Column: The Good Samaritan parable as news story

Published on September 17, 2013.

Some readers have asked about the “writing experiment” I attempted last month at the Loyola School of Theology, when I sought to discuss the church-media dynamic by, among other things, rewriting a famous Gospel parable. Perhaps the best way to explain what I was up to is to show, not tell. If you will allow me then, here is an extended excerpt:

It seems only reasonable to argue… that even without the GMA stigma and the RH trauma, the erosion in churchgoing would have continued. The tidal forces wearing away at the rock on which the local church is planted—secularization, global consumerism, a youth-oriented popular culture, triumphalist technological fetish—seem irresistible.

I would like to suggest that this is the context we should keep in mind when we speak of “Church and Media.” What are the controlling frameworks, the resonant metaphors, that animate the Filipino today? And is any of that language still Christian?

It seems to me (but then it would, wouldn’t it, since I work with words and images for a living) that the question of language, of central metaphors, is crucial.

Let me narrow the focus some more. Church and Media, religion and journalism, are… both in the “story” business. Without wishing to trespass on the semiotics of narrative, I would simply hold that the text, the story, is central to both the religious impulse and the journalistic one.

Maybe the best way to show this commonality and at the same time this difference is to translate a famous Gospel story into journalese. Please indulge me.

“Jesus replied, ‘A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.’”

The parable of the Good Samaritan suggests itself naturally as a case study, in part because the story opens almost the way a news story would. The rest of the story follows a familiar three-part structure: priest-Levite-Samaritan, with a coda in the form of a penetrating question: Who was the victim’s true neighbor?

I assume we all know how the story ends; if we don’t, then I must be in the wrong building!…

Let’s focus our attention on the first verse. With a minimum of editorial fuss, a news editor can turn the verse into a serviceable opening—the lede, in news-speak.

“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho yesterday. According to the police, the robbers stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.”

Only three simple changes: two insertions and one revision. Each one, however, is necessary from the point of view of journalism.

First, the news is ineradicably time-bound, hence the need to root the Gospel passage in the here-and-now, or at least in the recent past: “He went down from Jerusalem to Jericho yesterday.” Second, the news is also source-dependent; often, the value of a news story is determined by where the story came from, or who said what in it. Hence the need to attribute the source of the information: “According to the police …” And third, the news is meant to be understood in one reading, to be taken in quickly; there is a premium on clarity. The pronoun “they” in the Gospel passage was revised to “the robbers” to remove a possible ambiguity: The words “According to the police, they stripped and beat him,” may cause the reader to mistakenly attribute the violence to the police—sadly enough, not an unknown circumstance in these or indeed in other parts.

The first verse as edited, however, may still not see print, or be given airtime. While I like the spare, plain language, I realize further editing may still be called for. At this stage let us appropriate the newswriting convention of a particular news organization, to show how a specific news culture helps shape a news story.

If our passage were rewritten for use in the Inquirer’s separate Internet operation,, it might read as follows:

“A 28-year-old man fell victim to still-unidentified robbers as he commuted from Jerusalem to Jericho on Tuesday. According to the police, the robbery gang took the man’s clothes and valuables, beat him and left him for dead.”

At least eight changes illustrate three kinds of editorial intervention.

One, has an international audience; a great many of the site’s 60 million page views per month [81 million, in the wake of the pork barrel scam and the Janet Napoles interview] come from Filipinos in the United States and Canada. A reference to a crime committed “yesterday,” therefore, can be confusing to a reader in San Francisco who will access the website tomorrow to read a story written today about an incident that happened yesterday. Hence, the use of “Tuesday” in “he commuted from Jerusalem to Jericho on Tuesday,” is a much more useful and certainly a more considerate indicator of time.

Replacing “went down from Jerusalem to Jericho” with the more specific image of “commuted from Jerusalem to Jericho” (or “as he waited for the bus to take him from Jerusalem to Jericho”) removes generic language and replaces it with common, familiar but active verbs—common and familiar, that is, to the regular reader of the news. There is a bias for the specific.

Not least, interventions such as “28-year-old man” or “still-unidentified robbers” (or, maybe, to bring the passage violently into the present, “two still-unidentified armed men riding in tandem”) remind us that newswriting relies a great deal on the art of compression. In many cases, both time and space (or airtime) are extremely limited; loading a sentence with an extra cargo of facts becomes an efficient way to cope with the limits. Indeed, this use of made-up modifiers is what defines the original, negative meaning of journalese: limit-coping, sentence-loading exercises that sometimes [even today] strain comprehension.


Leave a comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Religion

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s