- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

Context and background

In every news story, we have to decide how much background information to include. The trick is to make sure the story makes sense to readers who have not been following the issue in question, yet does not slow down and bore those readers who have.

At worst, lazy reporters fall back on “boilerplate,” using the same tired background phrases over and over.

Years ago, when I worked for a wire agency in the Philippines after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos, a five- or six-paragraph “shirttail” sat on our computer terminal for weeks at a time and we simply wrote the new material over the top of it each day.

Modern computers make it easier to refer to old stories, but the need for proper backgrounding still applies.

I was reminded of this last Sunday when preparing a story on the uprising in Haiti after having been out of the office for several days and only vaguely aware of what was happening.

The wire agencies all had detailed stories on the fighting, saying anti-government insurgents had captured the city of St. Marc and strengthened their hold on Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth largest city.

Beyond that, there was a great deal of confusion, with widely divergent accounts of which other towns had been captured by the rebels and how many persons had been killed in the fighting.

That was to be expected during a chaotic period in a poorly developed country. But what I found frustrating was the lack of a satisfactory explanation of who the rebels were and what they wanted.

The ‘Cannibal Army’

Reuters news agency was of little help, saying only that Gonaives was in the hands of “rival, but for now united, armed bands,” and a little later that the rebels had “once belonged to a pro-Aristide gang called the Cannibal Army.”

Agence France-Presse, which is generally at its best in French-speaking countries like Haiti, offered even less explanation, saying simply that Gonaives had been captured three days earlier by “the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front (RARF)” — a group I had never heard of.

The Associated Press was better than either of the others, but offered a conflicting name for the rebel group.

The “Gonaives Resistance Front,” it said, “used to be allied with [President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. But it turned against him last year and changed its name from the ‘Cannibal Army,’ accusing the government of killing its leader, Amiot Metayer, to keep him from releasing damaging information about Aristide.”

That was a good start, but it still left open the question of what, if any, role was being played by Mr. Aristide’s more traditional enemies — the political opposition linked to the country’s business elite or the former military rulers under Raoul Cedras.

The only hint was a line in the AP story saying some of the gunmen in Gonaives “wore the camouflage pants and helmets of Haiti’s disbanded army.”

My first thought was that a better explanation would emerge in the days ahead, but the details only got fuzzier. It was only when I went backward to the earlier days’ wire reports that I found the details I was seeking.

The AP boilerplate was much the same in earlier days but had a few more details including the fact that Amiot Metayer, a firm Aristide supporter, had been found murdered Sept. 22. It was in Saturday’s Reuters story that I found this, reasonably complete, explanation:

“Gonaives … used to be seen as firmly in the pro-Aristide camp, terrorized by a pro-government militia called the Cannibal Army and headed by Amiot Metayer.

“But Metayer’s brother, Buteur Metayer, who is leading the current revolt, turned his gunmen against Aristide after blaming the embattled president for Amiot Metayer’s death last September in a gangland-style murder.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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