This story in The Day about religious redemption in Connecticut prisons makes you wonder who, if anyone, is reading these stories before they hit the page, and, what, if anything, the reporter, Amy Renczkowski, understands about language and writing.
First, the lede:
Freddie Faulkner battled addiction and crime for half of his life. In 2005, he went into the prison system broken, dope-sick and lost.
At first glance, these two sentences seem promising. They’re punchy, and they cut to the quick. But upon closer reading, Renczkowski makes it sounds like Freddie Faulkner was a masked hero, fighting bad guys while smacked out. This is a lazy and dangerous construction, given the fact that the story’s subject matter is so heavy. The only thing the lede has going for it is that it’s mercifully short.
The second graf is equally lacking:
For the first five months of his five-year sentence at Robinson Correctional Institution, he was still getting high. Three years later, his urine sample tested positive for heroin and Faulkner was placed in segregation.
If we do some basic arithmetic, we’re faced with glaring inconsistency. According, to the story, Faulkner did drugs for the first five months of his five-year sentence, but then he — or rather, his urine, as it’s so passively endowed — tested positive for heroin three years later. To say the least, this is confusing, especially since heroin generally dissipates in the body after 24 hours. Perhaps the prison only tested Faulkner’s urine three years later, but you wouldn’t know by reading this account. Again, laziness that results in poor storytelling.
Later in the story more bad techniques distract when Renczkowski brings us the anecdote of Christine Brooks, another convict who converted to religion:
Christine Brooks left for the grocery store one day and never came home.
The anger she kept inside her from the sexual and physical abuse she suffered since she was a baby consumed her, and she went to prison to get away, she said.
“At first I was upset being in prison,” Brooks said. “But I fit right in.”
I find this part the most troubling. Talk about an information gap! One minute Brooks is shopping for cereal and the next minute she’s in prison “to get away,” as if it’s a therapeutic resort. And then we see just how important quote selection really is to successfully telling stories that deal with difficult subject matter. Instead of mining for words that say something that only Brooks can say, Renczkowski seems content to just insert something in quotation marks and leave it at that.
This story should never have appeared in a newspaper that considers itself worthy of industry awards. Once again, I’ll say that it should be mandatory for anyone who writes for a living to read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” at least once a year, and in special cases, twice a year.