(Note: “The Power of the Jump”™ is a semi-regular feature of this site, documenting examples of the Los Angeles Times’s use of its back pages to hide information that its editors don’t want you to see.)
In my first “Power of the Jump”™ post, I said:
Numerous studies show that the overwhelming majority of readers do not bother to follow the story past the jump line [where a front-page story continues on to the back pages]. . . . By the way, everybody at the newspapers is acutely aware of this syndrome. I recently spoke to a Dog Trainer reporter and expressed my concern that the story he was writing would bury the relevant facts on the back pages. I told him that it was my impression that most readers do not follow stories past the jump. He forthrightly replied: “That’s what all the studies show.”
I was reminded of this fact when I read a story on the front page of this morning’s L.A. Times about the death of an inmate in L.A. County jail. The story explains that there is a lawsuit over whether the death was a suicide, or the result of beatings and neglect.
The paper gives you plenty of facts up front to support the theory that the inmate was killed by someone else, including: 1) broken bones and bruises that are inconsistent with self-inflicted wounds; 2) a snapped neck bone consistent with strangulation; 3) allegations that a deputy training as a boxer was responsible; and 4) evidence that he was deprived of medical care, mocked, and beaten. That’s a pretty good summary of all the facts reported in the entire article supporting that theory:
A Death in Lockup
Officials say a depressed and ailing Compton auto mechanic hanged himself shortly before his release. But the family contends he was taunted and beaten by a jailer.
On a Saturday in the summer of 2002, Ramon Gavira was pulled over for drunk driving and taken to Los Angeles County Jail.
Five days after his arrest, the 43-year-old father of five was dead.
Guards say they found Gavira dangling from the bars of a one-man cell with a torn bedsheet tightly knotted around his neck. Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives and the coroner concluded that he had killed himself.
But when Gavira’s brothers saw his bruised and battered body at the funeral home a few days later, they began to suspect there was more to the story.
Gavira’s body had six broken ribs, a broken collarbone and bruises that would be hard for any man to inflict upon himself. Most curious was a snapped neck bone that medical experts say is more often seen when someone has been strangled by a pair of hands.
Since then, Gavira’s family has been pressing a wrongful-death lawsuit that is set for trial early next year. A spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca was adamant that Gavira committed suicide, and cast his death as an unavoidable tragedy in an understaffed and overcrowded jail system — the nation’s largest.
Regardless of how he died, testimony and other evidence suggest that Gavira — mentally frail and withdrawing from alcohol from the moment he entered custody — was deprived of medical care, mocked and beaten during his brief stint behind bars.
In addition, records and interviews show that sheriff’s officials did little to determine how Gavira sustained such severe injuries, brushing aside allegations that a female deputy — who trains as a boxer — might have been responsible.
Attorney Michael Gennaco, who serves as an independent watchdog over the Sheriff’s Department, said he could not comment on specifics because of the litigation. But he said he was convinced that Gavira was not slain.
[See Jail, Page A24]
Okay, so you have the controversy. Either he killed himself or he was killed by someone else. A fair article will give you the main facts supporting each theory, up front.
You just saw the summary of the facts supporting the theory that he was killed by someone else. Now, what facts does the paper give you on the front page to support the theory that he killed himself? These facts are much more limited: 1) he was found “dangling from the bars of a one-man cell with a torn bedsheet tightly knotted around his neck”; and 2) he was depressed and mentally frail.
Now, let me ask you to assume — just for the sake of argument — that he had twice previously tried to commit suicide. And that he told jailers upon intake that he was suicidal.
Ya think that might be important?
Ya think that might tend to support the idea that he killed himself?
You already know what’s coming next. Let’s turn all the way to Page A24 and see what we find:
Gavira spent most of July 9 being processed.
He was examined by a nurse and a doctor, records show. He was diagnosed as depressed, diabetic and suffering from alcohol withdrawal. A jail employee indicated on a form that Gavira, in responding to a standard series of questions, said he was hearing voices, had contemplated suicide in the past and was now thinking about it again.
During a separate interview hours later with Carmen Lima, a jail social worker, Gavira cried and expressed concern for his family.
“He was blaming himself for being in jail for drinking,” Lima recalled during a court deposition.
Gavira told Lima that years before, he had twice tried suicide by wrecking his car. But he said he did not recall having told anyone that he was currently suicidal.
So, in this controversy over whether the inmate committed suicide, the paper waits until Page A24 to tell you that he was suicidal upon entering the jail, and had twice tried to commit suicide before.
Judas H. Priest on a popsicle stick.
Why do we have to wait until Page A24 to read this?
Is it because, if the story had used the word “suicidal” instead of “depressed” or “mentally frail” on the front page, it would have lost a good deal of its punch?
And yet what do you think the reporters and editors would tell you if you complained about this? They’d look at you with a blank face, blink a few times, and say condescendingly, as if you hadn’t read the story: “We reported it! And we said on the front page that he was depressed and mentally frail.”
The truth is, the reporters and editors waited to report the full truth about this inmate’s suicidal tendencies until the 19th paragraph, where they knew they would fall on the back pages. And they know that most readers won’t turn back that far.
This technique does not inspire confidence that the rest of the facts are being set forth in a fair manner. Sure, reporting the facts this way heightens the drama. But it’s not good journalism.