Monday, July 17, 2006

How not to localize a story

The readers write (and we're darn glad they do). A correspondent e-mails to point out concerns with the "local" story one newspaper has done on the latest Middle East flare-up:

This story (Local Man Witnesses Conflict) ran in the lead position of the Pensacola News Journal today:
There is a banner about local residents still in FEMA trailers at the top, and there is an AP story about the Israel/Lebanon conflict under the photo in the center, but the story linked above is, in my opinion, bordering on absurd considering how prominent it is on A-1. I'd be interested to read your thoughts on it. Is this an appropriate way to give local relevance to a national story, or is this an example of the drive to find local angles gone awry, leaving readers with a questionably narrow and possibly uninformed analysis of an important news event?
Ah, "Local Man" strikes again.

Well, given that we're a few days into this missile- and bomb-lobbing shindig, I might give them a pass (you know, it''s probably time to mine that local angle) -- had the guy said anything! But he doesn't. Some things I find problematic:

"(The first part of the trip) it was very evident that (Israel) was looking to do some massive building in Jerusalem and in the country," he said. "Then the Hezbollah crossed the border, and Israel was pulled into war."
Well, what the heck made it so "evident"? Can we get some details here? What specifically changed to make you say "Israel was pulled into war," other than that you heard it in the news? Did everyone go around in helmets? Carrying guns? (OK, I'm being a little hyperbolic, but you get the idea.) And while we're at it, did it occur to anyone that the need to put seven words in parentheses in a quote signals problems all its own?

Lisner said all the efforts toward the peaceful future of Israel were put on hold.
"A lot of the soldiers had to be called up," Lisner said. "They had to stop their civilian duties and defend their country against terrorism."

Did he actually see this? If so, what did it look like? Were troops all over the street? He was in Jerusalem, according to the story, 150 miles from Haifa. So maybe that would be a good angle -- was it as panicked that far away in the capital? But all you have here is fairly insipid stuff -- and a headline that says "Local man witnesses conflict." Maybe the writer should have gotten him to talk more about what he witnessed.

The 55-year-old Pensacola resident went to a two-week religious study session in Jerusalem with his wife. His trip was interrupted by the escalating violence in the Holy Land.
How was it interrrupted? Were they hustled out of a hotel and onto an airplane? Were they scared?

The best stuff was this:
Lisner said a classmate went to visit family members in northern Israel near the Lebanese border just before the conflict began.
"She said it changed from being with her grandchildren and enjoying the beach to going to bomb shelters, just overnight," he said. "The mood of the country changed from one of peace and prosperity to one of war and defense."

So, by the time it gets processed through the reporter, we are getting this third hand.

If you want to do local, (even though this isn't, per se, for the NYT) check this out. Local is a good thing, especially if we can add the understanding a local connection can foster. But that's only when done with the same rigor we apply to that story about the mayor having her hand in the till. When we just get all starry-eyed and fail to ask (or provide evidence that we're asked) the pointed questions of "local man," we don't do anyone much good.

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