"In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them."
When academics and other scholars discuss newspapers one gets the impression that The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and a few other nationally known dailies provide most Americans with print news. In fact, small and midsized newspapers—both daily and weekly—remain the primary source of written news for a majority of Americans, and often times are their only source of news about local government.
It follows that while university journalism departments and media think tanks draw attention to problems in elite media—where the professional writing allows scholars to focus on abstract ethics, ideological bias, high profile scandals and the like—trends and problems affecting smaller newspapers are ignored, if even recognized in the first place.
In this climate, a grave problem for journalism and democracy has gone ignored: at local newspapers across America lazy, inexperienced or untalented writers are producing jargon-filled copy so complex and off-putting that it obscures the day's events for many readers, while causing many more to simply put down the newspaper, or at least skip to the sports section.
That's a bad thing for democracy.
Busy Americans, having no time to monitor City Hall themselves, rely on their local newspapers to pick out important events and explain them in easy to understand language. When local media fails, residents become disengaged from local government, making its failure more likely.
Each year in Los Angeles, the public school system sends parents a large handbook explaining school rules for the coming year. This year, Superintendent Roy Romer began with an apology of sorts. "I realize that much of the
information in this handbook is detailed and presented in a very formal manner," he wrote, "but we do so in order to comply with legal mandates."
Presumably he referred to passages like the following:
It is the policy of the Los Angeles Unified School District to seek restitution, including but not limited to, when a student willfully cuts, defaces, causes
the loss, nonreturn or otherwise injures any property, real or personal, belonging to the school district or a school employee. The parent/guardian of the student is liable for such damages, not exceeding $5000.
In English, this might read as follows: "If your child steals or damages school property we will hold you liable up to $5,000." Romer, who acknowledges that such horrific prose demands an apology, offers a questionable excuse: The
lawyers make us write that way! Setting that side, we're left with a representative example of how people in government write and speak—and, by extension, what the reporters assigned to cover those people are up against.
Reporters, however, neither apologize nor have an excuse for their horrific prose. Ideally, of course, local governments would simplify their own language, a fix that would go a long way toward improving local journalism.
Consider a press release that the City of Rancho Cucamonga sent to my former newspaper:
The City of Rancho Cucamonga will celebrate the beginning of the construction journey of the Victoria Gardens Cultural Center by holding a celebration eventâ€¦at the Town Square area of the new Victoria Gardens open-air retail center.
Of course, Joe Resident knows nothing of "construction journeys," and "outdoor mall" seems much more accessible than "open-air retail center"—so why does the city, which presumably wants people to attend the event, use such
language? If the press release had said "The city will host a groundbreaking party at the outdoor mall this weekâ€¦" it's a safe assumption that even the worst reporter wouldn't translate the words into government-speak.
But the celebration event I'm planning when government types start speaking English isn't likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, then, local reporters must translate from jargon into plain English.
As George Orwell notes in Politics and the English Language, "modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."
Too often, reporters rely on words already set in order by someone else, often because it takes time and effort to rephrase things more clearly. Much easier, for example, to write about "the Southern California Association of Governments"—an entity few Californians are familiar with—than to write about "the board of elected leaders who must make plans for improving transportation in the region."
As often as not, this laziness rears its head when the writer includes a direct quote that should have been paraphrased.
Consider the following quote from an Auburn Journal story about an asphalt plant:
Right now (the operation) is a vested mining
operation, meaning they have approval to mine the limestone and native rock to create aggregate materials with no limit of the number of trucks moving out of there," Evans said Friday. "The mitigated negative declaration capped the truck traffic for the quarry and proposed asphalt plant to a maximum of 350 trucks in and out during the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. operation time frame and limited the total material per operation day to 3,200 tons.
Typical government-speak—and typically quoted in full, I'm afraid, though it's hard to see what use a casual reader has for such a remark. The writer should have used the following paraphrase:
Right now there's no limit on the number of trucks that can haul material from the mine, Evans said. But if the asphalt plant is built truck traffic will be limited to 350 trucks per 12 hour shift.
Of course, some faltering reporters aren't lazy—they're confused.
Imagine yourself as a rookie reporter at a City Council meeting, furiously scribbling down notes, constantly falling behind as motion after motion passes. Upon returning to the office, your editor asks you to write a
brief on the third item. You consult your City Council agenda to refresh your memory:
CONSIDERATION OF PUBLIC INTEREST, CONVENIENCE AND NECESSITY IN GRANTING A TAXICAB SERVICE PERMIT TO AAA INLAND EMPIRE CAB
Like most of the paper's readers, you have no idea what that means—so how can you paraphrase it? But you know that the item passed unanimously. Thus, instead of writing that the City Council decided to allow AAA Inland Empire Cab to operate cabs in the city—the essence of what happened—you
might write that "In a unanimous vote, the City Council determined that AAA Inland Empire Cab meets the public interest, convenience and necessity necessary to be granted a taxicab service permit."
It's accurateâ€¦ but incomprehensible, even to the reporter. Much like this lead, taken from the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin: "The proposed California State University budget that trustees will consider approving today asks for what the governor promised in the Higher Education Compact."
We'll never know if that reporter understood the essence of the story, but I'd bet against it.
Ironically, too much knowledge can be as disastrous as too little when reporters forget that their readers are not as familiar with the jargon and minutiae of local government
as they are.
In California newspapers, one of the most common examples is the phrase "mitigated negative declaration of environmental impacts." It refers to a section in the state's environmental law for new developments. Say, for example, that you're building a new house. The law requires you to perform a study on how that house will impact the environment. If you find that it won't affect the environment at all, you'd file a "negative declaration of environmental impacts."
But say it will affect the environment—the air-conditioning unit you plan to install, for example, will produce 5 decibels of noise. If you can "mitigate" that noise—make it go away by, for example, building a wall around the air-conditioning unit—you then file a "mitigated negative declaration of environmental
Most reporters understand all this immediately, having heard that term countless times on the job. That fact—and the rather lengthy explanation required to explain the term to unfamiliar readers—causes some journalists to slip it into their copy as is. Astonishingly, some desk editors let it slip past too—no doubt because they've seen the
term enough to know what it means, and aren't startled by it, as the average reader would be, when they read through the reporter's story.
Finally some reporters are too easily manipulated—usually by savvy public officials trying to obscure controversy or wrongdoing by using euphemisms to describe their actions, or by the public relations industry, which thrives by manipulating impressionable reporters.
After countless encounters with one such public relations firm, my favorite example is the term "lifestyle center," a euphemism for a mall that is outdoors. One such mall, in
Rancho Cucamonga, opened earlier this year, when I still covered that city as a beat reporter.
"We've noticed in all of your stories you refer to Victoria Gardens as a mall," the Vice-President of P.R. told me at a press event prior to the grand opening."But it's actually a lifestyle center."
On the subsequent tour, I saw a Macy's, a J.C. Penney, a Banana Republic and a food court. Thus it remained a mall for me and the people of Rancho Cucamonga. Elsewhere, however, reporters are proving Orwell's claim that "a bad
usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better." Consider a recent passage from The Coloradoan:
Since Poag & McEwen and Bayer Properties announced plans to build dueling lifestyle centers early last year, they've been taking turns announcing tenants for their centers. The Shops at Centerra has landed Victoria's Secret, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Clearwater Creek, among others. In addition to Dillard's and Wild Oats, The Summit Front Range will have a Borders Books and Music and a branch of the Fort Collins library.
In this example, readers will quickly deduce what type of place this new "lifestyle center" will be. Of course, once the euphemism fades completely—that is, when readers hear it and think "outdoor mall"—the public relations whizzes who work for the mall developer will invent a new term to create buzz around their newest project.
"It's really not a lifestyle center," they'll insist. And somewhere a reporter will believe them.
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