Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What's In a word? ...

Last week, while commenting on a television news story, Eric at
Fire Ant Gazette offered a number of suggestions on how that story might have been better approached in the beginning, and presented in the end.

The topic of the news story that inspired his post was a report on whether or not non-white drivers might be pulled over and searched by police more often than white drivers and - if so - by how much, in comparison to their presence in the total population. The report offered both a statewide view and a county-by-county, community-by-community view.

One of Eric's suggestions that got me to thinking addressed a single word in the news story. He recommended changing the "the report shows" to "the report alleges" and suggested that "There's a world of difference" between the two.

He's right ... at least, regarding the difference a single word can make to the entire story.

We, all of us - news producers and news consumers - would do well to choose our words very carefully and to devote more time to the study of words and their use, and to the expansion of our vocabulary ... a study, I believe, that ideally continues to the end of our lives. You may not be able to teach old dogs new tricks, but they should be able to fetch a new word now and then.

Actually, I'm just as guilty as the next person ... well, part of the time, at least. For example, I have to keep myself from making too much use of the verb 'said' in my reports. Molly Ivins once told me that we should find alternatives that better convey the reason our interview subject is talking to us and to those who read our product, and the circumstances in which that interview was conducted. Depending upon the context, alternatives to 'said' include 'agreed,' 'suggested,' 'asked,' 'responded,' 'explained,' 'acknowledged,' 'added,' 'admitted,' 'observed,' commented' and many many more.

News producers need to be especially adept at the craft of 'wordsmithing,' because the people we meet in the course of covering the news certainly are ... and they're getting better and better as we go along. Over and over, we find examples of a small, tiny change - just a word or two, really - that can make a huge difference in how we view something and how we relate to it.

Want to dump a higher level of radioactive waste in a repository built for a lower level? Just re-classify the waste, and - *snap* - it's lower-level.

Is there growing concern among people about the "privatization" of Social Security? Don't change the idea, just start referring to it as "personalization," instead.

Do international agreements accord too much protection to "prisoners of war" in our custody? Simple, just change their label to "enemy combatants."

And something to keep in mind before we begin pointing the finger of blame at one another ... the wordplay above is completely non-partisan, and is pursued by people of all political persuasions. It's not this party, or that party ... it's the system ... it's all of us.

No comments: