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Friday, April 14, 2006

AP Demonstrates How to Fail in Journalism

Newswriting 101 teaches the Inverted Pyramid style of writing. The the most important information should be presented first with the rest of the story tapering down to the least important details.

Readers often have limited time. They may scan several stories without reading any to the end. With the Inverted Pyramid style, the reader can choose how much detail to absorb without fear of missing more critical data. If the reader drops off in the middle, he is assured that the detail he missed was less important than what he read.

It is interesting to see how members of the mainstream media rank the level of importance with the details of their stories. Deb Reichmann, an AP reporter, recently covered a story about President Bush and Vice-President Cheney's tax returns. Her first paragraph covered the President's return. In the second paragraph, she wrote about the about the Vice-President's:

“...the Cheneys have overpaid their taxes this year and are entitled to a refund of about $1.9 million. Their adjusted gross income was about $8.82 million.”
It isn't until the eighth paragraph that we get a better picture of the Cheney's tax return:

“The Cheneys donated just under $6.87 million to charity from the stock options and royalties from Mrs. Cheney's books. That left about $1.9 million in income on which the Cheney's owed $529,636 in Taxes.”
If any readers quit the story half way through, they would be left with the perception that the Cheney's earned $8.82 million. It isn't until the eighth paragraph that we learn their taxable income was actually $1.9 million. Then comes the last paragraph:

“Over the year, the Cheneys paid $2,468,566 in taxes through withholding and estimated tax payments. As a result, the Cheneys are entitled to a refund of $1,938,930.”
Do the math on this one. The Cheney's earned $8.82 million last year. They gave $6.87 million to charity and $ 2,468,566 to the IRS for a total outlay exceeding $9.3 million – more than they earned.

It is telling that Reichmann wanted readers to walk away from the middle of her story with the impression that Vice-President Cheney earned $8.82 million AND got a $1.9 million refund – detailing what he received, but not what he gave.

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