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Be Clear 

One day my not-quite-three-year-old daughter looked up at her father with big brown eyes, tugged at his shirt and said: "Daddy, what are you talking about?"

That's how I feel sometimes when I read newspapers, and not just the Times-Standard or Eureka Reporter. I often want to tug at the shirt of the San Francisco Chronicle or New York Times and ask the reporters: What are you talking about? Newspapers exist to inform their readers. But often they leave us more confused than before we picked up the page. A newspaper's survival depends on relevancy to readers, but you can't have relevancy without clarity, which is the ability to explain something without confusing the hell out of your reader.

When readers see big headlines and front page placement, they understand that a story is important. But when they read the story and don't understand it, they end up feeling ignorant or stupid. And I would bet that's not the reaction the reporters and editors hoped to get. Newspapers are more prone to this than radio. With radio, when listeners don't understand what they hear, the topic changes so fast they forget what it was they didn't understand. In print, when readers are interested but confused, they reread. So the newspaper confuses them over and over.

Mastering clarity takes time. It means giving the reader just enough but not too much information. It means pacing out information in chunks so that the reader can digest it. It often means sacrificing elegant wording for clunky copy. Imagine yourself trying to tell a great story, but you tell it to someone who keeps interrupting your story with questions that seem basic. Telling the story takes more time than you anticipated. The tale turns tedious.

It means spending more time on topics that are real for many people, but not very sexy from a storytelling perspective. There you are trying to tell a great story about something that happened at work the other day and the listener seems fixated on how you got your job in the first place, even though that's irrelevant to the story you want to tell.

Within stories, reporters tend to skim over and bury the information they don't find interesting to spend more space and time on what they consider more interesting. But folks who work on newspapers need to understand that readers have different rating systems for measuring the importance of different issues than do the reporters and editors. Readers get confused when newspaper stories seem to overrate issues they don't think are important or when they underrate issues the readers think are critical. And if readers think that an issue that a reporter skimmed over is important, they will want to tug at the reporter's sleeve and say: "Hold on now, what was that you said back there?"

Let's look at two recent stories in the Times-Standard about confusing issues: Schwarzenegger's proposed state budget and Proposition 93, which was on the Feb. 5 ballot.

A three-person team of Jessie Faulkner, Karen Wilkinson and Thaddeus Greenson put together the Jan. 11 state budget story. But first consider the challenge of reporting the California budget to local readers. It is so immense and contains so many pieces reporters must summarize an awful lot and then piece out parts relevant to different readers without boring the math-challenged. And they must do all that in about 1000 words.

The reporters start out well. All the elements of why local readers should care are in that story — 20,000 prisoners to be released, education to be slashed, parks to be closed. High up they tell us exactly which local parks will be closed. But then they take too much time space telling us about process — what it will take for the governor to get it passed — and too many paragraphs telling us how much worse it could have been.

It isn't until the jump (paragraph 18, to be exact) that we find out that Schwarzenegger plans to cut $4.5 billion out of K-12 schools. But it doesn't give us a per capita figure — in other words, how much Humboldt County schools must trim to make those cuts. And it isn't until paragraph 22 that you find out that free and reduced meals in the schools will be trimmed and that 47 percent of our school kids here are eligible for reduced price meals.

When I read that I just wanted to tug at the sleeve of all three reporters and say: "Hold on now. Does that mean kids will go hungry? Does that mean some kids won't get the meals or that all the kids will get 10 percent less food on their plastic trays?" But then the story ends and I'm left feeling ignorant.

Remember how the story began? Those early-release prisoners are all non-violent offenders. So from a get-real perspective, what's more of a concern? Early release for non-violent offenders (and without further explanation I might guess a bunch of those are drug users or small-time sellers) or hungry kids? What's more important to the reader, finding out what programs won't be cut or learning how badly our schools will be cut?

Now let's look at Greenson's Feb. 2 story on Proposition 93. Depending on how you read the information sent out with absentee ballots, the measure would lengthen state legislator terms in office or shorten them. Until I read the T-Sstory I didn't understand what the opponents were griping about. The way I saw it, it would result in more continuity with overall shorter terms. As a term limits proponent who understands the problems term limits have caused, this seemed to make sense.

In his story, Greenson explained the issue neatly and with nice local relevance. He showed how the measure would add years to the terms of our legislators. And he found an HSU professor to tell me what it means. After I read the story I said: "Now I get it! The fat cat lawmakers give themselves more years in office but screw future legislators."

This time I didn't feel ignorant. Whether I feel stupid for the way I cast my absentee vote is another story. But I do wish the article had come out beforeI mailed my ballot. Note to news editors for November: Assign election stories early and often.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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