Monday, December 10, 2012

The Price of Entertainment in Journalism

After taking a first look at the first paragraph of the article by John Sinnott and Tom McGowan, Lance Armstrong's demise: How an all-American hero fell to earth, one might feel as though they are reading a text published during the English Renaissance instead of October 2012.  Rather than warmly inviting the reader to learn about the developments surrounding Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations, the authors compare Armstrong academically to the mythical heroes of the Greeks.  For academic writing, this introduction would not be a problem, but in journalism these references present a challenge.  One of the key parts to journalism is writing in the plain style, active verbs, simple word-choice, clear subjects and objects, in order to create a clear message.  Also, there is a time constraint on journalists.  Because they often have to publish different articles during the week, many pieces of journalism are often short, to the point, and sometimes fail to report on the complete context of the article.  Therefore, mainstream journalism tries to develop pieces writing that can are entertaining, easily understood by many different readers in a quick period time.  This is one of many problems seen throughout this article.  In an attempt to write an academically stimulating piece of journalism, Sinnott and McGowan risk alienating readers and reporting an incomplete truth.
Let us take a closer look at the first paragraph:
Lance Armstrong bestrode the sport of cycling like a colossus between 1999 and 2005. His feat of winning seven consecutive titles at the Tour de France -- arguably the world's toughest sporting event -- was like the demigod Hercules completing his "Twelve Labors."
When I read the first sentence, one word struck me as out of place, “bestrode.”  According to, the word “bestrode” is defined as “to tower over” or a synonym for the verb “to straddle.”  The problem with these definitions is that they do not correlate with one another very well, leaving the reader with a possibly ambiguous definition.  In order to justify the author's word choice, first, we have to ask if the reader who reading this article has a vocabulary that includes “bestrode.”  Second, assuming that the reader does know the definition of “bestrode,” we have to ask which of the many, slightly different definitions they would associate with this word.  Although the authors of this article were most likely trying to show their ability to write in an educated manner, they did so by using a word that is too ambiguous.  This is a problem because the plain style should try to minimize the ambiguity of language by using words with more concrete meanings, such as “towered over” or “dominated” instead of “bestrode.”  The authors might rebuttal by saying this word aptly captures the action of riding a bicycle better than many others, but “bestrode” acts more to create a visual image than it does to communicate a concrete message.
            The problems with the opening paragraph do not stop after the first sentence.  The Sinnott and McGowan continue to show off their educations by making a distinct reference to classical, Greek writing.  Although this reference might be understood and appreciated by the limited number of readers who understand it, it presents a clear problem to those without the required knowledge.  Sinnott and McGowan are assuming that every reader who comes across this article will have a basic understanding of mythology.  This assumption could be a major downfall of the article.  Because the classical reference appears so early in the article, certain readers might misinterpret the article stop reading it altogether. 
            So who is this article written for? Well presumably, it was written for everyone, and there is evidence of this.  The article contains quite a bit of background on both Armstrong’s career and his doping allegations.  By building up the reader’s base knowledge of the subject, Sinnott and McGowan show their intent to create an audience with a similar background of knowledge.  Additionally, the authors include plenty of dialog in the article.  Being that the spoken word is often phrased more colloquially than the written, this allows readers of all different reading levels to find and identify passages that they can read comfortably.  This dialog also helps to clarify some of the terms used earlier in the article, such as “doping,” a slang term for using performance enhancing drugs and creates a sense of credibility for the authors by allowing different audiences to associate with their writing.  An example of this comes from when the authors quote Emma O’Reilly, a former associate of Armstrong, who states that Armstrong told her, “a small, plastic-wrapped package... ‘contained some things he was uneasy traveling with and had not wanted to throw away at the team hotel.’"  This quote helps to clarify that the doping agents, which were possibly used by Armstrong, were possibly illegal to possess under the rules and regulations of professional cycling and also shows that instead of simply making claims, the authors have researched this topic.  Consequently, no matter how educated the reader is on Armstrong's crisis, he or she is able to infer the potential legal disaster that Armstrong was knowingly putting himself in rather than the authors stating that explicitly.
            The purpose of writing this article might not seem so clear, but it can be derived.  It appears Sinnott and McGowan are writing this article to act as a narrative of the events surrounding Armstrong, but a closer look shows this article to be more of a condemnation of Armstrong’s actions than simply to report.  This can be seen through the tone of the writing in the article.  The first six paragraphs contain the majority of the background of the article.  These paragraphs are written in a surprisingly unbiased yet uplifting way, describing Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer and the creation of the Livestrong foundation.  But starting with “but then came the fall from grace,” the tone takes a dramatic twist in the following paragraphs.  The article seems to take an aggressive stance on Armstrong’s investigation, forgetting about his status in the philanthropic and non-athletic realms and focusing on his past.  The excerpts and short interviews that follow the brief introduction construct the majority of the article that follows and create a text that subjects the reader to an unbalanced use of personal testimonies.
            Sinnott and McGowan use sources that show an intense bias against Armstrong including Emma O’Reilly, a former Armstrong associate, and Floyd Landis, a former teammate and steroid user.  The authors even allow Armstrong to remain the only named steroid users and omitting the names of other potential users.  Because the authors include only sources that seem to incriminate Armstrong, a distinct, biased tone is created.  This tone can subliminally sway the readers of the article against Armstrong without giving them an equal and unbiased description of his situation.
            The appearance of a tone in professional writing would generally not a problem, but this piece of writing is meant to be read by a wide range of people.  Therefore, by creating a possibly negative tone in the article, Sinnott and McGowan risk offending possible readers.  However, There is a flip-side to the article's bias. 
            Journalists are motivated to generate readers and one simple way to develop readers is to make their article interesting and fun to read.  This is the strength of the bias in this article.  With the bias, the Sinnott and McGowan create a readership for themselves that might not otherwise exist.  Many people reading this article might already know a bit about Armstrong and his possible steroid use.  He has been in the media since the early 2000’s and due to his notoriety as as a professional athlete, Armstrong has drawn many critics.  This creates a few specific readerships, those who oppose Armstrong and those looking to learn a bit about him.  However, this one group does not make up all the readers of the article, nor do they represent the entire body of educated readers.
            There are readers who do have a thorough knowledge of the context surrounding Armstrong and his racing career, as well as bicycling history.  Those in this group understand that before the recent era of medical testing for steroids, steroid use was common in the sport, as it was in baseball and track and field.  These readers have an advantage that others do not.  These readers can understand the article in a more complete context and understand the bias contained within it. 
            Alternatively, the authors could have chosen to include more sources from Armstrong’s supporters and possibly attract readers that way.  However, by including a well written introduction that allows people to quickly understand the background surrounding the article, the authors are also able to give themselves the credibility needed to make their argument against Armstrong.  Also, this article is well structured and flows nicely, because of the tone, and allows many different audiences to read and enjoy the arguments posed by the authors and develop their own questions and opinions surround the Armstrong developments.  This creates a greater “marketplace of ideas” in which all audiences are able to discuss their opinions in a civil and adult manner.
            Ultimately, through the use of tone, classical references, and purposeful sources, Sinnott McGowan have constructed a highly entertaining article.  However, they have sacrificed something in the process.  By failing to include sources from both Armstrong and his critics, this article fails to depict a full truth and context surrounding the article.  The authors did not give enough context on the history of doping culture in cycling and quickly acknowledged the extensive charity work Armstrong and his peers have done.  Because of this, the readers who did not have a background before reading the article attain only a satisfactory background and an incomplete truth.

Special thanks to for the delightful image.
--Sam Hackworth

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