Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On Teeth

So, here's an article that is both interesting, and full of things that piss me off. The upshot of the article is that dentists expect to be able to regrow teeth from adult stem cells (you kept your wisdom teeth, right?) in 5-10 years. Some discussion of the recent history of tooth loss and fluoridation. It's an interesting read, go ahead and read it before I tell you what pisses me off about it.

Done? OK. First of all, I detest the style in which it was written. It is becoming more common, which leads me to wonder whether newspaper editors have been the victims of a very quiet serial killer. (And really, who would tell us if they were? The journalists themselves would just sit and smile.) Lots and lots of one-sentence paragraphs, with a whole lot of white space and an apparent inability to hold a thought for long enough to write a real paragraph. It's ugly. It's lazy. Stop doing it!

Second, the level of science reporting is somewhat poor. There's not much effort to tell the audience about the science or engineering itself; the closest we get is a basic description of the composition of a tooth, and some basic discussion of how far one group is getting. And that's nice, but surely at least one of the doctors, dentists, or professors interviewed would be willing to talk in-depth about what the challenges are and what works or doesn't. Some explanations would be nice, too, of a few of the factoids tossed out -- stem cells are abundant in wisdom teeth, you say? More so than the neighboring molars? Why is that? How long does it take Prof. Shi to grow a root? How about you drop the explanation of the plot of Dr. Strangelove and spend a sentence exploring some of these things. Or at least give us a link or two if we're interested in following up on our own. You have plenty of room for ads, throw us a bone here.

Last, the cheap shot on West Virginia. All right, it's backed up, but come on. The article style is way too breezy (I can forgive the pun in the title, though, because puns are always forgivable in journalism, especially the truly odious ones), and the writer comes off as kind of a douchebag. "Slacker"? Really?

All told, it's a lousy article, all the more so because it could have been a great one.


  1. I was just thinking about the very short paragraphs/white space thing, and realized...

    OK. So it's totally annoying and indefensible when they're all one-sentence paragraphs, but one of the striking things about this article was that they weren't, actually; they just looked that way on the page. But we're reading them on screens that are how many inches wide? Put the exact same article into the width of a newspaper column and those paragraphs look a lot longer. Put something that's a reasonable paragraph height online into a newspaper column width, and the reader's eye freaks out from the lack of white space.

  2. I see your point. But still, bits like,
    He expects tooth regeneration "to be pretty common in the future."

    Oh, but that's not the end of it.

    How about genetically engineered teeth, like a shark's?

    are just too common in this style. Sometimes it can be done well, to great effect, but usually not.

  3. Having worked on a newspaper for a few years, I can tell you that Andromeda is quite right: correct style for newsprint often calls for one-sentence grafs (sic - it's the technical term) because of how it looks when laid out in columns.

    That said, you're absolutely right that the section you quoted is simply odious, and the Washington Post should know better.

  4. Sure. I did try shrinking the page width, and it looked a lot better. Maybe this just seems recent because online newspapers are giving the articles more screen width? Except, it's not so much the one-sentence grafs that bother me as the fractured thinking they increasingly represent.