One of my favorite survivor stories out of the World Trade Center disaster is this gem from the AP: “Mike Hingson, who is blind, made his way to safety from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks thanks to Roselle, his 3-year-old yellow Labrador guide dog.”
We learn from Hingson that “Roselle did a good job. She stayed focused. We stayed to the side. We smelled a lot of jet fuel on the way down…Some people had a lot of problems breathing.”
For about 20 years now, teachers at Poynter have been preaching this lesson: “Get the name of the dog.” Never was that lesson more important than in the coverage of disasters in which dogs are used for rescue and security.
The Poynter adage is meant to stand for a wider truth: that powerful writing depends upon detail. Sol Stein calls the effect “Particularity.” Writes Stein, “It is not just detail that distinguishes good writing, it is detail that individualizes. I call it ‘particularity.’ Once you’re used to spotting it– and spotting its absence–you will have one of the best possible means of improving your writing markedly.”
An excellent story distributed by Knight Ridder describes the plight of more than 300 dogs working at ground zero: “Lacerated paws. Burns. Dehydration. Overheating. Irritated eyes. Stress.” Halfway through the story, the writer achieves particularity:
“‘It’s just hazardous to the Nth degree,’ said Erick Robertson, 36, who drove from Oakhurst, Calif., near Yosemite, to offer the services of his independently trained search dog, Porkchop. Since Sunday, they have worked about eight hours a day.
“Wednesday morning, Robertson knelt by Porkchop’s side as the year-old Australian shepherd got a checkup. Puncture wounds–suffered when a police dog bit him in the back–were tender to the touch. The dog’s gentle green eyes were red from the acrid dust. And he was favoring one leg, which doctors tended to after carefully snipping away three layers of bandages and dog boots.
“When Porkchop catches the scent of human remains, he signals his master either with three barks or a motion that resembles a sneeze. Robertson said his dog has been making as many as a dozen recoveries per shift.
“‘I’m very proud of him. He’s 100 percent out there,’ Robertson said, nuzzling Porkchop as the exhausted, dehydrated dog received fluids intravenously. ‘It just blows me away.’”
Of course, the name of the dog says as much about the human namer as it does about the beast. Consider the difference between “Roselle” and “Porkchop.”
In covering a story with so many characters and so broad a landscape, journalists would do well to remember the power of the particular: the color of the rosary beads, a family photograph recovered from the rubble, the name of the dog.