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.