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Sunday, January 11, 2009

How Not to Write about a Football Game
By Nicholas Stix

AP sports reporter John Nadel’s story on USC’s Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, “Rose Bowl: Mark Sanchez passes USC to 38-24 victory,” is marred by several basic flaws: One regarding identification of a central figure in the story; one of style; one of grammar; and two involving the writer’s repeated mentioning of an important piece of information regarding one of the teams, while neglecting to provide the same information regarding the other team.

Following a strong, pithy lead (“Southern California made a strong case of its own to be No. 1.”), the reporter opens his second paragraph, “JoePa certainly recognized what a talented team the Trojans were — and that was before they beat up Penn State in the Rose Bowl.”

JoePwho? The first identification of a figure in a news story should be crystal clear.

Nadel’s second mention of the same figure, two paragraphs later, has the clarity the first mention should have had: “Penn State coach Joe Paterno watched from the press box, where he's been for most of the season following hip replacement surgery.”

Nadel should have reversed the identifications, and to make it clear that “JoePa” and “Joe Paterno” are the same man, made the two sentences consecutive, as in:

Mark Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns, USC dominated on defense and the fifth-ranked Trojans defeated the No. 6 Nittany Lions 38-24 Thursday.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno certainly recognized what a talented team the Trojans were — and that was before they beat up Penn State in the Rose Bowl. JoePa watched from the press box, where he's been for most of the season following hip replacement surgery. He couldn't have liked what he saw — at one point in the first half, the TV camera caught him shaking his head as USC (12-1) rolled to a 31-7 lead.


(Should someone claim that the nickname “JoePa” is universally known, in a story on Paterno that Nadel had published the previous day, he never used Paterno’s nickname.)

Style: “With a No. 1 defense in the nation, there was no way the Trojans would blow that kind of lead.”

Prior to something that is unique or a superlative, one must use the definite article, e.g., “With the No. 1 defense in the nation…”

Grammar, in paragraph 12: “Paterno, whose won 383 games, including 23 bowls — both records — said several times in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl that he thought USC was at least as good as any team in the country, perhaps better.”

“Whose” is the possessive, but the sentence does not use the possessive. I’m guessing that either Nadel or one of his editors had written, “Paterno, whose Nittany Lion [or “Penn State”] teams have won 383 games, including 23 bowls…,” and someone then cut “Nittany Lion [or “Penn State”] teams have…,” without also changing “whose” to “who has.” The alternative, that someone with responsibility for the story didn’t know English grammar, is a possibility I’d rather not contemplate.

Information 1: In writing about a college football game, a reporter is expected, early on, to note each team’s record, either going into, or following the game. And in writing about a bowl game, a writer must note each team’s respective national rank. Nadel took care of the rankings, noting “Mark Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns, USC dominated on defense and the fifth-ranked Trojans defeated the No. 6 Nittany Lions 38-24 Thursday,” which one of his editors pulled to also use as the story’s teaser.

However, Nadel did not mention both teams’ respective records. Four times, including at one point in consecutive sentences, and in an accompanying reader participation poll, Nadel tells us that USC was 12-1, following its victory over Penn State, but nowhere in the story does he tell us the latter’s record. I had to hunt around outside of the story, in order to find out that Penn State’s final record was 11-2, meaning that both teams had entered the Rose Bowl with identical 11-1 records.

Information 2: Nadel mentioned Penn State coach Joe Paterno twice, but never mentioned USC coach Pete Carroll.

I recognize that Nadel was under deadline pressure, but he wasn’t the only person responsible for the final copy. He has editors at his employer, the Associated Press, and at the AP’s customers, in this case the Seattle Times. What were those guys doing?

Since I have a history of criticizing the AP, I want to emphasize that I was unaware that this was an AP story, until after I had read it and formed an opinion about it, and that prior to reading it, I hadn’t known Nadel from Adam.

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