Oct 21, 2010

Ethics in writing and Edna Buchanan

As a crime reporter, there were two things I learned from Edna Buchanan.

One was to cover every single homicide. You might think that if that's your job, writing about crime, that that would be obvious, but many news outlets actually don't cover a case just because there is a corpse. There has to be something else, something "special." Buchanan took that as an insult not just to the dead, but to humanity. Reporting a murder, for her, was the only ethical thing to do.

The second thing was that a lead, those first few sentences of a story, could deliver the existential jolt of a defibrillator. Because of her, I believed those first few sentences could carry ethical force, could communicate, in toto, humanity and grotesquery and our fallen state. My leads weren't her leads, but it was because of her, for example, I wrote:


Alfonso Mason saw his face on television. It was an older picture, so his glasses weren’t as thick and his hair wasn’t as gray, but it was him.

The 56-year-old was in an extended-stay motel in DeKalb County. All he did all day was sleep and watch TV and when he saw his face and saw he was wanted by the Clayton County Police for the murder of a motel maid, the armed robbery of Stockbridge’s Suburban Lodge and the car-jacking of the assistant manager’s car, he decided to turn himself in.

If you write crime -- this is true of all writing, but with writing about violence I think it's especially true -- you have to decide why you're writing and what response you're trying to evoke by force of words. Buchanan showed me writing about crime didn't have to be about the joke, or just horror, or simple luridness, but could be about attempting to induce ethical moments.

There are, of course, other things to learn from Buchanan's reporting. For me, those were the lessons, though. I still use her lead "Gary Robinson died hungry," when I teach writing, to talk about introductions, and what they do and are supposed to do.

Longform.org points, today, to an '86 profile of Edna Buchanan they did at the New Yorker. It includes an interesting digression on the jolting force of a short sentence:

... snapping the reader back in his chair with an abbreviated sentence that is used like a blunt instrument. One student of the form at the Herald refers to that device as the Miller Chop. The reference is to Gene Miller, now a Herald editor, who, in a remarkable reporting career that concentrated on the felonious, won the Pulitzer Prize twice for stories that resulted in the release of people in prison for murder. Miller likes short sentences in general—it is sometimes said at the Herald that he writes as if he were paid by the period—and he particularly likes to use a short sentence after a couple of rather long ones. Some years ago, Gene Miller and Edna Buchanan did a story together on the murder of a high-living Miami lawyer who was shot to death on a day he had planned to while away on the golf course of La Gorce Country Club, and the lead said, ". . . he had his golf clubs in the trunk of his Cadillac. Wednesday looked like an easy day. He figured he might pick up a game later with Eddie Arcaro, the jockey. He didn't."

These days, Miller sometimes edits the longer pieces that Edna Buchanan does for the Herald, and she often uses the Miller Chop—as in a piece about a lovers' spat: "The man she loved slapped her face. Furious, she says she told him never, ever to do that again. 'What are you going to do, kill me?' he asked, and handed her a gun. 'Here, kill me,' he challenged. She did."

That chop, of course, the short-sentence punch, can be just a joke -- that's how it's used most often, for example, in noir -- but it can work, like all good writing works, to demand something from the reader. To demand, in an ethical moment, that one wake up and look.