March 13, 2013

A production of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” ( Photo by Scott Suchman / Imagination Stage / c/o Center Stage Marketing)

In an otherwise excellent Feb. 9 New York Times feature story on the misfortunes of former basketball star Jay Williams, reporter Greg Bishop issued a series of demands to his readers:

Imagine the worst day of your life.

Then imagine confronting that day every single day thereafter.

Imagine lying in intensive care, watching on television as your team drafts your replacement. Imagine lying on your back, for months at a time, unsure if you will walk again, your leg held together by 100 staples and various metal contraptions.

Imagine the taunts, the ridicule, the built-in comeback — “Go buy another motorcycle, Williams.” Imagine walking through an airport — “Way to screw your life up, Williams.” Imagine working for ESPN, analyzing games — “Should have stuck to motorcycles, Williams.”

Imagine life as the Guy Who Threw It All Away.

More demands ensued, this time from media reporter Brian Stelter in a March 3 story on Dennis Rodman as diplomat: “Imagine being the HBO executive who hears this from one of the channel’s producing partners: ‘We think there’s an opportunity for us to get into North Korea.’ ”

Then, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, in a March 9 column:

IMAGINE if American citizens never learned about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Imagine not knowing about the brutal treatment of terror suspects at United States government “black sites.” Or about the drone program that is expanding under President Obama, or the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

Imagination exhortations are a phenomenon not confined to the New York Times. The Deseret Morning News is in on it, with this March 11 piece:

Imagine being a child with a condition where you are as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. On the outside, physical wounds prevent you from normal daily activities enjoyed by other children. Yet on the inside, your dreams are the same as any other child who loves, plays, learns and grows despite the pain and impediment caused by your condition. This is what Jamie Hartley, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) from Alpine, went through during her childhood, and she continues to live with her condition. Epidermolysis bullosa is a rare genetic skin disease that causes the skin to be so fragile that even the slightest friction can cause blistering inside and outside the body.

The Boston Globe is in on it, with this March 1 piece:

Imagine being hit by a car with no driver.

The Washington Post is in on it, with this March 3 piece:

Imagine being asked a question about your sexual orientation in a job interview, even if it happens to violate every labor hiring law on the books.

And Fox8 (WJW) of Cleveland is in on it, with this March 4 piece:

Imagine being able to move into your own dream home for a small price tag of just $100.

Taken together, we’re talking about a lot of exertion here. The Erik Wemple Blog cannot imagine being an HBO executive — that’s too cool — or a top collegiate and NBA basketball player — too much talent required — or a child with a rare skin disease — I had a healthy childhood. Being hit by a car comes a bit more easily to this imagination, thanks to decades spent plying D.C.’s crosswalks.

A few guesses as to why writers like to deploy “imagine”:

1) It sounds writerly. As the Bishop example displays, “imagine” deployments lend themselves to repetition. Imagine this, then imagine that, then imagine this other thing. In repetition, there’s always a measure of poetry.

“Imagine” is a great device, at least for the first 10,000 times it was used.

2) It’s easy. Just describe the situation and plop a simple imperative in front of it. Done!

3) Your editor’s down with it. It sounds cool, after all, and it even has a hint of the reader-engagement coaching that editors receive at seminars.

So: Imagine a world of journalism without “imagine” ledes.* How great would that be? In such a world, writers would have to find original and compelling ways to introduce their stories. Readers who didn’t spend their childhood with mind-expanding teachers and activities wouldn’t feel disadvantaged on account of their meager imaginative powers. And there’d be one less cliché floating to the top of our stories.

Disclosure: My contribution to the genre.

*All of the examples above come straight from the stories’ ledes except for the Jay Williams example.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.