Student guest post: How much jargon should we allow in sports stories?

by andybechtel

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Michael Lananna is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who majors in reporting with a focus on sports. He is a senior writer on the sports desk of The Daily Tar Heel and an intern at ACCSports.com.

A colleague of mine once quipped that it’s impossible to write a baseball story without using clichés.

I think he’s right.

With baseball season fast approaching, we’ll soon be hearing again about pitchers who can dot the corners, sluggers who swing for the fences and teams who play one base at a time. Phrases like those are very much interwoven in baseball culture. Heck, Wikipedia has an entire glossary full of baseball-derived idioms.

But should we use that kind of language in our stories?

In this great journalism school of ours, we learn that clichés are bad, jargon is worse and that both should be avoided at all costs. But I’ve always believed that there should be a lot more leeway when it comes to sports stories.

How do you decide what to print and what to axe? For me it comes down to three main questions:

Who’s reading the story? As the most popular sports in the country, baseball, football and basketball pose an interesting dilemma. On average, stories on these sports will draw a readership from a far wider segment of the population than, say, a bridge tournament. As a result, you’re going to have readers who know everything there is to know about those sports as well as readers who have only a loose understanding of what a touchdown is.

So whom do you favor: the diehards or the casual fans? As a sports writer, I tend to favor the diehards a tad, but it’s important not to lean too far in either direction. You don’t want to confuse the average reader, but you also don’t want to insult the intelligence of the avid fan.

For events like that bridge tournament I was referencing, I think it’s OK to load up on jargon because you’re only going to be reaching a niche audience anyway — an audience composed of people who play bridge. So if you’re writing a bridge column, go ahead and give advice like this: “When it is no-trump and you believe an opponent has four-card length in your long suit, even if you have three touching honors, it is often right to lead low, so that the suit does not become blocked when partner has a useful card doubleton.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like practical advice.

How common and accessible is the language? I once had an impassioned dispute with a non-sports editor about using the word “bloop” in a baseball story I wrote. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a bloop essentially is a soft, high-arcing hit that strikes the ground just past the infield or in the shallow outfield. I argued that the term was ubiquitous enough in baseball lingo that most readers would know what I was talking about. I won. Bloop lived.

Other times, though, it’s better to bite the bullet and clarify, especially when it comes to strategy and coachspeak. If a basketball team switches from a man-to-man defense to a zone halfway through a game, it might be beneficial to explain to the reader exactly what that change means instead of assuming that he or she understands the terminology.

Is there a better way to word it? As writers and editors, we should always aim to present things creatively. While I believe some clichés and common phrases are acceptable — and often unavoidable — in sports stories, we shouldn’t lean on them. If there’s a more compelling and creative way to present something, go for it. In the case of “bloop,” there truly wasn’t a more concise or practical alternative for me to turn to, but that certainly isn’t the case every time.

I don’t pretend that I always know the answers to these questions, but they’re still important questions to ask on both sides of the writer-editor relationship. In my short time as a sports writer, I’ve encountered this scenario quite a bit. I’m not sure that I’ve always made the right decisions, but when I err, I err on the side of bloop.

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