Reporters and Readers

Tanta at Calculated Risk has a superb analysis of a recent mortgage sob story.

The Washington Post reporter fails to look closely at what may in fact be happening. The sob story may not be an example of predatory lending but of predatory selling.

Tanta’s read of this article is close and to the point.

What interests me is how easily readers are gulled into not asking the questions she asks.

How does this happen? Too often we are taken in by style and structure. Let me explain.

First, consider the lead to the story: “Latina’s Loss in Va. Epitomizes Mortgage Crises.” “Epitomizes” sets the frame and structure for the story. As readers, we are now ready to make this story typical of predatory lending. The rest of the structure tries to support this reading.

But, as Tanta observes, important details are missing: Who is the seller, for example?
Only a discerning reader will ask this question. The rest of us will forget to ask it because we have expected the story to “epitomize” predatory lending.

Second, consider the style, especially the rhetorical elements in the piece. There is the appeal to authority: “Center for Responsible Lending,” among others.

More importantly, there is appeal to sympathy, a device that often cuts two ways. Ortiz is Latino, with a dream of owning a home; perhaps her English is not as good as it should be; she trusts others. She is the underdog, a simple cook with a dream…a Latino…, all appeals to our sympathy.

This rhetorical device will cut two ways, often separating those on the left from those on the right. Liberals will, of course, be outraged and sob at her plight; hard-nosed conservatives will cite “buyer beware.” Then they will argue.

Both, of course, are taking the wrong path to real understanding. Both, ironically, emotionally react when each should be asking probing questions. Many commentators and readers with large or small hearts have difficulty going beyond this rhetorical device.

Where does all this leave us?

Reading is difficult work. Too often we are easily misled. We think style is content. In a sense it is, if you know how to read. By that I mean, a close reader will see when a writer is substituting style for content. Check, for example, if the writer uses emotionally charged vocabulary to make his point. Ignore it. Don’t react to it.

Writing is difficult work as well. Too often, as writers, we use style as a substitute for clear thinking. Each writer has his favorite rhetorical or syntactic devices. I have mine. We have to be careful that they reveal, not camouflage, not substitute for sloppy thinking.