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Home > Publications > Quill > Beat Guide: Avoid beat “jargon”


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Monday, May 1, 2006
Beat Guide: Avoid beat “jargon”

By Paula LaRocque

One of the greatest hazards in beat writing is beat jargon, which can shut out the average reader. And the longer a reporter covers a certain beat, the greater the hazard. That’s because the more we hear certain words and expressions, the more they sound like ... well, like English.

Beat writers are well advised to return to a time when they didn’t know the jargon of their beats. They probably felt inadequate for the not knowing, but their lack of insider knowledge was in a sense the reader’s ally. Good reporters either omit or translate the unclear, and they’re better able to do that if they know which terms are potential stumbling blocks to understanding. Unhappily, reporters sometimes become seduced by the jargon of their beats and begin to use it themselves.

Revisiting one’s “ignorance” in no way diminishes the necessity of thoroughly learning one’s beat — and that includes its language. Only through full understanding can we accurately reflect a beat’s complexity and nuance.

Nor does translating jargon into common terms in any way dumb down the message — it merely makes the work accessible to the lay reader. Sometimes writers balk, though — in part because they want to show off their knowledge. But knowledge isn’t displayed in an arcane or specialized vocabulary. Rather, one test of genius is the ability to couch the complex in simple terms.

As Einstein said: “Everything should be as simple as possible — but no simpler.”

Therefore: If we cover the medical beat, we know that the prefix “therm-” means heat or temperature, but we write “sunstroke,” not thermoplegia — even if our expert source uses the latter term. Likewise, we know that the suffix “-algia” means pain, and “-rhea” means flow. But we write “toothache,” not dentalgia, and “runny nose,” not rhinorrhea.

These days, beat reporters often have degrees in the topics they cover. So a reporter who went to law school, say, covers law. Such education and background is a decided advantage for certain beats.

But if the lawyer/reporter uses the same language in his or her stories as his lawyer source, this marriage is hardly a consummation devoutly to be wished. How much per curiam (by the court), actus reus (criminal act), and ab initio (from the beginning) can we take?

We don’t have to be involved in beats such as medicine, law or education, however, to run into the challenges of beat jargon. The business world is cluttered with all manner of jargon and, like the military beat, is clotted with acronyms that mean everything to business (or to the military) and nothing to the average reader.

Most readers probably know that CEO, R&D, MBO, and SOP mean, respectively, chief executive officer, research and development, management by objective, and standard operating procedure. But equally common — and less known — are ZBB (zero-based budgeting), AQL (acceptable quality level) and PERT (performance evaluation and review technique).

Even such beats as automotive, real estate and fashion are laden with jargon. Cover cars a while, and you’ll learn that “postignition” means the engine that continues to run after it’s turned off. Or that the “dwell meter” measures the “dwell angle” of the distributor points. But try telling that to the average reader.

Covering the world of Realtors and real estate can be almost as incomprehensible as covering medicine or law. Readers plowing though untranslated jargon such as “incorporeal realty” (intangible elements or nonmaterial rights of a property), “escalator clause” (a feature in some mortgages or leases allowing increases in terms or rents), or “appurtenances” (rights, benefits, or possessions additional to the actual property purchase).

And fashion? You’re drunk on jargon the moment you step into the Garment District. Yes, Seventh Avenue, Carnaby Street — where the rag trade thrives. But do we all know that, and will my story suffer if we don’t?

Are we safe in entertainment, at least? Or in sports and recreation? Those aren’t technical beats, and readers are personally involved in the beat’s activities, so wouldn’t they know more of the beat jargon?

I guess most of us understand soaps and shoots and sweeps and spinoffs by now. But “Thirty Rock”? When did that become NBC-TV headquarters (30 Rockefeller Plaza), and who knew?

We haven’t even mentioned the police beat, an often non-negotiable terrain of unnecessary jargon: “The perpetrator exited the vehicle and fled on foot.”

But don’t get me started.


Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing, available at marionstreetpress.com, amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. E-mail plarocque@sbcglobal.net.

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