A Call for Clarity

October 13th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Every so often, a word gets dropped from a story in the Albuquerque Journal. It makes the reader pause, but usually, one can surmise what the dropped word was and continue reading. Frankly, I’ve always marveled — even when I was working in the midst of it — at the way talented people come together every day to put together the daily paper, managing to inform and cover so much without more mistakes. So, I won’t mention recently encountered dropped words.

What gives me greater pause is missing information or a missing transitory phrase. Two instances have disrupted the flow of pieces so far this month, both in Journal UpFront columns.

The first popped up in a Thom Cole column Oct. 5, about a judge’s ruling that an attorney doesn’t have to pay the Attorney General a fine. The column led like this:

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lorenzo Garcia says Albuquerque lawyer Dan Faber has been disrespectful and unprofessional.

The good news: Garcia didn’t get into Faber’s pocket again.

Good news for whom? I reread the lead to see if the taxpayers had been saved money, and whether the good news (as would normally be implied by a column like this) was for the reader. But the third graph continued:

In an order filed Friday, the judge had harsh words for Faber but denied a request by state Attorney General Gary King to find Faber in contempt of court for a second time and to impose sanctions of more than $20,000.

OK, so no money for the state. It must be “good news” for Dan Faber. And it would have been so easy to just insert “for Faber”, making it read: “The good news for Faber.” Clear and simple.

This example was more an annoyance than anything, something I wouldn’t bring up if there hadn’t been the second example. The second – because a clarifying transition was left out – leaves a question in its wake.

The lack of clarity interrupted an otherwise informative and touching column Leslie Linthicum had written on a woman’s decision to die with grace by spending her final days paddling down the Ganges.

Paddling Down the River With Cancer and Grace” also talked about how cervical cancer can be caught via the simple Pap test, before it becomes deadly. From the column:

Cervical cancer was once the biggest killer of American women. That changed with the Pap test, a simple lab screening that detects cervical cancer in its early stages, as well as abnormalities that can lead to the cancer and can be treated before the cancer develops.

It’s now a routine part of a woman’s health care and often part of an annual physical.

The woman in Linthicum’s column stopped getting the tests because of lack of insurance and sought medical attention for her cancer too late.

Linthicum wrote:

This is where we and rest of the world enter (Michele) Baldwin’s story.

“There are plenty of things to die from,” Baldwin tells me to explain the legacy-building portion of her end days. “We don’t have to die from cervical cancer.”

And it’s in the next three graphs that my question arises. The column continues:

Here’s her simple message: If you’re a woman 18 to 70, get a Pap test regularly. Don’t put it off; just do it.

If you’re the parent of a child 9 to 17, make sure your child gets the three-stage vaccine against the human papillomavirus, the cause of nearly all cervical cancers. (It is most effective before a child is sexually active.) If you’re under 26 and didn’t get vaccinated as a child, doctors recommend you do it now.

Despite controversy, the Federal Drug Administration calls the HPV vaccine safe and effective. It’s as close as anyone has gotten to the miracle that cancer researchers hope for – a vaccine that can prevent a deadly cancer.

And now to meditating and that river.

And now to getting back to that “simple message.”

It’s obvious that “get a Pap test regularly” is Baldwin’s message. The sentence leads with it being “her” message.

But is the next graph part of Baldwin’s message? Or is it the columnist telling us to make sure every child between 9 and 17 gets the three-stage vaccine? There’s no transition phrase like, “She also urges every parent . . .” Perhaps that’s left out because it’s implied, but to this reader it becomes unclear who is speaking at this point.

And the subsequent part about doctors’ recommendations and the FDA weighing in sounds like the columnist, making it less likely (although still possible) that Baldwin was recommending the vaccine.

Why is this important? Because the vaccine is controversial. And some of the scary questions surrounding it were brought to light by Linthicum’s colleague and fellow UpFront columnist, Joline Gutierrez Kruger, in a 2009 column, “Mothers Seek Answers About Daughters Deaths.”

So, who is recommending the vaccine? The columnist or her subject?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But clarity always does.

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  • Julia

    I think the questions about Lithcum’s piece stem from the very structure of the UpFront articles. They are “news and opinion” columns. When the “news” has been stated – Baldwin’s diagnosis and plans to die on her own terms, as well as her legacy of screening advocacy – what is left over can only be the writer’s “opinion.”
    I’m not a fan of the format – the mash-up of news and opinion – because it does lead the the very murkiness you point out. Exactly who is advocating for what here?

  • A Fan of ABQJournalWatch

    I really enjoy your blog/website that takes a critical look at the articles and editorials that appear in the Aluquerque Journal. Thanks for the great community service you’re doing and keep up the great work.

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