Mark R. Howard
Words, Chosen Carefully
Journalists have trouble sticking to the simple and direct. We lapse into clichés and stumble into bad habits as readily as anyone.
Pay attention the next time you read or watch news: Everywhere from the BBC to CBS to Fox News to National Public Radio and your local newspaper, reporters no longer “speak with” or “interview” anyone; instead, they introduce their stories by saying they “caught up with” so-and-so. I guess they’re trying to suggest a sense of urgency to the enterprise. But the mental image — a rodeo-like landscape populated by reporters sprinting willy-nilly in hot pursuit of elusive newsmakers — is absurd. Particularly since there’s rarely anything spontaneous about the process of interviewing anyone these days, when everyone from dog catchers to CEOs has a public information officer or public relations person soliciting ink or air time for a client.
The “catch up with” cliché is relatively harmless. Of more concern in Florida Trend’s sphere of business reporting is a cohort of adjectives that mask imprecision and sloppy thinking.
My least favorite of these is “whopping,” which I’ve never liked because no one could ever explain at what point a sum, a number or percentage begins to “whop.” In the local newspaper in just the last three months, I found a “whopping” 97% in one story and a “whopping” 36% in another. The paper had a singer, meanwhile, winning “a whopping four Grammys.” A different story had a reference to a “whopping 2 inches of snow.” Somehow I don’t think two of anything should be able to whop, but I have no idea where to set the whop minimum.
Florida Trend is pretty good about not letting things whop, and we also try to avoid “troubled,” “beleaguered” and “embattled.” Those three have become clichés used routinely in stories about CEOs (or politicians) who’ve just quit or been fired or companies that have given up the ghost or are on the verge. They’re useless shorthand for “we’ve written about this guy’s problems before, in case you missed it.” Aside from being vague and meaningless, there’s something gratuitous and mean about them — a kind of “gotcha,” “we told you he was going down” as a coup de grace to the “embattled” executive’s career.
There are, interestingly, no corresponding positive adjectives thrown gratuitously at companies and CEOs that are doing well — so you’ll never read that “elated/justifiably proud/controversy-free Florida Trend Publisher Andy Corty announced record company profits today.”
Nouns as well as adjectives can encapsulate narratives and value judgments. I’ve seen several cycles of rising and falling gasoline prices over the course of my career. When gas prices are rising, the stories often raise the specter of whether “speculators” — always unnamed — had something to do with it. Implicit, of course, is the notion that “speculators” are always on the shady side of some moral fence and benefit only if prices rise. Never mind that investors — “speculators” — are always present in the commodities markets. Never mind that, depending on their bet, they can profit from either rising or falling prices. Never mind that in many of those bets, somebody has to lose for somebody else to win. Never mind that the overall process helps maintain the supply of the goods in question, whether oil or wheat or pork bellies. And never mind that when gas prices fall, all mention of speculators disappears. Where did they go?
A different problem presents itself when a term like “climate change” or “net neutrality” becomes so politically charged that it stops functioning as any kind of descriptor and becomes an ideological Rorschach test. Journalists too often get sidetracked and begin covering the Rorschach test rather than what’s actually happening. And so, for example, most of us in the “mainstream media” in Florida have paid a lot more attention to Rick Scott’s administration banning the use of the term “climate change” in state documents than to civic ordinances, building code changes, regional planning documents or insurance company risk assessments in Florida related to rising sea levels.
This is all by way of saying that words, and our choice of which ones to use and how — matter. The last presidential election should have showed us who in our country was actually embattled, and it’s not the people we journalists are usually trying to catch up with.
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