News Story Needs a Markup

As city editor at the Pasadena Star News many years ago, I earned some reporters’ resentment and, eventually, enmity with my daily markups of each day’s edition. I used a red pen and posted the pages on a partition that separated the bay where I worked from the rest of the newsroom.

In hindsight, I might have found a more artful way to point out reporters’ and copy editors’ mistakes and problems with stories.

Reading a Star News story this morning about last Friday’s mass shooting in Santa Monica that left five people dead, however, it’s clear that someone at that newspaper should find some way — artful or otherwise — to point out errors and mucked-up editing, better before stories go to press or get posted on a website than as a marked-up published tear sheet. Here’s the headline on the story and a link to it:

Law enforcement officials, neighbor say suspected gunman was troubled by parents’ divorce

Here are some of the problems:

After naming John Zawahri as the shooter — information not provided or confirmed by law enforcement — and saying his parents had divorced, came this sentence:

“After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother.”

Chris Zawahri? Who is that?

Yorkshire Avenue address? What’s there?

At this point in the story, no one — not John Zawahri’s mother or father or any other family member — has been named. Neither has “the Yorkshire Avenue address” been identified as the house where the family lived before John’s parents divorced.

That leaves readers to assume that the family had lived at “the Yorkshire Avenue address” and that Chris Zawahri was either John’s brother, half-brother or step brother. Brother and not a sister only because the male pronoun “his” is used in that sentence. Even so, we don’t know if he’s younger or older than John.

Although very late in the story, Chris Zawahri, is said to have been 25 and was the older brother of John, nowhere in the story is John’s age given. The only reference to John’s age — and vague at that — is in the first paragraph, which says that John was a juvenile in 2006. But being a juvenile in 2006 means only that he was under 18, which could put him anywhere up to 25 years old last Friday.

Nine paragraphs into the story is this:

“SWAT team officers searched the mother’s Los Angeles apartment Friday night and officers interviewed neighbors about the son who lived with her, said Beverly Meadows who lives in the adjoining unit. Public records indicate Abdou, 54, lives at that address.”

Abdou? Who is that?

It isn’t until three paragraphs further down in the story that readers — at least those who have managed to get that far — find out:

“Public records indicate the house was bought in the mid-1990s by Samir S. Zawahri and Randa Abdou, and then Abdou’s ownership was sold to Zawahri in 2003 — apparently the result of the couple’s divorce.”

That problem could have been easily avoided by adding Randa’s name in the sixth paragraph of the story — three paragraphs earlier than what is the first, and incomplete, reference of her. So that “After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother” reads “After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother, Randa Abdou.”

Then when readers get to “Public records indicate Abdou, 54, lives at that address” they know who Abdou is.

Even with that, readers must assume that Randa Abdou is Samir’s wife as she is not identified as such anywhere in the story.

The paragraph following the on saying that Abdou lives at the Los Angeles apartment with Chris Abdou, comes this:

“Back on Kansas Avenue, neighbors milled around snapped pictures of the burned home with their phones and recounted the shocking tragedy that rocked this tree-lined neighborhood.”

Kansas Avenue? What’s on Kansas Avenue? The house John Zawahri and his father, Samir, lived in was on Yorkshire Avenue. To this point, the story has made no mention of Kansas Avenue, so how does that street fit into this story?

Again, it isn’t until much later in the story that readers are enlightened.

“[A Yorkshire Avenue house neighbor] also saw the shooter commandeer a car and speed off west on Kansas Avenue away from the intersection of Kansas and Yorkshire avenues where Friday’s carnage began.”

Commandeered a car? A car parked on the street? A passing by? Did Zawahri kick the driver out? Get in the passenger seat and force the driver at gunpoint to take him where he wanted to go?

That sentence is preceded with the revelation that the neighbor, Tim O’Rourke, “watched the shooter fire on Debra Fine, a 50-year-old woman injured in the shooting rampage.”

Where was Debra Fine? Standing or walking on the street? In the yard or doorway of a house on the street? Driving by in a car? In the car John Zawahri commandeered? Did he push her out and shoot her before “speeding off”?

More nit-picky is use of the wrong word in the first paragraph in which the Santa Monica police chief is quoted as saying the shooting suspect was a “cowardly murder.” The news report should have said ‘murderer’ not ‘murder’. (‘Oh, well, you know what we meant’ doesn’t cut it in my book.)

If I had trouble wading through this story, I can image how confused readers who never made a living trying to ensure that news reports made sense must have been.

Perhaps I take issue with such sloppy journalism because I had a foot in two different camps at one time or another. One camp was the world of journalism, which is charged with providing clear, accurate and objectively reported news stories to the public. The other camp was the judicial, which relied on — and at times was at the mercy of — clear, accurate and objectively reported news stories to the public.

If ‘you know what we meant’ doesn’t cut it in my book, it most certainly doesn’t for those who have both feet in the legal world. Accuracy, word choice and meaning is paramount in the law and play a major part in how judges and lawyers do their jobs.

So am saying I’ve never made mistakes? Not at all. And chagrined as I feel when I learn that I have erred, I do hope to learn from it. Likewise, so can the news media learn from their less than excellent work, should they recognize or acknowledge that sometimes theirs isn’t.

3 responses to “News Story Needs a Markup

  1. I agree with you, Jerrianne, people who should be writing concise,complete reports are submitting slop. When I was a law enforcement and corrections supervisor, I found that the reports submitted by officers to be very irritating. Don’t know if it was their schooling, laziness, the result of a texting society or the combination of all three.

  2. Probably all three to some degree, plus just not being held to a better standard. My sense is that, except for a few individuals and organizations, good journalism has been on the decline for the past couple of decades. Maybe that’s the case society wide as well.

  3. I found myself annoyed enough with the confused reporting (the clumsiness with names) and the implausible story-line, as reported (is it true the gunman was actually shot in the library and then dragged out to a sidewalk? – if so, where is the trail of blood you might expect?) that I was determined to fine a few things out for myself using a search through White Pages, (for marriage, divorce, births, and locations of same as official public records), and to draw some inferences as well. CNN has been my least-trusted news source.

    I saw that there was innuendo that I felt played to stereotypes. There was the supposition that these people had come from Lebanon a few years ago and that Mr. Zawahri had been a tyrant in the home. So many ideas come to mind from that.

    I learned that the couple, Randa A. Abdou (female, age 25) and Samir S. Zawahri (male, age 28) were married in Los Angeles on Dec. 31, 1985. John Samir Zawahri, mother’s maiden name Abdou, was born in Los Angeles June 8, 1989; his presumed brother, Christopher Samir Zawahri (hm, same middle name) was born in Los Angeles in August 6,1987. I know that kids from that era began to get Social Security numbers at birth, but I did not see a death notice as yet. Nor was any divorce recorded for the couple.

    I also discovered that there is a Randa Zawahri in Akron, Ohio, who, together with other Zawahri’s (an obituary refers to a Samir, but he is too young to be the one here) belongs to a Syrian Orthodox Christian church. There is a family patriarch buried in an Ohio cemetery under a tombstone with both Arabic script and a typical Orthodox cross (the double one with an angled line through it). I note that Abdou could be somewhat like Abdul – and Paula Abdul who bears that name is Jewish, from Sephardic or Mizrahi roots.

    The family is probably not Moslem, in spite of the stereotypes about violent Moslems which abound these days.

    They cannot be recent refugees as has been implied by saying that “Randa Abdou came from Lebanon five years after her marriage.” That is a highly misleading statement.

    For what it is worth, and perhaps there is a necessary qualification of citizenship for this, Samir Zawahri obtained from the Federal Communications Commission a ham radio operator’s license in 2005, good until 2015. The address for its use is 2036 Yorkshire Ave, the scene of the fire.

    It is also possible, given the many Midwesterners, particularly in Ohio, with this surname, that at least Samir was born in the USA, although it is possible his wife was too. Randa Abdou seemed to have either resumed or never abandoned her maiden name, and she lives in an apartment on Centinela, in Santa Monica.

    The reason it is important to organize the information better is to steer clear of biases and to report the truth as much as is possible. I admit to coloring things a bit with the reference to these Midwesterners, but only to push towards finding out more about the family of origin, instead of making believe it was somehow suspiciously abusive (attributable to Islam of course because no men ever tyrannized over their wives unless they belonged to that benighted religion – NOT!)

    I’m just someone who is getting sick of the dumbing down of news. I would like to be spoken to, written to, as though we are both adults, the reader and the writer. It’s true there are unprecedented opportunities to find things out online. As we know of course, these could be falsified in an age of identity theft. Nothing can substitute for more direct research, seeing actual documents, etc. But I wish the first pass by reporters would be more responsible, and I am convinced that the reason it isn’t has to do with a loss of insulation as it were, where the guidance of editors is lacking.

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