In this business, context and emphasis make all the difference. In that vein, we give a quick once-over today to two stories that take substantially different approaches to reporting President Bush’s much-delayed visit to the National Scout Jamboree in Virginia.
The lede at the New York Times online could not provide a thinner “filter” to the president’s boilerplate:
President Bush drew cheers on Sunday from a crowd of tens of thousands of Boy Scouts and their parents with talk about patriotism, morals and the role of their organization in creating leaders.
Mr. Bush, in a 17-minute speech, introduced himself as a former Cub Scout from Midland, Tex., and said his mother had been his scout leader “about the time her hair turned white.” The president said that several senior members of his administration had been scouts — Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff; Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Through the generations, scouts have made America a stronger and better nation,” Mr. Bush proclaimed.
“Thousands of scouts have shown the highest form of patriotism by going on to wear the uniform of the United States,” he said.
The truncated story in the Times’ late edition was even more spare — four brief paragraphs, the longest one a mere seven lines.
So what did you miss if that’s all you read?
Oh, not much — four electrocutions, one death from a heart attack and 300 scouts felled by heat exhaustion!
By contrast, let’s take a look at the Associated Press, which gets to the heart of the story and all its awful, imperfect details right away:
Succeeding on his third try to visit them, President Bush comforted thousands of Boy Scouts yesterday at a national jamboree marred by the electrocutions of four leaders, the death of a volunteer, and the stifling heat that sickened 300.
To be fair, in the fifth paragraph of its online story (but not its print version) the Times does acknowledge the “catastrophe” of the four leaders’ accidental deaths last Monday, then recounts how 300 or so scouts wilted in heat waiting for the president’s appearance Wednesday. But the Grey Lady returns to filterless form for the final five paragraphs of its online account, ending with Bush’s listing of scouts’ charitable activities around the U.S. — “drawing cheers as each state was mentioned” — and etching for the record his appreciation to the scouts “for serving on the front lines of America’s armies of compassion.”
The AP, meanwhile, essentially limits its Bush quotes to his words about the lost scout leaders and down below gives several important details about the jamboree’s tragedies that the Times does not disclose, including a fifth death, that of a volunteer from an apparent heart attack. (Instead, the Times online chooses to mention a scout and scout leader struck by lightning while camping in California last week.)
In this case, those reading the AP’s news-based account come away with an understanding of what turned into the Week from Hell at the Boy Scouts jamboree — some pretty grim stuff — whereas Times readers get little more than a few lines of Bush-speak.
The AP gives a fuller picture, and serves its readers better because of it.
Postscript: In two previous pieces last week (July 26 and July 27), the Times did cover in depth the deaths by electrocution of the four scout leaders — details that were nevertheless largely omitted from the above story.Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.