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Journalism: You’re Doing It Wrong

April 28, 2009

Here’s a news story making the rounds right now. Apparently, a woman who stepped on a toothpick as a child had it surgically removed the other day. Now it’s global news. But why? let’s take a look at the actual story:

Wait, we just did. She stepped on a toothpick, it became embedded in her foot, and years later it had to be removed. This is a standard of modern medicine.

But let’s look at this epic of reporting, credited to a TV reporter named Mike Hooker (say it fast), but likely crafted by an intern hired to type stuff up for a website:

Jasmine Rainey said she heard over and over growing up the story of how she had stepped on a toothpick that was sticking up on her kitchen floor.

Okay … how does a toothpick stand up? Was it balancing on its own like a tiny wooden ballerina? Standing on end? Bent and upright? Caught in a blob of jam dropped during breakfast? And why is that moment something the family keeps talking about? Alarm bells should go off when someone gives that kind of play to the kind of incident we’ve all encountered, then forgotten. Come on … Writing is about painting pictures with words. Please do so, reporter man.

The lump was in the same spot as where she had stepped on the toothpick at age 7.

Uh, yeah. Anyway, a doctor cut out the lump and took it to a lab, at which point …

Nearly the entire toothpick that Rainey had stepped on as a child emerged.

I’ll concede that point. Imagine how that must have felt. Imagine how it looked. Life must not have been pleasant for the girl with the foot-pick. Clearly, it was time to alert the media.

“When it would get cold my food would really ache and get painful and I thought it was just arthritis from when I had stepped on the toothpick, but I didn’t think the toothpick was still in there,” Rainey said.

It’s “foot,” not “food.” Some typos are really funny. Also, as someone who lives with arthritis, let me say: it is not something you get from toothpicks. A good reporter would check that before printing the quote.

Although she’s still walking a bit gingerly, Rainey says she’s looking forward to knowing what it feels like to walk on a healthy foot that doesn’t have a big chunk of wood in it.

Uh … she always had a healthy foot. She didn’t know the toothpick was there. And a toothpick, unless you’re a moron or really tiny, is not a “big chunk” of anything. That’s the line that ticked me off the most. Hyperbole has no place in journalism, and in this case it was really jarring.

If I had been on the desk when this story came in, I would have cut it down to a brief.

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — A Colorado State University student who developed foot pain was surprised to discover its source: a toothpick she had stepped on as a child.

Doctors at Denver Health Medical Centre, operating on a bump on her foot, removed the almost-intact toothpick yesterday.

Jasmine Rainey is taking time off to recover.

The toothpick issued a terse “no comment.”

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One comment

  1. People like you are why I want to become a journalist.



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