The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, January 07, 2005

How Inverted Is Your Pyramid?

It's the Mom and Apple Pie of American journalism: the inverted pyramid: arranging a story with the most important facts in the first graf, the second most in the second, and so on.

It dovetails with standard copyediting practice: cutting a story to fit from the bottom up.

Neat, huh?

Except, a lot of the time, the grafs lower down contain context or caveats that entirely colour the big 'facts' at the top.

We've come across the phenomenon before in particular in the context of the inside jump - the sexy lede goes on A1, the quibbles and drawbacks to the back of beyond inside the paper somewhere (earlier Plawg pieces).

Today, CJR Daily (Susan Q Stranahan again - January 4) highlights another area of concern: wire service copy.

No journo can expect his work to be printed as filed; but wire copy is pretty much intended to hacked about, melded with in-house wordage, run without attribution, all sorts of indignities.

You'd expect (evidence as to practice?) that wire services would be doubly careful to ensure that any stings were not left in the tail (to be chopped off) but put up top.

But what about that singular anomaly, the newspaper that is a wire? Like the New York Times. A senior staff correspondent might well have an expectation that most of his stuff would go in the paper without substantive cuts. But if the same copy is put on the NYT wire, doesn't it get the same cavalier treatment as Reuters or AP?

Stranahan's example is a classic: two studies suggesting that
lowering blood levels of a protein [CRP] that promotes artery inflammation is just as important as reducing bad cholesterol for preventing heart attacks and strokes.

It just so happens that Big Pharma have exactly the drugs needed (statins) - for a (steep) price.

It also happens that
the studies at issue were sponsored by Bristol Myers Squibb, maker of Pravachol, and Pfizer, maker of Lipitor, the two most popular statins.

Dr. Paul Ridker, who headed the second study, at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, "is also an inventor of a test for CRP that his institution licensed. He and his laboratory profit from the use of the test." He and his laboratory will profit even more if CRP testing becomes routine, as the studies seem to indicate.

These essential details are reported by Gina Kolata in her Times piece - but not, as tracked by Stranahan, in various papers across the nation using the Times wire.

Apparently, Kolata's story is put out on the NYT wire in two versions, full and TimesExpress. The graf about Ridker's angle was marked optional trim in the full, and not even included in the other.

Rated as journalism, that angle is the bull-point of the piece, where Kolata has earned her crust for the day. The fact that those at the Times wire who dealt with her piece did not realise this makes one wonder (the boss of the wire is apologetic).

(The USA Today piece Stranahan links doesn't have the Ridker angle: it does mention that the studies were pharma-sponsored - but namechecks Pfizer and not BMS. Go figure...)

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