Posted by: lcowie | September 29, 2008

America’s Best Newspaper Writing, part 4

Deadline Reporting

by Lesley Cowie

A deadline is one of the most important aspects of reporting. It can help or hinder writing.

To be able to complete an article within deadline shows that a reporter can research efficiently, interview effectively, analyze the information, and write quickly and creatively. These pieces are the ones readers should cherish most, for their instantaneous turnaround of events.

“Seventh patient tests positive for Legionnaires’ disease” by Sue Epstein and Tom Haydon

One key example of instantaneous turnaround is Sue Epstein and Tom Haydon’s article, “Seventh patient tests positive for Legionnaires’ disease.” This article, published in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey, discusses how seven patients at the St. Peter’s University Hospital have contracted Legionnaires’ disease.

The outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has been linked to the water supply in the New Brunswick hospital. Although two of the seven patients have died, no cause of death has risen to the surface, due to other underlying ailments.

This article demonstrates breakthrough reporting because Epstein and Haydon are informing, and warning, the community before the disease affects more patients. The two writers explain how Legionnaires’ disease can be contracted via basic hospital ailments.

Epstein and Haydon interviewed a variety of notable characters to complete this story, from a hospital spokesperson and chief medical officer, to a state Department of Health and Senior Services spokesperson. These people all have legitimate information relatable to the issue.

During their research, Epstein and Haydon discovered that chlorine levels in the water had dropped drastically in the last month. The hospital has increased its chlorine level and has reviewed the charts of hundreds of patients who may have been susceptible to the disease.

While the case is somewhat mysterious and frightening, Epstein and Haydon have done their best to explain the circumstances and relay the hospital’s frantic actions to remedy the problem. This article illustrates comprehensive research, awareness, and the resulting solution.

“Worker kills 4 at lottery headquarters” by John Springer

John Springer, of the Hartford Courant, demonstrated similar skills with his article, “Worker kills 4 at lottery headquarters.” Springer was among 11 reporters for the Courant who won the 1999 Pulitzer Price in Breaking News Reporting for a series of articles on this subject.

Springer’s article, in particular, highlights detailed accounts of the crime from about eight witnesses and coworkers. These accounts enable the reader to envision the crime as it happened.

The lottery murders occurred on a Friday, and the corresponding article was published the following Monday morning. Despite the terror and grievances of the event, Springer was able to interview these sources and receive explicit coverage of the event.

Through his research and his interviews, Springer obtains personal information about the shooter, Matthew Beck, as well as the four victims. This included occupation, age, home and family information.

The most astonishing part of the article is the fact that Springer reports on more than just the actual crime. After expressing a detailed account of the crime, Springer goes on to report about the aftermath.

He discusses the afternoon news conference, police investigation, 25 grief counselors, victim notification, additional media coverage, and the upcoming funerals. Springer also mentions how the Connecticut Lottery Corp. had already taken measures to appoint the vice president of marketing to be acting chief executive officer.

“Bloodbath leaves 15 dead, 28 hurt” by Mark Obmascik

Another Pulitzer Prize-winning article comes from Mark Obmascik, of The Denver Post, who reported on the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Obmascik pays very close attention to timing, making note that his article was published at 9:15 the morning after the shooting.

Throughout his article, Obmascik uses time to show how devastating the issue was. Although the shootings were done by mid day on April 20, some booby traps were still exploding at 10:45 pm.

Since Obmascik pays such close attention to timing, it shows that he was deeply invested in the story. He wanted to illustrate his involvement on the day of the incident.

Once again, despite the intensity and the grieving, Obmascik was able to interview many students and obtain deep quotations from these witnesses. This helps the reader view the tragedy from the same eyes as the witnesses.

In a creative twist, Obmascik finds a way to insert historical and coincidental facts into his article. Not only did he obtain key facts about the shootings, but Obmascik still had to time to interweave coincidental details that may have been related to the incident.

He mentions that the murders occurred on the 110th birthday of Adolf Hitler and on “4-20.” Had more students attended school on this day, rather than skipping class to smoke marijuana, the shootings could have affected more people.

Obmascik used witty and creative ways to describe the serious incident. It is quite spectacular that he could be so successful with this kind of deadline story.

“Pro football; Carruth arrested in shooting of woman” by The New York Times

The 1999 article from The New York Times “Pro football; Carruth arrested in shooting of woman” demonstrates the link between crime and celebrity status. Although Carruth was implicated in the crime, NFL officials showed great sincerity for the player.

Rae Carruth led all NFL rookie receivers in 1997 with 44 receptions and 545 yards. After a standout career in Colorado, the Carolina Panthers drafted Carruth.

The woman in the shooting was Carruth’s pregnant girlfriend. Although Carruth did not pull the trigger, investigators believed Carruth played an integral role in the planning of the crime.

According to NFL rules, Carruth received paid leave. Quarterback Steve Beuerlein and Coach George Seifert showed great compassion toward Carruth, believing that he was not involved and disappointed with such accusations.

It is clear that The New York Times staff did not have much concrete evidence for this story, but I think the article demonstrates outstanding breakthrough reporting because it illuminates the soft feelings that people often hold for celebrities in circumstances like these. Though the trial did not turn out as expected, the Times staff was setting the stage for the “slap on the wrist” scenario that typical Americans usually see with celebrities.

“This one’s for real!” by Mary Jo Patterson

Mary Jo Patterson’s article, “This one’s for real!,” was a Pulitzer Price-finalist in 2001. The article, published in the Star-Ledger, discusses the dormitory fire at Seton Hall that killed three students.

What makes this article interesting is Patterson’s detailed accounts on survival. Rather than focusing primarily on the cause of the fire or on the victims, Patterson explains the many ways that students fought for their lives.

Some of these attempts involved throwing mattresses out the window and jumping onto them, wrapping faces with wet socks, and shoving bed comforters under the door and sealing with packing tape. This shows the unrelenting desire for survival among college-aged students.

Expanding on that thought, Patterson discusses how students helped one another. Though the common phrase is “Every man for himself,” Patterson describes a handful of cases where students were trying to save their peers from burning to death.

This article met its deadline for reporting on the incident but also showed the compassion and survival instincts that humans carry in the face of danger.

In order to meet deadline, some writers think they have to get all the basic details and regurgitate them onto paper. The craft, however, is to turn these details into a story that has impact in the community.


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