It happened that Dana Seetahal was shot dead at about midnight on what was World Press Freedom Day. Choice of the double preposition, “at about”, highlights a grammatical groaner that may have become standard in media, or at least, newspaper, reportorial writing.
Google reveals that “at about” occupies the status of a much debated usage, one highlight being a Smithsonian.com entry headlined, “Most of what you think you know about grammar is wrong”. The conjoined “at” and “about”, now a staple of especially crime newswriting, troubles some readers and would-be editors, who despair over the unstoppable march of anything-goes permissiveness against what used to be firm rules of grammar.
Rules of grammar have steadily been going out, along with the wooden-ruler whacks by colonially trained, and dearly departed, schoolmarms. What has evolved is language meeting need of a context where uncertainty about facts and events remains the norm.
That the woman, or the man, died is beyond dispute. For the lesser detail of exactly when, which shot hit fatally home, “at about” will do. As expectation lowers for precision in timing, and sometimes also placing, a handy form of words will suffice to represent what jazz composer Thelonious Monk famously called “Round about midnight”.
So “at about” is here to stay? It looks that way. It becomes a byword for the media’s general retreat from any idea of precision. As a professional term of art, “precision journalism”, as far as I recognise, never came ashore in T&T.
T&T is not the kind of place where precision, in language and in references, matters enough to conquer ingrained indifference. Most people are comfortable with tropes and suggestions that accord with what they think they already know.
The urge that rules favours what one media theorist has called “narrative fulfillment”. That is to say, people here believe what they are predisposed to believe. Media performance, devoid of theory and under-served by analysis, operates to feed such people’s predispositions.
Dana Seetahal thus took fatal fire at about when World Press Freedom Day was still being observed. Someone must have witnessed the event—the Wingroad blocking passage; the shooter’s panel van coming alongside the victim’s Touareg—but media reports didn’t say so. As normal, the stories cited police sources.
From the police, then, came the later widely recycled reports of “high-powered” ammunition, assigned the calibre of “5.56” whatever, presumably fired from military-standard weapons. The later post-mortem findings of small-arms bullets embarrassed such initial accounts but—this is T&T—did not displace them.
Reporting of the biggest murder story of the year was governed by what police “sources” provided. Such sources, as always, took immediate possession of the story. The storyline accorded with a suggestion that, from earliest, the police were on top of things; they had at least a whodunit theory, and were deriving and managing relevant intelligence.
The media, which faithfully channelled the police story of the Seetahal killing, even representing it as an extrajudicial “execution”, also found space for World Press Freedom Day. From Port of Spain, former CBU president Vic Fernandes was reported offering an inside story of media operations, according to which “media managers…use fewest resources for the maximum output, while in many cases devaluing the product in the process… In the quest to get it first,” he added, “ (media) have sacrificed the need to get it right.”
Datelined Emancipation Park in Kingston, a May 3 declaration went forth in the generic name of Caribbean journalists, broadcasters, media entrepreneurs and managers, academics and civil society organisations, who remained individually both unnamed and uncounted. The declaration understandably upheld “press freedom advocacy”, and committed to the “pursuit of higher professional standards in journalism”.
More forthrightly, former broadcasting executive Mr Fernandes had found “mediocrity” so abundant in radio and TV as to leave the region “close to the precipice”. At Emancipation Park, however, rhetorical arm wrestling among assembled media people resulted in a priceless diplomatic formulation: “We acknowledge the imperfections of Caribbean media performance”.
Such talk was also in the air, as T&T remained in an embattled state against the mostly mysterious modalities and the highly speculative implications of the Dana Seetahal killing. News coverage proved as always to be a function of police press agentry. “Media freedom” be damned: the charge room continues to dictate to the newsroom.
By late last week, police brass, from offices high above the charge rooms, were worrying aloud about what the media, presumably serviced by lower-ranked sources, were reporting. Assistant Commissioner Wayne Dick, heading the Seetahal investigation, said that, because of some media reports, his gumshoes had made a “detour... Simple things in the public domain affect the outcome of an investigation,” he said, adding that he had been left “puzzled” by some media reports.
Police control the tropes, and rule even the language in which crime stories are told. I was once moved to express, in a letter to Ms Seetahal, my admiration of her “quality of writing and adherence to high standards, both in the law and in journalism”. I wish I could say the same about the media coverage of the ending of her life.