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   Cute Quotes Can Skew Facts

MEDIA CRITICISM:

Cute Quotes Can Skew Facts

by Alice Cherbonnier

What's a "lefty hippy weekend" got to do with Howard Dean? Nothing. So why's this phrase in the story?
It's Sunday out on the porch sipping coffee while reading the newspaper. Suddenly you choke, scaring the cat snoozing nearby. You're gagging because you cannot believe no editor flagged an egregious item on page 9-A of Baltimore's lone daily, The Sun..

The story, credited to the Associated Press, is called "Dean launches road trip in run for presidency," with a subhead, "Democrat accuses Bush of not caring about public."

Dean, we are told, "is promoting himself like a rock star" on his eight-city road tour. And on and on, yak yak yak (including an inexplicable phrase, "...candidates will intensify up their campaigns after Labor Day..."-say what? is it also possible to "intensify down"?)

Then there's the stunner-the requisite quote our journalism schools insist upon, along with the "nut graph" that's supposed to come early and sum up the facts.

You only need one quote to meet the requirement for "color," and the anonymous AP writer thought it fitting to elevate one Mary Rose Beyerle to the status of everyperson by eliciting her comments about Dean's first stop in Falls Church, Virginia.

Now, Ms. Beyerle did nothing wrong here. Let us stress that. She's an innocent who spoke to a "journalist" who informs us that Ms. Beyerle and her husband came to the event from Louisville for a "lefty hippie weekend" (apparently her phrase, not the writer's, but this is not totally clear) that would also include a Doors concert.

She's the only person quoted in a six-column story that The Sun favored with a four-column headline.

What's the stressed-out reader to conclude from her presumed remark? Some might understand that she's having a fun weekend that included hearing a presidential candidate on the stump. But others might conclude that Dean appeals to "lefty hippies," and by extension probably fits that description himself-even though the story goes on to note that she and her husband realize Dean "promotes a balanced budget, gun rights and other moderate positions." Lefty hippies like Dean, so if you're not a lefty hippy, he's not your candidate. Easy conclusion to make.

Had this "quote" portion been excised from the AP story, it would have been more fair to all concerned. But no-we have to have "color," artificial or not. Colorful language trumps bland facts any day. Every spinmeister knows this.

Readers who wanted color that day on page 9-A of The Sun could have just looked at the big four-color Verizon ad below this lackluster story, with its trio of buxom white be-phoned beauties on the beach. Such spin-and-image crap is expected from ads-but has no place in news stories.


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This story was published on August 26, 2003.
  
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