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Simple, not simplistic

Good journalism is a tightwire act between two extremes

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

A key assignment for any good journalist is to learn how to explain complicated issues in simple terms. Yet a key caution for any good journalist is to keep from oversimplifying something while trying to make it simple. It's a tightwire act, to be sure-but one a reporter needs to master.

Most readers appreciate simplicity. We like to have ideas broken down into understandable components, and we like simple, straightforward language spelling out those simple ideas.

There's nothing wrong with that. While there are stories that spoof the concept, like the one about the king who offered his daughter's hand in marriage to the man who could reduce all the world's wisdom to just one aphorism,* Jesus himself frequently did much the same thing. When asked how to summarize God's law, Jesus didn't respond by saying how terribly complicated the subject was and how it would take a series of 20 lectures and a shelf-full of accompanying manuals to provide such a summary. Instead, he replied with the memorable, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind-and your neighbor as yourself." Profound? Of course. But still simple.

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Nor do great ideas usually need million-dollar words. My whole approach to words was changed more than 20 years ago when one of my daughters asked at the dinner table, right after we had read for family devotions from the Sermon on the Mount: "Daddy, why doesn't Jesus ever use any big words?" Jesus always talked about the world's most important concepts in elegant, one-syllable words. I heard many years ago that Time magazine writers were asked to follow a formula of addressing a 13-year-old-but with one or two words on each page that no reader had ever heard of, just to make them think the material was sophisticated.

yet the art of balancing the artfully simple (whether in ideas or language) over against the ignorantly simplistic doesn't just happen. It takes hard and insightful work.

Nothing qualifies a person for the work of reporting more than the ability to go to the heart of a story. "What," a good journalist instinctively asks, "is really going on here?" That's the main assignment readers want you to carry out-whether you're writing about the death and funeral of a princess in London, a nun in Calcutta, a UPS strike, a political fundraiser in a Buddhist temple, or the sexual harassment charges of an ordinary woman against the president of the United States.

The outstanding reporter is not simply the person who piles fact upon fact upon fact-although the judicious discovery and telling of colorful facts is certainly important to the reporter's task. But in any assignment, there are literally millions of facts out there waiting to be reported. The big question always is: Which of those facts best reflects the essence of this story? So it is not ultimately a matter of observation, but more a matter of judgment, that sets apart the reporter whose stories are really worth reading.

Some news stories need only an average dose of that "judgment" factor to be helpful and intelligible, while others need a generous supply. Take three recent news stories as examples: The sinking of a Haitian ferry boat, with the drowning of 400 people, was easily the most costly of the three events in terms of human life. Yet by its nature, tragic though it was, the story of the overloaded ferry didn't need much "simplification." It made sad sense pretty much by itself.

The media's efforts to explain, or "simplify," the recent strike by United Parcel Service drivers, on the other hand, provided much more opportunity for all kinds of "what's-really-going-on-here" analysis. This time, the trap of oversimplification yawned wide, and the media lazily blamed the whole problem on the issue of UPS workers unfairly assigned to part-time work. Ill-equipped to explain the real story, UPS knuckled under to a falsely told tale.

but the champion "what's-really-happening?" story for 1997, and probably for the decade, was the death of Princess Diana and the story of her funeral, all bizarrely juxtaposed with the death of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. How could so many millions of people be so caught up in the life of a 36-year-old woman who had been so much but done so little? Who killed Diana? The paparazzi? Henri Paul, the drunk driver? The royal family? Diana herself, for perhaps ordering the driver to speed away? The buyers of the newspapers, for their insatiable appetites for such pictures and stories? The rest of us, for our own barely disguised but similarly insatiable appetites? Was there really some connection between the two women's deaths?

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