On Prison, Redemption and the English Language

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.

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4 responses to “On Prison, Redemption and the English Language

  1. I will not double-cross you.

  2. The person who read the story before it hit the page

    Mr. No More Absolutes,

    I find it hard to believe that you would stoop so low as to engage in this sort of guerrilla self-righteousness. Under the guise of analysis, you’ve perpetrated a pretty clear personal attack on Ms. Renczkowski.

    It’s disappointing, because you’re better than that. It strikes me as sad that the politics of your former workplace still foment such bitterness in you. Was Ms. Renczkowski’s article going to be nominated for a Pulitzer? No. Was the editing all that it could have been? Perhaps not. But as you know, there are many other variables (deadlines, availability of reporter, crucialness to the story, etc.) that enter into the editing equation.

    In this situation, I’d first ask you, “Let he who has never written an imperfect newspaper story cast the first stone.” Second, I’d ask you to put your considerable writing talents to better use than pointless, mean-spirited sniping.

  3. I appreciate your position as the person who has to defend himself, this story, and his reporter, but I think you’ve drastically misinterpreted my position.

    Were Amy and I the best of friends? No. But does that make the story in question any better? Certainly not. Was it vindictiveness that sparked me to write this post? In my heart of hearts, I say no. If I wanted to, I could write some version of this post every single day, since daily journalism, especially local daily journalism, is an ugly labor of love that often goes unappreciated, and over-abused. The thing that sent me to the page in this case, and frankly, the things that truly irritated me, were a) the subject matter had strong potential to be a good story, and b) the tone of the thing was achingly serious, but failed miserably in execution.

    I would say that the only ad hominem attack here is the one you’ve perpetrated on me by claiming that this post is all sour grapes. I know and am thankful for the support that you personally offered me after I was laid off, but at the end of the day (no pun intended), I’m not sure you truly understand how painful the process was for me. It’s easy for you to say that the onus of being the better man is on me, since I was the one who lost my job. My question is: where does the onus lie for The Day being a better newspaper?

    Also, was my criticism without merit? If I had simply called out Amy for the ignoramus that she is and said that she, rather than I, should have been laid off, I would be more conciliatory here, but I think my analysis was sound. The glaring thing missing from your response is a legitimate, merit-based counter-argument to my criticisms.

    And let’s talk about the merits of my critique. Let’s talk about the variables of this story, which you brought up, and what the facts were surrounding its publication. Was it filed late on a Saturday? Was Ms. Renczkowski the only reporter available? Was there nothing you could do to line-edit the story into better shape? I’d be happy to discuss, but frankly, to my ear, these sound more like excuses.

    For you to dismiss me as some bitter also-ran, and to suggest that any story you’ve touched and approved for publication, is beyond reproach simply by virtue of the fact that I used to work at the paper, is complete bullshit. You know it. And you’re better than that.

    Of course, daily journalism will never be perfect. We both know that. But I’m not asking for perfection. I’m asking for a reasonably well-told story that doesn’t make a mockery of language and its subject matter. And that is not too much to ask, even from The Day.

  4. I read this blog more often than the day, and the posts seem to be more interesting.

    Bitch about sour grapes, but the paper is going out of business, and very soon if they don’t figure it out. Be entertaining, be useful, be interesting, be news. The paper does a poor job of that at present.

    Most people I talk to say the most useful portion of the paper is the obituaries. This is the only portion of the news market a local daily still has locked up. There is a bad joke to be made here, I will avoid it.

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