribed and dipped into public funds for expensive chauffeurs. They’ve driven drunk and bullied other public officials. They’ve been accused of leveraging their power to sexually assault their female employees.
While many South Carolina sheriffs have strong records of serving the public, others served themselves and their cronies, a five-month Post and Courier investigation found.
In the past decade, no fewer than 11 of South Carolina’s 46 counties have seen their sheriffs accused of breaking laws — nearly one in four.
One valuable but widely unappreciated approach to the problem of newswriting to write the news. A news story exists, in principle, to tell people something new or interesting—that’s why it’s news—and so a good way to get people’s attention is by telling them that thing.
Compare the Post and Courier‘s approach to last week’s New York Times coverage of Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin. The Times headline was:
Mnuchin’s Hollywood Ties Raise Ethical Questions in China Talks
Where the sheriffs got a bunch of specific verbs, Mnuchin wasn’t even the subject of the sentence; his “Hollywood ties” were, and what his Hollywood ties are doing was that they were raising ethical questions. Raising the questions in China talks, if read concretely and literally—as if Mnuchin’s Hollywood ties, like Ivanka Trump, had showed up and helped themselves to a seat at a discussion table with foreign officials.
But it was not meant to be read concretely. It was meant to provide a cloud of abstraction, to remove the Times from visible responsibility for telling the readers something they might want to know. The piece began:
WASHINGTON — “Wonder Woman,” the 2017 film that Steven Mnuchin helped produce before becoming Treasury secretary, hauled in about $90 million at the box office in China. It was the film’s most successful international market and a roaring success for an American superhero export. But because of China’s strict laws for foreign films, the studio behind the movie, Warner Bros., received just a small fraction of those revenues.
Now, as Treasury secretary and one of the lead negotiators in trade talks with China, Mr. Mnuchin has been personally pushing Beijing to give the American film industry greater access to its markets — a change that could be highly lucrative to his former industry. While Mr. Mnuchin divested from his Hollywood film production company after joining the Trump administration, he maintains ties to the industry through his wife, the actress and filmmaker Louise Linton.
Why did the Times start the story far away from the topic, with Wonder Woman‘s noncontroversial box office performance in China, and then back its way toward the stuff that mattered? Even when it sidled up to the point, it stalled about getting there. It took two more paragraphs for the Times to explain that “maintains ties to the industry through his wife” meant that Mnuchin still legally owns his stake in the film-production company that he officially divested himself from.
If Mnuchin were a corrupt sheriff, the South Carolina paper could have just written “In trade talks with China, Steven Mnuchin, who still owns a stake in a Hollywood film-production company, has been personally pushing Beijing to give the American film industry greater access to its markets.” Instead, the Times wrote about how Mnuchin’s effort to change the rules in a way that could personally benefit him was “raising questions among ethics officials and lawmakers about whether a conflict of interest exists.”
Those aren’t questions. They’re facts! There’s no rule that says you have to displace or disembody the act of telling the news. The Post and Courier had plenty of critics saying things about the sheriffs, things like “There’s a tremendous opportunity for criminal activity,” or “[T]he age old adage that ‘absolute power corrupts’ is sometimes applicable,” or “People aren’t watching sheriffs. I think that’s a big part of the corruption problem.” Yet the words “critics say” or “raises questions” never appeared. The point of the story wasn’t that there were critics saying those things. The critics were saying those things because the newspaper had told them the news.