Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Ladder of Abstraction

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Ladder of Abstraction

Article excerpt

We journalists like to think of ourselves as down-to-earth sorts. Abstract, highfalutin ideas are for philosophers, but we grub around in the stuff of daily life. folks in ivory towers worry about the cosmic. We work the streets.

Well ... like most self-concepts, ours is laced with romance and wishful thinking. The fact is, we're not nearly as close to the pavement as we'd like to think.

Take almost any news story and think about the words it contains .... Chances are it's actually quite abstract. Here's an example from a recent issue of my paper.

"A Portland truck driver was hospitalized early Tuesday after he was seriously injured when someone threw a rock through the windshield of his truck near the St. Johns Bridge. A witness reported seeing two young men flee the area."

At first blush, that sounds fairly specific. But close your eyes and try to visualize what it describes. The truck driver? At least 10,000 of them must live in the area, and you don't have a clue as to what this one looks like. How about his injuries? And how about the truck? Or the two young men? The witness?

Contrast that news lead with John Hersey's Hiroshima, which describes a group of soldiers blinded by an atomic bomb flash:

"When he hadpenetrated the bushes, he saw there were about 20 men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: Their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot."

Hersey's words form a horrific mental picture and provoke a wrenching gut response. Even so, they're still slightly abstract because they describe 20 men collectively.

Julie Sullivan, the Spokane Spokesman-Review writer who won the 1991 American Society of Newspaper Editors' award for short writing, likes to zero right in on individuals:

"Krystal Wilhelm crouches on the 11th stair of the Merlin Apartments, thin knees pulled against her 16-year-old stomach, insides cramping. She's dope sick. Not from withdrawal, but from injecting cocaine she suspects was cut with lidocaine, a local anesthetic ...."

Furthermore, we quickly discover that Wilhelm is "5-foot-1 and 100 pounds," that her face is "an expanse of unlined innocence" and that her arms are "so scarred by needles it looks like razors have been used to slice her skin .... …

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