Well, what a news day Friday 24th August was. We had former Bundaberg surgeon Jayant Patel’s conviction overturned (and a new trial ordered) by the High Court, Norwegian killer Anders Breivik declared sane and, in the cycling world, the news that Lance Armstrong had decided to end his battle against the United States Anti-Doping Agency over doping allegations.
It’s this last story that I’ve chosen to do a coverage review on, for several reasons.
- As a law student, I don’t think could cover the first two without getting side-tracked into legal analysis (which isn’t really the point of this blog).
- The Armstrong story was the first time I’ve actually seen a story break on Twitter before my eyes (as in, one moment nothing, then whoosh – news!) and I followed the ABC story as it was written and updated.
- I used to watch the Tour de France in the Armstrong days, with my father, and he was/ is one of the few athletes I’ve come close to semi-admiring. So the story had a tiny bit of personal connection for me.
For this review, I’ll be comparing the coverage of two news sources: The ABC Online news story, and the article posted to the Courier Mail’s online site later that day. I will also be loosely judging the stories based on a few of the Dozen Online Writing Tips, suggested by Jonathan Dube, from Cyberjournalist.net and the Poynter Institute.
1. ABC Online story
Here’s the tweet which first alerted me to the story. I was idly browsing Twitter when it popped up in my news feed.
And here’s a clarification tweet that came up a bit later. Take note of the clarification – as one commenter said, it really is almost a completely different story. I suppose this is a good example of “Speed vs Accuracy” at work. But at least the first tweet told me the story had broken AND the ABC did clarify/ correct the error pretty quickly.
And here’s the article that appeared on the ABC’s website. There wasn’t a link to it from their Twitter feed, but I knew once I saw the tweet that I could head over to their website. I was actually there before the article was put up.
As I mentioned previously, I literally watched this story come together over a few hours. It started with a very basic couple of sentences breaking the news, and then I watched as more detailed was added (until the full story was up by the time I got home)
Overall, I think this story is the better of the two, for two main reasons:
1. The ABC has (in my opinion) the better story.
At just a quick read, the reader is able to understand the gist of Armstrong’s statement and why he has made his decision. However, the USADA’s position is put forward to counterbalance, with quotes from the USADA chief executive. Further, the entire USADA’s case is outlined in the fact box, which helps present their side of the story.
Overall, the article is probably more biased in favour of Armstrong. He’s the most extensively quoted person, though this may be because the author seemed to be at the announcement (the way the story went together showed me a good example of how a running story pans out).
The story’s lead is nice and clear and there doesn’t appear to be any instances of “pile on”. Although the story was continually updated with new information, the article remained perfectly understandable for new readers (see hints for online writing #6 & 7). It also neatly follows conventional journalistic structure, with the most important information at the start, with everything under the pull quote as background information for the interested reader.
Finally, the story is a good length. Once the fact box is taken out, it’s just under 700 words, which seems a good length (hint #8 suggests keeping stories under 800, as a guide).
2. The ABC has told the story well.
They’ve clearly thought about how to best ‘Tailor their news gathering’ (see hints for online writing #3) to tell the story.
I think there is excellent collaboration between the writing, visual and interactive elements. The completed article has a nice picture slideshow (mostly of relevant images from his Tour de France wins). The USADA’s case against Armstrong is comprehensively outlined, but in a summary box next to the article, so the main story isn’t burdened with the extra detail. It ends with a few links to Youtube videos of Armstrong’s cycling career (which I thought was a nice touch). There are also links throughout the article to other relevant stories, and importantly, the link to Armstrong’s statement is in the first couple of paragraphs.
If there’s one criticism I have of the layout, it’s that it could maybe be broken up better (the paragraph spacing could be bigger), although the addition of the pull quote gives the reader a place to pause. There’s also a link to a Google Map of the United States, with (I’m assuming) the location of Armstrong’s press conference marked? I’m not really sure that this adds anything to the story.
2. Courier Mail online story
Note: The Courier Mail may have posted an improved/ different article later. However, I selected this article, as it was the one first linked to in their twitter feed and the one used to break the story.
Overall, I don’t think this article provides particularly outstanding coverage. There are several reasons for this:
1. The headline is inaccurate (at least in my opinion).
It states “USADA strips Lance Armstrong of Tour de France titles.” As far as I am aware, when the article was written, he had not been stripped of his titles (leaving aside questions of whether the USADA actually has the jurisdiction to do so…)
2. The story itself
The article is written strangely and is awkwardly organised. The actual article seems to finish just above the sub-heading “Lance through the heart”. My eyes actually skipped over/ didn’t register the little “-AFP” indicator at the end of it when I read through the first time. The rest of the story appears to be a mix of commentary and reporting from a different author – Philip Hersh from the Chicago Tribune.
However, it’s the overall tone and viewpoint of the article I have the most issues with. The article seems very pro-USADA/ anti-Armstrong. The USADA’s voice and opinion features most strongly and Armstrong doesn’t even get a say until very near the end. The link near the end to Armstrong’s statement almost looks like an afterthought. Also, there seems to be a bit of “pile on” happening in the latter half (see Dube’s hints for online writing #7). A paragraph about other Tour de France winners/ cyclists who have been caught for doping appears before the information about Armstrong’s statement. While this ordering isn’t a “pile on” of “new” information (as the Tour de France background is older news), I still think it creates an awkward mish-mash of the story.
Also, some of the reporting and commentary hardly seem impartial: “But he officially will be known as a doping cheat forever,” and “Armstrong’s statement was still filled with the arrogance and bravado that marked his post-cancer cycling career.” The first video does help provide a little more background for Armstrong’s side of the debate, but not much. However, the article ultimately does seem to cover the story from the USADA side.
The article also might run a bit too long – it’s nearly 1,000 words.
3. The layout
I think the Courier Mail could have done a bit better at breaking the story up. There’s a lot of text to read and very little else. The one photo of Armstrong and a single heading – no charts or tables that might be useful in summarising information (as suggested by Jonathan Dube’s 9th tip for online writing). The standfirst at the beginning of the story doesn’t actually summarise its content, instead linking the reader out to other articles. I don’t think the videos really help to “break up” the story either, given they’re placed before it. There is a link to a larger photo gallery, but it takes you to the Herald Sun’s site.
Overall, it doesn’t look like the Courier Mail put a large amount of time and resources into this article. Perhaps this is understandable, given that August 24th also saw a massive local story break (Jayant Patel’s High Court victory), which the Courier Mail did cover extensively. Jonathan Dube’s first online writing tip is to “Know your audience.” As the Courier Mail is primarily a Queensland newspaper, it makes sense they would given more attention to the Patel decision.