Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fueling the Fire?

As is often the case in journalism, it’s sometimes rather obvious when authors’ personal ambition, bias or favoritism shows through their writing. Whether through subtle word choice or blatantly dramatizing an entire article, it seems as though it may be impossible to be completely objective; especially concerning particularly controversial subject matter.  The Lance Armstrong doping case has been a heated topic in the news lately and with such a topic comes heated reports.

On October 10, 2012, The New York Times website posted an article by Juliet Macur titled “Details of Doping Scheme Paint Armstrong as Leader.” As the title suggests, the content of the article discusses details of the heavily disputed rumors that Lance Armstrong was using illegal substances and methods to give him an advantage in his races. However, the title sways the tone of the case before readers even see the article by using the words “doping scheme” and “paint;” automatically giving the feel of a “bad guy,” a villain. The body of the article isn’t any less emotionally charged. Macur’s word choices involve things such as “infamous cheat,” “defiant liar,” “bully,” “vanquished,” “eerie” and “army of enablers;” words that in this instance make the story sound like something taken out of a crime show. Characteristic of the plain style, Macur avoids the use of jargon and terminology, instead opting for the diction aforementioned. For example: 
To start what was deemed a new and better doping strategy, Lance Armstrong and two of his teammates on the United States Postal Service cycling squad flew on a private jet to Valencia, Spain, in June 2000, to have blood extracted. In a hotel room there, two doctors and the team’s manager stood by to see their plan unfold, watching the blood of their best riders drip into plastic bags. 
The next month, during the Tour de France, the cyclists lay on beds with those blood bags affixed to the wall. They shivered as the cool blood re-entered their bodies. The reinfused blood would boost the riders’ oxygen-carrying capacity and improve stamina during the second of Armstrong’s seven Tour wins. 
Little to nothing in these two passages is difficult to grasp. They’re both written in the active voice, saying exactly who is doing what (“Lance Armstrong and two of his teammates flew,” “two doctors and the team’s manager stood by,” “They shivered as the cool blood re-entered their bodies”); they use rhetorical devices such as distinctio (“reinfused blood” is previously explained as blood that had been extracted and was again being entered into the riders’ bodies); and none of the content is abstract or intangible. With an average grade level of 11.5 – a junior in high school – and a reading ease of 54.8 (according to, this article is relatively accessible to most people because of the plain style it’s presented in.

            Macur writes a very captivating story, but in a case like this that’s already under fire, it makes one wonder how much of this fire is because of articles like this. There are various mediating artifacts that must be considered in this instance. Lately, Macur’s Twitter page (@julietmacur) has been saturated with tweets about the Armstrong scandal. A particularly scathing one reads: “After a day like today, do I have to remind readers that it means nothing when an athlete denies doping by saying he never tested positive?” According to her bio on the NYT website, Macur has covered “the Olympics and Olympic sports, doping and legal issues” since 2004. It’s possible that since she’s been covering the Olympic sport of cycling for 8 years that this new material struck a certain chord with her. It would be a goldmine for a journalist such as herself: a highly decorated and respected hero to many falls to doping allegations. It must be taken into consideration that covering stories of the like is her specialty and that it played a key role in her production of an article of such fervor.

Armstrong at the 2010
Clinton Global Initiative
            It’s also possible, even probable that Macur chose to write with an air of gossip in order to keep readers engaged and craving more. She keeps Armstrong in the spotlight as the “bad guy,” giving the article more the feeling of a soap opera than of an informative piece. She also used a picture of a somber-looking Armstrong with downcast eyes on the page of her article. The image was actually pulled from a series of photos from the 2010 Clinton Global initiative annual meeting where Armstrong spoke out about cancer becoming a leading cause of death and discussed plans to make Livestrong a global movement. Out of context, though, the picture of Armstrong looks guilty.

            “Details of Doping Scheme…” isn’t the only thing she’s written either. Typing in “Juliet Macur” to the NYT search bar brings up five additional articles on the Armstrong doping case, written or contributed by her, on the first page of results alone. Titles like, “Report to Reveal Evidence in Armstrong Drug Case” and “Witnesses Made Case Against Armstrong Potent,” reflect an attitude similar to that of “
Details of Doping Scheme Paint Armstrong as Leader.” All of them sound criminalizing or defamatory.

             In terms of context, there are a couple of ways to look at this article. Is it engaging? Is it accessible to a wide audience? Does it effectively deliver its point? Yes, yes and yes. As far as journalism goes, it’s functional. She took her subject (Armstrong), wrote with high readability to account for the community that is NYT readers, explained how Armstrong violated the rules and norms of cycling, used her division of labor as a reporter to distribute this information, and reached the outcome that is this engaging, accessible and effective piece. As aforementioned, Macur may have purposefully written in such a way to grab and keep readers’ interest. However, to look beyond it at just the facts is hard to do. One could pick out each piece of the story but he or she would be hard pressed to find anything without some sort of emotion or bias attached to it. In the sense of being informational, it does not function because Macur is too partial to convicting Armstrong that she doesn’t allow readers to reach their own conclusions.

             It’s clear that Macur’s portrayal of the Armstrong case isn’t objective and there’s more than just facts in her writing. And, since it’s written in the plain style, it’s accessible to nearly any audience. More people would be persuaded because they can easily grasp her writing and can feel as though she’s writing “to” them. This may distort the subject matter and can conceal any bias or ulterior motives that come through. It’s not just this article that sets such a tone, but also how she portrays the case in her other articles and even in her own Twitter feed. It’s probable, that while yes, the Armstrong doping case was scandalous and wrong, articles like this feed the fire. This view is limited, though, in that I didn’t look at articles written by other NYT contributors about the case. It’s possible that it’s not just Macur taking this attitude, but the New York Times in general. I also didn’t explore how other news sources are handling the case. Perhaps this criminalizing style is trending across the board. It would be interesting to explore it across different news sites. Is Macur’s article just good journalism then? Maybe, but it’s plain to see that Juliet Macur is contributing more than just the facts in her coverage of the Lance Armstrong doping case.

To view 
“Details of Doping Scheme Paint Armstrong as Leader," click here.

Chelsea Dolan

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