In news stories everyone named needs to be identified as fully as is germane to the situation. Writers have innumerable ways to do this. Age and address often are used, especially in citing victims or offenders. Sometimes it is most meaningful to mention the role, a title, occupation or affiliation, an achievement, or perhaps reputation, all cases in which age and address may be irrelevant.
Sometimes a relationship to another person also is the point of identification most revealing. It used to be common for newspapers to mention the parents' name whenever any child was in the news.Like it or not, the president will always be mentioned when his children are involved. Much as it could be argued that relatives of the prominent should have a right to privacy, forget it if you're a Kennedy, even if you are not a public figure.
Usually, however, citing relationships is the least necessary and useful way to identify someone or acknowledge a person's newsworthiness.
- IN TWO STORIES this past month, relationship intruded itself as identification in totally unnecessary ways.
One was an item all the media used about the young clerk, Robert E. Lindsay, who disappeared from a Phillips 66 gas station and convenience store. It was thought at that time he may have been abducted, though later he was arrested on a theft complaint.
News stories identified him in many ways: His role at the store, of course; his age, 28; his family status, which was not only a vicarious element but also may have been important as a matter of causation; and his appearance.
Apparently the press - or that portion of it that carried the original stories that the rest jumped on - thought those points of identification weren't enough. Many of the initial stories, including the one in the Deseret News, identified the man as the nephew of Richard P. Lindsay, a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy of the Mormon Church. Yet Richard Lindsay is neither so prominent a figure nor close in relationship to the clerk as to make the connection inescapable.
Nor - as far as any reader or listener could tell - did he have even the remotest importance to the story.
- MUCH TO ITS CREDIT the Tribune did not use this angle. However, the paper went even further in pursuing an irrelevant relationship in another piece.
This was a dispatch out of Ogden about a dentist who pleaded guilty to forgery charges in 2nd District Court. Since the date of the pleading was nowhere mentioned, and the dentist, the story said, is now living in Arizona, I judge that it was not a very recent proceeding, one the paper dredged up solely because it saw a connection to the governor.
The headline and the lead paragraph identified the dentist as a brother-in-law of Gov. Norm Bangerter, and that point was driven home in two more paragraphs.
The reporter even pursued Bangerter for a quote, and got one from his office (the governor was out of town) saying his brother-in-law would "stand before the judicial system like any other citizen." Well, of course. It would be news only if the governor should, incredibly, seek to intervene.
What could the press have expected the governor to say, and how useful was it to hear from him? Though the governor needs to work with the press, and does so effectively, he or his aide should in this instance simply have told the reporter to get lost.
- FOR THAT MATTER, what did the reporter expect the dentist to contribute when, as the story said, he or she tried to reach him for a comment? The reporter even went after the man's attorney for a statement, but mercifully he was unavailable.
No problem of guilt by association here. The names of the relatives were simply unneeded and intrusive; their use in news stories can only be called, ultimately, amateurish.
The Quayle factor
When President Bush said Dan Quayle was getting a bum rap from the press he was right.
I say that as one who has never been crazy about Bush's choice for vice president. But I'm appalled at the shark frenzy that had the press making a running joke of Quayle's competency in virtually every instance he was mentioned, which is to say in almost all the stories on the president's illness.
Whether Quayle had done a great job as vice president, as Bush says, is difficult to judge, because the press simply hadn't followed the vice president closely or at least focused on his job much. As USA Today put it, "Quayle's name is hardly mentioned by the media unless it's connected with a gaffe, a political attack or a joke on late-night TV."
It's legitimate to run polls on what the public thinks of Quayle (the latest CBS New York Times poll finds 62 percent worry about Quayle serving as president). But the press also owes us an objective view of Quayle and whatever growth he has made so we have a real opportunity to judge.
None of the modern vice presidents, including those who have succeeded to the presidency, have been treated very kindly by the press. It wasn't until Harry Truman pulled his miracle election victory in 1948 that he began to get the kind of respect that leads us now to characterize him as one of our greatest presidents.
Furthermore, once the press establishes some stereotypical traits in officeholders and candidates, it doesn't easily break out of the mold. Consider that Gerald Ford, though the most athletic of modern presidents, was widely portrayed in the press and perpetually joked about by TV comics as a physical klutz because of a couple of stumbles.
Let's give Quayle a break.