Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

May 12, 2010 at 9:22 pm | In newspapers, writing | Comments Off on Evocative journalism: is there room for it?

Reading an article filed today by the Montreal Gazette‘s Monique Muise about Monday’s horrific tragedy in St. Jude, Quebec, I was struck by the evocative quality of the writing.

(A recap of events: in the early evening of Monday May 10, in the Quebec town of St. Jude 77 kilometers north of Montreal, an absolutely gigantic sinkhole, measuring 1 kilometer by 500 meters and reaching depths of 30 meters in places, suddenly developed. One of the houses in the sparsely populated area sunk, was inundated with mud, and the family of four in it died. Other individuals were affected, but the family that died was clearly the main focus. Their daughters were only 12 and 9 years old.)

Back to Muise’s article: when I went to look for it later today, it had changed – significantly, to my mind. Not for the worse, since the changes were updates intended to clarify the facts. But the tone had changed, and it made me wonder if journalists often express something quite evocative, which gets edited out in later versions …or whether I imagined the tone in the first place.

I finally re-found the first version of Monique Muise’s report, Sad news ends the search for a missing family in Saint-Jude, Quebec (filed by Monique Muise, Montreal Gazette: Wednesday, May 12, 2010), in an online regional publication whose pages haven’t been updated.

After first describing what happened in general terms and how the Prefontaine family died, Muise’s report winds down as follows:

Herman Gagnon, who lived near the Prefontaines, said he heard a loud groan on Monday night and thought there had been an earthquake.

The noise came from his basement, so he went to check his pipes. They were fine. Gagnon soon got on the phone with a neighbour, got into his vehicle and drove from his home toward the town along the sparsely populated Rang Salvail, where next-door neighbours often can’t see each other’s houses.

Between Gagnon’s home and the Prefontaine’s, there is normally a narrow creek and a bridge. But as he went down the hill and started to climb the other side, he said he was stopped in his tracks.

In front of him lay “a different kind of blackness,” Gagnon recounted Tuesday. He stopped at the edge of a giant precipice and found himself staring into the abyss.

Another resident lingering at the roadside barriers, who declined to give his name, said sink holes and landslides are common in this area of southern Quebec. (source)

Some subsequent updates kept many (not all) of the same words, but somehow the story – now enriched with more information – became less …frightening.

Muise’s initial version conveyed a sense of gothic horror – which (oddly?) made for effective reporting, precisely because the event itself was freakish and terrible:

stopped in his tracks …”a different kind of darkness” …giant precipice …staring into the abyss

And then, the unnamed stranger (who declines to give his name), lingering at the roadside barriers observing that sink holes …are common in this area of southern Quebec.

Lingering …like the after-effects of brimstone and a whiff of hell?

No doubt my imagination is running away with me – but Muise’s original article impressed itself on my mind precisely because it was evocative.

In comparison, here’s a version that’s really cleaned up (no “lingering” remains): At sunset, the news everyone feared; and here’s one that keeps some of the words, but also adds enough other material to chase away the “different kind of darkness”: Missing family confirmed dead in landslide.

All in all, consider this a plea for more evocative journalism – factual, but able to convey the tone of events.

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