Powerful words

July 27, 1995|By Harry Rosenfeld

Albany, N.Y. -- THE POWER of words is one of the pleasures of journalism.

Those with the talent, training and experience to wield them with grace and precision make this a better world.

Words, whose elegant use brings life to the most delicate of thoughts, are also susceptible to gross misuse, through carelessness, ignorance, or worse, by intention.

In theory, newspapers are structured to minimize language abuses. Each reporter's and writer's work is reviewed by at least one editor, often three or more. The system is designed to snare violations, ranging from the egregious to the subtle, in the increasingly finer nets of scrutiny.

More than just keeping the bad out, the editing system -- when working properly -- enhances the selection of the right word. Actually, sometimes that even happens, despite the prevalence of words and phrases out there whose use and misuse is the distress of every newsroom, upsetting to discerning readers and an invitation to the litigious.

Some of these words are in the open, used often and casually, trite and true in their familiarity. Others lurk in the creases of language, leaping out unexpectedly.

The first category of objectionable words is obvious, frequently unfairly applied and potentially libelous. These are called "red flag" words, because their use should set off alarm bells in the minds of writers and editors.

Bruce D. Sanford has compiled a listing of such words. Some are transparent, such as ambulance-chaser. A reporter using that expression about an individual is bereft of sense, given that one observer's ambulance-chaser is another's energetic lawyer.

There are other words that fall into the same grouping: drunkard, fascist, communist, confidence man. Then there are others, which Mr. Sanford cites, which are not as easily spotted, and consequently are more likely to creep into articles.

The word collusion, for example, or co-respondent may unfairly characterize, if used in any but the strict constructionist sense. Others on the Sanford list are hypocrite, intimate and mental disease. These are fraught with opportunities for those seeking redress. There is a category of words that didn't make it into the Sanford compilation, probably because such words are less likely to trigger legal action. Yet these words and phrases, precisely because they are less risky, are not strikingly offensive and tend to be more commonly used.

They are potentially more insidious in undermining accuracy and fairness, the hallmarks of good journalism. A long-time favorite is deny, in a sentence such as "John Doe denied he had ever met the lady," or "John Doe denied there was any trouble at the bank." Such usage proclaims a pejorative, when all John Doe did was "say" that he didn't know the woman or "say" that there was no trouble at the bank. Deny puts an extra spin on what happened and while it should not be banned, it should be closely watched.

Writing as taught in many schools of journalism is the likely culprit for the widespread inappropriate use of "deny." Journalism instructors teach students to use active verbs, disdaining the plain "said."

Favorite No. 2 is carefully, as in the sentence "The official issued her carefully worded statement."

Almost without exception, the reporter writing that phrase has no idea whether the official had been careful at all. The phrase is used because it struck the reporter to have been a statement that demanded careful preparation.

Mind reading is at the core of judgments of this kind. And the one thing we can be sure of is that none of us is able to read minds. Coming up right behind "deny" and "carefully," are a host of old time classics, such as "claimed," "conceded," "acknowledged," and the phrase "stopped short of."

The standout among all these is the phrase "refused comment" to describe someone who merely didn't. In the rush to get the story written and the newspaper published, the measuring of words to most exactly fit the deeds is too often sacrificed.

That's risky for a profession based on the word.

Harry Rosenfeld is editor of the Times Union.

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