An Example of Searching for the News Decoder Ring
In discussing why Wikipedia was beating newspapers as an information source when news breaks, I used the example of health care in illustrating how upside-down storytelling leaves readers struggling to put new developments into context, something Wikipedia handles much better by giving you the basics of the narrative. (Though as David Gerard pointed out in the comments, Wikipedia does draw on “a certain amount” of inverted pyramid — “The first sentence should be good standalone, the first paragraph should be good standalone, the lead section should be good standalone. Then you can get into a structured article. That way you’ve got something useful for everyone who comes by.”)
Here’s a more-specific example of what’s so frustrating, from this morning’s New York Times. The news is that a federal appeals court panel upheld the conviction of Lynne F. Stewart, a defense lawyer found guilty in 2005 of assisting terrorism by smuggling information from an imprisoned client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, to his violent followers in Egypt. You can read it here.
I remembered this case, partly because Ms. Stewart is from my Brooklyn neighborhood, but mostly because of the controversy over what she’d done and whether she’d done something clearly wrong, or run afoul of post-9/11 terrorism fears. That was all I remembered. The news that her conviction had been upheld wasn’t particularly interesting, but I was interested in revisiting what exactly she’d done, and what the arguments were on both sides.
After reading the Times story, I still didn’t know.
The Times story is 23 paragraphs long. Here’s what those paragraphs contain (my apologies for where my frustration shows through):
- News — Conviction is upheld, general reminder of who Stewart is, legalese that just confuses me (what’s a federal appeals court panel?) location (“in Manhattan”) that I don’t care about.
- News — Stewart’s bond is ordered revoked and she must begin serving her sentence. More baffling legalese — it’s a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As a reader I tripped over that and still don’t understand what it means.
- News — Trial judge must consider whether she deserves a longer sentence.
- Reaction from Stewart.
- News — Trial judge orders Stewart and co-defendant to prepare to surrender when their bond is revoked.
- What’s Next — It’s not clear when they’ll have to do that.
- Analysis/Context — The judge who wrote the ruling rejected her claim. I’m told the ruling is 125 pages. (There’s no link to it.) Her client is named. I’m told she “passed messages for him” and that she “has denied seeking to incite violence among his militant followers.”
- Quote from judge.
- More reaction from Stewart, making reference to prisoners at Guantanamo.
- Context — A note that Guantanamo detainees will be tried in New York.
- More Stewart reaction.
- What’s Next — Her lawyer says they’ll keep fighting. Spokeswoman for other side has no comment.
- Context — I’m told that prosecutors charged Stewart with conspiring “with two others to break strict rules that barred Mr. Abdel Rahman … from communicating with outsiders.”
- Context — I’m told that prosecutors charged Stewart, a translator and a third man with helping the sheik pass messages to the Islamic Group, an Egyptian terrorist organization.
- News — Two other judges joined the ruling.
- Reaction from translator.
- No comment from lawyer for third man.
- Quotes by judge from ruling explaining decision.
- More quotes from judge.
- Quote from another judge who partially dissented from ruling.
The conviction being upheld and the imminent revocation of Stewart’s bond is the news, with the context for the news what the judges on the panel said. I get that, and while I’m not qualified to judge, I’ll assume the Times reporters did a good job with that. (Though why can’t I read the ruling?) But that’s going to be of interest to a fairly small subset of legal-minded readers. The interesting news for most readers will be what I wanted to know — what did Stewart do, and was it wrong?
I’m told that in the lead, but the description is so general that it doesn’t help me. I’m not told about it again until the seventh paragraph, which is the first time I learn who her client was. And then I get nothing until the 15th and 16th grafs, in which I learn the name of the terrorist group, and that (according to prosecutors) Stewart and two other men helped the sheik pass messages. This is what I want to know — but again, I’m only given cursory information that’s of no help to me in forming an opinion.
I know what the institutional reasons for the lack of explanation is — it’s old news, and was covered by the Times at an earlier date. Stewart’s name was hyperlinked, so I followed that to a Times topic page, hoping for at-a-glance background information on the case. This wouldn’t have eased my frustration about upside-down storytelling, but it would at least have answered my question. What i found was an automated archive of articles about Stewart — and, eventually, the explanation I’d been searching for. It was on the second page of the 25th article linked, on the third page of search results. (By the way, Wikipedia’s page for Stewart wasn’t much more help — it’s slapdash and vague, though if the case were more high-profile I’m sure it would have attracted more editors. I went to Wikipedia in frustration halfway through the Times article, when it was obvious I wouldn’t be told what I really wanted to know.)
The Times article and approach is broken. It’s broken for print readers who only have that day’s Times article available to them. It’s broken online, where ferreting out the information I wanted to know turned into a frustrating scavenger hunt that I stuck with only to prove a point. As news it misjudges the audience for the story and ignores what that audience wants to know, and as storytelling it’s incoherent. And this is coverage from one of the world’s best newspapers, and one of online news’ best innovators.
We can do better than this. We have to do better than this.