Local angles generally obtuse

Posted on December 12, 2011

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Local angles can be good. People like to read about events in their own neighbourhood, city, and country. Even national and international stories can be put into perspective by focusing on the local ramifications.

But sometimes there just isn’t a local angle, and efforts to provide one can be outright embarrassing.

Take the case of the gunman who went on a killing spree in an Omaha, Nebraska mall on Wednesday, December 5, 2007.  A Bloomington, Illinois paper, The Pantagraph, apparently felt that the story of a man killing nine people (including himself) and wounding five others in a city that wasn’t Bloomington was of insufficient interest to the paper’s local readers. What they needed was a Local Angle.

Fortunately, there were two.

The first was Sally Elliott, an Omaha resident who frequented the mall every Wednesday and had previously lived in Bloomington! Mind you, on the day of the shooting she was half a mile away “buying gifts for clients of her interior design business when the gunfire began.”

Still. She could have been there.

The second Local Angle was Michael McCracken. He too worked and lived in Omaha, but he still owned a house  in Bloomington. Like Sally, he was nowhere near the mall during the slaughter. Unlike Sally, however, he didn’t frequent it. However — he had once owned a restaurant in it.

I’ve got goosebumps. Seriously.

The headline of the story (and while I don’t want to put too much of a Dave Barry spin on this, I’m really not making this up) was: “Ex-Twin City woman almost went to store in Omaha shooting.”

Or to paraphrase: “”A woman who used to live in our area was nowhere near the mall during a mass shooting.”

While this is sad, the most egregious example of shoe-horning a completely pointless Local Angle into a story has to be the Canadian news reports leading up to the decommissioning of the Russian space station MIR in 2001.

Re-entry was to be effected by three controlled braking manoeuvres. As it fell through the atmosphere, friction would cause most of the craft to disintegrate, leaving nothing more than a few objects amounting to the size of a refrigerator. The crash area, or “footprint,” was 300,000 square miles of virtually empty water in the South Pacific Ocean.

While the chances of it crashing anywhere near a human being were remote at best, it was still a legitimate news story. Certain Canadian stations, however, apparently felt that their audiences would find the story irrelevant without a Local Angle. Fortunately for the cause of news coverage everywhere, some enterprising researcher discovered that within that 300,000 square mile footprint was an ocean liner. And on that ocean liner were several Canadians.

This, then, became the most important part of the entire story — repeated nightly until the damned thing finally came down and we could all go back to more important things, like neighbourhood bake sales.

Now while nobody expects news editors to be scientists and mathematicians, is it too much to ask for a passing acquaintance with basic arithmetic? Let’s look at the actual figures behind this “story.”

  • The debris from the space station was about six square feet — if we consider it striking on one of its long, flat sides.
  • An ocean liner has a surface area of 300,000 square feet.
  • The “crash footprint” was 300,000 square miles, or 8.36 X 1012 square feet.

Simple division tells us that the crash footprint is almost three million times larger than the ocean liner and just shy of 14 billion times larger than the debris.

To make this more understandable, let’s give it more of a “Local Angle.”

If we represent the crash footprint by a football field, which is 58,000 square feet, or 8,352,000 square inches, then the ocean liner would be a speck the width of a piece of paper, and the debris would be a single flu virus.

This isn’t news. This is a public display of ignorance. And its presence on a news report serves only to cause needless concern in viewers who believe, however wrongly, that the story must have legitimacy otherwise it wouldn’t be aired.

By all means, find the local connection when one exists, but for crying out loud, let’s lose the non-news items about former residents almost being on the scene of a killing or fellow countrymen whose most immediate danger is whether or not the ship’s buffet is fresh enough.

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