4.12.09

The Criteria

The Criteria

Author Empathy:
Many are of the opinion that FOX news owes its existence to author empathy, whether they term it so or not. This category rates the strength of the connection that the teller of the story establishes with the readers. The writers for pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann have weaved formidable bonds of empathy among their audience. The audience trusts them because they have produced content that displays shared values. The audacity of some of those displays—e.g. O’Reilly’s denouncing of the entire country of France on international television—is a symptom of the confidence the writers have in their knowledge of their audience's values. Risky moves can pay off because a neutral, invisible author will not likely recruit a faithful readership.

Pandering is another name for the form of author empathy I just described. It's more engrossing than neutrality but if aimed at the wrong audience it discredits an entire body of work in that audience's eyes (see FOX again). The best authors can make themselves almost universally empathetic. These writers have a fair chance of gaining the heed even of people who don't agree with their claims or conclusions. They simply provide enough information about themselves and their viewpoints to allow readers to agree or disagree with them but benefit from the read anyway by acting as either a guiding or goading presence.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Author Empathy:
0-3: The author seemed dishonest and manipulative; assumptions were present that an audience shouldn't be expected to agree with.
4-7: The author was neutral or felt invisible. Better discretion regarding what details their reader wants to know yields a higher score.
8-10: The author made herself known, admitting any imperfection or bias in an honest way and still continuing to deliver an illuminating account that was made better because this writer delivered it. The highest scoring writers seemed to answer my questions about them as they occurred in my mind.


Characterization:
Stories are about people. Even if people aren't present the value of a story is still judged by a person. The things we relate to most in a story are the actors: criminals and victims, athletes, celebrities and their doings, two animals who are mating in a funky way, etc. The actors are the subject of the report. We readers like true details—but they have to be provided in the right context.

Reporters sift through lots of conversation before choosing what quotes to include in an article. This is true of both news (interviews) and reviews (what's recorded in the piece under review). At the time of reading, we cannot know what words didn't make it into the article so we need to see a lot in the quotes that are on the page. If a Nobel prize winning physicist was mentioned as present during a science fair then there better be a good quote from him about the winning project. If not, we have to wonder whether our reporter asked enough good questions of the story’s actors.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Characterization:
0-3: The important actors in the story are so bland and anonymous they may as well not have names.
4-7: Either we feel the information we have about the actors is incomplete or it seems leading—like the author has only provided us with one aspect of the actor when others seem present.
8-10: We can vividly imagine the actor in the setting. Details of appearance and behavior have been provided and commented upon in ways that satisfy our curiosity and compellingly engage our interest with the subject.


Didacticism:
What you learn from an article. This is just as important for reviews as it is for news coverage. A good critic will be able to describe why an effort is good or bad to an extent that will also teach laypeople what some of the criteria are. In hard news the goal is to find out what’s happening at a given time in a given locale with a given subject: clear cut learning. Longer, more editorial articles, however, have the opportunity to open that context up—and should allow a reader to walk away with more relevant knowledge about the subject than would be gleaned from a brief report. If this extent of learning doesn’t happen then why the hell was an article given more words than a simple wire report?

Didacticism signifies, more than any other category, the part of the article that you take away to the water cooler, the cocktail party, or the Parliamentary debate.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Didacticism:
0-3: I don’t know why I wasted my time reading this article because I learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know.
4-7: This piece was capable, I learned what I set out to learn. It may have been too long when I wanted essential information or too short, leaving me to search for more coverage on the subject.
8-10: The subject illuminated from all angles. I walked away with handfuls of reliable facts on the matter and will be able to formulate an opinion on it without feeling like I need to conceal a completely amateur understanding.

Catharsis:
The feelies: the chuckles and tears. Catharsis scores measure how much emotion the article will provoke. Witty punchlines or simply portrayals of hilarious situations up the score substantially. Unadulterated, personal looks at tragedy will drive the numbers up, too. Nothing wrong with a visceral gross-out, either.

There isn’t much to intellectualize here, this is the stuff sensed by the gut.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Catharsis:
0-3: The lowest scores are reserved for articles that had opportunities to see humor or represent true drama and didn’t—for shame!
4-7: Middling scores will go either to articles that didn’t have much material to work with or made attempts that provoked minor responses that could have been major.
8-10: The most emotionally engaging articles portray the joyful, the absurd, the bleak, and the strange in ways that wrap us up. These examples remind us why we continue to read the human story.


Sophistication:
This is the catch-all category for actual pen-to-paper prose technique. Did the author flaunt obscure, lengthy words when there was no need or was the language precise and accessible? Does it seem like the period or the comma was either forgotten or annoyingly worshipped as an itty-bitty inky deity? Does the prose ooze so much style it begins acting like a gel on a comb over or is everything so dry we wish the writer had been shoved into lockers more in high school so he’d learn not to be so eggheaded?

This category can seem intangible at times, especially given that the other four seem to pretty solidly indicate the quality of writing. But sophistication is important to note in the same way that a pit crew who wants to know why their car lost the race wants more than anything to take a look under the winning car’s hood. Writing is a craft and large media outlets too often allow novices to pen their important stuff. On the flip side, there are writers out there whose prose is so good that they make us nit-pickers wish that English-language poetry was alive again.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Sophistication:
0-3: There is almost no style and no control in the writing. Even if the reporting was good the translation onto the page was noticeably lacking.
4-7: Capable to a lesser or greater extent. The writing that is clear, and maybe even allows a few clich├ęs to sneak in will score in the middle range. Not much style here.
8-10: Writing in a style that contributes to the experience of reading the piece. It’s so good that I can’t tell whether the style was adapted to fit the mood of the subject or the writer was simply the perfect person to cover this topic.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! this is quite complex but I love the humor in your criteria. It makes me want to llok at how the piece scored before I read it. That way I will only read the good ones!

    ReplyDelete