March 9, 2021

With so much information hitting us about COVID-19, it is a tribute to the work of public writers across the globe that so much of it is reliable.

Disinformation and propaganda aside, we will always find mistakes in honest reports — false assumptions, lack of context, numbers that don’t quite add up. In my experience, these are mostly failures of time and resources, and almost never the result of an intent to distort or misinform.

The question for me, then, is not what to believe. I trust my various “reliable sources.” It’s what to read. So much news and information, so little time. When a public writer captures my attention, I always ask the question: “How did he or she do it?”

A case in point arrived the morning of March 8, in a digital newsletter from The New York Times. Written by the lion-hearted David Leonhardt, it began with this greeting above the headline:

“Good morning. Why has Covid’s toll been surprisingly low across much of Africa and Asia?”

I can’t say how much I appreciated the “Good morning.” Maybe it’s the text version of a news anchor greeting you on your favorite morning show. It tunes a potentially formal tone into one more conversational. That is, it imagines the presence of a real audience.

That effect of conversation is magnified by what comes next — a question. “Why has Covid’s toll been surprisingly low across much of Africa and Asia?”

I remember advice from a news curmudgeon who shouted that you should never raise a question at the beginning of a story that you are unprepared to answer for the reader by the end. So, yes, I find that question about COVID-19 deaths fascinating. And I want to know the answer. Maybe I am wearing blinders. Maybe my narrow Western perspective would assume that those continents, way over there, or way down there, would have a worse go of it when it came to COVID-19 deaths.

The Times lifts the heavy cargo of data from the text and places it in a simple chart. It shows that deaths per million are highest in Great Britain, America and Italy and quite low in Pakistan, Vietnam and Nigeria. How to explain those surprising statistics?

That question is captured in this headline: “An epidemiological whodunnit.”

Such an unusual “label” headline deserves attention. It gains its energy from the juxtaposition of two long words that you will not often see together. That kind of language friction is an old writer’s trick that you will find in countless titles, such as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Glamour of Grammar” (my book!).

To understand that headline — to “get it,” if you will — requires a fairly high degree of previous knowledge on the part of the reader. A reader’s previous knowledge is one of the most significant determiners of comprehensibility. If I am a fan of the English football club Arsenal — and understand the offside rule — I am more likely to find, read and grasp an article on a controversial call in an important match.

No writer or editor can know in advance the level of a particular reader’s previous knowledge. But it is something that deserves attention, even if it leads to an educated guess. How much do I think my reader knows and understands about this topic? Can I assume after a year of COVID-19, that readers know what “Covid” means? What pandemic means? Who Dr. Fauci is? What it means that Dr. Fauci is an “epidemiologist?”

It took me most of a year to realize that the word “epidemiology” had the word “epidemic” hiding inside of it. So, Dr. Anthony Fauci is a scientist who specializes in epidemics — “an outbreak of a contagious disease that spreads widely and rapidly” (American Heritage Dictionary). By now many people know that a “pandemic” is not confined to a region, but is everywhere.

People who understand the word “epidemiological” are brainy enough to understand the word “whodunnit,” even though it’s a weird mashup of the ungrammatical question “who done it.” My dictionary spells it with one ‘n’ — whodunit — and defines it as an informal term for a story dealing with “crime and its solution.”

Writer Tom French calls a phrase like “who done it?” an “engine” for a story. Such a question, as in “What is the meaning of Rosebud,” generates the action in the movie “Citizen Kane.”

Who done it? Guilty or not guilty? Who will win the prize?

How about: Who will sit on the Iron Throne?

But also: When will I be able to get a vaccine? Is one vaccine better than another? And, yes, why are countries in Africa and Asia having a better time of it when it comes to COVID-19 deaths, and is there anything we can learn from their circumstances?

There are responsible and irresponsible ways to use the strategy of the “mystery” to generate interest in a story. I can’t count the times I’ve fallen victim to headlines or teasers sometimes referred to as “clickbait.” Any headline that begins “You’ll never guess what happened when …” or “Why they don’t want you to see …” or “You’ll never feel the same way again after …” Add a bizarre or provocative image and there is my cursor headed for a link.

As a writer, I must plead guilty to the venial sin I am describing. When you traffic in grammar and punctuation, as I often do, it helps to sprinkle a little pixie dust on the cow pie. How about a headline such as “What they don’t want you to know about the semicolon.” Or “How a secret cabal at the AP is standing between you and the Oxford comma.” It helps to be able to attract a crowd, even a little one.

We all want to learn secrets, especially juicy ones, like out of Buckingham Palace. But there are people in power — some with ill intent — who want to keep secrets from us. That makes the revelation of secrets in the public interest central to the mission of reporters, investigators and public writers.

I have argued that when it comes to answering the questions readers want answered, public writers are much better at the Who, What, Where, and When, than they are the Why. When it comes to motive, human beings are often opaque — check out Iago! — and writers often fall victim to the logical fallacy of the single motive or single cause.

What works so well in The New York Times summary is a logical list of answers to the question of “why” when it comes to differences in the rate of fatalities between continents. That list, marked by subheadlines, seemed so clear, in fact, that I am going to give the reasons here as I remember them — but not in order. It’s a great test of comprehensibility.

  1. Western countries have older populations, more nursing homes, a lower birth rate, with more people vulnerable to COVID-19.
  2. The climate in many Asian and African countries is warmer, so people are more likely to spend more of their time outdoors, in well-ventilated spaces, less vulnerable to crowded workplaces where infections can more easily spread.
  3. Western countries, where freedom of movement is more part of the culture, are less likely to adopt and enforce restrictive policies that help slow the spread of the disease. In countries like Ghana, there is less freedom — and less death.

OK, that’s what I remember. A good test of whether a writer has achieved civic clarity in a report is whether readers can remember key points. But I forgot this: “immunity may not be uniform,” which means that populations in some countries — with more frequent exposure to microbes — may have developed stronger immunities over time.

Without ramming home some “mystery solved” conclusion. Leonhardt carries the trope to a reasonable if un-dramatic conclusion:

“The full answer to this mystery surely involves multiple explanations. Whatever they are, it’s one of the few ways in which Covid has not been as bad as many had feared. Hundreds of thousands of people across Africa and Asia have still died of this terrible disease. But many others are alive today for reasons that are both unclear and marvelous.”

Lessons for public writers

  1. Sometimes a single drop of water on the forehead gets more attention than a Gatorade bath. With so much information out there, think of ways to make your story worth a reader’s time
  2. Anyone can make an interesting thing seem important. (Watch cable news much?) Instead, embrace the duty of making the important interesting.
  3. You can raise questions for readers that the story will answer. If you are good at it, you can frame these questions as secrets to be exposed or mysteries to be solved
  4. You can do this without hype. No click-baiting allowed. (OK, once a year.)
  5. The greatest predictor of engagement and comprehensibility of a text is the level of previous knowledge by the reader. You can’t know it. But you can attend to it, and make educated guesses.
  6. There are few sources of energy in a report or story more powerful than a good question the writer will answer for the reader.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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