• Rob Carty

Makeover: The King of Bullsh*t News

In 2015, BuzzFeed published a story entitled “The King of Bullsh*t News.” In it, BuzzFeed portrayed journalist Michael Leidig and publisher Central European News, Inc. as creators and merchants of fake news. Leidig and CEN sued BuzzFeed for libel. The trial court disposed of the case on summary judgment. Leidig and CEN appealed to the Second Circuit. Leidig v. BuzzFeed, Inc., No. 19-851.


In their opening brief, the plaintiffs described many of the statements they considered libelous. But some of their prose could have used more editing. Here’s an example:

Defendant’s publication also said, of and concerning plaintiffs, concerning a story that plaintiffs had published about a Chinese man who had reportedly gotten tapeworm from eating too much sashimi, which story was accompanied by a photo purporting to be a photo of the man’s x-ray showing the spots of disseminated cysticercosis:
[Block quote from BuzzFeed article describing a post on snopes.com that challenged the x-ray's provenance]
Plaintiffs allege that by the words quoted in the preceding paragraph BuzzFeed intended to and did assert that plaintiffs had used an x-ray of some other person and passed it off as an x-ray of the Chinese man they were writing about, and failed to make a correction when this was revealed.

I had to read that a couple of times to digest it—something we writers should assiduously seek to prevent.


Let’s see how easily we can improve this passage. There’s no one way to do this job, but I think we can agree that this passage needs to be broken up and restated in plain English. Here’s my first attempt:

BuzzFeed also challenged Plaintiffs’ story about a Chinese man who reportedly got a tapeworm from eating too much sashimi. The story included an x-ray image that purportedly showed disseminated cysticercosis. Buzzfeed asserted that Plaintiffs had used someone else’s x-ray, passed it off as that of the Chinese man, and failed to publish a correction when snopes.com disputed the photo’s origin:
[Block quote]

This first pass accomplishes four main things:

  • It reduces the word count from 103 to 60 (not including the block quote).

  • It breaks long-winded sentences into bite-sized chunks.

  • It deletes turgid lawyerisms like “of and concerning plaintiffs.”

  • It summarizes the block quote before foisting it upon the reader.

If you’re willing to step back and be a bit ruthless, it's usually easy to tighten this kind of writing. I realize that sometimes you’ve spent so much time writing a bad paragraph that it’s hard to let it go. But you must. And if you can’t, get someone to help you.


Have a question or suggestion? E-mail me: TheHeavyPencil@gmail.com

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