Clarity and brevity in newspaper writing were drilled into my head early and often throughout my journalism career.
I thought about that recently after pondering the Eau Claire City Council’s move to adopt “people first” language in ordinances and other official documents.
With everything else going on in the world these days, this isn’t a huge deal. One obvious improvement was replacing the “r-word” used years ago to describe the intellectually disabled. The word “handicapped” also was replaced with “persons with disabilities,” according to a story in the Nov. 24 Leader-Telegram.
There are two broader issues here, I believe, that can easily lead to disagreement. The first, as a journalist, are concerns that vague or wordy language make it harder to convey to the reader what’s going on clearly and quickly.
One of the terms I’ve heard more recently is “food insecure” instead of hunger. If someone doesn’t have enough to eat, I’m not sure they’re going to feel any better if we avoid uttering the word “hunger.” I’m also not sure hunger is a word that stigmatizes anyone, although there may be studies or focus groups that would contradict me.
I am concerned that more wordy and evasive terms make journalists’ jobs tougher. Anyone who has ever read a bureaucrat’s report knows the challenge of translating it into something regular folks can understand. And it’s vitally important to be able to do so, because no one is going to finish a story they can’t follow. If they get snow blindness as they stumble from one bit of bureaucratic jargon to another, they will simply give up and turn the page.
And it’s not just government officials who sometimes use 10 words when they could use two; we all do it. As an editor, I was constantly on guard for terms such as “future plans,” “private donations,” “past history,” “high-speed chase,” “full capacity,” etc. All can be shortened, although a reporter once made the case to me that there can be such a thing as a “low-speed chase.”
Then there are all the different ways to say “drunken driving,” including such whoppers as “driving with a prohibited blood-alcohol level.” I’m sure no one likes being referred to in the newspaper as a “drunken driver,” but it’s clear and accurate.
That’s the crux of good newspaper writing: Get to the point as quickly and clearly as possible. Or, as Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
The broader issue is free speech, government’s role in regulating it, and who gets to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not.
This can be very complex. Certain profanities or other crude terms that never would have made it past broadcast censors a generation ago now flow freely over the airwaves. Conversely, certain derogatory terms to describe people of various nationalities that once were heard fairly often are highly frowned upon and in many cases if uttered can get you suspended or fired from your job. I’m not sure what category Ole and Lena jokes fall into, but I’d say when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.
In a broader sense, this evolution of acceptable expression is what the school Indian mascot and logo controversy is all about. To some, using such words and images show disrespect and discrimination; to others, those logos and team nicknames show just the opposite.
Replacing “handicapped” with “persons with disabilities,” or axing the word “elderly” in favor of “advanced age” in official writings isn’t going to shake the republic. At the same time, I hope no one flips out if the terms “handicapped” or “elderly” occasionally find their way into conversation.
And, as someone who the federal government officially defines as a senior citizen, I don’t care what people call me as long as I keep getting the discount admissions and meal deals that come with being of “advanced age.”
As for society at large, I hope today’s journalists continue to fight through the verbal roadblocks government officials and others throw at them and hack away at the excess verbiage until they have something we all can comprehend, and in a self-governing society, act upon with greater understanding.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.