Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 17th of those posts. Molly Sprecher is a junior double-majoring in reporting and English and Comparative Literature. She works as a digital intern for the General Alumni Association and as the publicity editor and assistant photo editor for the Yackety Yack yearbook. She also freelances as an event and landscape photographer.
If there’s one thing I know as an English and Comparative Literature major, it’s how to draw out the word count with beautiful, fluffy, meaningless chatter. You give me a phrase, and I’ll tell you one with three more adjectives and at least 25 more syllables.
But journalism values brevity and honesty, appealing to the shortening attention span of consumers overwhelmed with options. My professor for MEJO 358 (Opinion Writing), Angelia Herrin, gave me a reality check this semester when she told me I was such a clever writer that I seduced myself into not realizing I wasn’t writing about anything.
Journalists are often criticized for the practice of concisely, objectively reporting the news, and accused of not caring about the subjects they report on. Viewers see indifference and distance in journalists’ blunt style. In any other segment of public life, death is a four-letter word (please excuse the euphemism). But in the news, it is commonplace, and according to The Associated Press Stylebook, the only acceptable choice.
But journalists’ rejection of euphemisms and fluff phrases is a testament to their dedication to telling the public the truth. Such as, Howard Schultz is a billionaire, not a “person of means,” and “alternative facts” are just lies. Editors delete phrases that have little concrete meaning, like “passed away,” “powder your nose,” “vertically challenged” or “au natural,” not just because they are awkward, but also because they don’t serve to inform the public, which is a journalist’s primary responsibility. Changing the wording doesn’t change the facts, but can skew public perception.
The AP Stylebook recently announced that the phrases “racially charged” or “racially motivated” should be replaced with “racist.” Herein lies another instance of giving up what is comfortable in favor of what is. Downplaying the significance of what journalists’ report on would be a disservice to those reported to.
To say that someone died, was racist or is homeless is to recognize the shared humanity of the audience. The people in the news are human beings, not abstractions to decorate with pretty phrases.
This distinction is more important than ever as society takes on the challenge of practicing inclusive language in a diversifying community. Editors must be aware not only of what the stylebook says, but also of the preferences of the public. Tip-toeing around these sensitive phrases only serves to alienate or condescend to the community involved.
While increasing budget cuts and online options call for cutting word count, it is still important for journalists and editors to remain cognizant of any attempt to create a language buffer between ideas and the audience. Avoiding the issue won’t make it stop existing, it will just make the line of communication between journalists and the public that much more convoluted.
In journalism, both the public and the individual matter. No, we cannot report on every single person. But we can show that we see their humanity in word choice. Your grandmother died; she didn’t pass away. Her employee was fired, not let go or between jobs. He is a member of the LGBTQ community, not batting for the other team. They are victims, not collateral damage.
Hard facts and objective reporting, instead of eliminating emotion, can be humanizing and help end the “other” perception of marginalized groups. The AP Stylebook’s transition to “racist” as an accepted phrase is a step in the right direction.
As journalists, we have promised to pursue and report only the truth. We have not promised flowery language, only that we will not shy away from difficult issues, and that we will respect what we have the responsibility to report. Disregarding meaningless phrases only sacrifices denigrating important issues, not our journalistic integrity nor our human sympathy.