Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Most Boring Article Ever

In trying to examine the plain style, I chose the most sleep-inducing article I could find. What lacks creativity (and what provokes my head to hit the pillow) is certainly plain. The text is a short press release-type article authored by the Associated Press. The article itself provides only a bit more information than the title: In-person early voting begins in Wisconsin. It is dry and straight forward; we know exactly what is happening to whom. It is written at the average American reading level, 7th grade. It is also very readable, and contains little jargon.

We see how simple and plain this article is through its use of simple sentences. There are few tropes or schemes—language is just direct. Additionally, most sentences are not long or combined. However, the first sentence gives an example of a prepositional phrase, using the word with to join ideas: “In-person early voting has begun across Wisconsin, with some people camping overnight outside of city clerk offices to be among the first to cast ballots.” The reality is that these are not hard devices to use or understand; they are simply plain.

But even the plain style, the most understandable of all writing styles, favors some groups of people over others. The simple truth is that plain for one person is not plain for another. Notice first that this is written at the 7th grade level. Though this is the average American reading level, we have to assume that this also means that half of Americans read under this level; half of Americans are isolated from its reach. Privilege also exists beyond just grade level. Presumptions about the paper-reader’s knowledge could skew some information. This article favors those who have access to early voting. What I mean is that the article does very little to inform anyone about what it means to early (or in person-absentee) vote. We are told only the date that this kind of voting begins. The article does not specify who qualifies to early vote or what to take to the polls.

Beyond privileging information, this article also oversimplifies and overlooks details. Writing in the plain style means making things easy to understand, but this is an example also misrepresented some information. The article uses the term “early voting,” which does refer to voting early, but is also the official title of a kind of voting that Wisconsin does not have. In Wisconsin the system we have is not actually early voting—it is in person absentee voting. The distinction is that when someone early votes, the ballot goes right into the machine and is counted. In person absentee votes are absentee votes and cannot be opened until Election Day. They require significantly more paperwork to complete—and even though someone votes, the results are not tabulated until Election Day. When people see results from early voting in Wisconsin, they are seeing exit polls, not election results. Votes still are not counted until Election Day. So, if we can’t get detailed—but-simple enough—information from this plain-style newspaper article, is the article even serving its purpose?

The answer, though it may seem backward, is yes. This article, written in the plain style, serves its purpose because it functions within the context of its activity system. Just like every other piece of writing, there is no way for everyone to understand what is being written all the time. Thus, we have to judge quality and articulation in the context that the work is published. I first read this article in the La Crosse Tribune but, being an Associated Press article, it appeared in newspapers throughout the country. When I read it, it functioned within the La Crosse Tribune’s Activity system, but other readers probably read it from another source. We’ll consider two activity systems. First, we will survey the activity system of a newspaper where this article may be published. Subjects are readers; their motive is to gain knowledge about current events. Mediating artifacts include the newspaper itself, advertisements, and even the online newspaper edition. Divisions of labor in this system center on the fact that not every reader reads every article. People tend to pick and choose what they are interested in. Though, as I said earlier, half of Americans do not read the level this piece is written, it is still contextually appropriate. The La Crosse Tribune probably knows its readership, and it is safe to assume that the average daily newspaper reader probably consumes information written at a higher than 7th grade level. Further, the content of this specific article is targeted at a very specific readership. If we assume that newspaper readers read at or above the average American grade level, we can assume that they might have higher than average education levels as well. Education level is a predictor of voting behavior—people with higher degrees vote in higher volumes. Thus, omitting information about what it takes to vote does not especially matter in this article. The readers probably have a decent idea (at least) of how and where to vote. Another reason details may be omitted is that this article also functions on the meditating artifact of the print newspaper. Space is limited and some details must be chosen over others. Additionally, readers may be skimming for things that interest them. If politics and voting are of no interest to the reader, it is doubtful that he or she would’ve read beyond the headline. Thus, those who read this article, again, probably understand the information that is not included about voting. The people who overlook it may very well be non-voters. It makes perfect sense, then, that this story would not be about how to vote, but that it would deliver an editorial detail about a woman standing in line and being first to vote.

The Associated Press activity system further explains why this anecdote is included over factual information. Beyond just functioning well in the La Crosse Tribune activity system, this article functions within the context of the Associated Press. The Associated Press has much different motives than the people who read newspapers. The Associated Press looks for stories they can sell to other newspaper—thus, their motive is profit in the news. It would make sense, then, that an AP story would be reported from one of Wisconsin’s biggest cities. If most news happens in those cities, it is practical for Associated Press writers to be stationed there. It is also important that the Associated Press makes marketable news. If they Associated Press were to write with detectable bias, they simply would not get business because they would isolate all new sources with an opposite political lean. So, even though many look at the news for bias, the AP has no motivation to be biased.  Thus, elements of the text that appear bias actually are not, they are simply a result of the context where the story was first written.

Notice how the article only discusses one voter—who votes for Barack Obama. In closing, the article also mentions “Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney,” which also appears to favor the president. It calls attention to Romney’s status as a challenger and not an incumbent when usually incumbents have an electoral advantage.

Yet, upon closer examination we get a different perspective. The AP, because of profit motives within their own activity system, chose to report this story from Madison. The chance that the first person in line in liberal Madison, Wisconsin was a democrat was pretty high. Then, we look at the characteristics about the voter this article provides: she is in her 60s, she is a woman, and a retired teacher. All of these factors would lead us to already suspect she is a democrat. The article would arguably have more bias if it featured a voter with these characteristics voting for Mitt Romney. It would show a swing vote, whereas this was just a predictable and probably typical case. Yet, when taken out of its original context, it could be argued that the AP is favoring the president. However, in the AP activity system, it is simply adhering to the norm of what may happen in Madison, WI.

After a thorough examination of this article, we see that though it may seem to privilege some audiences and information over others, it functions within two activity systems because of correct presumptions the authors make about their readership. It is written at a clear, average level to a group of people that most likely read at that level. It omits information that newspaper readers probably already know. And though it may appear to be bias in the way that it discusses the Democratic and Republican parties, there is no interest within the Associated Press activity system to market biased news because its motive is profit. 

Karin Johnson

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