A journalist always has an obligation to her audience to deliver the news truthfully. Even when elements of creative nonfiction are used to craft an article, it’s never a good idea to be misleading for dramatic effect, especially when the piece is about a random murder that happened just a few days ago.
Yet, the Sun finds no problem in breaking almost every rule in publishing such a piece in their Saturday morning edition. “He Was the First and Closest Target” is about
the death of –no, that’s not it. It’s about the family suffering –uh-uh. Not that either. Let’s see….It’s about where the shooter lived, the fact that an ironing board in an unblinded window prompted a neighbor to speak up about issues of privacy, and that a .357 can fire off five shots.
Yeah. I think that’s right.
The writers of this piece (that’s right; it took two writers with two others contributing) open with a misleading headline, with no explanatory subhead following. I was drawn into this piece because I thought these were the killer’s words, and so I thought, well, looks like they scored an interview with the suspect, or, at the very least, captured a statement or confession that he’s made already.
No such truth there.
The headline quote is from the police spokesperson who, in a press conference, said that the shooting was completely random and the suspect was simply the “first and closest target.” We learn this in paragraph 22 of the story. In the Internet post of the story, this falls on page two.
Why mislead? The shooting is already relevant enough that tricks like this are not necessary to lure readers into the piece. We all go to movies, right? When we learned of this senseless killing, we all thought, even if briefly, that could have been me–or worse, that could be me the next time I go see a movie.
By giving us a misleading lead, you set us up for disappointment, and breed mistrust. It’s a cheap shot that offends in this piece; we are obviously sympathetic to the wife and her family for the tragedy that has changed their lives forever. The Sun alienates itself, and the writers of this piece make the paper look insensitive and cheap.
The article gets worse. For some reason, the writers meander on to a side story of the 1.6 million dollar home of the shooter, and the small details of wealthy neighbors being peeved that they took long to put up blinds (they could see the ironing board through the open window, for goodness sake; “it was very bothersome,” said one neighbor).
Only four paragraphs toward the end of the article are about the victim. The article ends with the wife describing how, at 1:30 a.m., she drove to the theater to see her husband’s car among several police cruisers. She discovered that her husband had been murdered when she approached one of the officers and said that the Chevy Malibu was her husband’s car.
The officer’s response, “You must be Mrs. Schrum,” ends the article.
Now, if we are going for dramatic effect, this is a great way to end a chapter of a book, whether it is fiction or creative nonfiction. You are driven to turn the page and read on. Of course, you can’t do that here. And besides, you feel sick to want to do that in the first place. You’ve been mislead by a headline quote, you’re scratching your head about the significance of blinds and ironing boards, and now you’re wanting to be entertained by a story that is much too fresh to be told in this dramatic and random fashion.
Bottom line: The bigger the subject, the less you use to convey your point.
And in this case, it’s best to know your point before you even begin. Otherwise, you end up writing (and in this case, unfortunately publishing) a piece that offends not only the family that has been struck by this tragedy, but your readers as well.