Thursday, November 21, 2013

Strange and Plain: A Plain Style Critique

 AJ Donaldson

            In the news reporting industry, there are often times stories so strange and obscure they require the plainest language in order to be clearly reported.  A prime example of this type of story would be’s breaking of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fake online girlfriend.  As you read that last sentence, it probably made you say, “Wait, what? A fake online girlfriend?”  Right now, we know that we are dealing with a complex, strange news story. 
            Before I discuss the effects of the plain language used in the article, a little background information on what actually happened would be helpful.  Manti Te’o played middle linebacker for the University of Notre Dame.  He allegedly met a girl after a game against Stanford in 2009 and continued an online relationship until it was reported that the girl had died in 2012.  Long story short, someone was pretending to be this girl and communicating with Te’o via social media and phone messages, but in reality, the girl did not exist.  It was a hoax.  This is a very strange and twisted story, and it requires some careful, plain language in order to be effectively reported.  I feel like Deadspin did a very good job of clearly mapping out what happened. 
            When I put this story in the readability calculator, the following results showed up:
Readability Formula

Readability Formula

Average Grade Level

            According to this analysis, this is a very readable text.  The average eighth grade student could read this text and make sense of it.  It is important for Deadspin to make this article easily readable, because it is such a strange story.  How many times have you heard of a big-name athlete having an online girlfriend who turned out to be fake?  Given the analysis here, Deadspin did an admirable job in making the article very readable.
            Within the text, many elements of the plain style are present.  Here is a sample from the text:
Manti Te'o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar's office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there's no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te'o. (
            I’ve already touched on the reading ease and lower grade levels of this piece as an element of the plain style, but other elements would include short, simple sentences, clearly emphasized subjects and verbs, as well as the rhetorical device of parallelism, which means using similar grammatical structure for important ideas.  These are the elements that really jumped out at me in this passage, but are obviously not the only ones.  This passage is located at the end of the introduction of the article and acts as somewhat of a thesis statement.  The rest of the article is a timeline of how the events unfolded, and this part really lays out the hard facts of the story.  It is imperative that this be written in plain style in order for readers to grasp the main idea of the story so they can understand the loaded timeline that follows.
            Another example of very plain, straightforward language being used comes towards the end of the article, after the timeline of events has been presented.  At this point, readers have had a lot of information tossed their way.  The story has taken all kinds of twists and turns, potentially leaving readers confused.  Then, Deadspin gives us a recap in the plainest of plain styles:
                  There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te'o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te'o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te'o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te'o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te'o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te'o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest. (
In addition to containing the same plain style elements as the previous example, this passage contains anaphora (starting successive sentences with the same word), and a little bit of hyperbole (exaggerating the importance of something to emphasize a point), as well as diazeugma (having a single subject for multiple verb phrases).  The anaphora element creates a hammering effect that drills ideas into the reader’s head and is present throughout the passage.  Diazeugma is present in the following sentence: “She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia.”  The subject here is “she” and the verb “did” is used to present the last two ideas without restating the subject.  This creates a break in the normal structure where each thought contains a subject and a verb.  The hyperbole element comes in when statements like, “Her favorite color was not white,” and, “…(she) did not request he send white flowers to her funeral,” are said.  These are pretty minor details for the story, but Deadspin puts them in the passage to emphasize that this girl did not exist in any way. 
            Now the question of if writing in such plain language does this story justice, because it is so strange and obscure, must be asked.  If Deadspin had not done a good job of making the language very clear in this article, it could have been very confusing for readers because it is a strange story that not many people could even dream of.  I know when I first heard the story on ESPN, I was extremely confused by all the things they were throwing out there.  But after reading this article it is pretty clear to me what happened.  In conclusion, through the use of various plain style elements, Deadspin makes a very clear, understandable article, which I applaud them for, given the unusual nature of the story.

AJ Donaldson

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