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Thursday, February 7, 2013
FOI Toolbox

Beware of language abuse

By David Chartrand

Always prepared for newsgathering emergencies, I periodically restock my reporter’s toolbox with the latest gadgets. Certain over-used phrases require new tools to tweak and fix.

“BOND ISSUE”

Local governments use this term so no one notices they run their cities the way Congress runs the federal government, namely by spending more money than they take in. Municipal bond issues are loans — loans issued, or guaranteed, by local governments. Someone has to pay back the money.

“WE CAN’T DO IT FOR INSURANCE REASONS.”

Government’s time-honored irrefutable excuse — irrefutable because reporters rarely ask to see the insurance policy that would refute the excuse.

“IT WOULD COST TOO MUCH.”

There’s a simple and oft-overlooked reply when bureaucrats offer this copout: “Really? So, exactly how much will it cost?” Have a camera ready to capture the blank looks.

“WE ADHERE TO BEST PRACTICES.”

Do you know how many times a journalist hears this expression during a career covering government, education and science? Neither do I. Do you know what it means? Neither do I. I commend to my colleagues the communications theory by professor Gabrielle Cody of Vassar College, who once told The New York Times, “Just because it doesn’t mean anything doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything.”

“PUBLIC HEARING”

Quit attending these, for crying out loud. Quit urging citizens to attend them, more accurately called, “public listening.” Nothing approaching communication or discussion happens at these government-sponsored events. A public hearing has one official purpose: to document that a public hearing was conducted. That requires one sentence.

“CITY COUNCIL MEETINGS” AND “SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS”

Why do local media force reporters to sit through these evening marathons that often conflict with family dinner and have all the spontaneity of a public hearing? I get the meeting agenda online ahead of time, pick my own stories and spare my fanny two hours of torture in vinyl chairs listening to proclamations declaring “School Vaccination Awareness Week.”

“TWITTER” AND “TWEETS” DURING POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS

Maybe we’ve lost our journalistic minds; maybe the news staff is too busy attending school board meetings. A group of Kansas State University journalism grad students recently examined scores of tweets by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the recent presidential campaign to see if tweets addressed campaign issues. The students found that reading 1,000 tweets was like eating cotton candy, only less nutritious. Political tweets are today’s version of kissing babies and signing autographs. They offer no information about a candidate’s qualifications and should be treated as such.

“MENTAL ILLNESS” AND “MENTALLY ILL”

Yet another school shooting (Newtown, Conn.) and we still can’t get this straight. One does not have a mental illness unless one is so diagnosed, typically by a psychiatrist. School shooters who take their own lives without having been diagnosed or treated cannot be called mentally ill.

“HEALTH INSURANCE” AND “HEALTH CARE”

These demonstrate the specialization training sorely missing from our schools of journalism. Health insurance is not health care. Health care is health care. Writing about health insurance for people who have no access to health care is like writing about swimming lessons during the winter in Buffalo, N.Y. How do you learn the backstroke if the pools are all closed?

“AMNESTY OF ANONYMITY”

The new media rules for anonymous sources, officially adopted by The New York Times and other major media. “The source was granted anonymity,” we are told, “because he faces possible job repercussions if identified.” What the heck? Isn’t this why all sources seek anonymity? I respectfully suggest stricter, more precise guidelines. One that comes to mind: “The agency official was granted anonymity only after offering verification that speaking to the media would cause him to be dipped in boiling eggnog while being forced to swallow a very large number of live spiders.”

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