Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Unwritten

When I teach writing -- comp, journalism, electronic media -- I teach that, basically, every piece of writing is the same: locate your Audience, Purpose and Tone. If you write based on those three things, your piece will work.

I realize this morning that there has been an element missing for the last two years as I teach this theory: Understanding.

The old adage of creative writing "write what you know" is compelling -- but even more compelling if you take it in terms of non-creative writing. I've been trying for the last few days to figure out how to help my students with this problem -- but it didn't really gel until I set out to learn about oil today.

Lack of understanding is often the problem in freshman English papers -- it's also often a problem in journalism articles.

So I'm going to do what you should never do -- write about what I don't understand. I'm not going to look any further, either.

An article yesterday in the Denver Post reports,

"Garden Gulch, a remote ravine north of the town of Parachute, has been the site of four spills and leaks from oil and gas drilling in the past five months."


"New information pegs it as also being the site of a huge soil-erosion deposit that fell during the building of an oil-field pipeline above."

Okay -- what New Information? Photos? Reports? Whose?

There are two reasons this type of language occurs in any genre: confusion or secrecy.
(okay -- one more reason may be that a writer writes at 5 am with a 7am deadline -- this leads to all sorts of sloppy writing.) Confusion can come from not knowing enough, and also from knowing too much.

I still can't exactly understand what the problem is -- and what is missing in the article is what a soil erosion deposit means and what the effects of one are. After sitting with the article for an hour (it's pretty short) -- I think the issue is: a pipeline for oil and gas products was built somewhere over an important water source. When the pipeline was built it caused a bit of a landslide which deposited a bunch of soil into the watershed. This was not reported -- though it should have been by law. The pipeline has been leaking -- 4 leaks -- and the waste has simply been freezing -- but as spring is coming it is all about to defrost and make its way to the plants and animals. No one knows what's in the frozen waste. It's probably toxic.

Chevron owns the land -- and they didn't know anything about the problem.

"Photographers for environmental organizations mistakenly identified the formation in that photo as the remainder of the four spills from wells that created a million-gallon frozen "waterfall" into the gulch. That gulch is home to Parachute Creek, the source of irrigation and livestock water for downstream landowners and the entire town of Parachute."

Okay -- here I'm wanting to point out a problem I see:

Chevron owns the source of irrigation and livestock water for landowners and the entire town.
Okay -- hindsight, 20/20 all that -- but what did they think was going to happen? The oil and gas giant was going to put vitamin C in the water?

The writer says, "
The saga of the Garden Gulch spills and deposits does hold an element of confusion."

Some of it is the writers creation. There is no one official from the local government on record -- there's no one from Chevron on record. There's a pipeline builder identified as unidentified. She may have been on deadline -- worried about getting scooped -- there are a lot of pressures that go into this type of story which is trying to uncover something people do not want uncovered...

Some of it sounds like extreme negligence on behalf of the oil people. The spills went unreported -- the erosion was also supposed to be reported and wasn't.

And more than that -- the system is set up to protect certain things and certain practices.

Get this: "
Fluids used in drilling and stored in pits are kept secret under federal rules"


Here we are, right. The Federal Government. You don't really have to go much further.

The fact is that the government looks out for the oil companies and the oil companies look out for their money. And whatever you think of any of it -- of the endangered polar bear, of tankers in British Colombia, of being able to travel to California or to work off of your feet -- whatever you think of any of it, the no one is really looking out for the effects of it all.

Audience, Purpose and Tone.
If the audience is the public -- the people who drink and who raise the cows -- if the purpose is to keep in the dark and the tone is to placate or to keep in the dark --
someone is writing well. The laws. The brochures.

The unwritten.

Post Script:

Whatever problems I have complained about in this article I would like to deeply and sincerely thank Nancy Lofholm of the Denver Post for writing it. The most important role of the journalist is to uncover the covered -- it is absolutely through articles like this that education and change occur.

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