Saturday, October 24, 2009

Moderating the journalist’s zeal to hook the reader

In print journalism, it’s perfectly understandable to come up with attention-getting lead sentences or paragraphs for major news and feature stories. This is because newspapers need to entice readers to read those stories among so many others competing for attention. Indeed, if a particular story fails to I interest the reader to go over at least the lead sentence or paragraph, the whole production effort for those stories would just go to waste.

Of course, the journalism trade has a wide arsenal of tricks for legitimately attracting the readers’ attention—catchy headlines, wordplay, name-dropping, punchy sentence constructions, photos and illustrations, razzle-dazzle story layouts, the works. The audacity by which newspapers carry out these tricks may sometimes raise eyebrows, but on the whole, readers grow tolerant or even become blasé toward reportorial or editorial excess.

But even if we can live with the habitual sensationalism of some newspapers, I think we must draw the line when they begin to grossly misinterpret, distort, or falsify facts for the sake of dramatization or some hidden agenda. It is important to do this particularly in the case of stories that are deeply imbued with public interest, such as public health and safety concerns, accounts of natural disasters, and political and social conflict. As a case in point, I’m calling attention to a Metro Manila broadsheet’s over-the-top news reporting about the San Roque Dam’s water releases at the height of Typhoon Pepeng (see my critique of it in My Media English Watch last week). I believe that newspapers should watch out against such inaccurate, misleading reporting in their pages and institute much stronger measures to avoid their recurrence.

In the essay below that I wrote in 2004, “Writing to Hook the Reader,” I enthusiastically justified the need for communicators in general to catch the readers’ attention as a crucial first step to getting them to read their stories or messages, and then to write creatively and persuasively so they can keep the readers reading from beginning to finish. But in these unsettled times when the Philippines is reeling from natural disasters, I now find that I must tone down and qualify some of the things I said then. Yes, journalists still must write to hook the reader, but their zeal in doing so should be moderated by an uncompromising commitment to accuracy and truthfulness in their reporting.

Writing to hook the reader

In an essay that I wrote about the language of the Philippine national election campaign in 2004, I briefly discussed the classic advertising acronym AIDA, which I said was an opera of sorts in four acts: A for “Attention,” I for “Interest,” D for “Desire,” and a different A for “Action.” It struck me at the time that like advertising people and propagandists, all communicators in general—and that, of course, includes fiction and nonfiction writers and writers for the mass media as well—must do their own unique performance of AIDA to get their message across and get people to think things their way. And that, of course, wouldn’t happen at all if they didn’t perform the very first of the four acts of the writing opera: the “Attention” cue, or getting the reader interested to read them in the first place.

I am thus tempted to begin discussing AIDA’s first A by saying that writers should come up with a creative opening that will hold readers by their lapels and never let go, but that would really be begging the point. Creativity is an elusive thing. It worked for the American novelist Herman Melville when he began his classic Moby Dick with this disarming three-word opening, “Call me Ishmael.” It worked for the Austrian writer Franz Kafka with this intriguing opening of The Metamorphosis, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” And it worked for American legal-thriller writer Scott Turow in this compelling first paragraph of his novel Personal Injuries, “He knew it was wrong, and that he was going to get caught. He said he knew this day was coming.”

But what’s creative and interesting to us may either be too simple and too inconsequential to some, or too complex and too high-flown to others. There really is no single, fixed formula for it. The only mandatory thing is that whatever the chosen approach and style, the writer must be keenly aware of his or her primal obligation to keep the reader reading from beginning to finish.

I remember very well a consummate master of the “Attention” cue, but he was actually not a nonfiction or fiction writer; he was a noted Filipino industrial designer who used to ply the lecture circuit many years ago. His subject during a seminar-workshop I attended one hot summer afternoon was—if my memory serves me well—advertising communication, with focus on AIDA. We were just through with lunch after a hectic morning schedule, so most of us in the audience were naturally fagged and inattentive.

At that point, there came this bemoustached, bespectacled gentleman in his mid-forties carrying a tall stack of books, lecture notes, marking pens, boxes of marbles and paper clips—all those many little things you’d expect an intense university professor to haul into a classroom. He bellowed “Good afternoon!” to us, then promptly stumbled halfway to the lectern on the farther side of the room. As he made an effort to check his fall, all the things he was carrying flew helter-skelter over to us in the audience. That startled everyone, of course, so everybody’s impulse was to help the seemingly hapless and goofy lecturer gather his things. We were scampering all over the place picking them up, while he quietly took his time to regain his lost dignity and compose himself behind the lectern.

And when we had retrieved most of his things and had returned them to him, the sly fox spoke to us as if nothing untoward at all had happened: “Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen! And now that I have your attention, I think you are now all ready for my lecture.” As might be expected, despite the ungodly timeslot, he and his talk turned out to be the most interesting and illuminating part of that seminar-workshop.

Of course I’m not saying that we should emulate that lecturer’s guts in pulling off such a messy attention-getting caper; I find it too high-handed and I simply can’t imagine myself doing it in any situation. Still, I think it drives home my point very well. Whether we are selling a presidential candidate, hawking a consumer product, writing a feature story or newspaper column, perhaps writing literary fiction, we simply can’t escape the need to get the reader’s attention. If we can’t get it, the whole writing effort is wasted. That’s where performing our little “Attention” act from AIDA comes in. Call it showmanship, call it skill, call it art, call it creativity, call it by any other name—but do it, and give it the best you can. (April 19, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 19, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment