Telling the truth is our job as reporters, but it’s much more complicated than it might seem.
Our knowledge of the facts, concepts, and ideas we are reporting and our command of the language must be at such a high level as to be worthy of the trust invested in us by our fellow citizens. “Civilians” can mix up the difference between imply and infer; we must not.
In these ever more complex times, our language skills must be akin to a physician’s knowledge of medicine or a pilot’s knowledge of aviation. Carelessness by a doctor or pilot is not tolerated. Sloppy techniques aresubject to rebuke. Mistakes are likely to harm.
Yet, the tool of our trade is a language that often seems to lack logic in its evolution. How else can you explain why cars park on a driveway and drive on a parkway? Or why a hamburger is devoid of ham and a pineapple lacks both pine and an apple. The plural of tooth is teeth so why is the plural of booth not beeth? A vegetarian eats vegetables; what does a humanitarian eat? Why do “slow down” and “slow up” mean the same thing? Why do overlook and oversee mean the opposite? How did apartments get that name when they are not apart but fastened together?
The origins and evolution of words can be fascinating but for day-to-day journalism, accuracy in the use of those words is paramount. For example, weather reporters often refer to temperatures as “chilly” or “warm.” But temperature is a measure and cannot be cold, cool, warm, or hot, just as a meter cannot be short or long or a kilogram light or heavy. However, the weather can be described as frigid, grilling, or any other descriptive word we want to employ. We also must know to differentiate between “rainforest” and “jungle” and avoid vague words such as “massive” and “tiny.”
Writing coach John Sweeney notes that word choices can carry subtle but significant differences in meaning. Consider, for example, these two sentences:
“He steadfastly refused to compromise.”
“He stubbornly refused to compromise.”
Both sentences are colored by an adverb. “Steadfast” suggests adherence to principles; “stubborn” suggests rigid thinking. In a news report, where objectivity is our guide, the sentence would be written best without steadfastly, stubbornly, or any other adverb. That’s because a good writer focuses on selecting strong but appropriate verbs. The question of whether it is steadfast or stubborn can be left to commentators. Our role is that of a neutral observer.
Often, that is far more difficult than it may seem. Take, for example, our choice of verbs in the sentence just discussed above. “Refused” connotes a sense of determination. Does that verb accurately describe the person and situation we are writing about? If we’re not sure, then we are better off with a more neutral “declined.”
Here’s another simple example: “He said he was home the night of the robbery.” “Said” is neutral, imparting no hint that our subject may be lying.
Now suppose we change that verb and write: “He claimed he was home the night of the robbery.” We have injected doubt into his denial and we should be able to justify that choice of verb by a sentence either before or after that gives the listener or viewer solid reason to question the denial.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of language distinctions we must have at our command.
English reflects the creativity of its speakers and writers. We who profess to use it professionally are obligated to develop our skills to a very high level. We have to like words the way a painter connects with colors, a musician with notes, and a dancer with steps.
We’re practicing journalism in what the Columbia Journalism Review calls “a perilous, but fascinating time.”
And like doctors and lawyers, we “practice” our profession. Our principles are firm but our methods evolve, “so rapidly that it can be frightening,” CJR says.
A journalist’s education never ends. “A lifetime is not enough for all the learning a writer needs,” wrote Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jack Fuller in his book News Values: Ideas for an Information Age. “As the message becomes more complicated, the challenge becomes greater. People are looking for more coherence, not less.”
-- Excerpted from Reporting and Writing on Journalism’s New Frontier by Jeff Rowe, Published by University Readers/Cognella, Fall 2015