Roy Peter Clark

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Roy has taught writing at every level--to school children and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors--for more than 30 years, and has spoken about the writer's craft on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NPR and Today; at conferences from Singapore to Brazil; and at news organizations from The New York Times to the Sowetan in South Africa. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," the book and the blog.


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Death and writing short – the missing SXSW session

I once heard the great Francis X. Clines of the New York Times tell a group of journalists never to apologize for writing about death.  “We tell the morbid truth,” he said.

I was scheduled to deliver a workshop on “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” on St. Patrick’s Day at SXSW.  But on Friday the Thirteenth my mother, Shirley Clark, died at the age of 95.  I cancelled my trip to Austin and turned my writing skills to crafting her eulogy.

Here are some of the things I would have said at SXSW if I had been able to make the trip.  It riffs off my handout for the session, which you can access here.  When I picked the selections of short writing for study, I didn’t realize how many of them were about death:  dying, almost dying, fear of dying, recovering from a death, remembering a death, the legacy of death.  The death of my mom just brought this into focus.  Frank Clines was right. We tell, if we have the courage, the morbid truth.

I.  Power of Story

When we think of stories, we think of long forms: novels, movies, magazine features, and serial narratives.  But stories come in all shapes and sizes.  This one was sent to me via Twitter, a post on the Facebook page “Humans of New York,”which features a photo of a New Yorker with an accompanying text. (I do not have the author’s name.)

When I was 22, I fell off a fishing boat in the middle of the night.  We were about 200 miles from shore, fishing for swordfish.  I was trying to bend a pipe into place when it gave way and dumped me in the ocean.  They didn’t notice I was gone for about 20 minutes.  The waves were about twelve feet high, and between the waves I could see the boat going further and further and further until it completely disappeared.  You know how they say that when you’re dying, you’re supposed to go toward the light?  Well, when I thought I was dying, the light was moving further and further away.  (112 words)

What surprises me here is how efficiently this story works.  It begins with an inciting incident, the fall off the boat, and raises the stakes as the boat drifts “further and further and further” away, that repetition rolling like sea waves.  It should remind us that narrative is a form of transportation.  Wherever you happen to be sitting, the author lifts you up through scenic action and carries you to another place. In my own life, I have never been lost at sea until I read this and then I am. The metaphor of the dying light is brilliant to me, a great ending, something you can “see” in both its literal and figurative meanings.

When I read a story like that, something that moves me, it inspires me to write.  I often look for a “moment in time,” not a full movie, but a moving snapshot, a bit of story that has a beginning, middle, and end.  By coincidence this one concerned my mom.

Shirley had fallen again, nothing serious at the age of 95, just a couple of days in the hospital – and then rehab.  When she woke in a hospital bed, having already forgotten the fall, she wondered why she was there.  Loopy on medication, she told her youngest son that she had just had a baby.  “Have you seen the baby?”  It was 1943, she thought, 70 years ago, the year of her first pregnancy and her miscarriage.  My older brother – who was never born.  (84 words)

Story, as we know from both fiction and nonfiction, is an expression of memory. By the time of this incident, my mother had lost her short-term memory, not even able to remember a recent fall. And yet she could recall in vivid detail, so that it seemed real to her, an even from 1943.  My brother told me this story just after it happened, and it revealed something profound about my mother’s life. In spite of having given birth to three sons, she clung to the memory of her miscarried child, as if it were unfinished business.  Unlike the first example, I use a piece of dialogue here, which always energizes a narrative, no matter how short.

More and more, I find myself drawing wisdom from some very old forms of short writing, things like proverbs, fables, and parables. I can’t think of a more efficient short story than the one Jesus narrates about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-35)

A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell in with robbers, who after both stripping him and beating him went their way, leaving him half-dead.  But, as it happened, a certain priest was going down the same way, and when he saw him, he passed by.  And likewise a Levite also, when he was near the place and saw him, passed by.  But a certain Samaritan as he journeyed came upon him, and seeing him, was moved with compassion.  And he went up to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.  And setting him on his own beast, he brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the inn-keeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I, on my way back, wi  l repay you.” (152 words)

Given its cultural importance – we even have Good Samaritan laws – it surprised me that this parable was so short.  Its efficiency still startles me. First, we don’t know anyone’s name or anything about their appearance. More important is what Tom Wolfe might call their “status.”  The priest and the Levite, given their elevated role in the Jewish religion, should feel a special responsibility to help the victim.  Instead, Jesus gives the role of “neighbor” to the Samaritan, a despised outsider.  It would be like a Sunni Muslim coming to the aid of a Shiite, or a Catholic in Belfast coming to the aid of a Protestant victim. The Torah may ask you to love God and your neighbor as yourself, but can you take it to a higher level and love the stranger?

And consider the use of details.  What do we know about the Samaritan?  He had a beast with him, a donkey. He carried oil and wine.  He had money, denarii.  Each of these things was intended for his comfort on his journey.  But he turns each of them over the care of the fallen man. Nice work, Mr. Samaritan.  Good story, Jesus.

I often highlight the work of Joanna Smith, who covered the earthquake in Haiti five years ago for the Toronto Star. Because of power failures, she resorted to covering the disaster as an eyewitness using tweets as the elements of a live blog. The resulting work turned into a kind of serial narrative, with each chapter 140 characters:

  • Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.
  • Woman shrieking, piercing screams, “Maman! Papa! Jesus!” as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic.  No painkillers.
  • Little boys playing with neat little cars constructed from juice bottles, caps.  Fill with rocks and pull with string. Fun!

Remarkably, those tweets have characters, scenes, settings, chronologies, motives, the building blocks of story.

II.  Emphatic Word Order

Great short writing, in any generation, shows signs of focus, wit, and polish.  By “focus,” we mean that the text captures one thing.  By “wit,” we mean it exhibits a governing intelligence.  And by “polish,” we mean that it has been delivered in its best form:  the best words in the best order.

One strategy of revision adds that polish.  It’s called emphatic word order and is best exemplified by a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:  “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Friends know that this is my favorite teaching example, sometimes called a mentor text.  After all, Shakespeare could have written:

The Queen is dead, my lord.

Or:  My lord, the Queen is dead.

If Yoda had a shot, it might have come out: Dead the Queen is, my lord.

These last three take the Bard’s six words but arrange them in a different order.  Shakespeare’s is the best.  Why?  Because he places an important word at the beginning (Queen), a less important word in the middle (lord), and the most important word at the end (dead).  Any word that appears before the period, what Brits call the “full stop,” gets special attention.

You can take that emphasis and heat it up by placing the most important word or number at the end of a paragraph, as Thomas French does in this passage from Zoo Story on the violent death of a chimp named Herman:

Altogether he lived at Lowery Park Zoo for 35 years.  He lasted there longer than any other creature and longer than any of the humans.  Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is assigned a number.  His was 00001.

Tom could have written:  “His number was 00001, first among the 1,800 animals at the zoo,” but that would have drained the juice.  That primal primate’s number was the key, so Tom places it at the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a section. It also comes at the end of the shortest sentence in the text, which gives it the ring of gospel truth.

III. Juke Joint Juxtapositions

In addition to focus, wit, and polish, a great piece of short writing benefits from a little rub, some friction, tension, ambiguity that creates some heat and light.  Take my sub-headline “Juke Joint Juxtapositions.”  I could have written, “Do the Juke Joint Boogie Woogie,” colorful, but redundant.  Juke Joint does not belong next to Juxtaposition, which is why I put it there.

I see this most often in titles:  The Great Gatsby, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Paradise Lost, The Catcher in the Rye, Duck Dynasty, even my book The Glamour of Grammar.

I guess we’re back to death again.  Look at the stories attached to each of those titles:

Gatsby:  He is murdered.

Buffy:  Kills the undead.

Prufrock:  Depressed by the ravages of old age.

Lost:  Loss of paradise leads to death.

Catcher: Dream of protecting children from fall off a cliff.

Dynasty:  Killing ducks.

The Glamour of Grammar:  Hey, mom, here’s one for me (and for you):  living a life of language!

Anyway, that’s what I would have said at SXSW, and now I get to share it with all of you. Read more

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Why you should know the work of Claude Sitton – reporter

Claude Sitton

Claude Sitton

I noted with sadness the death of a great American journalist, Claude Sitton, who encouraged me early in my career, and who was a good friend of the Poynter Institute. The giants of the Civil Rights movement are passing from this life. Their witness must be remembered and celebrated, a legacy that should inspire us to re-double our efforts to commit our journalism to the cause of social justice.

I was introduced to Sitton by another great Southern journalist, Eugene Patterson, who hired me in 1977 to coach the writers at the St. Petersburg Times. From 1960 to 1968 Gene served as editor of the Atlanta Constitution under the leadership of his mentor Ralph McGill. One day I was having lunch with Gene and the conversation went something like this:

“Gene, you know I’ve heard so much about the columns you wrote in Atlanta.  I’d love to read them some day.”

“Ah, you don’t want to see those old things,” he said.

“Do you still have them?”

“Yeah, I got them back at the house.”

He dragged eight large albums out of a bedroom closet.  Each one contained a year’s worth of signed columns, many of them on the issues of race and social justice. I carried them back to Poynter, where our archivist David Shedden greeted them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dave preserved them, made copies, and gave me a set, more than 3,200 columns in all.

I later marveled at how Gene had written a column every single day for about eight years.  “If I tried to write two in one day, the second one never turned out any good,” he told me.  Along with Southern historian Ray Arsenault, I curated those columns and published the best in a collection called “The Changing South of Gene Patterson:  Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.”

We celebrated the publication of that book with an event at the Atlanta newspaper where Gene had written his columns.  The date was October 28, 2002, and the small, friendly crowd included some remarkable figures.  There was the aging former governor Ernest Vandiver, who had led Georgia, however tentatively, through the desegregation of its public universities.  There was John Lewis, now a United States Congressman, who loved Gene’s work.  Gene deflected any claims of bravery for himself, pointing to Lewis and his fellow protestors as the true heroes of the Civil Rights movement.  And there was Claude Sitton, considered by many to be the most influential reporter covering the South during the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s.

Sitton died this week and his courageous work deserves our close attention.  Though he lacked Patterson’s personal charisma and elegant prose style, he shared his friend’s energy and vigor, his sense of mission and purpose, and his love for his Southern homeland.  Reporting for the New York Times on almost every crisis of the Civil Rights South – its terroristic violence and the courageous movements to defeat it – he created a picture of the world upon which citizens and governments could act.

Gene Patterson’s most famous column concerned the 1963 dynamite bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls.  Walter Cronkite thought the column so important, especially coming from a white Southerner, that he invited Gene to read it on the CBS Evening News.  Titled, “A Flower for the Graves,” it began “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham.  In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child.  We hold that shoe with her.”

While Gene was writing that column, Claude Sitton was reporting around Birmingham, trying to make sense of one of America’s most terrible days.  The headline in the Times on his story read: “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.”

After an overview of the events across the city, with comments from public officials and police, Sitton concludes his story with this account:

The four girls killed in the blast had just heard Mrs. Ella C. Demand, their teacher, complete the Sunday school lesson for the day.  The subject was “The Love That Forgives.”

During the period between the class and an assembly in the main auditorium, they went to the women’s lounge in the basement, at the northeast corner of the church.

The blast occurred at about 10:25 A.M. (12:25 P.M. New York time).

Church members said they found the girls huddled together beneath a pile of masonry debris.

Both parents of each of three of the victims teach in the city’s schools.  The dead were identified by University Hospital officials as:

Cynthia Wesley, 14, the only child of Claude A. Wesley, principal of the Lewis Elementary School, and Mrs. Wesley, a teacher there.

Denise McNair, 11, also an only child, whose parents are teachers.

Carole Robertson, 14, whose parents are teachers and whose grandmother, Mrs. Sallie Anderson, is one of the Negro members of a biracial committee established by Mayor Boutwell to deal with racial problems.

Addie Mae Collins, 14, about whom no information was immediately available.

The blast blew gaping holes through walls in the church basement.  Floors of offices in the rear of the sanctuary appeared near collapse.  Stairways were blocked by splintered window frames, glass and timbers.

Chief Police Inspector W.J. Haley said the impact of the blast indicated that at least 15 sticks of dynamite might have caused it.  He said the police had talked to two witnesses who reported having seen a car drive by the church, slow down and then speed away before the blast.

While Patterson was crafting his passionate condemnation of the church bombing (he says he wrote the piece with tears in his eyes), Sitton had the job of delivering the story straight. And while it may read as dispassionate, notice the inventory of details that toll like a bell of justice:  the ironic name of the sermon (The Love that Forgives); the image of the girls found in the rubble; the ruins of the church; the size of the bomb; the noble jobs of the parents; and the names of the dead, and their ages.  This is how to tell the terrible truth.

All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Claude Sitton.  By the time I met him, he had become the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer.  To see him at a party with his colleagues Gene Patterson, Jack Nelson, and Gene Roberts – by then titans of the newspaper business – might distract you from an important truth:  that the foundation of their greatness was built telling the story of America at its absolute worst, a story that revealed American journalism at its absolute best. Read more

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How to get the most out of a writing conference

I have attended a lot of writing conferences since I arrived at Poynter in 1979.  I have organized some, delivered keynote speeches and hands-on workshops, and I have sat in the audience as a learner, at times enthralled by the speaker, at other times amazed that so many people seem so engaged by a writer whose grasp of the writing process seems so obvious.

I once heard someone say this about a favorite food:  “Pizza is like sex.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.”  I am ready to add the writing conference to the list.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.  And when it’s good, it’s great.  And when it’s great it can change your career – and your life.

One of my favorite writing conferences, the one at Boston University led by Mark Kramer, is coming up.  Although I won’t be part of this party this year, I will there in spirit. (Poynter is a longtime friend of the program.)  For those who will be headed to Boston (or later in the year to Mayborn in Texas or to Berkeley in California), I have some advice on how to get the most out of a writing conference:

  • Be prepared.  Keep a journal of your experiences at the conference and start writing in it before you get there.  Check out the program.  Then write a mission statement for yourself:  “I want to learn how to write about technical policies with greater clarity.”  Or “I’m ready to write my first book, but need some guidance.”  Or “I want to learn what it takes to write a serial narrative.”  Or, “Is there a way to be a good writer on Twitter?” Now print out the program and mark it up to create a map of your learning.
  • Don’t be seduced by fame.  You will find marquee names on every program.  They are there because of their public profile and because they attract paying customers.  Poynter does it too.  If you can get a Tom Brokaw or a Tom Wolfe at the lectern (just to mention the Toms), that’s a cool thing.  But if you get a Tom French, you may be better off.  That’s because a Tom French or a Jacqui Banaszynski or a Jan Winburn has the ability to communicate the elements of craft in a compelling way.
  • Seek inspiration. Some writers go to conference to have their batteries re-charged, and it works.  To hear an Anne Hull from the Washington Post describe how she slept on the floor of an Army hospital to immerse herself in the inadequate care of wounded war veterans is to be reminded that the writing craft is most powerful when wed to a noble purpose.
  • Fill your toolbox.  So when you’re fired up by an inspirational speaker, it’s time to roll up your sleeves to do the real work of the conference.  Your job is to fill your journal with a hundred tips, tools, strategies you can bring home and begin to apply to your own work.  From me, for example, you can learn emphatic word order, the differences between reports and stories, how to control the pace of information, how to break big projects into manageable parts.  Take notes, collect handouts – even from sessions you can’t attend – get copies of PowerPoint presentations.
  • Join the club.  Becoming a good writer is like joining a club.  Attending a writing conference persuades you that you are a worthy member of a community of writers. Do whatever you can to enhance the social experience: go with friends, check out the parties, and discuss the workshops before and after the formal sessions.  And think of your next story or your next job. Exchange business cards, develop professional networks, discover new publications or platforms that may enhance your work.
  • Be alert in the hallways.  Almost everyone who speaks at a conference is doing so for free.  These writers are generous with their time, talent, and treasure.  They sometimes pay their own expenses.  They love the attention to their work, of course, but they also embrace the idea that they have a duty to share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of aspiring writers.  Don’t be afraid to approach a speaker in the hallway.  I remember seeing the late great Richard Ben Cramer sitting on a rug looking over the story written by a young writer he had just met.  He’d do it for hours. I saw Norman Mailer sitting alone at a table. I approached him politely, asked him a question about one of his essays, and got a warm response.
  • Write while you’re there.  You are at a writing conference, remember, not a listening conference.  I like to write in my journal in short bursts:  what I just heard, what I disagree with, what I plan to read, a story idea that just occurred to me.  Some will use Twitter to capture ideas and share them on the spot.
  • Check out the books.  If a speaker has written a book, check it out.  Booksellers at writing conferences offer an interesting variety of books for sale, not just those written by the speakers.  They will fall into two categories:  works of nonfiction (or fiction) that can be read and used as mentor texts by aspiring writers; and books on the craft itself, written by authors such as Constance Hale, Ben Yagoda, Jack Hart, Anne Lamott, and yours truly.
  • Share the wealth when you get back home.  It is a common notion that one way to truly learn something is to teach it.  If you are being sent to a writing conference by your company, there is probably some expectation that you will return to the shop and share what you’ve learned.  Here is where your journal will come in handy.  You can mine it for a list of tips and bits of wisdom.  You can share these notes at a formal presentation, a casual brown-bag lunch, or at a coffee shop with a friend.

Learn and enjoy. Read more

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The power of slow reading in fast times

I am a slow reader, and that’s a good thing.

Let me give you an example.  Go back and re-read my first sentence, more slowly this time.  What do you notice about it?  What surprises you?  How does it work?  You can’t answer any of those questions by reading it fast.  Only through slow reading can you get an X-ray view of the writer at work.

slow-reading-275When I read that sentence, I notice it is divided into two parts:  1) I am a slow reader) and 2) that’s a good thing.  Both of those parts work as independent clauses.  Connecting the two creates something called a compound sentence.  There is a kind of equality, a balance between the parts. Turning from structure to content, my slow reading reveals to me a creative tension between the parts.  The most important element in part one is the phrase “slow reader”; in the second, it’s “good thing.”  Those two phrases are almost parallel: adjective-noun/adjective-noun. But all that equilibrium is upset by this common notion:  that slow reading is a bad thing.  So I read into the sentence a surprise, a revision of my thinking.  You thought slow reading must be bad, a kind of failure; I’m telling you it is good.

I am writing a book on this topic called The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, to be published by Little, Brown in August.  It will be the fifth in a series I have written since 2006 with the publication of Writing Tools.

Writing this book has led me to think about the experiences of reading in new ways, a path that has taken me from ancient epic poems to Twitter.

What I am about to describe is not a theory of reading, but something much more personal: a dynamic life of reading.  While there may be doors every reader must pass through in order to be fluent, each autobiography of reading is different.

I once met a little girl named Paisley, now a young woman, who could sight read from the New York Times at the age of four.  The first time I saw her do it, I fell on the office rug in laughter.  She thought I had just started a new game, abandoned the paper, and jumped on me like the little kid she was.  I know that there are other girls and boys who will never be able to achieve in their reading what Paisley accomplished by age four, which is too sad.  So the formative experiences of reading are in no way universal.

If I had to list the stages of my own reading development – my ways of reading — they would go something like this:

Comfort Zone:  Sitting next to my grandmother, eating M&Ms, and listening to her read nursery rhymes to me. From that launch pad, no wonder I grew up to become a man of the word.

Language Door: From my earliest experiences, language was always associated with play.  From recitations from a big story book, to the kid shows on early TV, to the lyrics of popular songs.  A baby book kept by my mother reveals that I was a talking, singing, reading little boy, romping in a world of language.

Code Breaking: This was the hardest stage for me, combining the rigors of phonics with reading primers that lacked any story energy.  There was excitement, no doubt in reaching that tipping point, where you learn to break the code, and you gained that sense that a new world had opened up for you. I remember the power of sounding out that Davy Crockett once killed a “gigantic” bear.

Story Time:  The reward for breaking the code was a world of stories.  People who cannot read still have access to stories, of course, through radio, television, movies, books on tape, and conversation.  Something different happens when you can access stories on your own.  The enrichment of experience has many benefits that influence our survival as a species, including the ability to separate heroes from villains, a knowledge of how to work together to overcome obstacles, and, most of all, the cultivation of empathy.

Meaning Matrix:  With fluency in reading comes knowledge. When I was a kid collecting baseball cards, I used that ability to keep up with sports heroes like Mickey Mantle.  As a young teenager, I used it to learn the secrets of adult life.  In my senescence, I can access a Wikipedia page to learn T.S. Eliot’s middle name (Stearns) or the name of the lead guitarist in the folk-rock band Moby Grape (Jerry Miller).

Re-reading:  The act of reading is often described as the triangulation of author, reader, and text.  The most variable of these turns out to be the reader.  When I read Gatsby for the third or the sixth time, I was seeing something new, not because the book has changed, but because I have changed.  Revision is a word we associate with writing, but it applies to reading as well.

X-ray Reading:  Here’s what makes X-ray reading so powerful:  It incorporates all the earlier forms of reading and adds a layer of understanding.  Stanford scholar Shirley Brice Heath argues that the most literate people in any culture practice three behaviors better than the rest of us.  They read, of course, and they write.  But they also have the ability to express how meaning is made through reading and writing.  In this context, X-raying is a meta form of literacy, the power to read and then write about how meaning is made.  It’s true that I am learning to read and write from my earliest experience of language in the cradle. As a literate adult, X-ray reading makes this experience much more efficient and practical.

While fluency is one goal of literacy, so is the form of slow reading that requires X-ray reading glasses.  My college friend Lindsay Waters, now an editor at Harvard University Press, has written about the value of slow reading in fast times, the kind of interpretative understanding that can make reading transformative. Lindsay and I were students at Providence College.  In September of 1966 all freshmen were given diagnostic reading tests. My parents were alarmed when they received a note from the company that administered the tests that I would benefit from a remedial reading class. I assured them that I was doing well in my classes and that my problem with the test was that I preferred to read slowly.  Give me an analogy:  Leaf is to Tree as Page is to —-, and I could deliver several delightful and surprising answers.

In spite of my lack of remediation, let’s just say that I did pretty damn well in college and then in graduate school and then in my professional life as a teacher and writer. Those successes were fueled in large measure by the ability to X-ray read, a power I brought to the experience, not just of the text, but of visual images, of narratives of all types, of music and other related arts, of personal interaction, of life itself. Read more

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Is it time for news anchors to take a ‘Vow of Chastity?’

News' anchors Katie Couric, Brian Williams, left, and Charles Gibson,  on the NBC 'Today' show in 2008, for cancer research. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

News’ anchors Katie Couric, Brian Williams, left, and Charles Gibson, on the NBC ‘Today’ show in 2008, for cancer research. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Let’s think of the fall of NBC’s Brian Williams as the climax of a narrative that began in the 1950s when the television news business was still young.

It was in 1958 that Edward R. Murrow of CBS addressed a convention of broadcast news directors and offered, “It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.”

It turned out to be Murrow’s most famous speech, hitting this high point near the end: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire.  But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.  Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

What began with radio and accelerated with television was this:  a technology used primarily for entertainment could be leveraged to communicate the news to a huge audience. The mix of television and entertainment was there from the beginning. Even the virtuous Murrow could succumb to it. He used his show “See It Now” to help take down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts against communism. On “Person to Person” he would invite us into the homes of celebrities such as Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Harpo Marx.

As television news evolved through the 60s into the 70s, news leaders and network executives saw the need for the development of standards and practices, guidelines to responsible journalism that have evolved to this day.

On April 14, 1976, Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News, wrote a preface to an early set of standards for his network.  It contained a thick paragraph that seems prescient in light of controversies surrounding Brian Williams:

One [conviction of Salant] is the overriding importance peculiar to our form of journalism of drawing the sharpest possible line – sharp perhaps to the point of eccentricity – between our line of broadcast business, which is dealing with fact, and that in which our associates on the entertainment side of the business are generally engaged, which is dealing in fiction and drama.  Because it all comes out sequentially on the same point of the dial and on the same tube, and because, then, there are no pages to be turned or column lines to be drawn in our journalistic matrix, it is particularly important that we recognize that we are not in show business and should not use any of the dramatic licenses, the ‘fiction-which-represents-truth” rationales, or the underscoring and the punctuations which entertainment and fiction may, and do, properly use.  This may make us a little less interesting to some – but that is the price we pay for dealing with fact and truth, which may often be duller – and with more loose ends – than fiction and drama.

Did Brian Williams misremember that he, unlike his talented daughter, was not in show business?  Did he ultimately reject a duller rendition of fact and truth for a version of his story that because of its dramatic license was more compelling? Did his multiple appearances on entertainment programs, including Thirty Rock and David Letterman, offer a sign of his seduction, not just a dabbling with the entertainment world, but some kind of succumbing to it?

Can the culture that produced Brian Williams be changed?

In 1995 a group of Danish filmmakers, led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, believed that too many of their tribe had abandoned cinematic integrity in favor of cheap products and quick profits.

As I described in a 2012 essay on the line between fiction and non-fiction, “To guide their own art – and to challenge their contemporaries – they set forth a 10-point platform, which focused on things they would NOT do, techniques they would NOT use.”  They called their manifesto a Vow of Chastity.

It contained such strictures as “Music must not be used unless it occurs when the scene is being shot,” and “The director must not be credited.”

Is it time for future network news anchors to formulate their own Vow of Chastity.  What would be its tenets?

Before I take a crack at answering that question, let me provide a context articulated by others as to what went wrong at NBC.  For Ken Auletta at The New Yorker, we have invested so much marketing and hype in establishing the authority and credibility of network news anchors that it should not surprise us that they develop a God complex.

For Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, the network’s elevation of Williams signifies the last desperate gasps of a dying form of news presentation.  It seemed only fitting that on the day Williams was suspended for six-months, an unprecedented moment in the history of news anchoring, another announcement competed for attention:  the impending departure of a fake anchor, Jon Stewart, from the Daily Show.

There is a famous story in the history of sports journalism about Stanley Woodward, the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Tired of the hero-worship inspired by his scribes, he told Red Smith and his colleagues “Will you stop Godding up those ball players.”

Maybe this Vow of Chastity will invite all of us to stop Godding up those anchors:

  1. It is the primary job of anchors to report, write, edit and deliver the news, not make the news.
  2. Anchors should travel broadly covering important and even dangerous news sites, but they should leave the riskier assignments to experienced war correspondents. They should resist trying to make themselves look important, dashing, or heroic.
  3. Their presence at a news site should never make things more difficult for other journalists or for rank and file citizens who have to live and work there.
  4. They should never make appearances in motion pictures, except for the use of their images from actual historical footage.
  5. They should never appear in sitcoms, even for their own networks.
  6. They should never appear on entertainment talk shows.  They can appear on public affairs programming when the topic is on the news.
  7. They should never appear in advertisements or derive income from them, even after they cease their role as news anchors.
  8. They can give speeches and presentations at universities, before professional groups, at business meetings, but the remuneration from such activity must be governed by standards and practices and at least some of it donated to charity.
  9. They may participate in the promotion of news programs at their own stations and that of affiliates, but they should avoid staged moments, including those ridiculous “power walks” of news teams, that have long been the source of parody and ridicule.
  10. No anchor should make more than $10 million dollars per year.

Note: nothing in this manifesto prevents an anchor from writing a book, expressing strong opinions, engaging in public debate, being transparent about personal preferences and biases, and, most of all, embracing the mission of making the news interesting and relevant.

Dear readers:  Please take another look at the elements of my Vow of Chastity.  What is missing from the list?  What would you revise or delete?  Let us know what you think about the role and status of news anchors. Read more

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50 Shades of word play: Getting beyond first-level creativity

Every time there is a big, big story, the geniuses of Facebook and Twitter try out for the clever Olympics. One pun after another, wisecrack after wisecrack, metaphor after simile, writers strut their stuff, looking for love and trying to out-snark the competition. It’s a Snarknado!

It might be the Super Bowl, the Oscars or even the arrival of the movie version of the steamy book “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Early screenings have begun with fans looking ahead to Valentine’s Day weekend openings almost everywhere. So what is a Tweeter or headline writer to do?

Here’s my advice: Go beyond what I call “first-level creativity.” Believe me, you don’t want to be one of the thousand class clowns to come up with the same lame joke or reference. If you write something you think is clever and suddenly notice that a hundred Tweeters arrive at the same word at the same time, you are no longer a whiz kid. You’re a schlemiel, a lemming, or maybe both: a schlemming.

Poynter colleague Katie Hawkins-Gaar points out that when a recent blizzard turned out to be a bust for New York City, a flurry of sightings appeared on Twitter of “nopacalypse.”

After the Super Bowl, how many sports writers, I wonder, wrote that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll looked “deflated?”

It’s a headline writer’s nightmare. Actor Tom Cruise goes a little bonkers, as he did a few years ago, and you write: “A problem of Cruise control.” OK, I get it. And so did 79 other headline writers.

The problem

I first discovered first-level creativity while conducting a writing exercise. I gave a group of professional journalists a data sheet from an actual news story. It involved a man who walks home for lunch near a Florida lake and falls in a ditch on top of an alligator. The gator chomps down on his arm. Rescuers engage in a kind of tug-of-war with the gator and free the man, who winds up with 100 stitches in his arm, but retains his sense of humor: “Call me the world’s biggest klutz,” he tells reporters.

I ask a group of writers to take the data sheet and scribble five experimental leads in five minutes. As we review the leads, almost everyone, including yours truly, has some version of this: “When Robert Hudson was walking home for lunch Thursday, little did he know that he’d become a meal for a 10-foot gator.”

Each one of us who wrote that lead thought we were the bomb, until we realized we had all bombed. First-level creativity. So what would the next level look like? Maybe something like this, produced by a college student: “Maybe to an alligator, Robert Hudson tastes like chicken.” It only works because the man survived and remained in good humor, but it stands out from the others and happens to be shorter as well. When they hear my lead, people smile. When they hear the student’s, they laugh.

The solution

How do you get to the second level of creativity? Let me demonstrate my own method. To use a musical term, you get there by riffing, a form of improvisation in which you take a given phrase and play with it.

Let’s try it out, imagining that I’m writing about the movie Fifty Shades of Grey.

I begin by lowering my standards. I know that I will have to find – then discard – numerous efforts before I get to one I might use. I have no idea how many of these have been used somewhere else, and, for the moment, I do not care. Here we go:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Fifty Shades of Word Play (my headline since I’m playing with words)
  • Fifty Shades of Dismay (sorry you had to see the movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Delay (had to stand on a long line to buy a ticket)
  • Fifty Shades of Macramé (an unsexy thing to do to cool off after the
    movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Blasé (the movie pales compared to your porn stash)
  • Fifty Shades of Filet (so bored you think about what to eat after the movie)
  • Fifty Shades of Hooray (the movie is nothing like the book!)
  • Fifty Shades of Mockingjay (you’re hoping for a mashup of sequels)
  • If you happen to be a food writer this week, doing a feature on yogurt: Fifty Shades of Yoplait
  • Or you’re a fashion writer, talking about designing store windows: Fifty Shades of Display.
  • Or you’re the music writer: Fiddy Shades of Grey (the hip hop version, with apologies to rapper 50 Cent)

I’ll stop. You’re welcome.

I’m not arguing that these are all original, only that they are original to me. Writers can come up with the same apt or funny phrase at different desks on different continents at the same time. When the Dali Museum opens in your town, go ahead and write “Hello, Dali.” But before you send it, take a breath, grab a napkin, make a little list. See what happens. Read more

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Brian Williams and the resistance of memory

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Timing and other writing lessons from Harper Lee

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP Photo)

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (AP Photo)

Today is a day in a writer’s life when the stars seem in alignment. On a day when I am working on a revision of a book chapter on To Kill a Mockingbird and the writing strategies of Harper Lee, news has broken that her publisher will produce a sequel this summer: Go Set a Watchman.

Reports say that the manuscript was written before her most famous book but serves as a kind of sequel with the narrator Scout now grown, living in New York, and still learning from her righteous father Atticus Finch. Once thought lost, the manuscript, according to reports, was found in a safe deposit box attached to the original manuscript of Mockingbird. There remains much mystery on how, after 55 years, all this came to pass. Although she has been quoted as approving the project, Lee is 88-years-old, quite infirm, and famously reclusive.

When it comes to suspenseful storytelling, there is nothing like a long wait followed by a big surprise.

Let’s take this opportunity, then, to learn from Harper Lee as a storyteller.

Although it was published in 1960, during the classic period of the Civil Rights movement, Mockingbird is set in a small Southern town during the Depression year 1935. Thanks to a movie version that won an Academy Award and books sales world-wide of more than 18 million copies – with an e-book edition on the way — the story is quite familiar. A righteous Alabama lawyer and legislator, Atticus Finch, raises his son Jem and his daughter Scout with a progressive view of race and justice. In the apartheid South, this turns out to be a daunting and even dangerous task, especially when Atticus becomes the defense lawyer of a black man accused of raping a white woman.

The story is narrated by Scout, a spirited and determined child.  Throughout the action the children find themselves mired in a series of misadventures. Their ingenuity and loyalty to their father gain them access to the courtroom where they get to view the trial from the balcony.  It is there where the black citizens of town have gathered, hoping against hope for a just judgment for one of their own.

There are 31 chapters in Mockingbird. I will focus my X-ray reading on one chapter, Chapter 21, not only the best and most revealing chapter in the book, but one of the best chapters in all of American literature.

In the previous chapter, Chapter 20, Atticus offers the jury a passionate summation, not only reviewing the evidence, but also encouraging the all-white, all-male jury to follow their better angels: “In the name of God, do your duty.”

By the beginning of Chapter 21, the summation is concluded and the jury is about to begin its deliberations. Every story needs an engine, argues author Thomas French, a question that only the story can answer for the reader.  “Whodunnit?” is a classic engine.  Among the most familiar is “Guilty or Not Guilty.”  This is why jury trials make such dramatic popular narratives, from Twelve Angry Men to Anatomy of a Murder to countless episodes of Perry Mason or Law and Order.  It also explains when the coverage of high profile trials are a staple of cable news programs, a movement associated most prominently with the trial of O.J. Simpson. Viewers will follow the proceedings for weeks and even months, not just to learn what has happened, but to find out what WILL happen.  The rituals of trials – some of which can be most tedious – also have some suspense built into them, a system of delay, made more dramatic by jury deliberations, with the final outcome in doubt.

We will discover the verdict at the end of Chapter 21, but not without a series of delays. In most tick tock structures time is either counted down, as in a basketball game, or it builds to a predetermined point, such as the famous cowboy movie High Noon, which signifies the arrival time of a train carrying a killer named Frank Miller. The Miller gang will seek vengeance against the town and especially its sheriff, played by Gary Cooper.  The film is only 85 minutes long, with the action described – measured by the hands of a large clock – occurring almost in real time.

The experience of time, we know from experience and from quantum mechanics, is relative.  In my personal theory of time, its speed depends inversely on our consciousness of it.  If we are “watching the clock” in our classroom or workplace, the time can crawl.  Or, if we are distracted by work or entertainment, it can “fly by.” Where did the time go? we ask after a particularly engaging experience.

We might imagine then that an author to create suspense may want to slow down the narrative.  This can be down by a series of shorter sentences, with each period acting as a stop sign.  And it can be done by direct and repeated reference to the time.  In Mockingbird we are awaiting a verdict.  Jury deliberations, especially in the Jim Crow South, could be over in a few minutes. Or they can take days and days.  Or the jury can be hung.  What will happen?  That’s what all the characters in the novel, and all its readers, want to find out.

As Chapter 21 begins, the family housekeeper Calpurnia has rushed into the courtroom, with the frantic news that the children, Jem and Scout, are missing and unaccounted for.  The puzzle is quickly solved by the alert court reporter:

“I know where they are, Atticus….They’re right up yonder in the colored balcony – been there since precisely one-eighteen p.m.”

There are two highly significant elements in this piece of dialogue. The first reminds us that in this segregated arena, the children sought refuge among the “colored” people.  The other is the odd precision in the marking of time: “precisely one-eighteen p.m.”  Atticus agrees that they can return to the courthouse to hear the verdict, but that they must first go home, with an angry Calpurnia, and eat their supper.  She serves them milk, potato salad, and ham, but insists that “you all eat slow,” another reference to time.

When they return to the courthouse, Jem asks about the jury, “How long have they been out?”  Thirty minutes.  After more waiting, Jem asks “What time is it, Reverend?”  He answers, “Getting’ on toward eight.”  More waiting.  Then, “The old courthouse clock suffered its preliminary strain and struck the hour, eight deafening bongs that shook our bones.”  And then “When it bonged eleven times I was past feeling:  tired from fighting sleep, I allowed myself a short nap against Reverend Sykes’s comfortable arm and shoulder.  More waiting.  “Ain’t it a long time?” I asked him. “Sure is, Scout,” he said happily. Jem’s assumption is that a long deliberation is a good sign for the defendant.

Just when it feels the waiting will go on forever the clerk says, “’This court will come to order,’” in a voice that rang with authority, and the heads below us jerked up.”  The suspense that expands over six pages is dispelled by action that occurs in less than two, in storytelling that is among the most powerful in American history.

What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.

A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge….

I shut my eyes.  Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty…guilty…guilty…guilty…” I peeked at Jem:  his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them.

After consoling his client, Atticus grabs his coat and begins to leave the courtroom. As Scout staring down at the crowd from her seat:

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

“Miss Jean Louise?”

I looked around.  They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet.  Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up.  You father’s passin’.”

That ends the chapter and comes as a kind of surprise. All the waiting, all the clock watching, all the references to time, all the anticipation pointed us to the verdict.  It turns out that only a shallow victory ensues: the length of deliberations. Jem should have listened to the Reverend Sykes earlier in the chapter: “Now don’t you be so confident, Mr. Jem, I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man….”  And they would not see it this day. What the children would see was an act of profound collective respect, a Greek chorus of colored citizens rising to their feet, not in the presence of an overseer, but in a tribute to one who stood for their common humanity. The author has played a beautiful trick on us.  We thought we were looking for a verdict, but the real stab of the chapter comes later, hiding all the while in plain sight.

The racism of 2015 is different from the racism of 1960 when Mockingbird was published. The novel, while racially progressive and inspirational for its time, has been criticized for its characterization of white Southern poverty and its depiction of the accuser of rape.  Race, class, gender, region all play a role in the novel and all have evolved in the more than half-century since publication.  The use of the word “nigger” – used dozens of time in the novel in the context of 1935 – complicates a modern reading and teaching of the text.  It is a healthy byproduct of X-ray reading to think:  “times have changed” or “I have changed.”  That does not require us to recognize the power of a work within the context of its own time.

If you want the richest insight into Southern racism in the 20th century, read the testimony of African-American authors. The power of their words and the threads of their narratives in no way diminishes the work of a young Southern woman whose story, drawn richly form her own childhood, continues to enrich America and the world.    Read more

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Seven questions every editor should ask the writer

I have done a lot of coaching and editing in my career, but I have never, since the college literary magazine, been THE editor. But I often imagine that I am. So let’s say that I am assigned to become a coaching editor at a make-believe enterprise called the Calusa News. We are covering a community on the west coast of Florida, and I will direct the work of, say, ten writers and reporters.

The first thing I would do – before I read or edited a single story – is interview each writer. This turns out to be a surprisingly rare event. I remember chatting with one veteran reporter at a newspaper who told me, “I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and you are the first person who asked me about how I work.”

Recently, I read a magazine article about “36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The questions — such as “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” — are designed to create intimacy, even among strangers. The idea, according to Daniel Jones of the New York Times, “is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness.”

With that as a wild analogy, I have developed a list of questions designed to build professional collaboration between a writer and an editor. After asking these questions to hundreds of writers, I have confidence that the answers provided by the writer can guide a coaching editor on how best to help the writer over time. Here are the questions in the normal order that I ask them:

  1.   Do you consider yourself a confident or an anxious writer?  On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being anxious and ten being confident, where would you place yourself as a writer?
  2. Based on the answer to number one: What are some of the things that make you confident (or anxious)?
  3.   Do you consider yourself a slow or a fast writer?  On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being slow and ten being fast, where would you place yourself as a writer?
  4. Based on the answer to number three:  What are some of the things that make you slow (or fast)? Or: When are some of the times when you are slow (or fast)?
  5. Some writers describe themselves as planners, while others plunge right in to the writing. Would you consider yourself a planner or a plunger?  Do you work from any kind of a plan?
  6. Based on the answer to number five: If you work from any kind of a plan, what does that plan look like?
  7. Many writers say they need to write a strong lead before they can progress in the story.  Others say that can “discover” their lead through the process of writing. How do you think about your lead from the time you are reporting and throughout the process?

There are many other questions to ask, of course, but these seven almost always create remarkable results. I once asked them to a feature writer at a big news organization. She volunteered to discuss her work in front of a group of editors, a couple who had worked closely with her over time. I don’t have an exact record of my interview with her, but her responses were eccentric and memorable.

When I asked her the question about whether she was fast or slow, she answered that it depended upon her ability to find a certain kind of quote. I think she called it her “golden quote.” She would interview her main source or most prominent character hoping that person would say something that would capture the essence of that person’s character or enterprise. In her process, she would place the quote as a kind of anchor about one third of the way down into the story.  Her lead, then, would build up to the quote. Everything in the body of the story would flow from the quote. But she had to find that quote.

When she left the meeting, the editors began to ask me questions about the writer.  If I were her coach or editor, how would I try to help her?  There was no ambiguity in my response: “Well I wouldn’t bother to ask her about her lead?  I’d ask her if she found her golden quote.”

I don’t mean to imply that the editor should always accept as immutable the habits of a particular writer. If, for example, the search for the golden quote slowed the writer down to the point where she was missing deadlines, we might have another conversation about creating a more nimble process. But if the quality of the work was outstanding – as it was – and the work is in on time, those perceived idiosyncrasies should be reinterpreted as strengths.

Coaching editors have a responsibility to learn the working methods of writers and reporters. A process interview is only the first step. Whatever is learned from such conversations should be tested against direct observation of a writer’s working methods. Subsequent conversations – sometimes called “long coaching” – can focus on different aspects of the work.

It probably makes sense that the writer should also interview the editor about that person’s values, habits, preferences and working methods. We’ll leave those questions for another day. Read more

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Al Jazeera memo illustrates the importance of word choice

I’ve spent a lot of time and space over the last decade thinking and writing about political language, propaganda, censorship, and banned and taboo words. Every time the language wars begin heating up (illegal alien vs. undocumented worker), I find myself reverting to a set of first principles:

  1. What is the literal meaning of the questionable word or phrase?
  2. Does that word or phrase have any connotations, that is, associations that are positive or negative?
  3. How does the word correspond to what is actually happening on the ground?
  4. What group (sometimes called a “discourse community”) favors one locution over another, and why?
  5. Is the word or phrase “loaded”?  How far does it steer us from neutral?
  6. Does the word or phrase help me see, or does it prevent me from seeing?

This list of questions is inspired by an internal document leaked from Al Jazeera English and published by the conservative magazine National Review Online, NRO.com. The memo was written by news executive Carlos Van Meek and attends to the usages of words such as extremist, terrorist, Islamist, and jihad.

Here is the full text of the email by Van Meek as published on newsbusters.org, a site whose stated mission is to expose liberal bias in the media:

From: Carlos Van Meek
Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2015 10:06 AM
To: AJE-Newsdesk; AJE-Output; AJE-DC-Newsroom
Subject: Terrorists, Militants, Fighters and then some…

All: We manage our words carefully around here. So I’d like to bring to your attention some key words that have a tendency of tripping us up. This is straight out of our Style Guide. All media outlets have one of those. So do we. If you’d like to amend, change, tweak.. pls write to Dan Hawaleshka direct who is compiling the updates to the Style Guide and they will be considered based on merit. No mass replies to this email, pls.

EXTREMIST – Do not use. Avoid characterizing people. Often their actions do the work for the viewer. Could write ‘violent group’ if we’re reporting on Boko Haram agreeing to negotiate with the government. In other words, reporting on a violent group that’s in the news for a non-violent reason.

TERRORISM/TERRORISTS – One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. We will not use these terms unless attributed to a source/person.

ISLAMIST – Do not use. We will continue to describe groups and individuals, by talking about their previous actions and current aims to give viewers the context they require, rather than use a simplistic label.

NOTE: Naturally many of our guests will use the word Islamist in the course of their answers. It is absolutely fine to include these answers in our output. There is no blanket ban on the word.
JIHAD – Do not use the Arabic term. Strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war. It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it. Again, an Arabic term that we do not use.
FIGHTERS – We do not use words such as militants, radicals, insurgents. We will stick with fighters. However, these terms are allowed when quoting other people using them.

MILITANT – We can use this term to describe individuals who favour confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause. For example, we can use the term to describe Norwegian mass-killer Andres Behring Breivik or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But please note: we will not use it to describe a group of people, as in ‘militants’ or ‘militant groups’ etc.

So how should we interpret this advice from Al Jazeera’s Style Guide?  It will depend, in part, upon which language club you belong to. If you identify with Rush Limbaugh and use terms like Islamo-Fascist, then you are likely to see attempts to limit use of “jihad” as a form of Arabic political correctness, even propaganda.

What if you consider yourself a politically moderate Muslim Arab-American? Perhaps from your perspective you see the language policies of Al-Jazeera as a necessary step to creating, dare I say it, a more fair and balanced approach to reporting. It was S.I. Hayakawa in his famous book Language in Thought and Action who stipulates that any true report depends upon the avoidance of “loaded words.”  All the words highlighted in the memo – with the possible exception of “fighters” – are loaded. Their use over time has led to an inevitable set of associations. Use words like Islam, jihad, terrorist in a cluster, and I am, involuntarily, imagining the rubble of 9/11.

Here is a key obstacle to writing responsibly in our political culture: We seem to be losing neutrality as a value. What if I reject both “illegal alien” AND “undocumented worker”?  What if I see the first as dysphemism and the second as euphemism?  What if I offer an alternative, such as “illegal immigrant”? I will be attacked from the right as politically correct, and from the left as insensitive for categorizing a person as illegal.

Consider this range of language:

Al Jazeera also put out this video to explain their rationale for this style.

TERRORIST————————–FIGHTER————————HERO.

As the style book argues: One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But another set of questions must follow for the journalist: Should these two persons be treated as if their claims are equally legitimate? What is the evidence of terrorism or heroism? Is the arrival at a neutral word like “fighter” creating a false and unworthy balance?

Here’s what I like about Van Meek’s memo:

*He makes a distinction between avoidance of a word by a reporting staff and its overall banishment. If sources are using some of these words, so be it, they can appear in sound bytes.

*He expresses a preference for describing the specific actions of a person or group and their consequences. A decade ago, when we were arguing whether Iraq was experiencing a “civil war” or “sectarian violence,” my response was something like: “Who cares. Show me what these people are doing. Let me categorize it based on my experience.” If you show me a person wearing a mask cutting off the head of another man whose supposed crime is that he is a journalist or health worker, you don’t have to label him as an extremist. I get it.

*The standards and practices described in the guidebook are not fixed.  They can be revised based upon a process established to improve them. Read more

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